Chapter XIX. Ned Plays the Mind-Reader.
 

Jack stood in the little cabin in the valley and looked Ned expectantly in the face.

"Tell me," he finally said, "tell me why they painted this boy?"

"To get us off the trail of the prince," replied Ned.

"But it seems that they failed," suggested Jack. "You know?"

"I suspected from the very first," Ned answered. "Yesterday afternoon I knew."

"Well, it may be all right," Jack muttered, "or the man who brought him here may need a new wire on his trolley, but I can't see why they should bring this counterfeit prince here at all."

"They knew that we were coming here," Ned explained, resolved to give his chum a full understanding of the situation. "They knew we were coming here in quest of the prince. How they knew I can't make out, but they knew."

"They might have heard more than we supposed from the attic over the clubroom," Jack suggested.

"If the story of the maid and the coachman is straight," Ned continued, "they heard little that night. But they knew! They might have bribed some of the servants. I don't know. They might have been in that room before that evening.

"At any rate, when the Boy Scout Camera Club started for West Virginia by way of Washington the friends of the abductors knew what was going on. Now, it is my opinion that the prince had been headed for the mountains before the conspirators became aware of our connection with the case."

"I begin to see daylight!" Jack cried.

"Well, the prince being on his way to the hills and we having a good idea as to the locality of his place of hiding, the conspirators conceived the idea of giving us a false little prince to play with!"

"They're no fools!" Jack exclaimed. "No fools at all!"

"Now," Ned went on, "some of the conspirators knew Mrs. Brady's son in Washington. They knew of his many promises to his mother to return to the mountains. They knew of his recent promise to her to come home and bring the boy with him. They were doubtless very intimate with Mike Brady, Senior, for they knew all the little details of the life his mother was living.

"So they got him to permit them to bring the boy to his grandmother. They knew he would be looking for a prince in the hills, and so they gave us a false one to engage our attention! Rather clever, that, Jack."

The old lady was now regarding Ned with eyes which expressed awe as well as wonder.

"How did you find it all out?" she asked. "How do you know what took place in the minds of those wicked men?"

"After they took possession of the boy they began bribing him to play the part he has played here so imperfectly. They taught him cheap little French phrases from the dictionary, and touched up his already dusky complexion so as to make him look darker than ever. Yesterday I saw Bradley at work on his face with a brush!"

"And the lad played his part!" the grandmother declared. "I don't know how Bradley led him along, but the boy was willing to do as he was told. I never saw such a wild little chap so thoroughly subdued before. He wouldn't even tell me the truth when I took him in my old arms last night and talked to him."

"But he evidently told Bradley what you said to him," Ned continued, "for he got the child away in the night. Then he came to camp this morning to see if he could find out how much I knew. He's probably tied up by this time!"

"You have had him arrested," asked the old lady. "Then he'll never tell where the boy has been hidden, and he'll die of starvation--die almost within sound of my voice."

"We'll find him," Ned answered, grimly. "We can make Bradley talk, I imagine."

"And while this has been going on," Jack said, "the true prince, the boy we came here to find, has doubtless been carried to some other part of the country?"

"I don't believe it!" Ned replied. "The conspirators would naturally expect us to shift our search for him back to Washington, or Chicago, or New York, wouldn't they? As soon as we discovered that this boy was not the person we sought, they would expect us to leave the hills at once, wouldn't they? Well, if they anticipated such a move on our part, what is more natural than that they should take advantage of this alleged idea on our part and leave the prince right here?"

"That is just what they would do!" cried Jack. "That is just what they have done. I wondered why you told Bradley we were going out! I had no idea that you knew so much about the case."

"Bradley knew that I knew the boy to be an imposter," Ned went on. "He intended we should make the discovery in time--after he had watched the grandson for a few days, sized up the situation generally, and dropped out of sight. He intended me to know in a couple of weeks, after he was out of harm's way. But I discovered the trick too quickly for him."

"When did you first suspect?" asked Jack.

"That first morning. The boy's French was from the back of the book, and there was too strong an atmosphere of Washington about him--an atmosphere which does not savor of the quiet life of the prince of the blood. Then when I watched him closer I saw that he had been painted. Oh, it was all plain enough."

"So you think the prince is here--in these hills?" asked the old lady.

"I can't say, now," Ned replied. "I am sure that he was here yesterday. I think I saw him! But the escape of the two men who captured Jimmie mussed things up a lot. I wanted to put them through a little examination.

"After their escape I could not pose longer as a lad after snapshots! I can't say as I deceived the conspirators when I laid the capture of Jimmie to the counterfeiters. I think I did fool them when I said we were going out of the hills in order to protect the captive.

"Well, when we released Jimmie and let the two guards escape, that part of the game was off. If I could have held the men it would have been different."

"Perhaps Bradley can be made to tell where the prince is," suggested Jack.

"I hardly thinks he knows," Ned replied. "He has not, I think, been taken fully into the confidence of the men higher up, any more than have the men who guarded Jimmie."

"He certainly knows where my grandson is," exclaimed the old lady, "and I'll tear his heart out but I'll make him tell me. He took him away!"

"I am not so certain of that, either," Ned mused. "I don't know just how far the criminal head of the conspiracy has trusted him."

"You'll do all you can to find my boy, won't you?" pleaded the old lady.

"Don't worry about the boy," Ned urged. "Well find him. If Frank and Jimmie have had good luck Bradley is under arrest now, and something will be brought out to lead to his discovery. Besides, with the disguise penetrated, there is no longer any motive for holding him, unless he knows too much, which is not likely."

"If his father was here he might help," suggested the old lady.

Jack, who had been looking steadily out of the window for some little time, now turned to Ned with a smile on his face.

"I know now what you wrote in your little red book!" he said.

"Are you certain of that?"

"Why, of course. You wrote the answer to the question: 'Is it the prince, or is it Mike III?' Didn't you, now?"

"Yes, I did!" was the reply. "I was almost positive before, but I knew that day."

"And now we are just where we began," Jack said. "We've solved one phrase of the case, but we haven't found the prince."

"That will come later," Ned declared, confidently. "Well," he went on, "we have finished our work here for the present. We have learned of the disappearance of the grandson and we have confirmed my previous belief, that the boy was sent in here to draw our attention from the abducted child. So we may as well go back to camp and see what the boys have been doing."

The old lady still clung to Ned piteously, begging him to restore her boy, and Ned promised to do all in his power to place the lad in her arms.

"If my son would only come!" the woman kept saying.

"If you'll give me his address," Ned promised, "I'll see him when I get back to Washington, if he is not already here or on his way here."

The address was given and the boys started on the return trip to camp.

"Now, Jack," Ned said, when they were on their way up the slope, "do you know where the nearest telegraph station is?"

"There's one over on the south fork of the Potomac," Jack replied.

"You are good friends with Uncle Ike?" Ned then asked, with a laugh.

"Sure I am. Uncle Ike is a friend of every person who carries sugar in his pocket."

"Well, when we get back to camp I'll give you a night message. You must take the mule and get it to the station. You may not be able to get there to-night. If you can't, send it when you do get there. Wait for an answer. When you get it tell Uncle Ike it is important and get here with it as soon as possible. You've got a hard trip ahead of you, boy!" he added. "I'm game!" laughed Jack. "If there's any of this prince trouble leaked out," he added, "what shall I say?"

"Tell the old story. Say that we are in the hills for art's sake, and that we have been annoyed by counterfeiters! Nothing serious, understand? Not a word about our real mission here. You notice that even the men we are battling with want it understood that it is the counterfeiters who are trying to drive us out."

"There must be something mighty strange about this abduction game," Jack grinned. "No one will even admit that there is a prince in the case."

When the boys came to the vicinity of the summit, south of a point in line with the camp and the canyon where the counterfeiters had been discovered, they stopped and took a good survey of the landscape.

"We can probably learn more about what has been going on," Jack suggested, "by hiking straight for the camp. I'm anxious to be off on that trip. Uncle Ike will like it--not! But I'll make him like it! I'll give you a good imitation of a boy sailing over the mountains on the freight deck of a mule!"

"I was wondering," Ned said, composedly, though his eyes were troubled, "whether we had any camp left! If you'll look off to the north, you'll see four men crouching in a dent in the slope. Rough- looking chaps, eh?"

"I see!" Jack whispered. "Have they seen us? That's the question now."

"If they saw us," Ned continued, "they would either be making for us or trying to get out of sight. No; they are watching the camp. See! They are where they can look over the summit."

"If they haven't been to the camp I'll think ourselves lucky," Ned said.

"They probably haven't!" Jack cried. "But look there, they are going on a rush right now! Must be Bradley's friends. What?"