Chapter XXIII. Racing Motors on the Wat.
 

"Some day," Jimmie said, as he urged Uncle Ike down an eastern slope of the Alleghany mountains, "I'm going to have this mule put in a book."

"If he keeps up his stealing," Jack declared, "he is more likely to be put in jail. That mule is certainly a bad actor."

"Huh!" grunted Jimmie. "He's got a sugar tooth, or he wouldn't steal!"

The boys drew up when nearly to the valley through which runs the North Fork and looked over the landscape. There was another range of mountains straight ahead, and beyond that the valley of the South Branch, for which they were headed.

"Looks like another climb and good-night!" Jack complained. "And Ned wanted this sent to-night. That's a right smart climb ahead of us," he added.

Jimmie coaxed Uncle Ike back to four feet again and patted him on the head before making any reply. Then he pointed to the south.

"Over there," he said, "is the Virginia line. The ridge ahead of us does no cross that. I know because I looked up this section once when Ned and I were thinking of running away for a rest."

"You always need a rest!" grinned Jack. "Why don't you make Uncle Ike stand still, like Dill Pickles, this old mountain ship of mine does?" he added.

"Why do you call him Dill Pickles?" asked Jimmie. "He looks more like a razor-back with sails set in front."

"He's Dill Pickles because he's got a good disposition gone sour," Jack explained. "He's just about shaken the life out of me now. Doesn't look it, does he?"

"Better call him Bones!" Jimmie advised. "As I was saying," he went on, "the ridge ahead of us drops down this side of the Virginia line, and we can dodge a climb by going around it."

"And get lost!" Jack grumbled.

"Lost--not. We follow down this valley--or up this valley, rather-- until the ridge drops down. Then we go straight east until we come to the South Branch. And there you are."

"Here we go, then!" Jack shouted. "Set your sails and come along."

Uncle Ike wanted a test of speed and endurance right there, but Jimmie held him back. It might be that they would be obliged to return to the camp that night.

They soon left the high places and wound among foothills. Below lay a fertile valley, with handsome and well-tilled fields.

"We're making a hit with these mules!" laughed Jimmie, as they passed along, the people staring at them from gates, doors, windows and fence-tops. "If these ladies and gentlemen ever see us again they'll be sure to know us."

It is not a great distance from the place where they came to the river to the city they sought, and the ground was covered in a couple of hours. The sun was still shining when they passed through a busy street, certainly the center of observation.

When they entered the telegraph office Jack took out the message and handed it to the clerk at the desk without looking at it. The clerk studied it a moment and asked: "Day rates? This seems to be a night letter."

The boys eyed each other keenly for a moment, and then Jimmie said: "I'd have it sent right off if I were you. Ned wouldn't have said anything about its being a night letter if he had had any idea we'd get here so soon."

"All right," Jack said. "Send it now. We'll wait for a little while to see if there's an answer."

"It is in cipher," the clerk said, "and will take some time to send."

"I never looked at it," Jack cried. "I' don't even know where it is going."

"To the Secret Service chief, Washington," said the clerk. "Are you boys out here on secret service business?"

"We're out here to take pictures," Jimmie cut in. "We have nothing to do with that dispatch. It was given to us by an acquaintance to send out."

"He wanted to make sure it got into the right hands," Jack said. "Will you call Washington and see if he's there--the chief?"

"You'll have to pay for the message."

Jack laid a banknote of large denomination down on the desk.

"Ask for the chief," he said, "and tell him to wire any instructions he may have for the sender in cipher if he wants to, but to give any instructions he may have for us about the delivery of the message in plain United States!"

"Come back in half an hour," said the clerk, "and I'll probably have something for you. I suppose this cipher message is an important one?" he added, suspiciously.

"Don't know what it is," Jack answered, truthfully.

The clerk evidently did not believe the boy for he stood at the desk gazing after him with a look of distrust on his face. The lads were no sooner out of the office than a thin, angular gentleman, dusky of face and very black and bright of eye, entered and walked up to the clerk.

"I sent a message here by a couple of boys," he said, "and I wish to withdraw it."

"You'll have to find the boys, then, and have them withdraw it," replied the clerk.

"But can't I recall the dispatch--my own dispatch?" demanded the other, exposing a $100 banknote in his palm. "It is worth something to me to get it back."

The clerk was angry at the plain attempt at bribery, so he turned back to a table and took up the message the boys had left.

"We have a message here," he said, "which may be recalled under proper conditions. Kindly tell me what your dispatch says."

"Which one did they file?" asked the other. "The one to Washington or the one to New York?"

The clerk laid the paper back on the desk.

"Give me the address you sent your message to at Washington," he said.

"It was the secretary of state," was the reply.

"And the message? Give me a few opening words."

"Read them!" snarled the other. "Can't you read English?"

"The message is in cipher!" said the clerk, "You also have the address wrong. You are evidently a fraud. Get out!"

When the boys returned to the office in half an hour the clerk called them over to the desk at once and told them of what had taken place.

"How did he ever follow us out without our seeing him?" asked Jimmie.

"He must have shot through the air," the other declared.

"Are you sure you kept a good lookout?" smiled the clerk.

"Well, we looked about a good deal," Jimmie admitted, "and I can't say as I thought of being chased up. What did Washington say?"

"You boys are to wait here until you receive instructions. The cipher message is now going on the wire."

The boys sat down in a restaurant not far from the telegraph office and ordered porterhouse steaks, French potatoes, and all the side dishes that were on the menu.

"We may have to ride to-night," Jack said, "and may as well prepare for it."

"I don't like the idea of our being followed here," Jimmie observed. "We'll be apt to come across that chap on the way back. The funny part of it all is that we never suspected there was a sleuth out after us!"

"We ought to have known," Jack grumbled. "Somehow everything has gone wrong with us. If we ride back in the night we'll probably have a skirmish."

After eating they went back to the telegraph office. The clerk was waiting for them, that being the usual hour for his supper.

"Here's your orders," he said, with a smile, "right from the chief himself. He seems to know who you are all right!"

Jack took the dispatch and read:

"Remain where you are until motor cars now on the way from Cumberland reach you. Our men say the cars can make good time clear to the foothills. The cipher message will arrive shortly. Be on your guard."

It was signed by the chief of the Secret Service department.

"What do you know about that?" asked Jack, passing the message over to Jimmie.

"How far is it to Cumberland?" he asked of the clerk.

"Something like eighty miles," was the reply.

"Are the roads good? Can a motor car make good time to-night."

The river roads are fairly good. A fast car ought to get here in three hours."

"I see that Chinese-looking guy that wanted the message catching us if we go back in an automobile!" Jimmie laughed.

"But a motor car," Jack interrupted, "is an easy thing to wreck on a mountain."

"What do you think was in that dispatch?" Jimmie asked of Jack, as they sat in the telegraph office waiting.

"Something which brings out motor cars and secret service men," Jack answered. "I guess it made a hit at Washington."

"Perhaps he wired that he was going to bring the prince in!" laughed Jimmie. "Well, if he did, he'll do it, and that's all I've got to say about it."

Twice that evening a dark face appeared at the window of the telegraph office and peered in at the boys. Each time the owner of the dark face hastened away after a short inspection of the lads and conferred with two men in a dark little hotel office.

Shortly after ten o'clock two great touring cars, long, lean racers, ran up to the curb in front of the telegraph office and stopped. The street was now well-nigh deserted, but what few people were still astir gathered around the machines.

There were three husky men in each machine, and in each car was room for one more person. Only one man alighted and entered the office. When he saw the boys waiting he beckoned to them.

"Got your cipher?" he asked, and Jack nodded.

"Then come along. We'll get to the high climb before the moon comes up."

"Do you know the way?" asked the clerk.

"Only from verbal description," was the reply, "but we can find it."

"I'm off duty," the clerk said, "and I know every inch of the way. I was reared in the mountains west of the short ridge. I'd like a little adventure, too!" he laughed.

"What about the mules?" asked Jimmie, determined that Uncle Ike should be cared for.

"Get them into a barn, quick," said the chief, sharply. "We must be off."

When Jimmie came back the clerk and Jack were crowded into one seat in the rear machine, while a vacant seat in the front car was waiting for him. The party was off with a snort of motors and faint cheers from the little crowd which had gathered.

The river road was fairly good, and in an hour they were at the foothills, around the south end of the short ridge. The driver drew up there, and in the clear air, from the north came the sound of galloping horses.

"Get out and under cover, boys!" the chief commanded.