Chapter XXIV. The Man-Trap is Set.
 

Ned, Oliver and Teddy remained in camp all the afternoon--waiting. They were not, of course, anticipating the immediate return of Jack and Jimmie, but they were looking every moment, after a couple of hours had passed, for some signs of the boys who had been sent out in the wake of Bradley.

"I'll bet a cookie," Teddy exclaimed, as the sun set over the ridge to the west, "that Frank and Dode have bumped into something hard!"

"I may have made a mistake in not going on that trip myself," Ned mused, "but I had an idea there would be business for me at the camp. I don't know what to make of this lack of attention on the part of our enemies!"

"It may be," Oliver suggested, "that they have taken alarm and ducked with the prince."

"That is just what I fear," Ned answered. "It will spoil all my plans if they move now; still, I admit that they've had enough unpleasant experiences here to make them long for a quieter retreat!"

The boys prepared supper, taking pains to provide enough food for Frank and Dode, but they did not come. The meal over, Ned made ready for a trip down the mountain.

"I'm going to Chimney rock," he said to the boys. "I should like to have one of you with me, but two ought to remain here. I'm going to take some rockets with me. If I do not return before midnight, one of you advance along the summit to the south, provided with rockets. If one of my rockets is seen, the watcher must send one up to notify the boy in camp. Then both must make a run for Chimney rock, traveling so as to come upon it from the up-hill side. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly," Oliver declared. "You are going to bring this prince back with you?"

"Perhaps!" laughed Ned. "I may have to bring Frank and Dode back with me!"

There was only the light of the stars when Ned reached the vicinity of Chimney rock, coming in from the slope to the north and moving with extreme caution. There was a dull glow in the dip back of the rock, the glow of coals nearly burned out.

The men who had captured Jimmie at the cave of the counterfeiters had fled before the shooting, and Ned had no idea that they had returned, or would return. Any fire built by them would have long since turned to ashes.

"The party having direct charge of the prince has been here," the boy mused, "though why they should come here is a puzzle to me, as they have, or had a camp of their own not far away. Still, the theory of hiding in a place which has been searched is an old one, and these fellows may have adopted it.

"They certainly adopted a theory something like it," the lad thought, as he watched the dying embers from a distance--from the secure shadow, if the stars may be said to have cast a shadow that night, of a great rock--"when they decided to remain here after the disguise of the widow's grandson had been discovered. They took it for granted that no one would look for the real prince where the disguised one had been found! They might better have taken him away!"

Ned knew very well that the men having charge of the abducted boy had hidden farther up the slope. His idea was that at the time the pictures were taken the men in charge were watching the two who had ran away.

From what Bradley had said, it was not likely that he, Bradley, had been permitted to associate with the actual custodians of the stolen lad. This had been the main source of his complaints.

Ned believed that a portion, at least, of the men sent into the hills as custodians of the prince had followed Jack and Jimmie out While trembling for the safety of the two boys, Ned had figured on cutting the force of the enemy in two before making an attempt to seize the little prisoner.

Even now, he figured, the force left on the ground had been again divided, for he was positive that the camp was being watched. For this reason he had caused the packing to be done, thus giving the impression that his party was going out at once.

The boy lay in the dark spot under the boulder for a long time, watching, listening, for some indication of human life in that vicinity. He had a half notion that Bradley would head that way, and that the boys would follow him.

"If Bradley does come here," Ned thought, "my trap will be set right! That is, if the dusky little chap from over the sea has not been taken away. If he has, the trap will not serve; still, I shall be able to console myself with the thought that it was at least well set!"

Every clue the boy had gained pointed to the spot where he lay. That had undoubtedly been the point of communication between the leader and his subordinates--with Bradley and the men who had taken Jimmie prisoner.

"That was rather clever," Ned mused, "taking the boy while at the cave of the counterfeiters in order to give the impression that the coiners had seized him!"

Ned realized, too; that the capture of the grandson just at that time had been a master stroke on the part of the conspirators. The lad would have talked too much when he became satisfied that he was safe from all coercion.

Ned lay in his hiding place for what appeared to him to be a long time before he heard anything to indicate that his man-trap had been set in the right spot. Then the voice he heard caused him to spring quickly up to his feet. It was the low, soft, plaintive voice of Mary Brady.

"I haven't seen anything here I could talk about," the old lady was saying. "I wouldn't think of betraying anyone who put my boy in my arms. I've seen him with you--I've been waiting about here for a long time. Bring him out to me and I'll go home and never trouble you any more."

"Now," thought Ned, "how did the old lady manage to find the boy here?"

"You shouldn't have come here," a low, well-modulated masculine voice said. "You have put your own life and the life of the boy in danger by so doing. How long had you been watching and listening before I saw you?"

"A long, long time."

"And you heard much of what was said?"

"I heard a good many words, but I don't remember now what they meant."

The voices came clearly from farther up the slope, and a little to the south. The figures of the speakers could not be seen by the watcher.

"Come up to the camp," the masculine voice said, presently. "I'll turn the boy over to you, but you can't go back to your cabin to-night."

"Are you going to keep me here against my will?" asked the trembling old voice.

"You have seen and heard too much," was the almost brutal rejoinder.

There was a rattle of pebbles as footsteps moved along the rocky surface of the slope. From above came the shrill cry of a child.

"I don't know of any better time to move up and take a peep at the camp of the man who crossed the sea to steal a child," Ned mused. "I wish Frank and Dode would come, but if they don't I'll have to take chances on going alone."

Keeping those in front of him as guides, Ned crept along the slope. More than once a loose pebble rolled with a great noise from under his feet, but those ahead seemed to pay no attention to these evidences of pursuit.

When, perhaps, two hundred paces up the slope the sounds above the boy ceased. The night was still, save for the rustling and creeping of the creatures of the air and the forest. For a long time not a sound indicative of the presence of human life was heard, then a woman's cry of fright came from above.

Ned was about to hasten forward when a voice came to his ears from the darkness.

"We can't permit either of them to leave!" the low, well-modulated voice he had heard before that night said. "Even if we get away with the prince, their stories would ruin us. There is no knowing how soon the gabblings of the old woman might reach the ears of the adherents of the prince."

"Then you propose--"

"Nothing that will not come to them in due course of time! They can go to sleep in the snug inner room and never wake again. They will not know when the change comes. They will sleep forever in their mountain tomb."

"I am opposed to murder," said another voice, harsher, more decisive.

"And so the trap was well set!" mused Ned. "The princeling is still here! Well, the battle may not bring victory to me, but I will at least know that I planned it right, acting on the best information at hand."

It was plain, from what the first speaker had said, that the camp of the conspirators was in a cave, for he had spoken of a snug inner room. The entrance to this cave was undoubtedly closely guarded.

The boy crept along cautiously. The slope was steep, with here and there a ledge which had to be surmounted or circled, always at great risk. In a few hours the moon would be up, and then the work he had before him would be more difficult.

"I must get into the cave before the moon rises!" he thought. "But how?"

When he came to the precipice in the side of the mountain from which the cave opened, he saw the black spot which marked the entrance. It was not large, and, close in front, sitting with his back against the rock, was a guard!

Ned lay down to wait. When the moon rose it would cast the shadow of the mountain on that spot. For a few hours more he might wait for his chance.

Directly he heard a call which brought him to an alert attitude in an instant. It was the call of the wolf pack, sharp, vicious, warning!

There was a movement at the mouth of the cave, and a quick light showed for only a second. Then came a sound of footsteps negotiating the gravelly slope.

Ned dropped back to the west. The call had come from that direction. It might have been uttered either by Frank or by one of the boys left at the camp.

Presently the snarl was heard in a dark crevice toward which the boy was descending. Ned dropped down faster then, and soon heard Frank's voice.

"Are you alone?" he asked.

"Yes; and you?"

"Bradley and Dode are here."

Bradley moved forward and took Ned by the arm.

"Be careful!" he warned. "Those men would toss dynamite down here and take their own risk of death if they knew."

"We've had a run for our money!" Frank panted. "We've been everywhere. The cabin is deserted, and the lower camp and the counterfeiter cave are bare of life. Bradley caught us following him, and so we joined with him in his search for Mike III."

"Mike III.," Ned answered, "is up there in the cave with the abductors, and Mrs. Brady is with him. We've got to act quickly."

"They'll be murdered!" Bradley whispered. "What can we do?"

"They'll be spared for a short time," Ned answered, "but we must be on the move."