Chapter IV. A Camp in the Mountains.
 

It was early June, and the members of the Boy Scout Camera Club were camped on a mountain top in West Virginia. They had spent about two weeks in making the trip to the point where they had established camp.

Three mules, divested of their burdens now, were "staked out" in a little corral fragrant with grass down near the timber line. The tent they had carried was a short distance below the summit, on the eastern slope, with packages and bags and boxes of provisions piled around it.

To the south lay Virginia, to the north, east and west stretched the mountainous district of West Virginia. Far below them ran the North Fork of the Potomac river.

What they saw was a wild and lonely country, with more deer, wild turkeys, and raccoons than human beings. On their hard and frequently delayed journey in they had passed cabins, surrounded here and there by rail fences, but there were none in sight from where they now stood.

The sun, a round ball of fire in the west, would be out of sight in half an hour, and then the desolate darkness of the mountains would surround them. A wild turkey called to its mate in the distance, and small creatures of the air fluttered about, as if determined to know what human beings were doing there, in their ordinarily safe retreat.

The boys had visited Washington the day following the incidents at the clubroom of the Black Bear Patrol, but had learned nothing of importance there. The launch in which the young prince had been seen had been traced up the river to the vicinity of Cumberland, but there the trail had ended.

"It is a case of needle-in-the-haystack," the Secret Service chief had said to Ned, on the morning of his departure for the mountains. "We have men looking over every inch of the large cities. We want you to rake those mountains with a fine-tooth comb! Personally, I believe that the prince is there."

"But," Ned had replied, "how are we to communicate with you in case we require more definite instructions?"

"You know what Sherman did when he left Atlanta?" laughed the chief.

"Why, he cut the wires," returned Ned, "so as not to have his movements hampered by orders from men who, not being on the ground, could not possibly know as much as he did of what ought to be done."

"That is what I want you to do!" the chief continued. "Cut the wires."

"But that is assuming a great responsibility," urged the boy.

"Very true, but I have an idea that you want to work in your own way, so go to it. A mess of lively boys running up and down the mountain sides looking for game and snap-shots ought not to arouse the suspicion of the thieves if they are there. Make friends with the mountain people if you can. They are naturally suspicious, but good as gold at heart."

That was his last talk with the chief. After that supplies had been bought and transported by rail to the nearest point, and there the mules had been bought and the difficult journey begun. They had just made their first permanent camp.

"I wouldn't mind living here a few years!" Teddy said. "It beats the hot old city! If I had plenty of reading matter and a full larder, I don't think I would ever go back. I wish Dad could step out of that Harvard thing and eat supper with us!"

The shrill scream of a mule now came up from the feeding ground below, and a commotion at the tent showed that one of the animals was kicking up a row there.

"That's that long-eared Uncle Ike," Jimmie McGraw exclaimed. "I feel in my bones that I'm going to love that mule! He's so worthless! If he had two legs less he'd beat Jesse James to the tall timber in piracy! He won't work if you don't watch him, and he'll steal everything he gets his eyes on! Yes, sir, I feel that there's a common sympathy between that mule and me, yet I know that we'll have a falling out some day! He's so open and above-board in his mischief."

"Can you see what he's doing now?" asked Teddy.

"Why, I saw him knocking at the door of the tent, and I presume that by this time he is sitting in my chair picking his teeth, after devouring the bread! That sure is some highwayman, that mule, yet I feel that I'm going to love and admonish him!"

The boys dashed down the slope to the tent and found Uncle Ike, as Jimmie insisted on calling a tall, ungainly, raw-boned mule, chewing at a slice of ham which he had pilfered from a box by the side of the fire.

"There's one thing about Uncle Ike," Jimmie grinned, as Ned drove the animal away with a club. "He always looks like he had been sent for to lead an experience meeting! He'll put on a face as long as a cable to a freight train, and then he'll turn to me and wink one eye, as if explaining that it was all for a joke."

"That's your ham he's chewing, Jimmie!" Ned declared.

"I suppose so," the boy replied. "That's what you get by being brother to a long-eared mule that for cussedness has Becker's gunmen backed up a creek with the oars lost!"

While the mule was being restored to his companions, Jimmie and Teddy began getting supper. They had plenty of tinned goods, plenty of flour, potatoes, meal and ham and bacon. Still, they thought they ought to have something in the way of game.

"I saw a wild turkey back there," Teddy volunteered.

"And I saw a coon," Jimmie added.

"Is there any law on turkeys and coons?" asked Jack, who was trying to make the fire burn bright with lengths of green wood.

"There ain't no law of any kind up here," Frank insisted.

"Then we'll go and get a coon," Jimmie declared. "You boys get a red-hot fire and I'll have the bird here before Ned gets that mule tied up!"

"Guess I'll go along," Teddy suggested. "I never did like to have anyone else go to the trouble of getting my wild meat for me! I'll go along, and Frank and Ned and Oliver can get supper."

Without waiting for any affirmative replies from their companions, the two lads darted away, and were soon lost in a canyon which ran at right angles with the ridge much farther down. Frank and Oliver began piling dry wood on the fire.

"Those boys will be back here in time for breakfast--just about!" Frank commented, as the coffee water boiled and the bacon began sizzling in the pan. "If they get any supper here they'll have to cook it!"

Presently Ned came back from the little valley where the mules were feeding and took a field glass from the tent.

"What's up now?" Teddy asked, as Ned walked back to the ridge and looked down into the valley of the North Fork. "Ned must be seeing, things!"

Ned remained oh the summit a long time, until the sun sank behind the range to the west and the valleys became ribbons of black between the lighter crests of the mountains.

Presently Frank scrambled up the yards of rugged, rock-strewn slope which led to the summit where Ned was standing, still with his field glass in his hand.

"Anything in sight over that way?" the boy asked, as he came to Ned's side.

"There is a column of smoke in the valley," Ned answered. "I thought at first that there were two, but I may have been mistaken. Do you remember what two columns of smoke would have indicated?"

"Of course!" laughed Frank. "If I should become lost in woods or mountains, or anywhere, I'd build two fires and get wet wood to make smudge, good and plenty. That would mean that I was lost and needed assistance. That's the Boy Scout Indian signal for help. I remember when we saw it north of the Arctic Circle, don't you?"

"I won't be apt to forget it right away," was the reply.

The boys remained standing on the summit for some moments, although it was now too dark for them to distinguish objects in the valley below. All around the June night called to them with its silences and its sharp and sudden rasp of sounds. There were the mountains, brooding, heavy, mysterious, and there were the fleets of flying clouds reaching down to wrap their summits!

"It is simply great up here!" Ned exclaimed presently. "That is the only word that seems to express it--great!"

"Yes, it is fine for a change," Frank admitted, "though I don't believe in the wilds as a permanent thing! Everything in the mountains and forests seems to me to be crude and half done. This, I presume, is because the world isn't finished yet. Those who come to places like this catch the Creator with his sleeves rolled up, if that isn't a coarse way of saying it."

"I like it, just the same!" Ned declared. "It is glorious! It is life!"

"It is healthful so far as animal life goes," laughed Frank, "but what about mental life? There would never have been anything wonderful in the way of inventions--like the wireless, and the telephone, and the uses of electricity--if mankind had been content to live and die in the wilds! It is crude, as I said before, unfinished, out of line with all the decrees of art. I'll take the city for mine, with its marble buildings, its wonderful art galleries, its beautiful parks!"

"Say, you mooners!" came a voice from the camp below, "if you've got done surveying the beautiful black landscape, suppose you come down to supper?"

The boys went down to the tent to find Jimmie and Teddy still absent.

"There are two things we'll have to set aside time for," Ned declared, as he took a seat on the ground before the blaze, with a great plate of food in his lap. "We'll have to arrange for keeping Uncle Ike, the mule, out of mischief, and for keeping track of Jimmie and Teddy. Those boys will get lost in the mountains yet, and go hungry for a few days. That would be punishment enough for Jimmie-- hunger!"

The boys sat by the campfire a long time, heaping dry wood on the blaze until they were obliged to widen the circle about it. There was only the light of the stars, looking down from a cloud-flecked sky, but there would be a moon shortly after ten o'clock.

"If the boys don't return before long," Frank broke out, after a moment of silence, "I'm going to take a searchlight and go out looking for them."

The boy expressed the thought which was brooding in the minds of them all. They were more than anxious for the safety of the two truants. Oliver arose and walked away from the fire up the slope, until his figure was out of sight, but shortly came back and sat down again, his face expressing impatience as well as anxiety.

"There's no reason why they shouldn't see this fire," he said. "I walked over the summit a bit to see if the light was reflected over there. It is. If anywhere within two miles, they ought to see this blaze or the glow from it. They're just doing this to make us worry. I'd like to get them by the neck, this minute," he added.

Uncle Ike, the mule, gave vent to a vicious scream at that moment, and Ned arose and started in the direction of the feeding ground. When he reached the spot he saw that the mules were agitated, weaving about on the tying lines in either fear or anger.

"Uncle Ike," Ned said, patting the ugly beast on the neck, "what is it about your sleeping chamber that you don't like? Or it is your supper you object to?"

Uncle Ike thrust his long ears forward and elevated his heels, as if kicking at some imaginary object back of him. Then Ned saw a figure moving in the darkness.

"Come out of that!" he called. "Why are you sneaking around here?"

The figure advanced toward the boy then--the figure of an old woman!