Chapter V. Jimmie and Teddy Miss a Meal.
 

"I was scared to come up until I heard your voice," the old lady said, as she came close to Ned. "I didn't know you were only a boy."

The woman appeared to be very old. Her hair was white and her lean face was wrinkled and leathery with time and storm and exposure to the winds of the hills. Still, old as she seemed to be, she walked alertly, with the swinging grace of the true mountain woman. She was very plainly dressed in a one-piece gown of dark calico. Her head was not covered at all, and the white hair took on a tinge of gold from the distant campfire. Her black eyes were sharp, yet kindly in expression.

"Good evening, mother," Ned said, removing his cap as he greeted the old lady, "we didn't expect to meet ladies here. Do you live in this locality?"

"Quite a step," the old lady said, in a gentle, hesitating tone, "quite a bit down the slope is where I live. I wanted to know what the fire meant, and so I came up. You don't mind my being here, do you?"

"Glad to have you come!" Ned responded, truthfully. "If you care to come up to our camp we'll be glad to give you a cup of tea and whatever else you want."

"I'll be glad to get a cup of tea" the woman declared. "We don't get tea up here in the mountains--not very often. We don't have the money to pay for it, and, then it is such a long way to go after it. Yes, I'll go with you."

Ned noted that the woman did not speak the dialect of the mountains. He wondered how long she had lived there, and if she lived alone. She did not long leave him in doubt on these points, for she seemed anxious to talk.

"I'm Mary Brady," she said, as they ascended the slope toward the fire. "I came here years ago with my husband, Michael Brady, to live in peace. Mike was a good man when he was himself, but the saloon men of New York were always after him when he had any money. We came here to be rid of them."

"That was the correct thing to do, it strikes me," Ned said, for want of something better, as she seemed to expect some friendly comment.

"I don't know," she went on. "We meant it for the best--but there was the moonshine! I didn't know about the moonshine when we came here. All I thought of was to get away from Houston street! He fell one day and they brought him home dead."

Ned was strangely interested in this simple life history. The poor old woman living there, probably alone and in want, after such an ending to a hopeful plan!

"And you kept on here?" he asked. "Why didn't you go back to the city?"

"There was the boy," she answered. "He was ten when we came here. I didn't want him to get the thirst! After Mike died I lived here to keep him in the good path. He is a good boy, but when he was twenty they got him, too--the moonshiners!"

"And he left you?" asked Ned.

"He said he couldn't make anything of himself here, so he went to Washington. He's never come back, though I've always kept a home for him, and never ceased to look for him. He writes me now and then that he's coming home, but he doesn't come! When I saw your fire I thought he might be with you."

By this time they were at the camp, and Mary Brady was presented to the boys and made comfortable by the fire, with tea and canned fruit before her. She enjoyed the lunch immensely and looked the gratitude she did not speak.

"When did you hear from your boy last?" asked Frank, by way of keeping the conversation going. "Did he write from Washington? Was it to Washington you said he went?"

"It was Washington," was the reply. "He wrote me a month or more ago that he would be here with friends in June. I thought he might be with you. He has been married since he left home, and has a child, though his wife is dead."

"And he said he was thinking of bringing the child here?" asked Ned, glancing significantly at Frank. "Did he say that in his last letter?"

"Yes, that he was thinking of bringing the boy here. It is only a mite of a boy--not more than seven years old, he said. I'm anxious for him to come."

Jack and Oliver gathered closer about the old lady in order to hear every word that was spoken. One brought her more tea and the other filled the sauce dish with peaches. Ned motioned to them to remain silent.

"And so you expect him to drop down on you any time?" Ned asked.

"Yes, my son and the boy. He's a cute little chap, Mike says. Mike was named for his father, and the lad's name is Mike, too. I'm anxious for him to get here. And I'm wondering whether he's light and blonde, with brown hair and blue eyes like his father, or dark, like my side of the family.

"What do you make of it?" Jack whispered to Oliver.

"What do I make of what?" demanded the other.

"Of the old lady and her three Mikes?" replied Jack, scornfully. "Have you been asleep all this time?"

"I was waiting for you to express an opinion," Oliver declared. "Do you think it possible that they would change the name of a prince of the royal blood to Mike?"

"So you've caught on, at last!" whispered Jack. "Do you really think we've tumbled on a streak of luck at the send-off?"

"I don't know," was the hesitating reply. "We'll have to cultivate this old lady."

"Sure thing!"

"Did she say where her cottage is?" asked Oliver, directly. "We ought to verify her story, it seems to me. I'd like to hear Ned's opinion!"

"Do you remember what she said about Mike II. having blonde hair and blue eyes?" asked Jack, presently.

"Sure!" was the answer. "That made me sit up and take notice. It brought back to my memory the light brown hair on the bloody blade of the shears."

"Same here," announced Jack. "If this Mike II. comes here we'll have to find out if he has a cicatrice on the right thumb and a scar on the head, a scar which might have been brought about by a pair of shears thrown by a frightened maid in the city of New York!"

"Think of a crown prince being called Mike!" chuckled Oliver.

"Ned didn't say it was a crown prince!"

"He might just as well have said it! He didn't dispute me when I asked if it was a crown prince who had been abducted."

"If Jimmie and Teddy don't return soon," Jack said, changing the subject, "we'll have to start the Boy Scout Camera Club out looking for them."

"They'll be back when they get hungry!" laughed the other.

But Jimmie and Teddy were still away when the moon rose over the ridge to the east. Mrs. Brady was still by the campfire. She appeared to delight in the companionship of the boys. Having lived alone for years, she would have been delighted at any companionship whatever, but the boys were full of life and vitality, they were sympathetic, and, besides, they were from her old home--New York!

As the moon showed her round face over the summit of the range to the east she arose and stretched out a withered hand to Ned.

"I'm going," she said. "I've had a pleasant evening. You don't know how much it has been to me to sit here and talk with you! If you'll come down to my cabin some day I'll try to make it pleasant for you!"

"Some day," laughed Ned. "What do you say to my going right now? Of course I've got to see you home! Couldn't think of letting you go away alone."

"I've walked these mountains night and day for more than twenty years," faltered the old lady, "and I'm not afraid now!"

"You don't object to my going?" asked Ned.

"I'm awful glad to have you go," was the reply. "But you'll find it a long walk, there and back," she added.

"If it is too far for me to walk back," Ned laughed, "you may give me a bunk on the floor! Anyway, I'm going to see you home!"

As the boy spoke he beckoned to Frank to step to one side with him.

"Of course this looks all straight, on the face of it," he said, when the two were alone together, "but one can never tell. We've got to be pretty careful, for we are in a strange country, and are here for a purpose which may be resented by the mountaineers. We can't afford to take any chances."

"Do you suspect the old lady?" asked Frank, in amazement.

"I don't know what to think," was the hesitating reply. "The first night we spend in a permanent camp, up she comes with a story about a son being about to bring in a boy of seven for her to mother! Then, as if that wasn't enough of a bait for us to snap at, she goes on to say that the son is blonde, with light brown hair and blue eyes. Looks like we were being led on!"

"You bet it does," Frank replied. "Jimmie and Teddy have disappeared, and this may be a frame-up, and so I wouldn't go off alone with her. And, look here," Frank went on, "do you believe Uncle Ike would have kicked, and screamed, and made a row generally, if only this old lady had approached him? Do you, now?"

"She might have frightened him," Ned replied, "for he may not be used to women. Still, she may have had some one with her! I was thinking that Uncle Ike sounded a warning on slight cause," he added.

"Well, if I were you, I wouldn't go away alone with her," advised Frank. "Let me go with you if you insist on going."

"Of course I've got to go now," Ned went on. "I've promised her, and she is expecting me to go. But I'll tell you what you may do. You can wait until I have gone some distance and then follow on behind, not so as to be seen by any other person trailing us, but still close enough to be available in case of trouble."

"All right," Frank agreed. "I'll keep back far enough to see any one who might be following the two of you! I wish Jimmie was here! He'd be just the one to go with me. And there's always something doing when Jimmie is around!"

"I'm worried about those boys!" Ned answered. "I'm going to keep a sharp lookout for them, all the way to the cabin."

"There's something wrong," Frank hastened to say. "They never would have remained away from camp like this. And without supper, too! Jimmie is particular to be on hand when it comes to eating time. There! There's Uncle Ike talking in his sleep! I wonder what's eating him now? Shall I go and see?"

"No," Ned said, hastily, seizing Frank by the arm. "Don't even look in that direction. Watch Mrs. Mary Brady!"

The old woman's face was turned toward the spot where the mules were staked out, her figure was straight, tense, alert. She appeared to be listening and watching for some agreed-upon signal from the corral. Ned moved over toward her cautiously.

Once the old woman moved, involuntarily, toward the mules, but she drew back in a moment and stood, waiting, with her eyes on the boys, now in a little group not far from the spot where she stood.