Chapter VIII. Uncle Ike Presents Himself.
 

Mrs. Brady and Buck walking together, Ned and Frank discussed the situation thoroughly as they descended the mountainside.

"This may be a frame-up," Ned observed, "but it is up to us to see it through. The boy who has just been brought in may be the prince, or he may be the grandson, and we are here to get the answer."

"Or there may be no boy at the cabin at all!" Frank suggested. "The conspirators know that we are in the mountains for the purpose of looking up the prince. What better plan than the one now working could they have settled on? If they are sharp at all, they would understand that a story of a child brought on from Washington would set us in motion--would be likely to get us into a trap!"

They scrambled on down the slope for some distance, too busy keeping upright to do any talking, then Frank went on.

"You know very well that I'm no prophet of evil, Ned, but it looks to me that we have betrayed our mission here by taking such an interest in the child. Would a lot of boys looking for snap-shots trail off in the night to see a boy when they might have taken a look at him the next day?"

"If I know anything about human nature" Ned answered, "those two people ahead of us are honest. If it is a frame-up, they are not in it."

"Anyway," Frank went on, "I'm glad the plans were changed by the arrival of Buck. It is much better for us to meet whatever is coming to us side by side than to have me sneaking back in the distance!"

Ned agreed to this, and the two quickened their pace in order to come up with Buck and Mrs. Brady, who were now turning from the west to the south, keeping along the slope of the mountain. Directly they came to a narrow trail which led into a green valley.

Following this, they soon came to a couple of acres of cleared land, in the middle of which stood a rough cabin of peeled logs. A dim light came from a square window by the door, and there came from the interior the sound of a man's voice humming a song.

The woman drew up and looked suspiciously at Buck.

"Who is that?" she asked. "You didn't tell me my son came, too."

"No," replied Buck, "I didn't, because, you see, Mike didn't come! He sent this young fellow in with the kid, bringing word that he would be along later."

"And who is it?" demanded the woman.

"A likely young chap," was the reply. "He asked me to get you home to-night, because he wants to leave early in the morning."

"He won't leave early in the morning if he sees us here," Ned whispered to Frank. "If that is the prince in there, the man with him may be the fellow who made his way into Jack's house and listened from the attic."

"What are we going to do about it, then?" asked Frank, anxiously.

"We've got to meet him," Ned replied. "Whoever he is, he knows from Buck that Mrs. Brady went up the mountain to visit a camp of strangers. We've got to go in and face him! I wish we had kept away from here to-night."

Mrs. Brady and Buck now opened the door and entered the cabin, the boys close behind them. A log fire was burning on a stone hearth, and a tall, rather handsome young man with light hair and blue eyes was sitting in a homemade chair before it.

He stirred the fire to a brighter blaze as they entered, and the leaping flames disclosed a dark-haired child of perhaps seven years asleep on a bed in a corner of the small room. Without speaking, without so much as a glance at the visitor, the old lady walked swiftly to the bed and took the child in her arms.

The boy opened his eyes and started to cry, but she quieted him with low words and sat down on the edge of the bed, swinging him back and forth with a motion of her arms and shoulders. The man at the fire glanced sharply at the woman and then turned his eyes to the boys, now standing not far from the bed.

"The little dear!" the woman cried, mothering the child. "He's all tired out with his long journey!"

"This is the man that brung the boy in," Buck said, pointing to the figure by the fire. "A mess of a time he must have had of it, too."

"You are the grandmother?" asked the stranger. "Yes, I understand. And are these boys your sons, too?" he added, nodding at Ned and Frank, suspiciously.

"Only New York boys spending a vacation in the mountains," Ned said, answering the question. "Mrs. Brady came to our camp tonight looking for her son and we came home with her. We are looking for good pictures," he added.

The stranger pointed to the old lady, sitting with the sleeping child on her breast.

"There is one," he said.

"Yes, and I'm sorry I haven't my camera with me."

"Are you thinking of remaining in this section long?" the visitor asked.

"We can't say," laughed Ned. "We may move on to-morrow, and may stay here a week."

The man's suspicions seemed to have vanished. He talked frankly with the boys, and occasionally addressed a word to the old lady. He gave her, briefly, a good report of her son's progress in Washington, and handed her a roll of bank-notes.

"He is coming here himself soon," he said, "and he will bring more. He is doing very nicely there."

Ned was wishing the boy would waken when the old lady arose from the bed and laid him gently down. He stirred uneasily in his sleep and she stood by his side, smoothing his dark hair away from his forehead.

"He favors my side of the family, being dark," she said. "The Stileses are all dark. If one of you boys will sit with him a moment," she added, with mountain hospitality, "I'll get you all a snack. It was a long road over the mountains."

Ned accepted the invitation eagerly and sat down by the child. The face was dark and slender, the eyebrows turned up a trifle at the outer comers.

"Is it Mike III., or is it the prince?" he was asking himself when the boy awoke and sat up in bed with a jerk.

"What's comin' off here?" he demanded, rubbing his sleepy eyes. "What kind of a bum game is this? I want my daddy."

The visitor by the fire laughed.

"He's up in city slum talk," he said. "And he's learned something of French, too, knocking around with the boys in school."

"I can talk Franch like a native," asserted the boy.

"And what else?" asked the man by the fire.

"Any old thing!" boasted the child. "They keep me at books all the time. I'm glad I'm with grandmother in the hills. Are you my grandmother?" he asked, pointing to the old woman, now bending over the fire.

"Yes, deary," was the reply. "I'm going to take care of you now."

"I'm glad!"

The boy tumbled back on the bed again and closed his eyes. Frank looked at Ned significantly.

"There's no doubt about it!" his eyes said. "This child is Mike III."

The old lady made hot corn bread and brewed a pot of mountain tea. The boys were not at all hungry, but managed to eat and drink moderately. Then Ned arose.

"We've got to be on our way," he said. "It will be morning before we get back to camp if we don't start pretty soon!"

When the boys, after a cordial good night from Mrs. Brady and Buck, left the cabin the visitor followed them out. Ned stopped breathing, almost, as he took him by the arm.

"There's one thing I want you to explain to the old lady after a time," the man said. "I suppose I might do it myself, but I prefer to let her know from personal observation something of the case first. That boy is not exactly right."

"Not mentally sound, you mean?" asked Ned. "He appeared to be all right just now."

"Oh, he's bright enough," answered the other, "but he's been ill and has been in a hospital at Washington, and has been cuddled and humored so long that he likes to boss! Not good people to boss, the attendants in a hospital, you will say, but I guess they let this kid have his way. When he was delirious they told him all sorts of fairy tales about kings and princes, and he actually thinks some of them are true. If he breaks out in any of his tantrums before you leave, kindly tell the old lady what I am telling you, will you?"

Ned almost gasped! So the boy was likely to talk of kings and princes! He was likely to become masterful in his manners!

"I may have to change my mind," he thought. "This may be the prince, and not Mike III. But the boy's English, and there's his street slang! What about that? I reckon that we have a job on our hands!"

The two stood talking together in the moonlight for some moments, the stranger evidently resolved to make a good impression on the boys, while Frank walked on along the trail, looking back now and then to see if his chum was coming.

"This boy's father," the man went on, "has permitted him to have his own way about everything. That was a mistake, of course, but he is trying to rectify it now by placing him under the care of his grandmother, who, if I mistake not, will see that he is properly disciplined."

"It has been a long time since the father left here," Ned suggested.

"Yes, along time."

"He is doing well in Washington?"

"Yes, he is connected with the State department."

Ned made a mental note of that!

"And is receiving a fair salary?" he asked.

"Oh, yes; he's doing nicely, far better than his mother has any notion of."

Here was more food for thought. Why had the father delegated the pleasant duty of taking the boy back to the old mountain home to another if he had been situated so that he might have taken the journey himself?

"Is it the prince, or is it Mike III.?" he kept asking himself.

While they stood there together a great clattering came down the trail, and they saw Frank turn aside and stand at attention, as if waiting for some object, seen in the distance, to come up. Directly the sounds settled down to the rattling of stones and the steady pounding of hoofs.

"Look what's here!" Frank shouted, pointing.

Ned moved forward, closer to the trail, and in a moment caught sight of a tall, lank, ungainly mule coming galloping toward him!

"What do you think of him?" called Frank. "He's come to tell us that it is time we were home and in bed."

"Uncle Ike!" called Ned. "Come here, you foolish mule!"

Uncle Ike, now in plain sight, kicked up his heels in derision but finally came to an abrupt halt in front of Ned, and stood with ears pitched forward and forelegs braced back, evidently very much frightened.