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Tom Slade on the River By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 15835

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"But suppose they shouldn't come."

"Son, when I wuz out in Colorady, in a place we called Devil's Pass, I gut a grizzly backed up agin' a ledge one day 'n' heving ony one bullet 'twas a case uv me or him, as yer might say. My pardner, Simon Gurthy, who likewise didn't hev no bullets, 'count uv bein' stripped b' the Injins, he says, 'S'posin' ye don't fetch him.' 'N' I says, 'S'posin' I do.'"

Jeb Rushmore, with methodical accuracy, spat at a sapling near by.

"And did you?" asked his listener.

Jeb spat again with leisurely deliberation. "'N' I did," said he.

"You always hit, don't you, Jeb?"

"Purty near."

The boy edged along the log on which they were sitting and looked up admiringly into the wrinkled, weatherbeaten face. A smile which did not altogether penetrate through the drooping gray mustache was visible enough in the twinkling eyes and drew the wrinkles about them like sun rays.

"They'll come," said he.

The boy was satisfied for he had absolute confidence that his companion could not make a mistake.

"But suppose you hadn't hit him-I mean fetched him?"

"Son, wot yer got to do, yer do. When I told General Custer onct that we'd get picked off like cherries offen a tree if we tried rushin' a pack uv Sioux that was in ambush, he says, 'Jeb, mebbe it cain't be done, I ain't sayin', but jest the same, we got ter do it.' Some on us got dropped, but we done it."

"Did General Custer call you by your first name?"

"Same's you do."

This was too much for the little fellow. "Gee, it must have been great to have General Custer call you by your first name."

"Wal, now, I ben thinkin' 'twas purty fine this winter hevin' yew call me by my fust name, 'n' keep me comp'ny here. We've got ter be close pards, me an' you, hain't we, son?"

"Gee, I'm almost sorry they're coming-kind of."

They were certainly coming-"in chunks," as Roy Blakeley would have said, and before night the camp would be a veritable beehive. All summer troops would be coming and going, but just now the opening rush was at hand, and the exodus from eastern towns and cities, following the closing of schools, would go far to fill the camp even to its generous capacity before this Saturday's sun had set.

The Bridgeboro Troop, from the home town of the camp's generous founder, Mr. John Temple, would arrive sometime in the afternoon "with bells on" according to the post card which little Raymond Hollister had brought up from the post office the day before.

They were cruising up the Hudson to Catskill Landing in their cabin launch, the Good Turn, and would hike it up through Leeds to camp. The card was postmarked Poughkeepsie, and read:

Desert Island of Poughkeepsie,

Longitude 23, Latitude 40-11.

"Put in here for gasoline and ice-cream soda. Natives friendly. Heavy gales. Raining in sheets and pillow-cases. Mutiny on board. Pee-wee Harris, N. G. Mariner, put in irons for stealing peanuts from galley. Boarded by pirates below Peekskill. Coming north with bells on. Reach camp Saturday late. All's well with a yo-heave-ho, my lads."

"That sounds like Roy Blakeley," Raymond had said to his companion.

"Does sound kinder like his nonsense," the camp manager had answered.

All through the long winter months Raymond had lived at the big camp with no other companion than Jeb Rushmore. They had made their headquarters in Jeb's cabin, the other cabins and the big pavilion being shut tight. Raymond had often thought how like the pictures of Valley Forge this vacant clearing in the woods looked in its covering of snow, and sometimes when Jeb was busy writing letters (it was a terrible job for Jeb to write letters) the little fellow had been lonesome, but he had gained in weight, he had slept like a bear, he had ceased entirely to cough, and he ate-there is no way to describe how he ate!

In short, a great fight had been fought out in the lonely camp that winter, and little Raymond Hollister had won it. He could trudge into the village and back without minding it now and he could raise the big flag with one hand. Just the coming summer to top off with and he would be well.

Raymond lived down the Hudson a ways and he had come to Temple Camp with his troop the previous summer. His patrol leader, Garry Everson, had won the Silver Cross, which, according to the rule of the Camp, entitled him and his companions to remain three extra weeks, and when Mr. John Temple had heard of Raymond's ill health from the Bridgeboro boys on their return from camp, he had called his stenographer and sent a couple of home-runs over the plate in the form of two letters, one to Raymond's grandmother telling her that she had guessed wrong when she had "guessed that Ray would have to go to an orphan asylum when he came back," and the other enclosing a check to Jeb Rushmore and telling him that Raymond would stay with him for the winter and to please see to it that he had everything he needed.

That was in the previous autumn. Jeb had gotten out his bespattered, pyramid-shaped ink bottle and his atrocious pen and laboriously scrawled his signature on the back of the check and had it cashed in Leeds. He had kept the little roll of bills carefully in his pocket all winter, buying such things for Raymond as were needed, and as the roll grew thinner Raymond had grown stouter, until now, in the spring, he weighed ninety-one pounds and the roll was all gone except the elastic band.

It seemed a pity that just at the opening of the new season he should have to think of going home and perhaps to an orphan asylum, but if he had entertained any wild hope that some fortunate circumstance might prolong his stay into the open season it had been dissipated when word had come that the Temples had gone to South America. Either John Temple had forgotten about the boy up in the lonely camp or else he felt that he had done as much for him as could be expected. Raymond might still remain for two weeks of the new season as any scout might do, but then he would be at the end of his rope. For the rule of Temple Camp was that any scout or troop of scouts might spend two weeks at the camp free of all cost. If a scout won an honor medal it entitled his whole troop to additional time, the time dependent on the nature of the award. No scout might remain at camp longer than two weeks except in accordance with this provision, but permission might be granted on the recommendation of one of the trustees for a scout to board at camp for a longer time if there were good reason.

One day, however, a registered letter had come for Jeb. It contained fifty dollars and a slip of paper bearing only the words: For Raymond Hollister to stay until September first.

"So he remembered 'baout yer arter all," Jeb had said, as pleased as Raymond himself. "I kinder knowed he would. If he ain't a trusty (Jeb always said trusty when he meant trustee) 'n' got rights, gol, I dunno who has. They wuz jest goin' on th'boat, I reckon, when it popped inter his head like a dose uv buckshot 'n' he sent it right from th'wharf.--' N' I dun't hev ter get out my ink bottle 'n' my old double-barrelled pen ter indorse, neither."

There they were-two twenties and a ten; to Raymond they seemed like a fortune as he watched Jeb fold them up and slip them into his home-made buckskin wallet.

All this had happened before this auspicious Saturday, but the dispelling of Raymond's fears had given rise to new apprehensions.

"Even if they come," said he, "maybe Garry won't be with them-maybe they won't stop for him." Garry Everson was all that was left of the little troop he had striven to keep together the previous summer and the Bridgeboro troop had promised to stop for him and bring him along.

"An' then agin, mebbe they will," laughed Jeb.

"Who do you think will be the first to get here, Jeb?"

"Mebbe them lads from South New Jersey, mebbe

the Pennsylvany youngsters," said Jeb, consulting his list from the home-made buckskin wallet. The trustees kept these lists in the neatest and most approved manner, but Jeb had a system of record keeping all his own. "Let's see, naouw, thar's thet troop with the red-headed boy from Merryland-'member 'em, don't ye? They'll be comin' all week, more'n like. Seems ony like yist'day, thet that ole hill over thar wuz covered with snow-'member how me an' you watched it? We had a rough winter of it, didn't we. Here, lemme feel yer muscle agin now. Gee-williger! Gittin' ter be a reg'lar Samson, ain't ye?"

"Now that it's time for them to come," said Raymond, slowly, "I'm almost sorry-kind of. It was dandy being alone here with you."

Jeb slapped him on the shoulder and smiled again that smile that drew the wrinkles like sun rays around his twinkling eyes, and went about his work of preparation. Perhaps he, too, rough old scout that he was, felt that it had been "dandy" having little Raymond alone with him through those long, cold winter months.

All day long Raymond kept his gaze across Black Lake, for he knew that the Bridgeboro boys, hiking it from the Hudson, would come that way; but the hours of the afternoon passed and there were no arrivals. The hills surrounding the camp began to darken in the twilight, save for the crimson tinge upon their summits from the dying sun; the dark waters of the lake grew more sombre in the twilight and the still solemnity of evening, which was nowhere more gloomy and impressive than at this lakeside camp in the hills, fell upon the scene and cast its spell upon the lonely boy as it always did. But no one came.

Jeb Rushmore strolled down to where Raymond sat on the rough bench outside the provision cabin, facing the lake.

"Still watchin'? If yew say so, I'll light a lantern and we'll tow a couple uv skiffs across and wait on 'tother side."

"I wasn't thinking about them just now, Jeb; I was looking at those birds."

High up, through the fading twilight, a bird sped above the lake, toward the south. Its course was straight as an arrow. Above it a larger bird hovered and circled but the smaller bird went straight upon its way, as if bent upon some important mission.

Then, suddenly, the larger bird swooped and there was only the one object left in the dim vast sky where, a moment before, there had been two.

"Get me my rifle," said Jeb.

As Raymond hurried back with it, he could see the wings of the big bird flapping in the fury of its murderous work. What was going on up there he could only picture in his mind's eye, but the thought of that smaller bird hurrying on its harmless errand-homeward to its nest, perhaps-and waylaid and murdered up there in the lonely half darkness, troubled him and his hand trembled perceptibly as he handed the weapon to Jeb.

"You always hit 'em-fetch 'em-don't you?" he asked, anxiously.

"Purty near."

The sharp report rang out and echoed from the surrounding hills. Even before it died away there lay at Raymond's feet a hawk, quite dead, while through the dim light in a pitiably futile effort to fly, the smaller bird, a vivid speck of white in the fading twilight, fluttered to the ground.

It proved to be a white pigeon, its feathers ruffled and stained with blood and several of the stiffer feathers of the tail were gone entirely. One wing drooped as the bird stumbled weakly about and an area of its neck was bare where the feathers had been torn away. It seemed odd to Raymond that the poor stricken thing should resume its clumsy strut, poking its head this way and that, even in its weakness, and after such a cruel experience.

But what he noticed particularly was a metal ring around the bird's leg from which hung a little transparent tube, like a large medical capsule, with something inside it.

"Look, Jeb," said he. "What's that?"

Jeb lifted the bird carefully, folding the drooping wing into place, and removed the little tube.

"You fetched him anyway, didn't you, Jeb?"

"'Cause I had ter-see?"

"We won't have to kill it, will we, Jeb?"

"Reckon not. He don't seem to be sufferin' much uv any. Jes' shook up, as the feller says. Lucky he fell amongst friends. Let's see wot he's brought us-he's one of them carriers, son."

Raymond said nothing, but watched eagerly as Jeb, leisurely and without any excitement, opened the tiny receptacle and unrolled a piece of paper. The boy knew well enough what carrier pigeons were and he was eager to know the purport of that little roll of script. But even in his excitement there lingered in his mind the picture of that faithful little messenger, intent upon its errand, struck down by the ruthless bandit of the air. He was glad the hawk was dead.

"Let's hear wot he's got ter say fer himself, son. You jes' read it."

The paper was thin and about the size of a dollar bill; it had been folded lengthwise and then rolled up. It read:

"Come right away. Governor hurt. Serious. Can't leave. Will try to get to nearest village but am afraid to leave now. He fell and is bleeding bad. Think there's something else the matter, too. Spotty died or would send.


Raymond gazed for a moment at Jeb, then down at the dead hawk, then at the pigeon which Jeb still held, stroking it gently.

"It'll never be delivered now, son, 'cause nobuddy 'cept this here little feller knows whar he come frum nor whar he wuz goin'-do they, Pidge?"

"But somebody's dying," said Raymond.

"Sure enough, but we don't know who 'tis nor whar he is-nor whar his friends is neither. An' this here messenger here won't tell us-he's got his own troubles. That thar hawk done more mischief than he thought for."

For a few moments there was silence and Raymond gazed up into the trackless, darkening sky through which this urgent call for help had been borne. Where had it come from? For whom was it intended? Then he looked down at the limp body of the bird whose cruel, bloody work had snatched the last faint hope of succor from someone who lay dying.

"I-I'm glad you kil-fetched him, anyway--" said he.

The thought of those two unknown persons, the stricken one and his frightened companion, waiting all in vain for the help which that faithful messenger of the air should summon, and of that steadfast little emissary, on whom so much depended, fallen here into strange hands, sobered and yet agitated the boy, and he was silent in the utter helplessness of doing anything.

"Naow, if yer could ony tell whar yer wuz goin' or whar yer wuz comin' frum, Pidge, we'd be much obleeged," said Jeb; "but you wouldn't, would yer," he added, stroking the bird, "'n' I ain't much uv a hand at pickin' trails in th'air, bein' as I growed up on th'hard ground."

"Nobody can follow trails in the air," said Raymond by way of comforting Jeb. "Gee, nobody could do that. But it's terrible, isn't it?"

He looked up into the sky again as if he hoped it might still show some sign of path or trail, and as he did so a loud bark, a sort of harsh Haa-Haa, came through the growing darkness from across the lake, and reverberated in swelling chorus from the frowning heights roundabout. Then there was a long, plaintive bellow which died away as softly and as gradually as the day itself dies, and this again was followed, as it seemed, by the happy music of applauding hands, as if in acknowledgment of the long echoed refrain.

"Oh, they're here! They're here!" cried Raymond. "That was the Silver Fox call-and the Elks-and Garry's with them-he made that Beaver call to let me know--"

Just at that moment the dense brush across the lake parted and a boy, bareheaded and wearing a grey flannel shirt, emerged on the shore.

"Oh, Tom! It's Tom Slade!" cried Raymond, forgetting all else in his ecstasy. "Hello, Tom, you big-you big--" But he couldn't think of any epithet to fit the occasion.

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