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   Chapter 4 THE OLD TRAIL

Tom Slade on the River By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 10832

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Several things more or less firmly fixed in his mind had impelled Tom Slade to challenge that wooded hill the dense summit of which was visible by day from Temple Camp.

He knew that high land is always selected for despatching carrier pigeons; a certain book on stalking which he had read contained a chapter on this fascinating and often useful sport and he knew that in a general sort of way there was a connection between carrier pigeons and stalking; one suggested the other-to him, at least. He knew for a certainty that the message had been written on the unprinted part of a stalking blank and he knew also that on the slope of the hill he had seen chalk marks on the trees the previous summer. Tom seldom forgot anything.

All these facts, whether significant or not, were indelibly impressed upon his serious mind, and to him they seemed to bear relation to each other. He believed that the pigeon had been flying homeward, to some town or city not far distant, where the sender perhaps lived and he believed that the pigeon's use in this emergency had been the happy thought of some person who had taken the bird to the hill only to use for sport. He had no doubt that somewhere in the wilderness of these Catskill hills was a camp where the victim of accident lay, but the weak point was that he was seeking a needle in a haystack.

"I wish we'd brought along the fog horn from the boat," he said, as they made their way across the open country below the hill; "we could have made a lot of noise with it up there; you can hear a long way in the woods, and it might have helped us to find the place."

"If the place is up there," said Doc Carson.

"There's a trail," said Tom, "that runs about halfway up but it peters out at a brook and you can't find any from there on."

"If we could find the trees where you saw the marks last summer," said Connie Bennet, "we might get next to some clue there."

"I can usually find a place where I've been before," said Tom.

"What's the matter with following the brook when we get to it?" said Garry. "If there's anyone camping there they'd have to be near water."

"Good idea," said Doc.

"That settles one thing I was trying to dope out," said Tom. "Why should people come as far as that just to stalk?"

"Maybe they're scouts, camping."

"They'd have smudged up the whole sky with signals," said Tom.

"Maybe it's someone up there hunting."

"Only it isn't the season," laughed Garry. "No sooner said than stung, as Roy would say. Gee, I wish he was along!"

"Same here," said Doc.

"They're probably there fishing," said Tom. "The stalking business is a side issue, most likely."

"That's what the little brook whispers to us," said Doc.

They all laughed except Tom. He was not much on laughing, though Roy could usually reach him.

The woods began abruptly at the foot of the hill and they skirted its edge for a little way holding their lantern to the ground so as to find the trail. But no sign of path revealed itself. Twice they fancied they could see, or sense, as Jeb would have said, an opening into the dense woods and the faintest suggestion of a trail but it petered out in both cases-or perhaps it was imaginary.

"Let's try what Jeb calls lassooing it," said Garry.

He retreated through the open field to a lone tree which stood gaunt and spectral in the night like a sentinel on guard before that vast woodland army. Climbing up the tree, he called to Tom:

"Walk along the edge now and hold your lantern low."

Tom skirted the wood's edge, swinging his light this way and that as Garry called to him. The idea of trying to discover the trail by taking a distant and elevated view was a good one, but the tree was either too near or too far or the light was too dim, and the four scouts knew not what to do next.

"Climb up a little higher," called Doc. "They say that when you're up in an aeroplane you can see all sorts of paths that people below never knew about. I read that in an aviation magazine."

"The Fly-paper, hey?" ventured Connie. "Look out for rotten branches, Garry."

Garry wriggled his way up among the small branches, as far as he dared, while Tom moved about at the wood's edge holding the lantern here and there.

"Nothing doing," said Garry, coming down.

"We're up against it, for a fact," said Doc.

"That's just what we're not," retorted Connie. "It seems we're nowhere near it."

"Gee-whillager!" cried Garry as he scrambled down the tree trunk. "Sling me over the peroxide, will you!"

"What's the matter?" asked Doc, interested at once.

"I've got a scratch. What Pee-wee would call an artificial abrasion."

"Superficial?" laughed Doc, pouring peroxide on a pretty deep scratch on Garry's wrist.

"See there?" said Garry. "Feel. It's sticking out from the trunk."

As Tom held his lantern a small, rusty projection of iron was visible on the trunk of the tree about five feet from the ground.

"Is it a nail?" asked Connie.

"Well-what-do-you-know-about-that?" said Garry. "It's what's left of a hook; the tree has grown out all around it, don't you see?"

It was indeed the rusty remnant of what had once been a hook but the growing trunk had encased all except the end of it and the screws and plate that fastened it were hidden somewhere within the tree.

"That tree has grown about an inch and a half thicker all the way around since

the hook was fastened to it," said Doc.

"It's an elm, isn't it?" Garry said.

Tom thought a minute. "Elms, oaks," he mused, "that means about ten or twelve years ago."

"There are only two reasons why people put hooks into trees," said Connie, after a moment's silence; "for hammocks and to fasten horses to. Nix on the hammocks here," he added.

"What I was thinking about," said Tom, "is that if somebody used to tie a horse here it must have been so's they could go into the woods. The trail goes as far up as the brook. Maybe they used to tie their horses here and go fishing. There ought to be a trail from this tree to where the trail begins in the woods."

"Probably there was-twelve years ago," said Doc, dryly.

"The ground where a trail was is never just the same as where one wasn't," said Tom, with a clumsy phraseology that was characteristic of him. "It leaves a scar-like. When they started the Panama Canal they found a trail that was used in the Fifteenth Century-an aviator found it."

"Well, then," said Garry, cheerfully, "I'll aviate to the top of this tree again and take a squint straight down."

"Shut your eyes and keep them shut," Tom called up to him; "keep them shut till I tell you."

"Wait till Tom says peek-a-boo!" called Connie.

Tom gathered some twigs that were none too dry, and pouring a little kerosene over them, kindled a small fire about six feet from the tree.

"Can you see down here all right?"

"Not with my eyes shut," Garry answered.

"Well, open them," said Tom, "and see if the leaves keep you from seeing."

"What he means," called Doc, "is, have you an unobstructed view?"

There was always this tendency to make fun of Tom's soberness.

"Wait till I look in my pocket," called Garry. "Sure, I've got one."

"Shut your eyes again and keep them shut," commanded Tom.

"I have did it," came from above.

With a couple of sticks which he manipulated like Chinese chopsticks, Tom moved the fire a little to a spot which seemed to suit him better, then retreated with his lantern to the wood's edge.

"Now," he called; "quick, what do you see? Quick!" he shouted. "You can't do it at all unless you do it quick!"

"To your left!" shouted Garry. "Down that way-farther-farther still-go on-more. Hurry up! Just a-there you are!"

The boys ran to the spot where Tom stood and a few swings of the lantern showed an unmistakable something-certainly not a path-hardly a trail-but a way of lesser resistance, as one might say, into the dense wood interior.

"Come on!" said Tom. "I hope the kerosene holds out-I dumped out a lot of it."

Instinctively, they fell back for him to lead the way and scarcely a tree but he paused to consider whether he should pass to the left or the right of it.

"What did you see?" Connie asked of Garry.

"I couldn't tell you," said Garry, still amazed at his own experience, "I don't know as I saw anything; I suppose I sensed it, as Jeb would say. It was kind of like a little dirty green line from the tree and it kept fading away the longer I had my eyes open. It wasn't exactly a line, either," he corrected; "it was-oh, I don't know what it was."

"It was a ghost," said Tom.

"That's a good name for it," conceded Garry.

"It's the right name for it," said Tom, with that blunt outspokenness which had a savor of reprimand but which the boys usually took in good part.

"That's just about what I'd say it was," Garry agreed.

"That's what you ought to say it was," said Tom, "because that's what it was."

Doc winked at Garry, and Connie smiled.

"We get you, Steven," he said to Tom.

"Even before there were any flying machines, scouts in Africa knew about trail ghosts," Tom said. "They're all over, only you can't see them-except in special ways-like this. You can only see them for about twenty seconds when you open your eyes. If I'd have told you to look cross-eyed you could have seen it better."

"Wouldn't that have been a sight for mother's boy!" said Garry. "Swinging on a thin branch on the top of a tree and looking cross-eyed at a ghost! I'd have had that Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland beaten a mile."

"Captain Crawford who died," said Tom, "picked up a lot of them. The higher up you are the better. In an aeroplane you needn't even shut your eyes."

"Well, truth is stranger than friction, as Roy says," said Connie; "this trail we're on now is no ghost, anyway-hey, Tomasso?"

Tom did not answer.

"I got a splinter in my finger, too," said Garry.

"Must have been scratching your head," said Connie.

"That's what I get from seein' things," said Garry.

"We'll string the life out of Pee-wee, hey?" said Doc. "Tell him we saw a ghost--"

"We did," Tom insisted.

"You mean Garry did," said Doc. "Of course, we have to take his word for it."

"Buffalo Bill saw them, too," said Tom, plodding on.

"Not Bill Cody!" ejaculated Doc, winking at Garry.

"Yes," said Tom.

"Is it possible?" said Doc, "Where'd you read that-in the Fly-paper?"

"There's a trail ghost a hundred miles long out in Utah that nobody on the ground ever saw. Curtis followed it in his biplane," said Tom.

"Fancy that!" said Doc.

Tom plodded on ahead of them, in his usual stolid manner. "I don't say you can always do it," he said; "it's kind of-something-there's a long word-sike--"

"Psychological?" said Doc. "We get you, Tomasso."

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