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   Chapter 5 ADVENTURE OF THE RESCUE PARTY

Tom Slade on the River By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 9611

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"I bet there are real ghosts in here," said Garry, as they climbed the slope which became more difficult as they went along.

"Regular ones, hey?" said Doc.

"Sure, the good old-fashioned kind."

"No peek-a-boo ghosts," said Garry.

"Well, you can knock ghosts all you want to," said Connie, "but I always found them white."

"Slap him on the wrist, will you!" called Doc. "Believe me, this is some impenetrable wilderness!"

"How?"

"Impenetrable wilderness-reduced to a common denominator, thick woods."

Withal their bantering talk, it seemed indeed as if the woods might be haunted, for with almost every step they took some crackling or rustling sound could be heard, emphasized by the stillness. Now and again they paused to listen to a light patter growing fainter and fainter, or a sudden noise as of some startled denizen of the wood seeking a new shelter. Ghostly shadows flitted here and there in the moonlight; and the night breeze, soughing among the tree tops, wafted to the boys a murmuring as of some living thing whose elusive tones now and again counterfeited the human voice in seeming pain or fear.

The voices of the boys sounded crystal clear in the solemn stillness. Once they paused, trying to locate an owl which seemed to be shrieking its complaint at this intrusion of its domain. Again they stopped to listen to the distant sound of falling water.

"That's the brook, I guess," said Tom.

Their approach to it seemed to sober the others, realizing as they did that effort and resourcefulness were now imperative, and mindful, too, though scarcely hopeful, that these might bring them face to face with a tragic scene.

"Pretty tough, being up here all alone with somebody dying," said Doc.

"You said something," answered Garry.

They were entering an area of underbrush, where the trail ceased or was completely obscured, so that there wasn't even a ghost of it, as Doc remarked. But the sound of the water guided them now and they worked their way through such a dense maze of jungle as they had never expected to encounter outside the tropics.

Tom, going ahead, tore the tangled growth away, or parted it enough to squeeze through, the others following and carrying the stretcher and first-aid case with greatest difficulty.

"How long is this surging thoroughfare, I wonder," asked Garry.

"Don't know," said Tom. "I don't seem to have my bearings at all."

After a little while they emerged, scratched and dishevelled, at the brook which tumbled over its pebbly bed in its devious path downward.

"We're pretty high up, do you know that?" Doc observed.

"I don't see as there's much use hunting for marked trees," Tom said. "I must have come another way before. I don't know where we're at. What d'you say we all shout together?"

This they did and the sound of their upraised voices reverberated in the dense woods and shocked the still night, but no answering sound could be heard save only the rippling of the brook.

"We stand about as much chance as a snowball in a blast furnace," said Garry.

"The thing to do," said Tom, ignoring him, "is to follow this brook, somebody on each side, and look for a trail. If there's anybody here they'll be upstream; it's too steep from here down. And one thing sure-they'd have to have water. Lucky the moon's out, but I wish we had two lanterns."

"We'll be lucky if the oil in this one lasts," Doc put in.

Following the stream was difficult enough, but it was easier than the forest they had just come through and they picked their way along its edge, Tom and Garry on one bank and Doc and Connie on the other.

"I don't believe anyone's been in this place in a thousand years; that's the way it looks to me," said Doc.

"I'd say at least three thousand," said Garry.

Tom paid no attention. He had paused and was holding his lantern over the stream.

"Those four stones are in a pretty straight line," he said. "Would you say that was a ford?"

"Looks more like a Buick to me," said Garry, but he added, "They are in a pretty straight line. I guess it's a flivver, all right."

"Look on that side," said Tom, to the others. "Do you see anything over there?"

He was looking carefully along the edge; of the water when Doc called suddenly,

"Come over here with your light, quick!"

Tom and Garry crossed, stepping from stone to stone, and presently all four were kneeling and examining in the lantern light one of those commonplace things which sometimes send a thrill over the discoverer-a human footprint. There upon that lonesome mountain, surrounded by the all but impenetrable forest, was that simple, half-obliterated but unmistakable token of a human presence. Tom thought he knew now how Robinson Crusoe felt when he found the footprint in the sand.

The exposed roots of a tree formed ridges in the hard bank, where footprints seemed quite impossible of detection, and it was in vain that the boys sought for others. Yet here was this one, and so plain as to show the criss-cross markings of a new sole.

"It's from a rubber boot," said Garry.

"There ought to be some signs of others even if they're not as clear as this one," said Tom. "Maybe whoever was wearing that boot slipped off one of those stones and got it wet. That's why it printed, probably. Anyway, somebody crossed here and they were going up that way, that's sure."

They stood staring at the footprint, thoroughly sobered by its discovery. They had penetrated into this rugged mountain in the hope of finding some one, but the remoteness and wildness of the place had grown upon them and the whole chaotic scene seemed so ill-associated with the presence of a human being that now that they had actually found this silent token it almost shocked them.

PRESENTLY ALL FOUR WERE EXAMINING-A HUMAN FOOTPRINT.

"Maybe the wind was wrong before," said Tom. "What d'you say we call again-all together? There don't seem to be any path leading anywhere."

They formed their hands into megaphones, calling loud and long, but there was no answer save a long drawn out echo.

"Again," said Tom, "and louder."

Once more their voices rose in such stentorian chorus that it left them breathless and Connie's head was throbbing as from a blow.

"Hark!" said Doc. "Shhh."

From somewhere far off came a sound, thin and spent with the distance, which died away and seemed to mingle with the voice of the breeze; then absolute silence.

"Did you hear that?"

"Nothing but a tree-toad," said Garry.

They waited a minute to give the answering call a rest, if indeed it came from human lips, then raised their voices once again in a long Helloo.

"Hear it?" whispered Connie. "It's over there to the east. That's no tree-toad."

Whatever the sound was, the distance was far too great for the sense of any call to be understood. The voice was impersonal, vague, having scarce more substance than a dream, but it thrilled the four boys and made them feel as if the living spirit of that footprint at their feet was calling to them out of the darkness.

"Even still I think it must be near the stream though it sounds way off there," Tom pointed; "we might head straight for the sound or we might follow the stream up. It may go in that direction up a ways."

They decided to trust to the brook's guidance and to the probability of its verging in the direction of the sound. It wound its way through intertwined and over-arching thickets where they were forced to use their belt-axes to chop their way through. Now and again they called as they made their difficult way, challenged almost at every step by obstructions. But they heard no answering voice.

After a while the path became less difficult; the very stream seemed to breathe easier as it flowed through a comparatively open stretch, and the four boys, torn and panting, plodded along, grateful for the relief.

"What's that?" said Garry. "Look, do you see a streak of white way ahead-just between those trees?"

"Yes," panted Connie. "It's a tent, I guess-thank goodness."

"Let's call again," said Tom.

There was no answer and they plodded on, stooping under low-hanging or broken branches, stepping cautiously over wet stones and picking their way over great masses of jagged rock. Never before had they beheld a scene of such wild confusion and desolation.

"Wait a minute," said Tom, turning back where he stood upon a great rock and holding his lantern above a crevice. "I thought I saw something white down there."

They gathered about him and looked down into a fissure at a sight which unnerved them all, scouts though they were. For there, wedged between the two converging walls of rock and plainly visible in the moonlight was a skeleton, the few brown stringing remnants depending from it unrecognizable as clothing.

Tom reached down and touched it with his belt-axe, and it collapsed and fell rattling into the bed of the cleft. He held his lantern low for a moment and gazed down into the crevice.

"This is some spooky place, believe me," shivered Connie. "Who do you suppose it was?"

A little farther on they came upon something which apparently explained the presence of the skeleton. As they neared the spot where they had seen what they thought to be a tent among the trees, they stopped aghast at seeing among the branches of several elms that most pathetic and complete of all wrecks, the tattered, twisted remnants of a great aeroplane. A few silken shreds were blowing about the broken frame and beating against the network of disordered wires and splintered wood.

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