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Tom Slade on the River By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 17574

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

For a few moments they stared at the wreck and said nothing.

"Maybe it was Kinney," suggested Doc, at last. "Do you remember about Kinney?"

"Come on," urged Tom.

Half reluctantly the others followed him, glancing back now and again till the tattered mass became a shadowy speck and faded away in the darkness.

"He started from somewhere above Albany," said Doc, "and he was never heard of again. I often heard my father speak about it and I read about it in that aviation book that Roy loaned me."

"He's going to loan it to me when he gets it back from you," said Connie; "he says you're a good bookkeeper."

"Put away your little hammer," laughed Garry.

"Some people in Poughkeepsie thought they heard the humming of the engine at night," said Doc, "and that's what made people think he had got past that point-but that's all they ever knew. Some thought he must have gone down in the river."

"How long ago was it?" Garry asked.

Tom plodded on silently. It was well known of Tom that he could not think of two things at once.

"Five or six years, I think," said Doc.

"That would be too long a time for the wreck, seeing the condition it's in," said Garry, "but anything less than that would be too short a time for the skeleton."

"Do you mean they were lost here at different times?" Connie asked.

"Looks that way to me."

"If there are buzzards up here a skeleton might look like that in a month or so," Connie suggested.

"There aren't any buzzards around here."

"Sure there are," said Doc. "Look at Buzzard's Bay-it's named for 'em."

"It's named for a man who had it wished on him," said Garry. "You might as well say that Pike's Peak was named after the pikers that go there."

"How long do you suppose that aeroplane's been there?"

"Five or six years, maybe," Doc said. "The frame'll be as good as that for ten years more. There's nothing more to rot."

"Well," said Garry, "it looks to my keen scout eye as if that wreck had been there for about six months and the skeleton for about six years."

"Maybe if you had tried shutting your keen scout eye and opening it in a hurry-- Hey, Tomasso?" teased Doc.

"Maybe they got here at the same time but the man lived for a while," Tom condescended to reply.

"You've got it just the wrong way round, my fraptious boy," said Doc. "The skeleton's been here longer, if anything."

"Did you see that hickory stick there-all worm-eaten?" Tom asked. "It had some carving on it. None of these trees are hickory trees."

"I saw it but I didn't notice the carving," said Doc, surprised.

"Didn't you notice there weren't any hickory trees anywhere around there?" Tom asked.

"No, I didn't-I'm a punk scout-I must be blind," said Doc.

"You're good on first-aid," said Tom, indifferently.

"How'd you know it was hickory?" Connie asked.

"Because I can tell hickory," said Tom, bluntly, "and it's being all worm-eaten proved it-kind of. That's the trouble with hickory."

They always had to make the best of Tom's answers.

"I don't know where he got the hickory stick," he said, as he pushed along through the underbrush, "but he didn't get it anywhere around here, that's sure."

"And he probably didn't sit down that same day and carve things on it, either," suggested Garry; "Tom, you're a wonder."

"He might have lived up here for two or three years after he fell," said Doc reflectively. "Gee, it starts you thinking, don't it?"

Connie shook his head. "It's a mystery, all right," said he.

The thought of the solitary man, disabled crippled, perhaps, living there on that lonely mountain after the terrible accident which had brought him there lent a new gruesomeness to their discoveries. And who but Tom Slade would have been able to keep an open mind and to see so clearly by the aid of trifling signs as to separate the two apparent catastrophes and see them as independent occurrences?

"Tomasso, you're the real scout," said Doc. "The rest of us are only imitations."

Tom said nothing. He was used to this kind of talk and was about as proof against such praise as a battleship is against a popgun. And just now he was thinking of other things. Yet if he could have looked into the future and seen there the extraordinary explanation of his discovery and known the strange adventures it would lead to, he might have paused, even on that all but hopeless errand of rescue, and looked again at those pathetic remains. But those things were to be reserved for another summer.

"Is there anything we can do? What do you suggest, Tom?" Garry asked, dropping his half flippant manner.

"I say, let's shout again," said Tom. "We must be nearly a mile farther on by now, and the brook's getting around to the east, too."

"Good and loud," said Connie.

"All together-now!"

Again their voices woke the mountain echoes. A sudden rustling of the underbrush told of some frightened wood creature. The brook rippled softly as before. There was no other sound, and they waited. Then, from somewhere far off came the faint answering of a human voice. It would never have been distinguishable save in that deathlike stillness and even there it sounded as if it might have come from another world. It seemed to be uttering the letter L in a kind of doleful monotony.

They paused a moment in a kind of awe, even after it had ceased.

"It's calling help," said Garry.

"I can go there now," said Tom. "The brook probably winds around that way, but we can cut across and get there quicker. We'll chop our way through here. Let him rest his lungs now-I can go right for a ways. I got to admit I was wrong."

In the dim light of the lantern Garry looked at Tom as he stood there, his heavy, stolid face scratched by the brambly thicket, his coarse shirt torn, his thick shock of hair down over his forehead-no more elated by triumph than he would have been discouraged by defeat, and as the brighter, more vivacious and attractive boy looked at him he was seized with a little twinge of remorse that he had made game of Tom's clumsy speech and sober ways.

"Got to admit you were wrong how-for goodness' sake?" he said, almost angrily. "Didn't you bring us here? Didn't you bring us all the way from Temple Camp to where we could hear that voice calling for help? Didn't you?"

"I said I could find the trees that had the stalking marks last summer," said Tom, "and I got to admit I was wrong, 'cause I couldn't."

"Who was it that wouldn't sit down and eat supper while somebody was dying?" demanded Doc. "There's a whole lot of good scouts, believe me, but there's only one Tom Slade!"

It was always the way-they made fun of him and lauded him by turns.

"There's a kind of trail here," said Tom, unmoved, "but it hasn't been used for a long time-see those spider webs across it? Lend me your axe, will you, mine is all dulled."

A hand-to-hand combat with more tangled underbrush, which they tore and chopped away, brought them to comparatively open land which must have been very high for they were surprised to see, far below, several twinkling specks of light which they thought to be at Temple Camp. It was the first open view they had had.

They called again, and again the voice answered, clearly audible now, crying, "Help help!" and something more which the boys could not understand. They called, telling the speaker not to come in search of them, that they would come to him, and to answer them for guidance when they called.

They plunged into more thicket, tearing it aside with a will, sometimes going astray, then pausing to listen for the guiding voice, and pushing on again through the labyrinth.

After a little they fell into a path and then could hear the brook rushing over stones not far distant, and knew that it must verge to the east as Tom had said and that the path did lead to it. It would have been a long journey following the stream.

Soon a greater intercourse of speech was possible and they called cheerily that they were scouts and for the waiter to cheer up for they would soon be with him.

Presently, along the path they could hear the sound of footsteps. Tom, who was leading the way, raised his lantern and just beyond the radius of its flickering light they could see a dark figure hurrying toward them; then a face, greatly distraught in the moonlight, and Tom stopped, bewildered. As the stranger grasped his arm he held the light close to the haggard, wild-eyed face.

"Hello," he said, "I-I guess I know you. Let go-what's the matter? Weren't you at Temple Camp last summer?"

The stranger, a young fellow of perhaps eighteen, shook his head.

"With one of the troops from--?"

"No," said the young man.

"Hmn," said Tom, still holding the lantern up; "I though

t--Don't you fellows remember him?"

Connie shook his head; Garry also.

"Never saw him in my life," said Doc.

"Hmn," said Tom. "Maybe I--just for a minute I thought--I guess you fellows are right."

The stranger was dressed in the regulation camping outfit-the kind of costume usually seen on dummies in the windows of sporting goods stores in the spring, with a spick and span tent in the background, a model lunch basket near by and a canoe crowded in. His nobby outfit was very much the worse for wear, however, and he looked about as fresh as the immaculate Phoebe Snow would look after a real railroad journey.

"Maybe I can be rescued now," he said imploringly, clinging to Tom. "I saw the lights way down there. There was only one till tonight and tonight I counted seven-little bits of ones. I tried to get to them, but I got lost. You can't go to them. It looks as if you can, but you can't. They're just as far away, no matter how far you go-they get farther and farther. Nobody can ever get away from here. Are you afraid of dead people?"

"No," said Doc. "We're scouts. Is--"

"If a person looks very different, then he's dead, isn't he?"

"Come on," said Doc. "We'll see."

"We'll never get off this hill; I've tried every way--"

"Oh, yes, we will," spoke up Garry, putting his arm over the boy's shoulder and urging him along.

They could see that he was hardly rational, and Garry, better than any of the others, knew how to handle him.

"It's terrible without a light," he said; "I spilled all the oil-I'm glad you've got a light."

"What's your name?" Garry asked.

"Jeffrey Waring-come on, I'll show you the place." He shuddered as he spoke.

Once more Tom held his lantern up to the white, distracted face.

"He was never at camp," laughed Doc.

"Hmn," said Tom, apparently but half convinced.

A few steps brought them to a little clearing where stood a rough shack. Outside it, fastened against a tree, was a vegetable crate with bars nailed across it-the silent evidence of departed pets. Several fishing rods lay against a tree. Close by was a makeshift fireplace. On a rough bunk inside the shack lay a man, no longer young, with iron gray hair. His eyes were open and staring and one seemed larger than the other. Doc felt his pulse and found that he was living.

"He fell on the rocks and hurt his arm-I think it's broken," said Jeffrey. "It bled and I bandaged it."

Doc raised the bandaged arm and it fell heavily. Removing the bandage carefully he saw that the cut itself was not dangerous, but from first-aid studies he thought the man was suffering from an apoplectic stroke or something of that nature. He wondered if the injury to the arm had not been incidental to the man's seizure and sudden fall. People sometimes lingered in an unconscious condition for days, he knew. It was hardly a case for first-aid, but it was certainly a case for skill and resource, for whatever happened the patient, dead or living, would have to be taken away from this mountain camp.

With Garry's help, he raised the victim into a recumbent posture, piling everything available under the head while Connie hurried back and forth to the brook, bringing wet applications for the head and neck.

There was no sign of returning consciousness and the question was how to get the patient away down to Temple Camp where medical aid might be had, and where any contingency might be best handled.

The four boys, greatly hampered in their discussion by Jeffrey, whose long vigil had brought him to the verge of collapse, decided that it would be quite useless to signal for help, since it would mean another expedition with most of the difficulties of their own, even if attempted after daybreak.

So they decided to wait for dawn, which happily would come soon, and with the first sign of it to send a smudge signal that they were coming and to have a doctor at camp. They believed that in the daylight they could carry the patient back over the same path which they had so laboriously opened and though delay was irksome this plan seemed the only feasible one to follow.

Despite their weariness none could sleep, so they kindled a little fire and sat about it chatting while they counted time, impatiently waiting for the first streak of daylight.

It was then that they learned from the overwrought boy something of his history, but they got it piecemeal and had to patch together as best they could his rather disjointed talk.

"Is he your father?" Doc asked.

"No, he's my uncle," said Jeffrey. "He isn't a real governor; I only call him that. He's eccentric-know what that is? If we hadn't come trout fishing it would have been all right. I could have sent my pigeons from the boat-I've got a regular coop there-it cost thirty dollars."

"But you like the stalking, don't you?" Connie asked.

"Yes, but I can't be quiet enough-I can't sneak up to them. You have to be quiet and stealthy when you stalk."

They made out that Mr. Waring was something of a sportsman and was wealthy and eccentric.

"We live in a big house in Vale Centre," Jeffrey told them, "and we have fountains and I have twenty-seven pigeons and two dogs-and I can have anything I want except an automobile. I can't have an automobile because I'm nervous."

"You don't mean you live near Edgevale Village, down the Hudson?" Garry asked in surprise. "I live about two miles from the Centre myself."

"We live in a house that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, but I like our boat best. If there's a war we're going to give it to the government, but if there isn't any war it's going to be mine some day."

It appeared that Jeffrey and his uncle lived alone, save for the servants, and had cruised up the Hudson to Catskill Landing in their boat for the trout fishing of which the old gentleman was fond. How the pair had happened to penetrate to this isolated spot was not quite clear, but the boys gathered that it had been a favorite haunt of Mr. Waring's youthful days.

"He told me he'd bring me and show me," said Jeffrey, "and that we'd stay here and catch fish and I could send my pigeons back to James-he's our chauffeur-and I'd get better so's I could remember things better. Do you think you get better living in the woods?"

"Surest thing you know," said Garry.

The picture of the kindly old gentleman, bringing his none too robust nephew to this lonely spot, which lingered in his memory perhaps as the scene of woodland sports of his own boyhood, touched the four boys and seemed to bring them in closer sympathy with the figure that lay prone and motionless within the little shack.

"I can have anything I want," Jeffrey told them again. "Spotty cost fifty dollars, but he died. That's because I was sick and my brain didn't work good. My other carrier cost thirty dollars and I sent him to James to tell him the governor was hurt."

The scouts told him the fate of the pigeon and of how they had received the message.

"But we'll never get away from here," Jeffrey said hopelessly. "We'll never find our way back."

With the first light of dawn Garry increased the dying blaze and sent the smudge signal. Piling damp leaves on the fire he caused a straight thin column of thick smoke to rise high into the air and by inverting the deserted pigeon coop over this, and removing and replacing it as the Morse code required, he imprinted against the vast gray dawn the words


They knew well enough that some one in the camp would keep sleepless vigil, watching for just such a message. Three times the words were spelled out in smoke to make sure that they would be caught and understood.

To Jeffrey, whose only resource had been his pet pigeon and who had been unnerved by his inability to find his way from the hill, the sending of this message and the quiet orderly preparations for departure which followed were the cause of gaping amazement. He clung to Garry, as the others got his uncle onto the stretcher, and walked along at his side, plying him with excited questions. Sometimes it was necessary for him to take a corner while one of the scouts went ahead to open a way and then his panic was pitiable.

It did not seem at all peculiar to the others that he should single out Garry and cling to him, for everybody fell for Garry almost at first sight. What they did notice was that he appeared to shun Tom, who, indeed, was entitled to all his gratitude and was the hero of the occasion if anyone was.

But then he was a queer boy anyway, and thoroughly shaken up by his experience.

As for Garry, the sudden hit which he had apparently made quite amused him.

"You should worry," he said, laughingly to Tom.

And Tom shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

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