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Tom Slade on the River By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 21471

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The salesman was busy waiting on two boys, both scouts, one of whom was evidently buying a new outfit. Tom expressed surprise at this, since the uniform which he was wearing seemed almost new.

"I suppose the new one is for Sundays," said Artie.

"We should worry," said Roy.

The boy who was doing the purchasing was of a trim physique, with very red hair and he had as many freckles upon his cheerful countenance as there are stars in the quiet sky. There was much joking, which the Bridgeboro boys could not hear, between these boys and the salesman, and while waiting for the purchase to be wrapped the three formed a little laughing group.

The freckled boy, in particular, interested the waiting scouts who were attracted by his trim figure, his jaunty manner and the shiny redness of his rather curly hair.

"Well, I wish you luck," said the salesman as they left him; "it's some stunt!"

As the two passed the bench where the Bridgeboro boys were sitting, the red-headed boy turned and gave them the scout salute with a merry smile.

"They live around here?" Artie asked.

"No," said the salesman, inspecting Tom's scout certificate to be sure that he was entitled to buy the official suit. "They're down from their camp up Lake Champlain. Quite a pair, aren't they?"

Artie felt that he would like to ask more about them, for he was sure they had been telling "their adventures," as Pee-wee would have said, to the salesman. But scouts are not officious, and these particular scouts believed somewhat in Roy's advice for winning the business badge; viz., Mind your own business.

The salesman, however, did vouchsafe them one little morsel of information while he was fitting Tom.

"They've got a great scheme on foot, those kids," said he.

"I think I know what it is," said Tom. "They're going to give a scout suit to a new fellow for a surprise."

"Sherlock Nobody Holmes again," jeered Roy.

The man only laughed. "You scout fellows don't seem to know what fear is, do you?" he added, pleasantly.

"We wouldn't know it if we met it in the street," said Roy, not, however, understanding the significance of the remark. "Tomasso's the courageousest-look out he don't bite you! We've been feeding him meat today."

Tom loosened up and decided he would get a sweater, too, and the joint deliberation over a suitable color put an end to their immediate thought of the stranger scouts.

"A kind of a blackish white would be good," said Roy.

Artie suggested a pale lavender. The salesman was greatly amused at their talk, but Tom was somewhat nettled and embarrassed, and he was glad when the completion of the business put an end to their nonsense.

On the way back to the boats and afterwards they speculated somewhat about the two scouts. There was no particular reason for their doing so except that the red-headed boy lingered in their minds with his trim appearance and his vivacious manner. Later, they recalled his jaunty, careless air, his friendly salute and his winning smile, almost with a shudder.

"We saw the kind of scout that Raymond believes in," taunted Roy, upon their return to the boats. "He had on the full uniform, belt-axe, whistle, bugle, gaiters, hat--"

"That's right," said Mr. Ellsworth, winking at Raymond. "That's what they're for-to be worn."

"There was only one thing wrong with him," Roy concluded.

"What?" demanded Raymond, quite boldly for him.

"He was made of wood," said Roy.

"Well, then, let him serve as a terrible example," laughed the scoutmaster. "I dare say there are a few others like him."

"Did he have any invisible badges on?" Doc asked slyly.

"Doesn't Tomasso look too sweet for anything?" teased Roy.

"Cut it out," grumbled Tom. "It's time to get supper."

They stayed at their mooring that night and lolled about on the cabin roof of the Honor Scout while Harry Stanton strummed his ukulele and those who knew the soft music of the far-off Pacific isles hummed the airs which seem nowhere so melodious as on the water. A group of small boys from the unkempt waterside section caught the strains and shuffled down, grimy and ragged, to sprawl upon the piles of lumber on the wharf, staring with wide open eyes, and listening. To them it was like a circus come to town. To the scouts it was a new kind of camp fire.

In the morning they were gone, doubtless leaving a refreshing memory with the youthful denizens of that squalid neighborhood.

The Hudson above Troy is no longer of majestic beauty and the voyagers were not sorry for the novelty which presented when they entered the canal. At least, they did not have to "squint" for hidden perils, though the locks played sorry havoc with the beautiful enameled freeboard of the Honor Scout.

"Cruising in a canal is about as exciting as a hike on Broadway," commented Roy.

"You said something," agreed Connie.

It was not long, indeed, before the novelty began to wear off, and they were one and all glad when the boats emerged into the broad expanse of Lake Champlain.

"Lake Champlain," said Roy, contemplating it in his favorite attitude, sitting on the cabin roof with his hands clasped about his updrawn knees; "Lake Champlain rises early in the morning, takes a northerly course, and flows into the sink. Correct, be seated, Master Blakeley."

They could accelerate their speed now and the Good Turn had her work cut out for her keeping up, even with the Honor Scout's motor throttled down to half-speed.

"This is historic territory," said Mr. Ellsworth. "Almost every rock has its tale to tell of the bloody French and Indian War--"

"I hope they won't tell them," said Roy. "School's closed."

But for all that he was interested as "our beloved scoutmaster" recalled some of the stirring events which occurred along the rugged, historic shores between which they were passing. They paused to see the ruins of the old Revolutionary fort at Crown Point, and the restored fort at Ticonderoga, with its underground passage to the shore.

The first night of their cruise through the lake they tied up at Port Henry and early in the morning sallied forth into the town for oil, gasoline and supplies, replenishing their depleted stock sufficiently for the fifty mile run up to Plattsburg.

"Believe me, this is some hike," said Roy.

"I dare say it looks about the same," mused Mr. Ellsworth, glancing about at the wild shore, "as it did when Champlain sailed through it with his Indian guides--"

"That was sumpty-sump years ago," said Artie Van Arlen, "you have him in the third grade."

"Maybe he stopped at Port Henry for gasoline," suggested Roy.

"I hope he didn't have to pay twenty-three cents for it," said Connie.

For about fifteen miles above Port Henry the lake is comparatively narrow, then it opens up to a breadth of ten miles or more, becoming a veritable inland-sea, with the rolling hills of Vermont reaching far eastward and merging in the distance with the lofty Green Mountains.

About ten miles above Port Henry, and at the narrowest part of the lake's narrow stretch, there rises upon the New York side an extent of precipitous and rugged height known as the Split Rock Mountain. On the landward side the slope from the mountain is easy enough, but toward the lake this irregular eminence presents a steep surface interspersed with woody patches and gray rock. Nestling under this forbidding height is a narrow area of marshy woodland between it and the shore.

It is related that in the olden days a Mohawk warrior, being pursued and finding himself upon this dizzy summit without an arrow to his bow, tried to scramble down and losing his foothold was precipitated against trees and over rocks and his mangled body became a prey to vultures in the wooded swamp below. There are guides about that historic water who can point you where his skeleton and tomahawk were found-if you are disposed to venture within that tangled morass.

As the little flotilla approached this spot, Tom who was steering the smaller boat noticed a green canoe drawn up at the wood's edge, and he called to Roy, sprawling on the cabin of the Honor Scout, to look.

"It's a canoe all right, ain't it?" he called.

"Sure it is," answered Roy.

"It's the same color as the woods, that's why you can't see it plainer," said Will Bronson, looking through the field glass.

Scarcely had he spoken when two scouts emerged at the shore and busied themselves at the canoe for a moment or two.

"Why, that's the red-headed fellow we saw in Albany!" said Artie, who had taken the glass. "I can see him plain."

"Sure it is," added Roy. "You can recognize him without the glass."

The scouts on the larger boat passed the glass from one to another, though most of them could distinguish the boy without it.

"His hair is as red as a brick, isn't it?" said Mr. Ellsworth.

"That's him, all right," said Tom, ungrammatically, from the other boat.

They were almost abreast of the spot when the two boys disappeared in the woods. Roy had meant to hail them and perhaps would still have done so but for the fact that the freckled scout presently reappeared alone climbing up the precipitous slope.

"You don't suppose he's going to try to climb that, do you?" Mr. Ellsworth queried as he watched.

"Looks that way," said Connie.

"Wonder where the other fellow is."

The other scout did not appear, and they watched the agile form as it scrambled up the almost sheer face of the mountain. The sunlight was falling upon the dull face of rock and touching the sparse vegetation with its bright glow, and they recognized the boy clearly now, even to his red hair which shone when it caught the rays of the sun.

"Well-that's-some stunt!" exclaimed Garry, in amazement. "Do you suppose their camp is up there?"

"They ought to call themselves the Eagles, if it is," said Roy.

"Watch him," called Tom from the other boat.

The eyes of the whole troop were upon the nimble figure as it worked its way upward, now scrambling, now climbing among trees, now going zigzag over a precipitous area.


"Some monkey, hey?" called Garry, to the boys in the smaller boat, where Harry Stanton watched, fascinated.

"Some scout, all right," one of the O'Connor boys called back.

"That's a most amazing feat," said the scoutmaster, watching with the glass.

Soon the agile form, verging to right or left to follow a path of less resistance and sometimes pausing to use his brains as a scout should, had reached a little clump of freakish trees, growing out of rock, and for a few moments he was hidden from the distan

t watchers.

They had shut off the power of both boats and lay drifting. A scout is brother to every other scout, and I dare say the whole party took a pride in the scout who dared attempt so hazardous an undertaking.

"I could see it in his face," Tom said.

"Sherlock Nobody Holmes again," called Roy from the other boat.

Presently, the scrambling figure emerged upon the bare surface above, wriggling and bracing itself on what seemed to be mere points of rock. A few yards more and he would be safe upon the wooded summit.

"Don't shout!" said Mr. Ellsworth, anticipating an impulse on Roy's part. "You might rattle him. Wait till he's out of danger."

Now he had reached the edge of the woods which covered the summit and extended somewhat down the precipitous side, and as he disappeared among the trees the scouts on the lake sent up a lusty cheer.

Scarcely had the echo of their shout died away when Roy jumped to his feet.

"Look!" he cried.

Following his pointing finger, the whole troop stood aghast in utter horror as they saw the limp and sprawling figure of the freckled scout go tumbling headlong over tree and rock down the rugged precipice. Harry Stanton gasped and almost fainted away. Pee-wee grasped the rail, white as a sheet.

The figure fell against a crooked tree, the limp arms of the apparently dead or unconscious boy making no effort to grasp it, then tumbled headlong from the ledge and fell with a sickening impact upon the jagged rocks below. There it paused for a second, then fell again like a dead weight, over sheer walls of rock. Once again it paused against some obstacle and Mr. Ellsworth, watching with the glass, could see the neck hanging limp, the head far back in a ghastly, unnatural attitude. The boy was evidently quite dead. Again the body fell, the loose arms and limbs sprawling this way and that until it was precipitated over the edge of the lowest rocky wall and the dreadful sight was ended by its disappearance into the swampy woods below.

"He must have lost his foothold," whispered Connie.

"It's-it's terrible," breathed little Raymond, almost in a panic.

"Get the oars," said Mr. Ellsworth, quietly. "We'll row ashore. Cast the anchor," he called. "We may be able to get the body. That's about all we can do, I'm afraid. He probably lost his life with the first impact. He was dead long before he reached the bottom."

There was not a scout among them but was sobered by the dreadful thing; Harry Stanton had lost his nerve entirely; and it was a solemn little group that scrambled into the Honor Scout's skiff and rowed for shore. Garry Everson, who was a better swimmer than any member of the Bridgeboro troop, had already thrown off his outer clothing and was well toward shore. Others, for whom there was not room in the skiff, followed swimming, until only Harry Stanton, Raymond, and Westy Martin whom Mr. Ellsworth had asked to remain with them, were left on the smaller boat.

"It's worse than that hill near camp," Garry called to the boys in the approaching boat. "It's a regular everglades."

They found the place a veritable maze of tangled swamp, with a spongy, uncertain foothold. In toward the hill the land was firmer but at close range and without an open view it was impossible to determine where the body had fallen.

"Can you point out about where it was?" called Roy, from the shore.

Westy pointed as best he could and the shore party, spreading, began a systematic search of the spot.

"Is this the place?" said Doc who, as a matter of general precaution, had his first-aid case slung over his shoulder. He was standing on the brink of a black pool, which they thought to be right under the spot where the body had fallen.

"Wait till I see how deep it is," said Garry, wading in. He was soon beyond his depth and swimming. "If he fell in there we'll never get him," he said, emerging with black slime dripping from him.

"Maybe he caught in the branches of some of those trees," suggested Connie.

It was the signal for several scouts to scramble up among the knotty branches of the trees in toward the precipice, but without result.

They scoured the whole treacherous ground for fifty yards or more in every direction, but no sign of the unfortunate boy's body could they discover. They lashed together the two oars from the boat, making a length of perhaps twenty feet, and probed the pool but found nothing.

"I'm going to dive into that," said Garry.

"I don't think you'd better, my boy," said Mr. Ellsworth.

But Garry had already dived and came up dripping with mud and slime.

"I couldn't get to the bottom," said he; "there isn't any bottom."

Tom Slade who, as usual, had pursued his own way, called to the others, "There's a kind of a trail here-a pearl necklace,[2] I should think. It runs through this swamp and up around the side there. See?"

Roy and Mr. Ellsworth, who had come close to him, saw what he meant, though it is doubtful if even those good scouts would have recognized it as a trail.

"See?" said Tom, "you can get to the top without that climb. This runs up around where it isn't so steep."

Sure enough, there was a sort of zigzag trail, becoming plainer as it wound its way up, by which one might ascend by a longer though safer route. It followed a deep cleft in the rocks and led, as they surmised, to the easier slope on the landward side of the mountain.

"Why didn't he take that path, do you suppose?" said the scoutmaster.

"Because he was a dare-devil," said Roy.

Mr. Ellsworth stood silently as Tom and Roy started up the trail. It led them, as they had supposed it would, to a broader path by which the hill could be surmounted. Here were indistinct footprints at intervals. Why they were not regular Tom could not imagine.

"Why didn't the fellow go this way, I wonder?" Roy said.

"You answered that yourself," Tom answered.

They were now upon the summit and could look down and see the two boats side by side in the lake. It was a dizzy height. Behind them was a broad, flat plateau which became a gentle slope and fell away into the lower country beyond. The path crossed this and here the footprints were plainer and more regular. Then they verged from the path and were difficult to follow amid the sparse vegetation of the plateau.

A few yards and they ended abruptly at a point where there was a little disturbance of the earth and what Tom and Roy thought to be the imprints, very faint, of rubber tires.

"There must have been an auto here," said Roy.

"It must have been one of those motor-cycle affairs with a kind of a baby carriage alongside it," said Tom. "Those prints are too close together for a regular auto."

"How could an auto or a motor-cycle get up here, anyway?" queried Roy.

From the spot where they happened to be, they could just manage to trace a second line of footprints coming from another direction.

Roy was very much sobered by this whole affair, but he could not refrain from his usual comment, "The plot grows thinner."

"Come on, let's follow those," said Tom.

They did so until the prints ended abruptly upon the flat, rocky surface near the edge of the precipice.

"I don't know what to make of the whole business," said Roy. "Blamed if I do! It's a puzzle."

"My idea," said Tom, as they started down again, "is this; the other fellow was down there below somewhere and was going to follow that fellow, when all of a sudden he fell. They must have chosen that way just for a stunt, I suppose. Didn't you ever hear that red-headed fellows are reckless? It might possibly be," he added, hesitatingly, "that the other fellow managed to get his-his body and drag it around up this way. That might account for the way that path looked back there; if someone had been dragged along it might sort of wipe out the footprints. I don't see how he could have got so far ahead of us, though," he added.

"But where could he have taken the-body?"

"I don't know-unless he managed to carry it to that automobile or whatever it was back there. Maybe they'd left some kind of a car there to go out on the lake."

"But all that wouldn't account for those other footprints we saw out toward the edge," said Roy, skeptically.

"No," said Tom, "unless the other fellow went out there and tried to find out, maybe, how the dead fellow had happened to fall. Maybe a tree that he had hold of broke-or something."

"Then there ought to be footprints back," said Roy.

"Sure-there were."

"I didn't see any."

"That isn't saying they weren't there," said Tom.

"Tomasso, you're a wonder."

"Only how did they ever get an automobile, or a motor baby carriage or whatever you call it, up to that place?"

"That's what's got me," said Roy.

They found their companions still searching, but almost discouraged, and Mr. Ellsworth listened with keen interest to Roy's report.

"Hmmm," said he, soberly; "you say you saw wheel imprints? Were there no wheel tracks?"

"No," said Tom, "but the land was grassy in places and it was pretty hard."

"Hmmm?" was all that Mr. Ellsworth could say. "I think the most likely view is that the body is at the bottom of that bottomless pool," he added. "I don't see that we can do anything else, boys. It goes against me to go on without finding the poor fellow's body, but-"

Scouts do not give up easily and they did not leave the spot until it was too dark to see. Then they went back to the boats, a muddy, dishevelled, scratched and discouraged band. They did not take kindly to defeat.

"The nearest town," said Mr. Ellsworth, looking at their map, "is Boquet. Farther up, on the Vermont side, is Burlington. I suggest that we stop at both those places and notify the scouts and the authorities. With a grappling iron they could probably get the body."

Tom listened with stolid indifference to this apparent repudiation of his own theory. Probably he did not think the matter worth discussing for in either case the freckled scout was dead.

There was no music on the cabin roof of the Good Turn that night and the Silver Foxes and Ravens who lolled about on the Honor Scout did not call for it, as they usually did. Mr. Ellsworth stood quietly at the wheel; the others sat or lay about, sober and silent.

"Why so quiet, Roy?" Garry asked.

"I don't know," said Roy, who squatted in his characteristic position. "I can't seem to get that fellow out of my head-and-and the way he saluted us back there in Albany. Gee, I can almost hear him laughing now."

"Guess that's Burlington where the lights are," said Mr. Ellsworth. "Throttle her down to half, Roy, and throw your lead to see how much water we've got."

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