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   Chapter 5 THE MAIN TRAIL

Tom Slade with the Colors By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 9624

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


But a trail is a funny thing. It is full of surprises and hard to follow. For one thing, you can never tell just where it is going to bring you out. There is the main trail and there are branch trails, and it is often puzzling to determine which is the main trail and which the branch.

Yet you must determine this somehow, for the one may lead you to food and shelter, to triumph and honor perhaps; while the other, which may be ever so clear and inviting, will lead you into bog and mire; so you have to be careful.

Of one thing you may be certain: there are not often two trails to the same place. You must pick one branch or the other. You must know where you want to go, and then hit the right trail. You must not be fooled by a side trail just because it happens to be broad and easy and pleasant. There are ways of telling which is the right trail, and you must learn those ways; otherwise you are not a good scout.

Upon the sleeve of Tom Slade's khaki jacket was seen the profile of an Indian. It was the scouts' merit badge for pathfinding. It meant that he knew every trail and byway for miles about Temple Camp. It meant that he had picked his way where there was no trail, through a dense and tangled wilderness; that he had found his way by night to a deserted hunting shack on the summit of a lonely wooded mountain in the neighborhood of Temple Camp and that he had later blazed a trail to that isolated spot.

Even Rossie Bent had opened his eyes at Tom's simple, unboastful narrative of this exploit, and had followed Tom's finger on the office map as he traced that blazed trail from the wood's edge near the camp up through the forest and along the brook to the very summit of the frowning height, from which the nickering lights of Temple Camp could be seen in the distance.

"I'll bet not many people go up there," Roscoe had said.

So it was natural that when Tom looked back and thought of his career as a scout, of his rise from squalor and vicious mischief to this level of manliness and deserved honor, he should think of it as a trail-a good scout trail which he had picked up and followed. Down there in the mud of Barrel Alley it had begun, and see where it had led! To the platform of the Bridgeboro Lyceum where he, Tom Slade, would wear his Gold Cross, which every citizen at that patriotic Registration Day celebration might see, and would represent the First Bridgeboro Troop, B. S. A. in the town's welcome to the governor!

Oh, he was happy!

"It's good I didn't listen to Slats Corbett and Sweet Caporal," he mused. "I hit the right trail, all right. I bet if--"

The door opened suddenly, and Mr. Brown from the bank entered with another gentleman, who appeared greatly disturbed.

"Has Rossie Bent been up here to-day?" Mr. Brown asked.

"No, sir," said Tom. He felt his own voice tremble a little, and he realized that something was wrong.

"This is Mr. Bent," said Mr. Brown, "Roscoe's father. Roscoe hasn't been seen since last night, and his father is rather concerned about him."

"You haven't seen him-to-day?" Mr. Bent asked anxiously.

"No, sir," said Tom.

The two men looked soberly at each other, and Tom went over to the door of the private office, which stood ajar, and quietly closed it.

"Mr. Burton is busy," he said.

"We might ask him," Mr. Brown suggested.

For the space of a few seconds Tom stood uneasily trying to muster the courage to speak.

"It-it wouldn't be any good to let a lot of people know," he said hesitatingly, but looking straight at Roscoe's father. "Mr. Burton only got here a few minutes ago, and he couldn't tell anything.-If you spoke to him, Miss Ellison would know about it too."

He spoke with great difficulty and not without a tremor in his voice, but his meaning reached the troubled father, who nodded as if he understood.

"It's early yet," Tom ventured; "maybe he'll think it over, kind of, and-and--"

"Thank you, my boy," said Mr. Bent soberly.

The two men stood a moment, as if not knowing what to do next. Then they left, and Tom remained standing just where he was. Of course, he was not surprised, only shocked.

"I knew it all the time," he said to himself, "only I wouldn't admit it."

He had been too generous to face the ugly fact. To him, who wished to go to war, the very thought of slacking and cowardice seemed preposterous-impossible.

"I was just kidding myself," he said, with his usual blunt honesty, but with a wistful note of disappointment. "There's no use trying to kid yourself-there ain't."

Mr. Burton came out with his usual smiling briskness and greeted Tom pleasantly. "Congratulations, Tommy," said he. "I suppose I'll see you among the big guns to-night. You leaving soon?"

"Y-yes, sir, in a few minutes."

"Miss Ellison and I are

so unpatriotic that we're going to work till the parade begins this afternoon."

"I don't suppose he'll even notice us to-morrow," teased the girl, "he'll be so proud."

Tom smiled uncomfortably and wandered over to the window where, but a few minutes before, he had looked out with such pride and happiness. He did not feel very happy now.

Close by him was a table on which were strewn photographs of Temple Camp and the adjacent lake, a few birch bark ornaments, carved canes, and other specimens of handiwork which scouts had made there. There was also a large portfolio with plans of the cabins and pavilion and rough charts and diagrams of the locality.

Tom had shown this portfolio to many callers-scoutmasters and parents of scouts-who had come to make inquiries about the woodland community. He had shown it to Roscoe Bent only the day before and, as we know, he had been greatly pleased at the lively interest which that worldly young gentleman had shown.

He opened the portfolio idly now, and as he did so his gaze fell upon the map which showed the wooded hill and the position of the lonesome shack upon its summit. He called to mind with what pride he had traced his own blazed path up through the forest and how Roscoe had followed him, plying him with questions.

Then, suddenly, like a bolt out of the sky, there flashed into Tom's mind a suspicion which, but for his generous, unsuspecting nature, he might have had before. Was that why Roscoe Bent had been so interested in the little hunting shack on the mountain? Was that why he had asked if any one ever went up there; why he had inquired if there were fish to be caught in the brook and game to be hunted in the neighborhood? Was that why he had been so particular about the blazed path, and whether there was a fireplace in or near the shack? Had he been thinking of it as a safe refuge, a place of concealment for a person who had shirked his duty?

"He could never live there," said Tom; "he could never even get there."

As the certainty grew in his mind, he was a little chagrined at his own credibility, but he was more ashamed for Roscoe.

"I might have known," he said, "that he wasn't really interested in camping.... He's a fool to think he can do that."

To Tom, who longed to go to war and who was deterred only by his promise to Mr. Ellsworth, the extremity that Roscoe had evidently gone to in the effort to escape service seemed unbelievable. But that was his game, and Tom saw the whole thing now as plain as day. It made him almost sick to think of it. While he, Tom, would be handing badges to the throng of proud and lucky young men just fresh from registering, while he sat upon the platform and listened to the music and the speeches in their honor, Roscoe Bent would be tracing his lonely way up that distant mountain with the insane notion of camping there. He would try to cheat the government and disgrace his family.

"I don't see how he could do that-I don't," said Tom. "I wonder what his father would say if he knew.-I wonder what Miss Ellison would say. I wonder what his mother would think."

He looked down again into Barrel Alley, and fixed his eyes upon the tenement where he and his poor mother and his wretched father had lived. But he was not thinking of his mother now-he was thinking of Roscoe Bent's mother and of his troubled father, going from place to place and searching in vain for his fugitive son.

"If I told him," thought Tom, "it would queer Roscoe. It wouldn't do for anybody to know.... I just got to go and bring him back.... Maybe they'd let him register to-morrow. He could say-he could say anything he wanted to about why he was away on the fifth of June. If he comes back they'll let him register, but if he doesn't they'll find him; they'll put his name in newspapers and lists and they'll find him. I just got to go and bring him back. And I got to go without telling anybody anything, too."

For a few moments longer he stood gazing out of the window down into that muddy alley where the good scout trail to honor and achievement had begun for him. For a few moments he thought of where it had brought him and of the joy and fulfillment which awaited him this very night. He wondered what people would say if he were not there. Well, in any event, they would not call him a slacker or a coward. He felt that there was no danger of being misjudged if he did his highest duty.

"It's kind of like a branch trail I got to follow," he said, his voice breaking a little. "I said it was a good trail, but now I see there's a branch trail that goes off, kind of, and I got to follow that...."

But, of course, it wasn't a branch trail at all-it was the main trail, the true scout trail, which, forgetting all else, he was resolved to follow.

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