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   Chapter 16 THE CACHE

The Radio Detectives By A. Hyatt Verrill Characters: 14729

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The night being clear, the boys did not trouble to prepare a shelter. They merely cut some balsam branches and spread them smoothly on the beach. Strange to say, the more superstitious half-breed lad fell asleep immediately, while the white boy, who had scorned the notion of giants and manitos, found sleep long in coming. That night seemed to him the loneliest he had ever spent. Camp, on the trip down and up the main shore, had, to be sure, usually been made far from the camps of other men. But there were men, both red and white, on that shore. When the lake was not too rough, there was always the chance that the sound of human voices and the dip of paddles might be heard at any time during the night, as a canoe passed in the starlight.

Here, however, the whole length and breadth of the great island,-which the two lads believed even larger than it really is, some fifty miles in length and twelve or fourteen broad at its widest part,-there lived, so far as they knew, not one human being. Never before had Hugh felt so utterly lonely, such a small, insignificant human creature in an unknown and unfeeling wilderness of woods, waters and rocks. The island was far more beautiful and hospitable now than it had appeared when he visited it before, but then, almost uncannily lonely and remote though the place had seemed, he had had the companionship of Baptiste and Captain Bennett and the rest of the ship's crew.

Yet what was there to fear? It was not likely that Isle Royale contained any especially fierce beasts. There were wolves and lynxes, but they were skulking, cowardly creatures, and, in the summer at least, must find plentiful prey of rabbits and other small animals. Moose too there were and perhaps bears, but both were harmless unless attacked and cornered. It was not the thought of any animal enemy that caused Hugh's uneasiness, as he lay listening to the night sounds. His feeling was rather of apprehension, of dread of some unknown evil that threatened his comrade and himself. He tried to shake off the unreasonable dread, but everything about him seemed to serve to intensify the feeling, the low, continuous murmur of the waves on the rocks, the swishing rustle of the wind in the trees, the long-drawn, eerie cries of two loons answering one another somewhere up the bay, the lonely "hoot-ti-toot" of an owl. Once from the wooded ridges above him, there came with startling clearness the shrill screech of a lynx. But all these sounds were natural ones, heard many times during his adventurous journey. Why, tonight, did they seem to hold some new and fearful menace?

Disgusted with himself, he resolved to conquer the unreasonable dread. Will power alone could not triumph over his unrest, but physical weariness won at last and he fell asleep. A brief shower, from the edge of a passing storm-cloud, aroused him once, but the rain did not last long enough to wet his blanket, and he was off to sleep again in a few minutes.

Hugh woke with a start. Dawn had come, but the little cove was shrouded in white mist. Beside him on the balsam bed, Blaise was sitting upright, his body rigid, his bronze face tense. He was listening intently. Hugh freed his arms from his blanket and raised himself on his elbow. Blaise turned his head.

"You heard it?" he whispered.

"Something waked me. What was it?"

"A gun shot."

"Impossible!"

"I heard it clearly. I had just waked."

"Near by?"

"Not very far away. Up there somewhere."

Blaise pointed to the now invisible woods above the sheer cliff that formed the central shore of the cove between the beaches. "It is hard to be quite sure of the direction in this fog, and there was only one shot."

For some minutes the two lads sat still, listening, but the sound was not repeated. It seemed incredible that any human being should be so near on the big island where neither white men nor Indians were ever known to come intentionally. Hugh was inclined to think Blaise mistaken. The younger boy had certainly heard some sharp sound, but Hugh could scarcely believe it was the report of a gun.

However, the mere suspicion that any other man might be near by was enough to make the boys proceed with the greatest caution. Veiled by the fog,-which had been caused by the warm shower falling on the lake during the night,-they could be seen only by someone very near at hand, but there were other ways in which they might be betrayed. The sound of their voices or movements, the smell of the smoke from their cooking fire might reveal their presence. The secret nature of their quest made them anxious that their visit to the island should not become known. So they lighted no fire, breakfasting on the cold remains of last night's corn porridge sprinkled with maple sugar. They talked little and in whispers, and took care to make the least possible noise.

Having decided to give at least one more day to the search for the furs, the lads climbed the steep slope and made their way to the head of the fissure. Up there the fog was much less thick than down in the cove. The crack in the rock had narrowed to a mere slit almost choked with tree roots upon which fallen leaves and litter had lodged. Near the edge, in a depression where there was a little soil, stood a clump of birch sprouts growing up about the stump of an old broken tree. In their search for some blaze or mark that might guide them, the two thought they had examined every tree in the vicinity.

That morning, as he was about to pass the clump of birches, Hugh happened to notice what a rapid growth the sprouts had made that season. The sight of the new growth suggested something to him. He began to pull apart and bend back the little trees to get a better view of the old stump. There, concealed by the young growth, was the mark he sought. A piece of the ragged, gray, lichen-scarred bark had been sliced away, and on the bare, crumbly wood had been cut a transverse groove with an arrow point.

Hugh promptly summoned Blaise. The cut in the old stump seemed to prove that the furs might not, after all, have been stolen from the hole in the rocks. The arrow pointed directly along the overgrown crack, which the lads traced for fifty or sixty feet farther, when it came abruptly to an end. They had come to a hollow or gully. The crack showed distinctly in the steep rock wall, but the bottom of the hollow and the opposite gradual slope were deep with soil and thick with growth. The rift, which widened at the outer end into a cleft, ran, it was apparent, clear through the rock ridge that formed the shore cliff. The searchers had now reached the lower ground behind that ridge. Which way should they turn next?

That question was answered promptly. The abrupt face of the rock wall was well overgrown with green moss and green-gray lichens. In one place the short, thick growth had been scratched away to expose a strip of the gray stone about an inch wide and six or seven inches long. The clean-cut appearance of the scratch seemed to prove that it had been made with a knife or some other sharp instrument. So slowly do moss and lichens spread on a rock surface that such a mark would remain clear and distinct for one season at least, probably for several years. There was no arrow point here, but the scratch was to the left of the crack. The boys turned unh

esitatingly in that direction.

The growth in this low place was dense. They had to push their way among old, ragged birches and close standing balsams draped with gray beards of lichen which were sapping the trees' life-blood. Everywhere, on the steep rock wall, on each tree trunk, they sought for another sign. For several hundred yards they found nothing, until they came to a cross gully running back towards the lake. In the very entrance stood a small, broken birch. The slender stem was not completely severed, the top of the tree resting on the ground.

"There is our sign," said Blaise as soon as he caught sight of the birch.

"It is only a broken tree," Hugh protested. "I see nothing to show that it is a sign."

"But I see something," Blaise answered promptly. "First, there is the position, right here where we need guidance. The tree has been broken so that it points down that ravine. The break is not old, not weathered enough to have happened before last winter. Yet it happened before the leaves came out. They were still in the bud. It was in late winter or early spring that tree was broken."

"Just about the time father must have been on the island," Hugh commented.

Blaise went on with his explanation. "What broke the tree? The wind? Sound birches are not easily broken by wind. They sway, they bend, sometimes they are tipped over at the roots. But the stem itself is not broken unless it is rotten or the storm violent. Here are no signs of strong wind. There are no other broken trees near this one."

"That is true," murmured Hugh looking about him.

"Now we will look at the break," Blaise continued confidently. "See, the trunk is sound, but it has been cut with an axe, cut deep and bent down. And here, look here!" His usually calm voice was thrilling with excitement. He was pointing to some small cuts in the white bark just below the break.

"J. B., father's initials!" cried Hugh.

Blaise laid his finger on his lips to remind his companion that caution must still be observed. They had heard no further sound and had seen no sign of a human being, but the half-breed lad had not forgotten the sharp report that had so startled him in the dawn. It was best to move silently and speak with lowered voice.

Blaise led the way down the narrow cross gully, so narrow that where a tree grew,-and trees seemed to grow everywhere on this wild island where they could push down a root,-there was scarcely room to get by. After a few hundred yards of such going, the ravine began to widen. The walls became higher and so sheer that nothing could cling to them but moss, lichens and sturdy crevice plants. Under foot there was no longer any soil, only pebbles and broken rock fragments. Ahead, beyond the deep shadow of the cleft, lay sunlit water. This was evidently another of the fissures that ran down through the outer rock ridge to the water, fissures that were characteristic of that stretch of shore.

"We are coming back to the lake through another crack much like the one where the old boat lies," said Hugh. "We must be off the trail somewhere. There is no place here to hide furs."

Blaise, who was still ahead, did not answer. He was closely scanning the rock wall on either side. A moment later, he paused and gave a little grunt of interest or satisfaction.

"What is it?" Hugh asked.

Blaise took another step forward, and pointed to the right hand wall. A narrow fissure extended from top to bottom. So narrow was the crack that Hugh rather doubted whether he could squeeze into it.

"I will go first, I am smaller," Blaise suggested. "If I cannot go through, we shall know that no man has been in there."

Slender and lithe, Blaise found that he could wriggle his way through without much difficulty. The heavier, broader-shouldered Hugh found the task less easy. He had to go sidewise and for a moment he thought he should stick fast, but he managed to squeeze past the narrowest spot, to find himself in an almost round hollow. This hole or pit in the outer ridge was perhaps twenty feet in diameter with abrupt rock walls and a floor of boulders and pebbles, among which grew a few hardy shrubs. It was open to the sky and ringed at the top with shrubby growth. Hugh glanced about him with a keen sense of disappointment. Surely the furs were not in this place.

Blaise, on the other side of a scraggly ninebark bush, seemed to be examining a pile of boulders and rock fragments. The older boy rounded the bush, and disappointment gave way to excitement. By what agency had those stones been heaped in that particular spot? They had not fallen from the wall beyond. The pit had no opening through which waves could wash. Had that heap been put together by the hand of man? Was it indeed a cache?

Without a word spoken, the two lads set about demolishing the stone pile. One after another they lifted each stone and threw it aside. As he rolled away one of the larger boulders, Hugh could not restrain a little cry. A bit of withered cedar had come to light. With eager energy he flung away the remaining stones. There lay revealed a heap of something covered with cedar branches, the flat sprays, withered but still aromatic, woven together closely to form a tight and waterproof covering. Over and around them, the stones had been heaped to conceal every sprig.

With flying fingers, the boys pulled the sprays apart. There were the bales of furs each in a skin wrapper. The brothers had found the hidden cache and their inheritance. Both lads were surprised at the number of the bales. If the pelts were of good quality, no mean sum would be realized by their sale. They would well repay in gold for all the long search. Yet, to do the boys justice, neither was thinking just then of the worth of the pelts. Their feeling was rather of satisfaction that they were really carrying out their father's last command. The long and difficult search was over, and they had not failed in it.

They lifted the packages from a platform of poles resting on stones. The whole cache had been cleverly constructed. No animal could tear apart the bales, and, even in the severest storm, no water could reach them. Over them the branches had formed a roof strong enough to keep the top stones from pressing too heavily upon the furs.

"But where is the packet?" cried Hugh. "It must be inside one of the bales, but which one I wonder."

"I think it is this one," Blaise replied.

The package he was examining seemed to be just like the others, except that into the rawhide thong that bound it had been twisted a bit of scarlet wool ravelled from a cap or sash. Blaise would have untied the thong, but the impatient Hugh cut it, and stripped off the wrapping. The bale contained otter skins of fine quality. Between two of the pelts was a small, flat packet. It was tied with a bit of cedar cord and sealed with a blotch of pitch into which had been pressed the seal of the ring Hugh now wore.

"Shall we open this here and now, Blaise?" Hugh asked.

"That is for you to say, my brother. You are the elder."

"Then I think we had best open it at once."

Hugh broke the seal and was about to untie the cord, when from somewhere above the rim of the pit, there rang out a loud, long-drawn call, "Oh-eye-ee, oh-eye-ee-e." It was not the cry of an animal. It was a human voice.

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