Alan Douglas.

Under Canvas: or, The Hunt for the Cartaret Ghost



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"What d'ye reckon possessed that coward to play such a mean trick on us?" Toby wanted to know.

"Oh! he had it in him, that's all, and when the chance came around he just couldn't help himself," Elmer told him, for the Assistant Scout Master was somewhat of a philosophical boy, and able to figure out things that might puzzle some of his tent mates.

"Next time I see that Angus he'll hear my opinion of a sneak who could play a dirty trick like that!" continued the driver, vigorously.

"Thame here!" chirped Ted. "And if he giveth me any thath I'll pull hith red noth for him, thee if I don't."

"All I can say is, keep your eye out for sledge hammer punches if ever you go to pulling his nose," warned George; "because he's a born scrapper, and would as soon fight as eat."

"Let's forget about that little affair," suggested Elmer; "no use crying over spilt milk, and what's done can't be undone. Toby, suppose you tell us a little more about this nut grove up at the old Cartaret place; because if I remember rightly you said you'd been asking everybody all about the estate."

"Why, old Judge Cartaret, the rich man who built up the place, meaning to live there with his young and handsome wife, went crazy, they say, after he'd found her dead in her room. The mystery never was cleared up. To this day some people say she was murdered by a man she once promised to marry before the millionaire judge came along; another lot seem to believe she committed suicide because the judge was so cruel, and wouldn't let her leave the place; and one man told me he always had believed ever since he was a boy that the judge struck her down in a fit of passion. But of course those things don't cut any figure with us."

"On the contrary," interrupted Chatz, who had been listening to all these horrors with wide-open eyes, and a look of intense interest on his dark face, "they strike me as being decidedly interesting, suh. If I had a chance I'd like to investigate this queer thing, and perhaps learn what did happen in that big house ever so many years ago."

"But how about the nut treeth, Toby, did the judge plant the thame when he wath trying to make a thut-in paradith for that pretty bride of hith?"

"That's just what he did, boys, so they told me," Toby continued, readily consenting to be squeezed for information; "he planted a whole lot of chestnuts, walnuts and shell-bark hickories that have been growing for several dozen years. They're busting big trees, and just breaking down with the finest crop ever known, and with never a single fellow brave enough up to this time to go there and gather the harvest. Why, when I heard what that man had to say about it, I was fairly wild to be off. And believe me, boys, we'll make the eyes of the other fellows stick out of their heads like fun when they see what an enormous supply of nuts we've gathered for next winter around the fire. Yum! yum! I always did say that a plate of red-cheeked apples, a dish of fresh popped corn, and a pocketful of nuts beats all creation on a stormy night, winter times."

"Believe it when I see it!" muttered skeptical George, who undoubtedly thought this wonderful harvest was too good to turn out to be true; after they had arrived on the ground, very probably it would only be to find that the trees had been stripped of their burden of nuts by some hardy souls who did not place much credence in the stories of the ghost said to haunt the place; something was always on the eve of turning up to keep George from reaping success, it seemed.

"No use talking," observed the disgusted Toby, "George never will be convinced till he begins to load up the wagon with bags running over with nuts.

And even then he'll expect some white-sheeted ghost to step up, and demand that we throw every one of the same back again where we found them. You couldn't convince him of a single thing till he's had a chance to prove it over and over again."

"Learned that in school when I was doin' problems," George declared with one of his most exasperating grins; "which was why I always passed with such a high percentage in arithmetic and algebra. They said I'd make a fine carpenter, because I'd always measure my boards again and again before I cut 'em, and that way there never'd be any mistakes about my sawing."

"And a great carpenter you'd make, George," chuckled Toby; "why, you'd take everlasting and a day just to get your foundation started. The folks would all die off waiting for you to finish your job. A carpenter – whew! excuse me if you please from ever employing a mechanic who spends all his time figgering out how things could be so and so."

"But we must be within a mile or two of the place by now, fellows," Elmer told them about that time, "so if you hold up a little we'll soon know the worst or the best. I'm of the opinion myself that what Toby says is going to turn out true; for nobody ever goes near the Cartaret place these days. Lots of boys around home never even heard about it; and others couldn't be coaxed or hired to explore around a place they call haunted."

"Yes, I'm not the only silly believer in ghosts," Chatz told them, looking pleased at what Elmer had just said, "for misery always likes company, and you'll remember, suh, how the sly old fox that had fallen into a well told the goat looking down that it was a lovely place to drop in; and when Billy had taken him at his word he hopped on the goat's back and jumped out. But if I have half a chance I expect to prowl around more or less while we're up heah, and see if the stories I've heard about this queer old rookery could ever have been true. Why, they even say the judge had the house built so that it was like a big prison, or some sort of asylum."

Chatz was full of his subject, and might have wandered on still further, once he got fairly started, only for a sudden movement on the part of Elmer. Sitting alongside the driver it was the easiest thing going for that worthy to seize the reins and with a quick strain on the same bring the mare to a full stop.

"Why, what under the sun!" began the astonished Toby, when Elmer clapped his hand over his mouth and immediately said:

"Hush! be still! Look what's coming out of that side road ahead there!" and at the same time he pointed with his disengaged hand.

All of the others hastened to do as he requested. There, in plain sight, though their own vehicle was partly hidden by the foliage still clinging to the bushes that jutted out at a bend of the road, was a two-horse wagon, containing four boys, in whom they readily recognized some of the toughest elements around the town of Hickory Ridge.

As the other wagon rattled into the main road, and went speedily on without the occupants once looking toward them, Elmer and his chums exchanged troubled glances.

CHAPTER III
NEAR THE HAUNT OF THE "SPOOKS"

"We might as well hold up here a little bit, so as to let that crowd pass on," suggested George. "I never did take any stock in Connie Mallon anyway. He's got a pretty bad name down around our way. My father says he'll land in the penitentiary before he's two years older, except he reforms, and I'd never believe he'd change his ways."

"Oh! Elmer, I wonder now, could they know about those splendid nuts, and mean to skin the trees ahead of us?" exclaimed Toby, as though nearly overwhelmed by a staggering thought.

"You've some reason for saying that, Toby?" Elmer told him.

"Why, don't you know, it flashed over me just like a stroke of lightning," was what Toby went on to say, excitedly, a troubled look on his face. "You remember that when I was talking to you over the telephone, Elmer, and telling you about wanting to get the boys to come up here with me Saturday, I said several times somebody was rubbering, and once even told 'em to get off the wire, which they did, only to come on again."

"Yes, I do remember something like that," admitted the other scout.

"Well, our telephone is on a four-party line, and one of the other three houses is Jackson's down the street. Phil Jackson is one of the cronies of Connie Mallon, and he's sitting there in that wagon right now."

"Then you think he must have heard all you were telling me that man said about the immense crop of nuts up here at the Cartaret place, and has put the others wise to it?" Elmer asked.

"I wouldn't put it past Phil a minute!" Toby declared, with an expression of pain, "and now it looks like we mightn't get what we came after, unless we fight for it."

"I knew it!" muttered George; "call me a doubter all you want, but let me tell you things ain't always what they seem. There's a string tied to nearly everything you think you're going to get so easy. Oh! I know what I'm talking about, and for one I'm not surprised at anything happening."

"Don't throw up the sponge so easy, George," Elmer told him. "We may have our troubles, but scouts are supposed to be wide-awake enough to know how to overcome any kind of difficulties that happen along. As Sheridan said at the battle of Cedar Creek, we'll have those camps back, or the nuts in our case, or know the reason why."

"Lithen to that kind of talk, would you?" burst out Ted, brimming over with confidence in their leader; "why, we haven't begun to get buthy yet. That Connie may think he'th tholen a march on our crowd, but thay, he'll have to cut hith eye-teeth before he can beat Elmer here laying planths."

"It may turn out to be a false alarm, after all, boys," Elmer continued, while Toby still restrained the impatient Nancy; "but even if we get there to find that they're on the ground ahead of us, we'll hatch up a scheme to turn the tables on that crowd, I give you my word for it."

"That's the ticket!" Chatz exclaimed, being inclined to display an impetuous style of talk and action, as became his hot Southern blood; "if they've sneaked this idea from Toby by listening over the wire they've got no business up here. I'd call it rank piracy, and treat the lot like I would buccaneers of the Spanish Main. Why, it'd serve 'em right if that ghost they tell about jumped out at them, and sent the lot scampering off like crazy things."

"That's just what I had in my mind, Chatz," said Elmer, chuckling; "and perhaps we'll find some way to coax the spook to help us out."

"Elmer's got the dandy idea, all right," said George; "you leave him alone, and he'll sure bring home the bacon. But how much longer do we have to stay here? I wonder if anybody's getting cold feet about now?"

"Speak for yourself, George!" cried Toby; "I'm for going on three times as much as I was before we saw that bunch cutting in ahead of us. When Elmer gives me the word I'll start things moving."

"You might do that now," said the leader, "but take it slow, Toby. I want to keep an eye on the track of their wheels. If they turn off at any fork in the road, or into the woods, we want to know it."

"Thith theems to be getting mighty interethting," observed Ted; "and I want to thay right now that I've got tho much confidence in Elmer and the whole of our crowd that I'd call the chances five to one we'll go home with a full cargo thith afternoon."

"Good boy, Ted; and I second that motion!" Chatz announced, heatedly.

The mare was allowed her head, but Toby kept a tight rein, so that they did not begin to whirl along with half the speed the other wagon had displayed as it came out of the side road on to the main thoroughfare.

Elmer kept his gaze firmly fixed ahead, where he could plainly see the marks of that other vehicle in the dust of the road. Thus they continued for a short time; then the leader put out his hand, and Toby again pulled in.

"They've left the road, and entered the woods back there twenty feet or so," the acting scout master told them.

"On the left, wasn't it, Elmer, that they turned out?" asked Chatz, eagerly.

"Just what it was, which shows that you were using your eyes, as a scout should always do," came the reply. "Back up, Toby, and we'll follow suit."

"Do you think we're at the place already?" asked Toby.

"I certainly do, though I'm some surprised that they knew where to hit that little grass covered wagon-road that led off among the trees," Elmer replied. "It was once used as a way through the forest to the rear of the Cartaret place, so I was told when I asked a man about it who used to work for the judge long ago. They must have been busy doing some of the same kind of missionary work, because I don't believe any of them has ever been up here before – to stop I mean."

"Well, what if we get in where the nut trees are growing to find that lot skinning every tree, and ready to put up a rattling fight before they'll let us have even a look-in; what are we goin' to do about it?" Toby wanted to know.

"First of all we'll just hang around, and watch them work," Elmer declared.

"That's all very fine, Elmer," interposed George, who was always the first one with any objection; "but once they cover the ground with nuts, we'd find it a hard proposition to chase the bunch away, and lay claim to what they'd gathered."

"But they'd be really our nuts," interrupted Toby, "because didn't the bright idea flash right into this brain of mine; and ain't first discoverers entitled to the land always? It's the rule of the world. They hooked the idea from me by unfair means, and ain't entitled to any consideration at our hands. If Elmer can manage to scare them away you watch and see how quick I'll start to filling my bag with some of the nuts they've knocked down."

"I only want the chance to do the thame," Ted insinuated.

"Ditto here, because, as we said, they're only a pack of wolves or pirates, and have no rights honest people are bound to respect," Chatz added as his quota to the discussion; "after we've filled all our bags, if there happens to be some more nuts to be had why they're welcome to the same. Gentlemen first, every time, we believe, down our way."

"Pull up, and let's listen, Toby," Elmer counseled; "I thought I heard a shout or two just then; and perhaps they've started to work."

When the mare had been made to stand they could all readily hear the sounds that welled up some little distance ahead. Loud laughter and boyish shouts attested to the fact that a party of nut gatherers must be busily engaged in the grove; for with other sounds could be heard the plain swish of poles beating the branches of the trees in an effort to rattle the nuts down.

"Just our luck!" muttered George, disconsolately.

"Well, what would you have?" demanded Toby, like a flash; "it ain't every bunch that can have a lot of fellows knock down their nuts for 'em, is it? Think of all the hard work it's going to save us. Elmer, the more I look at that grand little scheme of yours the better I like it. Go it, Connie, Phil and your mates; keep the ball arollin' right along. The more the merrier, say we. And now, Elmer, do we hide our rig somewhere around, so they won't happen on the same if they come to skip out of that grove in a big hurry?"

"That's the idea, Toby," Elmer told him; "turn out to the left here, and we'll like as not run across a good hide-out for the wagon. When we've got the nuts all sacked we can come back for the outfit, and head for home."

A short time later they found the place they were looking for. It offered concealment for the wagon and the mare; and Toby soon had the latter securely hitched to a limb.

"Fetch the bags along with you, boys," remarked Elmer at this stage of the proceedings, and picking up several himself as an example.

Toby saw that the others had cleaned out the entire assortment of sacks, which fact caused him to grin with satisfaction. He calmly secured the rather bulky package that lay in the bottom of the wagon, and trotted after the rest of the scouts.

They made a sort of detour in approaching the spot where all that noise announced a busy lot of boys covering the ground with shell-barks and other varieties of choice nuts.

"Whee! looky over there, Chatz; ain't that the house you c'n see through the trees? I never thought I'd ever have the nerve to come up here, and break in on the enchanted ground given over to hobgoblins and spooks and owls ever so many years."

When George said this in a low and rather shaky tone he clutched the arm of the Southern boy, and pointed toward the left. Of course Chatz eagerly followed the line of his extended finger; for he had been wishing to catch the first glimpse of the haunted house for several minutes back.

"Yes, that's it, all right, George," he replied, with a sighing breath, as though something he had long yearned to see was now before him.

"Come on, you fellows back there," said Elmer, who did not like to have them lagging so; and accordingly George and Chatz hurried their steps.

It was certainly anything but a cheerful place, for a fact. The trees were very much overgrown, and the undergrowth had year after year increased its hold until it would have been difficult to force one's way through this, only for wandering cows having made paths which could be followed.

"Elmer, I c'n see 'em workin' like beavers over there!" whispered Toby, who had forged alongside the leader, still burdened with that package which the others believed must contain some new fangled contraption of his connected with the science of aviation.

The five scouts gathered in a group, being careful not to expose themselves in a way to draw attention. They could see a boy in a chestnut tree, and plainly hear the rattle of nuts from the opened burrs, whenever he switched the branches with the long pole he was carrying, secured somewhere in the woods near by.

"Did you ever hear it hail nuts like that in all your born days?" gasped George as they stood there, sheltered by the bushes and watched operations.

"Oh! listen to him talk from the other side of his mouth, fellows?" Toby muttered. "George has seen a big light; he ain't a doubter any longer, you notice. He hears the rattle of the nuts, and sees 'em falling like hail. Talk to me about beavers and busy bees, that crowd would take the cake for business. Look at that one climbing to the very top of the hickory tree to get the best nuts that always grow up high. There he starts in slashing, and it's like a regular bombardment on the ground. If they get away with all that lot I'll die of a broken heart. There never was, and there never will be again, such a bully chance to lay in a big winter's supply of nuts in double-quick time. And I never did like to take other people's leavings."

"Make up your mind to it we don't have to," Elmer assured him.

"Might as well make ourselves comfy while we're about it," suggested George, as he dropped down, and sat tailor-fashion, with his legs doubled under him.

"Yes, for we may have to stay here quite some time," admitted Elmer, copying his example without hesitation.

"Ain't it nice to watch other people working for you?" observed Ted, after a while.

"Only they don't know it," added George; "but, Elmer, suppose you give the rest of us a hint what you mean to do. I see you've been cutting the bark off that white birch tree, and got the same in your hand. It's used for marking canoes, and picture frames as well. Some persons even write on the brown back of the bark, but I don't think you mean to send them a notice from spookland, telling them that if they don't clear out instanter the bully old ghosts will grab them tight?"

"Not the kind of message you're thinking about," replied Elmer, smiling. "In the first place I don't know what sort of hand writing ghosts would be apt to use; and then again, I don't believe they'd pay much attention to that sort of thing. Watch and see if you can guess now."

With that he rolled the large strip of bark so that it looked like a great cornucopia. So had Elmer seen Indian guides fashion a horn when wishing to call the aggressive moose on a dark night, away up in Northern latitudes.

"Oh! now I see what you're meaning to do!" exclaimed George; "that looks like a regular megaphone now, the kind they use when there's a boat race on, or at college games. You're going to throw a scare into them by whooping it up through a horn; is that right, Elmer?"

"You've hit it to a fraction, George, because that's exactly what I'm meaning to do with this birch bark horn. And as some of the bunch have started to slip down the trees even now, thinking they've got enough nuts on the ground to keep them busy picking the same up, we'll watch until they've gathered all they want, and then you'll see some fun – that is, it'll be fun at this end, but a serious business for them. Lie low when I give you the signal."

They hovered there for a full hour while the four boys were gathering the nuts, and stowing them away in sacks that had been brought for the purpose.

At last Elmer decided that matters had gone far enough. There were evidences that one of the boys had been sent to fetch the horses and wagon up, in order to load the numerous bags that had been filled. So cautioning his chums to lie low so they might not give the game away, Elmer raised the bark horn to his lips.



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