Alan Douglas.

Under Canvas: or, The Hunt for the Cartaret Ghost



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CHAPTER IV
"TO THE VICTORS BELONG THE SPOILS"

So far as the other scouts knew, Elmer Chenowith had never seen such a mystery as a real ghost in all his life; and he certainly had not heard one groan, or give any kind of sound. Consequently his imagination was called upon to conjure up a series of queer, blood curdling noises such as an orthodox specter, fresh from the world of shades, might be expected to utter when tremendously excited.

Josh and George afterwards confessed that if they had not known it was the scout master who amused himself in this way, they too might have shivered in their shoes. As for the Southern boy, he lay there amidst the brush, and kept his eyes glued all the time on the face of Elmer, as though he dared not depend on his knowledge of facts, but must back this up with the positive evidence of his eyes.

Once Chatz even cautiously put out his hand, and gently felt of Elmer's khaki sleeve; it was a mute confession that while never a doubter like George, the boy from Dixie had to be convinced when it was a matter of superstition.

But the main thing, of course, was what effect Elmer's groaning might have upon the four boys who had stolen a march upon the scouts, and reached the harvest of nuts in advance.

No sooner had the first sounds begun to rise than they looked up with startled expressions on their faces. Of course, like nearly every other person in town, the quartette must have heard strange stories connected with the abandoned Cartaret place, for such things have a way of traveling from one end of a county to another, being eagerly repeated even by many who would scorn to admit their belief in such silly notions as ghosts.

Before coming up here perhaps Connie and Phil, with the other two fellows, may have talked things over seriously, and expressed many a fervid hope that their piratical operations might not be interrupted by any visit from a spectral guardian, such as was said to watch over the place.

The first thing they did was to stare at each other, while their mouths could be seen to open with astonishment.

Elmer changed his key, and gave them another sample of the weird sounds capable of being coaxed from a birch bark horn. He certainly was making a great success of his music, his comrades thought, as they lay there and waited to be invited to have a share in the proceedings, according to agreement.

Toby afterwards solemnly declared that he could see the caps of the four frightened boys start to rise, as their hair stood on end; though an element of doubt always surrounded this statement; for Toby was so excited himself that possibly his imagination worked over-time.

With the change in tune the boys seemed to regain in some measure the command of their faculties; at least they were able to rush close together, as though seeing protection in mutual sympathy. It was a plain case of "united we stand, divided we fall!" And clutching at one another they continued to shiver and listen, – meanwhile looking all around, as though more than half expecting to discover some terrible figure bearing down on them.

Elmer would have been only too happy to have provided such a specter for their accommodation; but unfortunately he had not come prepared to launch such a thing.

Ghosts were hardly in his line; and in lieu of a specimen for exhibition purposes he was compelled to do the best he could with the material on hand; which is always a cardinal principle with scouts.

"Now!"

When Elmer hissed this single word his four chums knew that their time had come to get into the game. The snake had been "scotched, not killed," as Josh later on aptly described it. No matter how much frightened Connie Mallon and his cronies might seem to be, if they stood by their guns what would the advantage amount to? The affair must be turned into a regular rout in order that the scouts might reap the full benefit.

Accordingly all of them got busy immediately. George pounded on a hollow log with a heavy stick, and managed to produce a series of throbbing sounds that were likely to add to the consternation of the listeners; Ted clapped two stones together; while Toby and Chatz rattled the brush violently, and added a few choice groans of their own manufacture as good measure.

It was enough, yes more than sufficient.

Human nature had reached its limit, so far as those alarmed fellows were concerned. Undoubtedly they must have become convinced that their raid on the preserves of the ghostly guardian of the haunted Cartaret place had aroused the ire of the said defender, and that they were now in deadly danger of being seized by bony hands.

Of course Connie and his followers were raw novices in matters connected with haunts, and all such things, or they would have known that no self respecting ghost was ever caught giving public exhibitions of his oddities in broad daylight. The gloom of night, or the weird light of the moon, has always had a monopoly of these thrilling diversions.

When Connie Mallon suddenly gave a tremendous spring forward, and started on a full run, there was no holding the other three back. They went plunging madly on in his wake, paying little attention to the direction they took, so long as their flight promised to carry them away from those dreadful manifestations.

Elmer did not stop his labors; in fact he even went to some pains to increase the racket, under the impression that once you get a thing started it is good policy to keep it moving.

He had distinctly warned the others, however, not to allow their excitement to overlap their discretion; for should one of them so far forget himself enough to give vent to a genuine boyish shout, perhaps the panic-stricken quartette might become wise to the fact that they were being made victims to a great hoax.

"Come on, let's chase after them a bit, fellows!" Elmer told them, between his puffs through the birch bark megaphone; "but keep well back, so that they can't get a look-in at us if they turn their heads. Noise is what we want, and plenty of the right kind."

Acting on his suggestion the others trailed after their leader. They swished in and out of the bushes, and accompanied their progress with all manner of novel sounds, each of which was calculated to add just a mite more to the alarm of the fugitives.

More than once they heard loud cries of pain coming from ahead, as one of the runners collided with some tree which had not been noticed in his terror; or else found himself tripped up by a wild grape-vine that lay in wait for unwary feet. As Toby declared later on, all this was "just pie" for the chasers; they feasted off it, and seemed to enjoy the run immensely; which was more than the Mallon boy, with his three cronies, could ever say.

At least Connie seemed to have kept his head about him in one important particular, which pleased Elmer very much; he knew in which direction lay their wagon, for which he had been in the act of sending one of his companions at the very moment this awful clamor broke out which had started them in full flight.

The neigh of a horse close at hand told Elmer what was happening, and he immediately held his eager clan in. Far be it from them to wish to delay the departure of the Mallon tribe, whose room was worth far more to the scouts than their company.

"Wait, and listen!" said Elmer, in a whisper.

"You didn't get the whole of that straight, Elmer," Toby told him, quickly, in a low, husky voice; "you ought to have said, 'Stop! Look! Listen!' That's the way it always is at railroad crossings!"

"Hist! Be still!" cautioned the leader.

They could hear loud excited voices near by, accompanied by the stamping of horses' hoofs, as though the excitement had communicated to the team used by Connie Mallon and his three cronies in their rival nutting expedition.

"Now, let's start up again, and add the finishing touches!" Elmer told the others, when a dozen more seconds had dragged past, and they felt they might safely assume that the fugitives must have untied the team, as well as scrambled into the wagon.

Once again did that strange chorus break forth, with Elmer groaning through his birch bark horn, and the others doing all in their power to accompany him in regular orthodox ghostly style, in as far as their limited education along these lines went.

Taken altogether the racket was certainly enough to scare almost any one. Snorts and prancing on the part of the horses announced that they were now sharing the general excitement. Then came cries urging haste, and presently the plain unmistakable smack of a whip being brought down with decided emphasis on the backs of the animals, several times repeated.

With that there was the crunch of wheels, and away dashed the two-horse wagon, making for the road which Connie knew must not be far away. Once or twice the scouts had fugitive glimpses of the departing vehicle as it flashed past small glades where the view happened to be unobstructed; and it was certainly "killing," as George called it, to see those fellows bouncing about in the bed of the wagon, holding on for dear life, and with Connie plying the whip savagely, while the horses leaped and tugged and strained to make fast time over the uneven floor of the woods.

The echoes of the flight grew fainter in the distance, and presently as they stood there the scouts could tell from the change in sounds that those who were fleeing from the wrath of the ghosts must have reached the harder road, for the hoof beats of the horses came with a pounding stroke.

Gradually even this was dying away. Then the five boys turned and looked at each other, with their faces wreathed in huge grins.

"Tell me, Elmer, is it safe to let off steam now?" demanded Toby, eagerly.

"If you're careful not to be too noisy, go it!" came the reply.

With that Toby threw himself flat on his back, and began to kick his heels up in the air, all the while laughing, and giving queer gurglings that were meant to serve his pent-up emotions about as the escape valve of a boiler does when the steam presses too heavily on the boiler, and relief is necessary.

He was not alone in his hilarity, although the merriment of the others partook of a different nature. Ted, Chatz and George went around shaking hands, and assuring each other that never in all their lives had they ever run across a more ridiculous diversion than this flight of the bold nut-gatherers.

"Talk to me about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow," said George, who prided himself on his knowledge of history, "why, it wasn't in the same category as that wonderful escape of the Connie Mallon gang from the raid of the Cartaret ghosts. And say, what thrilling stories they'll have to tell about it all! Believe me, the whole Hickory Ridge will know about it by night time. Oh! I'll never forget it! I haven't had so much fun for a whole year as to-day. It was worth coming twenty miles just to see them on the jump."

"Why," observed Ted, after he could regain his breath in part, "that Phil Jackthon took the cake when it came to covering ground. Did you thee him clear that log like a buck? I bet you he made a record jump that time, and beat anything he ever marked up on the thlate at a match."

"Well, they're gone, all right," said Chatz; "and from the way they whipped their poor hosses I'd like to guess they'll keep on the wild run till they get home. And there isn't much chance that we'll be bothered again by that Mallon bunch to-day; how about that, Elmer?"

"You can set that down as certain," replied the one spoken to. "It would take more spunk than any of that crowd happens to own for them to change their minds, and come back here. And that's why I wanted you to be careful not to give the secret away. We've got the field to ourselves the rest of the day."

"Unless something comes along to give us a scare too," added Chatz, meaningly; for truth to tell, the superstitious Southern boy was already wondering whether all this playing ghost on their part might not bring something down on their heads savoring of retribution.

"Then what's to hinder our getting busy, and changing all that pile of fine nuts from their sacks to ours?" George wanted to know. "The spoils of battle belong to the victors every time; and besides, they were trying to beat us out of our share as first discoverers. For one I ain't a bit ashamed to grab everything. Let that silly bunch wake up earlier next time, if they mean to get away with the game."

What Elmer may have thought just then he did not say; but his ideas were certainly not so pronounced as those of George, who was a pretty blunt fellow, one of the "give-and-take" kind.

As they were all of one mind a start back was made; and Toby, not wishing to be left in the lurch, had to bring his kicking exhibition to an abrupt finish, and hasten after his four chums.

The glorious store of nuts that had already been gathered was immediately turned from the sacks owned by Connie Mallon and his cronies into the burlap bags the scouts had provided for the purpose. Then, far from satisfied, the boys proceeded to take up the work where the late nut-gatherers had left off. They climbed trees, and whipped the branches with the long poles, delighting in the sound of splendid nuts rattling down like hail. There is such a fascination about this sport that it is difficult to know just when to stop it; and the ground was soon covered to such an extent, that when the harvest had been gleaned several of the enemy's bags were more than half filled with the surplus.

"I never saw half so many chestnuts, walnuts and shell-bark hickory nuts gathered in heaps in all my life, as there are right here!" declared George; "a big bag apiece all around, and with three partly filled sacks belonging to that crowd left over."

"Which extra plunder," said Elmer, quietly, "I'm sure none of us would think of wanting, as we've got twice as much as we can use already."

"Then you're going to leave them for the ghost, are you?" asked Chatz, eagerly.

"We'll take them along," said Elmer, "and turn them over to Connie Mallon as a consolation prize; he'll find them in his front yard to-morrow morning, bright and early."

CHAPTER V
WHAT A SCOUT LEARNS

"Huh! so far as the nuts go, I haven't any objection," remarked George; "but to my mind it's going to be like casting pearls before swine. They'll never appreciate the real motive back of the thing; and chances are they'll reckon we're throwing them a sop so they won't hold hard feelings against us."

"Perhaps you're right, George," Elmer admitted; "but don't forget we're every one of us true scouts, and that we've promised to hold out the olive branch to those we call our enemies, whenever we find the chance. There's such a thing as heaping coals of fire on another fellow's head, doing a kindness to the one who hates you, and making him ashamed of himself. Scouts learn that lesson early in their service, you remember. If we didn't have all the nuts ourselves, perhaps I'd hesitate to put this up to you, but it's no sacrifice to any of us."

"Elmer, I agree with you there," Ted spoke up. "Of courth none of us may ever know jutht how they take it; but when a fellow hath done his duty he needn't bother himthelf wondering whether it payth."

"Listen to Ted preach, will you?" jeered Toby, who truth to tell was not much in favor of carrying those three half-filled hags of nuts all the way to town, just to serve as a "consolation prize" to those fellows who had conspired to cheat them out of their just dues.

"But he's right in what he says," maintained Chatz stoutly, for he had a Southerner's code of honor, and was more chivalrous that any other fellow in the whole troop of scouts. "Duty is duty, no matter how disagreeable it seems. And when once you realize that it's up to you to hold out a hand to the treacherous enemy who's flim-flammed you many a time, why, you'll have no peace of mind till you've made the effort."

"But," Toby went on to say, sneeringly; "if you step up to Connie Mallon, and say: 'Here's your bags come back, and we chucked the leavings in the same, which the ghost is sending you by us to sort of soft soap your injured feelings,' why, d'ye know what he's apt to do; jump on you, and begin to use those big fists of his like pile drivers. You'll have to excuse me from being the white-winged messenger of peace, Elmer. I pass."

"There's no need of doing it that way, Toby," he was informed by the scout master. "Some time to-night, as late as we can make it, we'll carry these partly filled bags around to Connie's place, and drop them over the fence. Hold on, here's another of the same sort; now, if we only had that as full as the rest it would be just one all around, and we could leave them in each yard, you see."

"Like old Santa Claus had been making his annual visit, only this time he picked out Thanksgiving time instead of Christmas," remarked Toby, a trifle bitterly; and yet strange to say he was the very first one to start in gathering more nuts and thrusting his find into the fourth Mallon bag; which told Elmer that much of his objection was mere surface talk, and that his heart really beat as true to the principles of scout membership as did any other present.

"Many hands make light work," and so plentiful were the several varieties of nuts that it was not long before the fourth bag was half filled. No doubt those boys felt better because of this act. The chances were they would never get any credit for what they were doing, but as Elmer told them, the consciousness of having done a decent act should always be quite enough for any ordinary scout.

"And every one of us has a clear title to turning our badges right-side up, after working so hard for our enemies," Chatz declared, as they "knocked off."

"Well, how about that dinner, camp style?" demanded Toby, drawing out the waistband of his khaki trousers to show what a quantity of room he had for a supply of cooked food.

"It's long after noon, so we might as well get busy with dinner," Elmer replied.

After stowing all the sacks away in the bushes, where they were not likely to be discovered, should any outsider wander on the scene while they were employed elsewhere, the scouts busied themselves in making preparations for the camp meal which all of them had so long been anxiously looking forward to.

First of all a fire was started in the most approved manner, some flat stones being built up in two parallel ridges. Long ago these lads had found that there was nothing so splendidly adapted for camp cooking as a gridiron of some sort, made after the pattern of the shelf in the kitchen oven at home, with grill bars. This could be easily placed on stones, or even mounds of earth if the first were not available, and there was no danger of anything upsetting; while the flames, or the heat of the red coals had a chance to accomplish the work. So they never went forth, when there was a possibility of cooking being done, without carrying this contrivance along with them.

They had been thoughtful enough to also fetch along a coffee-pot, an extra large frying-pan made of sheetiron, and the necessary tin platters, cups, knives, forks and spoons.

Soon the delicious odor of dinner began to steal forth, causing Toby to sniff the air with rapture, and loudly declare:

"Fried onions, coffee, ham, potatoes, and plenty of fresh bread and butter; that's the bill of fare, is it? Gee! whiz! you couldn't beat it if you tried all day. And every minute's going to seem like a whole hour to me till I hear the welcome call to the feast."

"We're a lucky lot to be sitting around here like this, and a bully dinner coming on, when we think of that bunch of soreheads hustling for home, not even half a dozen nuts in their pockets, and even their gunny sacks lost," Chatz remarked.

"Yes, provided somebody don't get too gay, and upset all that coffee into the fire," grumbled George, who evidently would not feel sure of his dinner until he had devoured it, because, as he was fond of repeating, "there's many a slip 'tween the cup and the lip," and Toby was so apt to be so clumsy in moving around.

As usually occurred, however, George's fears proved groundless, because no accident happened to the splendid dinner, which they were soon enjoying to their hearts' content. There was enough and to spare, so that even Toby admitted he could find no more room, when Elmer pressed him to have a third helping.

"If we had Ty Collins and Lil Arthur Stansbury along there never would be even a crumb left over, no matter how much you cooked," said Toby, as he heaved a sigh, and released another button so as to add to his comfort; "I'm a pretty good hand, but when it comes to crowding the mourners, and stowing the grub away, they take the prize."

For a while afterward the boys sat around the fire, and talked of the recent happenings. There was plenty of time to get home before dusk, which was really all that they wished to do, so none of them showed any desire to hurry off.

Later on, however, when some one happened to mention the fact that if there was nothing more to be done they might as well bring the wagon up, load their cargo of well filled sacks, and be moving along toward town, Toby suddenly remembered something.



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