Alan Douglas.

Under Canvas: or, The Hunt for the Cartaret Ghost



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"Well, I declare if I didn't nearly forget one of the most important things of the whole excursion!" he exclaimed.

"What?" asked George, ready to object at once, if the thing did not meet with his approval.

"Why, you know I told you I'd been fixing up another little stunt connected with the wonderful science of aviation, and right here's where I see a golden opportunity to try it out for the second time. It seemed to work all right with me in a ten-foot drop, and next thing is to make it thirty. If she does that, and I live to tell the tale, you're apt to see the name of Jones right often in the papers pretty soon."

He had pounced on that mysterious package of his while speaking, and was busily engaged in unwrapping the same, while the others crowded around, curious to learn what it could be that the aspiring inventor had hit on now. So many of Toby's startling devices had turned out to be the rankest fizzles, that his comrades had come to be very skeptical with regard to his ability to make good.

"Why, I declare if it ain't only an old umbrella after all!" exclaimed George, with his accustomed sniff of disdain, as the contents of the package became visible after the paper had been cast aside.

"You're away off there, George," affirmed Toby; "because every bit of it's brand new. My own invention too; nothing just like it ever known before."

"Huh! I believe you!" grumbled the skeptical George.

"It's what they call a parachute," Toby continued, glibly. "You know the kind the hot air balloon men use at county fairs when they go up; well this is an improvement along that line, and is intended to let an aeronaut drop a mile and more, if anything happens to his machine when he's up among the clouds."

"That sounds pretty well, Toby," remarked Elmer, though there was a shade of doubt on his face, for up to then Toby had really never managed to impress his chums with his greatness as an inventor; he was always getting excited over things, but seemed to lack the ability to successfully grasp the ideas that were floating around in his mind.

"You'll soon see that this time I have got a grand scheme in this safety device," the inventor boasted; "you know there are an awful lot of casualties among air-men these days. Some sort of thing goes wrong when they're away up, and nearly every time it means they fall like a stone. My wonderful parachute will make it impossible for the aviator who carries one along with him to be killed. Let his machine head for the earth like a meteor, and as for him he'll drift down as softly as you please."

"Go on and tell us how all this is meant to do the business," asked Chatz, as Toby amused himself in opening and closing the folds of the big stout umbrella, which certainly seemed to work smoothly enough.

"Why, you see it's fixed so that it will be attached to the back of the man in the aeroplane all the time he's up; a sort of insurance plan, because while he may not need it at all, if he does it's there handy.

When he finds his machine has gone back on him all he has to do is to jump boldly out into space. The Jones patent parachute does all the rest. It's as reliable as United States bonds, and will save lots of the poor fellows who, but for my thinking up this scheme, might have lost their lives this next year."

"Of course you've tried it out, Toby?" suggested Chatz.

"Never will work in the wide world," affirmed George; "because in nine cases out of ten it'd get caught somehow in the planes or the machinery of the aeroplane, and the poor chump who had pinned his faith to the Jones Parachute would come down ker-plunk with his wrecked motor!"

"Shows how little you know about some things, George," Toby flashed back; "if the directions are faithfully followed there never can be an accident like you say. As to trying it out, I've had one little drop, say of about ten feet, but that was too short, because the umbrella didn't have a chance to get fully open; and when I struck the ground it near rattled every tooth in my head out. But now I want to get up at least thirty feet, and then drop with the thing already open."

"But see here," Elmer told him; "I should think you'd have found a way to test the opening of the thing by throwing it over some precipice, with a heavy rock tied in place of a man."

"Just what I did, Elmer!" cried the other, hastily. "I spent a whole Saturday morning up at that big rock that overlooks Lake Jupiter, and five different times I tossed the parachute, folded up, over the edge, with a stone weighing more than a hundred and fifty pounds fastened to the same."

"And how did it work?" asked Chatz.

"Like a charm," replied the happy inventor. "The umbrella opened as quick as it began to drop, and after that it floated to the ground all right. Course it hit a little hard, because you couldn't expect it to sail along like a thistle-down, with all that weight attached; but the shock wasn't enough to hurt – much, I guess. And while we sat here eating I saw the very tree I'm meaning to climb. Look over there, and notice that half dead one, with one big dead limb hanging out, and nothing else on that same side. How high would you call that, Elmer?"

"Nearer forty feet than thirty, I should judge; and enough to kill you if you fell straight," replied the scout master.

"Don't worry about me, now; I'm all fixed for it, and I've got on my rubber-soled shoes in the bargain, so I'll be light on my feet. But I would like some of you to give me a lift up that tree."

"It's got plenty of branches on this side, so that you won't have much trouble climbing, once you get a start," Chatz told him, starting forward to lend what assistance lay in his power.

"Better not try that risky game, Toby," objected George, possibly really concerned about the safety of his comrade, but more than likely voicing his natural liking for being on the side of the opposition, for some boys are built that way, and never so happy as when throwing obstacles in the way of success.

Toby, however, paid no attention to this grumbling on the part of George. Ted and Chatz helped him into the tree, and then handed up the wonderful parachute which, if it turned out to be one-half as successful as its proud inventor claimed, was going to be a great boon for all those who took their lives in their hands and went up among the clouds in air machines.

Higher climbed Toby, managing somehow to lug his burden along with him, although it certainly could not have been any light weight.

His objective point was a large decayed limb that stood out all alone on one side of the trunk. As Elmer had calculated this was all the way from thirty-five to forty feet from the ground, and that distance offered him a good chance to experiment with his parachute.

"Be careful, Toby, and don't take too many risks!" Elmer called out to him, making use of the birch bark megaphone, so as to impress his words more positively on the other.

"Oh! look there what's running up ahead of Toby, would you?" cried George. "As sure as you live it's a 'coon, with its striped tail, and scared half to death because a critter with two legs has clumb his private tree. He must have popped out of that hole you c'n see where Toby is. And say, if the little fool hasn't gone and run out on that very limb where Toby's planned to jump from."

"Keep back, everybody!" warned Elmer; "give Toby and the 'coon all the room they need, because our chum is attaching the parachute to his body right now!"

CHAPTER VI
LOOKING AROUND

"Here goes, fellows; now watch me make the jump!"

Toby had adjusted the big parachute to his satisfaction, before he called this out; and it seemed to have been attached to his back by means of some device of his own. When open it resembled a large umbrella, only the ribs were made much more solid than the usual ones.

"It's lucky the ground's pretty soft down here, Toby!" called George; "because you're apt to get a swift knock when you land. Be sure and keep that tongue of yours well inside your mouth, or you might bite it off."

"Seems to me you do your share of biting, George; you've always got some ill-natured remark to make about everything I invent. Nothing venture, nothing gained, is my motto. And now I'll walk a little further out on this limb, so as to get a better chance to jump; and then watch me sail like a thistle-down!"

"Careful, there, Toby!" shouted Elmer, as the scout up in the tree started to move out further, looking very queer with that canopy over his head, and his waving arms assisting him to keep his balance.

Hardly had the scout master given this warning than what he possibly anticipated happened. There was an ominous crack, and the rotten limb started to drop earthward. So did Toby, though the parachute caught the air, and sustained his weight pretty fairly. How it would have been had he been thousands of feet up, instead of a paltry thirty-five, was a question that could not be answered.

The four boys saw the limb come crashing down, to break into fragments when it landed. Strange to say the ring-tailed animal that had accompanied the rotten limb in its sudden descent did not appear to have suffered any material damage from the drop; because it was seen to run away as soon as the termination of the unexpected aerial voyage had been reached.

As for Toby, he was certainly falling, but buoyed up by that stout material extended in the shape of a parachute, his descent was not nearly so rapid as it must otherwise have been.

He struck the ground with a resounding thump, and then fell over in a heap; though from the scrambling that ensued the others knew he could not have been hurt very much.

"How'd she go, Toby?" demanded Chatz, hurrying forward to assist the daring air navigator, if it turned out he needed any help.

"Kinder hard slap it gave me when I hit terra firma," replied the other, whose lip was bleeding a little, showing that he must have bitten it; "but all that's going to be remedied easy enough. What she needs is a little more canvas; ain't a big enough sail yet to hold me up. But whee! who'd ever expect that limb to snap off as sudden as that? See what it means to be prepared, fellows? Scouts ain't the only ones that ought to do that same; for if anybody ever needed to be ready, the air pilot does. He never knows what's going to happen to him next."

"Well," the scout master remarked, "let's hope that's plenty for you to-day, Toby. We've stood and watched you make a record drop, and you came through in pretty decent shape; but enough's as good as a feast. The next time things mightn't turn out as nice for you; and we don't want to carry a scout with a broken leg home in our wagon to-day."

"But think of that little 'coon coming down with it all, and then running away as if he didn't have a scratch to show for it?" George observed.

"He got off sound and unhurt, did he?" asked Toby; "I'm real glad of that, 'cause I wouldn't want him to be injured. I reckon that 'coon was a mascot to me, and gave me good luck. But do we get ready to start home so early in the afternoon, Elmer?"

Before any opinion could be advanced by the scout master, Chatz broke in hastily:

"I'm going to ask you a great favor, suh," he told Elmer; "and which I hope you can grant without interfering at all with any plans you have formed."

"What's that, Chatz?" asked the other; although from the quick look he cast in the quarter where lay the haunted house, it was easy to see that he could give a pretty fair guess what it's nature would prove to be.

"Why, suh, we may never get the chance again, and I've always wanted to see what the inside of a haunted house looked like," Chatz went on to say.

"Whee!" burst from the lips of Ted; while both George and Toby pricked up their ears, and began to show considerable interest.

"You mean that while we're up here, and have half an hour or so on our hands," Elmer suggested, "we might as well take a look-in over there, and see if the rats and the owls are the only things living in the Cartaret house."

"I'd like to very much, suh, believe me, I would," Chatz continued, with one of his winning smiles that were very difficult to resist.

"What do the rest say about that?" and as Elmer made this remark he turned to the other three scouts.

"I vote in the affirmative!" Toby immediately answered.

"Thame here," purred Ted.

"Oh! of course I'll join you in anything you hatch up, fellows," George told them; "though I don't take any stock in all this nonsense about ghosts and such. If you show me one, and I can pinch his arm, and feel the bones in his hand, I might believe in the stuff; but you never can, and that's a fact. Still, I'd like to see what the inside of this old Cartaret house is like. I don't believe there's a single fellow in Hickory Ridge that can boast he's been through it. Lead the way, then, Elmer, or Chatz. We'll follow you."

That was always the way with George. He would oblige a comrade every time, but his chronic way of fault-finding, or unbelief, often took away much of the pleasure his accommodating nature might have afforded.

They had bundled the cooking utensils together, ready to be placed in the wagon when it was brought up; Toby also fastened his wonderful parachute in as small a compass as possible, and laid it down alongside the other things.

"Wouldn't want to forget to take that along home for a king's ransom," he stoutly declared, looking defiantly at George, because of course that individual was smiling in a fashion that smacked strongly of incredulity.

After that the whole five of them headed toward the spot where they knew the deserted house was to be found. Chatz was fairly quivering with eagerness, and there was a glow in his dark eyes that told how much he appreciated this chance to pry into the secret lodging place of a reported ghost.

Everything was overgrown, and looked very wild. Elmer remarked that if there really were such things as hobgoblins in this world, they certainly could look long and far without finding a more congenial neighborhood in which to reside; for the whole appearance of the place seemed to smack of the supernatural. The breeze actually whined as it passed through the bare branches of the untrimmed trees close to the house; and loose shutters and windows added to the creaky sounds by their rattling, every time a little gust happened to blow.

"Wow! this sure is spooky enough around here to suit me," Toby frankly admitted, as they stood there, and looked about them.

The house itself had once been quite an extensive, and perhaps costly affair, with two wings, and a spacious hall in the center. That was long ago, for now it was in the throes of dissolution, a mere wreck of its former self, and fit only for bats, owls, and rats. Doors hung on a single hinge, and shutters had been torn off long ago by gales, leaving the paneless windows gaping beyond. Moss streaked the rotten roof, and parts of the porch had given way under accumulated snow piles in previous winters.

As Toby said it certainly was gloomy enough, and one did not need to have a very vivid imagination to picture the tragic scenes that were said to have been enacted here many years ago, when the place was a regular Eden, with flower beds and outbuildings on all sides.

"Gives you the creeps, all right," admitted George.

"Now, for my part," Elmer remarked just then, "I kind of like the feeling it makes pass over you. And as few people have visited here for the last ten years, I'm glad you asked us to look around with you, Chatz. Let's go inside."

There was no trouble about finding a place of entrance, for there were plenty of the same, some originally intended for this purpose, and others the result of decay while the old mansion lay here year after year the sport of winds and storms, winter and summer.

They wandered around from room to room, viewing the wreck of what had once been a very fine house.

"Looks to me like there might be some truth in that story about the Judge making this a regular prison for his young and pretty wife," Elmer announced as his opinion, after they had been pretty well through the lower story, and were climbing the shaky stairs to the upper floor.

"Why, yes, there were actually bars across the windows in that last room!" declared Chatz; "it's just such a place as I've always had in my mind whenever I got to thinking about haunted houses. You could imagine anything might happen here. Right now, if it was midnight, we could watch and see if there was any truth in all those stories about the ghost of the Judge's young wife storming around here, going through all that terrible scene again. I'd give something to be able to learn if she does come back to visit the scenes where she was so unhappy."

"Here, you'll have uth all shaking like we had the ague, if you don't stop that thort of talk," said Ted, apprehensively, and when he thought no one was looking, rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes, as though something connected with the sad story of the old-time tragedy had brought unbidden tears there.

"Well, perhaps you may have just such a chance, Chatz," said Elmer, suddenly, as though he had made his mind up.

"Tell me how," requested the Southern boy, trying to control the eagerness that burned within his soul when he heard this said.

"You remember that we'd about made up our minds to spend the Thanksgiving holidays in camp somewhere, just to have another little outing before winter dropped down on us?" Elmer went on.

"Yes, that's right, we did," muttered Toby, who was almost as much interested in the matter as Chatz.

"And where could we find a better place for spending those few days than right here in the dense woods close to the Cartaret house? There's everything to be had that the heart of a camper might wish; and if you're a ghost hunter, why, here's a splendid field for your activities."

"Elmer, will you do that much for me?" asked Chatz, earnestly.

"Much more, if the chance ever came along, and you know it, Chatz," replied the scout master, warmly. "So, what do you say, shall we consider that settled, boys?"

All of them held up a hand, which meant that they voted in the affirmative.

"But," interposed the Great Objector, "we mustn't forget that there will be several other fellows of our troop along with us on that little outing; and p'raps they mightn't just fancy camping so close to a mouldy old ruin, where the owls and bats fly around nights, and lots of other unpleasant things are apt to crop up."

"Oh! we know Lil Artha, Ty Collins, and Landy Smith well enough to be able to speak for them, too," Elmer ventured; "and the chances are when they hear what we're aiming to do they'll be as wild as Chatz here to investigate."

"We've got a big job cut out for us, I'm thinking, boys," faltered George.

"Rats! who's afraid? Gimme two cents' worth of peanuts, please!" exclaimed Toby, who seemed to be in an unusually good humor, perhaps because of that successful parachute drop, looked forward to with an admixture of hope and fear for a considerable time.

They passed through every part of the house that seemed worth while, even visiting the attic, where the rain had beaten in so many times, that some of the woodwork seemed very mouldy. They frightened an army of bats up there, and there was a lively ducking of heads, with numerous attempts at knocking the flying creatures down with whatever the boys could lay hands on.

Underneath lay the cellars, and determined to see it all the boys trooped down the rotten stairs, saving George, who declared he had had quite enough of the exploration, and that after all he didn't believe in ghosts, and therefore an old ruin with a tragic story back of it failed to impress him as worth much time.

When the others came out a little later, talking about what queer dungeons lay underground, some of which possibly had been constructed by the rich judge to serve as wine cellars, they found George sitting at his ease, and watching the shadow on the stone face of an old and unreliable sun dial.

"I guess long ago that pretty young wife used to sit right where you are, George, and watch the shadow creep around to the hour mark," said Elmer, who must have had a pretty good touch of the romantic in his make-up, to speak in this way.

"Mebbe," George retorted, as though falling back on his old principles, and not willing to believe anything unless shown.

"That finishes our visit to the Cartaret place, for this time, Chatz," Elmer continued, turning to the Southern boy; "I hope you think it paid you for the trouble."

"A dozen times over, suh, I assuah you; and I'll not soon forget your kindness that made this interesting visit possible. Yes, and that promise to come up here again next week, when we're out for our little vacation camping. I shall look forward to the same with the greatest pleasure, believe me, suh."

"Then we might as well get the horse up, and load our cargo?" Elmer suggested.

"Oh! did you see that?" shouted Toby, just then.

"What was it, and where did you see anything?" demanded George, always suspecting that the others were playing practical jokes.



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