Alan Douglas.

Under Canvas: or, The Hunt for the Cartaret Ghost



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The netting was fashioned into head protectors, the ends being tucked well down in their coats. Then donning heavy gloves the two boys selected for the work, George and Ty Collins, started boldly into that whirling mass of excited bees.

They shortly came out bearing pans full of splendid honey, and doubtless a considerable number of stings in spite of all the precautions taken against this evil.

"Next time look for a little fresher stock," Elmer told them; "for while this is all right, and like amber in color, you'll find that it's last year's gathering. Split the tree further up, and get the latest stuff!"

So Ty took the ax back with him; while George worked a sort of smoke smudge Elmer had prepared, in order to help stupefy the bees. It did the business in great shape, too, as every bee keeper uses this means for keeping the little insects from paying too much attention to him when he is working with their hive. They seem to fancy that their home is in deadly danger of being consumed, and every working bee immediately burdens itself down with all the honey it can carry, and for the time being renders itself helpless to use its sting.

Every scout managed to accumulate one or more lumps, however, for the air was heavily charged with the bewildered insects, now homeless on a fall afternoon; and although the boys did a great deal of dodging they could not avoid contact all the time. But then the sight of that splendid honey made them forget their present troubles. They snatched up the bottle of witch hazel, or applied the ammonia solution recklessly, to immediately start in again working like heroes.

Elmer started back to camp bearing their one bucket actually full of the most delicious honey he had ever tasted; and soon afterwards Lil Artha followed with two kettles also heavily laden with the same.

When Chatz came along with several heavy honeycombs secured with an arrangement consisting of cords, and stout twigs from some hickory tree, the three looked at each other in dire dismay.

"We can't live on honey alone, you know," Lil Artha up and said; "and it looks like we've already got every cooking vessel loaded down, with not half the store of sweet stuff cleaned out. What in the wide world can we do with it all? I guess this is a case of too much of a good thing."

"I know!" declared Chatz, suddenly; "in prowling around that haunted house I saw several old stone jars in what was once used as a pantry. Let's go over and lug the same to camp, Lil Artha. They can be washed out clean, and will hold all that honey, I assure you, suh. And we can carry most of the same back home with us to show other scouts what we've been doing up here in the woods."

So the pair hastened away, and after a while came back with the stone crocks or jars, each of which would hold several gallons. Elmer pronounced them the finest possible thing for holding their rich find, and proceeded to cleanse them thoroughly at the spring, after which the various cooking receptacles were emptied, and both Chatz and Lil Artha started eagerly back to the fountainhead for a fresh supply.

They certainly cleaned out the best part of that tree hive during the next hour, and had four jars full of splendid honey, some of it as clear as crystal.

It was the greatest "harvest home" the Hickory Ridge Boy Scouts had ever experienced; and they seemed never to get quite enough of the sweet stuff, for every one kept tasting as new supplies were disclosed by splitting the tree further.

Finally, however, it came to an end, and the distracted bees were let alone with the sad wreck of their once fine hive. Perhaps, if they survived the chill of the coming night, some of them would start in fresh, and carry away enough of the discolored honey, refused by the discriminating scouts, to start a new hive, and keep the swarm alive during the winter.

Nobody seemed furiously hungry as the afternoon waned and the shades of night began to gather around the camp. This was hardly to be wondered at, however, since they had tasted so much honey for hours that it took away their customary zest for ordinary food. Elmer told them it was a bad thing, and every fellow promised that from that time on he would take his sweet stuff in moderation.

Of course they cooked some dinner; and after once getting a taste of the fried onions and potatoes it seemed that to some degree their fickle appetites did return, so that the food vanished in the end.

"I'm thinking about all that darker honey we left there," Lil Artha was saying, as they sat around the crackling fire long after night had fallen, and supper had been disposed of an hour or more.

"My starth!" ejaculated Ted, "I hope now you don't want to lay in any more of the thweet thtuff, do you, Lil Artha? Why, we'll be thticky all over with it. Don't be a hog. Leave thome to the poor little beeth; and it didn't look real nice, you know."

"Oh! I wasn't regretting that we couldn't make a clean sweep," explained the tall scout, whose face was once more gradually resuming its normal appearance; "but if what I've read is true, up in some places where they have black bears, they always set a watch when they've cut down a bee tree. You see, the smell of the honey is in the air, and if there's a bruin inside of five miles he'll be visiting that broken tree hive before morning, when the watcher can send a bullet into him."

"But you don't think there are bears around here, do you?" asked George, always to be found on the side of the opposition.

"Well, hardly," replied Lil Artha, "though some of us wish it might be so, because we've got a gun along, and they say bear steak isn't half bad when you're in camp, even if it does taste like dry tough beef when you're at home, and sitting down with a white table cloth before you. I'd like to try some, that's what; but this expedition wasn't started for a bear hunt, you know."

"No, that's so," Ty Collins remarked; "more likely a ghost hunt," and he gave Chatz a sly look out of the corner of his eye as he said this.

"That was meant for me, suh," Chatz said, with dignity; "you think you can laugh at me because I'm weak enough to believe there may be such a thing as a ghost. But if you-all are so sure nothing of the kind ever could happen, what's to hinder me from having the entire camp along to-night when I go over there and hide, to watch what happens at exactly midnight?"

Elmer laughed softly.

"Do you mean that as a dare, Chatz?" he asked.

"Take it as you please, suh; and we'll soon see who believes in ghosts or not; because the one who backs down first is likely after all to be afraid of meeting up with visitors from the spirit land."

"Who's going along with Chatz and myself?" asked Elmer, turning to the circling scouts; who began to look serious, and cast quick glances toward each other.

"Oh! I'll keep you company, Elmer!" said George, first of all; for somehow he fancied everybody was staring hard at him, and not for worlds would he allow them to think he was afraid.

"Count me in!" added Ty Collins, with a laugh, that bordered on the reckless.

"I'll go along, too," observed Ted.

Landy Smith hastened to nod his head in the affirmative when Elmer looked at him; Lil Artha spoke up and said he was bound to be one of the number; and finally Toby completed the list by signifying that he was ready to sacrifice himself also.

CHAPTER XII
THE MIDNIGHT VIGIL

"I'm glad to learn we don't have any 'fraidcats in this camp, and that I'm likely enough to have plenty of company in keeping watch to-night in the haunted house," Chatz remarked cheerfully, after the last scout had been heard from.

"I've waited to see if it was going to be made unanimous," Elmer told them at this juncture; "and now that you've all toed the mark so handsomely, why of course I'll have to exercise my judgment in picking out, say a couple of fellows, who will stay to look after the camp here while the rest of us are otherwise employed."

"Lassoing ghosts, for instance!" Lil Artha murmured.

Elmer looked around the circle of faces again. All of them knew that he was selecting the pair of scouts who would be left behind, and while doubtless a number of the boys were secretly hoping deep down in their hearts that they might be one of the lucky number, they tried their best to appear indifferent.

"Ted, you're one!" said the leader, presently; "and I think I'll appoint Landy to keep you company." The latter commenced to splutter a little, when Elmer raised his hand, and continued: "Now, don't get the notion in your heads that because I've selected you for playing the r?le of martyr it was because I thought you'd prove weak-kneed, or in any way show up poorly. I've no reason to think anything of the sort; only there had to be two chosen, and I've taken you for reasons of my own. Landy was complaining a short time ago of feeling squeamish, after gorging himself with all that honey; and in case he gets sick who could attend so well to him as our Doctor Ted?"

That was explanation enough, and every one had to rest satisfied. Perhaps, if the truth were told, neither of the two scouts had any regrets coming; and secretly they were envied by some of the less fortunate ones, who would gladly have guarded the camp stores, if given the opportunity.

"One thing good," Chatz informed them, "we're going to have a moon poking up in a little while. You know it's past the full stage, but from ten o'clock up to daylight it'll hold the fort up above."

"Fine!" exclaimed George, with a half laugh; "I always do like to have bright moonlight whenever I go after ghosts. You can see the white things so much better, and watch 'em flit around as soft as silk. I'm glad you've ordered up a moon to help out, Chatz; it'll sure make things more interesting."

"I think myself it will, suh," the Southern boy said, placidly in his turn; "and if any of us feel like we'd want to make a bee-line from the house to this camp here, why, the running is better when you have moonlight, you know."

"Huh! that was meant for me, I guess, Chatz," sneered George; "but you'll have to take it out in waiting if you expect to see me chasing along, and hollering for help, because some old owl with a white front shows up, or the bats begin to fly in and out of that tower. I'm not built very much that way."

"I hope not, suh!" was all Chatz said in reply; but George was seen to color up, and look a trifle confused, as though possibly he might not be feeling quite as bold inwardly as his words would imply.

"When ought we start over?" asked Lil Artha, just as carelessly, to all appearances, as though it might be a friendly visit to some neighboring camp, instead of a thrilling experience in a haunted house.

"In about half an hour or so after the moon rises," Elmer informed him; "that ought to be time enough, don't you think, Chatz?"

"Plenty, suh," came the reply, "because, if there is any truth at all in these stories they tell about such places, the fun doesn't ever begin till midnight."

"Fun!" muttered Toby, rubbing his chin reflectively; "well, it does beat all creation what some people call fun. Now, so far as I'm concerned, while I'm going along with you, and can't be made to back out, it's all a silly nuisance. I'd rather be climbing up into that same old tower, and getting ready for a drop with my reliable parachute."

"No use of that in the night-time, Toby," remonstrated Ty; "mebbe to-morrow we'll get a blanket brigade to stand below while you make your first jump, so's to let you down easy if the old thing breaks."

"No danger of that, Ty; because I've gone all over it again and again, and right now she could sustain a weight of half a ton, I reckon. But it's good of you to be interested enough in my invention to lend a helping hand. Think what it'll mean to all the tribe of aeronauts when every flier is equipped with a Jones Life-saving Parachute, that is guaranteed to float him softly to the ground even if he has a breakdown accident a mile up in the clouds."

Toby after that fell into a musing spell. Perhaps in imagination he peopled the air fairly filled with flitting aeroplanes, and every single aviator supplied with the remarkable device that was going to make the name of Jones the most famous in all the wide land.

The other scouts chatted, and exchanged all sorts of lively remarks. They even indulged in several songs that sounded very strange when heard among those whispering pines of the grove, and knowing as they did what manner of house stood close by, with a halo of mystery surrounding it.

Just as Chatz had predicted the moon arose close on ten o'clock. It was no longer as round as a shield, but had an end lopped off; still the flood of mellow light that came from the lantern in the sky was very acceptable to the scouts, and served to render their intended mission less objectionable.

Finally Elmer arose, and there was a start on the part of those who had been selected to accompany the leader and Chatz on their singular errand.

"I hope you'll let me carry the gun, Elmer?" Lil Artha remarked, coaxingly.

"Why should you?" replied the other, instantly; "if it is a real ghost a bullet wouldn't hurt a bit; and if it should turn out to be some one playing a mad prank I don't think you'd feel easy in your mind if you were tempted to shoot him."

"But it might be some tramp or hard case, and we'd want to subdue him; how about that, Elmer?" questioned Toby.

"Well, we can carry clubs if we like," said Elmer; "and I mean to have a piece of stout rope, so we can tie him up if we overpower him. Six scouts can put up a pretty hefty sort of fight, it strikes me, if things get to that point. No, leave the gun for the defenders of the camp and the grub."

When presently the six boys stalked forth on their singular errand they did not seem to be in very merry spirits. True, Elmer was smiling as though he could give half a guess as to what they were about to run up against; and there was Chatz, a satisfied grin on his dark countenance; but the remainder of the investigating party could hardly have looked more solemn and melancholy if they had been about to attend the funeral of a dear departed friend.

"Good luck!" called out Ted, after them; while Landy waved his hand mockingly, and grinned happily as he remarked:

"We'll expect to see you fetch back at least one full-fledged ghost, boys; and take care he don't bite you. They're apt to do something along that order, I'm told, by people who've interviewed some of the species. But you c'n tame 'em so they'll even eat out of your hand."

"Just you wait, that's all," was the sum total of what the departing scouts deigned to reply, as they vanished amidst the mixture of silvery moonbeams and darkening shadows.

Soon they glimpsed the house through the dense vegetation. It stood out boldly in the moonlight, grim and silent. There was not the half expected gleam of any inside illumination, only the dilapidated windows, the walls covered in many places by a rank growth of Virginia Creeper vine, the broken chimneys rearing themselves up above the ridge, and that square tower overtopping it all.

As they approached the walls of the house it might have been noticed that those of the scouts who had been lingering a little back of the rest somehow seemed to think they ought to close the gap, for they hurried their footsteps, and were soon in a cluster, with no laggards.

"I've thought to fetch my little handy electric torch along, Elmer," said Lil Artha about this time.

"It may come in useful," was the reply Elmer made; "but with all that moonlight going to waste I hardly think we'll need it. Still, you never can tell, and it's a mighty clever affair. You were wise to think of fetching it, Lil Artha."

"Are we going to separate, Elmer; and if we do, will you let me place the rest of the boys, suh?" Chatz asked before they reached the yawning doorway of the deserted building.

"How about that, fellows?" the leader asked them; "do you think we had better split up into several small parties or stand together?"

Toby, Lil Artha, Ty Collins and George heard this announcement with a new sense of consternation. In imagination they could easily picture how dreary and unpleasant it was going to be if each one had to take a post isolated from the rest, there to stand and listen, and perhaps shiver as the time crept on, until he must become so nervous that he could give a yell.

"For my part, Elmer," Lil Artha said, hastily, "I think we had ought to stick in a bunch. One couldn't do much against a – er – ghost, you see; while the lot of us might be able to down anything going."

"That's what I think too, Elmer," piped up George, "though of course, if you say so, I'm willing to do anything to carry on the game."

"United we stand, divided we fall!" spouted Ty Collins, who, while a big blustering good-hearted fellow himself, did not exactly like the thought of being alone in that weather-beaten and half wrecked house, as the hour drew on toward midnight.

"I think we ought to stick together, Elmer," Toby declared, which confession appeared to tickle Chatz, judging from the low snicker he gave utterance to; for, just as he had suspected, while none of these fellows would admit that they placed the least faith in things bordering on the supernatural, still they did not fancy finding themselves left alone in a house that had been given a bad name.

Elmer had been talking matters over with Chatz, so that they were agreed as to where the watchers should take up their positions. All talking except in whispers was frowned down upon from that time forward; and there is always something exciting about a situation when everybody is speaking in low tones.

They entered the house, and led by Chatz passed up the rickety stairs. This was evidence enough that their vigil was about to be undertaken in the upper story. George seemed to think that if he could manifest a disposition to joke a little it would be pretty good evidence that he at least was not afraid; and while as a rule he left this weakness to Toby and Lil Artha he could not resist the temptation to lean over and whisper to Ty, so that Chatz also might hear, something to the effect that it was just as well they were mounting those shaky stairs because people who believed in silly ghosts must be weak in the upper story.

No one laughed, so George did not attempt any more witticisms. Truth to tell, he was not feeling as perfectly indifferent as he tried to make out; and when one of the others slipped a little, George it was who exclaimed hastily:

"Oh! what in thunder was that?"

When the six scouts had gained the second floor they passed along the wide hall to the place that had been chosen for the vigil. While in the gloom themselves it was easily possible for them to look along the moonlit hall, diversified with shadows, and see any moving thing that might attempt to pass that way. At the same time by turning their heads they could see out of the nearest window, and have a fair view of the open space between the wall of the house and the dense bushes close by. Beyond arose the thickly interlaced trees, a wild scramble along the line of the survival of the fittest.

Elmer stationed them all as he thought would be best. They were told that they could sit down cross-legged, Turkish fashion, if they chose; but under no circumstances was any one to allow himself to be overpowered by sleep. If a scout had reason to believe the one next to him were nodding suspiciously he must whisper words of warning in his ear; and should that fail to effect a radical cure he was empowered to try other tactics, if by chance he possessed a pin.

Having been fully awake at the time of their arrival, something like half an hour went by with all the scouts apparently on the watch. Then George had to be admonished by Lil Artha several times, until finally a low gasp, and muttering, as well as quick rubbing of his thigh on the part of George announced that the radical means had been employed in order to keep him awake.

There is nothing more reliable as a sleep preventative than the jab of a pin; it seems to send an electric shock through the whole system, and eyes that were just about to close fly wide-open again.

Twenty minutes later another low gurgling cry arose; this time it came from the elongated scout, and George was heard to whisper savagely:

"Tit for tat, Lil Artha; you gave me a stab, and now we're even."

"'Sh! I thought I heard something moving down there in the bushes!" the scout master told them, cautiously.

Of course every one was immediately quivering with intense anxiety and eagerness. It was very close on the mystic hour of midnight, too, which added to the interest of the matter. Could it be that they were about to witness some strange manifestation such as Chatz professed to believe was possible? No wonder that the boys wriggled erect, stiff in their joints after sitting there tailor-fashion so long, and pressing toward the open window stared down toward the bushes to which Elmer had referred when he spoke.



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