Tom Fairfield in Camp: or, The Secret of the Old Mill
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He faced the conspirators with the hatchet in his hand. Mr. Skeel and the two sneaking lads shrank back. Not so the old hermit. With a snarl of rage he sprang forward at Tom.
“And so you come!” he cried. “You come after my treasure that I have sought so long! You would rob me! But you shall not. You have the paper, but I will get it from you! I will yet find my treasure!”
He made a leap for Tom. Instinctively our hero stepped back, and, as he did so he tripped, and would have fallen had he not leaped to the rear. He came up against a wall with a crash, and his hatchet flew from his hand and also struck the partition. Then something happened that caused them all to stare in amazement.
There was a grinding noise, a snapping sound, and a portion of the solid wall slid down and out of sight. A recess was thus opened, and when the dust of many years had cleared away they saw in the opening through the dim light, a small brass-bound box. For a moment they stared in amazement, and then the old hermit, with a scarcely human cry, leaped forward.
“The treasure! My treasure!” he cried. “I have found it at last! The treasure of the old mill! It has given up the secret it held so long!”
He reached into the compartment, drew the box to him, and fell across it fainting.
“Help him!” cried Tom. “The shock has been too much for him! Get water, somebody!”
“Get him out of there,” advised Jack. “The air is foul, and that may have caused him to faint.” Indeed a damp, unpleasant, musty odor filled the room from the secret hiding place of the box.
Dick and Bert dragged the old hermit from the box, and, making a pillow from some bags, they laid him out on the floor, while Tom forced through his lips some of the water left for the boy prisoners.
“Where am I? What happened? Is my treasure safe?” the old man murmured as he opened his eyes.
“Yes, it’s safe,” said Tom, soothingly. The hermit’s tone was very different now. He seemed to have lost his vindictive spirit. “It’s safe,” went on Tom, “unless – ” He thought of Mr. Skeel and the two lads, but they had slipped away. They evidently realized that, as the hermit had the box, the game was up. “It’s surely safe – if there’s any treasure in the box,” added our hero with conviction, now that he saw that the conspirators had vanished.
They gave the old man some more water, and soon he was himself again, but his wild manner had gone. It seemed to vanish with the finding of the box.
“There it is,” he murmured, as he sat beside it. “The box I have sought so long. I knew it was somewhere in the mill, or about it, but I never could find it, though I hunted everywhere. When I had the plan I was sure I would be successful, but we lost it. Now it doesn’t matter. Oh, I shall live in peace and happiness now!”
“Maybe we’d better open the box,” suggested Tom. “It may be empty.”
“Oh, don’t say that!” cried the old man in agony. “It can’t be empty.The treasure must be in it.”
And it was, as they saw when Tom forced the case open with the hatchet. Not a very great treasure to be sure, but amounting to some thousands of dollars.
It consisted of English gold pieces, some ancient gold and silver dishes, more valuable as antiques and relics than for the metal in them. There was also considerable jewelry that would fetch good sums for the same reason. And there were also Bank of England notes in a large sum, as good as the day they were issued. It was a treasure indeed to the old man, and would keep him in comfort the rest of his life.
“Jove! but this is a great find!” exclaimed Jack. “And to think it came about by accident! You are all to the good, Tom.”
“I wonder what has become of Skeel and those lads?” asked Bert.
“They’re far enough off now,” said Tom. “But shall we help you down with your box?” he asked of the hermit.
“No, I had rather stay here. I have lived here for many years, except when I was off in the woods looking for the treasure. I am sorry I was so harsh to you, but I thought you were trying to rob me.”
“We intended giving you the treasure if we found it,” said Tom, gently. “Of course you did not mean it, but you have treated my friends very badly.”
“It was that scoundrel Skeel,” murmured the old man. “He urged me to do it. I am sorry I ever trusted him.”
And then he told his story. It was substantially the same as Tom had heard from his father. Years before, fearing an attack by the Indians, the early settlers of Wilden had put their wealth into the box and fled. The box was hidden in the old mill, which had been built with the secret rooms and passages as a hiding place, and one of defense against the savages.
But the fleeing settlers never returned, though the story of their hidden treasure survived for many years. Mr. Wallace was a direct descendent of one of them, and he preserved faith in the old legend, and hunted for the treasure until his mind became affected.
Then came the advent of Tom and his chums. It was merely a coincidence that Mr. Skeel went camping in the vicinity of the old mill, as did also Sam and Nick. The bullies fell in with their former teacher. The latter had heard the story of the treasure in the mill, for it was common gossip, and, being of a grasping nature, he determined to have a try for it. He enlisted the aid of Sam and Nick, and, in some way, managed to become friendly with the old hermit.
The latter had, in searching among some old papers of his ancestors, found the original plan of the mill. It showed many things, but not where the treasure was, though if he had carefully measured the real and apparent thickness of the walls he might have come upon the box itself, as he did the secret staircase.
Professor Skeel, representing that he was an expert in such matters, managed to get possession of the plan, only to lose it. Suspecting that Tom and his chums had it, he planned their capture, and did get all but our hero. This was after Sam and Nick had taken away the motorboat and hidden it. Then, when they had it, they were so careless that it floated away and Tom recovered it.
Of course the existence of the secret staircase, and the hidden room, where the boy prisoners were kept, was known to the hermit, who revealed them to the professor and the two cronies. After Jack, Dick and Bert were locked up, the vain hunt for the treasure went on, but without success until Tom, accidentally hitting the secret spring, revealed it.
There were two ways of getting on the hidden stairway. One was from inside the mill, the door being cleverly concealed. The other way was through the outside tunnel, by which Tom came, but this had not been used by the hermit in years, and he had piled stones at the egress. But the voices of Tom’s chums, traveling through an old flue, and down the tunnel, had revealed it to our hero.
“Well, I don’t know as we have anything more to stay here for,” remarked Tom, a little later, when they had made the old hermit comfortable, and had ascertained that he had food enough to last him. “We might as well get back to camp.”
“Oh, boys!” began the aged man, “I – I must ask your forgiveness for what I have done. But I – I think I was not – not exactly myself at times. I did so want that treasure! And now I have it – thanks to you. I suppose I should share it with you, and if you think – ”
“Not a bit of it!” interrupted Tom heartily. “We have all the money that is good for us, I guess. You need it more than we do. I hope it will keep you in comfort.”
“It will,” said the old hermit. “I don’t want much, now that I have my treasure.”
They left him, promising to see him again, and soon they had departed from the old mill. Before they left Tom found out how the secret door worked, leading from the second floor to the hidden staircase. Part of the wall was counter-poised with weights, and worked easily, once the right spring was touched.
The motorboat was found just where Tom had hidden it, and soon he and his chums were speeding back to their camp. They looked for Mr. Skeel, and Sam and Nick, but saw nothing of them. Nor, in fact, did they meet them for some time after that.
“And now for a good meal!” cried Dick, when the crowd was back at the tents. “I guess it’s your turn to cook, Tom.”
“I guess so,” laughed our hero. “I’ll soon have some grub for you.”
“We’re nearly starved,” added Dick. “Nothing much to eat in the old mill.”
“Yes, it was almost as bad as when we went on a strike in Elmwood Hall,” said Bert. “Get busy, Tom.”
And, at the meal, and beside the cheerful glow of the campfire, they lived over again the adventures through which they had passed in the strenuous weeks they had spent in camp.
“And there really was a treasure, after all,” said Bert. “I hardly believed it.”
“I don’t know whether I did or not,” said Tom, “but I made up my mind I’d prove it, one way or the other.”
“And you did,” commented Jack, with a laugh. “You generally do what you set out to, Tom.”
“Even to getting a meal up for a hungry crowd,” put in Dick.
“And as good a one as I could myself,” spoke Bert, passing his plate for more fried chicken.
“And now we’ll enjoy camp life, without worrying about hidden treasure,” said Tom. “Ho! for good times from now on!”
And they had them. They learned later, that the old hermit sold the plate and jewels, and wisely converted his treasure into cash, which he put in the bank. It was sufficient for his simple needs for many years. A distant relative induced him to leave the mill and live with him, and the old man passed the rest of his years in peace.
“Well, I wonder what we’ll do this fall?” asked Jack one day about a week later, as they were out on Lake Woonset in the motorboat.
“Go back to school, of course,” said Tom with a laugh, “and have some more fun.” What our hero and his chums did will be told of in the next volume of this series, to be entitled, “Tom Fairfield’s Pluck and Luck; Or, Working to Clear His Name.”
“Well, this is certainly great!” declared Jack that night, as they stood on the shores of the lake, and watched the moon rise over the trees. “It’s been the best vacation I ever knew.”
“Same here!” chorused Bert and Dick.
“Yes, it was lively enough,” agreed Tom. And as they turned into their cots we will take leave of them.
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