Allen Chapman.

Tom Fairfield in Camp: or, The Secret of the Old Mill





Then you go ahead, suggested Tom, as you have the only weapon. Ill come behind and light matches, so you can see to shoot if theres anything there.

Pleasant prospect, murmured the country lad. Still he did not hang back, but advanced cautiously, Tom following him, with ready matchbox.

It was now so dark that the cave looked all the blacker by contrast. Yet no sound came from it, and the boys were practically certain that had it been inhabited, either by human beings or wild beasts, some sign would have been manifested by this time, as they had talked quite loudly.

Into the cave went Dick and Tom, followed by the other two, who had caught up clubs of wood.

See anything? called Jack, as Tom struck the first match.

No, not a thing. Go on in farther, Dick. Ouch! this last as the match burned down and scorched Toms fingers.

Hurry up with that light! cried Dick as the darkness became more dense than ever.

I am, said Tom, but it was some seconds before he could strike one.

By Jove! There is something here! cried Dick. The next moment the report of his gun sounded like a clap of thunder in the cave.

CHAPTER XVIII
BACK IN CAMP

Did you hit him?

What was it?

Say, wed better get out of this!

Tom, Jack and Bert thus cried in turn. As for Dick he said nothing, and he did nothing, for he could not see to run in the darkness of the cave, and the rush of air, following the shot from his gun, had put out the match Tom was holding up.

Show a light there, called the marksman. I think I plugged him all right.

Tom struck another match and held it high above his head. Dick stood his ground, and Bert and Jack, who had started to run, came back to the mouth of the cave.

No, I didnt get him. I can see his green eyes yet! shouted Dick. Here goes for another shot.

Hold on! cried Tom.

Whats the matter? asked Dick. Dont you want me to hit the beast?

I would if there was one there, spoke Tom, quietly, but theres no use wasting powder and lead on a stone wall.

A stone wall? gasped Dick.

Yes, thats what you shot at. Look, and Tom, advancing into the cave, held up a piece of wood he had lighted as a sort of torch, against the rocky wall of the cave. That was what you thought were the glittering eyes of some animal, he went on, and he pointed to two shining particles of mica in the rock. They were about the distance apart of an animals eyes, and when the match was reflected from them Dick mistook them for the orbs of a bear or some other beast. He had fired on the instant.

Well, Ill be jiggered! gasped the marksman.

Youd have plugged him if it had been anything, said Tom, as he held the little torch still closer to the rocky wall. Then they could all see where the shot from Dicks gun had flattened out between the glittering bits of mica.

Some shot, that, complimented Bert, who, with Jack, had entered the cave.

I should say yes, added Jack.

And in the dark, too, came from Tom.

Well, fellows, were here. Weve got a shelter, and now if we only had something to eat, wed be all right.

Thats so, agreed Bert, as he and Jack lighted some dry sticks of wood they had picked up on the floor of the cave. The place was now comparatively light.

Dick lowered his gun, which he had been holding in readiness for another shot if necessary, and as the torches blazed up more brightly, he uttered a startled cry.

What is it? demanded Tom. Do you see a bear?

No, but I see where theres been a fire in here, answered Dick, and, unless Im mistaken, theres something here to eat.

Get out! cried Bert incredulously.

Dont raise our hopes, pleaded Jack. Im half starved.

For answer Dick went farther back into the cave where his companions could see some boxes. Then came a cry of triumph.

Its all right fellows! shouted Dick. Someone has been camping here, and theyve left enough stuff so we wont starve until morning, anyhow. Heres some canned meat, some crackers, a bit of stale bread, and a coffee pot. Theres coffee too, if my nose is good for anything!

Hurray! yelled Jack. Hold me, someone, Im going to faint.

Is it real food? demanded Tom.

It looks like it, answered Dick.

Then, fellows, get in some wood, strip some bark for torches and well make a fire and eat, suggested Tom. Is there anything we can get water in, Dick?

Yes, heres a battered pail. It may leak, but I guess it will hold enough for coffee. And there are some tin cups, too.

Good! Bert, you get some water. We passed a spring just before we found this cave. See if you can locate it. Jack, you and Dick sort this stuff out, and Ill get wood for the fire.

Thus Tom soon had his little force busily employed. From the depths of despair they had been transported to delight in a short time.

A quick survey showed that the cave had been used by campers, and that within a day or two. There was enough canned meat and crackers left for at least two meals, and with the coffee, a supply of which, already ground, Dick found in a can, and with some condensed milk, the boys knew they would not starve.

This is great luck! exclaimed Tom, as Bert came back with the pail of water.

It sure is, assented Jack. I wonder who has been here?

I shouldnt wonder but what Sam and Nick were, replied Tom.

What makes you think so? they asked him.

Because there are two cups, two knives and two forks, and two tin plates. That shows two fellows were here, and Sam and Nick are the most likely ones I can think of.

Could this have been their main camp? asked Dick.

I hardly think so, replied Tom. I believe they just found this cave or maybe Mr. Skeel did and they may have made this a stopping place just to be nearer the old mill.

Or maybe they have been searching for the treasure in here, suggested Jack.

Its possible, admitted Tom. Well, anyhow, lets see what sort of a meal we can get, and then for a rest. Im dead tired.

It was a very primitive supper that they managed to cook over a fire built in the cave. There was a natural ventilation to the place, so the smoke did not annoy them much. They warmed some canned roast beef in a battered skillet, opening the can with a jackknife.

Coffee they made in the dented pot, and then they had to take turns eating, as there were only enough table utensils for two at a time. The table was a box in which the stuff had evidently been brought to the cave.

Oh, but I feel better now! exclaimed Jack, with a contented sigh, when supper was over.

So do I, and Ill feel better still when I find my boat, came from Tom.

Well have another hunt for her in the morning, suggested Bert.

And we may have good luck, added Dick. I think the finding of this cave and the food means that our luck will take a turn.

It needs to, said Tom grimly.

For beds they cut spruce and hemlock boughs, spreading them out on the floor of the cave, and, though it was not like their comfortable cots, they slept fairly well, not being disturbed. After a breakfast, on what was left from the previous night, they held a conference.

Whats best to do? asked Tom. I dont want to always be giving orders.

Sure, youre the camp-captain, declared Jack. Well listen to you. I should think youd have to find the boat first, before we can do anything else. We cant swim back to our camp, thats certain.

Well, if thats the general opinion, well have another try for the boat, walking along the lake shore, agreed Tom.

They set out, and retraced their route of the previous day, coming finally to the lake. As the place where the river entered was quite broad it was out of the question to swim it, or, rather, they did not like to risk it, in such unknown waters.

So they followed the lake shore for a considerable distance farther than Tom and Bert had gone the previous evening. They climbed a high hill, that gave a good view of the lake, but, strain their eyes as they could, they had no glimpse of the Tag.

Theyve either got her well hidden, or else they have sunk her, was Toms despairing comment.

Oh, maybe well find her, said Jack, more cheerfully.

Say, Ive just thought of something! exclaimed Bert.

What is it? his chums asked him in a chorus.

Its this! That old hermit must have some sort of a boat. He never could get on the other side of the lake, where we are camped, and over here again as quickly as he does without crossing in a boat. I believe he must have some sort of a craft hidden in the river near the mill.

Silence followed Berts advancement of his theory, and then Tom exclaimed:

By Jove! old man, I believe youre right. Why didnt we think of that before? Of course he has a boat! He never could get around the way he does if he didnt have. And its up to us to find it. Come on back. Well walk along the river bank until we get to the mill. Then well look for the boat.

Buoyed up by new hope, they started back, and, proceeding cautiously, they soon were below, and opposite, the ancient mill.

Itll be on this side, decided Tom, and probably hidden under some bushes. Look carefully, and dont make much noise. We dont want old Wallace to chase us again.

The river was far enough below the old mill so that ordinary sounds made at the stream could not be heard at the structure. But still the boys were cautious. They kept a sharp lookout, too, for any sign of the old hermit.

Up and down the bank they went, peering under bushes, and in little coves formed by water eddies. Suddenly Jack cried out:

Here it is, fellows! An old tub, but its got oars, and we can row to camp in it.

They ran to where he stood beside an old skiff. It looked to be leaky and unsafe, but it was a boat, and they would have almost welcomed a wash-tub in their plight.

Quick! exclaimed Tom. I think I hear someone coming. Get in and shove off.

They lost no time in embarking, and, when they were afloat on the river, they found that the craft was better than she looked.

I guess we can get to camp in this, said Tom with a sigh of relief. And, on our way, we may see the Tag.

If were not caught before we get into the lake, spoke Jack grimly.

Apprehensively they looked in the direction of the old mill. All they heard was the rustle of the wind in the trees. The place seemed silent and deserted.

Say, things are happening all right! exclaimed Dick. I never imagined camping was so exciting.

Oh, things generally happen where Tom Fairfield is, remarked Jack, with a laugh.

Dick was at the oars, and rowed rapidly down stream, being aided by the current. In a short time they were far enough below the mill to make it practically impossible for the old hermit to catch them.

Unless he has our motorboat, put in Bert.

In that case Ill let him capture us, and then Ill take the Tag away from him, said Tom firmly.

Out on the lake they floated. It was a bit rough, but the skiff was a broad and heavy one, and made a good sea boat. They took turns rowing, meanwhile keeping a watch for Toms craft, but they did not see her.

You dont appreciate a motorboat untill you have to row! exclaimed our hero, as Bert relieved him at the oars.

Oh, well, well soon be in camp, consoled Dick, and an hour later they were opposite their tents.

Everything seems all right, said Tom, with an air of relief. Now to see if weve had any visitors.

CHAPTER XIX
STRANGE DISAPPEARANCES

The boys found their camp undisturbed, save for the visit of some small animal that had tried to carry off a tough paper bag filled with some small groceries.

The bacons all right this time, commented Tom. I guess we got the lynx that was taking it.

And now for a square meal! exclaimed Bert. Im nearly starved. Hustle, boys, and get some grub on to cook. Or, even if its cold, it doesnt matter.

Hustle yourself! exclaimed Jack. Everyone for himself, Im going to open a can of chicken and make some sandwiches.

Sardines for mine, commented Tom.

They had no bread, for their supply was gone, and the teamster from Wilden, whom they had engaged to bring in supplies, was not due until the next day. However, they made out very well with crackers, and ate, so Tom said, as much as if it had been a regular meal, instead of a lunch.

But well have a regular supper, declared Dick.

Will you cook it? they asked him.

I sure will, he answered, though it isnt my turn.

The edge taken off their appetites, they sat at ease about the camp, and talked of their adventure. Drawn up on shore was the skiff they had confiscated from the hermit.

I wonder if hell make much of a row when he finds it gone? mused Jack.

What if he does? asked Tom. Either he took our boat, or some of his friends did meaning Skeel or the two lads with him so its only turn about if we took his craft. We had to get back to camp; didnt we?

Sure we did, and if he says anything well tell him so, came from Bert. How are you coming on with that supper, Dick?

Oh, Ill start it pretty soon, and, after some further talk the country lad began. He rummaged among the stores and soon an appetizing odor came from the kitchen tent.

That smells great! exclaimed Jack.

Some kind of soup, anyhow, declared Bert.

And hes frying something, added Tom. You just let Dick alone and hell get up a meal. Hes a natural cook.

And the meal to which Dick called his chums a little later was certainly a good one for boys out camping. There was a canned soup to start with, and then fried chicken.

Fried chicken think of that! cried Tom. Talk about being swell!

Its only canned chicken, fried in butter, and seasoned a bit, explained Dick modestly. I opened some canned corn to go with it. Have some?

Sure! there came a chorus, and three plates were quickly passed toward the amateur cook.

One at a time, he begged. Ive got some

He paused for a moment and then cried:

The potatoes! Theyre burning! I forgot em!

He made a rush for the cooking tent, ignoring the out-stretched plates, and the others became aware of a scorching odor.

Wow! but thats mean! exclaimed Dick ruefully, as he came back wiping the perspiration from his face. Theyre burned to nothing. The water all boiled off em. And they were sweets, too, the only ones we brought along, he added.

Never mind, consoled Tom. Weve got enough to eat without em.

Sure, agreed the others. They finished off the meal with crackers and a jar of jam, with coffee on the side.

Some better than what we had in the cave, commented Bert, passing his cup for a second helping.

Oh, but that tasted good all right! declared Jack gratefully.

I wonder what Sam and Nick will say when they find their stuff gone from the cave? asked Dick.

Do you think it was theirs, Tom? asked Bert.

I certainly do. Id say it was Skeels, only there was stuff for two campers. Besides, I dont believe hed rough it in that fashion. But I sure would like to see Sam and Nick now not that I have any love for em but I want my boat.

After spending the evening talking about the events of the past two days, and taking another look at the plan of the old mill, the lads turned in. They slept soundly, for they were very tired.

Well, whats the programme for the day? asked Jack of Tom, following a bountiful breakfast, for which Bert made pancakes from prepared flour, and served them with bottled maple syrup.

Well have another hunt for the boat, decided Tom. Ill take a few more cakes, cook, he added, passing his plate to Bert.

You will not! ejaculated the maker of them. I want some myself. Youve had ten at least, and if you think its any fun making griddle cakes in a frying pan, you just try it yourself.

Just give me one, pleaded Tom, and he got it.

Say, if we go out in the boat we may miss that teamster who is to bring our stuff, suggested Jack. And Id like to send a letter or two back by him, to be mailed.

Thats right so would I, agreed Tom. Well wait until he shows up before going out on the hunt.

So they spent the morning writing letters. The teamster arrived about noon, with some food and supplies for them. He stayed to dinner, and declared it was one of the best he had eaten.

Folks back in Wilden would have it that the hermit had made away with you, he said.

Not yet, though he got our boat, or somebody has, said Tom.

Pshaw! Thats too bad. I hope you get it back. Well, I guess Ill be going. Will you be breaking up camp soon?

Not until we solve the mystery of the mill, declared Tom firmly.

Oh shucks! Then youll be here all winter, declared the man, with a laugh. Theres no mystery of that mill except what old Wallace makes himself. Hes a little cracked in his upper story, I think.

I shouldnt wonder, admitted Tom. But, all the same, I think theres something in it, after all, and were going to have another try at it, some day.

They went rowing out on the lake after the teamster had left, taking their letters with him. It was small pleasure in the heavy skiff they had confiscated, but they were not out for pleasure just then they were looking for the motorboat.

They covered several miles of lake shore, but saw no sign of the Tag, and only gave up when it was evident that they would not get back to camp before dark unless they hurried.

The next day the search was just as unsuccessful, and for several more they kept up the hunt. They saw no sign of either Mr. Skeel, the two cronies, or the hermit.

Well, I give up, remarked Tom, despondently, one afternoon. I dont believe well ever get that boat back.

It does begin to look a little dubious, remarked Jack. Still, luck may turn at the last minute. Where you going? he asked, as he saw his chum start toward the forest back of the camp.

Oh, just to take a walk. Anybody want to come?

Not for mine, answered Jack. Im just going to be lazy until supper time.

Same here, added Dick.

You wont get any supper for two hours at least, declared Bert, who was filling the position of cook.

Well, Im going to take a walk and do some thinking, said Tom. See you later.

He strolled away, and the beauty of the woods on that perfect summer day must have lured him farther than he thought. He was thinking of many things, of the mystery of the old mill, of the disappearance of his boat, and their life in camp.

Guess its time I started back! he exclaimed about two hours later as he noticed the shadows lengthening. I wish I could think of some solution of that old plan-drawing, he murmured.

Even though he hurried he did not reach the camp until darkness had almost set in. As he approached the place a strange silence about the tents seemed to smite him like a blow. In spite of himself he felt a fear.

Hello, boys! he called. Im back. Where are you?

There was no answer. He looked all around. There was not a sign of his chums. The old boat was drawn up on shore, showing that they were not out in that. They could hardly be off in the woods at this hour.

He hurried to the cook tent. Preparations for supper had been under way, but that was all. Some of the pots and pans had been knocked to the ground. The place was in some confusion, but that was natural. Of Toms chums there was not a trace. They had mysteriously disappeared!

CHAPTER XX
LONELY DAYS

What in the world can have happened? asked Tom, speaking aloud to himself. He had to do that to drive away some of the loneliness that thrust itself upon him as he walked around the deserted camp. Theres something queer been going on, and Im going to find out about it, he added determinedly. Maybe theyre hiding away from me for a joke.

He made a round of the little spot there where they had camped in the wilderness, but there were few places for his chums to have hidden save in the woods themselves the woods that were on three sides of the tents, the lake forming the fourth boundary.

Well, if theyre in there theyll wait a good while before I go hunting for them, he said. If its a joke they can come back when they get ready.

And yet, somehow, he felt that it was not a joke. He and his chums were as fond of fun as any lads, and, in times past, the boys had played many a trick on each other. But there was a time for such antics, and Tom realized that this occasion was not now. He knew his comrades would realize the strain he was under, in losing his boat, and in trying to solve the mystery of the mill against the activities of Mr. Skeel and the two cronies.

I dont believe theyd do it, mused Tom. There is something wrong here. Hello, fellows! he shouted at the top of his voice. Dick! Bert! Jack Jack Fitch! Where are you?

The echoes from the darkness were his only answers.

Theyre gone, he said, and yet, by Jove, I dont believe theyd go willingly unless

He paused, for many thoughts were crowding to his brain. He had a new idea now.

Unless they saw something of Skeel, or Sam and Nick, and followed them off through the woods. Maybe the hermit himself passed here, and they thought he was on the trail of the treasure. They would naturally follow him, and if I wasnt here they would not wait for me, knowing they could explain afterward. Ill wager thats it. Theyve gone for the treasure. Its all right after all.





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