J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at the Wheel





Finally the milking was completed and the farmer ants retraced their way along the branch and down the stem and, falling into line with their comrades similarly laden, resumed their march to the colony. The boys had watched with bated breath and almost awe-struck interest.

Well, said Jim, at last breaking the silence, those ants are surely not going hungry to bed.

Gee, said Shorty, I bet they will suffer from indigestion.

Not a bit of it, said Dick. You dont suppose they keep this all to themselves, do you? Just look here.

He lifted a stone about eighteen inches from the foot of the mound. Under the magnifying glass they could see a number of tiny apertures that evidently led in the direction of the colony, and on one side an ant waiting for the return of the milking party. As Dick selected one and placed his magnifying glass directly upon the opening, the boys could see one of the ants laden with the honey dew stop and, placing its mouth close to that of the waiting ant, exude a tiny drop of its burden. Moving the glass around quickly in the arc of a circle, they saw this process repeated until finally the round was finished and the farmer ants, more lightly laden than before, went on toward the main entrance of the colony.

Those, said Dick, are the lords and dukes getting their supper.

Well, said Tom, after this I am ready to believe anything. I tell you what, Dick, I never learned so much in my life as I have to-day.

Yes, said Shorty, as the boys picked up their kits and prepared to return to camp, I am glad enough now that I didnt smash that ant nest when I tried to. After all, they are good sports and I would hate to spoil their fun.

Yes, replied Dick, you know that one of the most important principles in life is kindness to anything that breathes. Of course there are certain pests that are harmful to human life and we are compelled to kill in self-defense, but for anything that is harmless the one great principle that should govern us always is found in those two lines that Mr. Hollis repeated the other day:


Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow to the meanest thing that feels.

CHAPTER VIII
The Gipsy Caravan

Hello, fellows. Look at this. Well, of all the

The boys looked up at Bobs startled exclamation, and for a moment everything else was forgotten, while they stared with wide-open eyes at the grotesque procession that came into view.

Down the road crawled a little caravan of ten or a dozen ramshackle wagons, drawn by tired-looking horses. At their heads or alongside walked a number of men of various ages, dressed in all sorts of nondescript costumes. Their swarthy faces and dark eyes, together with the large earrings that they wore, gave them a distinctly piratical appearance, and to the boys they looked as though they might have been taken bodily from one of the old romances of the Spanish Main.

They might easily have been the blood brothers of the rascals who sang in thundering chorus:


Fifteen men on the dead mans chest,
Sing heigho, and a bottle of rum.

But, alas! there were no murderous pistols thrust in their belts or cutlasses held between their teeth to complete the illusion, and the picturesque crowd resolved itself into a troop of gipsies going into camp.

The place they had pitched upon for their temporary stay was about three miles distant from the boys camp and had been chosen with a keen eye to its advantages. Either through a scout sent ahead or simply by that marvelous sixth sense so highly developed in wandering peoples, they had elected to stop at a little ravine through which ran a brook of sparkling water and surrounded by a wood that furnished ample supplies for their campfires. It was fascinating to see the dexterity, born of long experience, with which the camp was pitched. The horses were unhitched in a twinkling and turned out to graze, while the wagons were ranged in a single circle around the camp. Some brown, dirty canvas and a few branches of trees were quickly transformed into tents. Wood was cut, a rough fireplace built, a huge kettle suspended over the flames that crackled merrily beneath, and the women and girls who had descended from the wagons busied themselves in bringing water from the brook and preparing supper for the tired and hungry crew. The men, after the rougher work was done, sprawled around upon the grass, talking in a language unintelligible to the boys, and occasionally casting an indifferent look at the group in the automobile, who had watched the scene with breathless interest.

Well, said Bert at last, as he roused himself with an effort, they havent asked us to stay to supper, and I suppose it isnt good manners to hang around while they are eating, even if this is a public place. So here goes, and throwing in the clutch he started the Red Scout off toward camp.

The liveliest interest, not unmixed with envy, was shown by the other boys at the recital by the auto squad of the afternoons adventure.

Gee, said Jim Dawson, you fellows certainly do have all the luck. If Id been with you thered have been nothing more exciting than a rabbit scurrying across the road. To-day I stayed behind and here you fellows have watched the pitching of a gipsy camp.

Never mind, Jim, said Tom, well all go over soon and take it in. I suppose theyll be there for some time.

Theres no telling, remarked Dick. Sometimes they stay in one place for two or three weeks, until the call of the road becomes so strong that they cant resist it. Then again, after a day or two, they


Fold their tents like the Arabs
And silently steal away.

Steal is a very good word to use in that connection, Dick, said Mr. Hollis, as he joined the group, when after an abundant supper they sat around the campfire; for if what we hear of gipsies in general is true, they spend most of their time in stealing.

Perhaps, though, he went on, that is putting it a little too harshly. There is a strong prejudice against them because of their vagrant mode of life, and there is no doubt that the distinction between mine and thine is very vague in their minds. Hen-roosts are apt to be mysteriously thinned out when they are in the neighborhood, and many a porker has uttered his last squeal when gripped by a gipsy hand. Horses, too, occasionally vanish in a way that would mean a short shrift and a rope in the Western country, if the thief were caught. But, on the other hand, they seldom commit deeds of violence. You never hear of their blowing open a safe, and, though they are passionate and hot tempered, they are not often charged with murder. The Bowery thug and yeggman are much more dangerous enemies to society than the average gipsy. Perhaps the worst indictment to be brought against them is that in years past they were frequently guilty of kidnapping. But that was in the earlier days, when the country was sparsely settled and communication was difficult. Then, if they got a good start, it was often impossible to overtake them. But to-day, with the country thickly populated and the telegraph and telephone everywhere, they would most certainly be caught. No doubt the elders of the tribe shake their heads sadly as they reflect that the kidnapping industry is no longer what it has been.

How do they make a living, anyway? interjected Dave. What they steal isnt enough to keep them alive.

Well, returned Mr. Hollis, the men are very keen traders in horses. They know a horse from mane to hoof. They can take a poor old wreck of a cart horse and doctor him up until he looks and acts like a thoroughbred. Very few men can get ahead of them in a trade, as many a farmer has found to his cost. The women are often very expert in embroidery and find a ready sale for their really beautiful work. Then, too, as fortune tellers they are proverbial the world over. Cross a gipsys palm with gold or silver and shell predict for you a future that kings and queens might envy. It is safe to say that during their stay here they will reap quite a harvest enough at least to suffice for the simple needs of to-day. As for to-morrow, they dont care. That can take care of itself. They are as irresponsible as crickets or butterflies. They never trouble trouble till trouble troubles them.

Well, said Dave, they get rid of a whole lot of needless worry, anyway. They dont suffer as much as the old lady did who said that she had had an awful lot of trouble in her life and most of it had never happened.

The boys laughed, and Tom asked:

Where do they get their name from? Why do they call them gipsies?

Because, answered Mr. Hollis, they were supposed to be descended from the old Egyptians. They resemble them in features, and many words in their language are derived from Egypt. Many scholars think, however, that their original home was India. Europe has been familiar with them for the last four hundred years. They have always been Ishmaelites their hand against every man and every mans hand against them and by some they have been believed to be the actual descendants of Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham. Everywhere they have been despised and persecuted. In the old days they were accused of being sorcerers and witches. They have been banished, burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, hung, drawn and quartered. It is one of the miracles of history that they have not been wiped out altogether. But they have always clung closely together and persisted in their strange, wandering way of life. They have a language of their own and certain rude laws that all the tribes acknowledge. The restless instinct is in their blood and probably will be there forever. They are a living protest against civilization as we understand it. Occasionally, one of them will join the ranks of ordinary men, but, far more frequently, they gain recruits from those who want to throw off the shackles and conventions of the settled life. More than one man and woman have listened to the call of the wild and followed the gipsies, as the children in the fable followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But now, boys, he said, rising, its time for taps. To-morrow evening well all go over and take a closer look at these gipsies of yours.

All through the following day the boys, though attentive to what they were doing, were keenly alive to the promised treat that night. There was an early supper, to which, despite the under-current of excitement, they did full justice, and then in the gathering dusk the boys set out for the grove. Since not all could go in the automobile, it was decided that all should go on foot, and with jest and laughter they covered the three miles almost before they knew it.

Quite different from that of the day before was the sight that burst upon them as they rounded a curve in the road and came upon the picturesque vagrants. Here and there were torches of pitch pine that threw a smoky splendor over the scene and hid all the squalor and sordid poverty that had been so evident in the broad light of day. By this time it was fully dark, but a full moon cast its beauty over the trees and flecked the ground with bright patches that added to the torches made the whole grove like a fairyland. The news of the gipsies coming had reached the surrounding towns, and there was quite a gathering of pretty girls and country swains, whose buggies stood under the trees at the roadside, while youths and maidens wandered among the wagons of the caravan. At the open door of one of the vans a young gipsy drew from a violin the weird, heart-tugging strains that have made their music famous throughout the world. Others sat around their fire and talked together in a low tone, casting furtive glances at the visitors, whose coming they seemed neither to welcome nor resent. With their instinctive appreciation of the fine points in any animal, the eyes of some of them brightened as Don threaded his way through the different groups, but, apart from that, they gave no sign that they were conscious of the newcomers.

With the gipsy women, however, it was different. This was their hour and they improved it to the utmost. Withered crones and handsome girls with curious turbans wound about their heads went from group to group, offering to tell their fortunes, provided their palms were crossed. There was no difficulty about this, as most of the girls had come there with that one desire and the gallant youths who escorted them urged them to gratify it regardless of expense. If the recording angel put down that night all the lies that were told, all the promises of wealth and title and position that sent many a giddy head awhirl to its pillow, he was kept exceedingly busy. Just for a lark, the boys themselves were willing patrons of these priestesses of the future; but little of what was promised them remained in their memory, except that Tom was to meet a dark lady who was to have a great and happy influence upon his life. The boys chaffed him a good deal about this mystical brunette, but he maintained with mock gravity that one never knows and that perhaps the swarthy soothsayer knew what she was talking about after all.

In view of the unusual circumstances, Mr. Hollis had not insisted upon the ordinary rules, and it was nearly midnight when the boys, having trudged back to camp, prepared to retire.

What time is it, anyway, Dick? yawned Bert, as they started to undress.

Ill see, said Dick, as he reached for his watch; its just

He stopped aghast as the chain came out of his pocket with a jerk. His watch was gone.

At this instant a shout came from Bob Wards tent: Say, fellows, have any of you seen my scarfpin? I cant find it anywhere. Im sure I had it on when I started.

Bert looked at Dick and Dick stared back at Bert. The same thought came into their minds at once.

Stung, groaned Dick, as he sank down heavily on his bed.

At once the camp was in commotion. Everyone made a hasty inventory of his belongings and the relief was general when it was found that nothing else was missing. Their hearts were hot with indignation, however, at the loss of their comrades. Dicks gold watch had been a graduation present and Bobs scarfpin had held a handsome stone, so that the money loss was considerable. But deeper yet was the sense of chagrin voiced by Jim Dawson:

Well, said he, disgustedly, if this isnt the limit. Here we are, city fellows who think we are up to snuff. We are surrounded by pickpockets every day and nothing happens. Then we come out in the country and are roasted brown by a band of wandering gipsies.

By this time Mr. Hollis, aroused by the unusual stir, had hastily dressed and joined the excited group. The facts were quickly detailed to him, and, as he listened, his face set in hard lines that boded ill for the thieves. He first directed that a thorough search be made in order to be perfectly sure that the missing articles were not somewhere about the camp. When careful examination failed to reveal them, doubt became certainty. If only one thing had been lost it might have been set down to carelessness or accident, but that two should disappear at the same time pointed to but one explanation theft. And it was a foregone conclusion that the thieves were to be found in the gipsy camp.

The more hot-headed were for starting out at once to regain the watch and pin at any cost. But this was vetoed by Mr. Hollis, who recognized the futility of attempting anything at so late an hour. He promised that early in the morning they should all go together, and with that promise they were forced to be content.

There was very little sleep for the boys that night, and at the first streak of dawn the whole camp was astir. Breakfast was swallowed hastily, and Bert whistled for Don as the boys made ready to start.

Here, Don, old fellow, good dog, he called when the whistle failed to bring him; but no Don appeared. Then a thought suddenly struck Bert. When had he last seen the collie? In the excitement last night he and the other boys had given no thought to the dog. He recalled with a sudden sick feeling that he had last seen him in the light of the gipsy torches. His heart smote him for his forgetfulness. Was it possible that the gipsies had stolen Don also? Why not? He never would have stayed away of his own accord. The collie was a splendid animal of the purest breed and would easily bring a large price if offered for sale anywhere. A fierce rage flamed in Bert a rage shared by all the others when he hastily told them of the suspicion that every moment was becoming a conviction and it was lucky for the abductor of Don that he did not at that moment meet Bert Wilson face to face.

With Dick, Tom and Bob, he leaped into the Red Scout, and taking up Mr. Hollis as they came to the door of his tent, they swung into the broad high road, leaving the others to follow as fast as they could.

Now, purr, old Scout, said Bert as he threw in the clutch; and the Red Scout purred. It leaped forward like a living thing, as though it pulsed with the indignation and determination of its riders. They fairly ate up the three miles in as many minutes, turned the curve of the road just this side of the gipsy camp and

The camp was gone!

Gone as though it had dropped into the earth. Gone as though it had melted into the air. Utterly and completely gone. The ashes of last nights fires, some litter scattered here and there, alone remained to mark the spot that a few hours before had been so full of life and animation.

They leaped from the car and scattered everywhere looking for signs to indicate the direction the caravan had taken. They had certainly not come south by the boys camp. It was equally certain that they had not gone directly north, as this led straight to a large town that they would instinctively avoid. This narrowed the search to east and west roads, from which, however, many byroads diverged, so that it left them utterly at sea.

The telephone, cried Bert; lets try that first.

They bundled into the car and a few minutes brought them to the nearest town. Picking out half a dozen addresses along different roads, they called them up. Had they seen a band of gipsies going by? The answer No came with exasperating monotony, until suddenly Bert leaped to his feet.

Here we are, boys, he cried. Bartlett on the Ashby road, eight miles from here, saw them go by two hours ago. Now lets get busy.

They flew down the Ashby road and in a few minutes came to the Bartlett farm. Yes, they had passed there and they certainly were traveling some. A couple of miles further on the road forked. There was a negro cabin at that place and they might get some information there. He hoped so, anyway. Good luck, and with a word of thanks, the boys rushed on.

A stout negress washing clothes under the tree at the fork of the road wiped the suds from her hands with her apron as she came forward.

Dey sholy did go pass hyar, gemmun, and dey wuz drivin as do de ole Nick was affer dem. Dats a powful po road up dataway and der hosses wuz plum tired. Dey kaint be vey far ahaid, I specs.

Exultingly Bert threw in the high speed. Their quarry had been run down at last. The motor fairly sang as they plunged up the road. Turning a curve to the right they came upon the procession of carts, now toiling along painfully. Bert never hesitated a second, but rushed past the line of wagons until he had reached the head of the caravan. Then he swung the Red Scout squarely across the road and with Mr. Hollis, Dick, Tom and Bob, sprang to the ground.

Consternation plainly reigned in the halted carts. The men crowded forward and hastily consulted. A moment later an old man, evidently the chief, came forward. He was prepared to try diplomacy first, and with an ingratiating smile held out his hand to Mr. Hollis. The latter, ignoring the extended hand, came straight to the point.

I want three things, he said, and unless you are looking for trouble, youll hand them over at once. I want the pin and watch and dog your people stole from us last night.

The leaders smile faded, to be replaced by an ominous scowl.

Its a lie, he said sullenly, my people stole nothing. Get out of our road, he snarled viciously, while his followers gathered threateningly around him.

The air was surcharged with danger and a fight seemed imminent, when suddenly a familiar bark came from one of the vans. Bert dashed forward, thrusting aside a young gipsy who sprang to intercept him. He threw open the van door, and out rushed Don, mad with delight. He had chewed in half the rope that held him and the frayed remnant hung about his neck as he leaped on Bert and capered frantically about him.

The game was up! Fear and chagrin were painted on the gipsies faces. They might have bluffed through as regards the stolen articles and it would have been almost impossible to prove their guilt. But here was the living proof of theft proof strong enough to land their party behind the bars. Moreover, the great dog was no mean addition to the little force that faced them so undauntedly. It was plainly up to them to temporize. As Bob with regrettable slanginess, but crisp brevity, summed up the case: They had thought to make a quick touch and getaway, but fell down doing it.





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