Read CHAPTER XIV - A NIGHT ALARM of A Campfire Girl's Test of Friendship , free online book, by Jane L. Stewart, on ReadCentral.com.

Bessie and Dolly looked at one another.  Holmes wasn’t there, but who but Holmes or someone working for him could have any such sinister interest in keeping an eye on the camp as was implied by that sly remark?  Evidently luck had favored them once more, and they had stumbled again on early evidence of another coming attack.

But they took little time-could take little time, indeed-to think of the meaning of what they had heard.  It was too important for them to find out as much as possible from these men.  They dared not speak to one another; the men were so close that they were almost afraid that the sound of their own breathing would betray them.

And, dark as it was, they could see that these were men of a type who would stop at little if they felt they were in danger of failure.  They were big, burly, ugly-looking men, rough in speech and manner, and, though they masked their movements, and went about their business, whatever it might be, as quietly as possible, their quietness was furtive and assumed and by no means natural to them.

“They won’t run away to-night, Jeff,” grumbled one of the men.  “You ain’t a-goin’ to stay here and watch them, are you?”

“No, I’m not-but you are,” growled the one addressed as Jeff.  “See here, my buck, the boss don’t want any slip-up on this job-see?  He’s been stung once too often.  I’m goin’ back to the boat, but you and Tim will stay here till daylight-right here, mind you!”

“Aw, shucks, that’s a fine job to give us!” growled Tim.  “Larry’s got the right dope, Jeff.  They won’t run away to-night.”

“Listen here-who’s giving orders here?  What I say goes-do you get that?  If you don’t, I’ll find a way to make you, and pretty quick, too.  I don’t want none of your lip, Tim.”

“What’s the game, Jeff?” asked the man Larry, in milder tones.  “We’ll do as you say, all right, all right, but can’t you tell a guy what’s doin’?”

“I don’t know myself, boys, and that’s a fact,” said Jeff, seemingly mollified by this submission to his orders.  “But the boss wants them two gals-and what he wants he gits, sooner or later.”

“Guess he does!” laughed Tim.  “You said something that time, Jeff!”

“There’s money in it, I know that,” Jeff went on.  “Big money-though I’m blowed if I see where!  But we’ll get our share if we do our part.”

“I can use any that comes my way, all right,” said Larry, with a smothered laugh.  “Always broke-that’s what I am!”

“How about the morning, Jeff?” asked Tim.  “We can’t stay here when it gets to be light.  They’d spot us in a minute.”

“Won’t be any need then, Tim.  We can keep an eye on them from the yacht.  And the boss is apt to turn up here himself most any time.”

“Why not pull it off to-night, Jeff?” asked Larry.  “It’s a good chance, I’d say.”

“Ain’t got my orders yet, Larry.  As soon as the boss turns up there’ll be plenty doing.  Keep an eye out for a red light from the deck.  That’ll be a sign to watch out for anything that comes along.  We may show it-we may not.  But if we do, be lively.”

“All right,” growled Tim.  “But let’s quit this nursemaid job as soon as we can, Jeff.  We’re good pals of yours-and this ain’t no game for a grown man, you know that.”

“’Twon’t be so bad,” said Jeff, comfortingly.  “Nights ain’t so long-and you can take turns sleeping.  It’s all right as long as one of you stays awake.”

“So long, Jeff,” said both the men who were to stay behind, then, in unison.

“Good-night,” answered Jeff.  “I’ll have a boat at the point for you at daylight.  Good luck!”

And he went off, quietly, walking easily, so that the noise of his footsteps would not reach those on the beach below.

From the beach the voices of the girls rose faintly.  Words could not be distinguished, but Bessie and Dolly could both guess that their prolonged absence must be beginning to give Miss Eleanor and the others some uneasiness.

They were trapped, however, although they were in no real danger.  The men who had been left on guard were between them and the path; they could not possibly pass them without arousing them, and they did not care to take the chance of making a wild dash for freedom unless it became absolutely necessary.

Bessie weighed the chances.  It seemed likely to her that she and Dolly, taking the two men by surprise, could slip by them and reach the beach safely.  But if they did that, the men would know that their plans were known, and that their talk had been overheard, and that would be to throw away half of the advantage they had gained.  It would be better a thousand times, Bessie felt, to wait, and take the faint chance that both men might go to sleep together, and so give them the chance to escape unseen.

For some minutes the silence was unbroken save for the faint murmur of the voices from the beach.  Then Larry spoke to his companion.

“Say, Tim, don’t think much of this game, do you?” he said.

“Sure don’t!” grunted Tim.  “Just like Jeff, though.  Takes the easy lay himself and don’t care what he puts up to us.”

“Got any money?”

“About five dollars.  Why?  Want to borrow it?  Just as soon you had it as me!  Can’t spend it here, anyhow.”

“No.  Wouldn’t do me any good.  Got lots of my own out on the yacht.”

“Wish there was a place near here where I could get a drink.  Seems like I was choking to death.”

“Lots of water right by you,” said Larry, with a hoarse laugh.  “Help yourself-it’s free!”

“Water-pah!” snorted Tim.  “That’s not what I want, and you know it, Larry.”

“Say, come to think of it, there’s an elegant little roadhouse a ways back in the country here, Tim.  About half an hour there and back, I judge.”

Tim grunted uneasily.

“Think it’s safe?” he queried.  “If Jeff got on to us-”

“Shucks!  What could he do?  We ain’t his hired hands.”

“The boss, though-suppose Jeff told him?”

“He wouldn’t, and how’s he goin’ to find out, anyhow?  Nothin’s goin’ to happen to-night, you can bet on that.  Come on, be a sport, Tim!  We’ve got as much on Jeff as he’s got on us, if it comes down to that, ain’t we?”

“I dunno.  I’m kind of leery, when he told us to stick, Larry.”

“I thought you had more nerve, Tim.  Didn’t ever think you’d stand for no game like this.  But, if you’re afraid-”

“Come on!” said Tim, angrily.  “I’ll show you if I’m afraid!  I guess it’s safe enough.”

“That’s more like my old pal Tim.  I knew you had nerve enough.  Let’s be movin’.  The sooner we go, the sooner we’ll be back.  And we’ll show who’s afraid-eh, old sport?”

“That’s the stuff, Larry!  Guess there ain’t no one big enough to tell us what to do.”

And, with linked arms, they moved off.  Bessie and Dolly, hardly able to believe in the good luck that left the way to the beach clear, held their breath for a moment.  Then Bessie, seeing that Dolly was about to rise, whispered to her.

“Not yet, Dolly,” she said, tensely.  “Wait till we’re sure they can’t see us.  No use taking chances now.”

“All right, Bessie, but what luck!  I was afraid we’d have to stay here until daylight, and I was wondering what Miss Eleanor and the girls would think!”

“So was I. I’m afraid they’re worried about us already.  But it wasn’t our fault, and it really is a good thing we heard them, isn’t it?  The ‘boss’ they’re talking about must be Mr. Holmes, don’t you think?”

“I don’t see who else it could possibly be.  Come on, Bessie.  I think it’s time now, they’re out of sight.”

Slowly and carefully, to take into account the off chance that Jeff, the other man, might have come back to see if his sentinels were faithful, they slipped across the path and made their way down.  And at the bottom, as they reached the beach, Eleanor Mercer spied them, with a glad cry.

“Oh, whatever kept you so long?” she exclaimed.  “How glad I am to see you back safely!  We couldn’t imagine what on earth was keeping you.”

“You shouldn’t have stayed so long,” said Margery Burton.  “We were just going to start out to look for you.”

“You wouldn’t have had very far to go.  We’ve been right at the top of the path for three-quarters of an hour,” said Dolly, excitedly.

“It wasn’t our fault, really!  We couldn’t get here any sooner,” said Bessie.  “You see-”

And, quietly, being less excited and hysterical than Dolly, she explained what they had discovered, and the trap in which they had allowed themselves to be caught.

“We thought it was better to wait there than to let them know we had heard them,” she ended.  “You see, they think now that we haven’t any suspicions at all, and that we’ll be off our guard.  Don’t you suppose Mr. Holmes must be coming on board that yacht, Miss Eleanor?”

“I certainly do,” said Eleanor, her lips firmly set, and an angry gleam in her eyes.  “You did exactly the right thing.  It was better for us to be worried for a few minutes than to take any chance of spoiling all you’d found out.”

“What do you suppose they’ll try to do now?” wondered Margery.  “Oh, I’d like to find some way to beat them, so that they’d have to stop this altogether.”

“They’ll go too far, some time,” said Eleanor, indignantly.  “Mr. Holmes seems to forget there is such a thing as the law, but if he doesn’t look out he’ll find that all his money won’t save him from it.  And I think the time is coming very soon.  My father has some money, too, and I’m pretty sure he’ll spend as much as he needs to to beat these criminals.”

“Can’t we go away from here to-night, Miss Eleanor?” asked Dolly.  “They said we’d never do that, and it might fool them.”

Everyone looked at Dolly in astonishment.  It was a strange proposition to come from her, since she usually was the one who wanted to fight if there seemed to be any possibility of success.  Now, however, she looked nervous.

“I don’t see how we can, Dolly,” said Eleanor.  “And, really, I don’t believe there’s any danger here.  Mr. Holmes isn’t on the yacht, and these men won’t do anything until he is there to direct them.  I shall telegraph to Mr. Jamieson in the morning, and he will probably come here.  He can reach here by noon, and I think we will be all right here until then.”

Dolly said nothing more to her, but when she was alone with Bessie she expressed herself more freely.

“I’m afraid of those men,” she said, with a shiver.  “I think they’re far more dangerous than the gypsies were.  Didn’t you think, from the way they talked, that they would do anything if they thought they would get well paid for it?”

“Yes, but we’re warned, Dolly.  It isn’t as if we didn’t have any idea, as they believe, that there is danger here.  So I don’t think we need to be afraid.”

On the beach, between the sea and the tents, the blaze of the camp fire flickered in the darkness, casting an uneven light on the beach.  On the yacht all was still and peaceful.  One by one her lights had gone out, until only the anchor lights, which she was required by law to show, remained.

“They’ve gone to sleep on board the yacht,” whispered Bessie.  “That looks as if they didn’t mean to do anything to-night, doesn’t it, Dolly?”

“I suppose so, Bessie.  But I’m not satisfied.”

Neither, wholly, in spite of her reassuring words, was Eleanor.  Had there been any way of moving from the camp that night, she would probably have taken it.  But there seemed to be nothing for it but to wait there until morning, at least.

“We’ll stay here,” she said, as good-nights were being exchanged, “but we’ll set a guard for the night.  Margery, I wish you and Mary King would take the first watch.  You’ll be relieved at one o’clock.  You’re not too tired, are you?”

“No, indeed,” said both girls.

“I think I ought to take the watch.  This is partly on my account,” said Bessie.

“Sleep first, and perhaps you can take the second spell, with Dolly,” said Eleanor.  “You’ve had a harder day than the rest of us, and you must be tired now.”

Bessie and Dolly were, indeed, very tired.  The fact that the camp was not to be left unguarded while they slept seemed to reassure Dolly, and she and Bessie were soon sound asleep.  Only the noise of the light surf disturbed the intense stillness, and that had a soothing, musical quality that made it far from a disturbance to those who slept.

But that peace was to be rudely shattered before the first watch was over.  It was just after midnight when a wild tumult aroused the camp, and Bessie and Dolly, springing to their feet, saw that the beach was as light as day-and that the light did not come from the camp fire.  Confused and sleepy as they were, they saw the cause in a moment-the big living tent, in which meals were to be eaten in case of rainy weather, was all ablaze, and the wind that had sprung up during the night was blowing the sparks to the other tents, which caught fire as the girls, frightened and almost panic stricken, rushed out.

For a moment there was no concerted effort, but then Eleanor took command of the situation, and in a moment a line had been formed, and pails full of water from the sea were being handed from one girl to another.

The yacht had sprung into life at the first sign of the fire, and now, as the girls worked, they heard the sound of oars, as boats were hurriedly pushed ashore.  In a minute a dozen men had joined them in their fight against the fire, and, thanks to this unexpected aid, one or two of the tents, which had been furthest from the one in which the blaze had started, were saved.

The men from the yacht worked heroically, but their presence and their shouts created a new confusion.  And in the midst of it Bessie, a pail of water in her hand, saw a man seize Zara and carry her, struggling, toward a boat.  She was just about to cry out when a hand covered her mouth, and the next instant she was lifted in strong arms, carried to the boat, and pushed in.  Then two men sprang aboard, and one held the girls, while the other pulled quickly toward the yacht.  They were prisoners!