Read CHAPTER VI - The new station of The Ranger Boys and the Border Smugglers , free online book, by Claude A. Labelle, on ReadCentral.com.

“Listen, boys, not a word. Wait till we get back on the train, where the rumbling of the wheels over the rails will help to cover our words. Even if we could talk without danger of being overheard, we would not have time, for this train stops barely long enough to allow one to eat.”

The boys made haste to finish the meal. They had not recovered from their surprise at finding the stranger was a customs agent even by the time they were through eating and were back in their seats in the smoking car.

“I don’t suppose you boys have even started to formulate a plan of campaign, have you?” asked Fernald.

“Not yet, sir,” replied Garry. “That is, we haven’t made up our minds how to proceed after we have arrived at our headquarters. However, we have stumbled, or rather Phil has, on what we consider to be a very important clue, if such it may be called.”

Garry’s eyes swept the car, and in a moment he had located the two fur dealers, who had spoken of the cheap furs to be bought near the border.

“Do you see the two men who are in the fourth seat from the front of the car, facing us and playing cards?” he asked.

Casually, and without attracting any notice, Fernald studied the faces of the two men. At last, their features having been stamped on his memory, he turned to Garry, saying:

“Well, I’ll know them if I ever see them again, but what of them?”

Hastily Garry related the instance of their conversing together in French, and their remark about the furs.

“We have planned that if they get off, Phil here will follow them, so that we won’t lose track of them altogether. We are in hopes that they will eventually lead us to the fountain head of what we are seeking,” he concluded.

“That would have been the wise thing to do in case you were alone,” Fernald told them.

“But my being here with you changes the complexion of the matter somewhat. I think if they get off, it would be best for me to follow them. That is best for two reasons. Seeing the three of you together, would give rise to suspicions were one of you to detach himself suddenly from the rest and try to take up the trail of these men in their own town, for that is what it would be should they get off. Then there is another matter to be taken into consideration. Once let the smuggler band be caught, and only half of the job is done; the rest lies in finding the receiving point of these furs so that they may be seized, or the receivers be made to pay duty that they have evaded. Of course whoever is buying these furs knows they are shipped across the border as contraband. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if these men could lead me direct to something that would show where immense quantities of fur have gone in the past six months.”

“I wonder where they are going to get off,” remarked Garry.

“That is an extremely simple matter to ascertain. Why not look at the conductor’s checks that are sticking out of their hatbands?” queried Fernald with a smile.

“Solid ivory,” said Garry disgustedly, as he rapped his forehead sharply with his knuckles.

“Nothing to be ashamed of at all, old fellow,” said Fernald easily. “It isn’t to be expected that you should know all the tricks of the trade that you have known about not much more than a day. I’ve been doing this sort of work for twenty years now, and naturally many little bits of knowledge such as that are second nature to me, as natural as breathing or sleeping. Wait a minute while I go up and investigate.”

Fernald got up, and acting as though his main idea was just to stretch his legs, strolled up to the front of the car. Passing the men, he stopped quite naturally to watch them play. When one of the men under observance took a trick with an exceptionally good play, he commented audibly on it. The man turned and smiled, showing his seat check as he did.

The system on the railroad was to give different colors for different stations. Fernald noticed that the checks of both men were of an identical color, and had the same number of holes punched in them.

After carelessly watching a moment or two longer, he returned and without stopping to speak to the boys, went past them and into the next car.

Here he engaged a brakeman in conversation, and at last returned to the boys, who were on tenterhooks to learn of his findings.

“I have found out that they are going to get off at the third station from here. However, we do not come to that for nearly two hours, so we have time enough to make any plans we need. I will follow them, and as soon as possible will come on to Hobart. However, when I get there, do not let on you know me, as we can be of infinitely more help to each other if it is not known that we are working together or even know each other. Whenever the need arises, I will find some way to communicate with you.”

For the next hour or so, the conversation switched from one topic to another. Fernald was an interesting talker, and told the boys one or two of his adventures in the custom work of the United States.

Suddenly Dick slapped his leg and exclaimed excitedly:

“By George, our old friend the Hermit has no idea where we have disappeared to. I wish that we had had a chance at least to say goodbye to him and explain that we have been sent to a new station.”

“Why not write him a note?” suggested Garry. “You can enclose it in one to Nate, asking him to deliver it the next time he goes into the woods to make an inspection trip. Mr. Fernald here will mail it for you when he gets off the train.”

“That’s a bully idea, Garry. Didn’t have brains enough to think of it myself,” chattered Dick.

“Never mind, old timer. Two heads are better than one you know, as the barrel said,” laughed Garry.

Diving into his pocket, Dick drew forth the substantial notebook he always carried, and was soon busy writing a note, doing it as well as the jogging motion of the train would allow.

Finally he finished the note to the Hermit, and hastily scribbling one to Nate, enclosed the two in an envelope, addressed to the Deputy Ranger in Millinocket.

“There,” he said, as he sealed the flap of the envelope. “Seems funny to be writing a note to the Hermit, doesn’t it. The shoe generally used to be on the other foot when we were on the Patrol. By the way, there’s one thing that’s been puzzling me for some little time. What led you to think we were in any way connected with the same branch of work that you are, Mr. Fernald?”

“Oh, I’m no mind reader, or Sherlock Holmes,” said Fernald with a hearty laugh. “It simply happens that I saw you in the Chief’s office at Augusta, when I was there getting some final instructions. The Chief was going to introduce me, but I told him I preferred getting acquainted in my own way. To tell you the truth, at that time I thought the Chief had gone crazy, sending boys, but after looking you over, and unsuccessfully trying to pump you, I decided you boys had the right stuff in you, so made myself acquainted. Then too, I had a quiet bit of fun with you. Own up, now. Didn’t you make up your minds that I was a suspicious character, especially after I had tried to get out of you what your business was?”

The boys looked sheepishly at each other, and then began to laugh.

“We must admit it, Mr. Fernald. We had you all ticketed as a person to keep a sharp eye on, until you gave the signal,” confessed Garry.

“That’s right, boys, one cannot be too careful. When you are on a mission of this kind, a mighty safe rule to follow is never to trust a person until he has unmistakably proven himself to be absolutely trustworthy. If you follow that rule, you’ll never go wrong. Once in a while, of course, you’ll find yourself in a position where you must use your own judgment. In that case, make sure you are dealing with a good patriotic American citizen, and you’ll hit the key pretty nearly every time. Guess that little lecture will conclude our conversation for a while. We will be at the station where our friends disembark in a few minutes now, and I want to beat them to the door, so they will have no idea I am interested in their movements.”

He got up and shook hands with the trio, and then in a loud tone, for the benefit of anyone that might be listening:

“Goodbye Boys, have a good camping trip and don’t get lost in the Big Timber.”

The boys echoed their goodbyes, and their new friend made his way to his seat where he unearthed a shabby old black traveling bag that appeared to have seen long and constant usage, as well as his blanket roll and rifle.

In the meantime, the card players had returned to their seat near that of the boys to get their luggage. They were chattering volubly in French, and Phil strained his ears, hoping to catch some additional clue, but their conversation was mainly about the pleasures of the trip they were just concluding.

“What are we going to do for supper?” inquired Dick.

“There! He’s off again, Phil!” declared Garry. “It’s only been four hours since he ate, and now he’s thinking about supper.”

“Well, four hours is four hours, and two more will make six, and persons should eat once every six hours. That’s just human nature,” protested Dick. He knew his chums were just ragging him, as they always did about his appetite, but he could never resist the temptation to argue with them, and protest that there was nothing abnormal about his capacity for food.

“I’m going back and find the conductor and see what arrangements have been made for feeding the hungry. And I’ll bet a cooky you two are just as interested in the matter as I am,” and Dick flounced out of his seat and went in search of the conductor. He came back shortly and announced they would stop an hour at the next town, about an hour’s ride distant, for supper.

“Also they put on a sleeper there, and me for that. It beats sleeping in a day coach all hollow.”

Came at last the station, and they hustled out to the little frame hotel that stood on the other side of the tracks. This town was more or less of a freight junction. They had a surprisingly good dinner, topped off with a famous New England pudding composed of Indian meal, baked, with grated maple sugar and pure cream poured on top of it.

Finishing the meal, they crossed the tracks back to the train. A sudden breeze lifted Phil’s hat, causing him to chase it along the side of a string of freight cars. He stooped to recover it, looking under the freight car, as he did so. What he saw on the other side sent him back to his chums hotfoot.

“Say, fellows, don’t think I’m just ‘seeing things,’ but those three tramps are sitting down there by the tracks eating!”