Read CHAPTER VII - THE QUEER ACTIONS OF STEVE of Chums of the Camp Fire , free online book, by Lawrence J. Leslie, on ReadCentral.com.

“Listen, and see if it comes again!” said Bandy-legs, with bated breath.

The four campers sat there for several tense minutes, each one almost holding his breath in the effort to train his ears so as not to miss the slightest sound that might come.

“Whoo whoo whoo!”

After all their great expectations, to hear this solemn cry from the depths of the woods made several of the chums chuckle.

“Good evening, Mister Owl!” Bandy-legs called out, with mock respect. “Hope all the little Owls are feeling quite well to-night. Glad to have us for company, are you? Well, we’re just tickled to death to be with you, believe me.”

“But s-s-say, that wasn’t what we heard the other t-t-time!” objected Toby, in some dismay, as though he feared he might have been dreadfully deceived by mistaking the booming hoot of a horned owl for the roar of a lion.

“Oh! no, of course not, Toby,” Max hastened to assure him; “but it seems as though there isn’t going to be any encore to that other noise.”

“Then h-h-how are we agoin’ to decide w-w-what it was?”

“We might take a vote, and see how we stand on it,” laughed Max.

“Bull or lion, eh?” suggested Steve.

“There’s a few clouds floating around loose,” remarked Bandy-legs, as though in an uncertain state himself; “and p’raps after all that was a grumble of faraway thunder.”

“S-s-s’pose somebody could be doin’ blastin’ up around here?”

This was a new idea that appealed to Toby. He sometimes startled his comrades by having an original thought.

“That isn’t such an impossible thing after all, Toby,” admitted Max, after considering it for a brief time; “although so far as I’m concerned I don’t think it was either thunder, or a blast.”

“That brings us back to the original question bull or lion?” Steve pursued.

“We may never know which, if it isn’t repeated,” Bandy-legs observed, sagely; for not wanting to be outdone by Toby he had racked his brain in vain to find another possible explanation, and had to give it up.

“Well, whoever goes for eggs and milk to-morrow,” began Max, “ought to make a little investigation on his own account. Perhaps he might manage to pick up a few points that will help us decide this mystery.”

“You m-m-mean ask the f-f-farmer whether he k-k-keeps a bull, or a roarin’ old l-l-lion in his b-b-barn?”

“Ask about the bull, anyway,” Max told him. “And if we learn that he’s the owner of such an animal, find out if the beast gives a bellow once in a while.”

“All right, that’s settled then,” Steve announced. “If I happen to be one of the pair chosen to take that little excursion I’ll put it up straight to the old hayseed, and learn the truth. But say, hadn’t we better be changing the subject some, fellows. It isn’t always a good thing to get talking too seriously about things like this just before you drop off to bed.”

“W-w-why?” asked Toby, suspiciously, for he had noticed that Steve grinned somewhat when saying this, and gave him a quick look.

“Oh! well,” the other continued, “you never can tell what sort of an impression things make on one’s mind, and are carried with you into dreamland. I’ve done some queer stunts myself away back when I had the bad habit of seeing things in my sleep. And I know a fellow who thought he was in the heart of Africa watching the savage beasts come down to a waterhole to drink, and then getting up in the morning to discover the whole shooting-match had taken up quarters in his back yard. You never know what’s going to happen.”

“That’s right, you don’t,” added Bandy-legs, and shaking his forefinger at Toby dramatically he continued: “Now see here, Toby, just you quit dreaming about lions and elephants and rhinoceroses and such things. Dreams come true sometimes. Think we want to wake up in the mornin’ to find a lion sitting on that stump over there; a striped jungle tiger perched in this tree waiting for his breakfast; and an old rogue elephant spoutin’ water from our creek all over the camp? Just start thinking of apple pies, custards and that sort of thing, and sleep sound.”

Toby only grinned back at him, and made no reply.

“How about keeping watch to-night?” remarked Steve, some time later.

“Oh! I don’t believe that’s absolutely necessary,” Max informed him.

“Some of us are light sleepers anyway,” suggested Bandy-legs.

“That’s me, as a rule!” Steve instantly declared; “and a cat couldn’t walk across the floor of my room without me waking up and asking who was there. Then again it seems as if when I hit the hay I never know a thing till daylight comes. They may tell me we had a heavy storm in the middle of the night, but it didn’t faze me one little bit. I don’t know why that should be, unless it depends on what I’ve been eating for supper.”

“Well,” Max told him, “let’s hope then that this is going to be one of the nights when you’re on guard, and that if anything tried to carry Toby off you’ll hear him let out a yell.”

“And then, Steve, remember we’ve got some prime provisions with us, that might tempt a hungry ’coon or a fox. If so be you hear stealthy footfalls like padded feet, get your gun ready to shoot.”

“I will, Bandy-legs, never you fear,” Steve informed him. “Something tells me this is going to be one of my wakeful nights; so the rest of you can sleep right along as comfy as bugs in a rug. I’ll do the watching for the crowd.”

Max made no further comment, but had Steve noticed the raising of his eyebrows, and the smile that flitted across his face, he might have suspected that the other entertained serious doubts concerning the wisdom of depending wholly on his continuing to be on the alert during that coming period when the rest of them would give themselves up to sound slumber.

In other words Max had privately determined that it was up to him to keep his finger on the pulse of passing events. He too was a light sleeper, once he had impressed the fact upon his mind that there was need of keeping on the alert; and few movements could take place in camp without Max being wise to them.

All due preparations had been completed looking to a period of calm. The horse was staked in a fresh spot, where he could eat to his heart’s content; and such of their provisions that they thought might tempt prowling animals they had hung on the limbs of adjacent trees, in such positions as seemed to insure their safety.

“Of course,” said Steve, the last thing before crawling into the tent, “if there should happen to be a lion hanging around he’d gobble poor old Ebenezer the first thing. So if you hear a trampling and a neighing in the night, look out; also wake me up so I c’n have a finger in the pie. That’s all from me.”

He settled himself comfortably in his blanket, and seemed bent on going to sleep immediately, so that the others copied his excellent example. These boys had been through the mill so often that long ago they learned the folly of playing pranks, or “cutting up” after it was finally decided to seek their beds.

Several times did Max open his eyes and lift his head as some slight sound came to his sensitive ears.

Once it was a mysterious tapping on the canvas which made him smile, for he guessed readily enough that it must be some curious ’coon trying to find out what this bulky object might be that had invaded his preserves without so much as asking permission.

The second time was more puzzling, for he could not just say what had aroused him. On listening intently, however, he discovered that Ebenezer must have gotten to his feet again after a little rest, and started to cropping the grass once more; and that it was his rope catching in some little shoot on the ground and being suddenly released that made the rustling sounds.

There came a third time for Max to awaken.

It was not any outside sound that aroused him now, but a movement inside the tent.

The moon must be shining brightly, for it was far from dark or gloomy under the canvas, and he could plainly see what was transpiring.

Something ailed Steve, for he was beginning to get to his feet, without making a sound. Max lay there, and watched him curiously. Was Steve uneasy, and did he mean to step out so as to take a look around, impelled by thoughts of that lion being at large?

This was the first idea that flashed through the mind of the watcher; but he speedily found reason to change it. Steve did not pick up his little Marlin shotgun, as it might be expected he would do if he meant to take a turn around, and see whether anything was stirring.

Then perhaps he had found himself thirsty, and was going for a drink to the nearby spring. Still, if this were so Max wondered at him for not thinking to take some weapon along, for there was no telling but what he might need it.

Now Steve was crawling silently out of the tent; and curious to know what it could mean, Max hastened to copy his example. When he wished, he could do some excellent stalking, and although Steve might have a good pair of ears he certainly showed no evidence of hearing any one come after him.

When Max found himself outside he saw the other moving softly away. He was in his bare feet, not having taken the time to slip on his shoes, as Max had done. This in itself looked queer. Steve ought to know that walking was not the most pleasant thing imaginable when going barefooted, even for such a short distance as lay between the spring and the tent.

The night air was also pretty chilly for a fellow clad only in pajamas, and coming fresh from a warm blanket. Yet Steve did not seem to mind that little thing, for he was moving steadily along, like an Indian brave going to the grand powwow.

Max had been thoughtful enough to take his blanket along with him; not only that but he had also picked up his rifle which was lying conveniently near; for Max had a streak of caution in his composition, and did not like to be taken unawares.

Well, there was Steve moving in the direction where they went to get their water. The tent had not been pitched exactly on the border of the little brooklet that ran from the bubbling spring, because there was really no necessity of this; and besides, the ground just there was not so well adapted to such a purpose.

“If he’s after a drink well and good,” Max was saying to himself as he started after the other boy; “and since the thing had been mentioned I believe I’m some thirsty myself, so that I could stand a gulp or two. That’s mighty nice water, and we don’t get anything as good in Carson. But Steve does act queer, for a fact. I wonder now if he can be up to his old tricks again.”

Now, in times past Steve had been addicted to the bad habit of doing considerable walking in his sleep. He was himself fully convinced that he had outgrown the trouble; but Max believed it was liable to crop up again under certain conditions favorable to its growth, especially if his mind should happen to be worried.

In this case it could hardly be that, because he had not taken his gun along, as he might have done, if possessed by the idea that lions were prowling near, and that it was his duty, as the guardian self-appointed of the camp, to go out and scare them away.

Max noticed that the moon did not stay out all the time. It was pretty well up in the heavens by this time, and he figured from that it must be somewhere in the neighborhood of one o’clock; for long ago Max had learned the useful woodsman way of telling time very closely by observing the passage of the stars, and the moon, across the blue canopy overhead.

There were batches of clouds that from time to time drifted across the bright silvery face of the moon; and when this occurred a period of half darkness was apt to ensue.

But Max had no difficulty in keeping Steve in full view. This was rendered easy by the fact that the chum’s pajamas were of a light color, and could be readily seen against the darker background of the forest.

Just as Max had suspected, he was making a bee-line for the spring. Awake or asleep, Steve was undoubtedly thirsty, and meant to indulge in a drink. Max had never heard of any one doing this when walking in their sleep; but he could remember Steve carrying out some very odd stunts while in this dormant condition, and he guessed it was possible.

He drew a little closer, though not meaning to do anything to arouse the other, who after getting his drink would possibly meekly return to the tent. In the morning Max would accuse him of sleepwalking, and if Steve indignantly denied it, Max could ask him to look at his feet, and demand if he was in the habit of going to bed with the soil of the woods on his soles.

All this flashed through the mind of the boy who followed close on the heels of the leader. He even decided to stand where Steve must surely notice him on his return, and in this way it would be easily settled whether the other were awake or walking in his sleep.

It is so easy to make plans, and yet the best of these may be smashed by some little unexpected happening.

So it was in this case.

Steve had almost reached the spring when all at once a shrill scolding screech rang out, cutting the stillness as with a sharp knife.

Max heard a heavy sound as of something striking the ground. He also caught the flutter of some hairy form that seemed to vanish amidst the branches of the big tree under which Steve chanced to be at the time.

It all happened so quickly, and without the least warning, that although Max was considered a very speedy boy, acting like a flash in a warmly contested game of baseball, he did not think to raise the gun he was gripping in one hand, holding his blanket about him with the other, until the thing, whatever it might be, was gone from his sight.

Steve had come to a rigid standstill the very second that screech made the echoes ring through the aisles of the forest; he seemed startled, amazed and apparently frozen stiff in his tracks.