Read CHAPTER XIII - THE SECRET OUT of Chums of the Camp Fire , free online book, by Lawrence J. Leslie, on ReadCentral.com.

When he presently managed to reach the spot he was aiming for Toby was pretty much all out of breath. He had been forced to exert himself considerably in order to get that last victim; and then came this sudden call upon his energies.

He stared all around him, but could not see any sign of mischievous Steve. The trees were for the most part too small to very well conceal any one behind their trunks, it being every bit second-growth timber.

“Steve, l-l-let up on that f-f-foolin’, and b-b-bring me back my b-b-basket of b-b-bully f-f-frogs’ legs, won’t you, please?”

Toby called this out fairly loud, having by now managed to partly recover his lost breath. He waited, and hoped to see the laughing face of his chum thrust itself into view; but nothing happened.

Then Toby began to grow alarmed. He reached down, and snatched the gun from its resting-place alongside the tree-trunk; after which he pulled back both hammers with trembling thumb, while he scanned his surroundings. His eyes were distended, and there was an anxious glow in them; just as though the boy half expected that a savage striped jungle tiger would suddenly make a leap from out the branches of a pine tree near by, and seek to pounce upon him.

But although he scanned each neighboring harbor of refuge earnestly he saw not a sign of a yellow form lying on a limb, and watching him hungrily.

Toby all at once became eager to call his chums to the spot. There seemed to be a strange mystery attached to this sudden disappearance of his prized trophies, which he could not begin to understand. One minute the creel had been here in full view, and when he looked again, lo and behold, it was gone!

He at least had the good sense to stop long enough before starting to make sure that he was going to run in the right direction; and then he used his legs to the best advantage.

All the time he was trying to sprint as though engaged in a road race with some of the best runners in Carson High athletic circles, Toby kept looking to the right and to the left, and then behind him; for he more than half anticipated that this retreat on his part might spur the unknown enemy on to attacking him.

However, he drew near the camp without anything happening. Now he could hear the voice of Steve again trolling some ditty, while Bandy-legs called out to ask Max a question.

This would seem to prove that the whole three of them were there. It also added to the mystery; because all along Toby had kept saying to himself he half expected to learn that Steve was absent, and that neither of the others knew where he had wandered; for this would make it appear as though after all Steve might be the cause of the strange vanishing of the trout creel.

But now that prop was knocked out from under Toby’s feet. Hence his face looked pale and somewhat peaked as he hurried over to where the khaki-colored tent stood, with the smouldering fire close by.

“Hello! here’s our frog-hunter come back, and I hope he’s met with good luck in the bargain!” Max called out, and then as he noticed first that Toby looked somewhat frightened, and second that he was not carrying the trout creel over his shoulder as might be expected, he went on to exclaim: “Why, what’s happened to you, Toby? Where’s your basket?”

Now Toby, as the reader knows, was likely to get his tongue dreadfully twisted in all sorts of strange knots if he tried to speak in a hurry, when very much excited. That was just what happened now; and Steve had to thump him on the back with considerable energy before he made the accustomed sign that he had succeeded in getting control over his vocal chords again.

“B-b-basket’s gone!” was the shot he fired at them as soon as he could speak.

“What d’ye mean, Toby!” asked Steve, frowning; “gone and lost my trout creel in some mud bed, and can’t find it again? I ought to be glad you didn’t let the Marlin follow suit.”

“’Tain’t that!” declared the other, with an in-taking of his breath; “it’s been h-h-hooked, that’s what!”

Max saw that he would have to take a hand in the matter so as to get at the facts without any more delay; for Steve’s methods were apt to simply excite Toby more and more, and that meant a further thickness of speech.

“Tell us what happened, Toby,” he said, with the little touch of authority in his voice that his position as the leader of the party permitted, and which was always respected by the other chums.

“That’s j-just what I want to do, Max,” Toby went on to say, after swallowing once or twice in a peculiar way he had when trying hard to get a grip on himself. “You s-s-see, I got to leavin’ the b-b-basket on the b-b-bank along with the gun. I had her near c-c-crammed full of the f-f-finest saddles you ever saw, too. Then just when I g-g-got to next to the last jumper I m-m-meant to take, s-s-say, when I looked before throwin’ that f-f-frog ashore the b-b-basket wasn’t there!”

“Sure you didn’t misplace it, Toby?” asked Max, who could not forget that the other had a little failing in the way of meaning to do certain things, and then going right off to attempt something just the opposite.

“N-n-not any, Max,” persisted Toby, truculently; “she was there p-p-plain as the nose on Steve’s face here, when I threw that third f-f-frog ashore; but when I looked again, nixey, she was g-g-gone!”

“We’ll have to go over there with you, and investigate this thing,” Max announced with a frown. “If there’s anybody hiding up in these woods and trying to play mean tricks on us we want to know it right away. We’re too far off for any of the town boys to be trying to bother us; and I don’t think any country fellow would take the chances of being caught and pounded. It must be some sort of animal!”

“That’s what I thought it was, Max!” Toby declared, not deeming it worth while to explain how at first he had imagined one of them might be playing a joke on him.

“Ought we to leave the camp unprotected!” Bandy-legs asked.

“I’ll fasten the tent flap, so nothing can get in, and it’ll be all right,” Max told him; which intelligence pleased the other very much indeed, for he imagined that they might hit upon him to stay behind, and Bandy-legs had as much desire to be in the hunt as the next one.

Accordingly the four boys started on a run toward the distant pond. Toby led the van, because he had already been over the ground twice, and ought to know where he was going better than any one else. Still, it was Max who on several occasions managed to get Toby to veer a little to the right. He was keeping his eyes on the tracks made by Toby in approaching the camp; and knew just when the latter deviated from his former course, as one will naturally lean to the right unless guarding against this tendency.

Even after they arrived at the water they were compelled to continue on for quite a distance, because the frog hunter had covered considerable ground while keeping up his sport.

“There’s your fishing pole leaning up against that tree, I think, Toby,” remarked Max, finally.

“Yes, that’s so,” replied the other. “I c-c-chucked it there before I lit out, so’s to have a m-m-mark to see when I came b-b-back again.”

“And is that the place where you saw your basket last?” asked Steve.

“It sure is!” Toby declared, half holding up his right hand as though he fancied himself in the witness chair, and bound to give facts exactly as they were. “And l-l-looky here, will you, s-s-see where the gun stood up against the tree trunk? Well, the b-b-basket lay over by that clump of g-g-grass.”

Max immediately stepped over and bent down.

“He’s right about that, fellows,” he announced; “because here you can plainly see where the basket lay on the ground, for it left an impression.”

“It ought to,” burst out Toby, convincingly; “because it was h-h-heavy enough to m-m-make a m-m-mark anywhere.”

All of them could see what Max referred to. The basket had undoubtedly lain there on the bank. Max looked all around him, then up toward the tree overhead. In this case the lower branches were at least ten feet from the ground; and he mentally calculated that no animal, however long its reach, could have possibly stretched down and secured that basket.

That would mean there should be some chance for discovering telltale imprints near by. Max was unusually clever with regard to such things; and always thought of them first when there was a mystery of this kind afoot.

“Keep where you are, everybody, please, for just a minute or two,” he went on to say; “that is, don’t move around more than you can help; and use your eyes to help locate the tracks left by this thing, whatever it may be.”

“Oh! a good idea, Max!” burst from Toby; “now, why didn’t I think of that before I put for the c-c-camp?”

Nobody gave him an answer, but doubtless Steve deep down in his heart was saying, “Because you were badly rattled, I guess, my boy; and wanted to meet up with some of the rest of the crowd too much, that’s what.”

After all it was Max who discovered what he sought. They heard him give utterance to a low exclamation, as though of surprise; then he was seen to bend down and closely examine something.

The others crowded close to their leader, and three pairs of hungry eyes were fastened upon the ground. Toby gave a cry of mingled astonishment and disgust.

“W-w-why, would you believe it,” he gasped, “after all it was a silly little b-b-baby, and barefooted at that, g-g-got away with the b-b-basket! Oh! rats!”

Both Steve and Bandy-legs were staring at the plain imprint of a foot, and such a queer foot too, long and slender.

“Max, what’s the answer?” begged Steve; “it don’t seem possible that that track was ever made by any baby like Toby says.”

“It wasn’t,” the other told him, with a smile; “that was a full-grown monkey, and I should think he would stand about as high as Bandy-legs here!”

“A m-m-monkey!” echoed Toby, scratching his head; “and that was what stole our f-f-fine h-h-ham the f-f-first night we camped here, was it, and threw the s-same at Steve’s head? Oh! my s-s-stars, a real live monkey. I w-w-wonder now if it’s got a r-r-ringed tail like Steve said.”

“But looky here, Max,” interposed Bandy-legs, “monkeys don’t eat fish and frogs, do they? I understood they lived on nuts and roots and fruit.”

“So they do, as near as I can say,” acknowledged Max; “although there may be a species that does eat animal food, though I doubt it. This fellow has lived pretty much all his life in the circus, and is as tricky as they make them. He watched Toby here working, and wondered what he had so good in that basket; so when the chance came he just dropped down and made away with it.”

Toby began to scan the neighboring trees as though he half expected to see a grinning hairy face projected through the branches and leering at him.

“But after he looks in and sees what’s there, he might drop the basket, mightn’t he, Max?” Steve inquired.

“I think there’s a fair chance that way, Steve; and so let’s look around. Each choose a certain territory to cover; but don’t wander too far away; and remember our old signal for assembling in a hurry. Whoever finds the creel give the Indian whoop twice. Once for trouble, and help wanted. Now scatter!”

They had done this sort of thing many times in days gone by, and were pretty well trained for service. Following the idea Max suggested, they headed in four different points of the compass, though the pond being behind cut out half the circle, and shortened their labors considerably.

Barely three minutes had gone by than a whoop rang out, coming from the quarter where Steve had gone. The others raised their heads eagerly and listened, for if no second call followed it would mean that the one who signalled needed assistance in a hurry. But almost immediately there came a second cry, proving that the missing basket had been found.

A minute later and they were clustered there, examining the trout creel. It had been opened, for part of its contents had vanished; but when Toby began to discover fine frogs’ “saddles” scattered on the ground, he started to collect them in great haste.

“Seemed like the monk must have been disgusted when he opened the basket, after climbing a tree here, and found that he didn’t fancy the smell of what it held,” Steve gave as his opinion.

“And I guess Toby is likely to get about all his frog supplies back again,” Max went on to say, in a satisfied way; “so that none of us have any kick coming.”

“That old sneak fools himself more than a few times, don’t he?” Bandy-legs remarked, as if beginning to see the comical side of the affair. “First there was the half ham which he couldn’t take a fancy to after he stole it, and now here he’s gone and cribbed a lot of frogs’ legs that he throws away. It must be just a habit with him to steal. He can’t help it when the temptation rises. I’d call him a kleptomaniac, wouldn’t you, Max?”

“Yes,” Toby hastened to remark, out of his turn, “that’s what he must be, but you’ll have to excuse m-m-me from s-s-sayin’ the same, because it’d sure take m-m-me a year of Sundays puckerin’ up my l-l-lips to try.”

“Now, if you had a chance to capture a monkey, Toby, it wouldn’t be near so silly as hoping to bag a great big lion, or a strong tiger that could bat us all over with one stroke of his paw,” Steve advised the boy who yearned to be the proud possessor of a menagerie of his own.

“Well, p’raps I may b-b-before we leave here,” Toby calmly went on to say, “that is, if the rest of you g-g-give-me a h-h-helping hand.”

“You can count on that, Toby,” Max assured him, for everybody felt vastly better, now that the worst seemed known; “but since we’ve found what was lost, and made an important discovery, let’s hike hack to our camp, where we can talk it all over, and settle on our plan of campaign.”

“Yes,” Bandy-legs remarked, “and while that slippery customer is hanging around here nothing’s going to be safe from him. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the old sneak had paid a visit to our tent while we’ve been investigating up here; and poking his nose into every package we’ve got there, hoping to find some peanuts, or something else he likes particularly well,” and this prospect sent the boys on the full run over the short-cut between the pond where the frogs held their nightly chorus, and the camp.