Read CHAPTER XV - A HUNT THROUGH THE MILL of The Rival Campers Ashore The Mystery of the Mill , free online book, by Ruel Perley Smith, on

“Say, Henry, guess what I’m going to do,” said John Ellison, as he met Henry Burns in the road leading from Benton, a few days following the return from camp.

Henry Burns, leaning on the paddle he was carrying, looked at his friend for a moment and then answered, with surprising assurance, “You’re going to work for Witham.”

John Ellison stared at his friend in amazement.

“You ought to be a fortune-teller,” he exclaimed. “You can’t have heard about it, because I haven’t told anybody not even the folks at home. How’d you know?”

“I didn’t,” replied Henry Burns, smiling at the other’s evident surprise. “I only guessed. I knew by the way you looked that it was something unusual; and I know what you’re thinking of all the time; it’s about those papers. So I’ve been thinking what I’d do, if I wanted a chance to look for them, and I said to myself that I’d try to go to work in the mill, and keep my eyes open.”

“Well, you’ve hit it,” responded John Ellison. “I know he needs a man, and I’m big enough to do the work. Say, come on in with me to-morrow, will you? I hate to go ask Old Witham for work. You don’t mind. Come in and see what he says.”

“I’ll do it,” replied Henry Burns. “I’ll meet you at the foot of the hill to-morrow forenoon at ten o’clock. Perhaps he’ll hire me, too.”

“You! you don’t have to work,” exclaimed John Ellison.

“No, but I will, if he’ll take me,” said Henry Burns. “I’ll stay until I get one good chance to go through the mill, and then I’ll leave.”

“You’re a brick,” said John Ellison. “I’m going to tell mother about the scheme now. She won’t like it, either. She’d feel bad to have me go to work there for somebody else, when we ought to be running it ourselves. Where are you going canoeing?”

“Yes; come along?” replied Henry Burns. But John Ellison was too full of his plan to admit of sport, and they separated, with the agreement to meet on the following day.

John Ellison was correct in his surmise that Mrs. Ellison would oppose his intention to work for Colonel Witham. Indeed, Mrs. Ellison wouldn’t hear of it at all, at first. It seemed to her a disgrace, almost, to ask favour at the hands of one who, she firmly believed, had somehow tricked them out of their own. But John Ellison was firm.

It would be only for a little time, at most; only that he might, at opportune moments, look about in hope of making some discovery.

“But what can it possibly accomplish?” urged Mrs. Ellison. “Lawyer Estes has had the mill searched a dozen times, and there has been nothing found. How can you expect to find anything? Colonel Witham wouldn’t give you the chance, anyway. He’s always around the mill now, and he’s been over it a hundred times, himself, I dare say. Remember how we’ve seen his light there night after night?”

But John Ellison was not to be convinced nor thwarted. “I want to hunt for myself,” he insisted. “You kept it from me, before, when the lawyers had the searches made.”

“I know it,” sighed Mrs. Ellison. “I hated to tell you that we were in danger of losing the mill.”

“Well, I’m going,” declared John Ellison, and Mrs. Ellison gave reluctant consent.

Still, she might have saved herself the trouble of objecting, and let Colonel Witham settle the matter which he did, summarily.

It was warm, and miller Witham, uncomfortable at all times in summer sultriness, was doubly so in the hot, dusty atmosphere of the mill. The dust from the meal settled on his perspiring face and distressed him; the dull grinding of the huge stones and the whirr of the shaftings and drums somehow did not sound in his ears so agreeably as he had once fancied they would. There was something oppressive about the place or something in the air that caused him an unexplainable uneasiness and he stood in the doorway, looking unhappy and out of sorts.

He saw two boys come briskly down the road from the Ellison farm and turn up the main road in the direction of the mill. As they approached, he recognized them, and retired within the doorway. To his surprise, they entered.

“Well, what is it?” he demanded shortly as John Ellison and Henry Burns stood confronting him. “What do you want? I won’t have boys around the mill, you know. Always in the way, and I’m busy here.”

“Why, you see,” replied John Ellison, turning colour a bit but speaking firmly, “we don’t want to bother you nor get in the way; but I I want to get some work to do. I’m big enough and strong enough to work, now, and I heard you wanted a man. I came to see if you wouldn’t hire me.”

Colonel Witham’s face was a study. Taken all by surprise, he seemed to know scarcely what to say. He shifted uneasily and the drops of perspiration rolled from his forehead. He mopped his face with a big, red handkerchief, and looked shiftily from one boyish face to the other.

“Why, I did say I wanted help,” he admitted; “but,” and he glanced at the youth who had spoken, “I didn’t say I wanted a boy. No, you won’t do.”

“Why, I’m big enough to do the haying,” urged John Ellison. “You’ve got the mill now. You might give me a job, I think.”

Possibly some thought of this kind might have found fleeting lodgment in the colonel’s brain; of Jim Ellison, who used to sit at the desk in the corner; of the son that now asked him for work. Then a crafty, suspicious light came into his eyes, and he glanced quickly at John Ellison’s companion.

“What do you want here, Henry Burns?” he demanded. “I had you in my hotel at Samoset Bay once, and you brought me bad luck. You get out. I don’t want you around here. Get out, I say.”

He moved threateningly toward Henry Burns, and the boy, seeing it was useless to try to remain, stepped outside.

“No, I don’t want you, either,” said Colonel Witham, turning abruptly now to John Ellison. “No boys around this mill. I don’t care if your father did own it. You can’t work here. I’ve no place for you.”

Despite his blustering and almost threatening manner, however, Colonel Witham did not offer to thrust John Ellison from the mill. He seemed on the point of doing it, but something stopped him. He couldn’t have told what. But he merely repeated his refusal, and turned away.

It was only boyish impulse on John Ellison’s part, and an innocent purchaser of the mill would have laughed at him; but he stepped nearer to Colonel Witham and said, earnestly, “You’ll have to let me in here some day, Colonel Witham. The mill isn’t yours, and you know it.” And he added, quickly, as the thought occurred to him, “Perhaps the fortune-teller you saw at the circus will tell me more than she told you. Perhaps she’ll tell me where the papers are.”

For a moment Colonel Witham’s heavy face turned deathly pale, and he leaned for support against one of the beams of the mill. Then the colour came back into his face with a rush, and he stamped angrily on the floor.

“Confound you!” he cried. “You clear out, too. I don’t know anything about your fortune-tellers, and I don’t care. I’ve got no time to fool away with boys. Now get out.”

John Ellison walked slowly to the door, leaving the colonel mopping his face and turning alternately white and red; and as he stepped outside Colonel Witham dropped into a chair.

Then, as the boys went on together up the hill to the Ellison farm, Colonel Witham, recovering in a measure from the shock he had received, arose from his chair, somewhat unsteady on his legs, and began, for the hundredth and more time, a weary, fruitless search of the old mill, from the garret to the very surface of the water flowing under it.

And as Colonel Witham groped here and there, in dusty corners, he muttered, “What on earth did he mean? The fortune-teller how could he know of that? There’s witchcraft at work somewhere. But there aren’t any papers in this mill. I know it. I know it. I know it.”

And still he kept up his search until it was long past the time for shutting down.

Three days after this, Lawyer Estes was talking to John Ellison at the farmhouse.

“Well, I’ve run down your witch,” he said, smiling; “and there isn’t anything to be made out of her. I’ve been clear to the fair-grounds at Newbury to see her. She’s a shrewd one; didn’t take her long to see that something was up. Sized me up for a lawyer, I guess, and shut up tighter than a clam. I told her what I knew, but she swore Tim Reardon was mistaken.

“Those people have a fear of getting mixed up with the courts; naturally suspicious, I suppose. She declared she had said that the man she talked with asked about some letters he had lost, himself; and that was all she knew about it. No use in my talking, either. I didn’t get anything more out of her. We’re right where we were before.”

“Well, I’m going to get into that mill and look around, just the same,” exclaimed John Ellison. “I’ll do it some way.”

“Then you’ll be committing trespass,” said Lawyer Estes, cautiously.

“I don’t care,” insisted the boy. “I won’t be doing any harm. I’m not going to touch anything that isn’t ours. But I’m going to look.”

“Then don’t tell me about it,” said the lawyer. “I couldn’t be a party to a proceeding like that.”

“No, but I know who will,” said John Ellison. “It’s Henry Burns. He won’t be afraid of looking through an old mill at night and he’ll know a way to do it, too.”

John Ellison tramped into town, that afternoon, and hunted up his friend.

“Why, of course,” responded Henry Burns; “it’s easy. Jack and I’ll go with you. It won’t do any harm, just to walk through a mill.” And he added, laughing, “You know we’ve been in there once before. Remember the night we told you of?”

John Ellison looked serious.

“Yes,” he replied, “and there was something queer about that, too, wasn’t there? You said father went through the mill, upstairs and down, just the same as Witham does often now.”

“He did, sure enough,” said Henry Burns, thoughtfully. “I wish I’d known what trouble was coming some day; I’d have tried to follow him. Well, we’ll go through all right but what about Witham?”

“That’s just what I’ve been thinking,” said John Ellison.

“Well,” replied Henry Burns, after some moments’ reflection, “leave it to me. I’ll fix that part of it. And supposing the worst should happen and he catch us all in there, what could he do? We’ll get Jack and Tom and Bob yes, and Tim, too; he’s got sharp eyes. Witham can’t lick us all. If he catches us, we’ll just have to get out. He wouldn’t make any trouble; he knows what people think about him and the mill.”

So John Ellison left it to Henry Burns; and the latter set about his plans in his own peculiar and individual way. The scheme had only to be mentioned to Jack and the others, to meet with their approval. They were ready for anything that Henry Burns might suggest. The idea that a night search, of premises which had already been hunted over scores of times by daylight, did not offer much hope of success, had little weight with them. If Henry Burns led, they would follow.

The night finally selected by Henry Burns and John Ellison would have made a gloomy companion picture to the one when Harvey and Henry Burns first made their entry into the mill, under the guidance of Bess Thornton, except that it did not rain. Henry Burns and John Ellison had noted the favourable signs of the weather all afternoon; how the heavy clouds were gathering; how the gusts whipped the dust into little whirlwinds and blew flaws upon the surface of the stream; how the waning daylight went dim earlier than usual; and they had voted it favourable for the enterprise.

Wherefore, there appeared on the surface of Mill stream, not long after sundown, two canoes that held, respectively, Henry Burns and Harvey and Tim Reardon, and Tom Harris and Bob White. These two canoes, not racing now, but going along side by side in friendly manner, sped quietly and swiftly upstream in the direction of the Ellison dam. Then, arriving within sight of it, they waited on the water silently for a time, until two figures crept along the shore and hailed them. These were John and James Ellison.

“It’s all right,” said John Ellison, in answer to an inquiry; “Witham’s at home, and the place is deserted. And who do you suppose is on watch up near the Half Way House, to let us know if Witham comes out? Bess Thornton. I let her in on the secret, because I knew she’d help. She knows what Old Witham is.”

“Have you got it?” inquired Henry Burns, mysteriously.

“Sure,” responded John Ellison. “It’s up close by the mill. Come on.”

They paddled up close to the white foam that ran from the foot of the dam, where the falling water of the stream struck the basin below, and turned the canoes inshore. There, up the bank, John Ellison produced the mysterious object of Henry Burns’s inquiry. It proved to be an old wash-boiler.

Harvey and the others eyed it with astonishment.

“What are you going to do with that old thing?” asked Harvey. “This isn’t Fourth of July.”

“That’s my fiddle,” replied Henry Burns, coolly. “I’ve got the string in my pocket.”

With which reply, he took hold of one handle of the wash-boiler and John Ellison the other; and they proceeded up the bank. The others followed, grinning.

“Play us a tune,” suggested young Tim.

“Not unless I have to,” replied Henry Burns. “You may hear it, and perhaps you won’t.”

All was desolate and deserted, as they made a circuit of the surroundings of the mill. It certainly offered no attractions to visitors, after nightfall. The crazy old structure, unpainted and blackened with age, made a dark, dismal picture against the dull sky. The water fell with a monotonous roar over the dam; the cold dripping of water sounded within the shell of the mill. The wind, by fits and starts, rattled loose boards and set stray shingles tattooing here and there. Dust blew down from the roadway.

“He’ll not be out to-night,” remarked Harvey, as they looked up the road in the direction of the Half Way House.

“You can’t tell,” replied John Ellison. “We’ve seen the light in here some nights that were as bad as this. What say, shall we go in?”

They followed his lead, around by the way Henry Burns and Harvey had once before entered, and, one by one, went in through the window. Then they paused, huddled on a plank, while John Ellison scratched a match and lighted a sputtering lantern, the wick of which had become dampened. Across the planking they picked their way, and entered the main room on the first floor.

Then Henry Burns and John Ellison made another trip and brought in Henry Burns’s “fiddle,” greatly to the amusement of the others.

“That goes on the top floor,” said Henry Burns, and they ascended the two flights of stairs with it, depositing it upside down, in a corner of the garret that was boarded up as a separate room, or large closet. Then Henry Burns, producing from his pocket a piece of closely woven cotton rope, skilfully tossed one end over a beam above his head; seized the end as it fell, quickly tied a running knot and hauled it snug. The rope, made fast thus at one end to the beam, drew taut as he pulled down on it.

“That’s the fiddle-string, eh Jack?” laughed Henry Burns. “We’ve made a horse-fiddle before now, haven’t we? that rope’s got so much resin on it that it squeaks if you just look at it.”

He passed the free end of the resined rope through a hole in the bottom of the upturned wash-boiler, and knotted it so it would not pull out again.

“Now where’s the fiddle-bow, John?” he asked.

John Ellison forthwith produced a long bent bow of alder, strung with pieces of tied horse-hair.

“Listen,” said Henry Burns; and he drew the bow gently across the resined rope. The sound that issued forth the combined agony of the vibrating wash-boiler and the shrill squeak of the rope was one hardly to be described. It was like a wail of some unworldly creature, ending with a shuddering twang that grated even on the nerves of Henry Burns’s companions. Then Henry Burns laid the bow aside and was ready for the search.

“That sounds nice on Fourth of July night,” he remarked, “but not in here. Let’s see what we can find, John.”

They lighted two more lanterns that they had brought and began their search. Strangely enough, however, the possibilities that had seemed so real to John Ellison, as he had gazed day by day upon the old mill he knew so well, seemed to vanish now that he was within. He had thought of a hundred and one odd corners where he would search; but now they offered obviously so little chance of secreting anything that he felt his hopes begin to wane.

Still, they went at it earnestly and thoroughly. Through the garret, with their lanterns lighted, they hunted; lifting aside boxes and barrels; opening dingy closets; peering into long unused bins. Hoppers that had been once a part of the mill’s equipment, but which had been displaced by others, were carefully examined; even the rafters overhead were scrutinized, lest some overlooked box might be found hidden thereon.

They went to the floor below, where the great grinding stones were; and where a tangle of belting and shaftings half filled one room. There were hiding places a-plenty here; but not one of them yielded anything. Then, on the main floor, where there was a great safe hidden in one corner, and the desk. Here they were on forbidden ground. The property was clearly Witham’s, and they would not touch that. They could only search about the nooks and corners, and sound the boards for secret hiding-places.

So on, up and down, in and out; even through the outer room of the mill, where all was rough and unfinished, and only a plank thrown across here and there to walk on. There were places enough where a box or package might be hidden but where nothing was.

Yet they continued industriously, and were so absorbed in their search that they failed to notice that Little Tim had vanished, until Harvey called to him for something, and he was nowhere to be found.

They were half frightened for a moment, fearing lest he had slipped and fallen somewhere; but Harvey laughed at their fears.

“You can’t hurt that little monkey,” he said. “He can swim like a fish, and he’s a regular cat on climbing. No, he’s up to some trick or other.”

They were aware of this presently and just a bit startled at the sound of a low whistle coming from the outer mill; then Tim Reardon darted in from the darkness, into the circle of lanterns.

“He’s coming!” he gasped. “I just met Bess Thornton up the road. Cracky, how I did run! Look out the window; you’ll see his lantern. Better turn ours down, quick.”

They lost no time in following this advice; then crept to the window that looked on the road and peered out. The swinging and swaying of a lantern could be seen, indistinctly in the distance. Colonel Witham was coming. The boys sped quickly up two flights of stairs into the garret.

What should bring Colonel Witham, night after night, to the old mill, where he had hunted long and fruitlessly? He, himself, could hardly have told. Possibly he felt somehow a sense as of security; that, so long as he was there, there could be nobody else on hand, to search; that he was guarding his property against, he knew not what. And, if ever the thought came to him, that perhaps it had been better for his peace of mind never to have come into possession of the old mill at all, why, he did not allow his mind to dwell upon it. That usually set him to hunting.

Now the door opened, and Colonel Witham stepped within the mill. And for all his being there voluntarily, one might have seen by the pallor of his face that he was half afraid. There, in the shadow, just beyond the rim of his own lantern light, was the desk where Jim Ellison used to sit and sneer at him. Did Colonel Witham recall that? Perhaps. He lifted the lantern and let the light fall on the spot. The place was certainly empty.

For all the relief of that, Colonel Witham uttered a cry very much like a frightened man, the next moment. Then he was angry, as he felt the goose-flesh prickling all over him. The sharp night wind had slammed the little door leading to the outer mill, with a bang, and the noise had echoed through all the rooms.

There was nothing in that to be afraid of, and Colonel Witham seated himself in a chair by the desk, with the lantern beside him on the floor. Now that he was here, he scarce knew why he had come.

What was that? Was that a foot-fall on some floor above? Colonel Witham sat bolt upright in his seat and listened. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow. Then he was angry with himself again. He was certainly nervous to-night.

Nervous indeed; for he came out of his chair with a bound, as the wind suddenly swooped down on the old mill, shrieked past one corner, with a cry that was almost like a voice, and went on up the stream, crackling the dead branches of trees and moaning through the pines.

Colonel Witham started for the door. It was no use; nature was against him conspiring to fill him with alarm. He was foolish to have come. He would go back to the inn.

But then his natural stubbornness asserted itself. Should a wild night drive him out of his own mill when the law couldn’t? He turned resolutely and went slowly back. Nor did he pause on the main floor, but started up the first flight of stairs.

Another shriek of the wind, that rattled the loose window panes on the floor above, as though by a hundred unseen hands. The colonel crouched down on the stairs for a moment and then, oh, what a hideous sound was that!

Somewhere, from the vague spaces of the upper part of the mill, there was wafted down to him such a noise as he had never heard; it squeaked and it thrummed; it moaned deep, and it wailed with an unearthly, piercing sound. There was the sorrow and the agony of a thousand voices in it. It blended now with the wind, and added to the cry of that; again it rose above the wind, and pierced the colonel’s very soul.

Colonel Witham, clutching his lantern with desperation, fairly slid down the stairs, his legs wabbling weakly as he tried to stay himself. He landed in a heap at the foot. Then, rising with a mighty effort, he fled from the mill, up the road to the Half Way House.

Some moments later, seven boys, shaking with laughter, emerged from the garret room and resumed their search.

Colonel Witham had heard the strains of Henry Burns’s horse-fiddle.