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CHAPTER XIV THE BATTLE OF WITS!
It was only to be expected that Bob was not fit for much exertion after his experience with the muskeg, and it was Skipper Mackintosh's decision on returning to camp that the boy should proceed no farther that night.

"But that will be a longer time before we get on the track of our fathers," protested Arnold, to whom the thought of inactivity for even twelve hours was irksome.

"Better to bide quiet for a night at present than be laid up for days later on," was the Scotsman's response. "But you can set your mind easy-like. The time will no' be lost, for Haggis and me will set oot on a wee scouting expedition to the place where we found yon hanky. We'll be back by midnight."

This plan was a relief to the boys' minds, for though it entailed a certain delay in the forward[Pg 151] journey, the result of the scouting might curtail matters in the long-run. Mackintosh's report might enable them to make more definite plans than were possible at present.

So, after a few preparations for the journey, the two men set off, accompanied by the faithful Bannock, early in the afternoon.

"Don't you go and disappear like the others did!" laughed Holden, to which the "ceevilised" Haggis replied—

"Fox lose trail in bush easier than me!"

It was a hot afternoon, so, when the boys had watched their friends disappear in the forest, Bob decided that it would be a good opportunity to wash the mud and slime from his clothes, as they would soon dry in the sun.

No sooner said than done. The soiled garments were stripped (for of course the lads were reduced to one suit apiece) and the stream utilised as a washing-tub, after which Bob was obliged to sit in his suit of Nature while the clothes of Art were drying upon handy branches.

As we said, the day was hot, and, as the grassy slope upon which the boys sat formed the margin of a clear pool where the stream widened, it was[Pg 152] not to be expected that the period of idle ease would be prolonged.

"Ah!" Bob suddenly exclaimed, as he sat up and regarded the water with covetous eyes, "the temptation is too much for me. I'm going to have a dip."

"It certainly looks more tempting than your plunge into mud. A pleasant change, I should say," remarked Alf chaffingly. Then he added merrily: "But are you sure that you can stand it? It won't do to exert yourself too much yet. Old Mackintosh expects you to rest."

"That's all right. I shan't muck about very much. I can take it easy. As a matter of fact, I am sure that a plunge will buck me up."

"All serene," returned the younger boy, rising to prepare himself for a bathe. "So long as you don't think that it will do you any harm, I'm ready."

A short run, and then Bob had entered the water in the clean-cut style of a practised diver.

"It's glorious!" he called to his chum, who was almost ready to follow his leader. "I should think that it is quite eight feet in the middle, so you can plunge safely."

"Right. Clear out of the way!" was the[Pg 153] response, and in a second more Holden in his turn cleft the sparkling water.

Those of our readers who are only familiar with the cheerless sea or even the placid river-bathing of England can have no idea of the charm that is found in emulating the fishes in the cool depths of a Western forest stream.

Imagine the great trunks of cedar and pine and the gnarled giants of maples spreading their great arms—shutting off the distance with a surrounding barrier of dense colour; imagine the red willows dipping their heads in the margin of the bowl, gaily coloured birds skimming the surface in pursuit of insects, and gaudy butterflies sometimes touching your cheek, like a piece of down borne upon the mellow air. At such a time, in such a place, you feel yourself to be but a tiny little speck in the centre of the world of Nature. You feel as free as a savage. If you are not happy, it must be that you are a weakling boy who lacks the real boy's love for out-of-door freedom.

These were some of the sensations that our young heroes experienced as they splashed about in the crystal pool. Probably they did not realise the details as I have described them; but that[Pg 154] was the effect, all the same. It is the glorious sense of freedom that everybody feels if they have the "backwoods spirit." It cannot be properly described, but I can smell the atmosphere of it all, even though I am now sitting in an English room in an English county. And so intent were the boys on the enjoyment of the moment that they did not observe the figure of an Indian who crept out of the bush near by while they were experimenting in various positions for swimming.

The Indian paused for a few moments. Then, seeing the attention of the lads was devoted to their amusement, he crept to the tent like a snake in the long grass. This he examined thoroughly, and he gave a grunt of satisfaction as he discovered the pack-horse picketed near by. After this, seeing no necessity for further secrecy of movement, he boldly walked to the edge of the pool where the boys were bathing, and sat down quietly to watch their play.

It was Alf who was the first to discover the stranger. "I say! There's an Indian!" he exclaimed.

"Where?" questioned Bob, who had swum a little way out of sight beyond a curve in the creek.[Pg 155]

"Over there—beside our clothes. But, I say, what a horrible face he has got! He looks as if a lion had started to chew him and changed his mind! He's the ugliest-looking freak I ever saw."

Taking for granted that the Indian would not understand the uncomplimentary remarks, Holden swam towards the side of the pool, being quickly followed by his chum. But the Indian had understood. He was as familiar with colloquial English as he was with his own tongue. Nevertheless, he did not alter the grin on his face, though there was something very different from a grin at his heart—a something which (if the rash speaker had only known it) had suddenly determined him to carry out his contract in quite a different manner from that which had been arranged with Thunder-maker.

An Indian is a queer creature at the best. He loves as quickly and impulsively as he hates, while devotion may be turned into detestation as rapidly as a vessel of clear water is discoloured by a drop of ink. Red Fox's eyes flashed fire towards the imprudent lad, though his lips still smiled, and anyone who was a judge of Indian character would have understood from that look that it would be an ill moment for Alf if ever it[Pg 156] was within the power of the redskin to repay the insulting expressions.

By this time both lads had reached the shore, whereupon Bob addressed the stranger while the pair proceeded to dress—Arnold's clothes being dry by this time.

"Well, where have you come from?" the boy questioned.

"Trail long. Red Fox come over prairie—bush—far—far——"

"Oh, you understand English?" exclaimed Alf, at the same time hoping that the Indian had not heard enough, or understood English well enough, to comprehend the recent criticisms as to his personal appearance.

The redskin nodded, though he craftily pretended that his knowledge of the foreign tongue was but scanty.

"Red Fox know little—very little. He speak—he no' understand all that ears tell him."

"And a jolly good job, too," commented Alf to his friend. "He's a hideous monster, but I shouldn't like to hurt his feelings by letting him know my opinion."

"I don't think that I would express it too freely, if I were you," said Bob, who had quickly[Pg 157] resumed his everyday attire. "You never can tell how much fellows like that understand. I remember father telling me that Indians won't always admit that they know English well. They think that they can drive better bargains by pretending ignorance."

Then the boy turned to the native, and the fact that the man was alone and seemed to have no other possessions than his gun, hunting-knife, and pipe, raised doubts in the lad's mind as to the truth of the statement concerning the long journey. He knew and had heard sufficient about Indians to be aware that they seldom travelled any distance without their family and other belongings.

"You said that you had come a long trail?" he said, regarding the Indian with a sharp scrutiny.

Red Fox bowed assent, taking out his pipe to fill it with kini-ka-nik (tobacco and red willow bark mixed) as he spoke.

"Red Fox come far—with feet of deer. He have story for ear of pale-face brothers."

The boys started at the remark, while Alf repeated—

"A story?"

"From the white men to their papooses."[Pg 158]

This was news indeed; but the unexpected announcement disarmed suspicion for the moment.

"From our fathers?" said Bob eagerly. "Where are they? What has kept them from returning to camp?"

"The white men rest," replied the Indian. "The trail far. They find Red Fox, and they say: 'Go, find our papooses and lead them by straight trail to our tent.'"

"But they had no tent with them!" exclaimed Alf, at once touching the weak point in the falsehood. "Perhaps they are with other Indians?"

Red Fox had not been instructed by Thunder-maker in the details of the story that he was to tell in order to gain his ends. It had not occurred to him to invent more than that he had been sent to bring the lads. That had seemed sufficient to attain his aims, though he realised that it would not do to say that the white men were captives. That might frighten the boys and prevent their following his guidance. The poor servant had not calculated upon the probing questions that would have been naturally anticipated by an English mind and prepared for.

But he saw the blunder, and hastened to amend the error as best he might.[Pg 159]

"White men with Indians—with friends. Red men good to pale-faces—give them food and teepees and robes to rest on. So white men wish papooses to follow where Red Fox walk."

Holden turned aside to his chum.

"I'll be hanged if I'll follow the lead of a murderous-looking villain like that unless he can show very good reasons why I should. His face is like a nightmare."

"I can't say I like the look of him myself," returned Bob. "He hasn't got the expression of a fellow you could trust. Besides, don't you think that if our fathers were well and had sent a native messenger to us—don't you think that they would have sent some sort of written message as well?"

"It would have been easy enough. Father always carries his notebook and pencil with him——"

"So he could have easily explained matters. I don't think he would have trusted an Indian to be understood. It isn't as if we knew anything of the lingo."

While the boys were thus discussing the situation in low tones, they did not heed how Red Fox was observing them sharply from the corners[Pg 160] of his eyes. He was trying to discover how far his deception had succeeded, though he endeavoured to hide his anxious observation by the action of lighting his redstone pipe. And it must be confessed that his keen scrutiny of the lads' faces did not reassure him. He could see suspicion plainly marked in both, while his heart burned with fire of anger, though resentment was mainly directed to the younger lad, whose inadvertent remarks had cut so deeply into the savage pride.

But the redskin's mental observations were suddenly cut short by Bob, who wheeled upon him with a sudden inspiration.

"Look here," he said quickly, though his voice was pleasant and almost reassuring, "it is very good of you to travel so far to bring us this news. We are glad to see you, and will try to give you a good present. But we will settle our business first. So, give me the letter, and then we will go to the tent and eat."

"Letter?"

The Indian repeated the single word in a puzzled tone.

"Yes; the one my father gave you," said Bob.

So mystified was Red Fox by the intelligence[Pg 161] that apparently he had not only been expected by the boys but that he had been looked for as the bearer of a letter from the fathers to their sons, that he was momentarily startled out of his caution in pretending an only slight acquaintance with the English language.

He stared open-eyed at the question, and Bob continued evenly—

"Of course my father would send a letter if he wanted us. He would do that to prove that his messenger was one whom we could trust. Did he give you one?"

Red Fox was quite taken off his guard by the white boy's guile, but he strove to cover his confusion by further lying.

"Yes—the white man send paper by hand of Red Fox, but—but Red Fox foolish; he—lose letter—on trail——"

"But you are sure you had one? It would be written—in red—with a red pencil—a red paint-stick."

"My white brother speaks true," said the Indian.

"Of course he does!" chimed in Alf, to whom his chum's ruse was now clear. "And if that letter was written in red and sent to us, we would[Pg 162] know where it came from, and would follow the messenger at once."

The Indian flashed a quick glance of hatred towards the last speaker, but instantly lowered his eyelids again, as he returned with more calmness than before—

"It is well. The pale-face did paint letter with red. But—Red Fox foolish Indian. He lose letter on trail. He seek much—much—but no' find."

The game of bluff had succeeded. Now the boys knew for certain that the man was lying—that he had not been commissioned by either of their parents, and both laughed derisively.

"Trapped!" exclaimed Holden triumphantly. "You've got him tight as a rabbit in a gin, Bob."

How that sneering laughter scorched the redman's pride! It touched him at the quick, and caused him to writhe inwardly, until his fingers twitched beneath the folds of his blanket with eagerness to tear out the tongue that thus jeered at him. Yet the lads did not dream how near they were to tragedy as they laughed at the little comedy, with the chief actor sitting huddled at their feet. They did not notice how the[Pg 163] Indian's eyes first measured the distance from the overhanging bank to the surface of the water, and then as quietly calculated the distance between himself and the lads.

"Yes, you were indeed foolish," resumed Arnold, "for you have shown us that your words were lies. My father never wrote such a letter, I am sure, for a red pencil is not a thing that he possesses. And if he were well enough to write, he would be well enough to come himself, instead of sending such a foolish Indian and a bad liar."

"At the same time," whispered Alf, "the chap must know something, or he wouldn't be here at all. We must find out that in some way or other."

"True," Bob said.

But there was no time allowed for considering what means to adopt to obtain further information, for just at that moment Red Fox uttered a wild cry, and sprang from the ground with the leap of a deer. Next instant Bob was gripped as in a vice and flung into the centre of the pool; then, with a snarl like that of a wild cat, the Indian sprang for Alf's throat.


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