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CHAPTER VIII THE MESSAGE OF THE FLAME
 Gordon made a bee-line through the woods in the direction of the hill, and presently overtook several of the boys, one of whom carried a lantern. When they reached the brow of the eminence, they found that preparations, under Al’s direction, were rapidly going forward.
A lone sapling stood on the summit, and about ten feet from this they had planted a pole eight or nine feet high, steadying it by lines running diagonally to the ground and attached to pegs. From the top of this pole to a branch equally high on the sapling ran a stout line on which had been placed two metal rings (evidently all that were available), and some of the boys were now busily binding willow withes around the line, so that presently the rope had half a dozen rings of one sort or another encircling it. The moon had gone behind clouds which were fast covering the sky, and the boys worked almost wholly by the light of their lantern. But they worked rapidly, and within a few minutes a large square of tent canvas had been hung from the line, thus forming a curtain which could be shifted back and forth. Its position, facing a little north of east, was determined by the compass, and was, of course, accurate so far as compass points were concerned. But whether Harry Arnold was precisely northeast, or precisely east, and just how far and in just what direction, there was no telling.
Gordon looked down from the hill, over the low-lying woods which stretched eastward, a little north of where he had found his way through. He thought he could discern a shadowy mass which seemed to appear and then dissolve in the distance, and which he took to be Dibble Mountain. And beneath him he saw a faint gray band which he knew to be the road. This, he now knew, inscribed a great curve through the woods and came out about a quarter of a mile above his intended meeting-place with Arnold. He meant, as soon as this signaling was finished, to set forth along the road toward Dibble Mountain.
As he watched the rapid and rather elaborate preparations, he became conscious of a feeling of responsibility and accompanying apprehension that he might be held accountable in some degree if the signal failed to bear results. So troubled was he that he did not at once notice the boy who was kneeling behind the canvas and littering the ground about him with burned matches.
“Will you let me try it?” said Gordon, finally, coming out of his absorption.
“Sure,” answered the boy, rising with alacrity.
Gathering a number of chips which had been scattered by the ax in trimming the pole, Gordon knelt, crunched a piece of paper into a little, loose wad, and quickly, daintily constructed a tiny pyramid around and above it. Over this pyramid he made a larger one, keeping by the necessary fuel for one still larger. The process reminded one of the wooden egg enclosed by a larger one, and that by a still larger one, often seen at Easter time.
Now his small hands formed a partial dome over the outer pyramid; now there came a crackling and a little smoke, now the third pyramid was quickly built over the second, and Gordon watched it intently while a few little snakes of flame squirmed out from their inner cage. He paid no heed to the admiring comments of the boys about him. Like a true artist, his mind was fixed upon his task, not upon his audience. Now his hand groped behind him for some larger twigs. One or two he threw away (the boys did not know why). With those which met his approval still another pyramid was formed to receive the flames which were now escaping freely from the third pyramid. For a moment he studied the little mass intently, holding several sticks in his left hand. The thought came over him that presently his fire would flash the first sign in a message to his friend, somewhere beyond those thick woods, waiting, or perhaps searching, in the darkness. And oh, how he hoped the fire would be seen, but scarcely dared to hope it would be understood.
Presently, satisfied, he rose, and pulling an apple from his pocket refreshed himself with a gigantic bite.
“You’re all right,” said the tall Al, slapping him on the shoulder. Gordon smiled his broadest scout smile, with unconcealed pleasure at the older boy’s praise. He was the smallest boy in the group, and there was something about him which drew the others irresistibly to him.
“You’re a wonder!” shouted one, with genuine enthusiasm.
“That’s nothing,” said Gordon, as he took another huge bite. I do not know where he got the apple.
The fire was now coming on famously. “Pull her over,” called a boy, grabbing the curtain. “Never mind the regular call signal—let’s begin and run her across the flame quick for four or five minutes—that’ll do to attract attention.”
This advice was taken, for all the nice points and rules of the Morse signal code cannot be observed with a bonfire on a hilltop. They pulled the curtain rapidly from side to side, alternately revealing and concealing the blaze, and skillfully relieving each other from time to time, for it required some strength and a good deal of agility.
As Gordon stood watching them, he was roused by a light hand on his shoulder and turned to find Mr. Wade standing by his side.
“You mustn’t expect too much of your friend,” he said in a kind of reassuring tone. “It’s possible he’ll see this, but there’s many a slip, you know, betwixt the cup and the lip. Anyway, it won’t be his fault.”
“He can do ’most anything, sir,” said Gordon, earnestly. “Honest, he can. If he only sees it he’ll—”
“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Wade; “and this is good practice for the boys, anyway.”
“But I’m going to start along toward Dibble Mountain just as soon as they get through this. He must have been waiting a couple of hours already.”
“Better stay with us till morning,” said Mr. Wade; “you’ve done enough for one night.”
Just then Al came up to ask about Walter Lee, the injured boy.
“He’s doing well,” said the scoutmaster. “The wound isn’t deep, and seems to be clean, thanks to our young runner here. It bled a good deal, though, and his ankle is strained. The bridge was tampered with, and he must have gone down as soon as he set foot on it. I was wondering who those fellows were who dropped in on us the other day. Walter’s pockets were empty; he says he had forty dollars. I’ve sent Winthrop and John down to Ti to notify the authorities and get a doctor. I guess they can pick their way there all right; I told them not to try any Gordon Lord short-cuts. Walter’ll be all right. Here, Frank,” he called, “let Al stand near you with the message in code form. Let’s see that. That’s all right. Now, just call the code signs and cross them off as they’re shown—something may come of this yet.”
He started for the camp again, and it seemed to Gordon that he took but secondary interest in the signaling. He did not know whether to be glad or sorry for this skepticism. He felt that if the plan failed to carry, as he feared it would, it would be well to have the head of the camp there to acquit Harry of any blame. Gordon did not give a serious thought to the impression he might have made in this strange camp; but he was very jealous for Harry’s reputation, especially after the puff he had given it, and he wanted more than he could tell to have his friend do the improbable and make good. He had an unselfish and unqualified admiration for Harry, and he was sorely troubled now lest his hero fail in the face of these Albany scouts.
The first letter of the message had been stamped upon the darkness when Gordon came out of his preoccupation, and he watched the rest of the work with keen and nervous interest.
“Haul her over, Bill—now back again—cross off your dot, Al—wait a second now—let her go again—that’s the ticket. Hold on now—three seconds—there you are. Now show her for two even spaces; now wait—three seconds—don’t be in too much of a hurry; he’ll wait if he sees it. Let her go again—quick now—do this one careful. Read her off, Al, wake up—short flash—wait—long flash—wait, wait! Another long flash now—wait—now a short one. There you are, fellows, printed right plank against the side of old Dibble Mountain, C-A-M-P! Hurrah for the Raven signal corps!”
All this involved a good deal of exercise on the part of several boys, but nothing happened as a result. Gordon did not exactly expect anything to happen, but it seemed like a good deal of energy wasted.
On the hilltop all was bustle and excitement, but the dark woods below and beyond, and the open lowland stretching farther still to the shore of the great lake, took not the slightest notice. Gordon looked over Al’s shoulder at the message. They had not done one-tenth of it. He wondered how the flashes would look from a distance and thought how much concentration of mind it would require to make head or tail of it. Though he was a scout of the scouts, he found that he had to strain his faith a little to believe that anything could really come of this. And he was conscious of almost a feeling of regret that he had given quite such a glowing account of Harry.
A fresh relay of boys had started the second word.
“Wake up, Al—spin her off!”
“Four short flashes,” said Al.
“Four it is; here she goes—over and back—over and back—wait!”
“One short,” called Al.
“That’s E—now for the next.”
“Short, long, short,” called Al.
“Pull her over, Ed—now back—now a long one—shut her off! Now a short one. Next letter, Al.”
“Short flash.”
“Correct for Albert. Over and back—seat your partner!”
“Camp here!” shouted a boy, enthusiastically.
Thus the work went cheerfully on. It required precision, exertion. It was close to half an hour when they reached the end.
“How do you spell your name?” said Al; “G-o-r-d-o-n?”
“Put it ‘Kid,’” Gordon answered; “that’s shorter and it’s what he always calls me.”
A sudden inspiration seized Al. “Here,” he said; “come and sign your own name.”
Gordon hesitated, then went forward. The boys, catching the spirit of the thing, fell back, while Al himself took the other end of the curtain. Gordon hauled the canvas over, revealing the flame long enough to indicate the dash. Then came the short flash, then the dash again. He almost heard Harry’s quick, low voice, saying, “Hello, Kid,” as he paused before the middle letter.
“Forward and back,” called a boy.
Gordon’s scout smile broadened into its wonted crescent as his small hands worked the two short flashes.
“Hurrah for the Oakwoods!” several fellows shouted, and Gordon smiled still more broadly, as he always did when encouraged or jollied or praised.
“Dash and two dots,” said Al.
And the name that Harry Arnold always called him had been flashed forth over woods and valley and meadow, toward the now invisible Dibble Mountain and Lake Champlain.
That night the Ravens, of whom Al Wilson was patrol leader, doubled up with the Elephants. The Elephant patrol consisted of smaller boys and was sometimes facetiously called the infant class. The whole six of them were tenderfeet with a vengeance, and Mr. Wade usually slept in their tent. This night, however, he shooed the Ravens into the Elephants’ quarters so that Walter Lee, himself, and the “First Aid” boy might have a tent to themselves. But some of the Ravens roosted out under the trees.
The Elephant patrol was a great institution, and their leader, Frankie Haines, was fully aware of this fact. He attended all the officers’ meetings in the tepee, and on one memorable occasion had sat on a troop committee. The Elephants’ flag was flauntingly displayed outside their stronghold; they took a mighty pride in their name and were very clannish, and hung much together. They were all very punctilious about their uniforms. Indeed, they furnished so much wholesome entertainment to the third patrol that the boys of that division had found it impossible to limit their smiles to the requirements of Section 8, Scout Law, and were known as the Laughing Hyenas.
It was with the Hyenas that Gordon was to spend the rest of the night. It was with difficulty that he had been persuaded to give up his intention of going in search of Harry; but Mr. Wade realized that he stood in need of rest. To save Harry Arnold from anxiety, however, he offered to send two of the camp boys to the meeting place at Dibble Mountain. So Cattell and another boy had started north along the road, it being agreed that if they found no trace of Harry near the junction of the two roads they should return to camp early in the morning.
If the Laughing Hyenas had been cast to sleep with the Elephants, there is no telling what might have happened. But the Elephants and the Ravens got along very well considering, and it was as good as a circus to see the older boys coming in, one by one, and making the full salute to Frankie.
The Elephants had looked upon Gordon as in some measure their especial property, and felt that his glory was their glory, for he was younger than any of the camp boys save themselves, and small for his age. It would have pleased them to extend the hospitality of their tent to the honored guest and strut a little in consequence, but Mr. Wade’s order was not to be questioned.
Gordon lay among the Hyenas, who had given him a rousing welcome to their tent, and listened to their talk about the accident at the chasm and the sending of the Morse message. One by one, voices dropped out of the discussion as their owners fell asleep, until only three talked on in the darkness.
“He’s all right,” said one, “and a mighty clever little fellow. He seems to have an idea that his chum is just as smart as he is himself.”
“He thinks the world of his patrol leader, all right,” said another. “I don’t suppose there’s one chance in a thousand of that fellow’s catching the message.”
“Oh, he might have seen the fire,” put in another, “but whether he could follow it is another question. It was pretty long for a fire message.”
“Yes, and even if he got the sense of it, he’d be a wonder if he did anything.”
“What could he do, anyway?”
“He can make a rice pudding.”
“Sure he can!”
“Well, it was good sport sending the message, anyway, but jiminy, my arm is stiff!”
“Silence there between decks!” called a new voice.
“Ralph, the bos’n, as I live! Thought you were asleep, Ralph.”
“I bet Al Wilson could have caught those flashes and spelled them out, all right.”
“You bet he could.”
Presently the voices ceased altogether, and Gordon lay in his corner near the wall of the tent, thinking over all that had happened since he parted from Harry. He had made a great hit with this Albany troop, greater than he supposed, but his mind was by no means at ease. He thought of his chum waiting or searching for him with no clue to his whereabouts, and of how Harry must spread his balloon silk shelter and lie down alone, perplexed and anxious about himself. And here was he, resting on a springy cot after a goodly supper of hunters’ stew. And he had allowed two strangers to go out in the night to find and make explanations to his friend. Oh, how he hoped that by some fortunate chance Harry had caught the message and actually understood it.
Of course, he had no doubt as to his duty after finding the stricken Walter. But perhaps he ought to have gone first to meet Harry, and then together they could have followed the trail of the pink arrow. He made up his mind that as soon as morning came he would take this road under the hill and go straight to Dibble Mountain, and if Harry were not there he would track him and find him. “I can do it all right,” he assured himself; “that’s nothing.”
During the excitement of the evening, his chief desire had been that Harry should do a mighty feat in the face of all odds, and show these Albany fellows what a winner he really was. But now he found himself growing more and more doubtful of the possibility of this and thinking only of Harry’s anxiety when he did not appear.
Still, he dreaded the morning, when the boys would doubtless speak indulgently of Harry, cheerfully humoring his own hero-worship, and probably feeling in their hearts that his friend’s greatness existed chiefly in his own mind. “If they only knew of the things he has done,” he thought; “if they only knew.”
Then, for the first time, he fell to thinking of the robbery. It was inconceivable to his honest, buoyant soul. Never had he been brought so close to a crime before. Some one who knew that Walter Lee would be coming through the woods with money had tampered with the bridge and lurked about until the boy fell insensible, then robbed him, and left him, perhaps to die. He began to realize the horror of the thing now. He thought of Walter, as he had found him, lying stark and white in the muddy chasm. For all he knew, Harry might now be lying, bleeding and unconscious, in some gully where he had fallen searching for his recreant friend. Sleep was out of the question.
He hastily pulled on his clothing, raised the wall of the tent, and crept softly out, stumbling into the drain ditch. A few yards away a gleam of light shone from a tent upon the Ravens’ patrol flag just outside. Gordon stood at a distance looking in. Walter Lee lay on a cot in the center, and the “First Aid” boy stood near making jerky motions as if hammering tacks. Then he placed something in Walter’s mouth. It seemed to Gordon that Walter was smoking a cigarette—strange doings for a boy scout! Then he saw that the “First Aid” boy had been shaking down the mercury in the clinical thermometer, preparatory to taking his patient’s temperature.
This “First Aid” boy had not mixed with the others, had hardly spoken to any one during the evening. He had shown no interest in the signaling, nor even in the robbery. Apparently he had no intention of sleeping. He wore above the elbow of his right arm one of the grandest badges that a boy scout can seek—the ambulance badge.
“I wish Dr. Brent could see that fellow,” thought Gordon. He was always ready to admire others. In a corner of the tent under a lantern sat Mr. Wade writing. Gordon wondered if he were writing to Walter Lee’s parents. A faint odor of carbolic from the tent mingled with the pure, still air of the night. It was very quiet within. The “First Aid” boy made no sound as he moved about. “I wish I knew that fellow’s name,” said Gordon.
He crept away into the woods and up the hill, where the fire—a long period to the message, as Al called it—was still burning,—a useless beacon, as it seemed. He went down the other side of the hill to the road, took out his jack-knife, opened both blades, and stuck one of them into the earth. Kneeling, he fixed his teeth on the other blade. There was no vibration, no sound which could possibly be construed into a distant footfall. He tried it again, fifty yards or so along the road, with the same result.
Slowly he trudged up the hill again, pulled up his stocking, and stood by the fire. In the woods below he could distinguish the faint gleam of the lantern in the open tent. There was no sound but the low sputtering of the blaze and the distant hoot of an owl. Gordon sat down and clasped his hands around his drawn-up knees.
“These fellows don’t know how hard it is to shoot rapids and ride logs down a river,” he said.
He did not even have an apple to comfort him.


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