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12 A Brush with the Sheriff
The cardboard had been propped up in the space provided by a small branch. The letters had been wet and faint streaks showed where they had run.

“The sentries who were on duty last night please step forward,” requested the colonel. A number of cadets promptly stepped forward, facing the colonel.

“Did any one of you at any time during the night see or hear anyone around the camp?” Not one sentry had noted anything amiss.

“I can tell you of an experience that happened to us last night, colonel,” spoke up Jim. “We were discussing the whole ghost situation on the Ridge, and our determination to find out who this ghost was, when we heard a noise outside our tent. I might more accurately say that I heard it, and I went outside to see if anyone was there. I didn’t find anyone, but it looks as though someone did sneak up to our tent, hear what we had to say, and then printed this sign to scare us.”

“But in order to do so the party must have gone back to some shelter and spent some time making up the warning, if such it might be called,” mused the headmaster. “I have no doubt, however, that your conversation was overheard. This ghost has developed a bad habit of visiting our camp whenever he feels like it.”

“It wouldn’t have been hard to slip past a sentry in the pouring rain, sir,” suggested Jordan.

“No, not at all,” agreed the colonel. “With this reference to your soldiering, I presume that you young men will have an added cause now to go after this ghost person.”

“That’s a pretty heavy insult!” smiled Major Rhodes.

“Well, the ghost must know now that an active campaign is afoot to drive him off the Ridge,” said the colonel. “That ought to make the game more interesting than ever. Our foe is warned and will play his game with skill. That gives you boys greater odds to move against, but I feel sure that you will be successful in making an end to the affair.”

The regular routine of that day seemed to take longer than usual, but as soon as it was over the members of the Ghost Patrol gathered together to look around in back of the camp for signs of the night visitor. The ground was wet and they argued that if the prowler ever left any traces he would surely have done so that night. Their first search took in the soft soil back of Jim’s tent and they found encouraging signs at once.

“More than one footprint here,” proclaimed Don, grimly, as they bent over the depressions in the dirt.

Someone had sneaked up close to the wall of the tent, and the prints of large shoes were very plain. In the heels of the left shoe they found a peculiarity that gave them something to work on. There had been some kind of a cut down the center of the leather heel and it showed plainly in the soft mud.

“Maybe when the heel was cut out of block leather the knife slipped and left that mark,” Jordan thought. “With a plain marking like that we ought not to have much trouble. Let’s look under that tree where the cardboard was found.”

Under this tree they had more difficulty, because the feet of the curious cadets had churned up the ground so that it was almost impossible to make out anything definite. But at a distance of perhaps three yards they found the marked heel print again. Whoever had placed the sign in the tree had come down the slope above the camp, and the print could be followed for a short distance up the hillside. But before long they struck a section of rocky ground and hunt as they would they could not find another trace of the print.

“A whole lot of this Ridge is pretty rocky,” sighed Douglas. “From here on I guess we’ll have to trust to luck. Somewhere we may run across the trail again and get our bearings.”

They explored the slope with exhausting patience, but there was no further trace until they struck the very top of the hill. There, in a soft spot, they once more found their marking. The print pointed down toward the town of Rideway, which they could see in the distance.

“He went down into town,” said Terry. “Suppose we follow down there, and see where the print leads to?”

Following the marked heel down into Rideway was not an easy task. In some places they lost all traces of it and had to look around for half an hour before finding the faint mark again. But the trail led steadily down the opposite slope from the camp until it went into town. But here they lost it for good.

The main road was hard as a rock, with a glazed surface that left no trace of any mark. They followed this road down through town for a long way, but there was no further sign of the marked heel. Their next move was to look along the sides of the road to see if the man had walked off it at any point, but after a good hour had been spent in this way the cadets gave it up as a bad job.

“Too bad,” groaned Jim. “Right at the most important part we lose it altogether. I guess that’s the end of an important clue.”

“Yes, looks like we have exhausted this possibility,” agreed Jordan. “Anyway, we have given the town people something to wonder about.”

This was true. The natives of Rideway had been watching the boys with curiosity. So busy had they been in their search that they had failed to pay any attention to the citizens, but the people had not failed to note what they were doing.

“Say,” Don warned. “Here comes that nasty sheriff.”

From a small, one-story shack near them the tall sheriff made his way. His eyes were fixed on the boys and he swaggered in their direction. They were not aware of it, but he had been watching them from his window for the last several minutes.

“Let’s be careful what we say to this fellow,” Terry warned in a low voice. “We’ll tell him we just came to town for a visit.”

The sheriff had now come within hailing distance. Hands on hips he surveyed the cadets with vast contempt.

“What’re you soldier boys doing here?” he boomed in a voice sufficiently loud to attract the attention of the passersby. A small ring instantly collected.

“We’re just looking your town over,” smiled Jordan easily.

“Looking my town over, eh? I guess you are pretty thorough about it. Examining the streets to see what kind of dust we have here, I see.”

“Yes,” nodded Terry innocently. “It is just like the dust they have every place else!”

“You keep your mouth closed, young fellow!” rumbled the sheriff, turning smoldering eyes on the cheerful redhead. “If I have any funny talk from you boys I’ll lock you up quicker’n a wink. I want to know what you boys are doing snooping around the street here.”

“We’re here looking for a man who has been prowling about our camp lately,” said Jordan, seeing that nothing was to be gained by evading the issue any longer.

“What man is prowling around your camp?” the sheriff demanded.

“That’s just what we would like to know,” responded the senior captain. “Not long ago a man stampeded our horses and last night he left a warning in our tree in our camp, telling us to keep our noses out of this ghost business. We found a heel print in the mud under that tree and we have followed it down into this town. That’s all.”

“Nobody has been anywhere near your camp,” the sheriff declared loudly. “You boys have been dreaming.”

“Is that so?” spoke up Jim, sharply. “Listen here, Mr. Sheriff, I saw that man stampede our horses. Whoever is hanging around the camp had better keep away from it and stay away.”

“What’ll you do if he doesn’t stay away?” scoffed the sheriff.

“We’ll do what you should have done long ago,” snapped Don. “We’ll find him and send him to a responsible officer of the law to take care of. You are supposed to be a sheriff here, keeping law and order, and yet a silly ghost terrifies the community for years and you aren’t able to run him down. We’re neither too stupid nor too lazy to do it and if the ghost or any of his friends are here in this crowd I’m telling you plainly that we’re going to nail him and nail him hard!”

There was an awed rustle in the crowd. The sheriff turned purple with wrath. He shook a long and bony finger at the cadets.

“You imitation soldiers, listen to me,” he roared. “I’m warning you to keep your nose out of affairs on this Ridge! I’m the sheriff here and what I say goes. If I catch you meddling around with anything again I’ll lock you up so fast you won’t know what hit you. You mind your own business about people and things at Rustling Ridge, do you get me?”

“As far as people on the Ridge go, we do get you,” retorted Jordan. “But not where it concerns this ghost who has been coming into our camp at night. If he insists upon visiting us, then it is our business to try to find him. That’s all there is to that.”

Realizing that there was no use in arguing further the boys left.

“Well, that’s an open declaration of war,” chuckled Terry, as they made their way back to camp. “I’m afraid we’ll have to buck that sheriff all the way along the line.”

“Yes, because it is even possible that he has something to do with the ghost business himself,” said Vench, seriously. “Anyway, he is mighty touchy about the whole thing.”

“That is because he considers himself the King of the Ridge, and it hurts his pride to see anyone else butt in,” said Jim. “Wonder what the colonel will say when we tell him?”

The colonel heard them in silence. Then he spoke to them quietly. “You did perfectly right, boys,” he said. “However, in the future steer clear of him. I don’t think he really amounts to much, but he may make things pretty unpleasant. In spite of him, we’ll get this ghost yet.”

The colonel accompanied the boys to the tent entrance when they left. Outside they found Lieutenant Thompson with a number of other cadets staring fixedly across the Ridge.

At the sound of the colonel’s voice Thompson turned his gaze to the headmaster and said, “Sir, I believe that someone is sending us a wigwag message from that hill!”

All eyes swung toward the distant hill. Sure enough, far up at the top two tiny white flags moved in the semaphore signal. Whoever was doing it knew the code and they stared in fascination as the flags moved steadily.

“He is repeating his message, boys,” said the colonel, breaking the silence that had settled upon them. “Be sure you get it this time.”

The camp was completely silent as the cadets strained their eyes to read the wigwag message. When it finished a burst of excitement and amazement followed. The mysterious flagman had signaled unmistakably: “Be on your guard. The Ghost walks tonight!”


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