Young Hunters of the Lake/Chapter 21

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On the way back to camp Shep brought down a squirrel and Whopper knocked over a rabbit, so the quest after game was not altogether fruitless.

The boys had covered a good stretch of ground, and they were pretty well tired out when they came within sight of the cabin.

"Oh, fellows, look!" screamed Giant, suddenly. "The cabin is on fire!"

He pointed ahead, and a glance showed his chums that he spoke the truth. All broke into a run, and they reached the shelter almost in the time it takes to tell it. Smoke was coming out of the door and windows, but as yet the fire had gained little headway. It was confined to some brushwood which had been thrust inside, against one of the log walls.

"Some enemy has done this!" cried Snap, angrily. "Look out, I am going to drag this fire outside."

With his bare hands Snap caught at one end of the burning brush and hauled it through the open doorway. As soon as he had done this the doctor's son leaped into the cabin and kicked out the rest of the fire. He could stay but a minute, for the smoke almost strangled him. Then Whopper and Giant went in and made certain the fire was out. Soon the smoke commenced to clear away; and the momentary excitement was over.

"Now, what does this mean?" demanded Snap, and his voice was full of anger.

"It means that we have been cleaned out," answered the doctor's son, after a hasty glance around. "Look!"

He pointed to a shelf in a corner on which they had placed some of their stores, and then to the fireplace, and to the log that had contained their cups, plates and cooking utensils. Everything was gone.

"Robbed!" said Whopper, laconically. "What a shame!"

"And they were going to burn down the cabin on us, too," added Giant, bitterly. "I wonder if they touched the boat?"

At this question all ran outside and down to where the Snapper had been tied to an overhanging tree. The rowboat had disappeared.

"Well, if this isn't the limit!" groaned Shep. "Boat gone, cooking utensils gone, supplies gone—everything gone but our firearms! Who could have done it?"

"Maybe the Felps crowd," suggested Whopper.

"Or Ham Spink's gang,'* added Giant. "Or the ghost."

"I don't believe the ghost had anything to do with this," said Snap. "I think it was either the Felps or the Spink crowd. It looks just like some of their dirty work."

"Well, this thing was done within the last three hours," came from the doctor's son. "The question is, what have they done with the boat and our stuff? Of course, we must get them back."

"We ought to have somebody arrested for this," put in Whopper.

"Perhaps, Whopper, but we've got to catch them first," answered the leader of the club.

All looked eagerly up and down the lake, and across to the other shore. Shep imagined he saw a boat pulled up in the bushes on the other side, but was by no means sure.

"If we can't get our things back we'll have to go home," said Giant, soberly.

"I am not going home!" cried Snap. "We've got our guns and some ammunition, and the deer meat—I wonder if they touched the deer?"

All rushed back to where the big deer had been left, hung up in a cool spot in the forest. Evidently the enemy had not seen this game, and it was untouched. Looking around near the water front they found a small box of salt, a spoon, and some scattered cartridges for the rifle. Evidently the marauders had left in haste and dropped the things on the way.

"I am glad we have the salt," observed Snap.

"Those thieves ought to have the salt down their throats," muttered Whopper. "They are altogether too fresh!"

The young hunters walked around the camp for half an hour and more. They did not know what to do. They were hungry, but in no humor for eating. They wanted to get on the track of their stolen belongings, but did not know how to strike out.

"Maybe some tramps came along and did this," suggested Snap, dropping on the ground to rest. "Some of that class of fellows would think it fine sport to clean us out."

"One thing is certain," said Shep, "and that gives me an idea," he added suddenly. "The boat must be somewhere on this lake, and it can't leave excepting by the river that runs into Firefly Lake. Perhaps it would be a good idea for us to go down to the river and set a watch for the thieves."

"It's a long tramp," answered Giant. "And don't forget the snakes down there. "If we—"

Giant broke off short as a distant gunshot sounded out. It was followed presently by a second shot. Then all became as quiet as before.

"Those shots came from across the lake!" cried Snap.

"Yes, and right close to the spot where I thought I saw that boat," added the doctor's son. "Fellows, I believe there is a camp over there, and if we can manage to get across perhaps we'll learn something about our belongings."

"How are we to get over without a boat?" demanded Whopper. "It's too far to swim. The water is so cold a fellow would get cramps before he was half over."

"We might build a raft," suggested Snap, who had been favorably impressed by Shep's words. "There are a number of logs lying around that we cut for firewood, and I saw some wild grapevines back of the spring which will do very well for ropes. We could take off the most of our clothing, so it wouldn't matter if we got wet."

The proposal to build a raft was approved by all, and they set to work without delay. It had been after four o'clock when they got back to the cabin and it was dark by the time the raft was ready for use. It was a clumsy affair, made of rough logs, spliced together with grapevine shoots, and it was barely large enough to carry the four boys. They took off their coats and shoes and socks, and rolled their trousers up to the knees.

"Talk about a life on the ocean wave!" sang out Whopper. "This steam yacht would take the first prize at any cattle show, eh?" And this quaint remark caused a general laugh.

In the center of the raft a small log was set upright, not as a mast but as a support for their guns, for they did not wish the weapons or their ammunition to get wet. Nobody thought of crossing the lake without the firearms.

"We may have to fight to get our things back," was the way Snap expressed himself. "And our guns may come in mighty handy."

"Let us try to reach a point some distance below where Shep thought he saw the boat," suggested Snap. "Then we can land and not let the others know what we are doing. We don't want to rush in on any crowd that is too large for us. That would simply make more trouble for us."

Snap's proposal was considered a wise one. Soon the young hunters had poled the raft from shore and then they started to propel it across the lake. Two of the boys had rude paddles and the others cedar branches. The progress made was not great but it was sure, and they were content.

It was pitch dark when the rude raft struck the opposite shore of Lake Narsac. They came in among some brushwood and landed without great difficulty. They they donned their socks and shoes, put on their coats, and slung their guns across their backs.

"We'll tie up the raft," said Snap. "For all we know we may have to come back to it."

"Oh, I hope not!" murmured Giant.

With extreme caution they picked their way among the trees and bushes and across the rough rocks. Once Giant rolled over and over down some of the slanting rocks and would have got a ducking in the lake had not Snap stopped him just in time.

"Be careful," whispered the leader of the club. "Don't let go of one footing until you are sure of the next."

They covered a distance of two hundred yards, when Snap called a halt.

"What now?" questioned Shep.

"I see a small campfire—through yonder trees."

"Then there is a party here beyond a doubt!" cried Whopper excitedly.

"You fellows wait here and I'll crawl forward and investigate," went on Snap. "It may pay us to go at this as quietly as possible."

"Don't get into trouble," warned the doctor's son.

"If I do you'll hear of it quick enough," answered Snap.

Then with great caution he crawled through the brushwood in the direction of the distant campfire.