The Trap Thief by Hy S. Watson & Asa Steele
Amateur Sleuth

The Trap Thief

by Hy S. Watson & Asa Steele

Black Mask | Dec. 1921 | Vol. 4, No. 3 THE RED FILE | Mar. 21, 2017 | Vol. 3 No. 11 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef41

“The low-down sneaking thief!” Jack Ramsey’s wrath hissed on his lips as he flung the steel traps to the ground. Of thirty, all but two had been stolen.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

A Deserted Cabin

“The low-down sneaking thief!” Jack Ramsey’s wrath hissed on his lips as he flung the steel traps to the ground. Of thirty, all but two had been stolen.

Wrinkles of perplexity seamed his face as he sprawled on a great rock in the wilderness, munched his lunch and stared at a distant hilltop.

Jack Ramsey’s blue-gray eyes did not lack shrewdness. With his tawny hair, long face and lean jaw, they were combined in a type of youth not easily deceived. He concluded that the thief had followed him the night before through brush, fern and swamp and taken each trap as soon as he had moved on to the next one.

But why steal them? The thief had a grudge against him ? He had come from the neighboring town of Honesdale, where he had lost his job in a mill, and was trapping here till he got other work. Being a stranger in the neighborhood, he could have no enemies. Perhaps, his traps had been stolen by a some hobo—

The thought brought Jack upstanding. Tossing the crumbs of his lunch to a scolding squirrel, he set off at a brisk pace northward.

The confidence of his advance proved that no part of this strange place was unfamiliar to him. Yet few domains of equal size set up so many barriers against a close acquaintance. In some distant age a great glacier, crushing and combing the mountains to the north as it advanced, had here found a conqueror in hot sunshine. As the ice field melted, vast masses of granite boulders, pebbles and gravel buried in the frozen depths were cast into hummocks resembling little mountains, or piled in driftways or stacks like playing cards or ears of corn, in indescribable confusion. Thus was formed this utterly barren, haphazard place some five miles square, now honeycombed with swamps or covered, where the rocks permitted, by bush or forest.

Around this land passed modern highways. Aeroplanes soared overhead. Toward it, thriving New Jersey towns were crowding close. Thirty-five miles away, as the crow flies, stood the City Hall of New York, the world’s greatest metropolis. Yet the hardships that must be faced while penetrating this natural fortress caused it to remain almost unknown and shunned by men.

Jack Ramsey recalled having seen, while hunting in previous years, a deserted cabin built by lumbermen on a rocky knoll near the northern end of the wilderness. Here might live the tramps who were helping themselves to his traps. He would call them to time.

His visit to the cabin was one of surprises. From the crooked chimney curled smoke that intrigued his nostrils with odors of sassafras and newly made coffee. Crumbling woodwork had been replaced and the windows reglazed and hung with curtains of snowy whiteness. Flowers were blooming in a border along a wall.

The door was opened by an upstanding, buxom girl, sweet and wholesome as the sunshine that had tanned her cheeks and bare forearms. At sight of him. her eyes brightened.

“A drink of water, please?”

“Sure thing! Bring fresh water, Jimmie.”

The man addressed was sitting in a corner shaping a billet of wood with a hunting knife. When he raised his pale, bearded face Ramsey recognized Jimmie Willets, a half-wit whom he had met in the wilderness.

“Jimmie’s my policeman while Dad’s away,” the girl volunteered. “There’s just my father and me, and for me to be here alone all day while he’s at work —I just couldn’t! Oh! I forgot! I’m Mary Gage—”

“I’m Jack Ramsey, from Honesdale.” While Jimmie Willets brought the water and Jack drank of the cool, sweet draft, the young trapper fell into chat with the girl like an old friend. Jack sensed a warm and gracious womanhood and the invitation of one hungry for companionship, while the girl, with that instinctive wisdom as old as womankind, whetted his interest by urging him to talk about himself.

“It’s a great life I lead here!” he enthused. “Even the winds blow sweet and clean! I can breathe free, dream free and hope free! This is the American’s heritage! It’s his when the mystery of blue distances gets into his heart—”

“My! With all those fine thoughts you should have a more romantic name,” she teased, an appraising common sense behind her laughter. “It makes me think of Buffalo Bill and Leatherstocking, and savage men hunting wild beasts—I have it! Hereafter, I’ll call you ‘Lean Jaw’!” He felt the sting of her raillery as he laughed with her. Yet he would not have had it otherwise, longed for it again.

“Truly, though,” he went on, “in a desert like this you might almost expect to see Indians— Oh! Don’t be frightened. You folks and I are the only people here. I’ve had no company but the skunk, stray mink and what-not that are caught in my traps. Yet I don’t get lonely, do you?”

“Oh, no!”

Was she interested in hunting? Jack thought she might explore the wilderness with him and see his traps.

“Then you’re the man whose traps were stolen?” she asked quickly, as if the words had escaped her unawares.

“You know about that?”

She went to a dresser and took from it five new steel traps, which she flung on a table at Ramsey’s elbow.

“They’re mine!” he cried. “Stolen last night!”

“I found them on the road to Honesdale,” she replied.

“But that’s five miles away! You’ve been down there so early in the day?” “The thief must have dropped them on his way to town.”

Swiftly a veil of mistrust had been drawn between them. He was seeking an answer to his doubts with a look as bold as hers had been a moment since. She turned away, a crimson glow mounting to her temples. In the lengthening silence, Jack had no alternative but to thank the girl and go.

“She’d have no reason to steal my traps,” said Jack to himself as he followed the trail southward. “If she had, she wouldn’t confess it by returning them to me!”

“Blind as a bat!” Mary Gage remarked to Jimmie Willets, as she watched Ramsey go. “He won’t guess our secret till he falls head first into it.”

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Chapter 2

The Road To Honesdale

Jack lingered over his traps that evening till it was almost dark, watching for the return of the thief. There being no sign of one, he finally made his way to his camp.

In a swamp near the middle of the wilderness lay a low mass of rock covered with woodland. On this island Jack had set up a shelter of poles, canvas and spruce boughs and stored his food and equipment. A dry, winding path across the swamp had ends which he had cunningly concealed from casual eyes.

In the darkness, he wrapped himself in his blankets and stretched himself on a heap of spruce twigs to sleep. How long he lay thus he could not tell. Suddenly he found himself wide awake, staring at a light shining across the swamp.

Beyond the causeway boulders were piled fifty feet high in ragged confusion, ending abruptly in a flattened top. Jack had named it the Bag of Bones. On the summit, out of reach of plundering lumbermen, rose a stately ash, its boughs flung wide.

It was among the leaves of this ash tree that the rays of light were shining. Any natural source for them was discounted by the fact that the light rose from below. So great was its power that the leaves and branches over which it strayed were stamped with the brilliant vividness of sunshine.

Ramsey stumbled toward the causeway. Before he reached it, the light had vanished. He stared into the darkness to make sure, then kicked himself for his stupidity. A searchlight in the bowels of the earth was too grotesque for belief. He returned to his bed, certain he had been dreaming.

Through the mist of the early morning he made a round of his traps. Of the thirty, on this day eighteen were missing! Ramsey’s eyes grew hard. He began a thorough combing of the wilderness, searching for traces of the thief.

Finally he found footprints beside a brook. They had been made by a short, broad shoe on the soles of which had been fastened strips of iron in the form of a double cross, to obtain a firmer foothold on uncertain ground.

With dogged patience, Ramsey traced these footprints through woodland, gully, swamp and meadow. They led toward the road to Honesdale. He had nearly reached this road when the footprints were merged with the ruts of a heavy automobile. The car had been driven several times into a deserted lumber trail, turned and taken out again.

Suddenly he saw that which made him conceal himself in a heap of boulders and stare cautiously through a screen of laurel toward the highway.

A man had jumped out of a big, high-powered car and scurried into the neighboring forest. The car passed on as the stranger mounted a hillock and climbed a pine tree to the topmost branches.

In a few minutes the car came back. A whistle sounded from the lookout in the pine tree. The automobile was turned into the trail and stopped in the old tracks. Two men leaped from the tonneau. One of them was carrying several packages. While the chauffeur turned the car, these passengers walked quickly to a large stone and, by their united strength, turned it over as if it were hinged and balanced. One of the men took a small package from the cavity beneath the other deposited in it the parcels he was carrying. The stone was lowered into place and a moment later the men were in the automobile.

One of the passengers whistled. No answer from the pine tree. A motorcycle came into view on the main road. The men in the car exchanged glances, whispering, and one of them shook his head.

A low whistle from the pine tree assured them that the way was clear. The automobile shot out of the lumber trail into the highroad and disappeared, as the lookout descended from the pine tree and walked away in the opposite direction.

Hastening from cover, Jack struggled to move the flat stone. It might have been bed rock so sturdily did it resist his strength. He recalled that it had required the efforts of both passengers from the automobile to shift its balance, so he could not hope to stir it unassisted. The hollow beneath and the parcels it contained preserved their secret. But he resolved to return and watch again.

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Chapter 3

A Big, Bang- Up, Classy City Car

The second theft of traps had crippled Jack’s enterprise, so with his store of skins he went to Honesdale, sold the pelts and refitted, turning a balance of cash over to his mother. After supper, he strolled downtown to the cigar store of his friend, Bert Walton.

As he passed the hotel, he did not notice two men on the verandah, who were regarding him closely.

“That’s him!” whispered one of them to his burly companion.

“That kid?”

“Sure thing. Knows more about that stretch of woods than anyone ’round here.”

“Doesn’t look as if he stood in with crooks.”

“Don’t believe he does, unless Gage’s girl has hypnotized him. You’d better find out about that. Go to it! Say you want to hunt— You know.”

So it came that when the big burly man strolled into Walton’s cigar store, nodded to Bert like an old customer and bought a costly cigar, the proprietor introduced him to Jack Ramsey. The stranger came from New York and went by the name of Cox. Could Ramsey take him hunting? When Jack saw the color of his money—a twenty-dollar bill—a bargain was struck. Early the next morning Cox hired a flivver and in it they rattled northward.

Reaching the wilderness, Jack found a familiar trail and they plunged into it, stopping the flivver in a grassy gully.

“What d’ye know about that!” cried Cox, pointing to long furrows in the sod.

“They’re automobile tracks.”

“It has been here often—a big, bang- up, classy city car!”

Jack told him of the mysterious visit of the automobilists, the lookout in the pine tree and the balanced stone.

“Let’s have a look at that stone,” suggested Cox.

With their united strength they moved the slab. Under it was a cavity three feet square and of half that depth. It was empty.

The stone replaced, Cox insisted that they go back to the main road and find another entrance to the forest. No complaints would make him alter the plan or did he offer an explanation as they drove to a new parking place, a mile further up the road.

Ramsey began to think that he had a queer bird on his hands. As the hours passed, the opinion was confirmed by Cox’s impatience, his half-interest in the hunting and his curiosity and questions in no way connected with their sport.

Perhaps the boy’s impatience arose from the fact that his own thoughts were not on hunting. In the quivering, golden-purple haze of Indian summer came dreams, dancing lightly or touching reverently things which another held intimate. In Iris mind’s eye he was watching the sunlight as it filtered through the golden-brown hair of Mary Gage and painted her cheek in wonderful colors like the heart of the rose; again he saw her dimples come and go— “Say, sonny, when I see a kid like you,” Cox finally remarked, “absent minded and dreaming of hither and yon, so to speak, I know it means just one thing. Who’s the girl?”

“Aw—Mr. Cox—I—”

“Come ’long! Who is she?”

Point by point, Cox learned Mary Gage’s name, where she lived, of her family and surroundings.

“Sounds good to me,” was his comment. “Let’s give her the once over.”

Although Jack feared the blunders the roughneck might make with Mary, his anxiety proved to be groundless when they reached the cabin. Cox was as decent as could be, even though Mary Gage received him with visible mistrust. Toward Jack, she acted as an old friend who had suddenly become silent—silent and watchful.

“Some girl all right, sonny,” Cox commented when they were out of earshot of the cabin. “I suppose she’d only have to ask it and you’d cut off your right hand, or rob a bank, or go to the electric chair for her sake?”

“She hasn’t asked anything like that.”

“What if she should now?”

“Oh— I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Jack did not see the appraising look with which his companion regarded him. Cox nodded in approval as they trudged on.

The visitor had insisted that they go to Jack’s camp. When they reached the rocky island in the swamp, he shared in cooking their lunch with the joy of a schoolboy playing hookey.

“This is real roughing it!” he declared. “Certainly a queer place, though. Looks as if Nature got tired or went nutty when she came to this job. That bunch of rocks across the swamp, now— Some giant’s kid might have piled ’em up for a playhouse—”

“I call that the Bag of Bones,” replied Jack with a laugh.

“Not a bad name, either.” Cox buried his face in his coffee mug.

For a moment, Jack was tempted to tell of the mysterious light which he had seen on the summit of the Bag of Bones. Then the impulse passed. The incident was too fantastic, too much like a dream for the boy to trust his senses and vouch for its truth.

Their meal ended, Cox decided to return at once to Honesdale. They had crossed the swamp and were passing the southern side of the Bag of Bones when he came to a sudden halt.

“Say, sonny,” he drawled, “do you get it? That funny smell?”

“I sure do.” A volatile odor filled Jack’s nostrils.

“What d’ye suppose makes it?”

“It smells like ether.”

“Right! Now who d’ye suppose uses ether in among them rocks ?” he asked with a laugh. “Hardly a place I’d look for a chorus girl cleaning her gloves!” Cox parted with Jack curtly. His thoughts seemed to be on other things. Watching the flivver recede along the highway, the boy suspected that his visitor had not come to the forest merely to hunt. What other purpose could he have had? Ramsey had not found an answer to the riddle when, after setting his new traps, he made his way through the twilight to his camp.

Approaching the rocky island, he saw at once that something unusual had happened there. A rapid survey confirmed his fears. His camp, so far as malice could accomplish it, had been destroyed!

Jack’s lean jaws snapped. The fighting blood of his Yankee ancestors surged to his face. He snatched up his gun and crouched beside the causeway to watch under the stars.

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Chapter 4

He Asked Me To Take Your Traps

Into the rebuilding of his camp the next day, Ramsey put much of his defiance. Every pole that he cut every nail driven had in it hatred for his unknown enemies. The supplies he had brought from Honesdale in Cox’s flivver and cached near the highway assured his comfort. He prepared for a siege.

Also he determined to protect his traps. Two forked hickory saplings, near a secluded trail which the thief must follow, suggested a means. In the forks he wedged his gun tightly, pointing it upward to cover the trail and bracing the barrel and butt with stakes crossed near the tops. The weapon adjusted and loaded, he fastened a stout cord to the trigger and passed it among the saplings so that it was stretched tightly across the trail. Thus the thief could not press against the cord without firing a charge of buckshot into himself.

Ramsey slept that night in a thicket near his man-trap. In the early morning a crash awakened him. The bark of his gun! The boy broke from cover into the trail and shouted at a vague, crouching figure near the gun. At sight of Jack, the man gave a leap and disappeared in the neighboring woodland.

Came the patter of footsteps on the soft earth; the light steps of one running. Ramsey drew back into the shadow of the wood, alert on his toes as a panther gathered to spring if occasion demands.

It was not the fellow whom he had seen at first, but apparently his accomplice; the flying body tensely bent, the arms outflung in an extremity of effort. In a moment the fugitive was upon him—

“Stop—”

Jack’s outflung hand arrested the flight of Mary Gage! The girl sank at his feet, panting from exhaustion.

“You know now—I’m the trap thief!” she gasped presently.

“I’m not accusing you,” he replied, helping her to her feet.

“Don’t be polite! You’re not blind!” An outflung hand brushing the tangled hair from her eyes served as well to sweep aside the amenities. “I didn’t believe you’d set a gun to catch us. Since you did, it would have been better if I had been shot. I’m the guilty one and in my right mind, not a poor half-wit—”

“You mean Jimmie Willets was shot?”

“Yes! But don’t worry about Jimmie. Our friends will give him the best of care.”

“I don’t see— Why did you and he go out, night after night, to steal my traps?”

For a moment she seemed to be groping for an excuse, then turned to him with a childlike frankness.

“I know you won’t believe me, Lean Jaw, but I’m telling the truth when I say I don’t know why we must steal your traps. We took them because— we were asked to do so. You should know, perhaps, that we’re very poor— stony broke. We came here last spring from Long Island, where Dad’s truck farm went to smash and left us in debt. Dad was offered this job of his and much more money than he’d ever earned before. He told me a few days ago that his job and our money would be lost unless you were driven out of here. He asked me to take your traps—”

“I interfered with his plans— Is that it?”

“Dad told me that the kick came from his bosses. Oh! Don’t be huffy about it! I like you, Lean Jaw— Like you as well as any fellow I know. I like you so well that I say—first, last and all the time—don’t butt into this. Give up trapping and go back to Honesdale. You can’t fight these people single handed. They’re too strong, too many and have too much money back of them! I’ve been jollying Dad by telling him you’re discouraged and about to quit. I can hardly say that now that you’re fighting back and Jimmie Willets is hurt. But it’s not too late for you to get out—”

“You would have me go?” he asked tensely.

“I’d have you near me—” She cut short his words of tenderness and added in her businesslike way: “But you don’t know yet the secret of Dad’s bosses. If you should stumble on it someday, then ‘Good-bye, Lean Jaw’—”

“These men you speak of? They’re here, in the wilderness?”

“Sure they are! Is there a better place to work secretly within a hundred miles of New York?”

“What are they doing? You must have a hint of it; must have learned something—”

“I told Dad I wouldn’t ask and I haven’t,” she evaded.

“Perhaps I know more than you, Mary. With what I’ve learned and you suspect, we may piece out the truth.” He told her of the strong light and the odor of ether near the Bag of Bones, the footprints with their curious ridges, the big automobile, the outlook in the pine tree and the balanced stone.

“You’re wise!” she observed cryptically. “Oh! Lean Jaw! I beg of you— Go at once! After what you’ve learned—”

“He knows too much, eh?”

They turned quickly at the sound of the voice behind them.

“Dad!”

Jack saw a big man in jumpers, red with rage, his chin aggressive.

“If you’ve told him our secrets, Mary, I’ll—I’ll just about kill you!” Gage threatened, shaking a wrathful finger at his daughter. With a quick turn, he confronted Ramsey: “You get out of here! I won’t have you ’round—”

“I’ve as much right here as you—”

“If you don’t go, I won’t answer for your life—”

Jack glanced toward Mary. There was a helplessness, a wordless appeal in her lax hands and drooping shoulders. Her eyes were raised to his with a message that decided him.

“I’ll stay!” he announced.

“Then look out for trouble!”

“Same to you, Mr. Gage— Much trouble!”

Thus he left them.

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Chapter 5

A New Camp

Before another day had passed, Ramsey realized that Gage’s threat had not been an idle one. Go where he would, he was followed by enemies. Behind him the rustle of dead leaves and the breaking of twigs underfoot told of the passage of living things heavier than the denizens of the forest. Once he had a glimpse of a man with a black beard who, when he realized that he was seen, quickly disappeared in a heap of rocks.

As Ramsey crossed the causeway to his camp that evening, came an underbreath, caught-in-the-throat cough and a bullet glanced off a tree overhead and went winging its way into the swamp. Another and another followed, humming baleful tunes as they were deflected. From the shelter of a rock, Ramsey realized that his assailants were using a silencer on their gun and were shooting wild. In all, he counted twenty bullets. A return fire would have betrayed his position in the darkness and made it a target. In silence he crouched low.

Suddenly he saw the sharp, bright gleam of an electric flashlight. It disclosed the outlines of two men moving toward him across the causeway—

In an instant the light was gone. But Ramsey’s eyes had marked his target. His gun spat fire. A startled, muttered curse told him that his bullet had reached its mark. Again his gun barked. He heard his assailants floundering in mud and water as they retreated. The combatants settled themselves for a term of vigilant waiting.

Jack realized that the encircling swamp made his island camp a prison as well as a refuge. His assailants knew this too and were keeping the only exit, along the causeway, covered. Ramsey’s back was to the wall!

That he should admit defeat and return to Honesdale was unthinkable. The plight of Mary Gage prevented. He would risk his life with these unseen foes, without fear or hesitation, to insure her safety. With this conviction came the overwhelming certainty of all she meant to him. Life without her would hereafter he a leaden thing, halting and incomplete. For her he was here!

He must see Mary and confront her father, the only one of his enemies whom he knew. He must go at once! But how? His wits, sharpened by the contest, devised a means of escape from the island prison.

While building his new camp, he had salvaged some planks from an abandoned sawmill. Noiselessly feeling his way toward them, he chose two of the larger ones and crossed to the opposite side of the island. Here he slowly crawled forward on the planks, relaying them from hummock to hummock above the mud and stagnant water. It was slow, uncertain work, but he finally reached the further shore and started northward.

He approached Gage’s cabin with the utmost caution. Two windows, bright with light, stared at him as if enraged. Creeping close to one of them, which was partly open, his back against the wall and face hidden by the shadows of a vine, he could see a section of the interior and hear the murmur of low-pitched voices.

One was that of the skulking fellow with the black beard.

“Take it from me—They’re on!’’ he declared. “Someone has played the yellow dog! They have been told all about us; details they could only get by living here and being one of our bunch—”

“And because you think I’m the yellow dog, you won’t pay my wages—That it?” snapped Gage.

“Hold on— We would have finished the job and been out of here last week except for this blunder. The fresh kid comes along and learns enough here to put Cox wise. So we stand to lose much more than we owe you. Your girl has queered the deal—”

“Indeed!—Indeed I told Jack nothing !” Mary pleaded. “He was wide-awake, learned things for himself—”

“She did as you said, didn’t she?” protested Gage. “Tried to drive Ramsey away—she and Jimmie—till he put his gun on her. No, I worked hard for my money and intend to get it!”

“When you’ve earned it! That’s my last word!” snapped the other. “Now if you could get Ramsey—”

“What d’ye want ?” asked Gage slowly. “You’d have me rid ourselves of the boy by cold-blooded murder?”

“If it means your money, our safety—”

“Murder!” whispered the girl; then her voice shrilled in protest: “You shan’t harm him—I’ll prevent that! I won’t keep secrets any longer for a crook like you!— No, not even for my father! I’ll find this man, Cox! I’ll tell him everything!”

“From the way the girl talks,” sneered the visitor, “I’d say she wants to marry this Jack Ramsey—”

“Yes! I would marry him—” The impulsive words died breathlessly. Her eyes opened wide as she stared at the window. For Jack, unable to control his eagerness, had thrust forward to hear her reply. In paralyzing fear at sight of him, she sat as one entranced.

Gage’s mocking laugh had drawn attention from the girl. The bearded man watched him as he crossed to a shelf, filled his pipe and lighted it. In that brief moment, Jack’s face disappeared; Mary’s body relaxed.

“You realize, Gage,” came the visitor’s even tones, “that after what your daughter has just said, we can’t let her go free till our job is done?”

“Hum! Keep her prisoner? Where? She’s safe enough here.”

“No, Cox knows of this cabin— thanks to Ramsey. It’s the first place he’ll come. We must keep her in the workshop—”

“No! No! I won’t go!” cried the girl.

“You’ll do as I say, Mary—”

“Not even for you, Dad!”

“You go to the workshop!”

“Then I’ll get word to Jack! He’ll have to know only a little, will guess the rest.” Her voice rose high that Jack might hear; beyond the window, he heeded; “I’ll say—‘Lean Jaw: Under the ash tree on the rocks, lift the hollow stump’—’

An oath, the girl’s muffled cry—Silence!

Ramsey could endure no more. Like a tiger, he moved swiftly and softly to the door. He flung it open, stood before them!

“Jack—” In the girl’s agony she sank, weeping, before him.

The three men confronted each other silently. The boy was now a tiger biding his time to kill. Gage’s fists opened and closed, ready to strike.

“The tail of the yellow dog,” murmured he of the black beard, as his fingers sought a shining weapon in his coat.

“Mary! You must come with me!” Jack commanded.

“Must? I like that!” Gage’s laughter was savage with menace.

“You mean more to me than I can tell you, Mary!” the boy pleaded. “The thought of you a prisoner, at the mercy of these beasts—I can’t bear it! Come! I’ll take you to my mother—”

“I prayed that you might escape them!” sobbed the girl. “I prayed that you’d not come here, that you’d be kept safe till my need was great—”

“Your need is great now! I heard them—They’d hold you prisoner—What more, who can tell? How can you be safe with these crooks—”

“I’m her father!” thundered Gage.

“I’ve seen what you can do; you and your gang!” Jack sneered. “Robbing me, wrecking my camp, trying to murder me tonight with a muffled gun! Come, Mary!”

The girl rose unsteadily. She studied Jack’s face, then stared at her father—Freedom and tenderness in the boy’s waiting arms; or, with the other, restraint, worse—

She moved toward Jack. Gage’s outstretched arm restrained her.

“Ramsey’s going another way,” remarked the bearded one. “He thought he was cunning enough to queer our job. So he’s got to pay—”

His weapon flashed from a pocket. He raised it deliberately and fired.

The world seemed to go to pieces in a vast upheaval as Ramsey sank down, down to oblivion—

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Chapter 6

Bag of Bones

“Brace up! Take a nip of this! It’s bootleg, but the real stuff.”

Ramsey felt the sting of the liquor in his throat, radiating warmth throughout his body. He tried to shake off the evil dream, but could not. After untold effort he opened his eyes. He was lying in the tonneau of a touring car. Cox bent over him, regarding him anxiously.

“Lucky he only ripped open your scalp,” he said. “Half an inch lower and it would have been the end of you. Pull yourself together, sonny.”

“Mary—” gasped the boy.

“Show me where she is and we’ll get the whole outfit.”

“She’s a prisoner, in the cabin—”

“I guess not! We got there just too late. The bunch had flown the coop. Threw you out at the roadside. Thought they could shift the blame or hide their trail, maybe. Feel better now? Good. Let’s go!”

With this, Cox started the car and they sped swiftly southward, along a smooth highway. The sense of time and distance came to the wounded boy vaguely, but presently the white glare of the road gave place to cool arches of trees and the car stopped.

A glimpse of the balanced stone, now raised on end, aroused Ramsey to realities. They were in the old lumber trail. Two other cars were parked in the gully and a half dozen men lounged around them. Two of them were handcuffed. A third came forward to Cox.

“We dodged the lookout and got them as they came in,” he reported.

“What had they with them?”

“Groceries, paper and ether.”

“You’ve been up to the Bag of Bones?”

“Yes, sir. No signs of them anywhere.”

The Bag of Bones! The words aroused Jack like the lash of a whip. There he and Cox had smelled the ether; there Jack had seen the flashing light— In a rush of words the boy told of his night vision, the glow in the ash tree on the rocks.

“Surest thing you know, sonny,” Cox exploded. “They needed that light for the fine points in their job.”

Jack was groping for other facts which evaded him. Then, clear as a trumpet, came Mary Gage’s words: “Lean Jaw: Under the ash tree on the rocks, lift the hollow stump.’’

“You say you can get no trace of them?” he cried.

“Right.”

“Then I can! Help me! We’ll go to the Bag of Bones.”

“You’re knocked out, sonny—”

“I must! She is there.”

“Brady! Grosman!” Cox called. “Help the boy!”

They lifted Jack from the car, two men carrying him between them on arms and hands doubly crossed. Jack doggedly insisting, Cox hiding his anxiety in muttered curses, the carriers swaying and stumbling with their burden, they made their way along the trail.

Near the Bag of Bones two of Cox’s men were on guard. Between them, handcuffed, was the man with the black beard.

“Good work!” Cox commented. “Watch him close. He faces a murder charge. No sign of the others?”

“No, sir.”

“Hoist me to the top of those rocks,” Jack insisted.

“You ain’t going up there, sonny?”

“It’s the only way I can find out!”

Lifting and shoving, they raised Jack over the boulders. At last they stood on the level summit. Jack glanced at the ash tree, then studied the ground beneath it.

“See! There! The hollow stump! Two of you lift it!”

“Say, boy, you’ve gone nutty—”

“Lift that hollow stump!”

Cox’s men laid hands on the large stump, the roots of which seemed to be deeply embedded in the earth. As they tugged at the rotting wood, the stump and a section of soil and rock came away in ragged angles, like a piece from a picture puzzle, disclosing the entrance to a cave thus camouflaged on a trap door by a master hand.

“All of you! Down! Quick!” Cox ordered.

A rush to the opening, the tumble of men down a ladder, shouts and the impact of a struggle in the darkness below, a pistol shot, a woman’s scream—It happened too quickly to be measured by time.

Swiftly as it came, however, the fight was not ended before Ramsey was on the ladder, dropping into the shadows.

He found Mary, benumbed with terror, crouching in a corner of the cavern. Raising her in his arms, he comforted and revived her. Mary sobbed out her story with arms around his neck.

“Say, sonny, let’s go,” Cox finally intervened. “Thanks to you, I’ve made the neatest round-up in my fourteen years of Government service— Crooks, printing press, copper plates, engravers’ tools—the whole outfit. Have a look at this—” He extended a crisp twenty- dollar bill—‘‘the neatest takeoff you’ll see in a blue moon.”

“Mary—Miss Gage wants to go to my mother’s in Honesdale.”

“Hum— She’s one of the gang.”

“I didn’t know what they were doing here— Indeed!” cried the girl.

“She’s right there!” It was Gage who spoke, scowling on them from the knot of prisoners.

“Surely you won’t punish her!” Jack insisted. “Why, Mr. Cox, she deserves all the credit for this. She told me how to find the trapdoor to this cave.”

“Oh!” Cox reflected in doubt. “We might let her stay with your mother till we need her in court—”

One of Cox’s men put in a decisive word. As he left his post as a guard for the prisoners and came forward, Jack saw that his left hand was covered with bandages.

“They’re right, Boss,” he said. “I’m sure you’re safe in letting her go. Miss Mary knew nothing of what was doing here. If she had been one of the gang and had known about it, I would have found it out, being with her all the time—”

“Why Jimmie Willets!” cried the girl.

“Present!” he replied with a grin. “Barring my whiskers and the other camouflage.”

“Then you’re not half-witted?”

“Not to notice it, Miss Mary.”

“And you hanging around our cabin all the time; helping me steal the traps—”

“Got to do crazy things in my job, Miss Mary.”

“Oh, Jimmie!”

“I’ll take your word for it, Willets,” Cox remarked. “Sonny, will you and Miss Gage accept our thanks and apologies? You’d better hustle along now with your elopement.”

~ The End ~

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