“It is useless to look for any more tracks,” said the ranger, straightening up. “Collins and his companion quite evidently went up this valley instead of the one they told you they were heading for. They were merely trying to mislead you, which makes me all the more certain they are here for no good purpose. They certainly had no reason to suspect your connection with the Forest Service, and I presume that Collins was so annoyed at being seen by anybody that he just couldn’t keep his temper. So he swore at you. He’s a violent chap. It’s certain that he’s somewhere ahead of us, with at least two hours’ start. We’ll try to overtake him, though we don’t want him to see us. What we’ll do if we find him will depend upon circumstances. Now let’s hustle. But be quiet and keep your eyes open.”
Not until near sundown was the search discontinued. Then, finding themselves almost directly below the watch-tower, the ranger and his two helpers struck directly up the slope, took a long, careful look for smoke, and descended toward Charley’s camp.
“I’m going to spend the night with you,” explained the ranger. “I wish that you would try to call up Katharine and tell her how it is. I don’t like to leave the forest until I find out what those scamps are up to.”
They came to the camp. The pup was still in the tent, and everything seemed to be as it was when the two young patrols left in the morning.
“Things seem to be all right,” said Charley. “We’ll be a bit cautious and cook on the alcohol stove to-night.”
But when he went to the spring for water, he gave a cry of dismay. In the soft ground by the spring basin was a footprint exactly like that they had traced so painfully in the other valley.
The Telltale Thumb-Print
More serious than ever was the ranger’s face when Charley showed him the telltale footprint.
“It’s bad!” he said. “Altogether bad! He’s as cunning as a rat, that Bill Collins. But how he could ever discover a camp so well concealed as this one is, I don’t know.”
And with that the ranger fell into a brown study. Lew and Charley went on rapidly with their preparations for supper.
“Here,” called the ranger, noticing what they were about. “Mr. Marlin sent this to you. I almost forgot about it.” He reached into the capacious inner pocket of the hunting-coat he wore and drew forth a bulky package.
“Beefsteak!” cried Charley, opening the package. “Oh boy! And enough for two meals. We’re certainly obliged to you and Mr. Marlin both.”
Meantime, the pup, neglected, fawned upon them and began to whine, when suddenly the ranger cried out, “I’ve got it. It was the pup.”
“The pup?” echoed Charley. “What about the pup?”
“Why, it was the pup that betrayed the camp. In some way those men got within hearing or smelling distance of this place, and the pup must have barked or whined. You know how a lonely dog will howl and carry on. I’m sorry, but I guess that pup will have to go, Charley.”