“It’s a clever rogue who doesn’t trip himself up somewhere,” chuckled the ranger. “What happened is as clear as daylight. Collins and his companion found this clay while they were inspecting your camp. They must have suspected that it was fire-clay and that you had found a deposit of value. They took some along to test, and rolled what was left into a ball again, thinking you would never notice the difference. But they forgot that clay would take finger-prints so readily, and they have left their calling cards behind them.”
The ranger carefully wrapped the clay ball in his handkerchief, and then in a newspaper. “Let me have this,” he said. “The police may have some duplicate prints somewhere. We don’t know what Collins and his pal are up to, but we have something here that we may find very useful. It isn’t every crook that is so considerate as to leave his thumb-prints behind him.”
Good News For the Fire Patrol
As the ranger had foretold, the forest guards did indeed pull foot early in the morning. Black darkness still enfolded the camp when the ranger awoke his young companions. Fire was speedily kindled and breakfast gotten under way.
“Better eat your meat, boys,” suggested the ranger. “Otherwise it will keep that cat hanging around here. We’ll hardly dare to leave the pup behind again, and that beast might get in here and tear your tent to pieces. These cats play hob with things sometimes.”
Lew decided that he would carry nothing back with him, as he contemplated visiting his chum at intervals.
“Just take your rifle,” said the ranger to Charley. “You’ll be all alone on your return trip and with two such animals as we’ve seen hereabout, it will be just as well to have it. If I were you, I believe I’d make a pretty close companion of it and always keep it within reach.”
When they left the camp, they were burdened only with Charley’s rifle and food for the noon meal, which they stowed in their pockets. The instant there was light enough to guide their footsteps, the trio set forth.
For hours they trudged through the forest, for the most part in silence. Although they traveled by a circuitous route, and with eyes and ears alert, they neither saw nor heard anything that pointed to the presence of other human beings in the forest. The ground bore no telltale footprints. No incriminating marks were discernible on the trees. Smoke was nowhere visible. No firearm disturbed the silence of the wilderness. No birds flew upward with cries of alarm, save at their own approach. And the only voices that were audible were the voices of the brooks.
Under other circumstances Charley would have been supremely happy. The sun came up bright and clear. No veil of mist floated before the face of the sky. But woolly, white cloud banks sailed lazily aloft, intensifying by contrast the blue of the sky. A gentle wind blew fitfully. The earth steamed fragrantly, sending up an odor joyful to the nostrils. And the little brooks babbled wildly in their joy at the spring-time.