Mess over, Woodhull and Seaforth took their stand at either side of the door, and Walter noted that as each boy passed out he saluted the two chiefs with the Scout's salute, and was saluted in return. It was a point of etiquette which he learned was never omitted, and which did much to maintain discipline and to instil the principles of respect for superior officers. Once outside the mess room Walter was free to inspect the camp in detail and at his leisure for, it being his first day, he was not assigned to any of the duty squads.
There were fifty-two boys in camp, including the four leaders, or chiefs, and they were from all quarters, two being from as far west as Chicago. They represented all classes in the social scale. A few were from homes of extreme wealth and one, according to Billy, was a Boston newsboy in whom the doctor took a personal interest. But in accordance with Scout ideals all were on equal footing in the camp, and the most democratic spirit prevailed. Achievement in scoutcraft alone furnished a basis for distinction.
The camp had been established three years before the Boy Scouts of America came into existence, but Dr. Merriam had been quick to perceive the value of the new movement, the principles of which are, in fact, the very ones he had been seeking to inculcate in his unique school. This year the camp had been placed under Scout regulations, and it was the doctor's desire to send every one of his boys home at the end of the summer as qualified Scouts of the first class, fitted to take the leadership of home patrols.
Approaching from behind the wood-pile, where Buxby's assignment to duty was keeping him busy, Walter heard his own name and paused, uncertain whether to go on or not. Billy was regaling the cook with an account of Walter's exploit of the morning as he had wormed it out of Big Jim.
" Pretty spry with his fists, they say," concluded the talkative Billy. Then he added as an afterthought, " Bet they'll get his goat to-night, though."
Walter waited to hear no more. He had not been wholly unconscious of the sly looks and mysterious winks passed between some of the boys he had met, and, though he did not allow it to show outwardly, he was inwardly not a little perturbed by the thought of the initiatory ordeal he felt sure he must undergo. Chief Woodhull's hint, together with the frequent exchange of meaning glances which he had intercepted, could mean but one thing— that his nerve and courage were to be put to some strange and crucial test.
Therefore it was with some trepidation that with the sounding of taps that night Walter sought his bunk and turned in. In five minutes lights were out, and apparently the camp had settled down for the night. Walter lay listening in suspense for some sound which would indicate that secret designs concerning himself were afoot, but nothing but the regular breathing of twenty-five healthy, tired boys rewarded his vigilance. It had been a long, strenuous day, with little rest the night before,and in spite of himself he soon fell asleep.
He was awakened by the sudden removal of his blanket. Despite his struggles he was bound and gagged. Then his arms were loosed enough for his flannel shirt to be slipped on. His trousers and shoes followed, and then he was rolled in his blanket, picked up bodily and carried forth into the night. In absolute silence his captors bore him along what appeared to be a rough, little used trail. Occasionally a dew-damp twig brushed his face. Through the tangle of interlacing branches overhead he caught glimpses of the stars. The number of his captors he had no means of knowing. He was carried by relays, and though there were frequent changes he could not tell whether each time a new team of bearers took him or two teams alternated.
Once his bearers stumbled and nearly dropped him. Once they seemed to lose the trail, stopping to hold a whispered consultation of which the victim could catch only a word here and there. After what seemed like an interminable length of time Walter heard in the distance the tremolo of a screech-owl, answered by a similar call close at hand. A few minutes later they emerged in an opening.
" Are the canoes ready? " asked a subdued but sepulchral voice.
" They are, chief," was the guarded reply.
" Then let them be manned," was the order.
Walter was carefully placed in a canoe amid-ship. He felt it gently shoved off, and then it floated idly while, to judge by the sounds, the other canoes were hastily put in the water. Presently, at a low command from the rear of his own craft, there was the dip of many paddles and he felt the light craft shoot forward.
I Flat on his back, he could see little but the star-sprinkled heavens. It seemed to him that never had he seen the stars so bright or apparently so near. By straining up and forward he caught the shadowy outline of the bow man's back, but the second time he tried it he was warned to desist. Out of the tail of his left eye he sometimes caught the arm and paddle of the stern man on the forward reach. But thus far there had been nothing to give him the slightest idea whether he was in the hands of members of his own tribe or a captive of one of the rival tribes.
Swiftly, silently, save for the light splash of paddles and the gurgling ripple at the bow, the canoe sped on. Never will Walter forget the spell of that mysterious night ride on that lonely lake in the heart of the great north woods. His gag had been removed and, but for inability to move hand or foot, he was not uncomfortable. All the witchery of night in the forest was enhanced an hundredfold by the mystery of his abduction and the unknown trials awaiting him.
A mighty chorus of frogs denoted low, marshy land somewhere in the vicinity. Strange voices of furtive wild things floated across from the shore. Once a heavy splash close to the canoe set his heart to thumping fiercely until he rightly surmised that it was made by a startled muskrat, surprised at his nocturnal feast of mussels. Again, as they slipped through the heavy shadows close along shore, there was a crash in the underbrush which might or might not have been a deer. It was weird, uncanny, trying in the extreme, yet sending little electric thrills of fascination through the nerves of the city boy.