A shadow lay over Woodcraft Camp. The routine of daily life went on as before, but there was something lacking. The fun-making was not spontaneous. There was no enthusiasm in work or play. The old time jollying ceased. The rivalry between the tribes seemed falling into hopeless apathy. Even Spud Ely's success in temporarily wresting the fishing honors from Hal Harrison and the Senecas by landing a twelve-pound lake trout served to awaken no more than a passing interest.
Suspicion, the grimmest of all specters, strode back and forth through the camp. Whenever a group of boys came together it peered over their shoulders and with bony fingers choked back laughter and song and strangled the old freedom of speech. It sat at mess, and the chill of its presence was felt in the wigwams at night. Who had stolen Mother Merriam's pin? Who? Who? Could it be that the thief was really one of their number?
For more than a week nothing was seen of Pat Malone. To many, hasty of judgment, eager to rid themselves of the specter, this was construed as evidence of guilt. But still the specter would not down. The strain was telling not only on the spirits but on the tempers of the boys. Under it they were becoming irritable, quick to take offense.
Every night Tug Benson, Chip Harley and Walter met to report progress, or, rather, lack of it. Finally, just a week after the sounding of the " recall," Chip was sent on an errand to the Durant lumber camp. As soon as evening mess was over he signaled Tug and Walter to meet him back of the wood-pile. There was a gleam of triumph in his eyes that belied the studied gloom of his face as he looked up to greet them.
1 Well ? " said Tug.
" It's Pat, all right! " said Chip senten-tiously.
" Are you sure? Absolutely sure? " Tug and Walter cried together.
" Sure as—as—sure as I be that skeeters bite," replied Chip, slapping viciously at his neck.
" Did you find the pin ?" asked Walter eagerly.
" Naw ! You don't suppose he'd be such a fool as to have it lying around in plain sight, do you ?" Chip's tone indicated his supreme disgust. " But," he continued, " it's a cinch that he took it just the same. What'd we better do about it?"
" How the deuce do we know, when you haven't told us your story yet ? Come, out with it, you tantalizing blockhead I " growled Tug impatiently.
Chip shrugged his shoulders and grinned. " Well," he began, " you know the big chief sent me over to the Durant camp with a message this afternoon. After I'd delivered it I thought I'd just look round a bit, and do a little scoutin'. Pat wasn't there. Fact is, the whole gang was in the woods 'cept the boss and the cook. Got kind of chummy with the cook, and he opened up a nice little can of his own private troubles and poured 'em out for my special benefit.
" Seems he ain't got much use for boys, and for Pat Malone in particular. Nothin' special, I guess, only Pat plays tricks on him and raids his cooky box pretty often. They're good cookies, all right," he added reminis-cently.
" Well, I jollied him along," continued Chip, " and went pokin' 'round like I'd never seen a lumber camp before. Pretty soon I see a pair of spiked boots hanging on a nail. t What'll you take for the boots, cookie?' says I. Cookie grinned. 1 Them ain't mine,' says he. 1 They belong to that young rascal Pat Malone. I reckon money wouldn't buy 'em of him. Sets as much store by 'em as if they was pure gold. Was give to him by one of the fellers over to your camp.' "
Tug looked up startled. " What's that ? " he asked sharply. " You don't suppose—you —say, do you believe it could have been Hal - Harrison ? "
Chip grinned. " Sure thing," said he. " Found his name in the top of one of 'em."
Tug and Walter looked at each other blankly, while Chip went on with his tale.
" When cookie wasn't looking I just naturally examined those boots a little closer, and measured 'em with a bit of string. They're just the size of those prints we found under Mother Merriam's window, and there's three nails missing from the soles of the right one I" he concluded dramatically. " Now what do you fellers think we'd better do? "
Tug sat down and idly began to throw chips. " Looks bad," he ventured.
" Bad ! " snorted Chip, " I call it open and shut, iron-bound, no-loophole evidence I Pat's the thief, or I'll eat my shirt."
" Guess you'll find Durant cookies better eating," said Walter drily.
Chip looked a bit sheepish. Then he slipped a hand into a capacious pocket and brought forth three crisp brown discs. " They are pretty good," he admitted as he passed one to each of the others. " Might as well admit that I followed Pat's lead. Brought 'em along just to prove that I really was there, Walt's such a doubter," he explained ingenuously.
For a few minutes the boys munched the cookies in appreciative silence. When the last brown crumb had disappeared Chip returned to the subject.
" Well, Walt, what ought we to do? " he demanded.
Chip got up from the chopping block and dramatically planted himself in front of Walter. " Say, what's chewing you, anyway ? " he demanded. " You don't mean to tell us that you still think Pat innocent! "
" I'm not going to think him guilty until there is some proof," replied Walter doggedly.
" Proof! " Chip fairly yelped the word out. "Proof! Haven't I given you proof enough? What more do you want? " Chip flung himself down on the chopping block in sheer disgust.
" It's wholly circumstantial evidence, and —and-" Walter hesitated.
" And what ? " demanded Chip. " Spit it out! "
" Why, the fact is-" Walter hesitated again.
" Come on ! Come on ! Out with it!" Tug broke in.
" Well, there is another pair of hobnailed boots of the same size in our own camp, and three nails are missing from the right one ! "
Chip and Tug stared at him blankly. Then Tug gave vent to a long whistle of incredulity. " Say," he demanded, " what kind of a bunco steer are you givin' us, anyway ? Say that over again, you sawed off pocket edition of Sherlock Holmes ! "