Walter was somewhat nettled and he replied rather tartly, " I said that there is another pair of boots in camp that might have made those prints."
" Whose are they ? " Chip demanded.
Again Walter hesitated, and grew uncomfortably red in the face. " What is the honor of a Scout ?" he asked abruptly. " Has one Scout any right to cast suspicion on the honor of another Scout? I don't believe that the owner of this second pair of boots knows any more than we do about Mother Merriam's pin, but if I should tell you who he is you couldn't help but wonder, and wondering, that kind of wondering, leads to suspicion. You couldn't help it. Until this thing is cleared up you couldn't look that fellow straight in the face with quite the same feeling you do now. I didn't mean to say anything about it, but I had to to show how little real evidence Pat's boots afford. By the way, Chip, do you know just which nails are missing from Pat's boot, and which three were lacking in those prints? "
Chip confessed that this was a detail he had wholly overlooked.
" Then that's where we all fall down on the footprint clue," said Walter. " Strikes me we're blamed poor Scouts. The prints are gone now, and if we had both pairs of boots here what good would they do us? Without knowing which nails were missing in the prints we couldn't tell which boots made 'em, and there you are ! We'd simply be all the more suspicious of the owner of the second pair of boots."
Tug arose and impulsively held out his hand. " Shake, old man ! I for one don't want to know who owns those boots. My, my, this business is bad enough as it is !" he said.
" Them's my sentiments too," Chip broke in. " It's bad enough to suspect one fellow outside the camp, and I should hate awfully to have that kind of feeling about a brother Scout."
Walter's face cleared as the three shook hands. " I'm glad you fellows see it that way," he said. " We leave matters right where they were then, do we? "
" Sure thing ! " Tug spoke emphatically. " Mum's the word. We'll just keep up our quiet little hunt and say nothin'. Gee, but I would hate awfully to think that maybe some of the fellers thought I was a thief! Of course I'm naturally curious about that other pair of boots, but I wouldn't listen now if you tried to tell me, for just as sure as little fishes have tails I'd get to thinkin' about that feller in a way I wouldn't want anybody to think of me. Funny about those boots of Pat's, ain't it? You don't suppose Hal gave 'em to him to pay for- Oh, rats! There it is! It's with Hal just like it would be with the owner of that second pair of boots. We don't like him. He's licked us to a frazzle flshin', and here we are suspectin' he ain't on the level. Let's cut it out! Say, I've got an idea ! "
" Phew ! You don't say ! I wouldn't have believed it of you, Tug," drawled Chip.
" Hold it down with both hands 'til Walter can identify it."
Tug promptly back-heeled Chip and calmly sat on his head while that unfortunate helplessly thrashed on the ground and in smothered tones begged to be released.
" Think you can be respectful to your elders ? " inquired Tug, holding his seat by pinning down both arms of his victim.
A smothered mumble was translated to mean assent, and Chip was released.
Tug proceeded to explain his idea. " You remember what Louis said to Billy the other day ? Well, what's the matter with us three hanging together to beat Hal at his own game? We all like fishin', and there's just as big fish in this little old lake as Hal has yanked out of it. If he can find 'em we can. We've been trustin' too much to luck, same as the rest of the fellers do. My idea-"
Chip cleared his throat, and Tug turned to glare at his erstwhile victim. But that young gentleman looked so innocent as he inquired, "What's your idea, Tug ? " that the latter relaxed his belligerent attitude and resumed.
" My idea is that we read up about the different kinds of fish around here, their habits, what they eat, when they feed, the kind of bottom they like best and all that sort of thing. The big chiefs got a lot of books about fish, and he'll be tickled silly to have us read 'em. Then we'll pump Big Jim and Tom Mulligan, and do some real scoutin'— for fish instead of thieves. If Hal has anything on us then we'll just naturally take off our hats to him and give him the high sign."
" Bully ! " cried Walter. " We've got just time before ' taps' to read up a little on small-mouth black bass, and we'll get away at daybreak to-morrow mornin' for our first scoutin'. I'll go right up t' the big chiefs and borrow the book. Tug, you go hunt up Louis and get permission for the three of us to take a canoe and leave before mess, and, Chip, you hustle over and bamboozle cookie into puttin' up a lunch for us."
The others agreed, and the three boys separated on their several errands. As they disappeared in the gathering dusk a rough unkempt figure crawled from behind the woodpile and watched them, an ugly frown darkening his dirty but usually good-natured face.
"Yez think Oi'm a thafe, do yez?" he growled. "Oi don't know what yez think Oi shtole, fer Oi didn't get here in toime ter hear ut all, but if Oi iver get yez alone Oi'll make yez chaw thim wurrds and shwaller thim.
Oi'll—Oi'll-" He shook a grimy fist at the retreating figures. His eyes rested a moment on Walter's square, sturdy figure and he seemed to hear again the quiet voice: I I'm not going to think him guilty 'til there's some proof."
Gradually his face softened. " Thot bye's all roight. He's sound timber, he is," he muttered.
He slipped into the blackness of the forest and presently hit the Durant trail. For the most part his thoughts were as black as the shadows around him.
"Thafe, is ut?" he muttered to himself. I Oi guess ut ain't healthy fer the loikes av me around thot camp. What roight have th' loikes av thim ter be caliin' me a thafe jist because Oi'm poor an' live in the woods? What roight have they to be callin' me a thafe, an' me wid no chance ter say a wurrd ? What show's a bye loike me got, anyway ? Whin thot Walt bye licked me he said Oi ought ter be a Bye Scout, an' Oi'd begun ter think ut must be somethin' foine. But if this is the way they be afther doin', callin' a bye a thafe widout him iver knowm' what's been shtole, Oi want nothin' ter do at all, at all wid Bye Scouts. Oi wonder what thot honor bus'ness is thot Walt bye talked so much about. Oi'll I pump thot bye wid his pockets full av rocks,, an' see what he knows about ut."
Abruptly his thoughts reverted to the fishing pact he had overheard and slowly a grin i crept among the freckles. " Goin' ter bate i Harrison, be yez?" He slipped a hand into] a pants pocket and clinked some loose change there. " Oi wonder now, have yez got the price? Oi guess yez don't know what yez be up aginst. Jist the same Oi'd loike thot Walt bye ter win out."
A sudden thought struck him. " Oi wonder now wud he-" He took a silver dollar from his pocket and held it up so that a ray from the rising moon was thrown up from it in a bright gleam. " No," he said, " no, Oi don't belave he wud, though why not Oi don't see at all, at all."
He rapidly strode forward to the bunk-house, and for once forgot to play a good-night trick on the long-suffering cook.
The moon crept higher and higher. It filtered through the great forest and touched the white birches with ghostly gleam. It looked down upon a thousand tragedies among the little people of the night. It bathed the two camps in silvery light, and all unconscious of the greater tragedy in the hearts of men, it caressed into points of living flame the tiny diamonds in Mother Merriam's pin.
But there was no one there to see, and for a few hours even the specter in the wigwams slept.