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fighting gamely to keep his nerve in hand, a sound from
the kitchen door sent the lad's heart fluttering once more
against his ribs, choking him, stifling him with fright he
could not control. The noise was faint, indescribably
low, a mere thread of sound, yet unmistakable. Some one
was working at the wooden bar, working at it steadily
from the outside.

The boy hesitated a second, then by a convulsive twist
of his body got clear of the ladder. He was too late. The
door across the darkened room had opened.



CHAPTER X
THE LOST TRAIL

THE first hint of danger that came to the landlord
was when hostler Jim slipped into the hall and
whispered excitedly that he thought he had heard some
one at the rear door. The young fellow wanted to bor-
row his master's gun, but the man insisted on going him-
self and so lost a precious moment or two in warning Bob.
The boy would have to shift his position from the tap-
room and guard the front hall with its two doors. That
was the weak point in their defense. The defenders of
the inn had waited in such a strain of silence that they
were jumpy, nervous, fearful of a trick. Sure that the
front was being taken care of, the innkeeper and the
hostler tiptoed back to help Dave get the gold into the
room below without further delay. That done and the
flooring in place, they could barricade the kitchen door, if
necessary. The innkeeper knew that Jim had long since
seen to the great oak bar that crossed from jamb to jamb,
resting in sockets of hand-wrought iron.

As they felt their way through the hall, the hostler in
front caught the scraping noise of Dave pulling the sad-
dle toward the trap, but he feared to call out to him. If
the outlaws were close at hand, it would be just as well to
let their welcome come as much of a surprise as possible.
The lad gripped his crop far down by the loop and swung
back the loaded butt. It was not a weapon to be passed

202



THE LOST TRAIL 203

by lightly. At the hall door leading into the kitchen, he
paused. The darkness was impenetrable. Not even the
windows could be placed, their gray outline blotted by
heavy shutters.

Jim held his breath and listened. He knew that the
saddle had been dragged down the trapway, but that was
all. The place was heavy with silence, black, ominous,
oppressive. Nervously he strained for some hint of Dave
on the ladder, so that he could whisper a warning. The
landlord, stepping as lightly as he could, edged forward
beside him, clutching his flintlock, peering vainly into the
dark. Even the banked fire on the hearth was invisible.
He, too, tried to make out some sound, breathing through
his mouth and swallowing in little pants of excitement, as
he bent forward.

"I can't hear a thing, Jim. What do you say? Get the
Thomas lad from the closet, then push the table agin the
door. Hey? Quick! If they try to rush us, it'll be hot! "

"Ssh! I'll go 'cross the room and tell the boy first.
He's still below! We've got to get the ladder out, too, and
put the boards down before they begin to shoot!"

The hostler ceased speaking, his fingers tense on the
heavy hunting crop. Across the pall of darkness from the
outside door came the same scratching he had heard when
first he had slipped away for aid. Unconsciously, he
clutched with his free hand at the innkeeper's arm to at-
tract his attention. The older man shook the lad off, as he
cocked his piece. He, too, had heard. This was his
kitchen they were trying to enter, his own tavern, and he
proposed to show them something they had not counted on.
The man's anger had been aroused in earnest. The trick



204 SANDY FLASH

of the candlestick rankled sore in his mind, ever since
Flash had humiliated the posse and escaped, not so long
before.

"Slip back, Jim, lad, you've got no gun! They're try-
ing to work loose the bar of the door! Hist! Get thee
back, they're coming in!"

The voice was barely audible, but the hostler could
make out enough to shake his head stubbornly in the
gloom. He stood where he was. "I'm all right, sir. Ready
for 'em with the leaded end o' me crop! I think they're
slidin' up the bar with a knife or something! Sounds
like it."

"Don't let 'em hear us, Jim! It's halfway loose they've
gotten it already. Let 'em open it all the way, now, lad,
and we'll give it to 'em hot and heavy when they least ex-
pect it! Get back, I tell you, they'll be shooting next!"

"Hush! The boy's comin' up the ladder now! I'll
have to get him stopped ! "

Everything happened so quickly from then on that the
Battle of the Pratt, as Dave called it afterward, was over
before either he or Bob Allyn knew what was taking
place. The outer door moved open just as the boy on the
ladder pulled himself onto his hands and knees, free of
the trapway. He saw the widening strip of gray, as the
reflection from the star light on the snow broke the dark-
ness of the room. Simultaneously, he heard Jim's whisper
from the inner door and knew that he was not alone. He
also realized that there was no time to think of replacing
the flooring of the closet. Dave dropped flat on his face,
as the kitchen flamed and rocked to the thunderous roar
of the innkeeper's flintlock. Then came the smoke, black



THE LOST TRAIL 205

clouds of it, filling the place with the reek of gunpowder,
acid, choking, stinging the eyes. Dave, seeing he was
between the lines of fire, followed the only course open to
him and hugged the floor. He might well have stood up,
for the battle was nearly over.

Torley had gotten his fill of a Pratt House welcome!
When he had seen Dave dragging the saddle into the tav-
ern, he had slipped across the road and disappeared into
the shadows of the wall. From here, he had listened at
the door and again at the windows of the building.
Though he could make out no words through the thick-
ness of shutters, he could hear sounds enough from within
to convince him that something had put the people there
on guard. Perplexed, he began to wonder whether the
lad he had seen with the saddle could possibly have caught
sight of him beyond the fence and yet have had the cour-
age and coolness to walk calmly up to the door with his
heavy burden. That set the man thinking. Why had
the boy taken so much trouble with that same saddle?
Heavy it was, undoubtedly, and hard to pull along, but
bare of cantle roll or bags. The other horseman had car-
ried that. Torley was quite sure of it. Then it was that
he thought of the back door. He would look into the
thing a little further before joining Sandy Flash, past
Echo Valley.

The rest was easy. Reassured by the darkness within,
and the silence, that no one was on guard in the kitchen,
the man had slipped the blade of his long knife between
the door and the jamb. He did not know whether he
would be able to force an entrance that way or not, but
he felt that it would, at least, do no harm to try. It was



206 SANDY FLASH

somewhat to his surprise, when he located the oaken bar
and realized that he could work it from its sockets. And
readily enough, too. After all, many doors in the coun-
try depended, like this one, on bars, as locks were looked
upon as a needless luxury. Torley's luck was still hold-
ing fair. The heavy bar slipped free with a jolt.

Torley replaced the knife in its sheath, drew his pistol
and pushed the door quietly inward. Then he stepped
across the threshold and paused to accustom his eyes to
the darkness, as he sought to get his bearings. Before he
could stir, the innkeeper had fired. It was as much the
vivid flash and the startling surprise of it as anything
else, that sent Torley staggering backward, his own
weapon still clutched in his hand trigger unpulled. Hard
upon the powder flare came the whang of the leaden bullet
as it splintered the jamb beside him, that, and the report
of the flintlock, magnified many fold by the narrow walls
and low-raftered ceiling of the room. The man clapped a
hand to his bloody cheek where a sliver of wood had
ripped it to the bone, then turned and leaped through
the door with a low curse of pain. As the sweep of his
cloak filled the gray rectangle of light, Jim came to life
and action. Instant, darting speed hurled him through
the air like the bound of a catamount.

The stable boy had started toward the closet, when the
door began to open. As the man entered, Jim had hesi-
tated, fearful to move lest he betray Dave and the secret
room below. Then the landlord had fired and the outlaw
had turned to flee. Jim knew his time had come. Two
great springs brought the lad to the doorway. Up swung
the crop in a whistling arc. The boy struck, struck with



THE LOST TRAIL 207

all the power of his arm. Not in vain had he strapped
and rubbed and curried horses since he was a little lad.
Had the leaded butt fallen on the man's head it would
have brained him. No hat could have turned the weighted
momentum of such a blow. There was a terrific impact
and the ash plant split in pieces. Jim had swung too
high, the leaded end had crushed in the lintel. Before he
could recover, the courageous lad pitched headlong to the
snow without, the broken remnant of the crop fast
clutched in his fist.

Quick as a flash, Torley whipped about. He knew he
was beaten. He knew his failure had lost all chance for
Sandy Flash and Dougherty to effect a successful attack
backed by surprise. In a blind rage of fear and disap-
pointment, he sought to tear his pistol clear of the cape
fold entangling it. He would account for one at the inn
anyway. He would pay the score of his bleeding cheek.
The man cursed vilely, for the hampering cloak clung fast
about his arm and he could not snatch it loose. With a
final wrench, the weapon swung free. Torley's finger
gripped for the cocking piece of the trigger. In the strug-
gle, it was small wonder, however, that he had lost the
priming. The flint scattered vain sparks and Torley slung
the long pistol about to catch it by the muzzle. Then
with the curved handle and butt upraised, a vicious, crip-
pling bludgeon, he sprang for the hostler. Jim still lay
face downward, knocked breathless in the snow.

The stable boy owed his life to Dave Thomas. Before
Jim could know what Torley was about, before he him-
self could possibly have warded off the blow from the
mace-like pistol, Dave had reached the door and taken



208 SANDY FLASH

in the situation. He dove at the man with no thought,
no plan, just hurled his whole body at the ruffian's knees.
The two came down in a kicking, struggling pile, to be
joined an instant later by Jim, who pitched into the fight
with a fury that speedily brought the man to terms. That
was the end. Two minutes more and the landlord had
gotten the outlaw tied to a chair, Jim, Bob and Dave as-
sisting. There was little pugnacity left in the fellow. He
understood his danger pretty well.

Before bringing him indoors, however, the flooring of
the kitchen closet had been carefully replaced and the
door shut. Torley refused to speak when questioned,
nursing his torn cheek in silence, so they had to content
themselves with a renewed watch. Jim and Dave took
the rear door again, this time fastening the bar so that it
could not be pried so easily from its sockets. Jim waited
till he had everything fixed to his satisfaction, then he
crossed the room and held out his hand. He was ill at
ease, but determined to acknowledge his debt to the boy
whose wit and action had saved his life.

"Thanks, Dave Thomas. I ain't so good at talking but
that there dive o' your'n bowled him over jist about in
time for to guard me brains. Hopes you know I oh ;
how I ah, shucks, you understand, I reckon "

"Don't be thanking me," Dave reddened uncomfort-
ably. Of all things in the world, he most dreaded a scene.
"We've done pretty well, to-night, all of us, and I reckon
we'll be able to hold out, too. Do you think Flash and
Dougherty'11'come here when they guess the gold's still
at the inn and this fellow of theirs doesn't show up?
They'll begin to suspect something pretty soon."



THE LOST TRAIL; 209

At a sign from Jim, Dave bit his lip. He had forgotten
all about the outlaw in the chair. To cover up, he talked
on hurriedly, taking care to make no further mention of
the treasure. It was not lost upon the boy, however, that
the man had heard. Uneasily he realized that he had be-
trayed his own identity. Up to this, Torley had never
connected Dave or Bob, either, with the lads he had seen
on Castle Rock. Now it seemed as though he must be
sure of it.

It was after two in the morning, when the landlord re-
turned to the kitchen. He had decided to risk letting
the boys get some sleep. He and the hostler could take
turns on guard. Indeed, it was high time for relief, as
Dave had already nodded off more than once, try as he
would to keep awake. Bob was even more exhausted.
The shock of his wound had given way to the inevitable
reaction with the passing of excitement. He felt sick at
his stomach and weak.

The landlord carried in his hand a stout file. They had
all been so anxious, so fearful of a sudden rushing of the
doors, up to this hour, that none of them had spared a
moment's thought for the broken irons still tied to the
boys' ankles with the strips of blanket. A few moments
steady filing forced the rusty anklets apart and the metal
bands clinked to the floor.

"There! That'll feel a bit more comfortable, won't
it?" The man put the file on the mantelpiece and kicked
the leg irons toward the hearth. "Now you're ready for
a nip of sleep, the pair of you. Curl up yonder in the bar
where there're rugs a-plenty. I'll call if trouble comes.
In the morning, 'twill be time enough to worry getting



210 SANDY FLASH

home. Your folks are sleeping sound right now, think-
ing you're biding the night in a farmhouse. Get a good
rest while you can."

No more urging was required to persuade them to lie
down on a pile of buffalo robes that the innkeeper spread
for them in the taproom. Before the man had left them,
they were fast asleep. The next they knew, the room
was full of light from opened shutters and the hall echoed
to the babbled tone of voices, high pitched with excite-
ment. It was seven o'clock and a clear, cold morning.
Not a trace of yesterday's fog was to be seen.

The boys soon learned that the innkeeper had taken
on the rounds of the lower rooms himself, as it drew
toward dawn, sending Jim on horseback to warn as many
neighbors as possible and to raise a posse. He had been
led to this by the pleas of the injured courier who had
recovered consciousness shortly after the capture of Tor-
ley. The man had explained to the landlord that it was a
question of government funds that were involved. He
had said that he and his companion had been warned es-
pecially to look out for Sandy Flash and to keep clear of
the Valley roads for that very reason, as the outlaw was
known to have a hidden stronghold in Cain Township
somewheres. Why Sandy Flash and Dougherty had not
come to Torley's aid and attacked the lonely inn to win
the gold, no one of the tired watchers could understand.
It was not like the usual way of the highwaymen. It
puzzled the landlord and made him uneasy.

He had no way of knowing of the murder of the first
courier or of Flash's haste in sending his accomplice back
to Castle Rock for the horses. What had occurred was



THE LOST TRAIL 211

simple enough. Mordecai Dougherty had hurried off to
carry out the orders of his chief. He had gone to the
cave for a mislaid strap and there discovered the escape
of the boys. Five minutes' frantic galloping saw him with
Sandy Flash once more near the Crum Creek ford. The"
news he brought served to calm the outlaw's temper. The
man had not become the most notorious highwayman of
the countryside without learning the value of discretion.
None were more reckless, more daring, than he when he
saw the scene was set to play it to his gain. But he could
also tell when to bow before force of circumstance. In
this, lay the secret of his criminal success and long free-
dom from capture. The Pratt House would be warned by
now, he realized, whatever had happened to Torley there.
The boys, too, must already be raising an alarm in the
neighborhood on their own score. The escape from the
cave at Castle Rock settled it. That meant he had no
near-by retreat safe from pursuit. The time had come to
leave this end of the county and seek another of his lairs
to the west.

Disregarding Mordecai entirely, the blackguard left
the dead courier without so much as a glance and can-
tered through the ravine. There was no use now in con-
cealing his mount's footprints. The boys would be sure
to lead the chase to Castle Rock whatever care he used.
At the cave, Flash snatched his few belongings together,
crammed them into a saddle bag, rolled up his blanket
and crawled out once more to rejoin Dougherty below.
Then, leading the spare horse, he and the other galloped
west on the Strasburg Road toward Edgemont. He had
the boys' guns strapped securely to his own saddle. At



212 SANDY FLASH

the crossways by the Providence lane, they parted,
Dougherty turning south, bent upon regaining the town
by roundabout ways and by-paths, Flash riding speedily
north toward White Horse Hill. He, too, soon left the
traveled road and took to the fields. Before doing so,
however, he turned loose the led horse and sent it gallop-
ing still further northward. When the pursuers had come
upon the trail, they would find two horses headed toward
the Valley. That might give them a wrong start, anyway.
As to Sandy Flash, he would be safe on his way to Newlin
or Marlborough in the west long before the sun was up.
If pushed by ill chance, he could go on as far as London-
derry, where no one would dream of running him down.

This was all unknown to the keeper of the Pratt House
tavern, of course, so the man did what he could and
called in the neighbors. It was their voices which had
aroused Dave and Bob in the morning. There were many
plans of what should be done first, but the innkeeper
wisely put an end to vain jangling by taking command
himself. He assigned to the courier the task of guarding
the gold where it was until he should come back. Par-
ticularly, he forbade mention of its hiding place being
made to any one. Then he saw that they all had a snatch
of breakfast and a piping hot dish of tea. This was to
be a hunt from dawn to dark and he wanted no one fall-
ing out before they had run their quarry to a kill. Last
of all, he borrowed mounts for Dave and Bob. He looked
dubiously at the latter's shoulder. The wound was
swollen and angry, for all its being but a flesh scratch.

"Lad, that's bad, powerful bad. You'd better have it
done up properly before the poison gets hold of it. Your



THE LOST TRAIL 213

father knows well how to fix it. It's no shape for riding
all day and that's what we're like to do."

"I'll have it done up right, soon as ever I get me home,"
Bob answered. "Dave and I've got to go along with you
far as the cave, you know, or you'd never find the way in.
Then we'll go on to the Rose Tree with the word of what
happened. Father'll come out and Hugh Thomas. Lots
of 'em. They can ride fast and catch up with the rest of
you. I'm all right!"

The boy was game.

Soon the cavalcade was ready to start. There were
over a dozen men in the posse from near-by farms, all
armed with guns or pistols. They felt that they were too
late to do any good, but it seemed the only course left
open. The innkeeper explained that it was after mid-
night when the attack had occurred and that it would
have been foolhardy to try and get word to them any
sooner than he had. He had need of all his little force to
guard the doors and windows, with a prospect of the rush
on the tavern taking place at any moment. Knowing
Sandy Flash, the men agreed with him.

The boys led the way with the warlike innkeeper along-
side, as they turned from the inn. At the end of Brook's
Wood, where the Goshen Road dips to Echo Valley on
the right, they could see plainly how the other horseman
had sunk the hill, galloping hard. Five minutes after-
wards their worst anxieties were confirmed by sight of
the looted body lying stark and cold, face upward in the
ditch. It was close by the thicket at Crum Creek ford
where the Boot Road runs in from the southeast. They
covered the murdered patriot with a horse cloth and hur-



214 SANDY FLASH

ried southerly through the ravine. The boys pointed ex-
citedly to fresh hoofprints, as they went. A tight-lipped,
silent group of men surrounded the cave on Castle Rock,
working in upon it like skirmishers under the guidance of
Dave and Bob. The tavern keeper was the first to enter
the cavern itself. He claimed it as his due, being an old
soldier, trained to danger.

The place was cold and deserted. The only signs they
found to tell of the recent occupancy were ashes on the
hearthstone and a lost spur by the entrance. Flash had
dropped it as he hurried out. The landlord tossed it
angrily aside amid the rubbish.

The posse had soon remounted on the run and picked
up the tracks again in the lane below. They followed
them with little trouble to the Providence Road and saw
the parting there. So far all was clear as a printed page.
The men split without loss of time, one group galloping
north toward White Horse, the other south toward Blue
Hill and Rose Tree corner. The boys were with the lat-
ter. It was the next day before they heard of the failure
of the north-bound riders. Of the two trails in that direc-
tion, one lost itself in a clever loop by a shallow stream.
The dead courier's horse ended the other in a White
Horse barn whither it had wandered in search of warmth.
With the boys' party, there was luck as bad. They fol-
lowed Dougherty's tracks readily enough for a mile or so,
then missed them in a field where the snow had blown
clear. Though they picked up the line further on, the
hoofprints soon merged with others in the churned slush
of a traveled road. It was quite useless to waste more
time over them and the disheartened posse broke up.



THE LOST TRAIL 215

Dougherty might well be in Bethel or Lower Chichester
by now, for all they could tell. After all, the gold was
safe and that was the main thing. The boys were largely
responsible for it, too. Their escape from the cave and
warning of Flash in the countryside had undoubtedly
spared the tavern from attack.

Dave and Bob pulled out when the posse halted, and
gave their reins to a man who kindly offered to lead their
mounts back to the Pratt House for them. They were
already within easy walking distance of home and eager
to reach there as soon as they could to reassure their par-
ents. The lads thanked the man and cut away across the
fields. Each was too worn with the events of the last day
and night to appreciate just what they had been through,
yet under all their exhaustion, was a feeling that they had
played the game about as well as the next. Bob spoke
first, as he eased the bandage on his shoulder.

"I say, that stag hunt didn't fetch much venison for
us, Dave, did it? But it sure gave us a taste of most
everything else! Seems as though we'd been fighting bat-
tles fur a week and had an Indian massacre in the bar-
gain! And only a scratched arm to show for it!" He
laughed a little ruefully. "Flash and the rest are far
away as Christmas pudding now, but the poor soldier back
there is lying dead by the ford with a "

"Yes, but we did do some good, Bob. Don't forget the
gold. They'd have it with 'em now, sure as shooting, if
we hadn't warned 'em at the Pratt!"

"Warned 'em! We got there when the damage was
done, I'd say!" Bob recalled their desperate efforts to
climb the Newtown Hill in time. "Two minutes sooner



2i6 SANDY FLASH

and we might have saved the man's life. Oh, well, the
gold's all right. That is something, after all, I suppose.
And they've gotten that rascal Torley where they want
him. Gotten him good and tight! Reckon they'll hang
him, too. We were lucky, right lucky to save our skins!"
It was true, they were lucky indeed.



CHAPTER XI
SIGNAL HILL

A TALE it was, the lads had to tell their parents an
hour later, when they reached their respective
homes. Dave came to his farm by the Rose Tree first
and asked his companion to bide for dinner, but Bob
shook his head and plodded on across fields to Sycamore
Mills. The older boy was weary enough to rest a while,
but he knew that his mother would be anxious. Perhaps
already some rumor of the night's excitement might have
reached her. He kept on and came to his own home as


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Online LibraryClifton LisleSandy Flash, the highwayman of Castle Rock → online text (page 14 of 19)