WATCHERS IN THE TREES

“Where’s your father’s room?” Bill stepped into the corridor, Charlie at
his heels.

“There—that one opposite—the door’s open. He isn’t there—I looked before
I woke you.”

“The bed hasn’t been slept in either—come along downstairs. He may be
there.”

Bill had had an impression the night before of the solid comfort of the
house. But it was not until they descended the great oak staircase in
the morning that he realized, in spite of dust sheets, how exquisitely
the place was appointed. In true manorial style, armor hung in the hall,
marble busts gleamed against the dark, beautifully carved panelling, and
half a dozen riding crops dangled from a pair of antlers over the low
fireplace.

Here Charlie took the lead. They went first to the library, with its
secret door in the panelling, through which they had entered the house
from the garage. A flashlight lay on the table, amongst the remains of
the sandwiches. Bill appropriated it, and after Charlie had opened the
sliding door by twisting a knob on the fireplace, they investigated the
tunnel and its outlet. But the garage and the underground passage were
empty of any human being.

They returned to the library, and made a round of the rooms on that
floor; a small den, two large living rooms, and a dining room. All the
furniture was shrouded in dust covers. The rooms looked gloomy and
un-lived-in. Scarcely any light came through the closed shutters. Bill’s
feeble flashlight seemed to accentuate the cavernous depths of the huge
apartments.

A back passage led them to the pantry and immense, stone-floored
kitchen. On a table near the sink, an unwashed plate and cup told the
story of eggs and coffee.

Bill turned to the boy. “There! On a bet, he ate and went out.”

“Hadn’t we better go over the rest of the house, though?” There was a
slight tremor in Charlie’s voice. “This place is creepy. It was like
that when I was here before. I never open a door but what I expect a
dead man to walk out on me.”

“That,” laughed Bill, “would take some doing! You’ll be telling me the
house is haunted, next!”

“It is.”

“Oh, go on—there ain’t no such animals as ghosts. You’re losing your
nerve, kid. You probably heard a rat in the walls.”

“Rat, nothing! If it wasn’t a ghost, who was in our room just before
daylight? It wasn’t Dad. I called and the figure just disappeared.”

“Um—that’s funny. Perhaps some friend of your father’s—and they went off
together later.”

Charlie shook his head solemnly. “Dad hasn’t any friends up here, Bill,
or he wouldn’t have had to call on you. But suppose it was a friend he
went away with, why didn’t he let us know? I’ll just bet Dad’s in this
house right now. Down cellar or upstairs, with his throat cut, like as
not!” Charlie was in tears now.

“Here, here, now! Stop it! You certainly are a cheerful kid this
morning—I don’t think!” Bill scoffed, and patted him on the back.
“Detective thrillers and too much food are what ails you. Imagination
plus indigestion will make anybody see or hear a lot of things. How do I
get down to the cellar? If you’re afraid of meeting more spooks, you’d
better stay here.”

“No, no, I’ll go with you,” replied Charlie so hurriedly that Bill burst
out laughing.

“Come on, then, big boy.” Charlie’s mournful face made him feel ashamed
of his mirth. “I don’t like this big lonely house any more than you do,
but we’ll go down into the cellar just the same, although I haven’t the
slightest doubt but that your father left this place hours ago.”

An inspection of the cellars and the two upper stories proved
conclusively to Bill that except for themselves, there was nobody in the
house. However, they found food and plenty of it in the storage rooms. A
whole closet full of canned goods, eggs, bread and a couple of hams and
four or five slabs of bacon.

“Well, old man, let’s have a shower,” suggested Bill, “and then I’ll
rustle some breakfast.”

Charlie smiled and turned on a tap at the kitchen sink. A faint trickle
came from the faucet. “You’ll get no shower, or bath while you’re in
this house,” he announced. “The water comes from a well and there’s
something wrong with the pump. Dad says the water supply is likely to
give out any time.”

Bill made a grimace. “How do you take baths then?”

“When I was here before we went down to the cove—but never until after
dark.”

“Gee whiz! A swim is just what I need. I tell you what, Charlie! We’ll
have something to eat, take a more careful look for any message your
father may have left and then we’ll romp down to that cove of yours.”

“Okay by me, Bill. Let’s get the grub. I could eat a horse!”

“When couldn’t you?” Bill snorted as they started after the food.

When they had eaten and washed up at the kitchen sink, Bill instituted a
thorough search for the message in their bedroom and in the library.

“It’s no use,” he said at last, “there just isn’t any message, and
that’s that. I vote we pop down to the cove and have our dip now. Is it
much of a jaunt?”

“Oh, no.” Charlie turned from peering through the curtains at the
sunshine. “We can get into the shrubbery at the back door and keep under
cover pretty well all the time. We’ll be taking chances, though. Dad
wouldn’t let us go until after dark.”

“Well, he isn’t here,” Bill said casually. “I’m going for a swim. You
can stay here, though, if you want to.”

“Not me,” declared the boy. “I’d rather be shot than stay in this house
alone.”

“Where do we go from the grounds?”

“Right through the trees until we come to a rough sort of lane. It leads
from the main road down to a little bay that’s just the place for a
swim.”

“Fine. Now, listen to me, kid. If we happen to run into anybody and
can’t make a bunk without being seen, we’ll go right up and speak to
them openly. There’s no sense in arousing suspicions—or showing that we
have any! We’ll say we’re on a walking tour along the coast, and saw the
lane leading down to the sea—savez?”

“You betcha! And, oh, Bill, I forgot to say that we can’t swim out far.
Dad told me that the currents round the point are the dickens and all.”

Armed with towels and soap, they let themselves out by the back door and
darted into the bushes. With Charlie in the lead, they pushed through
the trees, keeping a sharp lookout. Presently they reached the lane,
and, without sighting a single creature, they found themselves on the
beach.

The sand shelved down into a little bay which was about a hundred yards
across. Great rocks crowded down into the water on either side. The
place was embowered in trees and bushes. It was an ideal spot for a
quiet dip. Both lads slipped off their clothes and entered the water.

The sea was perfect. Charlie, who wasn’t much on aquatics, paddled about
near shore, but Bill soon found himself at the mouth of the bay.
Swimming strongly, with an easy crawl stroke, he revelled in the
electric chill of the water and the cloudless sky and sunshine. A short
distance ahead of him, a huge brown rock jutted up from the water like a
buoy. He swam to it and clambered up on its groined shoulder, slippery
with endless laving of the sea. Standing upright, he gazed about.

Up and down the beach, the tumbled rocks were belted with trees for some
miles. Beyond the trees, so far as he could see, were the bare, sharp
outlines of tall cliffs overhanging the water. Picturesque enough,
thought Bill, but immeasurably lonesome. Out to sea an island lay off
the coast, a mile, perhaps two miles away. He could not judge
accurately, for it is difficult to decide distance from the level of the
water. He remembered seeing it the day before, from the air. As he
remembered it, it was a small, rocky, barren-looking place, with a
single house on it, though he hadn’t been absolutely certain about the
house. He stared in that direction for a minute or two. As he turned
about, ready to dive in and return to shore, there was a sharp thud on
the rock at his feet.

Bill looked down, but saw nothing—The next moment he heard, or imagined
he heard, something go past his ear with a whistling sound. He gazed
toward the beach, more than a little disturbed. Nothing could be seen
but Charlie sitting naked on the sand. There was no stir of bush, not a
movement of grass. And yet again above his head—and this time
closer—there was a harsh _z-z-z-p_! of a bullet.

Bill heard no sound of an explosion, but suddenly he saw Charlie spring
to his feet, snatch up his clothes and dart into the underbrush. The
only conclusion he could reach, as he stood on the sea-washed rock,
hurriedly collecting his thoughts, was that someone concealed ashore was
shooting at him with a powerful air-gun.

Without a second’s further hesitation, he flopped into the water. He had
intended to swim back to the little bay, but now he hastily changed his
mind. To return in that direction while the bullets were flying was like
asking for a sudden and unpleasant end to his existence. So he struck
out to sea, meaning to make a detour and go ashore at some secluded spot
a little further down the coast.

He was swimming with his head submerged in the water, in order to
conceal his whereabouts if possible from the beach. When he turned on
his back to take his bearings, he remembered Charlie’s warning about the
current. It seemed to him as he glanced back to the rock where he had
stood, that he had covered a great distance in a very short time, even
allowing for the extra speed due to his excitement and wrath over the
unknown marksman’s attempt to drop him in the water with a bullet. He
fixed his eyes on a point on the shore and struck out with all his
might.

At first Bill could not believe that his tremendous efforts were
achieving—nothing. But gradually, after a fierce fight of more than a
quarter of an hour’s duration, the truth broke upon him. His distance
from the beach was not lessening at all, but was swiftly increasing. He
could battle as he liked against it, but the tide was stronger, stronger
than he. There was no shadow of doubt in his mind that he was being
carried out to sea.

It was difficult to meet the situation calmly, but Bill tried to quiet
the surge of pain that was sucking the strength from his limbs. It
looked as though only a miracle would save him now. He turned on his
back, and for a moment a ray of hope sent a warm glow through his veins.
He was being borne out on the tide, toward the island! It might be
possible to force a landing there.

Now that seemed his only prospect of life. With all the vigor he could
summon, Bill struck across the current. But when he paused in exhaustion
to observe his progress, he saw that it was useless. He had already been
swept past the island. It was out of his range.

Wearily, Bill shut his eyes, gasping for breath, and felt the power
melting away from his numbed limbs. Then hazily he noticed that the
island seemed nearer—or was that but a last illusion before the end? No!
The rocks were towering above him. He realized that he had been swept
around on the current to the seaward side, and that the mainland was out
of sight. With his last atom of strength, he tried to strike out toward
that shore, but the place seemed to be slipping away from him again.
There was a throbbing in his ears, growing louder and louder. A vague,
dreamlike impression of touching the gray side of some craft—then his
senses left him.