IN THE GIPSY CAMP

After luncheon Dr. Emery remained in charge of the boat, Harry and
Roy and Dick returned to the store, and Chub wandered nonchalantly
away with his fishing-pole. Harry declared that he was as mean as he
could be to desert them now, just when Mrs. Peel was coming back,
but Chub was quite heartless and went off whistling. At the parting
of the roads he waved them good-by, but Harry refused to notice him.
With a resentful toss of her head she walked straight on, her little
tip-tilted nose held high in air.

Chub smiled as he turned and took up his journey. It was the hottest
sort of a hot day, and the road wound on without a speck of shade for
the better part of a mile. He crossed the railroad and after a while
found himself at the summit of a hill, with the river valley stretching
along beneath him north and south for as far as the eye could reach.
There was a small group of sumac-bushes beside the road here, and he
threw himself down in the scanty shade it afforded and rested for a
few minutes. Then he climbed a stone wall, crossed an upland meadow,
and so came to a stream. It was rather a good-sized affair and very
noisy, for it was hurrying down-hill over a bed of boulders. Pools
were few and far between here, but he followed the stream up as it
wound around the side of the hill, and eventually found a place where
a big lichen-covered rock backed the water up into a shallow basin.
The place didn’t look as though it held many trout, but he selected a
fly and made his cast. At the end of ten minutes or so he had landed
a miserable little fish, not much more than a fingerling, which
under ordinary circumstances he would have disdained to keep. But it
was already approaching mid-afternoon, and he couldn’t afford to be
particular. Two more youngsters were added to his string during the
next quarter of an hour, and then Chub decided that he had enough for
his purpose, for he only wanted to convince the Gipsies that he was a
bona fide trout-fisher and not an emissary of the sheriff’s office.
Stringing his catch on a willow twig, he disjointed his rod and slipped
it back into its case, dropped his fly-book into his pocket, and took
up his journey again.

He kept on around the side of the hill and presently was back on the
road, which had begun to dip into a narrow valley which divided it
from the higher range of hills to the westward. He proceeded slowly
and cautiously now, for he didn’t know how near the Gipsy encampment
might be, and he wanted to look it over before he decided on a course
of action. He met no one on the road save a farmer jogging along half
asleep on top of a load of hay. Presently a speck of grayish white
caught his eye. Surmising it to be one of the Gipsy tents, he left the
road and plunged into the woods to the right. It was very still and
warm. Once he thought he heard voices in the direction of the tent, and
presently, as he went softly through the trees and undergrowth, the
gurgling of a stream reached him. He kept on until he had found it, and
then followed along the bank, feeling pretty certain that it would lead
him to the encampment. Nor was he mistaken, for fifty yards farther on
the tents came into view between the trees. He dropped to his hands
and knees and worked cautiously forward until the undergrowth stopped.
There, lying behind a bush, he reconnoitered.

The spot which the Gipsies had selected for their camp was an ideal
one. On one side lay the road, on the other the brook. It is probable
that the band had camped there each summer for a number of years and
that their occupancy of the spot had denuded it of underbrush. At all
events, it was quite clear of bushes and was just such a place as one
would have picked out for a picnic. The trees were scattered, but gave
plenty of shade; there was a fine turf underfoot; the road was at their
front door and water at their back.

There were two big, gaily painted vans and five tents, the latter
scattered about apparently at haphazard. One tent, a circular one and
the largest of the lot, was set in the center of the grove, and this
Chub guessed to be the queen’s apartment. Here and there clothes hung
drying or airing from the branches, some bales of hay were piled beside
one of the wagons, there was a pungent odor of smoke from a smoldering
fire. Chub counted eight horses tethered about where they could crop
the grass. Outside one of the tents hung a string of baskets, and in
the air, mingling with the odor of the wood-smoke, was a faint perfume
of sweet-grass. Each tent appeared to have its own fireplace and
commissary. Kettles and pans littered the ground about the piles of
ashes, and here and there dried branches were heaped for fuel. It was
all rather interesting, and for a moment Chub quite forgot his errand.

There were three men, perhaps twice as many women, and several
children, the children ranging in age all the way from that of the
baby, who kicked and crowed in his mother’s arms, to that of the lad of
apparently twelve, who was lazily breaking up fire-wood with an ax at
the far side of the camp. The men were frankly idle, sitting with pipes
in mouth outside one of the tents.

The women, all save the one with the baby, were busy. One was mixing
something for supper in a flat tin pan, others were weaving baskets,
and another was sewing. Chub had always imagined Gipsies to be rather
picturesque folks, with earrings and brightly hued costumes. But there
was little of the picturesque about these. The women wore calico
dresses of blue or brown, the men were clad in things that would have
disgraced a tramp, and the children came into, apparently, whatever was
left. Chub, looking them over, decided that the doctor was quite right;
they certainly were an evil-looking lot, and he wondered what their
course would be if they suddenly discovered him lying here behind the
bush. They looked as though they would hesitate at nothing. And just
when he had reached that decision, one of the men broke into laughter,
the others joined him, and the women smiled in sympathy, the swarthy
faces falling into soft lines and the dark eyes glinting merrily.
Perhaps, Chub reflected, they were human, after all. This, under the
circumstances in which he found himself, was an encouraging thought.

He had come there with the idea that possibly he might catch sight of
something which would prove that the burglary had been performed by
one of their number. He had scarcely expected to find them seated in
a circle dividing the spoils, but it had not seemed impossible that
he might discover a telltale can of peaches or a side of bacon. But
now, search as he did, not one speck of incriminating evidence could he
see. The only course remaining, then, was to retrace his steps through
the woods and approach the camp openly by the road. Perhaps, if he
made believe that he had lost his way and asked them to set him right,
he might get an opportunity to look around the camp and possibly see
inside one or two of the tents. He might even buy a basket or two. But,
on the point of creeping away, a new plan occurred to him, a plan which
engaged his ardor because of its sheer recklessness.




The nearest tent was about thirty feet from where he lay, its back
toward him. No sounds came from it, but he couldn’t be sure that it
was unoccupied, for all of that. Yet, somehow, he believed that it
was. It seemed fair to assume that the three men in sight were the
only ones left in camp; that the others were away, peddling, dickering
for horses, fishing. Surely no one would remain in a stuffy tent a
hot day like this, he thought. By creeping a few yards to the left he
would have the tent between him and the Gipsies, unless some of the
children, who were fairly quiet under the effects of the heat, should
take it into their heads to roam his way. But that was a risk he could
afford to take, he decided. Once at the back of the tent, he could
easily raise the canvas and look in. It might be that he would discover
nothing for his pains, but, on the other hand, he might find a good
deal.

Leaving his rod and the fish under the bush and mentally locating
it so that he could recover them later on, he crept back and made a
detour of a dozen yards toward the road. When he again reached the
edge of the clearing, the tent was in front of him and the Gipsies out
of sight. Pausing a moment to rest, for creeping on hands and knees
is breath-taking work, he slid stealthily from cover and crept toward
the tent. He didn’t pause to listen, for the sooner he was behind the
tent the sooner he would be well hidden. But when he crouched against
the soiled canvas he paused and harkened intently, his heart pounding
against his ribs like a hammer. Only the murmuring of voices reached
him, however, and he breathed easier.

Putting his head down, he peered under the edge of the canvas, and his
heart gave a throb of triumph, for there, not a foot from his nose,
were a dozen or more of the stolen cans!

They were piled on the ground at the back of the tent, the corner of
a yellow horse-blanket half covering them. Chub squirmed until his
head and shoulders were inside the tent, and reached forward. Beyond
the cans were two of the strips of bacon, wedged in between them and a
bale of hay. Not a sound came from the tent. Noiselessly Chub drew the
rest of his body inside and peered around the corner of the bale. The
tent was empty. Three beds composed of narrow straw-filled ticks were
in sight, a small old-fashioned trunk, cooking utensils, some clothes
swinging from the ridge-pole, a couple of empty boxes on top of one of
which lay a pack of dirty playing-cards and a pile of harness. Chub
smiled his satisfaction and then pondered his next step. If the stolen
groceries were here it was plausible to suppose that the money was
here, too. Of course it might be in the thief’s pocket, but Chub didn’t
believe that Gipsies were in the habit of carrying much money around
with them. If only he knew where to look!

The flap of the tent was open, and through the opening he could see
the woman with the baby, and two of the children rolling about on the
grass. If, he thought, he could only close the flap! Then he saw a way
of accomplishing that result. By keeping close to the side of the tent
on the right he would be out of sight of the Gipsies and could creep
around and loosen the flap. So he dodged back behind the bale of hay to
the farther wall of the tent, and crept along it until he could reach
the flap. It fell into place, cutting off the shaft of hot sunlight
that had flooded the front of the tent. As it fell, he dropped to the
ground and peeked out under the bottom to see if it had been noticed.
But, save that one of the men had got to his feet and was standing
yawning and stretching, the inhabitants of the camp were much as he
had seen them last. He waited and watched until the yawning man had
stretched himself out in the shade and pillowed his face in his arms.

[Illustration: Two men entered the tent]

Then he began his search. As rapidly and as quietly as he could he
began at one corner of the tent and worked around to it again, lifting
blankets, boxes, beds, cooking-utensils, and whatever else he found.
He searched the ticking of the mattresses for slits through which the
money might have been thrust, and he tipped the bale of hay up and
looked under it. But when he had completed the circuit of the tent
he was forced to acknowledge defeat, for not a penny of money had
he found. It was hot and stifling since he had closed the flap, and
the perspiration was pouring from his face, when he finally paused
nonplussed and sought about in vain for some hiding-place he had
overlooked. At that moment footsteps sounded close beside the tent,
shadows passed across the sloping canvas, and Chub’s heart jumped into
his mouth. With a bound he reached the bale of hay and tumbled himself
behind it just as the flap was lifted and two men entered the tent.

You may also like