CHAPTER XIV The Shortcut

Jack led Madge a short distance down the shore. After surveying the locality intently to be certain of his bearings, the ranger parted the thick growth of bush which fringed the water, and they plunged into the forest. At first they followed a thinly worn path, but presently thorny vines and underbrush impeded their progress. It was unpleasantly warm; mosquitoes and insects were a torment.

Once Jack slackened his pace and looked back at his companion but Madge urged him on. She knew that everything depended upon speed. Rather than hold Jack back she would drop by the wayside.

She managed to keep up with him, never uttering a word of complaint, but when at last they came within sight of Rice Lake she felt that she could not have continued a hundred yards farther. Emerging from the forest they paused to survey the lake. There was no sign of a canoe or a boat.

“Do you think we’re too late?” Madge asked.

“Hard to tell,” Jack returned briefly.

They hurriedly made their way along the muddy shore toward the point which marked the end of the portage Clyde Wendell must have taken. Jack studied the soft ground along the shore but the only footsteps visible had been made many days before. They walked a few steps down the portage and paused to listen. Only the wild cry of a bird greeted their ears. No broken twigs or bushes disclosed that anyone had passed along the trail that day.

“Either we’re here ahead of him, or he didn’t come this way,” the ranger said in a low tone.

Madge sank down on an old log to rest. The ranger stood beside her staring meditatively down the trail. Suddenly he straightened, and Madge, hearing the same sound, looked quickly up. She stifled the exclamation upon her lips.

She could plainly hear the crackle of twigs underfoot. Someone was coming down the trail! Madge quietly arose and looked questioningly at the ranger. His expression had not changed.

Then through the trees they glimpsed Clyde Wendell. He was staggering under the burden of his canoe, and with head bent low could not see the two who awaited him in the clearing.

“Hello,” Jack said challengingly. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

With an exclamation of startled dismay, the chemist straightened and allowed the canoe to slide to the ground. He faced the two defiantly.

“Well, what do you want? I’m on my way to Bryson.”

“So I observe,” Jack commented dryly. “What are you doing with the canoe?”

“I only borrowed it. I’d have sent it back when I got to Bryson.”

“It isn’t considered wise to borrow government canoes. But we’ll let that pass for the time being. Hand over the book!”

“What book?” Wendell countered.

“The one I see sticking out of your hip pocket.”

The chemist’s hand went involuntarily to his pocket but he faced Jack with blazing eyes.

“I’ll not hand over what belongs to me.”

“It’s Anne’s book!” Madge cried for she had seen the cover. “Clyde Wendell, you did steal it!”

The chemist half turned as though to make a dash back over the trail he had just come, but the ranger caught him firmly by the shoulder and wheeled him about.

“Oh, no you don’t! Hand it over or I’ll take it by force.”

Wendell looked searchingly at the ranger. “See here,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “I’ll pay for the book and the canoe too. I meant no harm. I only want to catch my train at Bryson. You see, I picked up the book by accident—”

“You’ll catch no train today,” Jack interrupted bluntly. “You’re going back to Loon Lake. Incidentally, there’s a matter of a board bill to settle. Now hand over the book!”

Reluctantly, the chemist relinquished it. Jack passed it on to Madge who hastily examined it to see that no pages were missing.

“You knew it contained the formula,” she accused.

“That’s the wildest accusation yet!” the chemist laughed derisively. “You and that Fairaday girl have built up a pretty story which you’ve kidded yourselves into believing is true. Fairaday never owned a formula. It was an obsession.”

“Move along!” Jack ordered. “Walk ahead of me and don’t try any tricks.”

Madge followed close behind. She was highly elated at having regained possession of “Kim.” Yet what if Anne should fail to bring out the secret writing? Clyde seemed so confident they would not succeed.

“We’ll find some way to reveal the writing!” she resolved. “At any rate, I’ll not worry until after we’ve made another laboratory test.”

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