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CHAPTER XIV. ALLAN MAKES A DISCOVERY
 During all this time, Allan had been taking his trick of track-walking with the other men on Section Twenty-one. Jack1 had arranged it so that the boy’s trip over the road was made in the early morning, from four o’clock to seven, when, in his opinion, there was the minimum of danger. For Jack still feared Dan Nolan, although that rascal2 had not been seen in the neighbourhood for months. But Jack had an uneasy feeling that Nolan was still plotting mischief3, that he was still watching his opportunity to do Allan an injury.  
The boy himself, confident in his growing manhood, laughed at these fears.
 
“Nolan has cleared out for good,” he said to Jack. “He’s gone somewhere where he’s not known, and has got another job. We’ll never see him again.”
 
But Jack shook his head stubbornly.
 
“I know better,” he said. “Mebbe he’s gone away for awhile, but he’ll come back ag’in, an’, if he ever gits a good chance t’ hit y’ from behind, he’ll take it. I’ve got a sort of idee that Nolan’s at th’ bottom of most of th’ devilment that’s been goin’ on on this here road. Th’ tramps would ’a’ cleared out long ago if there hadn’t been somebody back of them urgin’ ’em on.”
 
“Oh, come, Jack,” protested Allan, “you’ve let that idea get such a hold on you that you can’t shake it off.”
 
“Anyway,” said Jack, “I want you t’ keep your eyes about you when you’re out there by yourself. An’ you’re t’ carry that club I made fer you, an’ t’ use it, too, if Nolan ever comes near enough for you t’ git a good lick at him.”
 
Allan laughed again, but he carried the club with him, nevertheless, more to quiet Jack’s fears and Mary’s than because he thought he would ever need it. Jack had gone down to the carpenter shop the first day the order to patrol the track was posted, and had selected a piece of seasoned hickory, which he had fashioned into an effective weapon. Most of the other section-men were similarly armed, and were prepared to meet force with force.
 
But Jack’s fears were to be verified in an unexpected way a few days later. One of the detectives employed by the road had succeeded in disguising himself as a tramp so effectively that he was admitted to their councils, and one night a force of men was gathered at headquarters for an expedition of which none of them knew the destination. It happened to be Jack’s trick, and, when he reported for duty, the train-master called him to one side.
 
“Welsh,” he said, “we’re going on a little expedition to-night which promises some fun. I thought maybe you’d like that boy of yours to go along,—you seem to want to get him in on everything going.”
 
“What is it, Mister Schofield?” Jack asked. “Anything dangerous?”
 
“No,” answered the train-master, “I don’t think there’ll be any real danger, but there may be some excitement. I want you to go and you’d better bring the boy.”
 
“All right, sir,” said Jack, resolving, however, to keep the boy close to himself.
 
A caller was sent after Allan, who appeared at the end of a few minutes, his eyes big with excitement.
 
“What is it?” he asked, as he saw the men grouped together, talking in low tones. “Another wreck4?”
 
“No,” said Jack; “it ain’t a wreck. I don’t know what it is. It’s got something t’ do with th’ tramps, I think. Mebbe you’d better not go.”
 
“Of course I’ll go,” protested the boy. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
 
A moment later the men, of whom there were twenty, were divided into parties of four each, and each man was given a short, stout5 policeman’s club loaded with lead at the end.
 
“Now, boys,” said the train-master, after the clubs had been distributed, “I want you to remember that it’s an easy thing to kill a man with one of those clubs, so don’t strike too hard if we get into a row. Only, of course, don’t hesitate to defend yourselves. Now I guess we’re ready to start.”
 
Each party was placed in charge of one of the road’s detectives, and left the yards by a different route. The night was very dark, with black clouds rolling overhead and sending down a spatter of rain now and then, so that the men could scarcely see each other as they walked along. The party that Jack and Allan were with followed the railroad track as far as the river-bank; then they turned aside, crossed the long bridge which spanned the river, and pushed their way along a path which led to the right along the opposite bank.
 
It was anything but easy walking, for the path was a narrow and uneven6 one, nearly overgrown by the rank underbrush along the river, so that they had to proceed in single file, the detective in the lead, stumbling over rocks, stepping into mudholes, with branches slapping them in the faces, and briars catching7 at their clothing. At last they came out upon an open field, which they crossed. Beyond the field was a road, which they followed for half a mile or more, then they struck off along another path through an open hickory wood, and finally halted for breath at the base of a high hill.
 
In a few moments, the other parties came up, panting and mud-bespattered, and the detectives and Mr. Schofield drew apart for a little consultation8.
 
“Now, boys,” said Mr. Schofield, in a low voice, when the consultation was over, “I’ll tell you what we’re after so that you’ll know what to expect. One of our men here has discovered up on this hill the place where the ringleaders among the tramps make their headquarters. If we can capture these ringleaders, all our troubles with the tramps will be over. We’re going to surround the place, and we want to capture every one of them. We must creep up on them as quietly as we can, and then a pistol-shot will be the signal for a rush. And, remember, we don’t want any of them to get away!”
 
A little murmur9 ran through the crowd, and they gripped their clubs tighter. Jack was glad that they had not been given revolvers,—in the darkness and confusion, such weapons would be more dangerous to friend than foe10.
 
They started cautiously up the hill, advancing slowly and painfully, for there was now no vestige11 of a path. The uneven ground and tangled12 undergrowth made progress very difficult, but they gradually worked their way upward until they came to the edge of a little clearing. Against a cliff of rock at one side a rude hut was built. There was no window, but, through the chinks in the logs, they could see that there was a light within. The men were spread out along the edge of the clearing, and waited breathlessly for the signal to advance.
 
The pistol-shot rang out, clear and sharp in the night air, and, even as the men sprang forward, the door of the hut was thrown open and a man’s figure appeared silhouetted13 against the light. He stood an instant listening to the rush of advancing footsteps, then slammed the door shut, and in a breath the hut was in darkness.
 
But that single instant was enough for both Allan and Jack Welsh to recognize the man.
 
It was Dan Nolan!
 
In another second, they were hammering at the door, but they found it strongly barred, and three or four minutes elapsed—minutes that seemed like centuries—before they got the door down and rushed over the threshold into the hut. One of the detectives opened his dark lantern and flashed a brilliant band of light about the place, while the men stared in astonishment14.
 
For the hut was empty!
 
They lighted the lamp which stood on a box in one corner and made a more careful examination of the place. Two or three boxes, an old stove, a few cooking utensils15, and a rude cot in one corner comprised all the furniture, and one of the detectives, pulling aside the largest box, which stood against the back of the hut, solved the mystery of Nolan’s disappearance16.
 
A passage had been dug in the bank which formed the back of the hut, and the detective, after flashing his dark lantern within, crawled into it without hesitation17. In a few moments, they heard the sound of steps outside, and the detective came in again at the door.
 
“He’s got clear away,” he said; “as well as all the rest who were with him. That tunnel leads off to the left and comes out the other side of this bank.”
 
Mr. Schofield’s face showed his disappointment.
 
“It’s too bad,” he said, “that we didn’t know about that tunnel. Then we could have placed a guard at the other end.”
 
“There were precious few knew about it,” said the detective who had discovered the place. “I’ve been here half a dozen times, and never suspected its existence.”
 
“Well,” said the train-master, “the only thing we can do is to go home, I guess. We can’t hope to find a man in these woods on a night like this.”
 
“You knowed that feller who opened th’ door, didn’t you, Mister Schofield?” questioned Jack, as they left the hut.
 
“No,” said Mr. Schofield, quickly. “Did you?”
 
“Yes,” replied Jack, quietly; “it was Dan Nolan.”
 
“Dan Nolan!” repeated the train-master, incredulously. “Are you sure?”
 
“Allan here knowed him, too,” said Jack. “It’s what I’ve been thinkin’ all along, that Nolan was at th’ bottom of all this mischief. He’s got t’ be a kind o’ king o’ th’ tramps, I guess.”
 
“Perhaps you’re right,” agreed Mr. Schofield. “I’ll put our detectives on his trail. Maybe they can run him down, if he hasn’t been scared away by his narrow escape to-night.”
 
“He’ll shift his headquarters,” said Jack, “but I don’t believe he’ll be scared away—not till he gits what he’s after, anyway.”
 
“And what is that?” questioned the train-master.
 
“He’s after Allan there,” said Jack, in a lower tone. “An’ he’ll git him yet, I’m afraid.”
 
“Well, we’ll make it hot for him around here,” said Mr. Schofield, and went forward to impart this information to the detectives.
 
All of the men were completely tired out by the long night tramp, as well as chagrined18 over their ill success, but Allan was up again as usual next morning and started off upon his tramp along the track.
 
“Now, be careful of yourself, darlint,” Mary cautioned him, as she saw him off, and Allan promised to be especially alert.
 
There could be no doubt that it was Dan Nolan they had seen at the door of the hut the night before, but Allan only half-believed that Nolan still preserved his enmity toward him. Certainly, he decided19, it was not worth worrying about,—worrying never did any good. He would be ready to meet danger as it came, but he greatly doubted if it would ever come, at least, to himself personally.
 
He had grown to like this duty of patrolling the track. It had been a pleasant duty, and an uneventful one, for at no time had he found anything wrong, or met with unpleasant adventure of any kind. But those long walks through the fresh, cold air, with the dawn just tingeing20 the east, opened a new world to the boy. It was no longer the h............
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