Read CHAPTER III - THE LETTERS OF FIRE ON THE CLIFF. of The Boy Scouts in the Rockies / The Secret of the Hidden Silver Mine, free online book, by Herbert Carter, on

“Now, how’d he know that, Allan? D’ye reckon he tells the same way you would?” asked Step Hen, immediately interested.

Some of the others had seen the Maine boy do various “stunts” along the line of woodcraft, on previous occasions; and among others he had been able to tell just about how many hours previous a fire had been abandoned, by the “feel” of the ashes, as Giraffe always declared.

“Pretty much the same, I suppose, Step Hen,” replied the other, pleasantly, for Allan, being one of the officers of the patrol, was always glad to find any of the scouts interested in picking up information; and never refused to assist to the best of his ability.

Toby was examining the ground around the ashes with those snapping eyes of his, small in point of size, but capable of taking in every point going.

“How d’ye suppose he did do it?” persisted Step Hen, who was very determined, once he had set his mind on anything stubbornness some of his camp-mates called it.

“Oh! there are ways easier to grasp in your mind than explain,” Allan remarked. “You just seem to know a thing. Some hidden instinct tells you, I might say. You feel a deadness in the ashes that’s different from fresh ones. And then the looks tell you whether the dew has fallen on them or not. In this case Toby, I reckon, has found out that they seem mighty fresh; and so no night has passed since the last spark of fire died out. There are other ways of telling about how many nights ago it may have been made, if an old one. But you ought to make a practice of studying these things connected with fires, Giraffe, instead of being always wanting to make fresh blazes. You’d find the matter mighty interesting, and worth while, I give you my word.”

“Say, that gives me an idea!” exploded the tall scout; “and mebbe I will. Just as you say, Allan, everybody’s getting sore on me for wanting to always build fires and fires, and fires. I’ve been able to start ’em every which way, from flint and steel, to twirling a stick with a bow, after the style of them South Sea Islanders; and like old Alexander I’m cryin’ for new worlds to conquer. Well, here they are, just like you say; and connected with fires too; right in my line, so to speak. Thank you for giving me the tip, Allan; I’m sure goin’ to think it over.”

“Thank goodness!” exclaimed Step Hen, fervently.

“Now, what d’ye say that for?” demanded Giraffe, taking umbrage at once.

“If ever you devote your colossal mind to the job of seeing how many ways fires can be put out, instead of started, the rest of us’ll have a chance to get some decent sleep nights; because we won’t be always afraid of the woods burnin’ up with your crazy experiments,” and Step Hen moved a little further away from his chum as he said this, not knowing how Giraffe might take it.

But the tall scout, after meditating over the matter for part of a minute only remarked indifferently:

“Oh! that’s all right, Step Hen; you’ve got your faults too, and big ones in the bargain. Ask Bumpus here if my faculty for makin’ fires didn’t save us from a whole peck of trouble that time up in Maine when we found ourselves lost, a cold night comin’ on, two partridges shot, and not a single match in the crowd to start a fire to cook the game and keep us from freezing stiff. He knows.”

“That’s right,” declared the fat scout, instantly, and with a fond look toward Giraffe, as memories of the occasion referred to came trooping into his mind, so that he could almost smell the odor of those cooking birds, thrust near the delightful fire on the points of long splinters of wood.

Meanwhile the guide had come back to where the little party began to make preparations for the night, the packs having been taken from the backs of Mike and Molly, and everybody finding something to do in the bustle.

“Get anything?” asked Thad, as Toby Smathers came up, a grin decorating his sunburnt but honest face.

“Oh! it was the kunnel, all right,” replied the guide. “I knows the mark o’ his hoof among a thousand. An’ he’s got them two pizen sharks along o’ him, Waffles and Dickey Bird. They been kicked out of nigh every camp in the silver region, but they just about suit the ijee of the kunnel, when he wants any dirty work done.”

“And that’s what you call finding the long lost silver mine, do you?” asked the scoutmaster, smiling.

“Well, accordin’ to the ijee of most decent miners, that same Rawson had the first claim on that ere mine; and any feller that rediscovers it ought to turn a third of the proceeds over to the fambly of the man as got thar first. But you don’t ketch Kunnel Kracker doin’ any such foolish business as that. He’d gobble the whole business, and snap his finger at the widow and orphans. But they’s one thing I don’t just exactly understand about the marks hereabouts. Seems to be a boy along with the gang. Now, whatever could such an old seasoned prospector and miner as Kracker want with a half grown boy up in this part of the country, when he’s huntin’ for a mine that seems to have dropped out of sight, like it fell through to China? That’s what gets me.”

“Perhaps it might be an Indian boy; we had a glimpse of such a half grown brave skulking along, one day. He seemed to want to count noses in our crowd the worst kind, and we wondered if he meant to steal anything; but after a while he just cut stick and cleared out, looking a lot disappointed over something. Giraffe here tried to get close enough to him to speak, but he was that shy he kept moving off all the time. We thought he might have expected to see somebody he knew among us, a boy perhaps, and when he found that we were a pack of strangers he didn’t want anything more to do with us.”

“This wa’n’t any red-skinned boy, but a white,” Toby declared, positively. “An Injun would a toed-in, and wore moccasins; but he had on shoes, and turned his toes out, all right, civilized way. But then, just as you say, p’raps it don’t matter a row of beans to us who he was. We may run acrost ’em sooner or later; and again mebbe we won’t.”

When the two tents were in position it began to look “jolly much like a camp,” as Step Hen declared.

The mules were allowed to graze on the little tufts of grass that grew in spots around, where there was enough earth to allow of such a thing. Close by was an occasional stunted tree, from which the boys easily secured all the firewood that was apt to be needed.

And how genial that blaze did look in the coming night, as it shone upon the tents, the smiling faces of the scouts, and the general surroundings, so wild and lonely.

“Looks like we owned the whole world,” remarked Bumpus, “when you just squint around, and see the old Rockies towerin’ up to the right and to the left, behind and before. Say, this is what we’ve been lookin’ forward to a long time, ain’t it, fellers?”

Bumpus seemed to be happier over the situation than any of the others. Really, it was queer how deep an interest the stout youth had always taken in this trip to the Wild Northwest. He it was who first suggested the same, and on every occasion he had fostered the idea. Up in Maine, when they first heard about that rich reward offered for the recovery of the missing valuables that had been stolen from a bank, Bumpus had been the one to declare that they ought to recover them, so as to have plenty of funds in the treasury, to pay the expenses of a grand trip to the backbone of the continent, those glorious mountains which he saw so often in his day dreams, and yearned so much to visit.

Of course, by this time every one of his chums had become filled with enthusiasm also, and there was no faint answer to this question on the part of Bumpus.

Pretty soon supper was started, and that was a time when the scouts began to be more or less restless. Tired as they might be, when the delicious odors permeated the outermost limits of the camp, no one seemed able to sit still. The fact of the matter was that they were ravenously hungry, and it was tantalizing to get the “smell” of the cooking, with the knowledge that it would be at least half an hour ere they could begin to satisfy their appetites. Any one who knows the make-up of average boys, understands that.

“I wouldn’t like to be caught in parts of this valley, in a cloud-burst,” Davy Jones remarked; “I’ve been alookin’ around some, and there’s signs that tell of floods long ago. Guess a feller’d have hike some, to get away if a wall of water came whirlin’ down here.”

“But the hunting ought to be fine, don’t you think, Toby?” asked Step Hen, who had begun to have aspirations to equal the record of several of his comrades; and more than once declared that nothing less than a big-horn Rocky Mountain sheep would satisfy his ambition. “I c’n just think I see the jumpers playin’ leap-frog up along some of the cliffs that stand out against the sky yonder.”

“We’ll find sheep, sooner or later, all right,” asserted the guide, who was engaged in cutting wood for the fire; and more than that he would not say, being a man of words rather than big promises.

“Look at Giraffe, would you?” remarked Step Hen. “He just can’t quit playin’ with fire all the time.”

“What’s he doing now?” asked Thad, with a laugh, and not bothering to look up; for it happened that just then he was making some notes in his log book, fearing lest they slip his mind, if he waited until after supper.

“Oh! he’s got a firebrand, and standing out there in the dark he’s doing all sort of queer stunts! with it whirling it around several times; then movin’ it up and down, quick like; after which he crosses it horizontally a few times. Why, just to look at him you’d think he was sending a message like we do with the wigwag flags in the day time.”

“Well, that’s just what Giraffe is pretending to do, right now,” said Thad, after he had taken one quick look. “Only instead of using flags, he’s taking a light to make the letters with. Giraffe is a pretty good hand at heliograph work and all kinds of wigwagging, you know. I’ve talked with him by means of a piece of looking glass, on a sunshiny day, more than a mile away; and we managed to understand each other first-rate. Leave Giraffe alone, Step Hen. He’s a nervous scout, you understand, and has to work off his steam some way. There couldn’t be any better than brushing up his Morse code, I think.”

“Huh! p’raps you’re right,” grunted the other; “but it does beat all, how Giraffe, always finds satisfaction in playing with fire.”

“There’s one good thing, about it these days,” ventured Davy Jones.

“What might that be, suh?” asked the Southern boy, Bob White, looking up; for he was assisting to get supper ready.

“Why, we don’t have to be afraid of Giraffe setting the woods on fire any more. It’d take a job bigger’n he could manage to get a fire goin’ in this rocky valley,” and Step Hen laughed as he said this; for indeed, the sparse and stunted trees that grew at intervals along the sides of the mountains did not seem to offer much encouragement to a would-be incendiary.

“How much longer do we have to wait for grub?” asked Bumpus, sighing dismally.

“What’s that to you?” demanded Giraffe, from outside the limits of the camp proper; he having heard the plaint. “If you went without a bite for a week, sure, you could live on your fat, Bumpus; but think of me. Why, in two days’ time my back-bone’d be rubbing up against my front ribs; and in another they would have a riot. I’ve got a space to fill all the time. Please hurry up, fellers. Somebody blow the fire, and make it cook faster, won’t you?”

“You might be doing the same, Giraffe, ‘stead of wastin’ all your surplus energy aswipin’ the empty air out there,” called out Step Hen disdainfully, and yet with a slight touch of envy in his voice; for, truth to tell, he aimed to equal the proficiency of the lanky scout in the signal line.

So they went on exchanging remarks, as the minutes dragged slowly past, each seeming more like an hour to the half-starved boys. In vain did those who were doing the cooking tell them to keep their eyes anywhere but on the fire, because “a watched pot never boils.”

But by slow degrees the supper was nearing readiness. Bumpus was even making his mouth give signs of his eagerness to begin; and some of the others had even taken up their tin platters hoping to be helped first, when Giraffe suddenly came jumping into camp, wildly excited.

Thad looked up from his writing, half expecting to see him followed by a savage mountain wolf, or possibly a full-grown grizzly bear; but to his astonishment the boy who carried the burning fagot of wood cried out as well as he could in his great excitement:

“Thad Allan look! look! somebody’s making wigwag letters with a blaze like mine, away up yonder on the face of that high cliff; and I could read it, sure I could! And Thad, oh! what do you think, it keeps on sayin’ the same thing over and over all the time, aspellin’ out the one word: ‘help! help! help!’”

The scoutmaster jumped to his feet instantly, ramming the note book deep down in his pocket as he grasped Giraffe eagerly by the arm, exclaiming:

“Come and show me what you mean! I hope you haven’t mistaken a star for a torch!”