Read CHAPTER XXV - CLOSE TO DISCOVERY. of The Boy Scouts in the Rockies / The Secret of the Hidden Silver Mine, free online book, by Herbert Carter, on

When the sound of the voice came again even Aleck heard it plainly. Why, it seemed so very near that his first thought was that the men must have found the entrance to the treasure cave, and were pushing along the tunnel at that very moment. But on reflection Aleck realized that this could not be so, for the voice came from somewhere in the open air.

“I jest ain’t agoin’ any further, an’ that’s a fact. Might as well rest up right here as keep on. I never was for comin’ back, to spy on them ere scouts, but two agin one kerried the day. So here we be, tired in body, hungry, and nigh ’bout ready to drop. I say let’s camp, and wait till mornin’.”

“That’s Dickey Bird,” whispered Thad in the ear of his companion.

Aleck had had a load taken from his breast. Although the three men might be so close to the entrance of the mine that they could toss a stone into it, still it seemed only mere accident that brought them here, and not design, or a suspicion as to the truth.

Another voice chimed in now, that of Kracker himself.

“Oh! as for that, I’m about as leg weary as you can be; and ready to rest up a bit. So Waffles, stir around, and gather some tinder to start a blaze. This night air is some cool, too. And say, I’m that hungry I could eat anything ’most. But with only one six-shot gun in the crowd, it’s going to be hard lines to provide grub, I reckon.”

“Then why’d you turn back, when we was all started for a place where we could git all the eats we wanted, with money to pay for ’em?” grumbled Dickey Bird.

“Why? Any fool could see that,” retorted the big prospector, sternly. “Here I’ve been looking for this mine years and years, and it’s got to be the one dream of my life to find the same. That boy knows; he’s just been waitin’ till he growed up big enough to start out. You saw how he acted, and said he’d die before he’d give up what belonged to his mother. That proves he’s got the combination, either in his head, or somewhar about his clothes, which we couldn’t find.”

“Well,” said the grumbler, “what good is that same agoin’ to do us, now that he’s in with that party of scouts, who say they’ll stand up for him right along? We ain’t got no show, seems to me, Kracker.”

“We ain’t, hey?” replied the other, disdainfully. “Jest because you can’t see anything before your nose, you say they ain’t nothing doing. Let me tell you we never was nearer that same mine than we is now.”

Thad felt his companion give a sudden start; he himself was wondering what these strange words of the prospector might mean; though he could not believe that the other could really suspect the presence of that fissure back of the vines.

“As how? Mebbe you wouldn’t mind tellin’ me, to ease up the pain in my legs; while Waffles, he’s astartin’ that ere fire?” Dickey Bird went on, skeptically.

“Sure thing,” answered the big man who controlled the party of mine seekers. “If that boy does know the secret, he’s going to open up while he’s got them scouts to back him, ain’t he? He’ll want to feast his eyes on some of that same rich ore that goes without saying. All right, let him, say I. We’ll try and be close enough at hand to discover whar the pesky entrance lies; and while they’re hangin’ on up here, it’s us to streak it for town and file a claim on that mine by description. First comer gets the persimmon every time. I ain’t been in this line of business all my life without learnin’ something.”

Again did Thad feel his companion move restlessly. It was as though Aleck felt a sudden fear oppress him lest this sly old thief should yet get ahead in entering a claim for the mine.

The flicker of the kindling fire now began to show through the vines at the mouth of the opening. What if these men stayed there until morning, how were the boys to leave? Even when the moon stopped shining upon the face of the cliff, the light of the nearby fire would continue to light it up, so that they would not dare try and creep out. Such a movement, if seen or suspected by the campers, must arouse their curiosity, and lead to an investigation. Then the only thing that could save the mine for Aleck would be a hurried rush to town, in which they might be beaten by the others.

It was not a pleasant thought, although of course, if necessary, the boys could stay there without any great amount of privation. The constant chance of discovery would bother them much more than anything else.

Dickey Bird was still grumbling, it seemed. Things evidently did not please him at all, and only because the fear he entertained for Kracker, the man might have deserted the expedition.

“I jest don’t like it around here, and that’s what,” they heard him say presently. “It ain’t the nicest place agoin’ either. Now what d’ye reckon that ere rumbling noise was, we all heard a while ago? Waffles, he sez it was thunder; but they ain’t nary a cloud as big as my hand anywhar ’round. Sounded more like earthquake noise to me. I was in that shake down at Frisco remember, an’ ain’t likely to forgit how it starts. If these here mountings began to roll over on us, we’d be in a nice pickle, now, eh? I tell you I don’t like it any too much.”

“Drop that kind of talk, Dickey Bird,” ordered the big prospector, gruffly, “and draw up closer to the fire here. You’re cold that’s what, and things they looks kind of blue like. Get warmed up and you’ll feel better. I’ve got a little dried meat in my knapsack, and we’ll chew on that for a change.”

“Good for you, Kunnel!” exclaimed the discontented one, whose mood probably had its inception in hunger, after all. “And don’t be long about passin’ that same around, will ye? I’m that nigh famished I could eat Indian dog, though I never thought I’d ever come to that.”

The three prospectors sat down around the fire, and in order to overhear what they might say while they munched at the tough pemmican, Thad crept closer to the vine screen.

Something moved ahead of him, and he thought he saw the vines tremble, as though giving passage to some sort of body. Immediately afterwards there was a shout from one of the three prospectors, and they could be seen scrambling hastily to their feet, showing every evidence of alarm.

“What is that coming this way?” roared Kracker.

“Say, looks like on’y a wolf cub, arter all!” declared Dickey Bird, with a catch in his husky voice, showing plainly how startled he had been.

“Well, now, that’s just what it seems to be; knock the critter on the head, one of you,” and the big man dropped back again to his seat.

It was Waffles who picked up a club, and jumping forward, hastened to wind up the earthly career of the motherless wolf whelp; though the savage little beast snarled furiously at his approach, and showed fight.

“Now I wonder what next?” remarked Kracker, as he watched the other engaged in a regular fight with the cub, which would not give up the ghost as easily as Waffles had evidently anticipated.

Indeed, the second man had to also arm himself with a club, and put in a few vicious blows before the wolf whelp was subdued.

“That’s what comes to a man when he ain’t got no gun!” complained Dickey Bird; from which remark it might be taken for granted that if there was only one revolver in the crowd, which the scouts had allowed them to retain possession of, Kracker had made sure to hold that.

“Oh! that was only a cub, and a wolf ain’t anything to be scared of!” remarked the big prospector; though he turned his head even while speaking, as though he fancied that he heard something moving in the bushes back of him, with visions of a red-eyed furious wolf mother coming to demand satisfaction for the killing of her offspring.

“Whar d’ye reckon the critter kim from now?” demanded Dickey Bird.

“Oh!” whispered Aleck, as though something warned him the danger point was getting very close now.

“First thing I see, he was acomin’ away from the rock yonder,” remarked Waffles, pointing straight at the hanging vines that screened the fissure so completely.

“Then it looks like he might a come out of them vines?” suggested Kracker, carelessly.

“Reckon, now, he did,” replied the other.

“Go and take a look, Waffles,” added the big man. “If so be we expect to sleep right here, we want to know if there’s any wolf around. I ain’t so fond of the ugly critters that I want to have one crawlin’ all over me when I’m trying to get some rest. Look behind the vines, I say, Waffles, and make sure.”

Waffles did not seem any too anxious to obey. Possibly, if he had gripped some sort of firearm in his hand, he might not have shown the same timidity. Perhaps he too had an animosity toward ferocious and maddened wolves; and besides, it had been his hand that had given the finishing blow to that nasty little spitting cub, just now, and the mother wolf might have it in for him on that account.

But then he feared the scorn of the big prospector even more than he did the possibility of danger from a she wolf bereft of her whelps. And so, rather hesitatingly to be sure, the man started toward the cliff, with the intention of lifting the screen of vines, and peering behind the same.

Of course he would immediately learn of the fact that there was a fissure in the rock; and curiosity was apt to induce the men to make an attempt to explore the cavity, since they were all experienced miners, and eager to discover signs of a “find” in some unexpected place.

Closer came Waffles. He was now within a few feet of the vines, and indeed, had one hand stretched out, as with the intention of clutching the mass of vegetation, and drawing it aside; while the other gripped that stout cudgel, with which he expected to defend himself desperately, should he be attacked.

Aleck was quivering with suspense, and Thad could easily understand that he must be handling his gun, as though tempted to discharge this, and frighten the man off. But that would be giving the secret away, for these men were cunning; and after they had come to figure things out, they would arrive at something like the truth.

If discovery were to be averted other means must be employed in order to keep Waffles from raising that curtain, or at least daring to venture into the fissure as much as one foot.

Finding the ear of his companion Thad managed to whisper in it the few words:

“Don’t shout.”

“Do just what I do; we’ve got to scare him!”

And Aleck pressed his arm, to let the scoutmaster know that he understood; even though the means to be employed might as yet be a mystery to him.