Read CHAPTER IX - BILLIARD SURRENDERS of Tabitha's Vacation , free online book, by Ruth Alberta Brown, on ReadCentral.com.

Toady kept his promise not to mention Billiard’s runaway expedition to anyone else save Gloriana; but being human, he could not keep from twitting his brother occasionally, and the days which followed that memorable night were full of misery for the unhappy boy. His cousins avoided him, Tabitha ignored him, Toady tormented him, and even Gloriana seemed indifferent to his plight. In his fright at discovering himself lost on the desert at night, he had resolved to follow Toady’s example and turn over a new leaf. He could not quite make up his mind to confess his sins to eagle-eyed Tabitha, but was really sincere in his desire to do better; and was as surprised as he was disappointed to find that no one paid any attention to the sudden change in his deportment.

“Might as well have kept on being bad,” he growled with an injured air one afternoon when a fortnight had passed without any noticeable change in the atmosphere. “Wish I hadn’t come back that night. Guess they’d have sung a different tune then! Maybe a coyote would have got me, or I’d have stepped into a rattlesnake’s nest and been stung to death. Bet they’d have felt sorry when they found me-,” he hesitated. His picture was too vivid, and he shuddered as he thought what a fate would have been his had a rattlesnake bitten him as he tramped across the pathless waste in his flight. “Pretty near dead,” he finished finally, unable to endure the thought that they might have found him dead.

“If I had kept on, I’d be in Los Angeles now,-maybe in the navy already. I’ve a good notion to try again. I could almost go by train, now that my ’lowance has come. Mercy says it takes twelve dollars, and I’ve got ten. ’T any rate, I could ride as far as that would take me, and-by George, I b’lieve I could beat my way without spending a cent! That’s the way tramps travel from city to city.”

He winced at the idea of being classed with tramps, and fell to debating whether he would buy a ticket and ride like a gentleman as far as his ten dollars would carry him, or whether he would attempt the hobo’s hazardous method of transportation. Before he had arrived at any satisfactory conclusion, he heard the tramp of feet close by, and the lively chatter of voices, and around the bend of the path came Toady with his six cousins. They did not see him at first, half hidden as he was by the heap of ragged rocks on which he lay stretched full length, but even when they did become aware of his presence, they merely glanced indifferently at the lazy figure and passed by without speaking.

Angered at thus being ignored and left out in the cold, Billiard resolved to display no interest in them, either, although he was consumed with curiosity as to where they were bound; but a chance remark of Susie’s about being lowered in a bucket overcame his resolve, and he called after them, “Where you going, kids?”

“Don’t you wish you knew?” Inez flung back with a saucy toss of her head.

“Up Pike’s Peak,” said Toady, without so touch as looking back.

“You mean down Ali Baba’s cave,” suggested Mercedes laughingly.

“Shall we tell him?” asked Irene, relenting as she glanced back at the lonely figure on the rocks.

“He’ll just be bad if we let him come,” warned Susie.

“He hasn’t been bad for a long time,” gentle Irene reminded them.

“Aw, what do you s’pose I care where you are going?” sung out Billiard, more hurt by their manner than he cared to acknowledge. “Keep on to Jericho, if you want to.”

“We ain’t going to Jericho,” said Irene, lagging uncertainly behind the others. “Only just across town to that hill over there where is a-a ’bandoned mine. Toady’s never seen what one looks like, so we’re taking him along to get a peek at it. Have you ever seen a mine?”

Billiard shook his head.

“Tabitha says if we’re real good, she’ll see if the superintendent won’t take us all through the Silver Legion mine before the summer is over; but to-day we’re just going to show Toady how the miners go up and down the shaft. He won’t b’lieve they use a bucket. Don’t you want to come too?”

“Nope, guess not,” Billiard answered promptly, though the wistful look in his eyes belied his words.

“It’s int’resting,” urged Irene, who somehow seemed to understand that Billiard did not really mean what he said.

“Is it a real bucket?” he could not refrain from asking.

“Yes.”

“Like a water bucket?”

“Yes, only bigger.”

“I sh’d think the miners would fall out.”

“Oh, it’s big enough so they can’t tumble if they mind the rules; but you’ve got to keep your head down inside, or you’ll be killed by the big beans-” she meant beams-“which are built in to hold the dirt from caving in and filling up the mine. Come and see for yourself.”

“Well, p’r’aps I will.” With a great show of indifference, the boy uncoiled his legs, slid to the ground beside Irene, and hurried with her after the others, now a considerable distance in advance; but the little group had reached their goal and were gingerly peering into the black depths of the abandoned shaft when Billiard and Irene joined them.

“Ugh!” shuddered Mercedes, drawing back with a shiver from the yawning mouth of the hole. “It smells like lizards. I’ll bet the bottom of the shaft is full of them.”

“It didn’t use to be,” remarked Susie, dropping a pebble over the brink and listening to the hollow echoes it awoke as it bounded from timber to timber.

“Were you ever down there?” asked Toady in surprise.

“No, but papa was one of the men here when the mine was working.”

“What did it quit working for?” ventured Billiard, testing the weather-stained rope still coiled about the winch above the shaft.

“The vein of rich silver stopped all of a sudden and they couldn’t make the other ore pay, so they shut down, and the men went to work in other mines, or else moved away.”

“How deep is a shaft?” asked Toady, as Susie sent another pebble spinning after the first and counted rapidly until it struck the bottom.

“Some are hundreds of feet deep,” replied Mercedes impressively, glad of a chance to air her meagre knowledge of mining affairs. “But this -”

“Is only a hole,” finished Inez contemptuously.

“What do you mean by that?” demanded Billiard, mystified. “Ain’t this a sure-enough shaft?”

“Oh, yes,” Mercedes hastened to inform him; “only ’tisn’t the main one. That’s all boarded up, and no one can go down it any more. This was dug later. Someone thought there was more silver here, and they made this shaft. It’s not very deep -”

“Let’s go down it!” proposed Billiard, boyishly eager for such an adventure.

“Oh, horrors!” shrieked Mercedes. “With all those lizards down there?”

“Shucks! Lizards won’t hurt a fellow.”

“Maybe there are snakes, too,” said Rosslyn, hastily backing away from the place.

“We’d have heard them,” Billiard answered promptly. “Susie has fired enough rocks at ’em to stir ’em up if there was any there.”

“But Tabitha mightn’t like it,” suggested Irene in troubled tones.

“Did she ever say you couldn’t go?”

“N-o.”

“Or did your mother?”

“N-o.”

“Then what’s to hinder?”

“S’posing the rope should bu’st,” mused Irene aloud.

That rope? Why, it’s half as big as my arm! Yes, bigger.”

“But it has been here a long, long time. Ever since I can remember. Doesn’t rope rot?”

“I’ll bet that’s as strong as iron,” boasted Billiard. “There’s nothing rotten about it. I’ll stump any of you to go down with me.”

“Will you go first and see if there are any snakes?” demanded Susie, whose love of adventure was constantly leading her into mischief.

“If you’ll promise honor bright to come next.”

“I will,” Susie rashly promised, her eyes dancing with excitement and eagerness. “Will you go, too, Toady?”

“Sure, but who’s going to let us down? I’ll bet it takes some work to keep the rope unwinding just right.”

“I’ll lower you all,” proposed Mercedes magnanimously, for the idea of descending into that black, musty hole did not appeal to her in the least, but she could not bear to appear less brave than fly-away Susie.

“You! Pooh! You are just a girl! The bucket would get away from you the first thing, and then where’d the rest of us be? No, I’ve got a better plan than that. You and Toady and Irene let Susie and Inez and me down first; and after we have had a look at the thing, we’ll come up and let you down. How does that suit you?”

“It’s a go,” Toady readily responded.

“All right,” quavered Mercedes.

But Irene held her peace. Nothing could tempt her to crouch in that great, swaying bucket and be dropped into the blackness of that yawning pit, but she did not mean to voice her opinions until the proper moment. So she took her place beside Mercedes and Toady and puffed and panted as the rope slowly unwound, and Billiard, scrooched low in the bucket, disappeared from view. It was hard work and slow, to pay out the rope evenly, but Billiard did not seem at all inclined to be critical, and accepted his rough, jolting descent without a murmur. Had the truth been known, the boy was too nearly paralyzed with fright to notice anything of his surroundings, and more than once he was on the point of signalling for his companions to hoist him to the surface again, but fear of ridicule kept him tongue-tied until it was too late.

With a final jerk and jolt, the bucket stood still, and cautiously opening his eyes for the first time since he had stepped into his queer elevator. Billiard beheld a row of black, shadowy heads hovering over the brink of the aperture, and heard Toady’s voice, sounding strangely muffled and far away, call cheerfully, “Well, you’ve struck bottom, old boy! What does it look like?”

Bottom? Billiard blinked and rubbed his eyes, and peered about him in surprise; but at first in the semi-darkness, he could distinguish nothing. Then as he grew more accustomed to the blackness, he could see before him the mouth of a still blacker cavern, which to his vivid imagination seemed yawning to swallow him up; and he shudderingly shrank back into the friendly protection of the bucket.

“Why don’t you answer?” demanded an impatient voice from above.

Are there snakes and lizards?” called Mercedes.

Snakes! Lizards! Billiard had forgotten them, but with a sigh of relief he realized that there was not a sound of anything stirring about him. “Naw!” he yelled back, trying to make his voice sound brave and scornful. “Guess not. I can’t see a thing. Might as well haul me up, ’cause no one could tell what a mine looks like in this blackness.”

“Got any matches?” inquired Toady.

Billiard rapidly felt through his pockets. “One,” he announced.

“Then here’s a candle. Catch it!”

Toady let it drop almost before the words were out of his mouth, and with a tremendous thump it struck poor Billiard on the head before he had caught the significance of the directions from above; and with a yelp of surprise and pain, he tumbled out of the bucket against a timber, which shivered and splintered under his weight. But in some mysterious manner, he found himself in possession of the candle when he had righted himself once more and brushed the rotten wood from his eyes and mouth. He lost no time in striking his one lone match and lighting the slender taper in his hand, much to the relief of the group hovering anxiously about the shaft.

“There!” he heard Susie ejaculate. “I was sure he had killed himself.”

“You mean that Toady did,” spluttered the indignant Billiard. “What do you think my head is made of-iron?”

I couldn’t tell that it would hit you on the head, could I?” protested the younger boy apologetically. “Why didn’t you dodge?”

“Dodge? D’ye think I’m a cat with eyes that see in the dark?”

“Never mind,” soothed Irene, who had ventured near enough the curbing to take an occasional peep down into the blackness. “It’s too bad it hurt you. Put some cold water on the bump -”

A derisive shout from her sisters stopped her, and even Billiard had to smile, though he felt grateful toward the little twin who was sorry he was hurt. By this time the pale candle flame had ceased to sputter and flicker uncertainly, but burned with a steady light, and with a thrill of exultation Billiard looked curiously about him, relieved to find no snakes or crawly things in the abandoned shaft, and pleased beyond measure to think he had actually braved the terrors of the dark to explore this mysterious place, so he could crow over his brother and cousins because of his courage.

“Say, but it’s great down here,” he called, venturing just inside the timbered cross-cut and staring at the rocky walls which here and there glistened alluringly. “And there’s pecks of silver sticking out of every stone. Why don’t you come on down, Toady?”

“Can’t till you come up. It’s Susie and Inez now. Going, girls?”

“You bet!” cried Susie enthusiastically. “Pull up the bucket and help me in.”

Eagerly they turned the creaking old windlass and Susie descended to join Billiard in his underground explorations. Being much lighter than her cousin, it was easier to lower her down the shaft; and still easier with Inez in the bucket; but once the trio were safely at the bottom, the little group above became all impatience for their turn. Mercy’s courage had returned as she saw how simple an operation it was to let down the loaded bucket, and even Irene began to feel a desire to explore the mysteries of the abandoned mine with the rest of her mates. Only Rosslyn and Janie hung back, but no one cared. In fact, it simplified matters not to have to bother with such little tads; but it was a nuisance to have Billiard linger so long when he knew the others were just dying to go down.

At last Toady could resist temptation no longer. “I’m going, too,” he announced with determination.

“Before Billiard comes up?”

He nodded grimly.

“But s’posing you’re too heavy for just Irene and me,” suggested Mercedes.

“I shall slide down the rope. I’d rather do that than have you drop me or let the rope out too fast.”

“But-how can you?” Mercedes demurred.

“It’s so far down there,” said Irene.

“Aw, in gym work at school we slide down poles and bars and all sorts of things. It oughtn’t to be any harder with a rope. I’m going to try, anyway.”

Silently but enviously, the girls watched him spit on his palms, test the rope, and finally let himself slowly down into the shaft, with legs wrapped tightly about his slender, swaying support, and hands grasping the rough strands with a desperate grip, for, too late, he realized what a horrible fate would be his if he should fall; but when he would have gone back, he could not.

“How in the world will we ever get them up?” whispered Irene wonderingly; but before Mercedes could frame a reply, there was a crash from below, a cry, a grating sound of falling rock and then hideous, horrible silence.

“Toady!” shrieked the girls in frenzy, “did you fall?”

“No,” came back a muffled answer. “I’m all right, but we have knocked down some boards and can’t get out.”

“Can’t get out!” they repeated dully.

“No. Run for help! Our candle has gone out and it’s as black as pitch in here.”

“Who’ll I go for?” wailed panic-stricken Mercedes, while Irene danced frantically around the shaft and wrung her hands as she chanted, “They’ll smother, they’ll smother, they’ll smother!”

“Anyone, but hustle up!” yelled Toady impatiently, for his companions in the disaster had uttered not a sound since their first wild scream, and a horrible fear that they were hurt or even killed gripped his heart.

However, little Rosslyn was already half-way down the mountain, fairly skimming over the rocks and rubbish, and almost before the distracted girls had recovered their senses enough to be of any aid to the prisoners, the little fellow stumbled across the threshold of the Eagles’ Nest, gasping, “They’ve caved in-Bill and Toady and the girls. I guess maybe they’re dead by now!”

Tabitha was on her feet in an instant and the pan of potatoes which she was peeling went spinning across the floor. “Where, Rosslyn?”

Mutely he pointed, too spent for words; and the girl, remembering the old, unprotected shaft of the abandoned Selfridge mine, flew to the rescue of her brood, pausing only to snatch a lantern from a peg on the wall, and a handful of matches from the pantry shelf.

Mercedes had disappeared when she reached the spot of the accident, but Irene was tugging desperately at the huge windlass, slowly winding up the heavy bucket, moaning all the while in a distracted undertone, while tears of fright trickled down her dirty face. So busy was she that she never heard the patter of Tabitha’s feet behind her, and the first intimation she had of help at hand was when the older girl jerked her back from the mouth of the shaft, released the half-raised bucket, and sent it hurtling back into the pit once more.

“Go for the assayer,” she commanded hoarsely, seizing the heavy rope with both hands, and preparing to descend as Toady had done. “Run, hurry! And then get Dr. Hayes. We may need him.”

The windlass creaked and groaned, the rope swayed and strained, as Tabitha slid out of sight, while Irene raced madly away to do her bidding. Unmindful of bumps or bruises, and almost unaware that her hands were cruelly burned and torn from her too rapid descent, the black-eyed girl had scarcely touched the bottom of the shaft before she had her lantern lighted and was digging like mad at the fallen rock and debris which almost completely blocked the entrance of the narrow cross-cut.

“Who is it?” called a voice from behind the barrier.

“Thank God!” breathed Tabitha, working with renewed fury. “That you, Toady?”

“Bet you!” came the cheering response.

“Are you hurt?”

“Nope!”

“Where are the others?”

“Here!”

“Safe?”

“I-don’t know. I can feel ’em, but they don’t answer.”

At that instant, without any warning, one of the fallen timbers slipped from its position, and revealed a narrow aperture into the crosscut, through which Tabitha caught a glimpse of Toady’s white face and the gleam of Susie’s scarlet dress.

“Can you crawl through?” she demanded.

“Yes.”

“Carefully now, so as not to start another landslide. There! Now, can you help me make the opening bigger?”

But other aid was at hand. The assayer with three men from the town had arrived and the rescue of the quintette at the bottom of the shaft was speedily effected.

“Are they-” Tabitha’s voice faltered as she stood at last on the rocky mountainside and looked down into the still, white faces of Billiard, Susie and Inez. How could she ever have let them out of her sight? How could she ever break the news to the mother?

“Merely stunned,” replied the doctor, examining the victims with rapid, practised fingers. “See, the girls are coming to their senses. It’s nothing short of a miracle that- Hello, Susie, what did you say?”

“It wasn’t gold at all,” murmured the child faintly; “just quartz, but he wouldn’t b’lieve it.”

Billiard opened his eyes slowly. “She says gold don’t look like gold in a mine, but I got a pocketful of-” His sentence ended in a groan of pain, and the hand he was trying to thrust into his trousers fell limply at his side.

“Aha!” cried the doctor. “Let’s see what we have here.”

“A break?” questioned the assayer.

“Bad sprain, I think, but it will keep the young man out of mischief for one while. Are your legs all right? Then I reckon we better move on to town.”

So it happened that no serious results came from their latest prank, but Tabitha, in her thankfulness that all her brood was safe and sound, fell into a fit of bitter weeping as soon as the children were back in the Eagles’ Nest once more and the rescuers had departed.

“Don’t,” begged Janie tearfully. “I loves ’oo! I was dood!”

“Please don’t,” pleaded the other sisters in great distress. “We’ll never do it again.”

“It was all my fault,” cried Toady contritely. “I’m ever so sorry.”

“It was not,” muttered Billiard, wincing with the pain in his arm, but truly repentant. “I dared ’em to go. Honest, Tabby, I was to blame! Will you-will you-er-forgive me? I’m horribly-sorry. Won’t you try me again?”

So sincere was his tone, so straightforward his confession, so manly his bearing, that Tabitha could not fail to be convinced of his earnestness of purpose, and drying her eyes, she took Billiard’s proffered hand in a hearty grasp, saying with quivering, smiling lips, “Let’s all try each other again.”

“Let’s!” cried the rest of the brood; and they meant it, every one.