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Lost In The Clouds








From: The Boys Of Crawford's Basin

The fact that he had lost his little all in the core-boring venture did
not trouble Tom Connor in the least; the money was gone, and as worrying
about it would not bring it back, Tom decided not to worry. The same
thing had happened to him many a time before, for his system of life was
to work in the mines until he had accumulated a respectable sum, and
then go off prospecting till such time as the imminence of starvation
drove him back again to regular work.

It was so in this case; and being known all over the district as a
skilful miner, his specialty being timber-work, he very soon got a good
job on the Pelican as boss timberman on a section of that important
mine.

One effect of Tom's getting work on the Pelican was that he secured for
Joe and me an order for lagging--small poles used in the mines to hold
up the ore and waste--and our potato-crop being gathered and marketed,
my father gave us permission to go off and earn some extra money for
ourselves by filling the order which Tom's kindly thoughtfulness had
secured for us.

The place we had chosen as the scene of our operations was on the
northern slope of Elkhorn Mountain, which lay next south of Mount
Lincoln, and one bright morning in the late fall Joe and I packed our
bedding and provisions into a wagon borrowed from my father and set out.

We had chosen this spot, after making a preliminary survey for the
purpose, partly because the growth of timber was--as it nearly always
is--much thicker on the northern slopes of Elkhorn than on the south
side of Lincoln, and also because, being a rather long haul, it had not
yet been encroached upon by the timber-cutters of Sulphide.

On a little branch creek of the stream which ran through Sulphide we
selected a favorable spot and went to work. It was rather high up, and
the country being steep and rocky, we had to make our camp about a mile
below our working-ground, snaking out the poles as we cut them. This, of
course, was a rather slow process, but it had its compensation in the
fact that from the foot of the mountain nearly all the way to Sulphide
our course lay across the Second Mesa, which was fairly smooth going,
and as it was down hill for the whole distance we could haul a very big
load when we did start. In due time we filled our contract and received
our pay, after which, by advice of Tom Connor, we branched out on
another line of the same business.

Being unable to get a second contract, and being, in fact, afraid to
take one if we could get it on account of the lateness of the
season--for the snow might come at any moment and prevent our carrying
it out--we consulted Tom, who suggested that we put in the rest of the
fine weather cutting big timbers, hauling them to town, and storing them
on a vacant lot, or, what would be better, in somebody's back yard.

"For," said he, "though the Pelican and most of the other mines have
their supplies for the winter on hand or contracted for, it is always
likely they may want a few more stulls or other big timbers than they
think. I'll keep you in mind, and if I hear of any such I'll try and
make a deal for you, either for the whole stick or cut in lengths to
order."

As this seemed like good sense to us, we at once went off to find a
storage place, a quest in which we were successful at the first attempt.

Among my father's customers was the widow Appleby, who conducted a small
grocery store on a side street in town. She was accustomed to buy her
potatoes from us, and my father, knowing that she had a hard struggle to
make both ends meet, had always been very easy with her in the matter of
payment, giving her all the time she needed.

This act of consideration had its effect, for, when we went to her and
suggested that she rent us her back yard for storage purposes, she
readily assented, and not only refused to take any rent, but gave us as
well the use of an old stable which stood empty on the back of her lot.

This was very convenient for us, for though a twenty-foot pole,
measuring twelve inches at the butt is not the sort of thing that a
thief would pick up and run away with, it was less likely that he would
attempt it from an enclosed back yard than if the poles were stored in
an open lot. Besides this, a stable rent-free for our mules, and a loft
above it rent-free for ourselves to sleep in was a great accommodation.

Returning to the Elkhorn, therefore, we went to work in a new place,
a place where some time previously a fire had swept through a strip
of the woods, killing the trees, but leaving them standing, stark and
bare, but still sound as nuts--just the thing we wanted. Our chief
difficulty this time was in getting the felled timbers out from amidst
their fellows--for the dead trees were very thick and the mountain-side
very steep--but by taking great care we accomplished this without
accident. The loading of these big "sticks" would have been an awkward
task, too, had we not fortunately found a cut bank alongside of which we
ran our wagon, and having snaked the logs into place upon the bank we
kidded them across the gap into the wagon without much difficulty.

We had made three loads, and the fine weather still holding, we had gone
back for a fourth and last one, when, having got our logs in place on
the cut bank all ready to load, Joe and I, after due consultation,
decided that we would take a day off and climb up to the saddle which
connected the two mountains. We had never been up there before, and we
were curious to see what the country was like on the other side.

Knowing that it would be a long and hard climb, we started about
sunrise, taking a rifle with us; not that we expected to use it, but
because it is not good to be entirely defenseless in those wild,
out-of-the-way places. Following at first our little creek, we went on
up and up, taking it slowly, until presently the pines began to thin
out, the weather-beaten trees, gnarled, twisted and stunted, becoming
few and far between, and pretty soon we left even these behind and
emerged upon the bare rocks above timber-line. Here, too, we left behind
our little creek.

For another thousand feet we scrambled up the rocks, clambering over
great boulders, picking our way along the edges of little precipices,
until at last we stood upon the summit of the saddle.

To right and left were the two great peaks, still three thousand feet
above us, but westward the view was clear. As far as we could see--and
that, I expect, was near two hundred miles--were ranges and masses of
mountains, some of them already capped with snow, a magnificent sight.

"That is fine!" cried Joe, enthusiastically. "It's well worth the
trouble of the climb. I only wish we had a map so that we could tell
which range is which."

"Yes, it's a great sight," said I. "And the view eastward is about as
fine, I think. Look! That cloud of smoke, due east about ten miles away,
comes from the smelters of San Remo, and that other smoke a little to
the left of it is where the coal-mines are. There's the ranch, too, that
green spot in the mesa; you wouldn't think it was nearly a mile square,
would you?"

"That's Sulphide down there, of course," remarked Joe, pointing off
towards the right. "But what are those other, smaller, clouds of smoke?"

"Those are three other little mining-camps, all tributary to the
smelters at San Remo, and all producing refractory ores like the mines
of Sulphide. My! Joe!" I exclaimed, as my thoughts reverted to Tom
Connor and his late core-boring failure. "What a great thing a good vein
of lead ore would be! Better than a gold mine!"

"I expect it would. Poor old Tom! He bears his disappointment pretty
well, doesn't he?"

"He certainly does. He says, now, that he's going to stick to
straightforward mining and leave prospecting alone; but he's said that
every year for the past ten years at least, and if there's anything
certain about Tom it is that when spring comes and he finds himself once
more with money in his pocket, he'll be off again hunting for his
lead-mine."

"Sure to. Well, Phil, let's sit down somewhere and eat our lunch. We
mustn't stay here too long."

"All right. Here's a good place behind this big rock. It will shelter us
from the east wind, which has a decided edge to it up here."

For half an hour we sat comfortably in the sun eating our lunch, all
around us space and silence, when Joe, rising to his feet, gave vent to
a soft whistle.

"Phil," said he, "we must be off. No time to waste. Look eastward."

I jumped up. A wonderful change had taken place. The view of the plains
was completely cut off by masses of soft cloud, which, coming from the
east, struck the mountain-side about two thousand feet below us and were
swiftly and softly drifting up to where we stood.

"Yes, we must be off," said I. "It won't do to be caught up here in the
clouds: it would be dangerous getting down over the rocks. And besides
that, it might turn cold and come on to snow. Let us be off at once."

It was fortunate we did so, for, though we traveled as fast as we dared,
the cloud, coming at first in thin whisps and then in dense masses,
enveloped us before we reached timber-line, and the difficulty we
experienced in covering the small intervening space showed us how risky
it would have been had the cloud caught us while we were still on the
summit of the ridge.

As it was, we lost our bearings immediately, for the chilly mist filled
all the spaces between the trees, so that we could not see more than
twenty yards in any direction. As to our proper course, we could tell
nothing about it, so that the only thing left for us to do was to keep
on going down hill. We expected every moment to see or hear our little
creek, but we must have missed it somehow, for, though we ought to have
reached it long before, we had been picking our way over loose rocks and
fallen trees for two hours before we came upon a stream--whether the
right or the wrong one we could not tell. Right or wrong, however, we
were glad to see it, for by following it we should sooner or later reach
the foot of the mountain and get below the cloud.

But to follow it was by no means easy: the country was so unexpectedly
rough--a fact which convinced us that we had struck the wrong creek. As
we progressed, we presently found ourselves upon the edge of a little
canyon which, being too steep to descend, obliged us to diverge to the
left, and not only so, but compelled us to go up hill to get around it,
which did not suit us at all.

After a time, however, we began to go down once more, but though we kept
edging to the right we could not find our creek again. The fog, too, had
become more dense than ever, and whether our faces were turned north,
south or east we had no idea.

We were going on side by side, when suddenly we were astonished to hear
a dog bark, somewhere close by; but though we shouted and whistled there
was no reply.

"It must be a prospector's dog," said Joe, "and the man himself must be
underground and can't hear us."

"Perhaps that's it," I replied. "Well, let's take the direction of the
sound--if we can. It seemed to me to be that way," pointing with my
hand. "I wish the dog would bark again."

The dog, however, did not bark again, but instead there happened another
surprising thing. We were walking near together, carefully picking our
way, when suddenly a big raven, coming from we knew not where, flew
between us, so close that we felt the flap of his wings and heard their
soft fluff-fluff in the moisture-laden air, and disappeared again into
the fog before us with a single croak.

It was rather startling, but beyond that we thought nothing of it, and
on we went again, until Joe stopped short, exclaiming:

"Phil, I smell smoke!"

I stopped, too, and gave a sniff. "So do I," I said; "and there's
something queer about it. It isn't plain wood-smoke. What is it?"

"Sulphur," replied Joe.

"Sulphur! So it is. What can any one be burning sulphur up here for?
Anyhow, sulphur or no sulphur, some one must have lighted the fire, so
let us follow the smoke."

We had not gone far when we perceived the light of a fire glowing redly
through the fog, and hurried on, expecting to find some man beside it.

But not only was there nobody about, which was surprising enough, but
the fire itself was something to arouse our curiosity. Beneath a large,
flat stone, supported at the corners by four other stones, was a hot bed
of "coals," while upon the stone itself was spread a thin layer of black
sand. It was from these grains of sand, apparently, that the smell of
sulphur came; though what they were or why they should be there we could
not guess.

We were standing there, wondering, when, suddenly, close behind us, the
dog barked again. Round we whirled. There was no dog there! Instead,
perched upon the stump of a dead tree, sat a big black raven, who eyed
us as though enjoying our bewilderment. Bewildered we certainly were,
and still more so when the bird, after staring us out of countenance for
a few seconds, cocked his head on one side and said in a hoarse voice:

"Gim'me a chew of tobacco!"

And then, throwing back his head, he produced such a perfect imitation
of the howl of a coyote, that a real coyote, somewhere up on the
mountain, howled in reply.

All this--the talking raven, the mysterious fire, the encompassing
shroud of fog--made us wonder whether we were awake or asleep, when we
were still more startled by a voice behind us saying, genially:

"Good-evening, boys."

Round we whirled once more, to find standing beside us a man, a tall,
bony, bearded man, about fifty years old, carrying in his hand a long,
old-fashioned muzzle-loading rifle. He was dressed all in buckskin,
while the moccasins on his feet explained how it was he had been able to
slip up on us so silently.

Naturally, we were somewhat taken aback by the sudden appearance of this
wild-looking specimen of humanity, when, thinking that he had alarmed
us, perhaps, the man asked, pleasantly: "Lost, boys?"

"Yes," I replied, reassured by his kindly manner. "We have been up to
the saddle and got caught in the clouds. We don't know where we are. We
are trying to get back to our camp on a branch of Sulphide creek."

"Ah! You are the two boys I've seen cutting timbers down there, are you?
Well, your troubles are over: I can put you on the road to your camp in
an hour or so; I know every foot of these mountains."

"But come in," he continued. "I suppose you are hungry, and a little
something to eat won't be amiss."

When the man said, "Come in," we naturally glanced about us to see where
his house was, but none being visible we concluded it must be some
distance off in the mist. In this, however, we were mistaken. The side
of the mountain just here was covered with enormous rocks--a whole cliff
must have tumbled down at once--and between two of these our guide led
the way. In a few steps the passage widened out, when we saw before us,
neatly fitted in between three of these immense blocks of stone--one on
either side and one behind--a little log cabin, with chimney, door and
window all complete; while just to one side was another, a smaller one,
which was doubtless a storehouse. Past his front door ran a small stream
of water which evidently fell from a cliff near by, for, though we could
not see the waterfall we could hear it plainly enough.

"Well!" I exclaimed. "Whoever would have thought there was a house in
here?"

"No one, I expect," replied the man. "At any rate, with one exception,
you are the first strangers to cross the threshold; and yet I have
lived here a good many years, too. Come in and make yourselves at home."

Though we wondered greatly who our host could be and were burning to ask
him his name, there was something in his manner which warned us to hold
our tongues. But whatever his name might be, there was little doubt
about his occupation. He was evidently a mighty hunter, for, covering
the walls, the floor and his sleeping-place were skins innumerable,
including foxes, wolves and bears, some of the last-named being of
remarkable size; while one magnificent elk-head and several heads of
mountain-sheep adorned the space over his fireplace.

Our host having lighted a fire, was busying himself preparing a simple
meal for us, when there came a gentle cough from the direction of the
doorway, and there on the threshold stood the raven as though waiting
for permission to enter.

The man turned, and seeing the bird standing there with its head on one
side, said, laughingly: "Ah, Sox, is that you? Come in, old fellow, and
be introduced. These gentlemen are friends of mine. Say 'Good-morning.'"



"Good-morning," repeated the raven; and having thus displayed his good
manners, he half-opened his wings and danced a solemn jig up and down
the floor, finally throwing back his head and laughing so heartily that
we could not help joining in.

"Clever fellow, isn't he?" said the man. "His proper name is Socrates,
though I call him Sox, for short. He is supposed to be getting on for a
hundred years old, though as far as I can see he is just as young as he
was when I first got him, twenty years ago. Here,"--handing us each a
piece of meat--"give him these and he will accept you as friends for
life."

Whether he accepted us as friends remained to be seen, but he certainly
accepted our offerings, bolting each piece at a single gulp; after which
he hopped up on to a peg driven into the wall, evidently his own private
perch, and announced in a self-satisfied tone: "First in war, first in
peace," ending up with a modest cough, as though he would have us
believe that he knew the rest well enough but was not going to trouble
us with any such threadbare quotation.

This solemn display of learning set us laughing again, upon which
Socrates, seemingly offended, sank his head between his shoulders and
pretended to go to sleep; though, that it was only pretense was evident,
for, do what he would, he could not refrain from occasionally opening
one eye to see what was going on.

Having presently finished the meal provided for us, we suggested that we
ought to be moving on, so, bidding adieu to Socrates, and receiving no
response from that sulky philosopher, we followed our host into the
open.

That he had not exaggerated when he said he knew every foot of these
mountains, seemed to be borne out by the facts. He went straight away,
regardless of the fog, up hill and down, without an instant's
hesitation, we trotting at his heels, until, in about an hour we found
ourselves once more below the clouds, and could see not far away our two
mules quietly feeding.

"Now," said our guide, "I'll leave you. If ever you come my way again I
shall be glad to see you; though I expect it would puzzle you to find my
dwelling unless you should come upon it by accident. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," we repeated, "and many thanks for your kindness. If we can
do anything in return at any time we shall be glad of the chance. We
live in Crawford's Basin."

"Oh, do you?" said our friend. "You are Mr. Crawford's boys, then, are
you? Well, many thanks. I'll remember. And now, good-bye to you."

With that, this strange man turned round and walked up into the clouds
again. In two minutes he had vanished.

"Well, that was a queer adventure," remarked Joe. "I wonder who he is,
and why he chooses to live all by himself like that."

"Yes. It's a miserable sort of existence for such a man; for he seems
like a sociable, good-hearted fellow. It isn't every one, for instance,
who would walk three or four miles over these rough mountains just to
help a couple of boys, whom he never saw before and may never see again.
I wish we could make him some return."

"Well, perhaps we may, some day," Joe replied.

Whether we did or not will be seen later.





Next: What We Found In The Pool

Previous: Yetmore's Mistake



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