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The Wild Cat's Trail








From: The Boys Of Crawford's Basin

"He is quite right," said my father, when, on reaching home again, we
related to him the results of our day's work and told him how the hermit
had warned us against Long John. "He is quite right. Your hermit is a
man of sense in spite of his reputation to the contrary. Yetmore, of
course, will do anything he can to forestall Tom Connor, but, if I am
not mistaken, he will not venture beyond the law; whereas Long John, I
feel sure, would not be restrained by any such consideration. He would
be quite ready to resort to violence, provided always that he could do
it without risk to his own precious person. The hermit is right, too, in
saying that Long John is all the more dangerous for being the cowardly
creature that he is: whatever he may do to head off Tom will be done in
the dark--you may be sure of that. We must warn Tom, so that he may be
on his guard."

"I'm afraid it won't be much use warning Tom," said I. "He is such a
heedless fellow and so chuck full of courage that he won't trouble to
take any precautions."

"I don't suppose he will, but we will warn him, all the same, so that he
may at least go about with his eyes open. I'll write to him again
to-morrow. And now to our own business. Come into the back room. I want
your opinion."

It had been my father's custom for some time back--and a very good
custom, too, I think--whenever there arose a question of management
about the affairs of the ranch, to take Joe and me into consultation
with him. It is probable enough that our opinion, when he got it, was
not worth much, but the mere fact that we were asked for it gave us a
feeling of responsibility and grown-up-ness which had a good effect.
Whenever, therefore, any question of importance turned up, the whole
male population of Crawford's Basin voted upon it, and though it is true
that nine times out of ten any proposition advanced by my father would
receive a unanimous vote, it did happen every now and then that one of
us would make a suggestion which would be adopted, much to our
satisfaction, thus adding a zest to the work, whatever it might be. For
whether the plan originated with my father or with one of us, as we all
voted on it we thereby made it our own, and having made it our own; we
took infinitely more interest in its accomplishment than does the
ordinary hired man, who is told to do this or do that without reason or
explanation.

It will be readily understood, too, how flattering it was to a couple of
young fellows like ourselves to be asked for our opinion by a man like
my father, for whose good sense and practical knowledge we had the
greatest respect, and of course we were all attention at once, when,
seating himself in his desk chair, he began:

"You remember that when Marsden's cattle first came they broke a couple
of the posts around the hay-corral, and that when we re-set them we
found that the butt-ends of the posts were beginning to get pretty
rotten?"

He happened to catch Joe's eye, who replied:

"I remember; and you said at the time that we should have to renew the
fence entirely in two years or less."

"Exactly. Well, now, this is what I've been thinking: instead of
renewing with posts and poles, why not build a rough stone wall all
round the present fence, which, when once done, would last forever?
Within a half-mile of the corral there is material in plenty fallen from
the face of the Second Mesa; and everything on the ranch being in good
working order, you two boys would be free to put in several weeks
hauling stones and dumping them outside the fence--the actual building I
would leave till next fall. It will mean a long spell of pretty hard
work, for you will hardly gather material enough if you keep at it all
the rest of the winter. Now, what do you think?"

"It seems to me like a good plan," Joe answered. "We can take two teams
and wagons, help each other to load, drive down together, and help each
other to unload; for I suppose you would use stones as big as we can
handle by preference."

"Yes, the bigger the better; especially for the lower courses and for
the corners. What's your opinion, Phil?"

"I agree with Joe," I replied. "And with such a short haul--for it will
average nearer a quarter than half a mile--I should think we might even
collect stones enough for the purpose this winter, provided there
doesn't come a big fall of snow and stop us."

"Then you shall begin to-morrow," said my father.

"But here's another question," he continued. "Should we build the wall
close around the present fence, or should we increase the size of the
corral while we are about it?"

"I should keep to the present dimensions," said I. "There is no chance
that I see of our ever increasing the size of our hay-crop to any great
extent, and the corral we have now has always held it all, even that
very big crop we had the summer Joe came. If----"

"Yes, 'if,'" my father interrupted, knowing very well what I had in
mind. "If we could drain 'the bottomless forty rods' we should need a
corral half as big again; but I'm afraid that is beyond us, so we may as
well confine ourselves to providing for present needs."

"My wig!" exclaimed Joe--his favorite exclamation--at the same time
rumpling his hair, as though that were the wig he referred to. "What a
great thing it would be if we could but drain those forty rods!"

"It undoubtedly would," replied my father. "It would about double the
value of the ranch, I think; for, besides diverting the present county
road between San Remo and Sulphide--for everybody would then leave the
old hill-road and come past our door instead--it would give us a large
piece of new land for growing oats and hay. And, do you know, I begin to
think it is very possible that within a couple of years we shall have a
market for more oats and hay than we can grow, even including the 'forty
rods.'"

"Why?" I asked, in surprise; for, at present, though we disposed of our
produce readily enough, it could not be said that there was a booming
market.

"It is just guess-work," my father replied, "pure guess-work on my part,
with a number of good big 'ifs' about it; but if Tom Connor or Long
John, or, indeed, any one else, should discover a big vein of lead-ore
up on Mount Lincoln--and the chances, I think, begin to look
favorable--what would be the result?"

"I don't know," said I. "What?"

"Why, this whole district would take a big leap forward--that is what
would happen. You see, as things stand now, the smelters, not being able
to procure in the district lead-ores enough for fluxing purposes, are
obliged to bring them in by railroad from other camps. This is very
expensive, and the consequence is that they are obliged to make such
high charges for smelting that any ore of less value than thirty dollars
to the ton is at present worthless to the miner: the cost of hauling it
to the smelter and the smelter-charges when it gets there eat up all the
proceeds."

"I see," said Joe. "And the discovery of a mine which would provide the
smelters with all the lead-ore they wanted would bring down the charges
of smelting and enable the producers of thirty dollar ore to work their
claims at a profit."

"Precisely. And as nine-tenths of the claims in the district produce
mainly low-grade ore, which is now left lying on the dumps as worthless,
and as even the big mines take out, and throw aside, probably ten tons
of low-grade in getting out one ton of high-grade, you can see what a
'boost' the district would receive if all this unavailable material were
suddenly to become a valuable and marketable commodity."

"I should think it would!" exclaimed Joe, enthusiastically. "The
prospectors would be getting out by hundreds; the population of Sulphide
would double; San Remo would take a great jump forward; while we--why,
we shouldn't begin to be able to grow oats and hay enough to meet the
demand."

My father nodded. "That's what I think," said he.

"And there's another thing," cried I, taking up Joe's line of prophecy.
"If a big vein of lead-ore should be discovered anywhere about the head
of our creek, the natural way for the freighters to get down to San Remo
would be through here, if----"

"That's it," interrupted my father. "That's the whole thing. I-F, IF."

Dear me! What a big, big little word that was. To represent it of the
size it looked to us, it would be necessary to paint it on the sky with
the tail of a comet dipped in an ocean of ink!

After a pause of a minute or two, during which we all sat silent,
considering over again what we had considered many and many a time
before: whether there were not some possible way of draining off the
"forty rods," Joe suddenly straightened himself in his seat, rumpled his
hair once more--by which sign I knew he had some idea in his head--and
said:

"I suppose you have thought of it before, Mr. Crawford, but would it be
possible to run a tunnel up from the lower edge of the First Mesa, and
so draw off the water?"

"I have thought of it before, Joe," replied my father, "and while I
think it might work, I have concluded that it is out of the question.
How long a tunnel would it take, do you calculate?"

"Well, a little more than a quarter of a mile, I suppose."

"Yes. Say twelve hundred feet, at least. Well, to run a tunnel of that
length would be cheap at ten dollars a foot."

"Phew!" Joe whistled, opening his eyes widely. "That is a staggerer,
sure enough. It does look as if there was no way out of it."

"No, I'm afraid not," said my father. "And as to making a permanent road
across the marsh, I have tried everything I can think of including
corduroying with long poles covered with brush and earth. But it was no
use. We had a very wet season that summer, and the road, poles and all,
was covered with water. That settled it to my mind; we could not expect
the freighters and others to come our way when, at any time, they might
find the road under water."

"No; that did seem to be a clincher. Well, as there appears to be no
more to be said, let's get to bed, Phil. If we are going to haul rocks
to-morrow, we shall need a good night's sleep as a starter."

The cliff which bounded the eastern edge of the Second Mesa--at the same
time bounding the ranch on its western side--was made up of layers of
rock of an average thickness of about a foot, having been evidently
built up by successive small flows of lava. The stones piled at the foot
of the bluff being flat on both sides were therefore very convenient for
wall-building, and so plentiful that we made rapid progress at first in
hauling them down to the corral. At the end of three weeks, however, we
had picked up all those fragments that were most accessible, and were
now obliged to loosen up the great heaps of larger slabs and crack the
stones with a sledgehammer. Some of these heaps were so large, and the
stones composing them of such great size, that when we came to dislodge
them we found that an ordinary crowbar made no impression; but we
overcame that difficulty, at Joe's suggestion, by using a big pine pole
as a lever. Inserting the butt-end of the pole between two big rocks,
we would tie a rope to the other end and hitch the mules to it. The
leverage thus obtained was tremendous, and unless the pole broke,
something had to come. In this way we could sometimes bring down at one
pull rock enough to keep us busy for a week.

Day after day, without a break, we continued this work, and though it
was certainly hard labor we enjoyed it, especially when, by constant
practice we found ourselves handling all the time bigger and bigger
stones with less and less exertion.

It would seem that there could not be much art in so simple a matter as
putting a stone into a wagon, and as far as stones of moderate size are
concerned there is not. But when you come to deal with slabs of rock
weighing a thousand pounds or more, you will find that the "know how"
counts for very much more than mere strength.

Of course, to handle pieces of this size it was necessary to use skids
and crowbars, with which, aided by little rollers made of bits of
gas-pipe, we did not hesitate to tackle stones which, when we first
began, we should have cracked into two or three pieces.

We had been at it, as I have said, for more than three weeks, when it
happened one day that while driving down with our last load, we were met
face to face by a wildcat, with one of our chickens in its mouth. There
were a good many of these animals having their lairs among the fallen
rocks at the foot of the mesa, and they caused us some trouble, but this
was the first time I had known one to make a raid on the chicken-yard in
broad daylight. I suppose rabbits were scarce, and the poor beast was
driven to this unusual course by hunger.

I was driving the mules at the moment, but Joe, who was walking beside
the wagon, picked up a stone and hurled it at the cat. The animal, of
course, bolted--taking his chicken with him, though--and disappeared
among the rocks close to where we had just been at work.

"Joe," said I, "we'll bring up the shotgun to-morrow. We may stir that
fellow out and get a shot at him."

Accordingly, next day, we took the gun with us, and leaning it against a
tree near the wagon, set about our usual work. The first stone we loaded
that morning was an extra-large one, and Joe on one side of the wagon
and I on the other were prying it into position with our pinch-bars,
when my companion, who was facing the bluff, gently laid down his bar
and whispered:

"Keep quiet, Phil! Don't move! I see that wildcat! Get hold of the lines
in case the mules should scare, while I see if I can reach the gun."

Stooping behind the wagon, he slipped away to where the gun stood, came
stooping back, and then, straightening up, he raised the gun to his
shoulder. Up to that moment the cat had stood so still that I had been
unable to distinguish it, but just as Joe raised the gun it bolted. My
partner fired a snap-shot, and down came the cat, tumbling over and
over.

"Good shot!" I cried. But hardly had I done so when the animal jumped up
again and popped into a hole between two rocks before Joe could get a
second shot.

"Let's dig him out, Joe," I cried. And seizing a crowbar, I led the way
to the foot of the cliff.

Working away with the bar, while Joe stood ready with the gun, I soon
enlarged the hole enough to let me look in, but it was so dark inside,
and I got into my own light so much that I could see nothing.

I happened to have a letter in my pocket, and taking the envelope I
dropped a little stone into it, screwed up the corner, and lighting the
other end, threw the bit of paper into the hole. My little fire-brand
flickered for a moment, and then burned up brightly, when I saw the
wildcat lying flat upon its side, evidently quite dead.

Thereupon we both set to work and enlarged the hole so that Joe could
crawl in, which he immediately did. I expected him to come out again in
a moment, but it was a full minute before he reappeared, and when he did
so he only poked out his head and said, in an excited tone:

"Come in here, Phil! Here's the queerest thing--just come in here for a
minute!"

Of course I at once crept through the hole, to find myself in a little
chamber about ten feet long, six feet wide and four feet high, built up
of great flat slabs of stone, which, falling from above, had
accidentally so arranged themselves as to form this little room.

At first I thought it was the little room itself to which Joe had
referred as "queer," but Joe, scouting such an idea, exclaimed:

"No, no, bless you! I didn't mean that. That's nothing. Look here!"

So saying, he struck a match and showed me, along one side of the
chamber, a great crack in the ground, three feet wide, extending to the
left an unknown distance--for in that direction it was covered by loose
rocks of large size--while to the right it pinched out entirely.

It was evident to me that this crevice had existed ever since the great
break had occurred which had separated the First from the Second Mesa,
but that, being covered by the fragments which had fallen from the
cliff--itself formed by the subsidence of the First Mesa from what had
once been the general level--it had hitherto remained concealed.

"Well, that certainly is 'queer,'" said I. "How deep is it, I wonder?"

"Don't know. Pitch a stone into it."

I did so; judging from the sound that the crevice was probably thirty or
forty feet deep.

"That's what I should guess," said Joe. "But there's another thing,
Phil, a good deal queerer than a mere crack in the ground. Lie down and
put your ear over the hole and listen."

I did as directed, and then at length I understood where the "queerness"
came in. I could distinctly hear the rush of water down below!

Rising to my knees, I stared at Joe, who, kneeling also, stared back at
me, both keeping silence for a few seconds. At length:

"Where does it come from, Joe?" I asked.

"I don't know," Joe replied. "Mount Lincoln, perhaps. But I do know
where it goes to."

"You do? Where?"

"Down to 'the forty rods,' of course."

"That's it!" I cried, thumping my fist into the palm of the other hand.
"That's certainly it! Look here, Joe. I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll
quit hauling rock for this morning, go and get a long rope, climb down
into this crack, see how much water there is, and find out if we can
where it goes to."

"All right," said Joe. "Your father won't object, I'm sure."

"No, he won't object. Though he relies on our doing a good day's work
without supervision, he relies, too, on our using our common sense, and
I'm sure he'll agree that this is a matter that ought to be investigated
without delay. It may be of the greatest importance."

"All right!" cried Joe. "Then let us get about it at once!"





Next: The Underground Stream

Previous: The Hermit's Warning



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