Lost In The Clouds





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.





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