The Wild Cat's Trail





"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!"





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