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"DASHED unfair, I call it," complained Clive Winslow, as he looked at the letters lying on his cousin's plate. "Two for you, Bruce, and not a blamed thing for me."
Big Bruce Lyndall looked up with a twinkle in his grey eyes.
"Don't be an ass, Clive. Here, read Mother Morell, while I see what dad's got to say."
The long table was packed with boys of Overton School, all busy with their breakfast and talking sixteen to the dozen. It was only two days to the end of the summer term, and every one was wildly excited at the idea of getting home for the long eight weeks' vacation. Bruce, by reason of being a dormitory captain, sat at the head of the table, and Clive next to him, so they were able to read their letters in peace.
Bruce's letter bore a Canadian stamp, and the contents interested him so much that he never noticed the queer look which spread across Clive's thin, clever face as he read the other letter. Presently Clive looked at Bruce and seemed on the point of speaking. Then he changed his mind, folded the letter, put it back in its envelope, and started quietly on his bacon and bread and butter. But, if Bruce had been watching him, which he was not, he would have seen that Clive was not eating with much appetite.
At last Bruce finished his letter.
"Lots of news, Clive," he said, in his deep voice. "And dad's sent two fivers, one for me, the other from Uncle Quentin for you. We shall be able to do ourselves proud these hols." He broke off. "Hallo, what's up?"
"Tell you afterwards," said Clive in his quiet way, and Bruce merely nodded.
The two cousins understood one another remarkably well. Both finished their food as quickly as possible and went out together. They made straight for the small study they shared, and nothing was said until Clive had closed the door. Then he looked Bruce straight in the face.
"Masters is dead," he said.
Bruce's big powerful frame stiffened.
"Dead!" he repeated.
"Yes, Mrs. Morell says he had a heart attack on Monday and died quite suddenly. Read it."
Bruce took the letter and glanced through it thoughtfully.
"This is a nice mess-up, Clive. To be quite honest, I'm not thinking of the poor old boy, for after all he didn't enjoy life much, and I dare say he's glad to get out of it. But it's left us in a hole."
Clive nodded. "I see what you mean. We can't go back to Chilton. Mrs. Morell says the house will be sold. I suppose it means we shall have to stick here at Overton for the hols."
Bruce's lips tightened. "I'm not going to do that," he said flatly.
"There's no choice, old man. Even if we cabled to our people we shouldn't hear for ages. It takes two weeks for a letter to reach Last Chance from rail-head. The hols, would be half over before we could hear."
"I know that as well as you do," said Bruce. "We must just shove along on our own."
Clive stared. "You mean go out to Canada?"
"That's the notion," replied Bruce calmly.
"But how are we to get the money? We should want about fifty quid, and the Head will never run to that."
Bruce grinned. "I'd like to see his face if I asked for it. No, we won't say a word to Doodle. Why should we? We've got this ten quid and about five more saved up. That's fifteen. Then there's all our stuff at Chilton—guns and golf clubs and the rest. My notion is to sell what we don't want. We ought to get twenty pounds easily, and thirty-five pounds will be plenty to get us across, steerage, and pay our rail fare the other end."
Clive's eyes widened as he listened. Clive was a slim youngster, much more lightly built than his big muscular cousin, but much more highly strung. He had more brains than Bruce and beat him easily in class, but Bruce had a way of going straight to the heart of things which sometimes made Clive gasp. There was a twinkle in Bruce's eyes as he watched his cousin.
"Any objections, Clive?" he asked presently.
"A lot," said Clive gravely. "Even if we do get enough money to reach rail-head at Tequam, we don't know the way from there to Last Chance."
"We'll find that easily enough," declared Bruce.
"Suppose we do, that trip alone takes a fortnight. By the time we get to Last Chance half the hols will be gone, and we shall have to turn straight back if we want to be here in time for next term."
"We don't," Bruce answered. "I don't anyhow. I wrote to dad weeks ago that I wanted to leave at the end of next term, and he said I could if I liked. One term doesn't make much odds, does it?"
"N-no, I suppose not," agreed Clive. "And of course if you leave I shall. All the same I'm rather wondering what your dad and mine will say when we turn up at Last Chance."
"That's the last thing you need worry about," said Bruce promptly. "They'll be jolly glad to see us."
"Because they're in a hole of some kind. No"—as he saw the anxious look on Clive's face—"dad doesn't say it in so many words, but I know from his letter there's something wrong."
Clive's lips tightened. "All right, Bruce," he said quickly, "I'm with you."
Bruce's big hand dropped on his cousin's shoulder.
"I knew you'd say that, old man. Then not a word to anyone until we're safe on our way."
THE late Michael Masters had been the Lyndalls' family solicitor, and, when Mr. John Lyndall and his cousin, Quentin Winslow, had plunged into the wilds of Northern Ontario to work the gold mine which John Lyndall had discovered, he had taken charge of their sons. Masters was a grim old man, not the sort to make friends with a couple of schoolboys, but Redlands, his house at Chilton, was in open country, with plenty of fishing and boating, so that Bruce and Clive had managed to amuse themselves pretty well in the holidays.
They had also done very well at Overton School, where they had been for nearly four years, but for all that they never ceased longing to get back to Canada where they had been born. In all those four years they had only once seen their fathers, who had each been over for a short visit. Perhaps because they had lost their mothers when they were very small, they were both devoted to their fathers. The two were tremendous chums, more like brothers than cousins. Bruce was the brawn, Clive the brains of the pair, and between them they made a pretty useful team.
Once they had made up their minds to go to Canada their only fear was that Doodle, as they affectionately called Dr. Macdonald, might get wind of their plan and stop them. But evidently the Head had no suspicions, for he handed them over their tickets for Chilton, and wished them good-bye just as he had done every other term.
Chilton was a long way from Overton, and it was nearly tea- time when they reached it. They left their luggage at the station and walked, each carrying a handbag. When they reached the house the blinds were down, and the place had a gloomy, deserted air. The front door was locked, and at first there was no answer to their ring. At last they heard some one unbarring the door, and both got a shock when, instead of Mrs. Morell, a large, sour- faced, unshaven man looked out.
"What do you want?" he asked gruffly.
"Where's Mrs. Morell?" asked Bruce.
"She don't live here," returned the other.
"Of course she lives here," retorted Bruce. "She's Mr. Masters's housekeeper."
"He's dead, and she's left," was the curt answer.
"Where has she gone?" inquired Bruce.
"I don't know, and I don't care. And I don't want you boys bothering me."
He made to shut the door, but Bruce pushed in.
"Steady on," he said. "We lived with Mr. Masters, and we've come for our things."
"I don't know nothing about your things," replied the man doggedly. "I'm put here by Mr. Claude Masters to see as nothing is took from the house. If you wants anything you got to get a written order from him."
"Claude Masters!" exclaimed Bruce. "That's old Mr. Masters's nephew? Where is he?"
"In London," replied the caretaker, and then he suddenly gave Bruce a sharp push and slammed the door in his face.
Bruce was furious, but Clive caught him by the arm.
"It's no use making a fuss," he said, in his quiet sensible way. "The man's got the law on his side, and we must get the order before we can touch our stuff. Best thing we can do is to try to find Mrs. Morell. Let's go and see old Sladen at The Swan."
Bruce allowed himself to be persuaded, and they went off to the little hotel where George Sladen received them kindly and offered to put them up. But the news he gave them was bad. Mrs. Morell had left for her old home in Westmorland, and he did not know the address of Claude Masters.
"And, if I did know it, I don't reckon it would be much good to you," he said. "He come down for the funeral, and never did I see a harder-faced chap. Why, the old gent who died was a angel compared with him."
"Sounds healthy," said Bruce bitterly, as he and Clive sat together in the stuffy little parlour after supper. "It may take a week to find this Claude person, and by that time we shall have spent all our cash. I've a jolly good mind to go out to Redlands to-night and collar our things."
"Don't be an ass, Bruce," said Clive gently. "If you try any game of that sort we shall spend our holidays in prison."
"Then what are we to do? Go and beg Doodle to take us back?"
"Nothing of that sort. I vote we go straight to Liverpool."
"What's the use?" asked Bruce despondently. "Even a steerage ticket costs ten quid."
Clive remained calm.
"Carruthers lives in Liverpool," he said, and Bruce fairly jumped.
"I'd clean forgotten that. And his dad owns ships. You mean we might get a cheap passage?"
"No, but a chance to work our passage," replied Clive.
"A jolly good notion," agreed Bruce warmly. "We'll be off first thing in the morning."
They caught an early train, got to Lime Street Station about eleven, and, leaving their things in the cloak-room, made their way to Sefton Park where their school friend, Geoffrey Carruthers, lived. The house, big and comfortable-looking, stood in fine grounds, and their spirits rose as they walked up the drive.
"Give old Geoff a bit of a shock, when he sees us," chuckled Bruce, as he rang the bell.
The door was opened by a butler who looked at the two boys in some surprise.
"We are from Overton School," Clive explained. "We want to see Mr. Geoffrey Carruthers."
"He's not at home, sir," replied the man politely.
"Not at home!" repeated Clive. "When will he be in?"
"Not for some weeks, sir. The family left for Scotland last evening." Then, seeing the dismay on Clive's face: "Is there anything I can do?" he asked kindly. "Any message I could send on?"
Clive pulled himself together.
"Thanks very much, but I'm afraid not. Come on, Bruce."
"Now we're properly in the soup," said Bruce grimly, as they reached the road.
But Clive refused to be discouraged.
"There's still a chance we might pick up a job. Let's go to the docks and look round. A lot of ships sail to-morrow."
The dirty yellow river was crowded with shipping; the narrow streets were packed with vans and trolleys. Everything was noise and confusion, and the boys had no idea where to go or what to do. They stopped by a little eating-shop, and the smell of frying sausages reminded them that they had had nothing to eat since an early breakfast.
"Let's get some grub," suggested Bruce.
Clive nodded, and they went in and ordered sausages and mashed. While they ate they talked.
"The best thing would be to find Carruthers's office," said Bruce. "They'd tell us what ships are sailing. What's the name of his line?"
"I think it's the Blue Funnel," said Clive, "but I'm not sure."
A man sitting opposite spoke.
"'Scuse me butting in," he said politely, "but was you asking for Carruthers's office?"
Clive looked at the man, who was youngish and wore a cheap blue serge suit with a muffler round his neck. He had a sharp, narrow face and hard, pale blue eyes. Clive didn't quite like the look of him and hesitated in replying, but Bruce spoke quickly.
"Yes. Do you know where it is?"
"Pity if I didn't. I works for 'em," said the man, with a grin. "You come along with me arter you've finished your grub, and I'll show you."
They finished quickly, and Bruce paid the bill. Then their new friend led the way down the street and up an alley—a dingy, dirty place, the heavy air thick with unpleasant smells.
"It's a short cut," explained the man, as he took them through a dark tunnel under some buildings. "Takes you in the back way. Who was you wanting to see?"
"We wanted to see Mr. Carruthers," said Bruce, "but he's away."
"You better see Mr. Beatty," said the man, as he stopped opposite to a door. "I'll find out if he's in."
He went in, leaving the boys standing in the narrow street. They waited for a long time, and at last Clive spoke.
"I don't believe this is the office at all," he said. "What's more, I've a notion that chap's a fraud?"
"What rot, Clive!" retorted Bruce. "It isn't as if he had anything to gain by leaving us here. What are you looking so worried about?" he added.
"The money. Is the money all right?" asked Clive sharply.
"Of course it's all right," said Bruce, as he put his hand into his breast pocket. Then an expression of almost ludicrous surprise crossed his face. "Why—why—where the mischief is it?" He began feeling in all his pockets violently. "I must have left it in that feeding place," he cried.
Clive shook his head. "No, Bruce. You didn't leave it anywhere. That fellow picked your pocket as we went through that tunnel."
Bruce stared at Clive stupidly.
"B-but it's all we had. We—we haven't a bob left, Clive!"
CLIVE felt in his pockets.
"Not even a penny left," he answered, and suddenly Bruce woke up and made a rush for the door through which the thief had disappeared. It was locked, but, though Bruce hammered and pounded on it till the place echoed, there was no answer. A roughly dressed man came out of a door opposite.
"What do you think you're doing of?" he demanded. "You stop that row, or there'll be trouble."
Clive caught Bruce by the arm.
"You may just as well chuck it, Bruce. That chap's far enough by now."
Bruce's grey eyes were blazing.
"But he's got our money," he exclaimed.
"And there's not one chance in a million of getting it back," said Clive, in his quietest voice.
"But what are we going to do?" For once Bruce was almost beside himself.
"Go back to the station and get our luggage. We can get a bed somewhere if we have luggage with us; then we'll start hunting for a passage on some ship."
Bruce looked at Clive. "We can't get our luggage," he told him. "The cloak-room ticket was in the wallet with the money."
Clive whistled. "That's awkward," he remarked.
"And it's all my fault," said Bruce bitterly.
"Don't talk rot," said Clive. "And don't get the wind up. This is the time we've got to keep our heads. The best thing we can do is to try to find Carruthers's office. If we tell them who we are we may be able to fix up something."
Clive's calmness had a good effect on Bruce.
"Anything you say, Clive," he agreed, with unusual mildness.
So Clive led the way back down the alley, and presently they found themselves again on the wharves. Suddenly Clive pointed to a big steamer lying in a basin just opposite.
"There's a Blue Funnel, Bruce. She's one of Carruthers's ships. The Ibis. I know they've all got names like that."
"And nearly ready to sail," added Bruce eagerly. "Suppose we go aboard."
"Right you are," said Clive.
He spoke quietly as usual, yet his heart was beating with excitement. They crossed a gangway and were met at the head by a quartermaster.
"Can we see the Captain?" Clive asked.
"He's not aboard," was the reply. "But there's Mr. Baring, the first officer."
The officer saw the boys and came up. "Anything I can do for you?" he asked kindly enough.
Clive hesitated. "We—we wanted to work our passage to America, sir," he said, with an effort.
Mr. Baring's eyebrows rose. "What's the trouble—run away from school?"
"No, sir," replied Clive. "Nothing of that sort. We were going out to our people in Canada, but we've been robbed. A man picked our pockets. Mr. Carruthers's son was at Overton School with us, and we thought perhaps that we might get a chance to work our passage on this ship."
Mr. Baring looked hard at the boys. He shook his head.
"We've no opening for anything of that sort, son," he said. "And, even if we had, you couldn't land without passports and money." Then seeing Clive's face fall, he went on: "But I'm sorry for your trouble. You'd better go round to the office and tell them who you are, and I dare say they'll lend you enough to pay your tickets back to Overton. The office is in Milton Street."
Some one called him, and he turned away. Clive looked at Bruce.
"Come on," said Bruce curtly.
But just as they reached the gangway a huge box van backed up blocking the way. The end was dropped, and a magnificent short- horn bull was led out. The great animal was very nervous and flatly refused to climb the gangway. At this moment a second van which was being started up back-fired with a sound like a pistol shot.
The bull, terrified, jerked back so sharply that the man who held the halter was pulled off his feet, and the animal, swinging round, rushed blindly along the wharf. The bystanders ran in every direction. Of them all Bruce was the only one to keep his head. In two jumps he was down the gangway and racing after the bull.
Bruce played three-quarters for Overton and for a big fellow was very fast. The bull was slipping and stumbling on the cobbles, but even so was travelling at a great rate. He was perilously near the edge of the wharf, but Bruce, spurting for all he was worth, managed to cut in between him and the edge. The bull was haltered, but unluckily the rope was trailing on the far side.
Bruce snatched off his hat and coming level with the bull slapped him with it across the nose. In sheer surprise the bull halted, and this gave Bruce the chance to get hold of the rope. The bull started again, and of course Bruce alone could not stop him, but the delay had given Clive a chance to come up, and he, too, grabbed the rope. Both were pulled off their feet, but they hung on like grim death and held the bull away from the wharf edge. More men ran up, but the bull dragged them all.
"Chuck a sack over his head," shouted Bruce, and one of them snatched a sack from a lorry and did so, and at once the great beast stood quiet.
"Now let go," said Bruce. "I'll take him back. And don't shout or make a row."
He spoke soothingly to the bull, and the creature quickly quieted down and allowed Bruce to lead him back. Bruce took him straight up the gangway on to the ship where a red-faced man with side-whiskers was waiting.
"Good for you, boy!" he said, in warm approval. "Lead him in here."
He showed the way to a big loose box on deck, the floor deep in straw, and Bruce took the bull in and fastened him up.
The red-faced man was waiting.
"Good work, son!" he exclaimed. "If old Trump had gone over the wharf it would have been fifteen hundred pounds out of my pocket, and he'd have gone, surely, if you hadn't been as quick as you were. Are you sailing in this ship?"
"No," said Bruce. "I wish we were."
The other looked hard at him.
"What's the trouble?" he asked straight out.
Bruce hesitated. He was getting tired of snubs, but the red- faced man seemed to understand.
"This isn't the right place to talk. That's what you'd like to say. If you and your friend will take a cup of tea with me we can have a yarn."
"Thanks," said Bruce briefly. "We'll be glad to."
The red-faced man, whose name, he told them, was George Gaunt, took them to a tea-shop and ordered a first-class tea, hot buttered toast, cake, and jam, and waited until the boys had got well to work before he began to ask questions. Then Clive told him the whole story. When he had finished Gaunt nodded.
"Your money's gone," he said. "You'll have to make up your mind to that. But we'll get your stuff from the station."
"The cloak-room ticket—" began Clive.
But Gaunt stopped him.
"I'm pretty well known here. I ship twenty thousand pounds' worth of prize stock yearly from this port. If I guarantee the Railway Company against loss it'll be all right. And there's plenty of time. The Ibis don't sail before nine to- night."
He called the waiter and told him to fetch a taxi. All three got into the cab and started for Lime Street. The driver took a short cut through a narrow side street, and suddenly Bruce gave a gasp and rapped the glass hard. Before the driver could stop Bruce was out and running like the wind.
"What's the matter? Has he gone crazy?" demanded Gaunt angrily.
But he found himself alone, for Clive, too, had leapt out and was helping Bruce to chase a mean-looking fellow who was running like mad, yet not fast enough to get away from Bruce who caught him from behind, wrapped his big arms round him, and fell on top of him.
"It's the thief," cried Clive, as Gaunt came up.
"And here's our money," said Bruce cheerfully, as he extracted a wallet from his prisoner's pocket—"most of it anyhow."
Gaunt burst into a delighted chuckle.
"You're the lads," he cried. "Keep your money, but let the wretched little pick-pocket go. He's had his lesson, and we haven't time to prosecute. Now get back into the cab before a crowd collects."
As the cab drove away they saw the thief pick himself up and go limping away. Gaunt laughed again.
"That settles it," he said. "You two are coming along with me. No, don't thank me. I'm a rich man, and your company will be worth anything I spend on you. A pair of lads like you will keep me happy all the way across."
BRUCE sat gazing out of window as the train rumbled northwards from Quebec. Clive beside him was studying a map. Some hours earlier the two had said goodbye to their kind friend, Gaunt, and to Trump, the big bull. Gaunt had seen them off from Quebec and before they left had made them a present of a hundred dollars. Not only that, but he had paid their railway fare to Tequam.
"You've got a long trip before you after you leave rail-head," he had said. "I shouldn't feel happy if you hadn't money for outfit." Then he added a word of warning. "You won't run into pick-pockets up there in the woods, but there are worse thieves and more dangerous. So keep your eyes open."
They had promised and were now fairly on their way. Presently Clive looked up.
"Bruce," he said, "when you got that letter from Uncle John you said there was something wrong at Last Chance. Any idea what it is?"
Bruce withdrew his eyes from the towering hill-side they were passing.
"No, Clive. It was just the way he wrote. I could feel he was out of spirits. It might be just that he wasn't well, or else he was anxious about something." He felt in his pocket. "You can read the letter if you like."
Clive read it carefully.
"I think he's ill," he said at last. "That's the notion I get." Then, seeing Bruce's worried look: "But it may not be much. You know how rotten one feels if one has just a toothache or a bilious attack. It can't be the mine, for he says the clean-up promises to be good."
"I hope you're right," said Bruce. "But I shall be jolly glad to get there and make sure all's well."
All day the train travelled first north, then north-west. At dawn the next morning the conductor told the boys that the next stop was Tequam, and the sun was just rising above the dark spruce forest when they found themselves standing on a little wooden platform while the train roared away in the distance.
"Here's the jumping-off place anyhow," said Bruce.
"Jumping-off place," came a drawling voice behind them. "I guess not. This here's a metropolis compared with Last Chance."
Both boys turned to find themselves facing a tall, spare man who wore a black flannel shirt and trousers tucked into heavy knee boots. His face was so weather-burned and seamed with wrinkles that it was hard to guess his age, and his hair was the colour of sand. But his grey-blue eyes had a glint of fun which made both boys feel happy.
"How do you know we're bound for Last Chance?" demanded Clive at once.
The tall man took a telegram from a pocket.
"This here says as two Britishers bound for Last Chance is to land up on the 17th. Seeing as there ain't but one train a day and you two is the only passengers as got off, it seems a good bet that you're the chaps mentioned."
Clive laughed. "Guilty," he said. "But it was jolly good of Mr. Gaunt to wire. Do you know our people at Last Chance?"
"You bet I knows 'em. I'm the postman. I reckon you're Clive, ain't you?"
"Right again," said Clive. "And this is Bruce. And you are—"
"Ricard, Bleak Ricard. You fellers better come along to my place and have some grub. We got to start in a hour."
"Are you coming with us?" cried Clive.
"That's right. Canoe's packed and ready. Arter breakfast we'll push right along."
He took them to his house built of squared logs and shingled. There was a store in front which was also the post office. In all there were only seven houses in the settlement. Mrs. Ricard, a bright-eyed French Canadian, had breakfast ready—hot corn bread, girdle cakes, fried pork, and coffee, solid fare but just what the boys needed in this keen northern air. Then Ricard showed them how to make up their stuff in waterproof packs; he provided them with blankets, and within an hour they were in the big canoe and driving away up the Vallier River.
The weather was perfect. Ricard knew every rock and rapid, and the boys soon learned to handle their paddles. Everything went well, and after ten delightful days they drove out quite suddenly into a long narrow lake of exquisitely blue water surrounded by low hills, and Bleak pointed to a landing on the right with a clearing behind, in which stood a solid-looking range of log buildings. The boys did not say anything, but the way the canoe leaped forward was good proof of their feelings. In almost no time they reached the landing and jumped out.
"Why, where's the folk?" asked Bleak, in a puzzled tone. "There ain't a soul in sight."
The boys exchanged startled glances and springing ashore raced up the slope. As they neared the house a tall Chinaman in a blue blouse came out and gazed at them in puzzled fashion. Bruce reached him first.
"Where's dad?" he demanded.
The man's eyes widened. "You Mister Lyndall?" he questioned.
"I'm Bruce Lyndall. Is my father at home?"
"Him home. No can go out."
Bruce did not wait. He tore into the house.
"Dad!" he shouted.
"Who's that?" came in a voice from a room to the right, and Bruce rushed in.
His father, looking white and thin, sat in a long chair with one leg straight out on a rest. He stared at his son as if he could not believe his eyes.
"You, Bruce! How did you come here?"
"That'll keep, dad. What's the matter with you?"
"I broke my leg a month ago."
"Then Clive was right. He said you were ill. Where's Uncle Quentin?"
A troubled look crossed Mr. Lyndall's face.
"I—I don't know, Bruce. He—he left three days ago."
"But you must know where he went," said Bruce, in amazement.
His father looked round. "Is Clive here?" he asked.
"Close the door. He mustn't hear what I have to tell you."
Bruce's heart sank. He had a sudden feeling that something was terribly wrong.
"Come closer," said Mr. Lyndall, and Bruce obeyed. "Listen," said the other, in a low voice. "Three days ago the whole of our clean-up of gold for the past six months disappeared, and—and your uncle went with it."
A LOOK of horror grew upon Bruce's face as he stood gazing down at his father.
"Dad," he said, "you're not telling me that Uncle Quentin stole the gold?"
Mr. Lyndall looked equally distressed.
"It seems impossible," he said despondently. "Yet I don't know what else to think. Hour after hour I have been lying here helpless, pondering over the business, until I have sometimes felt I should go crazy, yet for the life of me I can see no other explanation."
Bruce's lips tightened. "You'll have to tell me more. I'm not going to believe such a thing of Uncle Quen until I have to."
"You're sure Clive can't hear?" asked his father apprehensively.
Bruce glanced out of the window.
"No. He's talking to the cook. I say, that Chinaman won't tell him anything, will he?"
"That is not likely. Ching believes in your uncle as firmly as you do. There's no risk of his saying anything of my suspicions to Clive. In any case I've kept them to myself."
"That's good," said Bruce, in a relieved tone. "Now tell me."
"It begins a fortnight ago," replied his father, "when I took a tumble on the hill behind the house. I had been out after fresh meat and had killed a deer. I was carrying a quarter on my back when I slipped and fell and broke my right leg. Luckily I was within shouting distance of the house, and your uncle and Ching came out and brought me in. They put me to bed here and set my leg, and as it was only a simple fracture there was no need to fetch a doctor. I did not worry much, for Quentin could look after the mine, and Ching is a first-class nurse. We were just getting ready for the clean-up. You know from my letters that, once in six months, we melt up the gold we have mined into bricks and send it down to rail-head. Bleak takes it, and one of us goes with him to act as guard.
"This time the clean-up was the best we've ever had. There were five bricks each weighing twenty pounds. Since gold is worth a little over four pounds an ounce each of these bricks was valued at very nearly a thousand pounds. The clean-up was finished five days ago, and the bricks loaded up in the safe which is in the opposite room, to wait for Bleak's next visit. It is the room your uncle sleeps in, and when there is gold in the safe he keeps a loaded gun by his bed."
"Have you ever had any thieves about?" put in Bruce.
"Never. This country isn't like the West which is infested with bandits and hold-up men. We have only Indians and trappers about us, and very few of them, but at the same time we have always been careful and taken all precautions against theft."
"Are your men all right?" put in Bruce shrewdly.
"Absolutely. Peter Diggs, the foreman, and the other three have been with us from the start. You shall see them yourself. Now let me go on. Three nights ago I woke up suddenly. It was raining, but it wasn't the rain that had roused me. It was a sound inside the house. I listened a while, then called for Quentin. There was no answer. Then I rang the hand bell for Ching. No one came. I rang again; then I shouted, but nothing happened. I couldn't move, and there I had to lie till morning. Even then no one came, and I was just about frantic when Peter Diggs came hurrying into the house and wanted to know what was up. I told him and asked him to find Ching. Ching sleeps at the back in a little room over the kitchen. Diggs found him on his bed tied and gagged."
"Who'd done that?" asked Bruce sharply.
"Ching doesn't know. He says he found himself that way when he woke up. It seems plain that some one had given him a sleeping draught overnight."
"Perhaps he takes opium," suggested Bruce. "Chinese do, don't they?"
"Not Ching. He's as straight as they make them. But let me finish. Diggs and Ching went into your uncle's room and found the safe open and empty. It had been unlocked, not forced. And your uncle had gone. What is more, his hat, heavy coat, and rifle had also gone, and his canoe—the special one he always uses—was missing." He paused. "What can I think except that he took the gold?" he added, in a tone of despair.
Bruce's answer was prompt. "I don't think that, dad. I don't believe it for a moment. My notion is that the thieves seized him and took him along with them so as to throw suspicion on him."
His father shook his head. "I've thought of that, but it doesn't explain Ching being tied up."
Bruce stuck to his point. "That was done by the thieves. They might have chloroformed Ching."
"Chloroformed him," repeated Mr. Lyndall. "Yes, that is possible." Then his face fell. "But that does not explain your uncle's rifle and canoe disappearing."
"The robbers took them so as to make you think he was the thief," declared Bruce stoutly. "Very likely they had it all planned out beforehand."
The elder man's face relaxed a little.
"I only wish I could believe you were right, Bruce. I—"
Bruce held up his hand.
"Here's Clive," he whispered, and then the door opened, and Clive came in.
"What's all this, Uncle John?" he asked anxiously, as he grasped Mr. Lyndall's hand. "Ching says you've been robbed and that dad has gone."
"Yes," said Bruce quickly. "The thieves collared him and took him away with them as well as the gold."
"But why didn't you send your men after them, Uncle John?" Clive demanded.
"They are miners from the South," replied Mr. Lyndall. "Not one of them is any good in the woods. I sent one of them, Kerry, to the police post at Cross River, but he missed his way and came back this morning worn out and scared stiff. There is no one here who is fit to handle a canoe."
"Then it's up to us," said Bruce calmly. "We'll get Bleak to come along and run the thieves down in no time."
Mr. Lyndall stared at his son in blank amazement.
"Two boys like you!" he exclaimed.
Bruce smiled. "Dad," he said quietly, "we're not kids any longer. And we've had ten days' hard paddling. Of course we are still green to the woods, but with Bleak to help us we'll manage all right."
His father's eyes took in the big powerful figure of his son and the steady confident look on his face. Then he glanced at Clive's smaller, yet well-knit frame, and drew a long breath.
"Yes," he said slowly. "I do see that you are not children any longer, but as for your following the thieves that is a different thing altogether. You have no idea of the dangers and difficulties of our northern forests."
"You say your men are no good," said Bruce quietly. "If we don't go, who else is there to go?"
"We'll do it all right," added Clive confidently. "I'll go and talk to Bleak at once."
He went straight out, met Bleak coming up from the lake, and told him quickly what had happened.
"We're going after the fellows," he said, "and we want you to come too."
Bleak shook his head. "I'm mighty sorry, Clive. There ain't nothing I'd like better than to help you and your folk, but I ain't got the time for a long trip like this."
Clive looked dreadfully disappointed but pulled himself together.
"Then we'll have to go by ourselves," he said firmly.
"You can't do that, son," Bleak told him. "You can't read signs, and unless you can do that and follow a trail it would be easier to find a pea on a beach full of pebbles than a man in a wilderness nigh as big as all Europe."
BLEAK RICARD'S words hit Clive like a blow. He realised that they were true and that if he and Bruce started alone they would be helpless. The ground was knocked from under his feet, and he could find nothing to say.
Bleak saw the misery in the boy's eyes and felt intensely sorry for him. During their trip together the tall frontiersman had grown very fond of these two plucky, cheerful youngsters, and he hated to let them down.
"See here, Clive," he said, "I kin spare a month. Thet means two weeks out from here and two back. Now I don't reckon to catch these here thieves in a week and maybe not in a month, but I'll start ye on the job. I'll teach ye all I can of trails and signs, and arter I leaves you you'll hev to carry on alone. That's the best I kin do."
Clive's face lit up.
"It's splendid of you, Bleak," he said gratefully. "Just start us, and that's all we'll ask. When do we leave—now?"
"No," said Bleak. "There's a heap to do afore we kin start on a job like this. We'll hev our hands full to git away by sun-up to-morrow. Now I'll go and hev a talk with your uncle and get the lay of things as far as he knows 'em."
Bleak went into the house, and just as Bruce came out Ching called the boys to come in to dinner. Ching was a first-class cook and gave them broiled venison with fresh vegetables grown by himself and as a second course tinned peaches with custard. Bleak came in and joined them.
"I got it all fixed up with Mr. Lyndall," he said. "He's treating me real white. Paying me full wages and offering a reward of five hundred pounds if I gets the gold. I'd surely like to hev three months to spare instead of one. Soon as I've fed, I'm a-going down to the lake to look fer sign. Then I'll get the stuff together fer our trip. You boys don't need to worry. You better go and hev a good talk with the boss and cheer him up. He ain't heard yet how you come out here."
The way Bleak worked was wonderful. Before nightfall he had everything ready for a long trip—food, blankets, matches, rifles, and ammunition. Everything was done up in small packages and wrapped so as to be proof against the weather.
"They got to be like that so you can carry 'em easy over the portages," he explained. "And there'll be plenty of them afore we get to the top of the river."
"And what about sign?" Clive asked.
Bleak shook his head. "The rain's washed everything plumb away."
"Then how do we know which way to go?" asked Bruce, in dismay.
"They didn't come down the river, or we'd have seen 'em. So it stands to reason they went up. We must follow and take our chance of hitting the trail."
"Where do you think they're making for?" Bruce asked.
"Hard to say, but I'd make a guess it's Fort Nelson. That's a big port on Hudson Bay. They've got to get outside with their loot, and if they've gone north that's the only way out."
"But can't we send word there and have them stopped?"
A faint smile crossed Bleak's face.
"You're forgetting as we don't know who they are or what they looks like."
"But we can describe Uncle Quentin." Bleak shook his head. "They won't take him that far."
"What will they do with him?" Clive asked anxiously.
"Maybe they'll turn him loose when they think they're safe, or maybe they'll leave him in some Injun village. I don't reckon as any harm will come to him."
Clive looked happier, but later when Bruce went to say good- night to his father and told him what Bleak had said, Mr. Lyndall was troubled.
"I'd give anything to think Bleak was right," he said. "But if the thieves did carry away your uncle I don't see them letting him go. They would be afraid he might get in touch with the Mounted."
"Don't worry, dad," said Bruce. "With Bleak's help we'll catch them."
"I hope you will, my boy," replied the other earnestly. "I do trust you will. I only wish I were able to come with you. It troubles me to think of you two boys plunging into the unknown."
"We'll be careful," Bruce promised. "You sit tight, dad, and by the time you're ready to walk again you'll see us back here with Uncle Quentin, the gold and all. Now I'm going to turn in, for Bleak says we've got to start at sun-up!"
But the sun was not yet up when Bleak, already dressed, roused the two boys.
"I want to be away before light," he said. "Git your clothes on and come right away."
The clearing, the woods, and the lake were bathed in soft moonlight as the three slipped silently down to the water's edge. The canoe was ready, and within a few minutes they were paddling steadily towards the lake's head. The banks closed in, and they found themselves breasting the strong current of the river. Dawn came, then sunrise, and a thin mist rose from the river as the sun blazed down on the dancing stream, but they kept on until a distant thunder of sound warned them that they were approaching a rapid.
"It's the Goose Neck," Bleak told them. "Mighty bad place, but not very long. Arter we've carried our stuff to the head we'll stop and have dinner."
There were six packs in all, so this meant two journeys, and after that they would have to carry the canoe. They shouldered the first three packs and started. The trail was steep and narrow, and the three went slowly, stooping under their loads. Bleak led.
Without warning the ground gave way beneath them. The trail opened at their feet. It was all so sudden they had not even time to cry out before all three had toppled down helplessly into the bottom of a deep pit. Their breath was knocked out of them; their loads fell thudding into the muddy bottom of the great hole. A moment of gasping silence, then Bleak scrambled to his feet.
"A trap!" he cried, as he looked round at the walls which surrounded them. "Say, we don't need to ask which way them thieves went!"
"You—you think they made this to catch us?" panted Bruce, as he clambered up.
Bleak did not answer. He was looking down at Clive who lay unpleasantly still, stretched out on the floor of the pit.
"Clive's hurt!" he said sharply.
BRUCE dropped beside Clive, who was lying face downwards in the mud which covered the bottom of the pit, and lifted his head.
"Hurt, old man?" he asked anxiously.
"N-no," gasped Clive. "Wind knocked out of me. T-that's all. B-but what's happened?"
"Why, we jest walked slap into a trap as them thieves set fer us," replied Bleak. "Only they didn't reckon as there'd be more than one feller on the trail," he added, with a grim chuckle.
"That's funny," said Bruce sharply.
"Why do you say that?" asked Clive.
Bruce went rather red. He was thinking of what his father had said about Clive's father being the thief. Although he had so stoutly denied his belief in anything of the kind, it was a tremendous relief to get proof like this that there really was a gang, for it must have taken several men some time to dig this pitfall.
"Well, it is funny," he said lamely. "I don't see why they should think only one man would be following."
"It would have been mighty awkward fer that one man," said Bleak, "for I don't reckon he'd ever hev got out o' this here pit by hisself. But, being as there's three on us, we didn't ought to hev much trouble. You climb on my shoulders, Bruce, and spring up. You ought to be able to catch hold. Then you can let a rope down, and we'll soon be out. But take off your boots first."
Bruce did as he was bid, and Bleak, leaning against the wall, hoisted him as high as he could. Bruce jumped and caught the edge, but the loose stuff broke away, and he dropped back.
"Try the other side," said Clive. "There's stone there."
The second attempt was successful. Bruce lugged himself up; then he helped Clive out, and between them they pulled up Bleak. Bleak looked back into the pit.
"We come out of that mighty well, boys. After this I guess we keep our eyes skinned. Likely them skunks hev set out a few more little surprises fer us along the road."
"Then it's plain they thought some one would be after them," said Bruce.
"I reckon so," agreed Bleak.
"Yes, but who were they afraid of?" questioned Bruce. "If they had Uncle Quen with them I don't see who they thought was coming after them. They must have known dad was laid up."
"I'll allow it's funny," said Bleak. "Anyway, they wasn't taking no chances," he added, with a grin. "But we'll hev time to talk it over while we eat. Let's get the stuff to the head of the rapids and have dinner."
After dinner the boys were glad to rest, but Bleak went prowling about, examining the ground.
"There ain't a lot of sign left," he grumbled, when he came back. "The rain's washed out most of it. But there was three on 'em. I'm sure of that much, and one's a big feller. I reckon he weighs all of two hundred pound. And it looks to me like another man has passed since they three went on."
"Another man," said Bruce. "Then why didn't he fall into the pit trap?"
"Now you're asking something as I can't tell you; he may hev spotted it," replied Bleak. "But I'm willing to gamble there was two canoes."
Clive looked interested. "Perhaps my dad wasn't taken away by them. Perhaps he followed them."
Bleak shook his head. "If he'd been going to do that he would surely have let Mr. Lyndall know."
"Or left a note," added Bruce.
"Yes, I suppose so," agreed Clive unhappily. "The only thing is to catch them as soon as possible."
"That's good sense, son," said Bleak. "Ef you're rested, let's be moving."
They moved. They kept on moving. Two paddled, the third relieving at regular intervals, and the pace they travelled was surprising. But the boys learned more than merely how to drive a canoe, for wherever they landed or when they made a portage Bleak had their noses to the ground, hunting sign. He showed them how one track differs from another, how to tell when a man is carrying a load by the way his heels sink in soft ground, and by the length of the steps. He pointed out good camping grounds. He showed them how to make a fire when the woods are sopping wet with rain and how to build a brush shelter against the wind. He instructed them in the art of tagging or towing a canoe up a rapid without damaging it. There was much more than this, for he pointed out the trails of various animals, bear, wolf, moose, carcajou, beaver, and many other denizens of the great northern forest, and showed them how to trail these creatures. He gave them lessons in shooting. Luckily they had both been well grounded in this in their school rifle corps, and Clive rapidly became a really good shot. Another important lesson was how to catch fish.
"The bacon we got along with us ain't going to last very long, and we got to live on the country. There's plenty to eat in the woods if you knows how to find it, birds, squirrels, rabbits, and fish. Give me a knife and some string and a few fish-hooks, and even if I didn't have no gun I reckon I wouldn't starve."
"What would you do—make a bow and arrows?" asked Clive.
Bleak laughed. "I might if I had to kill a deer, but traps pays best. I'm a-going to show you boys a heap o' snares and traps afore I'm finished with training you."
As they pushed up the river it grew narrower and more swift. Rapids became more frequent, and it was real hard work portaging the packs and canoe up the steep bush trails. On the fourth morning they came to something that was not a rapid but a fall where the whole river came thundering down over a thirty-foot ledge of limestone. They drove the canoe into the right-hand bank, landed, and began to unload. By this time the boys knew their job so well there was no need for orders. Clive shouldered his load and started; then all of a sudden he stopped, dropped it, and turned to Bleak.
"No sign," he said.
Bleak went forward and examined the ground. When he turned there was a light of real admiration in his eyes.
"You can sure use your eyes, Clive. You're plumb right. They ain't been this way at all."
Clive flushed a little at the praise, but before he could ask any questions Bleak went on:
"They're smarter than I reckoned, but I guess I know just what they've done. They must hev left the river about two mile back and crossed the Height o' Land." He began stowing the packs back into the canoe. "In you get. Thanks to Clive here, we ain't lost more'n an hour, and I reckon to make that up afore sundown."
BLEAK was right, for when, after backtracking for a couple of miles, they landed again, he was able to show them the familiar tracks going straight up the bank into the woods. Two hundred yards back they came to a camp site with the ashes of a fire. A quantity of splinters and shavings lay around. Bleak pointed to these.
"What do ye make o' that, boys?"
Bruce and Clive started prowling round, but presently Clive began to push on up the hill. Bleak watched him with a faint smile on his weather-beaten face.
"I knowed he'd got brains," he whispered to himself.
Clive came back. He looked eager yet somewhat puzzled.
"Wal?" drawled Bleak. "Got anything ter tell me?"
"Yes," said Clive. "They've made some sort of sledge and dragged the canoe right up the hill. But what they've done that for fairly beats me."
Bleak nodded. "Right every time, Clive. That's jest what they hev done, and they got two reasons. One was to throw us off the trail; the other to git easier travelling inter the north."
Clive laughed. "Hauling a canoe up hill doesn't seem to me the easiest sort of travelling, but I suppose there's a river in the next valley."
"That's it, son. She's the Lizard Creek, and she runs due north. Ef you remember, I spoke of their crossing the Height o' Land. I reckon you Britishers 'ud call it the watershed. It means a bit of real hard work fer half a day, but arter that we're running pretty with the current."
"Then I suppose we'd better make a sledge and do the same," said Clive.
"Precisely," answered Bleak, as he picked up an axe and started on a convenient tree.
It took them about two hours to build a rough sledge on which the canoe and its load were cradled. Then they had dinner and a rest, after which they tailed on to the draw rope and started to haul the sledge up the long slope. The woods lay drowsy in the heat of the August afternoon, and perspiration poured down the faces of the three toilers as they made their slow way upwards. Luckily they had a plain trail to follow, and that saved a deal of time. Even so it was nearly sun-down before they reached the top of the ridge, where they stopped to take breath.
Clive, always eager, walked on a little way through the low- growing trees which covered the crest of the hill. All of a sudden he came running back.
"Bleak," he exclaimed, his eyes shining with excitement, "there's a town just ahead of us."
Bleak's eyes widened. As for Bruce he gazed suspiciously at his cousin.
"The sun's been a bit too much for him," he said, "or else he's pulling our legs."
"Nothing of the sort," snapped Clive. "If you don't believe me come and look."
He started back, and the other two followed. About a hundred paces on, the hill-side broke away in a steep slope which ran down half a mile or a little more to a stream. On the near side of the river was a level space ten or twelve acres in extent, and on it a town. Not much of a town, for there was only one street with perhaps a score of houses on either side. But they were real houses with glass windows reflecting the red light of the setting sun, and there appeared to be a couple of hotels and even a sort of town hall.
For a full minute the three stood gazing at this utterly unexpected sight. Bruce was the first to speak.
"Is it a mirage?" he asked. "Or have I got sunstroke too?"
Bleak laughed. "It's real enough, son. I guess it's one of these here mining settlements, but I ain't never been here before, and I never did know there was any kind of a town anywheres near."
"It's a bit of luck for us," said Bruce. "We can buy some fresh stores, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to have supper to- night at one of those hotels and save cooking."
Clive laughed. "You lazy beggar! You always did bar cooking. Still, it would be a bit of a change to try some one else's cooking." He turned to Bleak. "Would it be safe to leave our stuff up here and go down?"
"So long as we hang our grub packs up in a tree I guess the canoe will be safe enough. I ain't so sure whether we'll be as safe in that there place below."
The quick-witted Clive caught his thought.
"You mean the thieves might be in the town?"
Bleak pursed up his lips. "They might, but if they ain't there's others."
Bruce grinned. "Hotel-keepers? Yes, some of them are thieves, but we can keep our end up, can't we?"
"We'll try mighty hard," said Bleak dryly. "Let's put our grub safe and shift down."
The food packs were slung high enough to be out of reach of what Bleak called varmint—that is wolves and wolverines— and the three went down the hill towards the little town. By this time the sun had set, and the landscape was bathed in the soft yellow light of the afterglow. At some previous time the hill-side had been cleared of trees—probably for timbering the mine and for firewood—but a thick undergrowth had sprung up which covered their approach. Coming nearer, they were struck by the curious silence which brooded over the place. There was no sound of voices or traffic, and no smoke rose from the chimneys.
As they came out of the brush just above the end of the main street Bleak pulled up and gave a queer laugh.
"I reckon we'll hev to do our own cooking to-night same as usual," he said.
"What do you mean?" asked Bruce, puzzled.
"I mean there ain't no one here to do it for us."
Bruce stared, but Clive understood.
"The place is deserted," he said quickly.
"Jest that," agreed Bleak. "She's a dead town."
"That's the rummiest thing I ever heard of," said Bruce.
"Nothing rum about it, son. The west is full on 'em. The mine makes the place; then the lode peters out, and the folk shift out. Sometimes they don't even trouble to take their stuff along."
"Well, let's have a look at it anyhow," said Bruce eagerly.
"Sure, you can look if you wants to," Bleak told him, and the three walked on into the street.
The town was dead. There was no doubt about that. Grass was growing in the street, the paint was peeling from the wooden fronts of the houses, much of the glass was dropping from the rotting window-frames. They went into the first house they came to. It had been a store of some sort, for there was a counter, and the wall behind was lined with shelves. These, the counter and the floor, were thick with dust. Some barrels stood against the far wall, but they were empty. A stove red with rust was in the centre. The whole place had a most mournful appearance. Clive shivered slightly.
"It's beastly," he said. "I'd hate to spend the night here. I'd feel as if the ghosts of the people who lived here were flitting about."
Bruce laughed. "So long as there was nothing worse than ghosts I shouldn't worry. Let's go and look at the hotel."
"All right," said Clive, "only I'm jolly well going to clear out before it's dark."
As they turned towards the door all of a sudden there was a sharp splintering sound, and the barrels of a shot-gun were poked through the window.
"Put up your hands," came in a queer, quavery voice.
All three raised their hands quickly and stood staring at an old man who was regarding them from behind his gun. He was quite small, had a grey beard and whiskers, and was neatly dressed in funny, old-fashioned clothes. On the lapel of his coat was pinned the silver badge of a marshal or policeman.
"So I got you arter all," he said, with grim satisfaction. "Now march out, keeping your hands raised, and walk before me to the lock-up."
SINCE there was nothing else for it the three obeyed and, keeping their hands up, walked out into the open.
"Now, march," said the old fellow, motioning with his gun for them to go straight up the street.
But Bleak stood still.
"Say, friend, what do you take us for?" he asked.
"Don't you dare call me friend," retorted the other angrily. "The marshal of Sheba ain't friends with a pack o' scallywags like you three."
"Ain't you a bit hasty?" asked Bleak mildly. "I wouldn't call a feller a thief till I knowed he was one."
"I reckon I knows all I want to know about you," growled the other. "And I'm going to learn you that there's still law and order in the town of Sheba, even if there is only one man left to enforce it."
Bruce broke in. "But we haven't done anything to break the law, sir," he said sharply, and his crisp English voice seemed to startle the old man. "We are hunting thieves ourselves—men who stole the gold from the Last Chance mine."
The old fellow came a step nearer and stared at Bruce. It seemed plain that he was somewhat short-sighted.
"You mean to say you ain't the chaps as shot up this place two days ago?" he asked, with a shade of doubt in his tone.
"It's the first time we've ever seen the place or heard of it," Bruce told him. "My cousin here, Clive Winslow, and I are fresh from England. When we arrived at Last Chance we found my father laid up with a broken leg and all the six months' clean-up of gold gone. My uncle, Mr. Winslow, had gone after the thieves. So we asked Mr. Ricard here to come with us, and we've been trying to catch my uncle up and help him to run down the men. We hit their track where they dragged their canoe over the Divide, and that's how we found your town."
Bruce told his story in such a straight-forward way that the suspicions of the old gentleman were distinctly shaken.
"You certainly speaks like a Britisher," he said uncertainly. "And you ain't much more than a kid. But I ain't taking any chances after what happened two days ago. Keep your hands up while I sees if you got any guns in your clothes."
"I got a gun," Bleak told him. "You can take it if you've a mind to. But these here boys ain't armed."
"I told you I wasn't taking any chances," retorted the old chap, and after possessing himself of Bleak's small revolver carefully searched the boys.
Bleak laughed. "Now I hopes you're satisfied," he said. "If you ain't maybe you'd like to look in my wallet where you'll find my licence to shoot game with my name and my address at Tequam."
"You come from Tequam?" exclaimed the other sharply.
"That's my home," said Bleak.
"Do you know a gent, named Skinner as lives there?"
"I'd ought to. Joe Skinner fives next door to me with his wife and his two kids, Mally and Bud."
An extraordinary change came over the old man's face.
"He's my boy," he said eagerly. "I'm Ezra Skinner."
"Well, I'll be shot!" exclaimed Bleak. "I've heard him tell of you. He used to wonder if you was alive or dead. I reckon I can tell him you're a long ways off dead," added Bleak, with a faint chuckle.
"No, I ain't dead yet," agreed Ezra. "All right, boys. Put down your hands. I'm sure glad you're not the folk I thought you were, but ef you'd been through what I went through two days agone you'd be every bit as skeery as me. Those fellers fair tore the town up."
"Who were they?" asked Bruce eagerly. "I don't know as I can tell you much except that there was three of them," replied Ezra, scratching his head.
"One was a big chap," put in Bleak. "Weighed about two hundred pound. And one, I'd say, limps a little."
Ezra's eyes narrowed. "Thought you said you hadn't seen them."
"I've seen their tracks," Bleak answered. "You're right about one being big. And ugly as he's big. And one does limp a little. I'd reckon he'd had a wound in his thigh some time or other, which made the muscles shorter. Anyway, they're three bad fellers, and I'm mighty glad to be shot of them." He paused and looked at the boys. "Come on up to my place and eat. Arter that I'll tell you."
He led the way briskly up the grass-grown street. As they passed the big building he pointed to it.
"That's the Palace Hotel," he said. "Used to do a big trade years ago when the mine was running. I live in that little house up at the end."
Ezra Skinner's little house was neat and tidy except for two or three broken window-panes which he pointed out.
"Them fellers broke 'em," he said angrily. "They shot the whole place up, and it was mighty lucky they didn't shoot me too. Now sit yourselves down while I rustle some grub."
A fire was burning in a small iron stove. Skinner quickly put slices of venison into a frying pan and coffee into a coffee pot. He opened a couple of tins of peaches and one of condensed milk. From a cupboard he took biscuits, that is, small cakes of baking powder bread made by himself, very light and crisp.
"I got plenty of grub," he said, as they sat down to supper. "There's stuff here to last me a lifetime. You see, about eight year ago the diggings on the creek began to git worked out, and then came the news of the big strike over on the Porcupine. Every mother's son packed up and went out. You never saw such a rush. They jest took what they could carry and left the rest."
"But you stayed?" said Bleak.
"I had to stay," said Ezra gravely. "I was marshal of Sheba, and I reckoned it was up to me to stick by the town. Anyway, there's gold here yet, and some day I reckon to strike the mother lode, and then Sheba will be her old self again."
"Pretty lonely, isn't it?" asked Bruce.
Ezra nodded. "That's a fact. Specially in winter when the wolves come down out of the hills. But I got fire and grub and a gun, and I keeps pretty busy. I don't have much to worry me."
"Except when strangers turn up," suggested Clive, with a smile.
"I don't mind strangers if they behaves themselves. It's only folks like those three you're after."
"But what did they want?" asked Bruce.
"Grub. They tried the Palace first and tore the whole place up, looking. When they didn't find none they got mad and shot up the big mirrors and did a lot o' damage. Arter that they come up this way, but I reckon my old scatter gun discouraged 'em. I peppered 'em some and arter a bit they quit."
"You saw only three?" asked Clive.
"Three was enough," said Ezra dryly.
"I'm thinking of my father."
Ezra shook his head. "I didn't see nothing of him, but that ain't to say he didn't come by. I'm off prospecting most days."
"He's passed and gone on," said Bruce to Clive.
Clive looked worried. "What chance will he have against these three blackguards?" he asked, and for once Bruce could not find anything comforting to say.
THEY slept at Ezra's house and early the next morning went up to fetch the canoe. It was easier getting it down hill than up, and in a couple of hours they had launched it in the Lizard. Ezra came down to see them off.
"I reckon you've gained a day on them gold thieves already," he said, "and I'm going to tell you something which will maybe gain you another day. About twelve mile down from here you'll come to the Split Rock Rapids. They ain't very long, but they're steep, and I'll allow they look mighty bad. I guess pretty near every one who uses the river portages round 'em, and a mighty bad portage it is, because you got to carry everything up to the top of a bluff nigh two hundred feet high. But Split Rock ain't near as bad as it looks or sounds. I'll allow it's dangerous when the water's low, but there's plenty of stream coming down right now, and you won't find no difficulty in running 'em. There's only one bad place, and that's jest at the bottom where the big Split Rock stands. When you see that there rock, keep to the right—it's the narrower channel but a sight straighter than the one to the left. You get me, Ricard?"
"You bet, and I'm surely obliged to you, old-timer."
Ezra shook hands all round and stood watching as they pushed off.
"I hope you find your lode," cried Bruce, as he dipped his paddle.
"And you be sure to call in on your way back," Ezra answered.
Then the canoe swept round a bend, and the little lonely old man was lost to sight.
The boys soon found it was a different and much easier business going with the stream than against it. Yet even so they were amazed when, after only two hours' paddling, the river began to narrow between high rock walls and a low thunder came from the distance.
"Surely it can't be Split Rock Rapids already?" exclaimed Bruce.
"That's what it is, boy," said Bleak. "And here's where we make our big gain. Bruce, you git up in the bow with the pole. Clive, you set in the middle, but don't use your paddle onless I tells you. I'm a-going to take her through."
It was the first time the boys had run a rapid, and their breath came a little quicker as the murmur increased to a roar. The speed of the canoe increased, and suddenly they saw ahead of them leaping white breakers which dashed against dark rock masses. Clive gasped, for it did not appear to him to be possible that any craft made by man could pass through that tangle of rocks and roaring waters in safety. The canoe dipped slightly, then shot forward with the speed of a car. Fingers of ice seemed to grip Clive's heart, for before him was a sea of tumbling white water the end of which was hidden in a curtain of mist.
The light craft plunged down the long, smooth, swiftly running stretch that formed the upper part of the rapid. Right ahead a great black rock showed its ugly head above the surface; then, just as the canoe appeared to be about to charge it bow on, Bleak, with one sharp twist of the paddle, wrenched it aside, and the rock swished past like a dark phantom and was lost to sight. Another rock and another were passed in similar fashion. The canoe flew past them at dizzy speed. The roar of the water was deafening; spray dashed in sheets over the canoe and its occupants.
Suddenly the light craft struck a huge wave and seemed to leap bodily into the air; yet Bleak kept her head straight, and she plunged down the far side at an even more frantic pace. It seemed to Clive as if they were dropping over the face of a fall. Two smaller waves, great rolls of water, were passed in similar fashion, and for a moment the mad pace slackened slightly. But only for a moment, for then they came upon another slide where the whole mass of the river, penned in a breadth of barely thirty feet, shot downwards in one great spout. At the end of this spout the stream widened a little and was split by a tall double-headed rock. To the left the channel was broad and seemingly open; that to the right was a mere crack so narrow that it seemed as if there were barely room for the canoe to pass.
"To the right, Clive. Paddle!" Bleak shouted.
Clive's paddle flashed, but all the weight of the stream was carrying them to the left, and for a bad moment it seemed as if their efforts to turn the canoe would be useless. For an instant she was almost broadside to the current, and Bruce raised his pole to fend off from the great rock. But Bleak's strength was tremendous, and at the very last moment success rewarded his efforts. Passing the rock so close that Clive could have touched it with outstretched hand, they switched into the right-hand channel. Once they were in it, the stream did the rest, and it was only necessary for Bleak to steer. The swift current running smoothly bore them along, and in less time than it takes to tell they had shot into safety in a broader, slower reach where no rocks showed above the surface.
Bleak pulled out the old silver watch he always wore fastened to a leather strap which was twisted into a buttonhole of his flannel shirt.
"Jest under three minutes," he said with a faint smile.
"Gosh!" said Bruce. "It felt more like three hours to me. What about you, Clive?"
"I nearly had heart failure," said Clive, yet his grin contradicted his words. "But I say, Bruce, this is fine. We must have picked up miles on those gold thieves. Let's shove ahead and see if we can't catch them."
Here Bleak put his foot down.
"We'll shove ashore, son, and get some grub. No sense in playing ourselves out. We'll paddle a heap better after a good dinner."
Bleak's word was law, so they paddled on until clear of the gorge and landed on a pleasant stretch of sandy beach with a grove of silver-barked birch trees behind it. It looked, Bruce said, as if it was made for camping. They pulled up the canoe, hauled out the grub pack, and got from it cold meat and bread. Plain fare, but they were hungry enough to enjoy it thoroughly.
After eating, Clive got up to have a walk round and stretch his muscles cramped with long hours in the canoe. He had not gone fifty paces before his shout brought the others hurrying after him. They found him pointing to the ashes of a small fire.
"They're warm," he said eagerly. "They're still warm."
Bleak felt them, and for once a little tinge of excitement showed on the leathery face.
"By gum, you're right, Clive! Those fellers ain't been gone more'n two to three hours. I reckon they spent most of yesterday portaging round them three rapids and were that tired they slept late this morning. Anyways, I'll lay they didn't leave afore ten."
"And it's not much after midday yet," said Bruce, glancing at his shadow. "Bleak, if we shove on at once we may run into them before night."
"We'll make a mighty good try at it," declared Bleak, as he started for the canoe.
Clive stopped him. "One moment, Bleak. Are you quite sure this fire was made by the fellows we're after?"
"What do you mean, boy?"
"I was thinking of dad," said Clive.
Bleak came back and made a quick examination of the ground around the fire. The ground was hard and dry, but what he saw seemed to satisfy him.
"No. The big fellow was here. I got his tracks. It's the gold thieves and no one else."
Clive's face fell.
"Then where's my dad?" he asked.
But this was a question to which he got no answer. Two minutes later the three were back in the canoe and driving full speed down the river.
FOUR hours later the canoe was still driving swiftly down the Lizard. Travelling with the current Bleak and the two boys had covered the better part of thirty miles during the afternoon, and now at every bend they checked and looked out cautiously, hoping to get a sight of the thieves whom they were chasing. But still there was no sign of them. Bleak ceased paddling.
"They been making better time than I reckoned," he said, with a puzzled frown. "I wonder if they got any notion that we're close onter them."
"I don't see how they possibly can," said Bruce. "If we haven't seen them how can they have seen us?"
"They don't need to have seed us, boy," Bleak answered. "Jest one puff of smoke arising above the trees would be plenty to warn a chap if he's a woodsman. And, if I'm not mistook, one of them chaps is a breed."
"What's a breed?" asked Bruce.
"A half-breed, part French, part Injun. Some on 'em is bad medicine, but nigh all is good woodsmen."
"But we were at Sheba last night," objected Clive. "So there was no smoke for them to see."
"Aye, but the night before we had a good fire," said Bleak. "And, now I think of it, it's mighty likely that they might have seed the smoke from that."
"Then they'd know we had escaped from their pit trap," suggested Clive.
Bleak nodded. "I ain't sure, but it looks that way to me. If they was just loafing I reckon we'd have seed 'em by now. We've done some tall travelling since dinner."
"It seems to me it's a case for strategy," said Clive.
"Strategy?" repeated Bleak, in a puzzled tone. "I don't get you, boy."
Clive laughed. "I only meant we might try the same sort of dodge. There's a big bluff up there to the left, and the top's quite bare. My notion would be to land and climb up and see if we can get a sight of them, either on the river or on their camping ground."
Bleak glanced at the bluff and turned the canoe inshore.
"Not a bad notion, Clive. You, can try it if you've a mind to. Only be mighty careful you don't show yourself against the sky- line. You better take the glasses."
"I'll be careful," Clive promised, and a minute later was ashore and scrambling up the steep.
It was a tough climb up across shelving ledges thick with heavy brushwood; yet to Clive it was a pleasant change after the long hours of monotonous paddling, and he went rapidly up. When he neared the top he moved more carefully and got down on hands and knees. Before he reached the ridge he was down on his stomach, crawling like a snake. He came to rest behind a loose boulder and raising his head carefully looked around.
From this height, a couple of hundred feet above the river, he could see over a great stretch of country with the river winding in wide curves towards the north. Far in the distance lay a big lake, its waters crimson under the setting sun, but Clive hardly glanced at it; his eyes were scanning the river, scanning it in vain, for he could see nothing moving on its surface. He noticed a short rapid about a mile away and followed the curves of the stream with his eyes, but without noticing any sign of life.
"That's odd," he said to himself. "Surely they can't have got as far as the lake."
Then all of a sudden a little dark object looking no bigger than a beetle crawled into sight around a curve, the high bank of which had so far hidden it, and Clive gave a little gasp as he realised that it was the canoe which they had chased so far and so long. He quickly took the glasses from their case and focused them. Like magic the dot grew into a canoe with three men in it. Though the distance was too great to get their faces plainly, Clive saw at once that one of them was a huge fellow, a great bull of a man, who sat in the stern and paddled with powerful strokes. He was white, and so was a second smaller man who sat amidships, but the third, the one in the bow, was dark skinned with black hair.
"The breed," whispered Clive. "Bleak was jolly well right."
Clive's first impulse was to case the glasses and hurry back downhill with his news, but then it occurred to him that it was very near sunset, and that, if he waited a little, he might see where the gold thieves camped. So he lay still. The canoe vanished behind a curve, to reappear a few minutes later in an open stretch beyond. Clive's glasses showed him a low shingle bar on the left of this stretch, which looked to be an ideal camping ground. And the gold thieves apparently were of the same opinion, for they paddled in and ran their canoe ashore. Clive waited long enough to watch them start unloading, then turned and hurried back down the bluff.
"I've seen them all right," he announced to the others. "They've just camped on a sand bank about two miles away."
Bruce sprang up excitedly.
"Topping! I say we'll get them inside an hour. Get in, Clive, and let's shove along."
A slight laugh from Bleak damped Bruce's ardour.
"What's the matter, Bleak?" he asked.
"How was you reckoning to get them fellers?" questioned the guide, with gentle sarcasm. "Do you reckon they'll come and hold out their hands to be tied or maybe offer to carry the gold home again?"
Bruce got rather red. "I wasn't thinking that, of course. My notion was to surround them and hold them up."
"You'd maybe find that a mite difficult seeing as one on 'em is a breed," said Bleak. "See here, Bruce, I don't want to preach, but catching up with these fellers is one thing and catching 'em another. You can take it they're every one of 'em armed, and mighty likely to shoot if anyone interferes with them. We wants to get your dad's gold back, but we don't want to get killed a-doing it."
Bruce looked half sulky for a moment, but almost at once his face cleared.
"Of course you're right, Bleak, and I'll obey orders. But what are your orders?"
"My notion is this. We goes on a piece, about a mile, say, and stops as close as we can without them seeing us. Then we lies low till one in the morning and arter that paddles very quietly up to their camp. Then we crawls on 'em like Injuns and jumps 'em while they're asleep. Looks to me that's the only way we kin do it without bad trouble."
"I see," said Bruce. "Then do we push on while it's daylight?"
Bleak nodded and dipped his paddle.
THE boys were very silent as they drove the canoe onwards. The prospect of getting to grips with the gold thieves was tremendously exciting, and the more so because of Bleak's words of warning. Clive was thinking, as he paddled, of that huge bulk of a man whom he had seen through the glass, and he realised that such a man might prove a very dangerous adversary. It came to him that, up here in the wilds, there was no one to help them if they got into trouble—that they had to depend entirely on themselves. There was no policeman round the corner, and they three had before them the task of arresting three grown men who would probably fight furiously in defence of their stolen gold.
He glanced at Bruce and saw that he was evidently thinking the same thoughts, but though Bruce's face was grave there was a light of battle in his eyes, for Bruce was a born fighter. Clive noticed for the first time how tremendously his cousin had developed in the past few weeks. He had broadened out, and his muscles had toughened. They rolled like cords in his bare brown arms as he swung his paddle. He looked to be a match for anyone, even a grown man.
The rumble of the rapid made itself heard, and the next minute they came to its head. It was steep, but short and straight, and since the other canoe had passed it none of them expected any difficulty. Another few seconds and the bow dipped, and the canoe went flying down the spout. Bleak kept her dead in the centre, and she shot forward at tremendous speed.
This place was not like the Split Rock Rapids, for there were very few rocks in sight, the only two which showed being close together at the lower end. But the passage between them was plenty wide enough for the canoe and looked to be of ample depth.
It was only a matter of moments before they reached this pass, but as the canoe drove through it there came a slight jar. For an instant the canoe seemed to check and to be on the point of spinning round, but with a powerful stroke Bleak righted her, and again she leaped forward.
His face was so black it startled Clive. Between them they took the loads out of the canoe, then by Bleak's direction turned her over. A whistle of dismay escaped Clive's lips as he saw the extent of the damage, for a jagged hole two feet long had been ripped in the fabric of the canoe.
"But what did it?" he asked, looking at Bleak. "The other canoe came through all right, and the channel seemed deep and straight enough."
"The channel was all right," replied Bleak, with a grim edge to his voice. "It was the snag those fellers put there that wrecked us."
Clive's eyes widened. "Another trap?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, and we ran into it like a pack o' softies. I'm plumb ashamed of myself."
"But you couldn't see it," urged Clive. "No one could see it."
"They wasn't fools enough to put it where we could see it," said Bleak bitterly, "but it's jest the sort o' thing I'd ought to have been watching for."
"The damage is done, and there's no use grousing about it," said the practical-minded Bruce. "The big question is whether we can repair it."
"Oh, I can fix her all right," Bleak told him, "but it's a whole-day job!"
"Then," said Bruce, "the best thing we can do is to go on and bag the canoe the thieves are using. We haven't more than a mile or two to go."
Clive shook his head. "That's no use, Bruce. Their camp is on the far side of the river."
Bruce frowned. "That's bad. But at a pinch we might swim across."
"Nothing doing, son," said Bleak curtly. "The water's nigh ice cold; she's running mighty high and fast. There ain't a living man could do it and land the other side fit for a hard scrap."
Bruce stuck to his idea. "We could cut some logs and make a raft, and carry our clothes and guns across that way. And the beauty of it is that we'd surprise them, for they are probably thinking we're all drowned."
Bruce's argument seemed to impress Bleak, and he stood silent, his lips tightly compressed and a frown furrowing his forehead. The boys watched him anxiously.
"That ain't a bad notion," he said at last.
"Then you'll try it?" begged Bruce.
"We'll try it," said Bleak, "but this time we're going to be mighty careful, and the first thing we'll do is to hide the canoe and the stores."
It was on the tip of Bruce's tongue to say "What for?" but with an effort he remained silent. Bleak must have good reason for such an order, and Bruce was content to obey. Behind the beach the brush was thick, and they carried the canoe and stores deep into the bushes and covered them up. All they took was a saw, a rope, their guns, and a little food.
They dared not light a fire, so they quickly ate a cold supper, then set to work to make their raft. There was plenty of driftwood at the bottom of the rapid, and light enough remained in the sky for them to fasten half a dozen of these logs together with rope. It was just full dark as they finished and moored the raft ready for their expedition.
The boys were mad to go at once, but Bleak said, "No, we got to wait till midnight. Folks sleep heaviest between one and two in the morning, and that's the time I aim to catch them. You boys lie down and get a rest. I'll watch."
Orders were orders, so the two obeyed. There was no particular hardship in lying out in the open, for the night was very warm. Clouds had covered the sky, and it was very still, very dark, and almost sultry. Clive was so excited that he did not believe it possible to sleep, but he was more tired than he knew, and within a few minutes he and Bruce had dropped off. It seemed no time at all before Bleak was shaking them awake.
"Time to be shifting," he said. "Come right along."
The clouds were thicker than ever, and though there was a moon somewhere behind them it was very dark indeed. They had to grope their way to the raft. It sagged under their weight, and the ice- cold water bubbling up soaked them and made them shiver. But the boys were too excited to mind this.
They had kept two paddles, and with these Bleak and Bruce worked hard in an effort to drive the clumsy craft across the river, but the stream was so strong that it carried them a long way down before they were able to land on the far side.
"Tie her up tight," whispered Bleak, as he got ashore. "Maybe we'll need her again."
"I hope to goodness we won't," returned Clive. "I expect to use their canoe to get back."
"It's a mighty good thing to be hopeful," said Bleak. "Now, you two, follow me, and jest remember that a dead stick breaking sounds as loud as a pistol shot on a night like this."
The crawl through the woods seemed endless. Bleak made a long round inland over very rough country. Clive's clothes were nearly dry, but he himself was wet with perspiration when at last Bleak stopped.
"There's their fire," he whispered, pointing to a dull glow which showed through the bushes about a hundred paces distant. "I can't tell just where they're sleeping, but I reckon it's pretty close. Now I'm a-going first, and, Bruce, you'll foller next, then Clive. Whatever happens, don't either of you rise up or show yourselves till I does. I don't want to scare ye, but you got to remember we're dealing with desperate men, and any mistake will be apt to have mighty serious consequences."
AS they began to crawl down the slope towards the sandy beach Clive's heart was beating so that he felt half suffocated. It was not fear but rather sheer excitement. Clive had far more imagination than Bruce and was better able to picture the struggle that lay before them.
The three got down the bank without making a sound and found themselves on a broad beach of shingle and sand thrown up by past floods. It was difficult stuff to crawl over in silence, and Bleak went very slowly.
All of a sudden a large warm drop splashed on the back of Clive's neck; the next moment it was raining heavily. Like magic the glow of the camp fire dulled, then vanished, and left them without a landmark. Bleak pulled up.
"If this ain't the very dickens!" he muttered bitterly.
"But it hides us," Clive whispered back. "That ain't what I'm thinking of. It's going to wake them fellers."
"Then hadn't we better make a rush before they're up?" asked Clive. In spite of his excitement he spoke quite calmly.
"I guess it's the only thing as we can do," Bleak answered. "Come on."
He sprang to his feet and ran forward, and the boys followed. Their feet crunched on the gravel, but the beat of the rain drowned all other sounds. It was coming down like a spout; Clive and Bruce were close behind Bleak when suddenly the latter stumbled and fell flat on his face with terrible force. Before Clive could pull up something caught his ankles, and he too went down heavily. Bruce, a step behind, fell right on top of him, knocking all the breath out of his body.
"Got 'em," came a deep, hoarse voice in a tone of triumph, and before any of them knew what was happening three men were on them.
Clive fought and struggled desperately but, winded as he was, was no match for the man who held him. He could not see his face, but a hand that felt hard as tanned leather caught him by the back of the neck and pushed his face against the ground.
"Lie still, will yer?" growled the fellow. "All right, Crogan," he cried. "I got my chap. Show a light."
A white beam flashed through the mist of driving rain-drops, showing the three adventurers flat on the ground, each held down by a separate man. Clive twisted his head round and saw that the one who knelt on Bleak was the giant, a huge fellow with a chest like a barrel, and a heavy face covered with hair. On top of Bruce was a breed, a man whose skin was almost the colour of copper. He had dark eyes and long coarse black hair. Clive's captor was a white man, short but stocky, with a snub nose and pale blue eyes. Clive saw something else, a rope stretched tightly a few inches above the ground. It was this rope that had caused their downfall.
"The third trap," he said, under his breath.
Crogan, the giant who knelt on Bleak, was the one who had the torch.
"Goin' to keep still?" he asked of Bleak, with a chuckle.
The question was needless, for crushed under that great bulk even the wiry Bleak was completely helpless.
"Caught you proper," went on Crogan gleefully. "Lamar there, he reckoned jest what you'd do arter your canoe was bust up, and planned according. He got brains, that breed has. So he fixed up that there rope, and it all worked out to plan." He chuckled again.
"What you go do wiz zem?" asked Lamar.
"Fix 'em so they won't give us any more trouble," replied the big man. "We'll tie 'em up to start with. After that we'll have time to think."
As he spoke he took a piece of cord from his pocket, and sticking his torch into the sand close beside him proceeded to tie Bleak's wrists firmly together.
"Lie still, will yer?" he growled, as Bleak tried to wrench free.
But, though the guide was strong and wiry, he had no chance against the huge weight and tremendous muscles of the giant who held him. Then Crogan made his ankles fast. The two boys were treated in similar fashion. By this time the sudden sharp rain storm had passed, the clouds were breaking, and the moon was shining through.
Leaving their prisoners lying helpless as logs, the three thieves went back and relighted their fire. When it had burned up, they dragged their captives close to it and began to discuss what they should do.
Crogan and the other white man, whose name was Kerry, had the idea of taking the prisoners with them and leaving them on an island in the big lake.
"They won't starve," said Crogan, "but they won't be able to get away till the lake freezes up. And by that time we'll be far enough away."
Lamar listened in silence, but with a scornful look on his sallow face. At last he spoke.
"I do not zee ze use of taking so much trouble. Ze canoe vill not 'old more zan four and zat means two trips. I sink we leave zem right where zey are."
"They'll starve plumb to death," objected Kerry, who seemed to be a bit more decent than the other two.
"Vat else do zey deserve?" snapped Lamar. "Zey 'ave give us a lot of trouble. Myself, I 'ave 'ad enough of trouble. I vill not paddle all zat vay for nossing."
"It ain't for nothing," retorted Kerry. "You're getting your share of the gold."
"And I vas earning him," retorted Lamar. "Ve 'ave a long way to go still, and ve mus' go quick."
Clive's heart sank as he listened. He realised that, in spite of Crogan's huge bulk and Kerry's solid strength, the smaller Lamar was the real leader of the party and that what he said was their law. He was right, for at last Kerry said pettishly:
"Have it your own way, Lamar; only if trouble comes of it you'll take the blame."
A sarcastic smile crossed Lamar's thin lips.
"I do not trouble about ze blame. Now let us sleep till ze day comes."
As he spoke he rolled himself in his blanket and lay down, and his companions followed his example. Soon snores announced that they were all three sleeping. Clive managed to roll over close to Bleak.
"Can't we do anything?" he whispered.
"Not unless we can git loose," returned Bleak. "Boy, I'm sure sorry to have got you into this fix."
"Don't talk nonsense. It wasn't your fault any more than ours."
Bruce came rolling slowly towards them.
"I've been trying to get my hands loose," he said, in a low voice, "but that breed has made too good a job of the lashings. What about you, Clive?"
"I'm in the same fix," said Clive ruefully. "I can move my feet a little, but my wrists are fast as iron."
"Then if they leave us here we're done for," said Bruce.
"I'm hanged if we are," said Clive stubbornly. "We'll find a sharp pebble or something to cut the cord with."
"That's what they do in story books," said Bruce scornfully. "But these pebbles are all rounded, so that's no good."
"I don't care. We'll do something," vowed Clive. "Sit tight, Bruce. We're bound to get out of this somehow."
In spite of his assumed cheerfulness Clive found it terribly difficult to keep up his spirits. Soon the agonising pains of cramp began to shoot through his limbs. He was forced to turn over on his face to let the blood circulate in his tied arms. The minutes dragged like hours. It seemed as if weeks passed before the false dawn began to grey the night sky. Even then it was another hour before the sleepers by the fire roused.
Lamar was the first up. He raked up the fire and put on the coffee pot, then roused the others. The prisoners, hungry, cold, and aching with cramp, had to watch the thieves eating breakfast. Of the three only one paid the slightest attention to their prisoners until they were ready to go. That was Kerry, who glanced at them uncomfortably, yet seemed afraid to do anything more. Clive noticed that as he walked to the canoe he limped slightly. Lamar turned to them.
"I say you good-bye," he remarked, with an ugly grin. "I no sink you trouble us any more. You vas meat for ze wolves and ze ravens."
Then he got into the canoe with the others, and they paddled rapidly away.
"MEAT for the wolves," repeated Bleak, as he glared at the departing canoe. "Not ef I knows it, Mister Lamar."
He began to roll towards the fire, where red-hot embers still smouldered.
"What are you going to do?" asked Bruce sharply.
"Watch and see," was the answer, as Bleak reached the fire and kicked the hot logs apart with his boots. Then, getting a large piece of burning wood between his feet, he set the cords upon it. Smoke rose and a smell of burning leather, but his boots protected his feet, and presently the cord fell away, and they were free. He kicked a few times to get the blood moving, then with an amazing effort jerked himself upright. The boys watched him with intense interest.
"What good is that?" asked Clive. "Your hands are still tied."
"I aim to get them free afore long. You boys sit tight till I come back."
They watched him walk across the beach to the low bluff that backed it and go hunting along this for some distance. At last he seemed to find what he was looking for and turned his back to the bank.
"What's he up to?" Bruce asked.
"He's found a flint in the bank. He means to cut his wrists free," replied Clive.
They waited what seemed an endless time. Indeed it was nearly an hour before Bleak succeeded in slowly chafing through the cord that bound his wrists. As he came back to them they saw that his face was white and covered with perspiration, also that both his wrists were bleeding. But he only laughed at Clive's concern and taking a small knife from an inside pocket quickly cut him and Bruce free. Both the boys were quite helpless, and, even when Bleak helped them to their feet, they fell down. It took a quarter of an hour of stretching and rubbing before they could get the cramp out of their limbs and walk. Clive was the first to get the use of his legs.
"Bleak, you're a wonder," he said. "If it hadn't been for you Bruce and I would certainly have been wolves' meat."
"Ef it hadn't been fer me we'd never have got inter this fool mess," Bleak retorted. "Come along back and let's get to work. I ain't stopping off from this job until I gets even with that murdering breed."
Clive gazed at him. "You mean you'll stay with us?" he exclaimed.
"I'll stay if I has to swim," returned Bleak grimly. "There ain't no one ever tricked me like that and got away with it."
Clive laughed. "Then Lamar has done us a good turn after all," he said, as he walked up the bank towards the spot where they had left the raft.
The chilly job of getting across the water was soon over; then they lit a fire and thoroughly enjoyed a big breakfast. At least the boys did. Bleak was very grim and silent, and the moment they had finished eating got out his axe. Clive stopped him.
"See here, Bleak, we all want a bit of sleep, and a few hours won't make much difference."
Bruce backed his cousin, but Bleak refused to rest.
"I'll put on the patch first and sleep arter. You boys take a nap. I'll wake you when I wants you."
Worn out after twenty-four sleepless hours and their experiences of the night, the two boys slept like the dead. It seemed to Clive only a few minutes before Bleak was shaking him by the shoulder; yet when he opened his eyes he saw that the sun was past the meridian. Bleak's face was haggard with fatigue.
"I got the patch fixed, but the glue'll hev to dry, so we won't be able to start afore to-morrow morning. I'm a-going to sleep now, and I was reckoning you and Bruce might go up in the woods and get some meat. There's deer tracks jest above."
Clive sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Right you are," he answered briskly. "We'll have a bite of food, then start."
They had lost the rifle and pistol they took across the river, but they still had another rifle and a shot-gun. Armed with these, the two boys went quietly up into the woods. As Bleak had said there were deer tracks just above, and by this time Clive and Bruce were both able to follow a trail.
It was very quiet and peaceful up in the great woods where the sun flung criss-cross shadows through the branches and rocks showed bare through the soft carpet of pine-needles which covered the ground. The deer trail led them up and up among wild hills, and then suddenly Clive pulled up short and pointed to another set of marks which crossed the deer trail—great footprints each a foot in length and very broad.
"Bear!" he whispered.
Bruce's eyes widened.
"Must be the grand-daddy of all the bears," he answered. "What is it—a grizzly?"
"Yes, and a big one, as you say. What's more, the trail is quite fresh. He's passed here within the hour."
"Then he's not far off now," said Bruce. "I say, could we get a crack at him? Bleak says bear meat is jolly good."
"But venison's better and more convenient. What on earth could we do with a great brute weighing half a ton?"
"The skin would be useful," said Bruce. "Come on, Clive. Let's trail him."
Clive allowed himself to be persuaded. If he did not particularly want to shoot a grizzly he was keen to see one, so they turned off after the bear. The tracks led them into thicker forest than they had seen yet, great trees that ran up sixty feet without a branch, their tops matted in a thick canopy. It was pleasantly cool in their shade, and the only sound was the hum of insects.
Quite suddenly the silence was shattered by an explosive snort, followed by a loud crashing among the trees in the distance. Both boys pulled up instinctively and stood listening. There followed a sort of whinnying scream, another crash, then a sound as if some heavy creature was forcing its way furiously among saplings.
"The bear?" said Bruce, in a tense whisper.
Clive shook his head. "That wasn't a bear. That whinnying sound was more like a horse."
"There are no horses up here. What the mischief was it?"
"I haven't a notion, but we might see. Go carefully, Bruce, for, whatever the beast is, it's in a brutal bad temper."
Quickly but quietly they pushed on through the belt of timber and came out into a stretch of birch-wood which coated the sides of a blunt-headed hill. The crest of the hill was bare except for some low scrub, and suddenly Bruce pointed.
"It was the bear," he muttered. "There he is."
Clive drew a quick breath. It was the bear right enough, a monstrous, shaggy beast of incredible size and weight, making his ponderous way across the bare summit not much more than a hundred yards away. Bruce raised the rifle, but Clive checked him.
"You can't kill him at that distance. And anyhow it would be rotten to shoot him. The poor brute's lame."
"By gum, so he is!" exclaimed Bruce, in surprise, for the big beast was limping along on three legs and moaning softly to himself.
Clive looked at him for a moment, then at Bruce.
"Bruce," he said, "that bear has been in a fight with some other beast. That was the noise we heard."
Bruce's eyebrows rose. "You're talking through your hat, Clive. What beast is there in these woods big enough or fierce enough to tackle a bear?"
Clive's lips tightened. "I don't know," he said quietly, "but I'm jolly well going to find out. Come on."
IN spite of his firm words, Clive was uneasy, for what Bruce had said was true, and so far as he knew there was no creature in these northern forests capable of tackling a grizzly bear. Even the great cougar, the mountain lion of the north, fights shy of the grizzly. In any case they were too far east for mountain lions which belong to the west.
Yet there was the bear limping away, in evident pain, and from the sounds they had heard there seemed hardly any doubt that there had been a fight of some kind. It was all very strange and mysterious, and Clive was greatly puzzled. But he and Bruce were equally keen to reach the heart of the mystery, and they went on cautiously through the birch trees.
The bear vanished over the top of the hill. The boys went on and on, but nothing happened, and at last Bruce pulled up.
"You'd better have let me plug the old bear," he said. "Now we've lost him and the deer too, and it doesn't look as if we should get anything."
Clive was not listening; he was examining the ground.
"Look at this," he said eagerly, and pointed to a new track which crossed the trail of the bear.
Bruce looked amazed. "We're on the trail of giants, old chap," he said. "That's the biggest deer track I ever set eyes on."
"It's not a deer, Bruce. At least it's only a sort of a one. It's a moose."
"I know," declared Bruce. "A whacking great beast as big as a horse with huge solid-looking antlers. I say, is that what fought the bear?"
Clive smiled. "The moose is about the shyest thing in the woods, and one of the quickest. I don't suppose a bear would ever get within a mile of one."
"Then what was it tackled that bear?"
"Haven't a notion," said Clive. "But I vote we tackle this moose. Bleak says it makes wonderful venison."
Bruce agreed, and they started on this new trail which led them over some very rough ground, but the great splayed footmarks were easy to follow, and they pushed on rapidly. Presently Bruce checked and pointed to two trees set close together. They were cedars, and their trunks were scarred in the oddest fashion. The bark hung in strips so that it seemed as though some crazy fellow had been hacking at them with a blunt axe.
"What on earth did that?" he asked.
Clive examined the trees. "It looks as if it was the moose," he said, in a puzzled tone, "for here are the creature's tracks between the trees. But what it was doing that for I can't guess."
"Getting the velvet off its antlers perhaps?" suggested Bruce. "I know red deer rub their antlers against trees."
"But it's too late in the season for that," Clive objected. "All the deer must have got their antlers clean weeks ago."
"Then it must have been sharpening them," said Bruce, with a grin.
"I don't know what it was doing," Clive said. "I wish Bleak was here. Perhaps he'd know. But come on. We want to catch the thing up."
The tracks led them to the edge of a deep, narrow valley, a sort of gorge with steep shingly sides and a thick growth of brushwood at the bottom. The trail went right over the edge of this, and the boys paused uncertainly.
"Queer-looking place," observed Bruce. "I wouldn't have thought a big beast like a moose could get down it."
"But he has," replied Clive, "for there are his tracks."
"I can't see him," said Bruce.
"That brush is higher than it looks, and anyway I expect he's lying down," Clive answered. "We ought to get him pretty easily in a gorge like this, for he won't be able to bolt out very quickly."
"It's a spooky-looking place," said Bruce slowly, and Clive looked at his cousin in surprise, for Bruce was not given to caution, but generally rushed in ahead of anybody else.
"Yes, it is a queer-looking show," he agreed, "but we can get down easily enough, and we want that moose badly."
"Right," said Bruce, and without further delay started down the side.
A bunch of spruce scrub helped them on their way, but below it the slope was bare, and the moment they let go of the shrubs the loose shale gave beneath their feet, and they began to slide. It was out of the question to stop, and down they went, half buried in an avalanche of small stones and sand. Both reached the bottom together with a bump that knocked the wind out of them, so that they lay sprawling and panting for breath. Bruce scrambled to his feet.
"Ugh, I'm nearly choked!" he panted.
"And I'm scratched all over," added Clive ruefully. "And we've made such a beastly noise we must have scared every living thing out of the place."
"I don't see how the mischief they can get out," returned Bruce, as he gazed round at the high banks which hemmed them in. "Or how we shall get out either."
"Oh, we'll find a way!" said Clive. "There must be an easy way out, or the moose wouldn't have gone in. I wonder where the creature is."
They could see the lower end of the gorge which was a wall of sheer rock, but to the south the ravine took a curve so that the other end was invisible.
"We'd better spread out and walk up it," Clive suggested. "Then if the moose is here still one of us will have a chance to bag it."
Bruce nodded and pushed his way through the thick brush to the far side of the ravine, leaving Clive alone. Clive gave him a few minutes and had just started when a loud noise from somewhere up around the bend made him pause. The sound was like an escape of steam, and for the life of him Clive could not think what had caused it. But he meant to find out and began hurrying forward.
Keeping close under the wall of the ravine, he went round the bend and found himself on the edge of the bushes. Beyond was an open space running right up to the head of the ravine where the soil was too stony and barren for anything to grow except a few stunted bushes. At the top of the ravine opened the narrow mouth of a cave behind which the rock rose steeply.
But these things Clive hardly noticed, for two great beasts occupied the bare space. One was his former acquaintance, the ponderous grizzly bear, which was standing near the mouth of the cave, the other an enormous bull moose.
Now a moose, as Clive had told Bruce, is one of the shyest and, in spite of its bulk, most silent of woodland creatures. So the fact that this one was actually facing the bear was most astonishing and startling—so astonishing that Clive passed his hand over his eyes, half afraid that he was dreaming. But a second glance showed that something was wrong with the huge creature. Its great dark eyes rolled red in their sockets, while its head with the great palmated antlers swayed from side to side with a peculiar jerky motion.
"Why—why," gasped Clive, "the moose is mad!"
MAD it was, not the shadow of a doubt about it, and therefore deprived of nearly all its natural instincts, including that of fear, and very dangerous. But Clive was so intensely interested that he never thought of danger. For the moment he forgot Bruce and everything else in the thrill of watching this tremendous woodland drama.
He realised at once that the bear and the moose had met already, and that this was the secret of the bear's injury. The grizzly may be king of the wilds, but every wild thing, even a tiger, is afraid of madness, and Clive wondered greatly how the bear had summoned courage to meet this terror for a second time. And then he saw. Below the cave was the body of a small buck which the bear had evidently killed and on which it had been feasting. But the carcase was smashed to pulp, and it was easy to see that this had been done by the sharp hooves of the moose. One thing no flesh-eating animal will put up with is interference with its prey, and the great grizzly had come out of his lair to do battle with the despoiler of his cache. Yes, he was furious. His eyes were as red as those of the moose, and his long narrow head swung to and fro like a pendulum.
Clive might have shot the moose without the slightest risk or trouble, but this idea never occurred to him. He simply stood and waited breathlessly for what was to happen. He had not long to wait. The moose stamped, and as if accepting this challenge the bear leapt. It was amazing the way in which the huge bulk of the animal shot forward as if driven by a mighty spring.
Clive expected the moose to receive the bear on its antlers. Instead it rose and struck out with its fore-legs. The broad hooves, keen as knives, beat back the bear, and a streak of crimson showed on his shaggy shoulder, but he struck back, and his mighty paw armed with claws three inches long and sharp as steel chisels tore into the chest of the moose. Snorting shrilly, the moose plunged away, then with a tremendous sideways sweep caught the bear in the ribs with his antlers and sent him sprawling many feet away.
In his excitement Clive sprang forward. It was a foolish thing to do, for the mad moose saw him and swinging round in a flash charged at him.
Clive loosed off his rifle, but in his flurry missed the moose completely, and, as there was no time to reload, turned and fled to the cover of a rock which had fallen from the cliff above. As he dodged behind it the moose reached him, and he saw its eyes red with rage above the top of the boulder. Then, as the mad creature lowered its head, the bear came again and rearing up struck at the moose's neck.
The moose staggered, nearly fell, but recovered, and went reeling away, carrying the whole weight of the bear on its shoulders. It was a marvellous feat of strength which brought a gasp of amazement from Clive. He meanwhile quickly got out of the dangerous neighbourhood and thrust another cartridge into the breech. And just then he saw Bruce emerge from the trees over to the left on the far side of the ravine and stand transfixed with astonishment. Clive signed to him to keep back out of sight, and the two boys watched the end of the struggle.
For seconds that seemed like minutes the moose fought to get rid of the bear, but the bear clung to his hold so that the moose could not use either antlers or feet to any effect. The poor mad beast began to tire, its stiff front legs relaxed, its head dropped. The grizzly saw his chance. Up went his great paw again to fall with appalling force on the moose's neck. Without a sound the moose crumpled and fell stone-dead. Its neck was broken.
"What a fight!" exclaimed Clive, and at sound of his voice the bear gave him one quick suspicious glance which made Clive wish that he had had the sense to keep still.
He dropped back behind the boulder, and the bear, who was evidently not wanting any further trouble, sidled away towards his cave and vanished into the dark recess. Bruce came quickly across.
"Some scrap, as Bleak would say," he remarked.
He tried to speak lightly, but he was as excited as Clive himself.
"The most wonderful thing I ever saw," replied Clive. "The moose was mad, Bruce."
"I thought so," said Bruce, "but I wonder why."
Clive went up to the body and looked it over. He pointed to a half-healed wound on the head.
"That explains it. He's been shot at, and his brain must have been damaged. It's a good thing the poor beast is out of his troubles."
"A good thing for the grizzly, too," agreed Bruce. "Well, let's cut out some of the meat and get back. We're a jolly long way from the river, and it'll be dark in an hour."
"Right," said Clive, as he took his knife out of its sheath and set to work.
The boys were not very skilful, but they knew enough to be able to skin the moose and cut as much of the meat as they could carry. They made this up into two packs and shouldered it. Bruce looked round.
"I say, we're going to have a job to get out of this place," he remarked. "We can never climb that shale bank we came down."
"There must be a way out," said Clive; "the bear has one, or it wouldn't use that den."
Bruce grunted. "A bear can climb a jolly sight better than we can. But come on."
They went down the west side of the ravine, but it was not promising, and they tried the other which was equally bad.
"The best way," said Bruce, "is up the rocks above old Bruin's den. They're steep, but there's good foot and hand hold. I wonder if he'll object."
"Too busy licking his wounds," said Clive. "Let's try. Only go quietly."
Clive's heart was beating rather hard as they came near the mouth of the cave and started up the steep rock face. But the only sign of the bear was the musty smell of him, and they climbed quickly. Halfway up came a nasty bit, but Bruce, dropping his load, made a jump and, catching a projecting crag, hauled himself up. Clive passed the meat and guns up to him; then Bruce lay flat on his stomach and started to haul Clive up. A few small stones fell, and suddenly from below came an angry whoof!
"Great Scott! He's coming," cried Bruce, as with one big lift he swung Clive up alongside him. Then he grabbed his gun.
"Don't shoot," begged Clive. "Give me a chunk of that meat."
Bruce did so, and Clive took it and dropped it right on the nose of Bruin. Clive had meant it as a peace offering, but the big slice spread itself right over the bear's eyes so that he had to stop and scrape it off with his paws, and meanwhile the boys scrambled rapidly up the rest of the bluff. When they reached the top Clive turned.
"Look!" he said, with a chuckle.
The bear, sitting up on his hind legs, was licking the rest of the meat off his paws.
Carrying their loads, the boys hurried through the woods, following their own tracks back towards the river. It was further even than they had thought, and since the sky had clouded up it grew darker rapidly. At last Clive stopped.
"I've lost the trail, Bruce," he said.
"I don't blame you," said Bruce. "You'd need the eyes of a cat to see any marks in this darkness. We'd better stop and camp. We've got meat, and, if we light a fire, we shall be all right."
"Bleak will be worried," said Clive slowly.
"There's nothing else to do," said Bruce. "Help me to get some wood."
Groping, they found some dry sticks and piled them.
"You've got the matches, Clive," said Bruce.
Clive put his hand into his pocket. He tried the other, then his trousers pockets.
"They're gone," he said, in dismay. "I must have lost them when I fell into the gully!"
BRUCE gave a low whistle. Then he began feeling in his own pockets.
"No use," he said presently. "I haven't got even a loose match. What are we going to do, Clive?"
"Sit tight, and wait for daylight. There's nothing else for it," replied Clive.
"I believe it's going to rain," said Bruce unhappily. "We're properly in the soup."
"There's a good thick tree just ahead," said Clive, peering through the gloom. "That will give us some sort of shelter. Let's get under it."
As they started towards the tree the dark silence of the forest was shivered by a scream so appalling that both pulled up short.
"What was it?" breathed Bruce, as the terrible sound died away.
"A panther," replied Clive, in an equally low tone. "This is awkward, Bruce. He probably smells our meat."
"Uncommon awkward," agreed Bruce. "Will he tackle us?"
"I don't know. I hope not. I—" He stopped and seized Bruce's arm. "There he is. See his eyes?"
Two lambent orbs glowing like green fire appeared among the dark brushwood not more than thirty yards away. Bruce flung up his gun, but Clive stopped him.
"Don't shoot unless you have to. You'll only wound him and make him really cross."
Bruce stood still, and the eyes disappeared.
"If we'd only got a fire we should be safe as houses," he said, and suddenly Clive laughed.
"What an ass I am! Of course we can have a fire. Get some dry stuff together, Bruce."
Bruce did not move.
"You're crazy," he said. "How can we make a fire without matches?"
"We've got something just as good as matches," Clive answered. "It was you putting up your gun reminded me."
"Cartridges!" exclaimed Bruce. "Yes, of course."
He set to raking up dry twigs and grass, and while he did this Clive cut open a cartridge and took out the shot. He filled in the empty space with scraps of torn paper and wadding, then fired it into the heap of dry stuff. The smouldering sparks were soon blown into flame, and in a few minutes a cheery blaze illuminated the darkness.
"Sucks for the panther," grinned Brace, as he fed the fire with dry wood from the windfalls which lay everywhere around. "We must have two fires, Clive; one to keep the beasts off and the other for cooking. Bleak says a small fire is always best for cooking."
Clive, who was cutting slices of moose meat with his sheath knife, agreed. They made a second small fire, and when it was hot enough stuck the meat on sharp-pointed sticks and toasted it over the embers. They had no bread or salt, but were quite hungry enough to enjoy a supper of straight steak.
"Bleak was right," said Bruce, as he finished his third steak. "Moose meat is the best venison I ever struck. Now we'd better build a shelter in case it rains. We can cut some branches with our knives, and I know the trick of weaving them together."
Clive agreed, and, piling up the fire so as to have plenty of light, they soon built the shelter.
"Now we want larch branches to make a bed," said Clive.
"I reckon your beds in camp is good enough without making any new ones up here," came in a voice which made both the boys jump, and Bleak's tall figure appeared out of the bushes.
"How long have you been here?" demanded Clive.
"Quite a while," allowed Bleak, with his faint grin. "I was watching to see if you fellers had really learned the stuff I been trying to teach you."
"But how did you find us?" inquired Bruce, in amazement.
"I got ears," Bleak told him dryly. "You ain't such a long ways from the river that I couldn't hear you shoot. What was it you shot at—a catamount?"
Clive chuckled and explained about the matches.
"Give me a slice of that venison," said Bleak. "The smell makes me right hungry. Arter that we'll go back to camp. I'm reckoning the tent'll be better to sleep under than this here shelter. And likely you'll need blankets afore morning. There's weather coming."
The weather prophesied by Bleak arrived by morning—heavy rain driven by a strong wind. But before it came the three were snug enough in their tent, for Bleak brought them back through the dark woods in a way which savoured of magic to the two boys. In spite of the weather the boys were anxious to get off without delay, but Bleak told them frankly it was no use. The lake which Clive had seen, the Big Windy as it was called, would, he said, be far too rough for their canoe.
"But you don't need to worry," said Bleak. "Them chaps thinks we're finished, so they won't be hurrying. Like as not they'll be taking a day's rest like us."
"But suppose they're caught in this weather?" suggested Clive.
"They won't be. They're t'other side of the lake by now. It don't take more'n a day to cross it."
After dinner the wind dropped, and Bleak consented to their starting, but the lake was still very rough, and with the wind ahead travel was so bad they were glad to camp before dark on a projecting point. Luckily next day was calm and fine, and they were off at daylight. Big Windy was a large lake, quite twenty miles long, and with several streams running into it. There were wooded islands, tall cliffs, and great points of land running out into the water.
"Room for an army to hide," said Bruce, as he looked round doubtfully.
"I don't reckon they're doing any hiding," Bleak answered. "Most like pushing straight along down the Lizard. Fellers like them won't think of nothing except getting away with their gold."
Evening found them in the Lizard again, a bigger river now and running almost due north. They camped on a sandy bank, and Bruce seized the last half-hour of daylight to go fishing and came back with a brace of fine rainbow trout of a couple of pounds each, which made a capital supper.
All the next morning they paddled at full speed, yet there was not a sign of the enemy. Even Bleak was a little puzzled, for he reckoned they had been travelling at least twice as fast as the thieves. They were thinking of landing for dinner and a short rest when Clive gave a quick cry and pointed to a canoe lying hauled up on a sloping beach on the east bank a good way down stream.
"There they are," he said swiftly.
Bleak nodded and drove the canoe inshore. They hauled her up and hid her; then Bleak led them up through the woods towards a high bluff. It was a tough scramble to reach the top, and when they had got there Bleak told the boys to wait while he went forward to scout. Bruce was quivering with excitement, and Clive was equally eager, though he did not show it so plainly.
"We'll get 'em," Bruce said. "We won't mess it up this time."
There was a rustle in the bushes, and Bleak came back.
"Well?" said Bruce eagerly. "Did you see them?"
"They ain't there," was Bleak's answer. "And that ain't their canoe."
FOR a moment the boys were too surprised to speak. Clive was the first to find his voice.
"Who is it, then?"
"Darned if I know," replied Bleak. "All I do know is it ain't the thieves."
Bruce spoke quickly. "I tell you who it is. It's Uncle Quentin."
"Dad!" gasped Clive, jumping up. "Of course that's it. Come on. Hurry!"
Bleak caught him. "Steady thar, boy! I ain't saying it mightn't be your dad, but again it might be some one else, and you don't want to go running bull-headed into trouble. I reckon we'll mosey along pretty quiet and get a look at the chap afore he sees us."
He led the way back down the bluff, and they went softly through the edge of the woods until quite close to the canoe. Both the boys saw at once that it was much smaller than the one the thieves had been travelling in. Behind it and sheltered by some bushes was a small, rough-looking tent, but there was no sign of life.
"Funny!" said Bleak, frowning.
Clive was desperately anxious to hurry on and see if anybody was inside the tent, but Bleak would not allow him. He made the boys wait in the trees while he went on. They saw him approach the tent and peer in. Then from inside came a hoarse voice.
"Bleak!" it said, in a tone of sheer unbelief. "It ain't never you."
"That's not dad," said Clive, in a tone of bitter disappointment.
Then came Bleak's voice.
"Why, if it ain't old Lanky hisself! What's got you, old- timer?"
The boys hurried forward and saw Bleak leaning over a man who lay on a blanket on the bare ground. He was longer and thinner than Bleak himself, and his face was terribly thin and covered with a stubble of greying hair.
"A bear," he was saying, as they came up. "Mauled me bad. I been lying here two days, Bleak. No grub left, and I'd plumb made up my mind I was finished when—" His voice died away, his eyes closed.
Bleak turned to the boys. "Get a fire going. Sharp now. Plenty o' hot water. We got a job if we wants to save him."
They beat all records in fire-making, and while water boiled Bleak set to work on the wounded man. The bear's claws had ripped all down one side, making such a terrible wound that it seemed a miracle that he had ever got back to camp, let alone managed to wash and bandage his injuries. But after that he had collapsed. He had not even been able to get to the river for water, and, if he had not been tough as leather, he would have been dead already. While he was unconscious Bleak cleaned and dressed the wounds properly, and when he came round a cup of weak coffee with plenty of condensed milk was ready for him. His eyes were full of gratitude as he looked up at Bleak.
"That sure saved my life, old-timer," he said, as he finished the drink. "I reckon I could do with a drop more if you've got it handy."
He drank a second cup, and the way he revived was marvellous. Then all in a minute he went sound asleep. There was a softer look than usual in Bleak's pale eyes as he watched the sleeping man.
"I reckon the old lad's right," he said. "We come just in time to save him."
"Who is he?" asked Clive.
"Larsen's his name, but he's knowed all through this country as Lanky. He's a trapper and a square shooter. There ain't a better man in this whole neck o' woods than Lanky Larsen." Then his face grew grave again. "But this here is surely a bad fix," he went on slowly. "It'll be all of ten days afore he's fit to travel, and we can't leave him alone. He've got to be fed like a baby."
Bruce looked dreadfully dismayed, but Clive spoke up quickly.
"I saw that, Bleak. You'll have to stay and let us go on."
Bleak was silent for some moments.
"I reckon that's what it comes to," he said at last. "But I sure hate to let you two boys go off alone." He paused again. "Let's talk it over, Clive. Wait till morning anyways. A few hours' rest won't do any of us no harm."
Though Clive and Bruce both hated the idea of delay, yet Bleak was so eager they agreed, and afterwards they were only too glad that they had agreed. When Larsen woke up after several hours' good sleep he was better and able to talk, and his first question was what Bleak and the two boys were doing up here in the woods. Bleak explained and asked Larsen if he had seen the thieves go by.
"There ain't nobody gone by," was Larsen's answer. "I been lying here watching the river ever since I got hurt, jest a- praying that some one would come along, and you're the first. I kin swear to that."
Clive's eyes widened. He looked at Bleak.
"Then where are the thieves?" he demanded.
Bleak shook his head.
"I dunno. Maybe Lanky's got some notion."
"It's mighty funny," he said slowly. "If they was going to Nelson, as you thinks, this would be their shortest road. Looks to me like something must have happened to make 'em change their minds."
"And if they did change their minds where can they have gone?" Clive questioned. "One thing's sure. They didn't come back the way they came."
"I don't reckon they did that," agreed Larsen. "But thar's another way out o' Big Windy," he added.
"First I've heard tell of it," said Bleak.
"Yes, there ain't many as knows of it," Larsen answered. "But that breed, Lamar, he'd prob'ly know. It goes out the west side, and it's called the Bouche de Loup."
"The Wolf's Mouth," said Clive. "Doesn't sound quite healthy."
"You're right, son," agreed Larsen, with a grim ring in his voice. "There ain't nothing healthy about the Bouche de Loup, and maybe that's the very reason why Lamar's took it—if he has done that."
"What's wrong with it?" asked Bruce eagerly.
"I ain't sure," said the trapper slowly. "I never been down there. There isn't no trapping up in that country, so I never was tempted to go into it. But the Injuns won't go there, and you can't get 'em to talk about it neither."
Bleak frowned. "Them Injuns is plumb superstitious. I reckon it's the Windigo they're scared of."
"What's the Windigo?" demanded Bruce.
"Kind of Ghost of the Wilderness," explained Bleak. "Injuns think it catches 'em up and flies away over the trees with 'em."
"I don't think we need worry about the Windigo," said Bruce, with some scorn. "What do you say, Clive?"
"It's dad I'm worrying about, not the Windigo," said Clive.
Larsen looked grave.
"A place don't get a bad name without good reason. I reckon there's worse than ghosts up that there Wolf's Mouth. The last fellers as went down there never came back."
FOR some moments after Larsen's ominous words there was silence in the tent. Bruce was the first to break it.
"Never came back," he repeated. "What happened to them?"
"Seeing as there was no one to tell that's one thing I don't know, boy," answered the trapper. "They was two Government fellers—'jologists' they called theirselves. They stopped at my camp up the river and told me as they was going to have a look at the west bank o' the lake. Said the rocks was kind of funny. I told 'em of the Wolf's Mouth and warned 'em, but they only laughed and said as they would discover the mystery and come back and tell me—but they never did come back," he added, with a shrug.
"Then if the gold thieves go into it perhaps they'll never come back," said Clive shrewdly.
"I wouldn't bank on that," said Larsen. "That breed Lamar knows that there country better'n any man in the north."
Clive looked thoughtful. "What makes you think there's a way out there, Mr. Larsen?"
"I've seed it," said Larsen briefly. "It's a kind o' cañon, but there's a right strong stream running out through it."
"You don't know where it goes?" asked Bruce.
"For a fact I don't," Larsen told him. "But water's got to find a outlet somewheres."
Clive nodded. "What beats me is why these thieves should have picked on such a place, if it's as dangerous as you say it is."
"Maybe that's the very reason they chose it," said Larsen. "Likely Lamar told them others as they'd be safe because no one wouldn't dare chase them along a place that had such a bad name."
"That's about the size of it," agreed Bruce. "Can you tell us how to find it, Mr. Larsen?"
"I can do that, son, if you're set on trying it."
"We've got to," said Bruce quietly. "That gold must be recovered."
Larsen looked at Bleak.
"It's plumb risky," he said slowly. "What say if you leaves one of these boys with me, and you goes with the other, Bleak?"
Before Bleak could answer Bruce spoke up.
"No," he said, with decision. "Bleak can nurse you a jolly sight better than either of us; Clive and I had better go together. You've warned us to look out for trouble, so we shall keep our eyes open. We shall manage all right."
Bleak frowned. "It's taking big chances," he said slowly. "Lives is worth more than gold."
Bruce spoke up sharply. "That's why there's no time to waste. Clive's father is after those fellows, one against three. It's his life we've got to think of. Isn't that true, Bleak?"
Bleak nodded. "It's a fact," he allowed. "All right, Bruce. I ain't going to stop you and Clive, but I'd feel a sight happier if I knowed what you was going to run into down in that there Wolf's Mouth." He paused. "You'll be keerful now, and try and remember some o' the things I told you."
"I'll promise that," said Clive gravely. "Now we'd best get our stuff together for an early start."
The sun was not yet up the next morning when the two boys started paddling back up the Lizard. As they turned the bend above the camp they looked back and saw Bleak's tall figure standing alone on the beach in the dawn light. Clive felt a queer little pang, a sense of something unpleasantly like fear. He realised much more plainly than Bruce how much they had depended on Ricard's guidance and knowledge, and how very little he and Bruce knew of wood lore. He turned and waved his hand, and Bleak waved back. Then they were round the bend and alone in the wilderness.
It was a perfect morning and the lake when they reached it like a sheet of pink glass in the slanting sunlight. Here and there the rings of rising fish broke the smooth surface, but there was no breath of wind. Their paddles rose and fell as they made straight across towards the west bank. Bruce broke the silence.
"Rum-looking country," he remarked briefly.
Clive nodded. Bruce was right, for this side of the lake was entirely different from the other. Bare cliffs of smooth black rock dipped abruptly into the quiet depths, and beyond these cliffs were a range of odd-looking hills covered with scrubby growth.
"Basalt," said Clive, who knew something of geology. "Volcanic formation, Bruce."
Bruce stopped paddling.
"Let's have a look at the map," he suggested, as he fished out from his pocket a rough map drawn in pencil from the directions given by Larsen. "That bluff," he said, pointing. "The entrance ought to be behind it."
"That's it," agreed Clive, and they drove on.
The bluff loomed up black and forbidding, and as they rounded it they found themselves opposite to the famous Wolf's Mouth. It was a mere crack in the cliff, a cañon of which the floor was deep, dark water. It was so narrow and the walls were so high that, as they passed into it, the gloom was that of twilight and the sky a mere narrow band of blue overhead.
"Wolf's Mouth," said Bruce. "A jolly good name, eh, Clive?"
Clive shivered in spite of himself but did not speak. Each stroke of the paddle sent queer echoes whispering up the sides of the gorge, and presently Bruce pointed upwards, and Clive saw that they were passing under an enormous rock which, fallen from above, had become wedged between the great rock walls. There was no life about the place, no fish rising, no birds, and not even a bush or bramble grew on the smooth dark rock. After paddling for about an hour Clive turned to his cousin.
"Notice anything, Bruce?"
"Yes, we're moving faster."
"A lot faster," said Clive, "but I can't hear anything like a rapid."
"No," agreed Bruce, "I don't hear anything like that. What's worrying you, Clive?"
"Don't quite know, but I've a feeling of something wrong."
Bruce laughed, but the echo was so horrid that he stopped abruptly.
"The gorge is enough to get on anyone's nerves, but sit tight, Clive. It can't last for ever."
They went on. There was hardly any need to paddle, for the force of the current was carrying them at quite six miles an hour. Clive looked round again.
"Bruce, we can never get back against this stream."
"We don't want to get back," said Bruce impatiently. "We want to get on."
He stopped short, for just then the canoe rounding a corner seemed to drop away from under him and Clive. The feeling was like that of a swiftly descending lift. With arrow-like speed they drove down a long straight chute towards a dark pool which lay before them.
THERE was no time to say anything, hardly to think, but instinctively both set to work desperately to hold the canoe exactly in the centre of the stream, for it was plain that if she so much as grazed the rock sides of the chute the frail craft would be instantly wrecked. Down she shot at dizzy speed and in a matter of seconds was through the tail of the race and floating safely in the centre of a circular pool. This pool was about three hundred yards across and surrounded by walls of the same black volcanic rock which rose to a height of at least two hundred feet. Bruce looked round.
"The Wolf's Mouth all right," he said harshly. "And now we're in it for keeps."
A puzzled look crossed Clive's face.
"But where are the gold thieves?" he demanded.
"Bah! You don't suppose they were fools enough to come down into this trap," returned Bruce scornfully.
Clive stuck to his point.
"It's the only way they could have come. Larsen said there was no other creek leading out of the lake on the west side."
"If they'd come they'd be here still," replied Bruce. "Of course they didn't come. They landed somewhere, hid their canoe, and made off across country."
Clive did not speak. His eyes were ranging over the great cliffs which surrounded the pool, searching for any possible way up them. Bruce laughed bitterly.
"What's the good of that? A squirrel couldn't find foothold on those rocks. Even with Alpine ropes and climbing irons no one could get up there. The only way out is the way we came."
Clive shook his head. "There's no getting up there, Bruce," he said quietly.
"There's no other way out," Bruce answered, and Clive, looking round again, decided that this was true.
A more perfect trap could not have been invented. It reminded him of the ant lion's trap into which the insect falls and from which it can never escape. For a moment a feeling of utter despair came over him, as he thought of what it would be to sit here in the canoe day after day until dead of hunger; then all of a sudden another thought flashed into his mind.
"Those other fellows, Bruce—the two that Larsen said came down here and didn't come back. If they got into this trap they'd be here still. At least their canoe would."
"Sunk," said Bruce grimly.
"No," said Clive. "There's nothing to sink it. No wind can ever reach the water here. I tell you it would be floating here still. See here, Bruce," he went on desperately, "there must be a way out. We must hunt round till we find it."
"I'll hunt all you like if you'll tell me where to hunt," Bruce answered. "But I tell you straight we shan't find it. There's not a crack in these cliffs big enough for a rabbit to hide in."
"We can't tell until we've been all round," Clive said, as he dipped his paddle. "Anyhow, I'm not going to give up until I have to."
Bruce nodded and began to paddle. They went to the edge and worked slowly all round the pool. They examined every foot of the rock as they passed it. The whole circumference was a little more than half a mile, and they spent a good half-hour in going round, but when they got back to their starting-point Clive had to acknowledge that Bruce was right. There was not a crack in which a canoe could have been hidden, and most certainly there was no way of climbing up the cliffs. Panic seized Clive; he went cold all over and began to shake, for the feeling of being trapped without hope of escape is one which will take the heart out of the bravest. But he fought against it as hard as he could.
"They must have got out somehow," he said again.
Bruce was as badly scared as his cousin, but he, too, did his best not to show it.
"Clive," he said, "the only way anyone could get out would be by a rope let down from the top of the cliff. We've got grub in the canoe for a week if we're careful with it. Perhaps by that time Bleak will come and help us."
Clive shook his head. "When he comes he will come the same way we did and get into the same mess. We've got to get out if only to warn him. We must try to get back up the rapid."
Bruce looked at the water chute coming down like a great spout. Its smooth black surface was laced with white lines of snowy foam. It was plain that even a powerful launch could not force its way up that hill of water, but he did not say so, for Bruce, like Clive, was learning many things in this new life in the wilderness.
"I'm game," was all he said.
They started and had the canoe travelling at full speed before they reached the foot of the rapid. Paddling with all their might, they actually got her some twenty yards up before the weight of the water proved too much for them. The canoe was spun right round, and it was only by the cleverest kind of work that they saved her from being upset.
"No good, I'm afraid," said Bruce, as they came back to the centre of the pool.
Clive did not answer, and Bruce glancing at him was frightened at the look on Clive's face. He was white as a sheet, and his eyes were full of horror.
"Buck up, old lad," said Bruce gently. "We'll think of something else presently."
"There's nothing else to think of," Clive answered unsteadily. "If we can't climb the cliffs or go up the rapid there is no other way, and we shall stay here in the canoe until we starve. Oh, Bruce, I'm scared!"
Bruce laid a big hand on Clive's shoulder.
"I'm scared too," he confessed. "But it will only make things worse if we let ourselves go. I'm not going to chuck my hand in yet."
The calm way in which he spoke did Clive good. His lips tightened.
"You're right, Bruce. We'll stick it out and try to think of some plan."
"I've got one already," said Bruce. "See that crack, a sort of crevice running along the rock face at a slope."
"Yes, but it's miles out of our reach."
"I know, but we have the axe. What price chipping steps in the rock up to it?"
Clive considered. "It's a good fifty feet, and the rock is frightfully hard. Still, I think it's worth trying."
"Right," said Bruce calmly. "Then let's have some grub, and afterwards we'll try it."
They ate, then got the canoe into position, and started. It was very difficult to keep the canoe in place, for there was nothing to tie her to. Also the rock was as hard as granite. At the end of two hours they had one step cut, and the edge of the axe was utterly ruined. Also it was getting dark. Clive dropped back.
"It's no good," he said, in despair.
"We can't do anything more to-night," agreed Bruce. "Let's get some sleep."
"There's not room for two of us to lie down," said Clive.
"No, we'll have to take it by turns. One sleep, the other watch. I'll take first watch, Clive."
He made Clive lie down and was very pleased to see that he went off to sleep almost at once. It was terribly still down here in this water pit. The stars came out and twinkled overhead, but strain his ears as he might Bruce could hear nothing except the loud rush of the rapid. Time dragged terribly, and at last, looking at his wrist watch, he saw that it was nearly midnight. Another five minutes and he would wake Clive. And just then a new sound broke upon Bruce's ears, one quite different from the soft rush of the water chute. It was a deep gurgling and rumbling.
"An earthquake," was Bruce's first thought, as he shook Clive awake.
AT Bruce's shout Clive woke with a start and sat up.
"Earthquake!" he gasped. "What do you mean, Bruce? I don't hear anything."
"Listen!" snapped Bruce.
Clive sat silent, and then he too heard the deep gurgling which resembled the sound of a giant decanter being emptied.
"Yes, I hear, but what the mischief is it? Did you feel a shock, Bruce?"
"No. That noise started quite suddenly. But it's water running somewhere, and the only thing I can think of is that there's been a bit of an earthquake."
"It may be," said Clive. "I wish we could see. How beastly dark it is!"
A thin film of cloud had covered the sky, shutting off the starlight. The moon was not yet up, and it was intensely dark. It was weird to sit there in the blackness listening to the glug- glug which went on without a break. Suddenly Clive called out:
"The canoe's drifting! Look at the way she's pulling on her rope!"
They had tied the canoe to the axe which was stuck into the cleft they had cut in the rock. Now the canoe had drawn out to the end of her rope, showing that a current had been started in the pool. And still the glug-glug went on.
"Tell you what," said Bruce, in a startled tone. "I believe the bottom of the lake's dropped out."
"Something like that," agreed Clive, "but if that has happened we shall see the water falling. Pull her up close to the edge and let's see."
They had an electric torch with a couple of spare batteries, and Clive, groping about in the darkness, found this and turned it on. The little beam of white light shone upon the rock at the water's edge, and at once Bruce cried out:
"I'm right. The water is sinking."
"It is," said Clive, in a low voice. "It's down an inch already. I say, there must be a biggish hole to bring it down at that rate."
For a while neither spoke but watched the run of the water against the rock. The lake was sinking steadily.
"It must have been an earthquake," said Bruce at last.
"I don't know," said Clive slowly. "If there had been a quake we should certainly have felt or heard it. And probably rocks would have fallen from above. My notion is that this is a kind of geyser pool that fills up to a point and then empties."
"Yes, but where does it empty? Is it going to do us any good?"
"It can't do us any harm, anyhow," replied Clive, with a grim edge to his voice. "Bruce, you'd better get the axe aboard and the rope. We shall have to hold the canoe with the paddles."
"There's no hurry," said Bruce. "It'll be a long time before she sinks enough to put the axe out of reach. Meantime the only thing is to sit tight."
He was right, but all the same the waiting was a terrible ordeal, for the darkness hid everything, and they could not tell what was really happening. And all the time they heard the glug-glug of the emptying water, and all the time the surface of the great circular pool went on slowly sinking. In an hour it was down by nearly two feet, and so it went on during the whole long night. In all North America there were no two people who longed more earnestly for daylight than these two boys.
At this time of year—early September—the first grey of dawn came a little after five o'clock, but down in this pit there was not light enough to see their surroundings until about half-past five. The first thing the boys realised was that the lake seemed to have shrunk to two-thirds of its former size. It was fully four yards lower than on the previous night, while the water slide opposite had lengthened proportionately.
"The current is pulling us to the left," said Clive. "The water must be going out that side. Let's paddle over there and see if we can spot the place."
"All right. Only go steady. We don't want to be sucked into a whirlpool."
Bruce's warning was a wise one, for as they slowly coasted along the base of the cliff they felt the tug of the current growing stronger and suddenly in the dim light saw a great vortex in front, down which the water was being sucked exactly as it runs out of a bath when the plug is pulled up.
"Keep away!" cried Bruce, paddling hard.
They drove the canoe clear and holding her sat watching the great swirl.
"The hole's not in the bottom," said Clive, in a voice that shook a little with sheer excitement. "It's in the side."
"I see that," replied Bruce cheerfully. "There's a tunnel. I told you we'd be all right, old man."
"There's a chance anyhow," agreed Clive. "All the same I can't make it out. If there is a tunnel how did it come to be blocked?"
"Why, the thieves blocked it, of course," returned Bruce.
Clive gave a low whistle. "I believe you've hit it, though how they did it beats me. And what's funnier still is how it came uncorked."
Bruce was not listening. He was pointing in the direction of the whirlpool.
"There's the tunnel. The top is showing."
As he spoke the glug-glug caused by imprisoned air being dragged down ceased, and the water began to run out with a steady rush. The level fell more rapidly, and soon the arched roof of a large tunnel became plainly visible. The boys watched in breathless excitement, but two hours more elapsed before the opening was sufficient to give them head room, and even then they thought it wise to wait a little longer. It was not until it seemed that the pool had gained its balance with just as much water running out as coming in that they decided to start. Clive turned to Bruce.
"We can't tell where we are going, or whether we shall get through at all," he said. "You'd better bear that in mind, Bruce."
"Don't croak," said Bruce, with a grin. "The other fellows went through, so why shouldn't we? Now you get up in the bow with the torch, and I'll steer. Let her go!"
One powerful stroke and the canoe shot under the rock arch, and away they went whizzing down a long straight water slide. The torch-light shone on its black dripping walls, and Clive kept breathless watch for any rock or obstruction. There was nothing of the kind. The tunnel was as straight and true as though cut by the hand of man. On and on they raced until the white ray of the torch was dulled by a gleam of daylight. Clive switched it off, and the next minute the canoe shot out through an arched opening into brilliant sunlight.
"Hurray!" the two shouted in one breath.
BEHIND them towered the dark cliff through which they had passed; in front was a small river winding away between high wooded banks with the sunlight bright on its ripples.
"It's like waking out of a nightmare," said Clive, with a sigh of relief.
Bruce stopped paddling and yawned widely.
"Talk of nightmares, we're both mighty short of sleep, Clive. There's a nice bit of shingle ahead. Let's land, cook breakfast, and have forty winks."
"It wouldn't be a bad notion," agreed Clive, as he dipped his paddle and drove the canoe towards the camping place.
Within five minutes they had a fire burning and bacon frying in the pan. How good it was to smell it and the rich scent of boiling coffee! It was nearly thirty hours since they had had a proper meal and they made a real good one. Then, feeling all of a sudden deadly sleepy, they stretched themselves on the warm sand and were asleep in a minute.
Clive was the first to wake and was shocked to see how long the shadows lay. He shook up Bruce.
"Hurry! There's only two hours of daylight left."
Bruce sat up with a yawn.
"Gee, I'd no idea it was so late! Come on."
They bundled the things into the canoe and went off at a great rate. Just before dark they reached a good camping place and landed. As Clive started out to get wood for the fire the first thing he came across was a pile of ashes. He pointed them out to Bruce.
"Those beggars camped here last night," he said. "We're only a day behind them."
"You're right," said Bruce eagerly. "We'll be off early to- morrow and see if we can't pick them up. I don't fancy they'll be hurrying much. After the way they blocked the trail they can't be supposing anyone's on their trail."
"They did block it properly," agreed Clive. "I've been thinking that what they did was to put a dynamite cartridge in that tunnel. That brought some of the roof down and held the water back until the weight burst the dam."
"That's about the size of it," said Bruce. "And it's all the better for us, for, if we can slip up on them to-morrow night, we shall take them unawares."
They ate supper, turned in at once, and were up before daybreak. As they made up the fire for breakfast a white object lying on the shingle caught Clive's eyes, and he went across and picked it up. It was a rough and dirty bandage, and it was stained with blood.
"Looks as if one of them was hurt," he said, as he showed it to Bruce.
"That's all to the good," said Bruce, "for it means that only two will be paddling. I'll make you a small bet we'll catch them to-night."
"I jolly well hope we do," said Clive eagerly. "And this time we won't blunder into any booby-traps."
"No, we'll think it all out beforehand," declared Bruce, as he took the coffee-pot off the fire.
In a very few minutes they finished breakfast and got away, and refreshed by a good sleep sent the canoe fairly leaping down- stream. That morning they covered pretty nearly twenty miles, then stopped for a meal and an hour's rest and pushed on. The stream, which had taken several tributaries, was growing wider, but it was also swifter, and they had to shoot several rather nasty rapids. Late in the afternoon they came to the head of another which, by the roar of it, was worse than any of the others, and one glimpse of the deep rock-strewn defile down which the water raced in foam-tipped waves made it certain that no canoe could get through in safety. Clive frowned.
"What a beastly nuisance! We shall have to portage."
"That's a sure thing," agreed Bruce, as he drove the canoe into the bank; then as he jumped ashore he exclaimed sharply: "They've been ashore here, and pretty lately by the look of it. See these marks, Clive?"
"Crogan's," said Clive sharply, as he inspected the giant's footprints. "You're right, Bruce. These marks are not more than three or four hours old. If we hurry we shall catch them to- night."
Instead of replying Bruce began lifting the packs out of the canoe. The portage meant two journeys, the first with the packs, the second with the canoe. The distance was not great, but the trail was steep and rough. It led over a bluff some fifty feet high, and on the very top of this Bruce spotted a big cedar, the lofty top of which rose high above the surrounding forest. He pointed it out to Clive.
"If I shinned up there the chances are I could see the other canoe," he said. "It only means about ten minutes' delay, and I think it's worth it."
Clive hesitated, but had to admit that Bruce's idea was a sound one. Whatever happened, they must not run any risk of messing up things as they had on the previous occasion. He agreed, and on the second trip, as they carried the canoe, they laid it down while Bruce climbed the tree.
The branches were thick and matted, and it took him longer than he had expected to force his way upwards, but once he had reached the top he was well repaid by the enormous stretch of country which lay beneath his eyes. Up-stream he could see right back to the bluff through which the tunnel pierced; down-stream towards the north-west the view stretched away over a huge area of gently undulating forest through which this nameless river ran in wide curves. And there, sure enough, was the big canoe of the gold thieves moving steadily down-stream.
Bruce stared hard at it for a moment or two, and a frown creased his forehead. Then, twisting one leg around the trunk of the tree so as to balance himself, he took the field-glasses from their case and put them to his eyes. For quite a minute he kept them focused on the canoe, and when he took them down his face had gone oddly white.
"I was right," he murmured miserably. "There are four men, and one is Uncle Quen. So dad was right, and he is in with the thieves after all."
"What's the matter with you, Bruce?" came Clive's impatient voice from below. "Are you going to stay there all day?"
"No. I'm coming," replied Bruce, but his voice was curiously flat. "What in the world am I going to say to Clive?" was the question he asked himself, as he began to clamber down.
"WHAT did you see, Bruce?" Clive asked eagerly, as Bruce dropped down out of the tree.
"I saw them," Bruce answered. "They're about two miles ahead."
"Not camped yet?"
"But they must stop soon. It's just on sunset."
"I expect they'll stop soon," said Bruce, and his voice was so dull and lifeless that Clive's eyes widened.
"What's the matter?" he demanded. "What's worrying you?"
"Haven't we enough to worry about—two of us to handle three men? How are we going to do it?"
Clive stared. "You weren't worrying about that before you went up the tree. Is anything wrong, old chap?"
"Nothing more than what I've told you."
At all costs Bruce felt that he had to hide from his cousin the fact that his father had joined the thieves. For what he had seen through the glass was his uncle paddling in the bow of the gold thieves' canoe.
"We'd better push on," he added sharply.
Clive, on whose face was still a distinctly puzzled look, obediently took up his end of the canoe, and they carried it to the foot of the rapid, loaded it, and started again. Bruce did not speak, but his thoughts were busy with means for getting out of this horrid tangle. What he felt was that somehow he must get into touch with his uncle before Clive could see or speak with him, but the question was how to do it, and he racked his brains in vain for any solution to the puzzle. Presently Clive spoke.
"The sun's down. They must have camped by now. Let's land, and I'll climb that bluff and see where they are."
"No," said Bruce. "I'll do the climbing."
He spoke so sharply that for a moment Clive looked offended, but Clive had sense enough to see that something had upset his cousin, and he kept silence. They landed at the mouth of a tiny brook which joined the main river, and Bruce climbed the bluff above. He got a distinct shock when he saw the other canoe pulled up on a beach less than half a mile ahead and the men busy around a fire. They were so close he could plainly see the giant form of Crogan and the smaller, slimmer shape of the breed, Lamar. Quentin Winslow was building the fire; the fourth man, Kerry, lay beside it, and seemed unable to do anything. Like a flash the memory of the blood-stained bandage came back to Bruce. Kerry, it was plain, had been hurt.
Well, that was to the good, for it cut the odds down a bit. But it did not solve the puzzle, and as Bruce lay there on the rock top, watching, he was almost at his wits' end. Bruce was very fond of Clive. The two were more like brothers than cousins, and Bruce felt that, whatever happened, he had to save Clive from the knowledge of his father's treachery. He was sure that, if he could only get in touch with him for a moment and tell him that his son was near him, all would be well, but the question was how to do it. Well, something had to be done, for, as Bleak would have said, this was the show-down. Bruce picked himself up and went quietly back to Clive.
"Yes, they're quite close," he told him. "Less than half a mile away. Let's have supper, and we can talk. Only be careful with the fire. There mustn't be any smoke."
Clive knew enough to build a fire without smoke; they grilled bacon, made a pot of tea, and while they ate Bruce unfolded his plans.
"They're camped on a patch of sand under a steep bank," he told Clive. "One of them, Kerry, is hurt, so only two count. Here's my notion. We wait till they're asleep; then you go right inland behind them and wait on top of the bluff. I'll make my way down the bank. I'll have to swim the last bit, for the rock comes down to the water, and when I give a signal—one flash from the torch—you start rolling rocks down the bluff. Just one at a time. That will puzzle them, and the chances are they'll come up the bluff after you. But it's so steep you'll easily be able to keep them back by pelting them with stones, and meanwhile I'll sneak their canoe and the gold too, if I can. As soon as I've got it I'll signal you again with a double flash, and you hook it back for all you're worth, launch our canoe, and join me on the far side of the river. How do you think that will work?"
"Jolly good," said Clive, with warm approval. Usually it was he who did the planning, and he was surprised that Bruce had thought out such a good plan of campaign. "The only snag is the gold. I don't suppose they've left that in the canoe. Probably Lamar keeps it under his pillow. Chaps like that don't trust one another."
"I'll have to chance that," said Bruce, "but, if Lamar and Crogan both go after you, Kerry can't stop me. What worries me is Lamar catching you."
"I won't give him the chance," vowed Clive. "If the bank's as steep as you say, it will take them a goodish time to climb it, and I'll make sure of my way back to this place. The worst snag from my point of view is that they may shoot you as you go off with the canoe."
"Not much risk," said Bruce. "It'll be pretty dark. Besides, I shan't get into it. I shall swim and tow it."
"I think it ought to work," said Clive, and Bruce devoutly hoped it would.
The main part of his plan was of course to get hold of Clive's father while Lamar and Crogan were chasing Clive. He was banking on his uncle coming round when he heard that Clive was in danger.
The waiting was the worst part of it. They did not dare to sleep, and they did not feel like talking. There was nothing to do but sit there in the darkness and wait for zero hour. It came at last, and when the hands of Bruce's luminous wrist-watch pointed to ten minutes to twelve they got ready.
"So long, old man," said Clive quietly. "Good luck!"
"Good luck—and—and—be careful of Lamar," answered Bruce.
He watched Clive climb the bluff and fade into the brushwood; then, slipping the torch into his pocket, he himself started along the edge of the river. He had the best of the going until he reached the high bluff which separated the two beaches, but there he had to take to the water. Bitter cold it was, but Bruce was a fine swimmer and too anxious to worry about the cold. He was thinking more of his uncle than of anything or anybody else. His whole mind was set on getting just a word with him. He was sure it would be enough.
He swam very quietly with the current and presently waded cautiously ashore on the upper edge of a broad stretch of sandy beach. A big dead log left by a spring flood gave him good cover, and he dropped behind it. The robbers' camp fire had burned down, but the smouldering embers gave light enough to see four figures lying around it.
Presently a charred log slipped, and a little blaze shot up and showed him Crogan's great body and another man lying with his head raised on a sort of pillow. Lamar guarding the gold, he had no doubt. Of the other two he could not be sure which was Kerry and which his uncle. He could also see the canoe, which lay about fifty paces from his log, pulled up just clear of the water. It would have been simple as pie to seize the canoe and make off with it, but that would not give him the gold or—what was even more important—the necessary few words with his uncle. He wondered where Clive was and shivered slightly. The night air bit through his soaked clothes.
He thought he could hear something above and flashed his torch. Almost instantly came an answering flash, and then, after a moment's pause, a loud rumble broke the stillness of the night, and a great lump of stone came leaping and crashing through the brushwood clothing the slope.
"THAT ought to do the trick," Bruce said to himself, and it certainly did.
Lamar came to his feet all in one act, and Crogan was almost as quick.
"What in blazes were that?" demanded Crogan hoarsely.
Lamar paused a moment before replying.
"I sink a rock get loose and fall," he said, in his odd, high- pitched voice.
"Rocks don't get loose fer nothing," growled Crogan. "It's that there Bleak arter us again, I believes."
"You beeg fool!" Lamar's voice bit with scorn. "Bleak, he vas a hoondred miles away down ze Lizard by now."
Crash! Another big stone came leaping down the slope. Crogan grabbed up a gun.
"It's Bleak!" he snarled.
"You vas crazy. Ve 'ave blocked ze road. 'Ow can it be Bleak? It ees a bear moving up zere."
"No bear would go rolling rocks like that," retorted Crogan. "That's a human o' some sort. I'll swar to that."
Lamar was evidently more inclined to agree than he would admit, for he knew very well that no wild thing would be so clumsy. He slipped a pistol from its holster.
"Eef it's a man I soon find him," he said, and started towards the bluff.
In a moment he had disappeared from Bruce's eyes in the gloom. Bruce was worried. Clive was no match for Lamar in woodcraft, and Crogan was still on watch by the fire. He himself was no nearer to his uncle or to the gold. And just then wop! came another stone. A small one, this, but thrown with such excellent aim that it caught Crogan full in the chest, making him stagger. With a bellow of rage he charged straight at the cliff face.
Bruce rose to his feet. His first impulse was to hurry towards the fire, but a sound in the direction of the canoe called his attention towards it. The fire had died down, and he could not see what was happening, but he decided to go for the canoe first. Bending double, he ran along the edge of the water, but as he neared the canoe he saw that some one was pushing it off. He redoubled his speed, but the canoe was already in the water. He turned to wade out towards it, but almost at once his feet began to sink, and he realised he had struck a patch of quicksand. In a flash he had flung himself backwards flat in the water and with desperate effort managed to claw his way out of the glue-like mixture. As he gained the beach again he heard some one shouting wildly.
"Hey, Crogan, come back! Winslow's sloped. Quick! He've got the gold."
The voice was Kerry's, but he had to shout twice before Crogan, who was already half-way up the bluff, heard him. When the giant did realise what had happened he went perfectly mad with rage.
"Ye fool!" he roared, as he came pounding back to the fire. "What did ye let him go for?"
"How could I help it?" whined Kerry. "All shot up like I be."
Crogan did not wait to argue the point but went rushing down towards the water's edge.
"Come back!" he thundered. "Come back, Winslow, or I'll blow the stuffing out of you."
It was an empty threat, for the canoe and its occupant were already out of sight in the darkness. Crogan was absolutely frantic and raged up and down the beach, informing the sleeping woods of just what he would do to Ouentin Winslow when he caught him.
Bruce took the chance to creep away in the opposite direction. There was no sign of Lamar, and he was anxious about Clive, so he risked making the flashlight signal for Clive to clear out. The moment he had done it he knew he had made a mistake, for a fresh bellow from Crogan told that he had seen the light, and Bruce heard him running hard in his direction. There was only one thing to do, and Bruce did it in a hurry. He waded straight out into the river, bending down in the hope that Crogan would not see him.
It would have been all right, but just then the fire flickered up again, and a tongue of flame shot up, illuminating the whole of the beach. It was not much light, but it was enough to show the giant that some one was in the water.
"Come out er that, or I'll shoot," he thundered.
But instead of obeying Bruce dived. As he did so he heard the roar of Crogan's gun, and a shower of small shot spattered the surface above him. But small shot cannot penetrate water, and Bruce was quite unhurt. He vaguely heard the second barrel go off, then knowing the gun was empty ventured to rise again and get breath. As it happened, Crogan had no more cartridges, but he was in such a fury of rage at losing the gold and so anxious to get hold of Bruce that he plunged straight into the water after him.
Bruce hardly knew what to do. The current out in the middle was too strong to swim against, and it was no use letting himself drift down the river. He put his feet down, found bottom, and waited, standing up to his neck in the water. All of a sudden Crogan stopped and began shrieking hideously.
"Help!" he screamed, plunging like a madman, and Bruce realised that he had got into the quicksand.
Bruce saw his chance. If he could get ashore and rope Crogan he could save his life and at the same time tie him up. And with Crogan helpless he would have a chance to get Clive away in safety. Then he and Clive could leave the thieves stranded and hurry down river after Uncle Quentin. Then as he struggled ashore there came a sound of struggling up at the top of the bluff, and Lamar's harsh voice:
"Stop zat row, Crogan. I 'ave ze boy."
Bruce nearly collapsed, for he realised that the breed had caught Clive.
FORGETTING all about Crogan, Bruce started up the beach to Clive's rescue, but had only gone a few steps before he pulled up short. One thing Bruce had learned during the past few weeks was not to act on impulse, and he realised that to go charging blindly up that bluff was simply running bull-headed into trouble. He could not see either Lamar or Clive, he did not know exactly where they were, and anyhow by the sounds it was clear that the breed had already made Clive prisoner. No, his plan was to wait and hide, swoop down on Lamar, and, if possible, catch him unawares.
He turned and glanced at Crogan, whose great frame was just visible in the fire glow. The man was still struggling in the quicksand and yelling loud enough to wake the dead, but it did not seem to Bruce that he was in serious danger. He had gone in up to his knees, and he could not get out, but the quicksand appeared to be shallow, and he was not sinking any deeper. Bruce decided that he could be left for the moment, and he himself moved quickly and quietly away to the right out of the circle of light from the fire. His plan was to get close under the bluff, creep along under it, and wait for Lamar. Lamar would be holding on to Clive, and Bruce intended to jump him from behind and get him down. Once he was safely tied up the trouble would be at an end, for Crogan could be dealt with at leisure, and Kerry was harmless.
It was quite a good plan, but, alas, it went wrong! Bruce had expected Lamar to come down on the western side, because that was the direction in which Clive ought to have been moving. Instead, he came down on the other, the eastern end of the cove, and an exclamation of bitter disappointment escaped Bruce's lips as he saw the two dim figures appear on the beach a good hundred yards away from his own lurking place. Bruce saw that it was out of the question to reach the breed without Lamar seeing him first, so he simply flattened himself under the bluff and waited.
Lamar was making for the fire and pushing Clive in front of him. Kerry had put fresh wood on the fire, which was now burning up brightly, and by its light Bruce saw that Clive's hands were tied behind his back. He could see Clive's face too, with lips tight set and a glow of anger in his eyes.
"Not scared anyhow," said Bruce to himself. "Now what's going to happen?"
All this time Crogan had been howling for help. His hoarse shouts echoed across the broad river. Seeing Lamar, he yelled direct at him. Lamar was not pleased.
"Stop zat fool noise!" he cried angrily.
"Eef you no stop I leave you vere you ees."
"I'm in a quick. I'll be drowned if you don't hurry," wailed Crogan.
"And eef you ees drowned I do not sink anyone be sorry but yourself," snapped Lamar. "Vait ontil I get zis boy tied, zen I come help you."
Bruce's heart leapt. He saw a chance after all. Lamar pushed Clive down beside the fire on his face, knelt on him, and proceeded to tie his legs together. Then he got up and turned to Kerry.
"You vatch 'eem. Eef you no vatch I break your neck ven I come back."
Then, picking up a coil of rope, he started down towards Crogan. The moment his back was turned Bruce came with a run. He knew Kerry would call out when he saw him, so he kept close under the bluff until he got well behind the man. Then he came softly, and on the loose sand his steps were soundless. He was on Kerry before the latter had the faintest idea that he was close, and he caught the man by the throat, not roughly, but with a grip which told the fellow what he might expect if he tried to call out.
"Make a sound if you dare," he said gruffly in his ear, and Kerry collapsed like a pricked bladder.
To make things safe, Bruce gagged him with a scarf, then whipping out his knife turned to Clive and with a couple of quick cuts freed him.
"Are you hurt?" Bruce asked swiftly.
"Not a ha'p'orth," was Clive's answer, as he sprang to his feet. "I was a fool to get caught, but Lamar was too smart for me."
"Never mind that now," Bruce answered. "We've got to get away before Lamar comes back."
"But the gold," said Clive.
"It's gone. Your father's taken it in their canoe."
"Yes, and gone. But don't waste time talking. We must hook it up the bluff, get back to our canoe, and go down-stream to catch Uncle Quentin up."
Clive nodded, and they started.
"Hurry!" hissed Bruce, looking back over his shoulder. "Crogan's out."
It was true. As Bruce had thought from the first, the quicksand was not deep, and the moment Crogan got hold of the rope that Lamar flung him he was able to extricate himself. Now he and Lamar were coming back up the beach.
Bruce and Clive ran hard, and if only it had been dark would have got clear before being seen. But the fire was now blazing brightly and the flames, illuminating the whole beach, showed up their flying figures plainly. Lamar was the first to see them, and he screamed like a panther. Luckily for the boys, he had no gun, and Crogan's was empty, so before he and Lamar could reach the fire and find fresh cartridges the boys were scrambling through the thick brush which covered the whole side of the steep bluff. Lamar raced ahead of Crogan.
"Run, you fat fool!" he yelled. "Eef ve do not catch zem ve are done. Ze canoe is gone and ze gold."
Spurred by the taunt, Crogan put on a tremendous spurt and reached the foot of the bluff level with Lamar. The boys clawing their way up the steep heard the bushes crashing under the giant's weight. The bluff was very steep indeed, and unfortunately the boys had not had time to pick a good place to climb it. They reached a shelf about half-way up and to their horror found themselves trapped by a wall of rock which ran up six feet sheer behind it. Bruce could perhaps have made a jump, reached the top, and pulled himself up, but Clive, shorter and less muscular, was unable to do so, and Crogan was too close to leave time for both to escape.
What made matters worse was that the cunning Lamar had gone further along the bluff before starting up, and Bruce realised that his plan was to reach the top ahead and wait for them.
BRUCE glanced round and made a quick decision.
"Clive, go along the ledge and see if you can find a way up. Shout if you can."
Clive hesitated. "But you—Crogan will get you."
"He won't. I'll keep him off. Do as I say."
Clive went, and Bruce turned to meet Crogan. Crogan came with a rush, and Bruce, backing against the wall, clenched his fists and made ready to meet him. But Crogan, big as he was, had no intention of meeting this sturdy youth in a straight-forward battle. He ducked sideways, shot out one great arm, and caught Bruce by the leg. Bruce kicked out, but it was no use, and he could find nothing to cling to. In sheer desperation he flung himself on top of Crogan, knocked him off his balance, and the two together went crashing down through the bushes on to the beach.
It was lucky for both that they fell on soft, dry sand which broke their fall; yet even so they were half stunned by the tumble. Bruce tried to wriggle free, but Crogan's great arms crushed him so that he could not escape.
"I got him," bellowed the big man. "I got him, Lamar."
"Zen 'old 'eem vile I get ze ozzer," snapped back Lamar from the darkness above.
"You bet I'll hold him," growled Crogan. "Stop struggling, kid, or I'll squash you," he threatened, tightening his grip so that Bruce was helpless.
Bruce's heart was in his boots. To have been so near to success, then to fail like this was very bitter. And there was no chance of help. The thought of Bleak flashed through his brain. Big, staunch, steady Bleak! If only he were here instead of miles away down the Lizard! He stopped struggling. Pinned beneath Crogan's massive weight, he was only wasting his strength. Crogan chuckled, and holding him with one hand pulled a piece of cord from his pocket.
"Reckon I'll make you safe and then help Lamar round up the other lad," he remarked.
A shadow shot out of the gloom behind Crogan; it leapt into the air and fell upon his shoulders, knocking him sprawling on his face in the sand. Bruce did not wait to inquire who had come to his assistance; he was up in a flash, and he and the other together seized Crogan, pinned him down, and tied him with his own rope. Before the big fellow quite knew what was happening he was bound, gagged, and helpless, and Bruce scrambled up to find himself face to face with his helper.
"Uncle Quentin!" he gasped.
"I've been waiting just across the river," was the swift answer. "I saw what was happening and managed to get back in time. But Clive?"
"Up the bank there. Lamar is after him. Quick! We must help him."
"Don't go straight up. Go round," said his uncle, in a quick whisper. "You one side, I the other. And be careful. Lamar is far more dangerous than this lump."
"I know," was all Bruce said as he ran.
He knew his way now, for he had seen where Lamar had climbed, and the pace he went up that bluff was amazing. Somewhere ahead of him was a sound of struggling. He pushed out of the thick sumach on top of the bluff to see Lamar a little below him. The man was lying flat on a ledge and reaching down towards something unseen below. Apparently he had hold of it and was trying to lift it. Bruce saw it all in a flash. It was Clive whom the breed held, and he was trying to pull him up over the ledge under which Clive had taken refuge.
Bruce went forward softly, for he knew how quick were the senses of the half-breed; yet in spite of his caution Lamar heard and turned. Bruce leapt at him, caught him with both hands, and gave a violent push. Lamar yelled as he went over the edge, and Bruce's heart gave a great throb, for the drop was so steep he feared he had killed the man. Exactly below a stunted spruce grew out of a cleft in the rocks, and into this Lamar's body crashed—crashed, then stopped. The spiked end of a broken branch had gone through his leather belt and held him hanging like a joint of meat on a hook.
"'Elp! 'Elp!" the fellow cried shrilly. "'Elp me or I fall!"
But Bruce could not help. He dropped down on the bank and began to laugh, and after a moment Clive joined in, and when Clive's father came crashing through the brushwood he found his son and nephew in such fits of mirth that the tears were running down their cheeks.
"W-what—" he began; then he too caught sight of the terrible breed dangling in mid-air. "Brace up!" he ordered. "Stop that, boys! If we don't get him down he probably will break his neck."
"It—it wouldn't be much loss, would it?" said Bruce weakly, as he struggled to his feet and climbed down towards the tree.
Between them they got Lamar, but before releasing him they tied him safely. A few minutes later he lay alongside his accomplice on the beach. They left the precious pair there and went to the fire, where they found a pot of coffee and put it to heat.
"And now," said Quentin Winslow, "will you kindly tell me how you two came here? I knew you were in Canada from what Lamar said after he captured me, but I'm aching to know how you got here and all about it."
"Captured me." Those were the words that hit Bruce like a blow. He felt himself getting hot all over, but luckily for him Clive had started to tell the story, and his blushes were not noticed. When Clive had finished his father took up the tale.
"I was asleep when these fellows got the gold. I'd been up late looking after your father, Bruce. When I woke they had left, and I hadn't even time to rouse anyone and tell them. I simply ran after the thieves. Luckily my canoe was ready for a trip, for I had been intending to go off for a shoot the very day that John was hurt. It was silly perhaps, but I simply jumped into it and went straight after them. I caught up and passed them one night, and waited for them in Big Windy. I thought I would get a shot at them there. I damaged Kerry pretty badly, but Lamar shot a hole in my canoe, and it sank under me. Then they got hold of me and made me paddle in Kerry's place. It was Lamar's idea to try the Wolf's Mouth." He stopped and drew a long breath. "You boys have done finely," he said, with deep approval. "Now the sooner we get home the better for all concerned."
"But what about these thieves?" questioned Clive.
"We'll take Kerry," said his father, "and get him mended, but I don't want to be bothered with those other two ruffians. The best plan will be to leave them here—without their canoe."
"What—tied up!" exclaimed Clive.
"No," said his father, with a smile. "We'll leave one partly untied, and he can release the other. And we'll leave them a shot-gun and their stores. They'll have about two hundred miles to walk before they get anywhere, but I don't think we need waste any pity on them."
Clive laughed as he took the steaming coffee-pot off the fire.
"It'll be a jolly good lesson for them," he agreed.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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