Chapter XXI. Lost in the Mountains

"Dick! Tom! Jack! Come here and see what I have found!"

Sam's cry was a loud one, and soon the others came up on a run, Jack Wumble pistol in hand, for his life in the open had taught him to be forever prepared for danger.

"Wot is it, lad?" asked the old miner anxiously.

"It's a quit notice for us," answered Sam soberly. "I can tell you, the Baxters mean to carry matters with a high hand."

All of the others read the notice in silence. Then Dick thrust his hands into his pockets coolly.

"I'll see them hanged before I'll go back," he said.

"I am with you," added Tom. "But we must be cautious after this, or the Baxters will be firing at us from an ambush."

"If only we could catch sight of them," put in Sam. "They ought to be shot on sight!"

The boys looked at Jack Wumble, who had remained silent.

"Do you advise us to go back?" asked Dick hastily.

"I can't say as I do, lads," was the slow response. "Yet it might be better to do that nor to be shot down and have yer body thrown into a canyon," added Wumble, speaking in his old time vernacular. "Perhaps your father would rather have ye back."

"I don't believe it," burst out Tom. "Father never wanted cowards for sons."

Dick caught the paper, tore it down and ripped it in two, throwing it to the wind.

"I say I'm going ahead."

"So am I," came from both of his brothers. "But you need not go Jack." went on Dick. "We don't wish you to run into danger, and --"

"Hold up, Dick, I said I would see ye through, and I will," cried the old miner. "But I want ye to realize what ye are doing, that's all. If you are shot down it will be yer own fault, so to speak."

"But we don't intend to be shot down," interrupted Tom. "We have run up against the Baxters before, so we know how to be careful."

"It aint like as if they were in a city in the East," went on the old miner. "Here some men are mighty free with their shootin'-irons. And they could take a shot at ye from a long distance, with a good rifle."

Thus talking the entire party walked back to their camp and sat down to discuss the situation in detail.

"Perhaps we had better not advance until dark," said Dick. "If we advance now we will simply be making targets of ourselves," and he shivered in spite of himself.

"We won't advance at all," put in Jack Wumble briefly. "We would be wuss nor fools if we did--with them human wildcats a -- watchin' of us," and he began to puff vigorously at his short stump of a briarroot pipe.

"But you said --" began Tom, when the old miner waved him to silence.

"Let me think it out, lads, and then I'll tell ye my plan. We'll trick 'em -- that's best," and he began to smoke again.

Satisfied that Jack Wumble knew the ground to be covered better than they did, the boys decided to let him have his own way, so long as the object of the expedition should be advanced. They sat down in the shade to rest, and thus several hours passed, and the old miner smoked up half 'a dozen pipefuls of his favorite plug mixture.

"I've got it," he cried at last. "If we kin work the deal we'll keep 'em guessing." And he laughed softly to himself.

His plan was a simple one. Several miles back on the trail there was a fork, the second trail running to the northward. His plan was to ride back to the fork, and then in the darkness of the night to take to the second trail.

"That don't lead to Larkspur Creek," he said. "But it leads to Go Lightly Gulch, and from there I know an old Indian trail which leads to the Larkspur by way of Bender Mountain. It's dangerous trail to ride, but it's safe, too, so far as our enemies are concerned, for they can't cover it from any other part of the mountains. They would either have to be right in front of us or right behind, and in that case we'd have as much of a show at them as they would have at us."

"That's a good plan," exclaimed Dick. "Let us adopt it, by all means."

Slowly the afternoon wore away, until the sun was lost to view behind the great Rocky Mountains in the west. As soon as the shadows became long and deep Jack Wumble arose.

"Now I reckon we can begin to ride on the back trail," he said, with a shrewd smile on his rugged face.

It was an easy matter to saddle the horse again.

The rest had made the animals as fresh as ever and this was a good thing, as the old miner calculated to ride a long distance between sunset and sunrise.

"I suppose our enemies are watching every move we make," said Tom. "But I must say I can't catch a single glance of them."

"I thought I saw a speck or two of something over the hill to the south," said Dick.

Jack Wumble nodded. "You are right, Dick, I saw the specks too, and they were men looking in this direction. But they might not have been our enemies."

"If only we had a good field glass," sighed Sam. "I was going to bring one along, but I forgot all about it."

They rode on slowly, the old miner not wishing to reach the fork in the trail until it was quite dark. Fortunately it was clouding up, so that not even the stars would be left to betray them.

"We are coming to the fork," said Wumble, about eight o'clock. "Keep your eyes peeled, lads, and if you see anything out of the ordinary, let me know at once."

There was a tiny stream to cross, and then the way led around a series of sharp rocks.

"Keep to the grass as much as possible," cautioned the old miner in a voice that was a mere whisper. "And now follow me as fast as you can!"

Away he bounded in the lead, and the three Rover boys followed around the rocks through a stretch of pines and over some fallen firs, and then up and up a rugged trail where the footing was so insecure that the horses slipped continually. The branches of the drooping trees bothered them greatly, and had it not been for Wumble's continual warnings one or another of them would have been seriously hurt. The horses panted for breath, but still the old miner kept the pace until the top of the first range of foothills was gained. Here he called a halt under an overhanging rock beneath which it was as black as a dungeon.

"So far so good," he muttered, as he leaped to the ground and began to pat his heaving and perspiring animal. "I don't believe they know much about where we went to, even if they followed us back to the fork."

"I don't believe they are following us," said Dick, as he placed his ear to the ground and listened. All was as silent as the grave.

They remained under the rock the best part of an hour, allowing their trusty animals to get back their wind and strength. During this time Wumble walked back a short distance and Tom climbed up to the top of the rock, but neither made any discovery of importance.

It was a little after midnight when they moved forward again. Their pace was now little better than a walk, for the trail was a dangerous one, and in many spots they had to leap down and lead their horses. Once they came to a gully six to eight feet wide, without a bridge, and it took a good deal of urging to get Tom's horse to make the leap across.

"If a fellow should tumble in there where would he go to?" asked Sam, with a shudder.

"He'd go out of sight forever," replied Wumble solemnly. "Some of those cuts are a thousand feet deep."

"What a mighty upheaval of nature there must have been here at one time," said Dick.

By three o'clock in the morning Tom was completely fagged out and could scarcely keep his eyes open. Gradually he dragged behind the others, his eyes closing every few minutes in spite of his efforts to keep them open.

"I wish I had a cup of strong coffee to keep me awake," he murmured. "How much further are you going, Jack?"

"A couple of miles or so," answered the old miner. "Want a smoke? You can have my pipe."

"Thank you, but I don't smoke, and I guess it would only make me feel worse," answered Tom.

He began to drop further and further behind. The other boys spoke to him, but they were in reality nearly as much worn out as their brother, and had all they could do to keep Wumble in sight.

At last Tom's head fell forward on his breast, and on the instant he went fast asleep. His horse continued to move forward, but coming to a fork in the trail, took the downward path, that being the easier to travel. On and on went the beast, until striking a smooth road he set off on a gallop.

The violent motion aroused Tom, and he stared about him in bewilderment. "Dick! Sam!" he called out. "Where are you?"

No answer came back, and he sat bolt upright in alarm. Nobody was in sight, nor could he hear a sound saving the hoof beats of his own horse. He drew rein instantly.

"Dick!" he called loudly. "Jack Wumble! Where are you?"

Not a sound came in reply--not even the cry of a bird--all was absolutely silent. Tom gave something of a gasp. He realized his position only too well.

He was lost in the mountains.