Chapter XXIII. Tom Meets the Enemy
 

"Oh, what a fool I was to fall asleep!"

Thus spoke poor Tom to himself, as he continued to gaze around him and call out. To one side was the high mountain, to the other a deep valley filled with giant trees, and on both sides an utter loneliness which seemed to penetrate his very soul.

Like a flash there came over him the various stories he had heard of men being lost in these mountains and wandering around for days and weeks until their very reason forsook them. Was he, too, doomed to such a horrible fate?

Fervidly he prayed to Heaven that such an ending might not overtake him. Then with care he turned his horse about, thinking to gain the point where he had become separated from the rest, and feeling that they must, sooner or later, turn back to look for him.

Once he imagined that he heard somebody calling him. But the sound was so far away he was not sure, and the echo was such that he could not determine from what direction the call emanated. Yet he yelled in return, nearly splitting his throat in his endeavor to make himself heard. For the time being the enemy was completely forgotten.

Tom's turning back, as he thought he was doing, only made matters worse, for the horse branched off on another trail -- but so slender that it soon gave out altogether and left him on the trackless mountain side, and several miles from the fork where his steed had made the first mistake.

Yet he pressed on, calling again and again, but receiving no answer. Twice he imagined he heard pistol shots, and this gave him the idea of firing his own weapon, and he emptied the cylinder, but with no good to himself. Then he reloaded and came to a dead stop. He had never been more lonely in his life.

The balance of the night dragged so slowly that Tom thought it would never come morning again. With the first streak of light in the East he arose from the rock upon which he had thrown himself, and running to a higher point gazed eagerly around him.

He felt as Robinson Crusoe must have done on his deserted island. On all sides were rocks and hills, mountains and valleys, some bare and others covered with growths of pines and firs. Here and there glistened a rushing stream or a lofty waterfall, and on one of the hills he saw a herd of mule deer and on another a solitary Rocky Mountain goat. But nowhere was there the first sign of a human being.

Tom stood there for fully ten minutes, his breast heaving and his heart sinking within him like a lump of lead. He was alone, absolutely alone, in that wild and almost trackless region.

What was to be done?

Over and over he asked himself the question, and the answer always remained a blank. He knew not which way to turn, for going on might bring him into worse difficulty.

And yet he could not think of remaining still where he was, for the very thought was maddening. He must try to do something, be the consequence what it might.

Then he realized that his mouth was dry and that he was hungry. This made him remember that all of the provisions were loaded on the horses ridden by Jack Wumble and Dick. His own steed bore only some mining tools.

"I wish I could swap the tools for something to eat," he mused. "But there is no use in crying over spilt milk. I'm in a pickle, and I must do my best to get myself out of it."

At a short distance he saw a small hollow which had become partly filled by the rain of several days before. He walked to the hollow and drank his fill and then led his horse thither.

"We're lost, old man," he said, patting the beast on the neck. "We must find the others. You'll help, won't you?" And the horse pricked up his ears and looked around wisely as if he understood every word. At that moment Tom felt that a horse is indeed man's best friend.

He soon set off, but slowly, trying to locate the trail which had brought him astray, and trying at the same time, by the rising sun, to determine the direction in which his brothers and Jack Wumble had passed. But, as before, his efforts were misleading, and by the middle of the forenoon he found himself on a barren hilltop with no chance of leaving it excepting by the way he had come.

It was truly disheartening, and hot, tired, and discouraged he leaped again to the ground. He was now very hungry, without a morsel to satisfy the cravings of his stomach. His steed, too, wanted for something to eat, and gnawed eagerly at the spare vegetation as soon as permitted.

Tom was wondering what should be his next move when he was startled by the appearance of a mule deer on the hillside just below him. As he gazed at the animal he soon saw another, and then another, until the hillside seemed to be covered with them.

"I suppose men never come here to disturb them," he thought bitterly. "I wonder if I could bring one down with my pistol? I've got matches, and cooked deer's meat would be first class."

He crept as close as he could to the deer. Fortunately the breeze was blowing up the hill toward him, so the animals could not scent him readily. When he had gotten as near as be thought possible, he took careful aim and blazed away twice in quick succession.

His first shot was a failure, but his second landed in the deer's front leg, breaking that member at the knee and pitching the deer headlong. At once the rest of the herd took alarm, and went off like the wind, down the hillside into the valley and up another hill a good mile away. At the same time the wounded beast tried to rise, but before it could do so Tom ran closer and put three more balls into it, and then it rolled over, gave a jerk or two, and remained quiet forever.

The sight of such a feast made Tom's heart much lighter, and he brought out his pocket-knife and cut out some of the steaks. Then he moved down the hillside to where some brush promised abundant firewood and better forage for his horse.

The fire was soon lit and blazing away merrily, and the boy began to broil his steaks.

"Perhaps Dick and the others will see the smoke," he thought. "I trust they do, for I don't want to put in a whole night alone."

Tom ate his meal slowly, for he did not know what to do after it was finished. He wished he knew how far the nearest settlement was and in what direction.

After he had eaten his fill, he tied the balance of the steaks in a corner of his blanket, for the food must be kept for future use. Then he walked up to the top of the hill for another look around.

Suddenly he caught sight of a man riding swiftly toward him--a heavy-set man, with busky whiskers and a face that was almost black from constant exposure to the elements.

"Hullo, youngster!" cried the man, when he was within hailing distance. "All alone here?"

"I am!" cried Tom, and he felt something of joy to see a human being again.

"What brought you away out here? Hunting?"

"Not exactly, although I did bring down yonder animal," with a jerk of the thumb toward the deer. "I've lost my way."

"Did you, really? That's bad. It's lucky I ran across you. What's your handle?"

"Tom Rover," answered the youth boldly. "What is yours?"

"Noxton. So you are all alone?"

"Yes." Tom was trying to think where he had heard that name, but could not remember.

"Are you alone?"

"Well, hardly." Bill Noxton hesitated for a moment. "I was alone, but day before yesterday I fell in with a couple of Englishmen who are out here to see the sights, and they hired me to show 'em around. Our camp is just below here. Will you come down an' be introduced to the beef-eaters?"

"I suppose I might as well," answered Tom, never suspecting any trick. "I certainly don't want to remain alone any longer."

"Then come on. I told the beef-eaters I would be back inside of half an hour."

The man waited for Tom to mount, and then led the way down the hillside and into the valley. There was a patch of forest to pass, and they came out in a clearing on another hill, overlooking a mountain stream which flowed a hundred feet below.

"Here we are," cried Bill Noxton, as he suddenly wheeled behind Tom. "Shall I introduce you, Mr. Rover?"

Tom looked ahead, and his heart dropped.

There around a camp-fire sat Arnold Baxter and his son Dan, and a man who was a stranger to him. Clearly he was trapped, and in the hands of the enemy.