Chapter XXIV. The Search for the Missing Boy
 

"Tom isn't here!"

It was Dick who uttered the words, as of a sudden he wheeled around on the dark trail and tried to penetrate the blackness of night behind them.

"Isn't here?" demanded Jack Wumble, while Sam set up a cry of dismay.

"No. Tom! Tom!"

Sam joined in the cry, and so did the old miner, but as we already know, it was useless.

"This is the wust yet!" growled Jack Wumble. "I told ye all to keep close to me."

"Perhaps he fell asleep -- I know he was dead tired," answered Dick, hitting the plain truth.

"We'll have to go back for him," said Sam, and turned without delay, for going ahead without Tom was all out of the question.

"Yes, we'll go back," rejoined the old miner. "But go slow, or you may make matters wuss. I kin follow a clear trail, even of three hosses, but I can't follow a trail mixed up backward an' forward."

They rode back slowly until at least half a mile had been covered. Then they shouted, but only a dismal echo came back. Dick fancied once that he heard Tom calling, but was not sure.

Daylight found them still searching around, Dick and Sam with more sober faces than they had worn in many a day. They knew only too well the danger of becoming lost in those wild mountains.

"Perhaps he has fallen in with Baxter's party," suggested Dick, as they came to a halt at the edge of a cliff overlooking a rushing river far below. It was past the breakfast hour, yet none of them felt like eating.

"Be careful how you expose yourself," observed Jack Wumble, as he screened himself and his horse behind some brush. "It won't do no good to Tom to let your enemies see you."

"If only we hadn't lost the trail," sighed Sam. The back trail had disappeared, on some rocks half an hour before and all efforts to take it up again had proved unsuccessful.

The Rover boys felt very much disheartened. Without Tom what was the use of going ahead to locate the missing mine?

"He's worth a dozen mines," said Dick.

"We must find him--we simply must."

But they were "stumped," to use Sam's way of expressing it, and with nothing better to do, Jack Wumble drew further back into the bushes, tethered his horse and got out the provisions for a meal. The boys ate mechanically and were soon done. Then Wumble got out his pipe and began to smoke more vigorously than ever.

"If we had a field glass we might spot him," he observed. "He can't be such a terrible distance away."

"I'm going to fire my pistol again," said Dick, and did, so, but no response came back and he re-loaded as crestfallen as ever.

It was a clear day, but the very sun seemed a mockery as it beamed down upon them.

"Supposing we separate and renew the hunt?" suggested Sam, but Wumble slowly shook his head.

"None o' that, lad. It will only be a case of another one lost. No, we must keep within sight of each other, no matter what we do. Come, I have an idea of looking into the valley on the other side of this hill, and then we can try the hill yonder."

Anything was better than sitting still, and once more they rode on. For the time being the enemy was almost forgotten.

They were going down along the edge of the cliff when, without warning, Dick's horse began to slip, having stepped on a rock which was insecure.

"Hi! whoa!" yelled the youth, and tried to hold the horse back. Then, as he saw the animal could not save himself, he leaped for the ground. The horse managed to scramble to a place of safety, but Dick, in trying to avoid a dangerous hoof stroke from the beast, lost his balance and went crashing down into the bushes overhanging the cliff!

Down and down, and still down, went the elder Rover, from one bush to another, his clothing catching here and there, thus partly staying his progress. But he could not stop himself entirely, and reaching the stream at last he went in with a loud splash and disappeared from view!

"Dick's gone!" ejaculated Sam. He tried to look over the edge of the cliff. "Oh, my! He will be drowned!"

He had heard the splash, as had also Wumble, and now both dismounted with all speed and crept to the very edge of the bushes. But the cliff bulged outward just below them and they could see nothing but a strip of the water on the opposite side.

"Dick! Dick!" sang out the brother. "Are you safe?"

No reply came back, and Sam's face turned white as he looked at Jack Wumble. "Do you think he has been -- been killed?" The question nearly choked him.

"I can't say, Sam," was the answer. "We must git down an' see."

With extreme care the old miner let himself down from one clump of brush to another. His experience at prospecting stood him in good stead, for he had frequently climbed down just such heights to see if the mountain stream below would "pan out" sufficiently to set up a claim.

In the meanwhile Dick had gone to the very bottom of the stream, struck on the sand and rocks, and come up again. In falling down he had turned over and over, and he was as much dazed by this as he was by the quantity of cold water which be swallowed. For the minute after coming up he did not realize his situation. Then he felt himself borne along swiftly, he knew not to where. The rushing of the water was deafening, for the stream was approaching a narrow canyon, and here the water was lashed into a milky foam as it tumbled and tore over the rocks on its way to a broader spot quarter of a mile below.

Presently Dick felt his feet touch bottom, but only for an instant. The stream was calmer now, and to one side of the cut he saw a narrow strip of band, leading up to a shelving of rocks, with here and there a tiny brush struggling for existence in a spot which the sunlight never touched. He began to strive with might and main to reach the strip of sand, and finally succeeded. Then he threw himself down, too exhausted to make another move.

"I'm in for it now," he thought, when he somewhat recovered. "How in the world am I ever to get back to that trail again?"

He looked above him. The mountain was high here, and there was nothing resembling a path leading upward. To climb from one scant footing to another would prove perilous, if not impossible.

"We are making a mess of this expedition," he groaned. "First Tom must get lost, or worse, and now I am down here like a rat in a trap. Perhaps we would have been better off if we had never started out."

When Dick felt able he walked from one end of the sand strip to the other. This gave him no satisfaction, and he began to inspect the stream again. Below him was a curve, and what was beyond there was no telling.

"If I enter the water again it may carry me along for miles before I have another chance to get out," he reasoned. "And then I will be just that much further away from Sam and Wumble."

If he had had his pistol he would have fired it to let them know that he was safe, and in the hope that they would come for him. But the weapon had been lost in the tumble down the cliff.

With much hesitation he began to climb up the side of the canyon, making sure that one footing was perfectly safe before he tried another. In this manner he at length reached the height of a hundred feet. He did not dare to look back for fear of tumbling. And yet the path to safety was still a long way off.

"If I can't gain the top and can't go back, what then?" he asked himself, and the cold perspiration stood out on his forehead in beads. There was a bush in front of him, and he squeezed into this, so that be might sit down to consider the situation. Pushed back, the bush suddenly gave way altogether, and to his astonishment Dick fell into the opening of a large cave.