Chapter XIII. Visions of Gold
 

After satisfying themselves that Stacy was not injured, the others of the party each made an effort to pick up the hat, though with much more caution than Stacy had used.

Ned accomplished the trick the first time he tried. Walter, however, made several attempts, instructed by Tad, before he finally caught the knack of it.

"That will do for one day," decided the instructor, finally. "We must not tire out our ponies, for we still have a long jaunt ahead of us, according to the guide."

When they reached the camp, Stacy was still rubbing his head, much to the amusement of his companions. The noonday lunch was a light one; while they were eating it the ponies were tethered out on the plain to browse on the fresh, green grass.

Shortly after noon the party was on its way again, Lige being anxious to reach their destination before dark. Yet the trail was so rugged and precipitous that rapid progress was impossible. To add to this, late in the afternoon they overtook the pack train, which they found halted in the trail. One of the burros had gone lame, nor did Jose know what the trouble was. He was sitting by the side of the trail helplessly, waiting for someone to come along.

Tad hastily slipped from his saddle, running over to the burro.

"Which foot is he lame in?" asked the boy.

"Donno," answered the Mexican.

The boy led the little animal back and forth several times.

"It's the off hind foot," he announced.

"Off?" queried Chunky. "He doesn't seem to have a foot off."

"No, I didn't mean that. Horsemen call the right the off side, and the left the near one," explained Tad, picking up the beast's foot and examining it critically.

"He has stepped on a sharp piece of rock and driven it into the hoof," announced the boy. "I am afraid we shall have to unload the pack and strap him down before I can get it out."

Tying their horses, all hands drew near to witness the proceeding, which bade fair to be unusually interesting. However, Tad skilfully rigged a harness out of a long piece of quarter-inch rope. This he put on the burro, and soon had the animal on its knees, then on its side. The rope was drawn taut so that the burro could not kick, after which the boy cautiously cut around the sharp stone with his pocket knife, and, after considerable effort, extracted it.

"I'm sorry we have nothing to put in the wound. But I guess he will go along all right. He'll be lame for the rest of the day; but we cannot help that."

Once more they loaded up the beast of burden and the procession continued on its way, Lige having decided to keep the train in sight in case it was thought advisable to stop and make camp. They had been so delayed that it was now close to sunset.

At dusk they were still some distance from their destination.

"I think we bad better pull up here," suggested the guide.

"There's a moon up there," answered Tad. "Why not go on by moonlight? That is, of course, if you can follow the trail."

"I could follow the trail with my eyes shut, young man," grinned the guide. "What do you say, Professor?"

"As you think best, Lige. I do not mind a moonlight ride."

"Yes; let's go on," urged the boys, looking forward with keen anticipation to traveling over the mountains by night, for this they had not yet had an opportunity to do.

"Very well, if your appetites will keep for another hour or so. We should make it in an hour and a half," Lige decided, glancing about him keenly for landmarks. "We'll try, at any rate."

The shadows now began to close in, the gulches standing out in bold relief, black, forbidding seas at the foot of the ridges that lay a white wonderland in the moonlight.

"This is great!" declared Ned enthusiastically.

"Glorious," breathed Tad, drinking in the scene with wide open eyes, while inhaling in long, slow breaths, the soft mountain air. "I never saw anything more beautiful."

Now that night had settled over the trail, the riders had to move along more cautiously, and with tight reins, that their ponies might not stumble and hurl the riders over their heads. Tad, with an eye to caution, had advised them to do this. In this way the train moved on until nearly nine o'clock, when Lige announced that they had reached their halting place.

The mountain top where they stopped was thickly studded with cedars and pinyon trees, while off in the ravines slender spruces reared their sharp points above the shadows, projecting up through the black sea like the spars of a whole fleet of sunken schooners.

"Old Ben Tackers lives nigh here," the guide told them. "I'll go over and get him after supper. We can then talk with him about his dog. He can tell us all about the game. Ben is a character. However, you mustn't mind his blunt way of speaking. The old fellow is all right at heart."

Ben came over later in the evening, and the boys were much interested in him. A thick shock of shaggy hair covered his head and face, while through the mass of gray and brown twinkled a pair of bright, beady eyes. Ned said they reminded him of a couple of burnt holes in a horse blanket,

"Any game about here, Mr. Tackers?" asked Ned after the old mountaineer had been introduced to them.

"For them as can see, there's things to be seen," answered Ben enigmatically. "What do you reckon on shooting?"

"Anything we can find to shoot at," answered Ned.

"Beckon I'll go home and lock up my pigs, then," declared the old man firmly.

"Oh, it's not as bad as that, sir," hastily added Tad. "My friend, Ned, means anything in the game line. Surely we can be trusted to tell the difference between a bob-cat and a litter of pigs. Stacy Brown, here, knocked out a bobcat with nothing but a club at Beaver Mountain yesterday."

Ben turned to look at Chunky, who, huddled on the ground, appeared not unlike a large, round ball.

"Huh! He ain't much to look at," grunted the old man. "I got a tame cub over to my cabin that would be a good mate for him."

Stacy flushed painfully.

"Mr. Thomas was saying that you might be willing to make some arrangement with us so we could use your dog for a few days," hinted Professor Zepplin.

"Eh! Dogs! Lige Thomas kin have my dogs--I've got two of them now. No arrangement ain't necessary," growled Ben.

"We prefer to pay for them, sir," spoke up Walter. "And perhaps you may be able to tell us, also, where we may hope to find game?"

"Mebby so and mebby not. I'll see Lige about that. Got that cat skin ye was talking about?" he demanded suddenly, looking from one to the other.

Chunky brought it out, the old man examining it critically, nodding his head over some thought of his own.

"Bigger cats on Tacker's mountain," he grunted. "Want to sell it?" Chunky shook his head.

"Huh!" exclaimed the old man, rising and starting away.

"What's your hurry, sir?" asked the Professor politely.

"Must shut up the pigs. The little red-faced bear over there by the fire might get loose with his club again," and the mountaineer strode from the camp without another word.

Stacy Brown hung his head in chagrin, while the boys laughed heartily at what they considered a most excellent joke on Stacy.

"Chatty old person, isn't he, Mr. Thomas?" grinned Ned.

"Well, not exactly. But he's one of the best hunters on the Park Range. Besides, he is credited with knowing more about what's hidden under these mountains than any other man on them. But Ben doesn't care much for money. He'll set us right about the game when the time comes. If the game is not running he'll stay away and say nothing. However, at the right moment, you'll see old Ben Tackers and his dogs suddenly appearing in camp. It will do you no good to ask him questions. He'll tell me in a word what he has to say, and I shall have to guess the rest."

"And you will know what he means?" asked Tad.

"I reckon," grinned Lige.

"In about the same way he told me to-night that there were some bad men in these parts-- prospectors they called themselves--who were trying to locate some sort of a claim----"

"Claim? What kind?" asked Walter.

"Gold."

"Gold? Here?" spoke up the Professor sharply.

"Mountains are full of it, if you can find it," answered Lige in an impressive tone.

And the boys, thrilled by the thought that perhaps fortunes in the bright yellow metal lay beneath their feet, went to bed to dream of buried treasures and limitless wealth.