Chapter XVI. Live Cubs Captured
 

Bring torches!" shouted Lige. "Look out for yourselves! There may be another in the cave. This is an old she bear."

After the lights had been brought, the boys cautiously approached the dead bear. Lige was down on his knees examining it.

"I think we shall find something interesting here, before we have finished," he announced. "Master Tad, as you have strong nerves, you come along with me. The others can drag the bear out and wait for us outside. Bring a couple of extra torches, in case we need them."

"What are you looking for? More bear?" inquired the boy after they had penetrated further into the cave.

"You'll see; that is, if I find what I am looking for. Your cave is turning out better than any of us had any idea it would. Was that some more fools' gold you picked up back there?"

"Oh, you saw me, did you? I don't know. It shines, and that's all I know about it. Do you know of any place where there is real gold in this part of the Rockies?"

"Yes; there are some claims paying fairly well within twenty miles of here. The Lost Claim is supposed to be somewhere in this neighborhood, but thus far no one ever has been able to locate it. I've had suspicions that Ben Tackers might make a close guess if he wanted to disclose it. But old Ben wouldn't bother with the gold if it was dumped right down in his pig sty."

"What's the Lost Claim?"

"It's quite a long story. I'll tell it to you, briefly, while we are exploring the cave."

"Then it was a real gold mine?"

"It surely was, Master Tad. And I guess it is still. Some twenty years ago a miner who had been born and brought up in the Park Range began dropping down to Denver at more or less irregular intervals, where he exchanged nuggets of pure gold and pay dust for cash. The quality of the gold showed that it must come from a rich vein.

"Naturally, people were curious. But to all their questions, Ab Ferguson simply said he'd got the gold out of 'the Lost Claim.'"

"Wonder they didn't follow him. I should think they might have located it in that way?" wondered Tad.

"They did. But they might as well have tried to find the pot of gold that is said to be at one end or the other of the rainbow. Ab was too much of an Indian to be caught that way."

"What happened to him finally?"

"Knocked down by a runaway team in Denver, and died three days later."

"And he didn't tell anyoue where the Claim was?"

"Not he. They've been looking for it ever since. But no one, so far as I ever heard, has got anywhere near it. There's a bunch of hard characters beating up the mountains now, hoping to get rich without work. It's dollars to sandwiches they're hoping to find the Lost Claim."

"You--you don't suppose it was one of them who threw the stone at me, do you?" asked Tad reflectively.

"I hadn't thought of that. It may be--it may be. H-m-m-m. That's an idea."

"But why should they wish to harm me? I don't understand it at all."

"No more do I, unless they found you snooping about, or thought our party might be on the same lay they are. You know, fellows of that kind will stop at nothing. More than one man has been killed on nothing more than an idle suspicion, in these mountains. A lot more will follow in the same way. But we've been warned, and it will be well to keep a sharp lookout."

"If they hadn't thought we were near the Lost Claim, I don't see why they should have had any suspicions," decided Tad.

"On general principles--that's all."

"Did you ever try to find the Lost Claim?"

"I? Never. What would I do with it, if I had it? I'm like Ben Tackers--don't need any more money than I've got. More would be too much."

Yet Tad Butler was unable to rid his mind of the idea that somehow he had stumbled close upon the dead miner's secret. He determined to turn prospector at the very first opportunity.

"Is this more fools' gold?" he asked, pointing to a thin, yellow streak that sparkled in the rock at their right.

"I reckon it is. It has fooled more than one prospector, and drove some of them crazy. Take my advice and don't get the fever. Nothing but trouble will follow you if you do. Trouble always does follow the greed for the yellow metal."

They had been winding out in the maze of passages, Lige, in the meantime, keeping a sharp lookout for guide marks, now and then gouging a niche in the wall to guide them on their return journey.

"Watch out," he cautioned. "We are coming to something."

Sundry soft, muffled growls led them to proceed more carefully, until, finally, Lige directed the lad to raise the torch higher. Lige cocked his rifle, holding it in readiness for quick action. In this manner they crept further into the cave until Tad was suddenly startled by a loud laugh from the guide.

"What is it?" exclaimed the boy.

"Just what I thought. Come here."

At first, Tad could make nothing of what the guide was exhibiting.

However, after a moment's peering in that direction, the boy observed what appeared to be a round ball of fur in one corner of the chamber. "Wha--what is it--bears?" Lige nodded, and, striding over to the heap, he pulled it roughly apart. His act was greeted with a series of savage snarls and growls.

"Cubs. Four of them, and beauties, at that. I knew they were in here, somewhere, after I had examined the mother," announced the guide triumphantly.

"Bear cubs? You don't mean it!" exclaimed Tad joyously. "And we can take them with us?"

"That's exactly what we shall do. There will be one for each of you, and we can crate them up so they can be carried on the burros."

"One for each of us? Won't the boys go wild when they see them? But, how are we going to get them to camp?"

"I'll show you."

Taking a strip of rawhide from his pocket, Lige fashioned a collar about the neck of each cub, leaving a leash four or five feet long to lead the animal by. However, this was not accomplished without vigorous protest on the part of the cubs. Tad was highly amused at their efforts to cuff their captor with their little paws, which they wielded with more or less skill. Yet, they were too young to be able to make any great resistance, and the guide did not give the slightest attention to their attempts to drive them away.

"There," he announced, having secured the little animals. "We each will lead two. Don't be afraid to pull, if they hold back. They'll come along all right when they begin to choke."

With their prizes in tow Tad and the guide retraced their steps to the cave entrance.

At first, looks of amazement greeted them as they emerged with their strange captives.

"Know what they are?" grinned Tad, proudly hauling his cubs up for inspection.

The boys shook their heads.

"Bear cubs. There's one for each of us."

"Whoop!" shouted the boys in chorus.

"Now, we'll have a regular menagerie," exclaimed Ned. "If we could catch a live bob-cat to go with them, wouldn't that be great?"

"Will they bite?" asked Chunky, apprehensively edging away from one of the animals that was playfully tugging at his leggin.

"Not yet," answered the guide. "And you can tame them so they won't hurt you at all. They make good pets if one begins when they are young."

The next half hour was spent in skinning the big mother bear, which proceeding the boys watched with keen interest. Some of the meat they took back to camp with them to cook for supper.

They found old Ben Tackers there awaiting them.

"Hullo, Ben," greeted the guide. "How's everything?"

"Tol'ble," grunted the old mountaineer.

"Are the dogs ready?"

Ben nodded.

"Start morning," he said.

"Good," shouted the boys.

"We couldn't imagine where you had been keeping yourself all the time," added the Professor. "Lige went over to your cabin last night and found it locked."

"Been away, Ben?" asked Lige.

"Over to Eagle Pass. Miners steal old Ben's hogs--one, two of them. Sheriff come by-and-bye and chase bunch out. Old Ben kill them, but Sheriff do better. Big fight when Sheriff comes."

The boys laughed at his quaint way of expressing himself, but not catching the full import of his words.

Lige, on the other hand, eyed him questioningly; and, when Ben finally left the camp in his usual abrupt fashion, the guide rose and followed him. When Lige Thomas returned, his face wore an expression of seriousness that amounted almost to anxiety.

The boys were excitedly discussing their plans for the morrow. It had been decided that the Professor should remain in camp with Jose, as, owing to the presence of the miners in the vicinity, it was not thought wise to leave the camp entirely alone. The four boys, with Lige Thomas, were to make the trip, from which, in case they found the game running, they might not return in twenty-four hours.

Tad had been thinking deeply. After a little while be rose and walked over to Professor Zepplin's tent.

"May I come in?" he asked.

"Certainly, walk right in, Tad. What is on your mind?"

"This," answered the lad, laying on the Professor's table the chunks of mineral that he had picked up.

"What's this? Ah, I see. More of the iron pyrites. The metal has driven many a poor fellow mad with anticipations of fabulous wealth," smiled the German.

"Are you sure it is fools' gold, Professor?"

"Reasonably so. But you may leave it here, if you wish, and I will examine it at my leisure. Where did you find the second piece?"

"In the cave. There is a streak of what appears to be the same stuff, extending around one entire chamber there. If it was gold instead of----"

"Pyrites," supplied the Professor.

"Yes. It would make a man very rich, would it not?" asked Tad rising.

"Undoubtedly," smiled the Professor, bowing the boy out courteously.

Professor Zepplin, from the opening of his tent, watched Tad until the latter had joined his companions, after which he pulled the flap shut, quickly seating himself in front of his camp table.

Having done so, he proceeded to examine the two pieces of metal under a magnifying glass. Then with his geologist's hammer he broke off bits of the metal, through all of which sparkled the bright yellow particles.

The German got out his field kit, from which he selected several bottles with glass stoppers, arranging these on the table in front of him. This done, he pulverized a small quantity of the rock, with short, quick raps of the hammer, placing the powder thus made on a plate.

"One part nitric acid, two parts hydrochloric acid," he muttered, pouring the desired quantities from the bottles.

These preparations having been made, the Professor's next move was to apply a blowpipe to some of the metal from the pulverized ore, thus forming a small yellow button. This he dissolved in the aqua regia, formed by the combination of the two acids, and applied the usual chemical tests.

As he did so, Professor Zepplin's eyes glowed with a strange light.

He sprang up, peered cautiously from behind the tent flap, then settled himself once more to his experiments.

Again he went through a similar process with the powder made from still another chunk of the ore. The same result followed.

"Gold! Gold! Rich yellow gold!" breathed the scientist.

He sat with head bowed, breathing heavily, his fascinated gaze fixed on the shining metal.

"Can it be possible!" he murmured.

The loud laughter of the boys off by the camp fire was borne to his ears. But Professor Zepplin did not seem to hear the sounds. He was lost in deep thought.