Chapter XXII. Professor Zepplin's Mysterious Foe
 

Though Tad Butler had received an ugly wound where the sharp claw of the dying cougar had raked him from his right shoulder almost down to the waist line, his youthful vitality enabled him to throw off the shock of it in a very short time.

Making sure that the beast was dead, Lige rushed to the boy's side, and turning him over, made a hasty examination of his wounds.

Tad was unconscious.

"Is--is he dead?" breathed Walter, peering down into the pale face of his friend.

"No. He's alive, but he's had a mighty close call," answered Lige in a relieved tone, and each of the boys muttered a prayer of thankfulness.

"Bring me some water at once," commanded the guide.

Ned rushed away, returning in a few moments with his sombrero filled. In his excitement he dropped the hat in attempting to pass it to the guide, deluging the unconscious Tad with the cold water. Tad gasped and coughed, a liberal supply of the water having gone down hist throat.

"Clumsy!" growled Lige. "Get some more, but don't let go till I get hold of the hat this time."

By the time Ned had returned with the second hatful, Tad Butler was regaining consciousness, and in a few moments they had him sitting up.

The guide washed the boy's wound, and, laying on a covering of leaves, which he secured with adhesive plaster, allowed him to stand up.

"Well, young man, how do you feel?" he asked, with a grin.

"I feel sore. Did he bite me?"

"Luckily for you, he didn't. If you are going in for hand-to-hand mix-ups I'm afraid we shall have to leave off hunting. Old and experienced hunters have done what you did, but I must say it's the first time I ever heard of a boy even attempting it."

"Are the dogs dead?" asked Tad solicitously.

"No. But, like you, they're pretty sore. You saved Ginger's life, and I guess he knows it. You can see how he keeps crawling up to you, though he can hardly drag his body along."

"Good Ginger," soothed Tad, patting the wounded beast, which the hound acknowledged by a feeble wag of its tail.

"Now, if you boys are satisfied, I propose that we start back in the morning," advised Lige. "It will take us well into the second day to reach camp, and we may pick up some game on the way back. I'll skin the cat to-night after supper, so we can take the hide back with us. I guess you'll all agree that it belongs to Tad Butler?" smiled Lige.

"Well, I should say it does," returned Ned earnestly. "But he's welcome to it. If that's the way they get cougar skins, I'll roam through life without one, and be perfectly contented with my lot."

"Not many fellows would risk their lives for a dog," added Walter, with glowing eyes.

While the boys had been having such exciting times, Professor Zepplin also had been enjoying the delights of the mountains, as well as experiencing some of their more unpleasant features.

The lure of the yellow metal had gotten into the Professor's veins, immediately he had proved to his own satisfaction that that which Tad had discovered was real gold. The German could scarcely restrain his anxiety until the final return of Ben Tackers with the reply to the message he had sent on to Denver.

Ben had made the trip to Eagle Pass again on the third day, returning some time in the night, so that the Professor did not see him until the following day.

In the meantime, Professor Zepplin had not been idle. He had made frequent trips to the vicinity of the cave, bringing away with him each time a bagful of the ore, which he had detached with his hammer and chisel, all of which he had submitted to the blow-pipe, acid tests, and, in most instances, with the same result that had followed his first attempt.

The Professor's enthusiasm now was almost too great for his self-restraint. There could be no doubt of the correctness of his conclusions. There must be a rich vein of ore running through the rocks, terminating, he believed, in the cave itself.

Finally, urged on by this same enthusiasm, Professor Zepplin ventured in as far as the first chamber one afternoon, and what he found there raised his hopes to the highest pitch.

"I must be careful. I must be cautious. No one must know of my discovery just yet," he breathed, glancing apprehensively about, as he emerged from the cave on hands and knees.

Yet, as he came out, the Professor failed to observe two pairs of eyes that were watching his every movement from the rocks above the entrance to the cave.

Believing himself entirely alone, the Professor spread the ore he had just gathered on the ground before him, taking up each piece of mineral, fondling it and gazing upon it with glowing eyes.

"Gold! Bright yellow gold! A fortune, indeed!"

With a deep sigh of satisfaction, he gathered up the specimens, replacing them in his bag with great care. He drew the mouth of the bag shut, tying it securely.

So thoroughly absorbed was he with his great discovery, that he was all unconscious of the fact that a man had been creeping up to him from the rear while he had been thus engaged.

In one hand the fellow carried a stout stick, the free hand being employed to aid him in his cat-like creeping movements.

"I wonder if anyoue suspects," mused the scientist, sitting with a far-away look in his eyes. "Well, we shall see. We shall----"

The words died on the Professor's lips, as the tough stick, which had been raised above him, was brought down with a resounding whack, squarely on the top of his uncovered head.

Sudden darkness overwhelmed Professor Zepplin. He sank down with a moan, into utter oblivion.

When finally his heavy eyelids had struggled apart, night had fallen. At first, he could not imagine where he was nor what had happened. Shooting pains throbbed through his head and down into his arms and body.

The Professor uttered a suppressed moan, closed his eyes and lay back, vainly groping about in his disordered mind for a solution of the mystery.

Step by step he went back over the occurrences of the afternoon, which gradually became clearer, until at last he reached the point where he had finished his examination of the specimens of ore, in front of the cave entrance.

"And that's where I am now," decided Professor Zepplin, sitting up. "But, what happened then? I have it. Something hit me."

His hand instinctively went to his injured head. Then, with trembling fingers he began searching for the bag of minerals.

It was nowhere to be found. The Professor marveled at this for some minutes.

Like a blow, the answer came to him.

"Robbed!" he exclaimed.

Struggling to his feet, the German staggered down the rocks toward the camp, calling for Jose with the full strength of his voice. The Professor having been assisted to his tent and a lotion prepared for his aching head, Jose was hurried off to the cabin of Ben Tackers with an urgent demand for his presence.

When Ben responded, and had listened to the full account of Professor Zepplin's mishap, he sat grave and thoughtful.

"Bad lot," he growled. "Ab Durkin's one of the most lawless critters on the Park Range; and I've got all I'm goin' to stand from him. The sheriff will settle him when he gits here----"

"I don't care anything about the sheriff. The coward shall suffer for this, if he is the one who attacked me. I'll drive him out myself, if you won't help me. I'll----"

"I'm with you all right, pardner."

"Then, come. I'm ready now," urged the Professor rising.

"What you going to do?" "I am going back there to take possession of that claim. That's what I am going to do. And it will be worse for the man who tries to stop me," declared Professor Zepplin, taking a revolver from his kit, and examining it to see that all the chambers were loaded. "I'd like to see this man, Ab, attempt to interfere with my rights--I mean, interfere again."

Yet, had he known what was in store for him, the Professor might have hesitated before taking the step that he had determined upon.