Chapter VII. Over the Cliff
 

Professor Zepplin's face worked convulsively as he sought to control his emotions.

"You--you can't mean it, sir. You cannot mean that Walter has come to any real harm? I----"

"I don't know. I'm only telling you what to expect."

"Then do something! Do something! For the love of manhood, do--" exploded the Professor, striding to the guide.

But Lige, having turned his back on the German tutor, was giving some brief directions to the boys, who were now fully dressed. They assented by vigorous nods, then promptly fell in behind him and held their torches close to the ground as if in search of something.

Reaching the bushes at the point where the Professor thought he had seen Walter Perkins disappear, they halted, the guide making a careful examination while the boys waited in silent expectancy.

Lige nodded reflectively.

"Yes; he went this way. You boys spread out, and if any of you observe even a broken twig that I have missed, let me know. The trail seems plain enough here."

And, the further he proceeded, the more convinced was Lige Thomas that his fears were soon to be fully realized.

Suddenly he paused, dropping onto his knees, in which position he cautiously crawled forward a few paces.

"Huh!" grunted the guide.

The boys, realizing that he had made some sort of a discovery, started forward with one accord.

"Stop!" commanded their guide sternly. "Don't you know you are standing on the very edge of the jumping-off place? Get down and crawl up by me here, Master Ned. But, be very careful. Leave your torch."

Ned quickly obeyed the instructions of the guide, lying down flat on his stomach, and wriggling along in that way as best he could.

Lige took a firm hold of his belt.

"I can't see anything," breathed the boy.

At first his eyes were unable to pierce the blackness. But after a little, as they became more accustomed to it, he began to comprehend. Below him yawned a black, forbidding chasm.

Ned shivered.

"Walt didn't--didn't----"

Lige inclined his head.

"Are you going to keep me in this suspense all night?" demanded the Professor irritably. "What have you discovered?"

The guide, before replying, assisted Ned back to his feet, leading him to a safe distance beyoud the dangerous precipice.

"There's no doubt of it at all, Professor. He has left a trail as plain as a cougar's in winter. He must have stepped off the edge at the exact point where you saw me lying."

"Then--then you think--you believe----"

"That he has been dashed to his death on the rocks a hundred feet below," added Lige solemnly. "Nothing short of a miracle could have saved him, and miracles ain't common in the Rockies."

The boys gazed into each other's eyes, then turned away. None dared trust his voice to speak. It was some moments before the Professor had succeeded in exercising enough self-control to use his own.

"Wh--what can we do?" he asked hoarsely.

"Nothing, except go down and pick him up----"

"But how?"

"By going back a mile we shall hit a trail that will lead us down into the gulch. But we'll have to leave the ponies and go down on foot. Not being experienced, I'm afraid to trust them. Only the most sure-footed ponies could pick their way where one misstep would send them to the bottom."

Returning to camp, and piling the fire high with fresh wood, the boys secured the ponies, and, led by Lige, struck off over the hack trail. It was a silent group of sad-faced boys that followed the mountain guide, and not a syllable was spoken, save now and then a word of direction from Lige, uttered in a low voice.

After somewhat more than half an hour's rough groping over rocks, through tangled underbrush and miniature gorges, Lige called a halt while he took careful account of their surroundings. His eye for a trail was unerring, and he was able to read at a glance the lesson it taught.

"Here is where we turn off," he announced. "Follow me in single file. But everybody keep close to the rocks at your right hand, and don't try to look down. I'm going to light a torch now."

The guide had had the forethought to bring a bundle of dry sticks, some of which he now proceeded to light, and, holding the torch high above his head, that the light might not flare directly in their eyes, he began the descent, followed cautiously by the others of the party. Yet, so filled were the minds of the boys with their new sorrow that they gave little heed to the perils that lay about them.

At last they came to the end of the long, dangerous descent, and, turning sharply to the right, picked their way through the cottonwood forest to the northwest.

Not a word had the Professor spoken since they left the camp, until observing a faint light in the sky some distance beyoud them, he asked the guide what it was.

"That's the light from our camp fire. "We are getting near the place," he answered shortly.

Professor Zepplin groaned.

Now, realizing the necessity for more light, Lige procured an armful of dry, dead limbs, all of which he bound into torches, and, lighting them, passed them to the others. With the aid of these the rocks all about them were thrown up into hold relief.

The boys were spread out in open order and directed to keep their eyes on the ground, remaining fully a dozen paces behind their leader, who of course, was the guide himself.

Peering here and there, starting at every flickering shadow, their nerves keyed to a high pitch, they began the sad task of searching for the body of their young companion.

Finally they reached the point which Lige knew to be almost directly beneath the spot where Walter was supposed to have stepped off into space.

"Remain where you are, please," ordered the guide.

Continuing in the direction which he had been following for several rods, Lige turned and made a sweeping detour, fanning the ground with his torch, as he picked his way carefully along.

"Wh--wha--what do you find?" breathed the Professor as Lige turned and came back to them.

"Nothing."

"Nothing? What does that mean?"

"That the boy's not here. That's all."

"Not--here!" marveled the three lads, and even that was a distinct relief to them. If Walter had not been dashed to death on the rocks at the bottom of the gulch, then there still was hope that he might be alive. However, this faint hope was shattered by Lige Thomas's next remark.

"The body may have caught on a root somewhere up the mountain side, "he added." I am afraid we shall have to go back and wait for daylight. But we'll see what can be done. I don't want to give it up until I am sure."

"Sure of what?" asked the Professor.

"That the boy is dead. Look!" exclaimed the guide, fairly diving to the ground, and rising with a round stone in his hand. He held it up almost triumphantly for their inspection.

But his find failed to make any noticeable impression upon either the boys or Professor Zepplin. They knew that in some mysterious way it must be connected with the loss of their companion, though just how they were at a loss to understand.

"I don't catch your idea, Lige," stammered the Professor. "I understand that you have picked up a stone. What has that to do with Walter?"

"Why, don't you see? He must have dislodged it when he fell off the mountain."

"No; I do not see why you say that."

"And up there, if you will look sharply, you will observe the path it followed coming down," continued Lige, elevating the torch that they might judge for themselves of the correctness of his assertion.

But, keen-eyed as were most of the party, they were unable to find the tell-tale marks which were so plain to the mountaineer.

"What do you think we had better do, sir?" asked Tad Butler anxiously.

"Go back to camp. I should like to leave someone here--but----"

"I'll stay, if you wish," offered Tad promptly.

"No, I couldn't think of it. It's too risky, There is no need of our getting into more trouble. If you knew the mountains better it might be different. If I left you here you might get into more difficulties, even, than your friend has. No; we'll go back together. It is doubtful if we could do anything for poor Master Walter now. No human being could go over that cliff and still be alive. A bob-cat might do it, but not a man or a boy," announced the guide, with a note of finality in his tone.

Sorrowfully the party turned and began to retrace their steps. But the necessity for caution not being so great on the return, most of the way being up a steep declivity, they moved along much faster than had been the case on their previous journey over the trail.

The return to camp was accomplished without incident, and the boys slipped away to their tents that they might be alone with their thoughts.

Professor Zepplin and the guide, however, sat down by the camp fire, where they talked in low tones.

Tad, upon reaching his tent, threw himself on his cot, burying his head in his arms.

"I can't stand it! I simply can't!" he exclaimed after a little. "It's too awful!"

The boy sprang up, and going outside, paced restlessly back and forth in front of the tent, with hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets, manfully struggling to keep hack the tears that persistently came into his eyes.

A sudden thought occurred to him.

With a quick, inquiring glance at the two figures by the fire, Tad slipped quietly to the left, and nearing the scene of the accident, crept cautiously along on all fours. He flattened himself on the ground, face down, his head at the very spot where his companion had, supposedly, taken the fatal plunge.

For several minutes the boy lay there, now and then his slight figure shaken by a sob that he was powerless to keep back.

"I cannot have it--I don't believe it is true. I wish it had been I instead of Walt," he muttered in the excess of his grief. "I----"

Tad cheeked himself sharply and raised his head.

"I thought I heard something," he breathed. "I know I heard something."

He listened intently and shivered.

Yet the only sounds that broke the stillness of the mountain night were the faint calls of the night birds and the distant cry of a roaming cougar.

"H-e-l-p!"

Faint though the call was, it smote Tad Butler's ears like a blow. Never had the sound of a human voice thrilled him as did that plaintive appeal from the black depths below.

He hesitated, to make sure that it was not a delusion of his excited imagination.

Once more the call came.

"Help!"

This time, however, it was uttered in the shrill, piercing voice of Tad Butler himself, and the men back there by the camp fire started to their feet in sudden alarm while Ned Rector and Stacy Brown came tumbling from their tents in terrified haste.

"What is it! What is it?" they shouted.

Instead of answering them, Lige Thomas, with a mighty leap, cleared the circle of light and sprang for the bushes from which the sound had seemed to come. He was followed quickly by the others. Both the guide and Professor Zepplin had recognized the voice, and each believed that Tad Butler had gone to share the fate of Walter Perkins.

Yet, when Lige heard Tad tearing through the underbrush toward him, he knew that this was not the case.

"What is it?" bellowed the guide in a strident voice.

"It's Walt! He's down there! Quick! Help!"