Chapter XIII. Winning Through Pluck
 

Tad Butler had left the camp at daybreak. He started off at a slow trot which he kept up over the rough, uneven ground until some time after sunrise, all the time keeping the mountain gorge in sight so that he might not lose his way.

He had eaten no breakfast, having simply taken a cup of sulphur water, believing that he could make better time on an empty stomach. However, he now sat down and munched on one of the three hard boiled eggs he had taken with him.

"Guess it will be a good thing to rest for half an hour," he said to himself. This he did, by stretching flat on his back, after having finished his scanty breakfast.

Sharp on the half hour by his watch, Tad sprang up, greatly refreshed. Leaning well forward he dropped into a long, easy lope, which carried him over the ground rapidly. Hard as nails and spurred on by the need of his companions, the lad pushed on and on, blazing his trail as he went, not feeling any fatigue to speak of. Now and then he would pause for a few moments to make sure that he was not straying from the river gorge, which occasional rocks and foliage hid from his view.

At noon Tad sat down and ate another egg.

"I must be getting near the place," he mused.

Still there was no trace of human habitation. There remained nothing for him to do save to push on, which he did stubbornly.

When the sun went down he seemed no nearer to the object of his search than when he had set out at daybreak. The lad, after looking about, came upon a tree which he climbed in order to get an unobstructed view of the country. He argued that camp-fires would be lighted for the evening meal. Not a sign of smoke could he discover anywhere.

Tad's heart sank.

"I've got to stay out all night," he muttered. "If I were sure of finding some one in the morning I wouldn't mind."

There remaining about two hours before dark, he decided to push on as long as he could see. So he trotted on resolutely until the shadows fell so densely about his path that he could no longer find his way.

Tad reluctantly halted and after selecting a suitable place, gathered wood for a camp-fire. Water there was none, so he had to do without it while he ate his last egg.

Then he lay down to sleep, refusing to allow himself to think very long at a time of his lonely position.

Late that night, the boy awakened, finding the moon shining brightly.

He got up and looked about him. The camp-fire had died out. The light of the moon was so strong that he could make out the surroundings almost as well as in daylight.

"I may as well go on," he decided. "Perhaps I'll get somewhere in time for breakfast. If I don't I surely will have no breakfast, for I haven't a scrap of food left."

So he trudged on. He did not run this time, for a little more care than he had been exercising was now necessary to avoid pitfalls in the shadows cast by rock and tree.

Daylight came, but still the weary boy kept on his way. Hungry? Yes, Tad was actually faint for want of food. He tried the experiment of chewing some leaves that he knew were harmless. At first this gave him some relief. After a little it made him sick, so he did not try the experiment again. He feared he was going to give out.

Toward eleven o'clock the boy came out upon a rise of ground overlooking a long slope. He rubbed his eyes almost unbelievingly.

Halfway down the slope was a shack and off beyond it stood a man with his back turned toward him.

Tad uttered a shout of joy and began leaping down the incline. The man down there, startled by the cry, wheeled suddenly and descrying the figure of Tad Butler racing toward him, ran to his cabin, appearing a moment later with a rifle in his hands.

A moment more a second man dashed out, he too carrying a gun. Both men stood facing the lad, until, when he got near enough, they discovered that it was a boy; then they laughed and lowered their weapons.

Tad fairly staggered up to them.

"Act as if ye'd seen a ghost, young feller. What's the excitement about?" demanded the first of the two men.

Tad explained as best he could between breaths, at which the men laughed more heartily than ever.

"I want something to eat first of all. I'm half starved," he told them.

"Sorry, younker, but we ain't got more'n enough for ourselves. It's a long ways to where we kin git more."

"But I am willing to pay you for it. I must have food right now," protested Tad.

"So must we."

"Who are you?" demanded Tad indignantly. "I didn't suppose there was a man mean enough to refuse a boy at least a piece of bread when that boy was starving."

"We're prospecting. I reckon we know our business best. Ye can't get any chuck out of this outfit."

"Then tell me where the Red Star Mine is. I've got to get there at once."

"She's nigh onto fifteen miles off thar--"

"Why, that's the direction I came from," exclaimed the lad.

"Sure. Ye must have dodged it. Did ye pass the Ruby Mounting?"

"I don't know. Where is it?" asked Tad Butler.

"You'd know if ye saw it once. It's a peak that looks red when the sun shines on it."

"No, I didn't pass the place. Tell me how I can get to the mining camp, even if you won't let me have anything to eat," begged the boy. "My companions will starve before I can get back unless I get help to them soon."

"Got a compass?"

"Yes."

"Then lay yer course north by northwest three p'ints and ye'll hit the Red Star plumb in the eye--if ye don't miss it," and the miner laughed coarsely. "Know anybody there?"

"Mr. Munson, Richard Munson."

"Dick Munson, eh?" returned the man, with increasing interest.

"I'll be going now. Much obliged for directing me, at least," said Tad, turning away and starting with compass in hand.

The men said something to each other in a low tone, but Tad paid no attention to them, hurrying away as fast as his weary limbs would carry him.

"Hey, young feller, come back here."

Tad did so reluctantly.

"Sorry we can't give ye anything to eat. My pardner and I reckon though that ye can milk the goat if ye want to."

"The goat?"

"Yep. The goat's our milk wagon--she gives milk for the outfit."

At first he thought they were joking, but Tad suddenly realized that the men were in earnest.

"I--I never milked a goat," he replied hesitatingly.

"Well, if yer hungry enough ye'll try."

"Where is the goat?"

"Oh, I dunno. Browsing hereabouts, I reckon. Look her up if ye want to. We ain't got time."

"Thank you. I'll try."

"Mebby you'll find her over in that little draw there to the left," suggested the miner.

Tad sought the draw and after some search came upon the goat rather unexpectedly. The animal gazed at him suspiciously and moved off when he spoke to her.

Tad coaxed without avail, until finally with a handful of green leaves, that he had pulled from a branch above his head, he managed to excite the animal's interest. While she was nibbling at his offering, Tad patted her and after a time managed to quiet her sufficiently to enable him to get around to one side.

He had milked cows, but this was his first experience at milking a goat. As a result the lad went about his task rather awkwardly. Holding his cup with the left hand and using the right, he soon filled the cup, gulping down the contents greedily.

"Gracious, that tastes good!" gasped the boy. "I never knew goat's milk was anything like that. I suppose I can take all I want."

He helped himself to another and still another cupful, until he felt that he could hold no more.

"Thank you, Mrs. Goat," he soothed, patting the animal, while she in turn rubbed her nose against his sleeve as much as to say, "You're welcome. Help yourself if you wish any more."

"No, thank you, I think I have plenty, but you shall have some more green leaves."

Tad pulled down branch after branch which he piled up in front of the goat, and which she attacked with vigorous nibbles and tugs.

Very much refreshed, the boy ran back to the miners' shack.

"How much do I owe you?" he asked.

"Don't owe us nuthin'."

"Well, here is twenty-five cents. I thank you very much," replied the lad, laying the money down in front of the door of the shack, because the miner refused to reach out his hand for it.

"You're welcome, kid. Mebby we might squeeze out a chunk of bread after all."

"I think I have had plenty. I do not feel hungry now," he smiled. "How far is it to the Red Star the way you have directed me?"

"As the eagle flies, 'bout twelve miles. You'll make it in fifteen, cause you'll have to go around a draw that you can't get through. When you get round the draw just come back till ye git on yer course again," directed the miner.

"Thank you. Good-bye. Hope I have a chance to return the favor some time," smiled Tad, swinging his hand in parting salute, as he started with renewed courage.

The fifteen miles of rough traveling did not discourage him in the least. He reasoned that he ought to reach the mining camp by four or five o'clock that afternoon. That would be in time for him to start back with food for the other boys, whom he had left in camp.

"My, but I'll bet Chunky is a walking skeleton by this time," smiled Tad, as the thought of his companion's appetite came humorously into his mind.

Talking to himself to keep up his courage, consulting his compass frequently, that he might not stray from the course in the least, the lad hurried on. Reaching the draw that the miners had described, he recognized it at once, worked his way around it and came back. He might have shortened the journey had he but known how to work out his course by the compass. Tad realized this. He told himself that he could not afford to try any experiment, however.

His judgment was verified, when, shortly after four o'clock he was gratified by sighting several pillars of black smoke.

"That's the place. I've hit it!" exulted the lad, breaking into a sharp trot, which he increased until he was running at top speed.

With clothes in a sad state of disorder, eyes red and sunken, Tad Butler burst into the Red Star mining camp. His sudden entrance caused the few people about to pause and gaze at him in astonishment.

"Where's Mr. Munson--Mr. Richard Munson? I must see him at once," he asked of one of these.

"He ain't here."

"What! Not here?"

"No."

"Then where is he? I must find him," expostulated the lad.

"Reckon you'll have a long run, then. He's gone over to the Mears mines. That's a good twenty miles from here, I reckon."

Tad groaned in his disappointment, and sitting down on a rock, buried his head in his hands.