Chapter XIX. Wrecked in an Ore Car
 

It was all the ranch owner could do to keep peace after Tad Butler had so cleverly outwitted his adversary in the rope throwing contest. Yet, though the defeated man was fairly beside himself with rage, the cowboys generally favored fair play.

Their companion had been beaten in a fair contest, principally because his opponent had been quicker witted.

Tad and Chunky, one bearing a rifle, the other a handsome saddle, were proud boys when they rode home with Tom Phipps and their companions that night. The Pony Rider Boys had carried away the real prizes of the cowboy meet. Chunky had few words. He was so filled with self-importance that he could only look his gratification. When part way home, however, he rode up beside Tad, and leaning from his saddle, whispered, "I didn't fall off, did I?"

The news of triumph spread about the mining camp quickly. When the miners learned that Cravath's pony and his man had been defeated, they shouted for joy. From that moment the Pony Rider Boys became persons of consequence in the Red Star mining camp.

It was suggested that evening that the whole party spend the next day in the mine. Tom Phipps had permission to devote the day to them if they wished to go underground.

"That will be fine," cried Tad, to which sentiment all the rest subscribed, except Stacy.

"I'm going hunting," he announced.

"Hunting? What for?" questioned Ned.

"Anything I can see."

"Then, I'm glad we are all going to spend the day underground. It will be about the only safe place around this part of the country."

"Remember, Chunky, that's a powerful weapon of yours and long range," warned Tad.

"And remember to watch out that you don't fall off your new saddle and break your neck," retorted the fat boy.

On the following morning the boys, with the exception of Stacy, reported at Tom Phipps's shack ready for the day's sight-seeing in the zinc mine far underground. The assistant superintendent had made ready a large basket of food, as the party was to dine in the mine.

Professor Zepplin was enthusiastic. It was an opportunity that he had much desired.

"I understand," he said, fixing Tom Phipps with a stern glance of inquiry, as they started for the mine, "that Silurian species have been found in the limestones hereabouts. Also that others believed to be Cambrian have been discovered. Is this in accordance with your experience?"

"I think I understand to what you refer," answered Tom gravely. "I can't say that I am familiar with the species, however."

"If Chunky was here he would want to know if it were something to eat," laughed Ned. "I'm not very certain myself whether it is or not."

"You'll be wiser by-and-by," said Tad.

Entrance to the mine was gained through a shaft leading straight down for a great many feet. A windlass and bucket was employed to carry the miners up and down, while through another and larger shaft automatic buckets raised the zinc ore to the surface.

All of the party could not be accommodated in the passenger bucket at one time, so it was necessary to make two trips, Mr. Phipps returning with the vehicle to see that the rest of the boys got down safely.

Descending into the cool, damp darkness was a new experience for them. And while the sensations were not particularly pleasant, they agreed that it was the most interesting journey they ever had taken.

"How far down do we go?" asked Walter.

"About fifty feet," answered the miner. "Of course the mine is not that far underground all around. Some of the strata of rock we work lead almost to the surface in places."

"Why don't you begin at the top and work down then?" questioned Tad.

"Some of the mines do that. In this case it was deemed best to sink a shaft. Here we are."

From the darkness the boys had suddenly been plunged into a blinding glare of light. It was so intense that at first they were unable to see anything.

"Good gracious," blinked Ned. "This is brighter than the opera house at Chillicothe. It's enough to put a fellow's eyes out. What is it?"

"Electric lights," laughed Phipps. "We don't have many conveniences above ground, but down here we are right up-to-date, as you have observed."

"As I perhaps shall observe when I am able to get my eyes open once more," added Ned humorously.

"Why, the place is full of tunnels!" exclaimed Walter.

"Regular checker-board under ground," agreed Tad. "Where do all those tunnels go to?"

"Under where you have been tramping since you have been in camp."

"To the Ruby Mountain?" inquired Tad meaningly.

"Yes, most probably that far, or pretty close to it, I should say; but I have never made a measurement with that in view, so that I am unable to give you a definite answer. We should have to bore through some pretty solid rock to get under the little red mountain, I'm inclined to think."

"I'd like to go over that way."

"All right, we will visit that part of the drift later," replied Mr. Phipps.

What Tad's motive might have been in wishing to get under the Ruby Mountain, perhaps he himself did not know. But he did know that somehow he felt that before leaving the mining camp he would solve the mystery of the place.

They first followed the drifts to the west where here and there a dull distant report told them the miners were blasting out the rocks with dynamite. After being broken up into large chunks the ore was placed on little cars and run along tracks to the hoisting apparatus from where it was quickly shot to the surface.

It was a busy scene that the Pony Rider Boys found--a different world from the one they had just left above them.

"Do these mines ever blow up or catch fire?" asked Walter a bit apprehensively.

"No, we have no fires of any consequence. We have never had an explosion and I trust we never shall," answered the assistant superintendent gravely. "You see there is not the same danger in this sort of place that you find in a coal mine. I would prefer to work digging out dynamite to mining coal."

"Dynamite? Do you keep much of it down here?" interrupted the Professor.

"Oh, yes, we have to. There is enough down here at this moment to more than blow up the Ruby Mountain. The greater part of it is stored in what is known as the Ozark drift, the drift running to the southeast. I'll show it to you when we go that way."

Now they were nearing the more active operations and the metallic click of the steam drills filled the air as they bored their way through the solid rock, necessitating the raising of voices that the boys might make themselves heard.

"Would you like to take a ride in one little cars?" asked Mr. Phipps.

The boys were quite certain that they would enjoy such a trip.

"Pile into the next car, then. We'll send it through without any ore this time. There would not be room if we were to load the car. I think it will be a novel experience for you."

And Tom Phipps smiled significantly.

Directing the switch man to shift the car back to the return track, the mining engineer told the lads to climb in and sit down on the floor, which they did promptly.

Only the tops of their heads projected above the sides of the ore car.

"Under no circumstances must any of you straighten up unless you wish to get your heads smashed."

"Why, there is plenty of room for our heads here," replied Ned. "We could stand up and yet have some to spare."

"Right here, yes. We shall go through some places that you would not want to stand through, I imagine."

"Are you ready?"

"Yes."

Tom Phipps climbed over into the car.

"All right, Jim," he called.

Immediately the car began to move and in a few moments had attained a high rate of speed.

"Now, boys, remember your heads," cautioned their guide.

Instinctively each crouched lower as their vehicle was all at once plunged into sudden darkness. Drops of water now and then spattered down on their bare heads. The noise of the car in the dark was deafening. The sound was as if many ore cars instead of one were crashing through the dark tunnel. The lads experienced a strange thrill when the realization came to them with its full force, that they were shooting through the earth, far beneath the surface at the speed of an express train.

"Why don't you have lights in here?" asked one of the passengers.

"Not necessary," said Mr. Phipps. "It is seldom that anyone has occasion to go through this tunnel--practically never unless something happens to a car in here. There are lights along that may be turned on if necessary, but it would be a needless expense to keep them going all the time--"

"What's that loud noise?" asked Tad.

His ears had caught a booming roar that was a new note in the terrifying sounds of the underworld through which they were traveling.

The boys started uneasily.

"It's water," shouted the guide. "A cataract in an underground water course. These courses have cut channels all through the limestone rocks in the Ozark Uplift."

This somewhat calmed the nerves of the lads, though not wholly so. Faster and faster rolled the car and louder and louder grew the roar of the cataract.

"Are we almost out of here?" demanded Walter uneasily.

"Yes. We shall be clear of it in five or six minutes now. You notice that we strike little grades occasionally, which cause the car to slow down considerably and for that reason the journey seems longer than it really is."

"If we have slowed down at any time I have failed to observe it," laughed Tad.

"What if we should jump the track in here?" suddenly suggested Ned.

"But we won't," answered the guide. "We--"

A grinding, crunching sound cut short his words. The car appeared to pause and tremble throughout the length of its frame; then followed a deafening crash, accompanied by the sound of breaking timbers and splintering wood.

A deep silence, broken only by the roar of the cataract, settled over the scene. The ore car lay a broken, twisted, hopeless wreck.