Chapter XX. Black Bears to the Rescue.
 

Frank Shaw drew Nestor aside as the boys searched about the cavern for nuggets. As a small one was occasionally discovered, the quest was conducted with an enthusiasm which left the two to themselves.

"It is a strange chance that has brought us to this mine," Nestor said, thoughtfully. "It seems like a fairy tale come true."

"Do you really think this is the long lost Tolford mine?" asked Frank. "I think it is," was the reply. "The location is right, at least."

"It is remarkable," Frank said, "but we can talk of that at another time. I called you over here to ask you more about the fourth man--the one you referred to, but a short time ago, as having visited the Cameron suite that night. I didn't think much of the idea when you suggested it, but, somehow, I can't get it out of my head. Do you still believe there was a fourth man? If so, what was he there for?"

"That will show in time," replied Nestor, with a little pause after each word.

"But," insisted Frank, seeking to argue the matter in order to bring out the opinion of his chum, "these other men had strong motives in doing what was done there, and you don't indicate any motive the fourth man might have had!"

"I have a faint hint of a motive humming in my brain," Nestor answered, "but it is not sufficiently well developed to talk about now. There was something afoot in the building that night that has not yet come to the surface."

"You surely don't believe the tales told by Scoby and Felix, or by Don Miguel, either?" asked Frank.

"They may be telling the truth, or part of the truth. However, Scoby and Felix are not sincere in their statements. There is something they are not telling."

"Well," Frank observed, "we ought to be getting down to brass tacks. If we get Fremont away from those ruffians to-night he'll want to be jumping at something right away, and there ought to be a line of work laid out."

"Don't get excited," laughed Nestor. "We're getting along pretty well. We've found the mine, and we've taken three prisoners. If there was a fourth man in the mixup that night, we'll soon know who he was and why he was there."

"I wish I knew whether the munitions of war got across the border," Frank said, after a pause.

"The mountain has been remarkably quiet to-day," suggested Nestor.

"What does that mean?"

"Don't you think the men would be making a lot of noise if they had arms in their hands?" Nestor asked.

"Perhaps they are making noise somewhere."

"They may make all the noise they want to, if they keep off Texas soil," replied Nestor.

"I have been talking with Stevens," Frank went on, "and he gives a doleful account of the situation in New York. They left nearly two days after you did, you remember. It is said that Cameron is not likely to recover, and that he still, in a rambling way, talks of Fremont as the person who assaulted him. That looks bad."

"It is fortunate that we got the boy out of New York," replied Nestor. "Even the temporary captivity he is undergoing is better than the Tombs."

"I'm afraid he's on the way to the Tombs now," Frank said. "He surely is unless we can do something immediately. The big rascal may come upon a band of outlaws any minute that would be too strong for us to attack."

During this talk Jimmie had been searching for nuggets on the eastern side of the chamber, finding a small one occasionally when the light was turned toward him. As Shaw finished speaking the boy found another, and the watcher was wondering how rich the earth was.

Then he saw the boy, stooping to the floor of the cavern, evidently in quest of more gold, he being at that time close to the east wall, suddenly throw up his arms and disappear, apparently through the very floor of the chamber.

Frank stood for a second looking toward the place where this strange disappearance had taken place, rubbed his eyes to make sure that he was wide awake, and then uttered a cry which brought the others hastily to his side.

When the boys reached the point of disappearance they looked for a fissure in the rocky floor, but found none. Instead, they saw a round, smooth opening into what seemed to be another tunnel. The light, when held into the dark break in the rock, revealed a landing about six feet down, but Jimmie was not in sight. Presently, however, the alarmed boys heard his voice, coming up out of the darkness.

"Hey, there!" he said. "Get a rope and a light! I'm on a toboggan!"

"In a second," Harry replied. "Are you falling?"

"No, I'm hangin' on with me toes!" was the reply. "Hurry up, you fellers! I'll drop clear into the middle of the world if I let go!"

Harry darted away to the outer chamber and brought a line from his camping outfit. Tying a piece of stone to one end, to act as a sinker, he dropped it into the mouth of the tunnel.

"Catch it!" he called to the boy.

"Nothin' doin'!" returned Jimmie. "I'm hangin' out in space. If I should let go with one finger or one toe I'd take a tumble through to China. One of you fellows come down on the rope. Hurry!"

"Are you hurt?" asked Nestor, anxiously.

"Not on your life, only in me feelings," replied Jimmie. "It breaks me tender heart to get into a hole I can't help meself out of! Come on down with that rope!"

Nestor drew up the line, tied one end about his waist, and, wondering what might lie within the forbidding place, and where it might lead to, was slowly lowered into the tunnel. The flashlight showed a level space about two yards in extent at the bottom of the shaft, directly under the opening, but beyond that the tunnel dropped away toward the east and the middle of the Chinese empire, as Jimmie declared. The fall of the passage, which was not more than six feet in diameter, was at least fifty degrees.

As soon as his feet struck the little landing Nestor saw Jimmie lying flat on his stomach on the incline below, hanging on with his fingers for dear life. As Nestor looked the boy's fingers slipped on the smooth rock and he started, feet foremost, down the dark passage.

Calling to the boys above to cling tightly to the rope and to pay it out slowly, Nestor slid swiftly downward until the slack of the line was gone, and was then brought up with a quick jerk, with the still slipping boy's head a foot away from his hands. He whirled about and dropped his feet down the passage.

There was a second of nervous strain, and then he felt Jimmie's hands clinging to his shoes. He called to the boy to hang on and to the others at the top to draw the line, and both were soon on the landing at the bottom of the shaft.

"I wonder where that hole goes?" Jimmie asked, examining his fingers, the ends of which were torn from slipping on the rock.

"You came near finding out," Nestor replied. "Regular rabbits, these old-timers were, to dig tunnels!" he added.

Then assisting Jimmie out of the shaft, Nestor asked the boys to get all the rope they had in their outfits, making a line as long as possible, and ease him down the steep incline. In five minutes all was ready and, with a line 400 feet long attached to his waist, Nestor started down the tunnel.

As he passed along, half sliding, with the rope holding him back, the flashlight in hand, he saw that the passage had been cut along the line of a natural fault in the volcanic rock. It was clear that, during some seismic disturbance, probably hundreds of years before, the continuity of strata, until then on the same plane, had been broken, leaving a fissure where the drop had taken place.

There was no means of estimating the extent of the vertical displacement, but the boy was satisfied that it was the difference between the height of the range at the place where the cavern opened and the height to the north, probably three hundred feet or more. The north end of the range had dropped down. The horizontal displacement was not more than six feet, and it was through this that the tunnel ran.

The walls of the passage were smooth, and the floor was like polished glass, a fact which the boy was at first at a loss to account for. On the north side the wall was dark and there were no traces of gold, while that on the south showed spots of precious metal.

Nestor proceeded down the incline until there was little more rope left, as the boys called out from above, and then came to an opening. He was now nearly 400 feet from the gold chamber. When he looked out of the round opening to which he had come he saw that beyond ran a deep gully, or canyon. At the point where the opening cut the wall of the canyon, however, there was a gradual descent for perhaps 400 feet to the bottom of the break in the mountain.

Elsewhere the walls of the canyon seemed to stand perpendicular, and Nestor was for a moment puzzled to account for the filling of the break at that particular spot, as if a rude stairway had been laid to the ground below. Then the truth flashed upon him. The tunnel had been built as a chute for the disposition of the rock crushed in the mine.

There was no knowing how many years the natives had worked in that underground mine, crushing out the gold with rude appliances and disposing of the refuse by means of the tunnel cut through the fault in the rock. The canyon into which the crushed rock had been cast was a wild and almost inaccessible break almost at the top of the mountain range, and might have been used for years--perhaps for centuries--without the truth of its gradual filling up becoming known to hostile peoples.

Looking down into the canyon, Nestor wondered if an easy route to the bottom might not be found there. He was already more than 200 feet below the shelf of rock from which the mine opened. The floor of the canyon was at least 400 feet below him, and at the south another cut, running east and west, seemed to connect with the first. He heard the trinkle of water below, and was satisfied that there was a succession of canyons leading to the plain below, in which case descent would be comparatively easy.

This piece of good fortune, Nestor congratulated himself, would enable the boys to reach the camping place of the renegade and his men shortly after dark, as the approach to the sandy plain would be comparatively free of obstruction. This was an important thing, as there might be many miles to travel before the next day after Fremont was rescued.

It was not so easy getting back to the shaft, but in a short time Nestor made his way there and was soon in consultation with his friends. All were eager to pass through the tunnel, and so, one by one, they were let down until all were at the slope which led to the bottom of the canyon.

They found it easy to clamber down the heap of crushed rock to the floor of the canyon, and also to pass along the bottom at the edge of the small stream of water which flowed toward the south. The water had cut a passage under a ledge at the south, and now flowed eastward, toward the plain.

Following steadily on, now stooping under natural bridges in the rock, now wading through cuts which the water covered, and which must have been roaring torrents during time of storm, the boys finally came to a little shelf looking east from which the renegade and some of his companions could plainly be seen.

"Fremont is not so very far away now," Jack said, "and we ought to swarm down there and take him back with us. We ought to take the big lobster Jimmie seems to have on his mind back with us, too!" he added.

Nestor shook his head, for, much as he desired to hasten the hour of Fremont's release, he saw that an attempt at rescue now would be dangerous. It was certain that the outlaws, not suspecting that they had been trailed over the mountain by the tireless Boy Scouts, would be off guard at night.

"Of course we want to capture that big lobster," Jimmie said. "We want to know why he was so anxious for Nestor's society!"

"I think that question can easily be answered now," Nestor said, but he did not answer it.

Leaving the view of the spot where Fremont was a captive reluctantly, the boys went back to the gold chamber by the series of canyons by which they had left it. It was not an easy journey, for there were places where strength and skill were required, but at last they drew themselves up the chute by means of the rope, after which they again fell to investigating the provision boxes which the newcomers had brought in.

By the time they had finished a second tolerably satisfactory repast, it began to grow dark, although the sun was still an hour from setting. Black masses of clouds were forming, and now and then flashes of lightning, darting from cloud to cloud, and from cloud-mass to earth, cut the gathering darkness.

Then a drenching rain-storm came on, and Nestor believed that the time for the attack on the captors of his friend had arrived. In the darkness and storm the outlaws would not be expecting danger. The wind almost flung the boys from their feet when they came to open shelves of rock on their way to the plain below, but they kept steadily on their course.