Chapter VII. A Mint in the Mountains.
 

"Why," the old woman said, stepping closer to the group of boys, "that's Buck!"

A heavily-built man with a scraggly beard stepped away from the corral and approached the group by the fire, his stubby fingers twining in and out of his unkempt whiskers as he walked along, his eyes fixed on the fire and those about it.

"That's Buck Skypole," the old woman went on, as the advancing figure stopped. "I didn't know you was to come after me Buck," she added, speaking to the new-comer.

"I 'lowed you'd be right skeered of the dark," the man answered, "so I 'lowed I'd come on up an' tote you home."

He rubbed his left thigh carefully for a moment and then spoke to Ned.

"That's a right pert mule," he said.

"Did Uncle Ike kick you?" asked Jack, nudging Oliver in the ribs with an elbow. "We'll have to wallop him a bit, if he did."

"I reckon I ain't got no mad at the creeter," Buck replied. "A man must keep out'n reach of a mule. Seein' the mule's got only a few feet of play in his laigs, he ought to be able to do that! No; I ain't goin' to recommend no beatin's f'r the mule!"

"Buck," said the old lady, "these are boys from New York, my old home! They're taking pictures of the mountains."

"They c'n take the mountains, too!" Buck laughed. "F'r all me!"

"I thought Mike might have come in with them," the old lady went on. "He isn't here, but I've had a real pleasant time with the boys. I'm much obliged to you, lads," she added, facing Ned. "I'm grateful for the tea and the fruit. They're rare here."

"I reckoned you wouldn't find Mike here," Buck chuckled, "f'r while you was gone a message come from Mike. He can't get here now, but he's sent the kid!"

"He has?" cried the woman, joyfully. "Do you mean to tell me, Buck, that the boy is right down there this minute, in my cabin?"

"Sure I do," was the reply, "an' a bright little feller he is."

"Give us a guess on that," whispered Jack to Oliver. "Is the kid in the cabin Mike III., or is he the prince? Give you three guesses!"

"I give it up!" the boy whispered back.

"Why didn't you bring the kid along with you?" asked Frank. "We all want to see him. His grandmother has been telling us about him."

"Its a right smart walk for a little one!" Buck answered.

"You're welcome to come down and see him" Mrs. Brady said. "I'd be proud to give you all a snack in the morning."

"Suppose we do go and see the kid?" asked Oliver. "I'm curious to know all about the little shaver!"

"I'm for it!" Frank exclaimed.

"And I'll be the first one there!" Jack put in. "I always liked kids-- from Washington! No one will molest the camp while we are gone."

"I wouldn't leave it alone, if I were you," advised the old lady. "There's a heap of bad people come into the mountains sometimes. Don't all leave at once."

"That's good advice, mother," Ned said. "Two will go and two will remain here. In a short time the two out in the hills will return, and then there will be a good-sized guard for what little stuff we have."

"All right," Jack declared, "if any one is going to stay here, it will be me! Come to think of it, I'm too blamed tired to walk another step to-night. Eh, Oliver?"

"I'll remain here if you do," the boy replied. "I'm worn out up to my knees now, climbing mountains. And, besides, Uncle Ike would be lonesome without me away!"

"Very well" Ned agreed. "That leaves Frank and me for the visit. When Jimmie and Teddy come, put them to bed without supper!"

"You'll know when they come, then," laughed Jack, "for Jimmie going to bed without supper will be a noisy proposition. You can hear him for ten miles."

"I'm anxious about the boys," Ned went on. "I'm afraid something is wrong with them. They should have been back here hours ago."

"You remember the Indian signal for help you saw in the valley?" asked Frank, in a moment. "Well, they may have seen that, too, and taken a notion to find out about it. They went in that direction when they left the camp."

"That may be the reason for their delay," Ned answered. "We should have attended to that signal ourselves," he added. "There may have been some one in serious trouble down there. I hope the boys did go-- that is, if nothing happens to them because of their going. Boy Scouts should assist each other at every opportunity."

After a little more talk regarding the boy who had been sent to Mary Brady by her son in Washington, and after Buck had been given a couple of cups of steaming hot coffee, the four started down the slope to the west.

"Did any one say how far it was to the old lady's cabin?" asked Jack of his chum, as they nestled down by the fire, the mountain air being cold, even in June.

"Buck said it was three whoops and a holler!" almost shrieked Oliver. "Do you know what he meant by that?"

"I don't know," answered Jack, "but I should think, from what she said, that the boys won't feel like walking back up the mountain to-night. Therefore, if Jimmie and Teddy don't come, well be alone."

"I wonder if they would know the prince if they met him in the road?" laughed Oliver. "That kid down there is just as much the prince as I am. What did they steal the kid for, anyway?"

"Politics!" yawned Jack.

"What did they send him over here for, anyway?"

"Politics!" with another yawn.

"Aw, go on to bed!" grinned Oliver. "I'll build up another fire, to serve as a sort of lighthouse for the boys and sit up for them."

So Jack went into the tent, pulled down a great heap of blankets, drew off his coat and shoes and stockings, and was soon asleep in a neat little nest!

Oliver sat by the fire for a short time and then went up to the summit to look over the valley. The moon was rising now, and he could see the four who had recently left the camp working their way over a ridge to the south and west.

Straight down, in a canyon made by an outcropping ledge of rock, he saw a faint light, as from a campfire which had been allowed to die down.

"The mountains are full of people to-night!" he mused. "If I thought I could make Uncle Ike behave himself, I'd ride down there and see who those campers are."

The boy stood undecided for some moments, then his eyes opened wider and he moved downward toward the fire. He was thinking of the Boy Scout signals for help which Ned and Frank had mentioned seeing!

"I wonder if Jack would go down there with me!"

When he reached the camp Jack was in the land of dreams, and he decided not to awake him. He could go alone just as well!

He went on down to the feeding ground and presented Uncle Ike with a lump of sugar. The mule thanked him with wiggling ears and dived a soft muzzle into his coat pocket for another lump.

"Not until you come back, Uncle Ike!" Oliver explained. "If you do a good job traveling up and down the mountainside, you're going to have another piece of sugar when we get back!"

The boy saddled and bridled the animal, mounted, and urged him away from the feeding ground. Uncle Ike, thinking his day's work finished, objected to being put into harness again, and reared and kicked until Oliver was obliged to dismount and bribe him with more sugar.

"Will you go now, you fool mule?" he asked.

Uncle Ike finally decided to go, and his sure feet were soon pressing the slope toward the campfire. Oliver struck the canyon just about where Jimmie and Teddy had entered it.

He left Uncle Ike there and advanced toward the campfire on foot. There were only a few embers left, and no signs of the fires which had sent up the two columns of smoke! There was no one in sight from the place where Oliver first came in direct view of the blaze.

He stepped along cautiously, listening as he walked, and soon came to a second fire. This, too, was burned down low. Beyond this he saw the dark opening of a cave in the outcropping ridge.

As Oliver stepped toward it, thinking the boys might have taken refuge there for the night, he stumbled over something which rolled under his foot and nearly fell to the ground. When he stooped over to see what it was that had tripped him, he saw an electric flashlight lying before him.

"The boys have been here, all right" he mused. "Now, I wonder if this was taken from them, or whether they lost it, or whether it was placed here to mark the trail? Either supposition may be the correct one!"

The question was settled in a moment, for a voice which he knew came out of the darkness.

"Found it, eh? Give it to me!"

"Jimmie!" whispered Oliver.

"Get in here out of the light of the fire!" Jimmie whispered, "and bring the electric in with you. Come on in, and see what we've found."

The opening in the ridge was a shallow one, Oliver discovered as he entered it. To his surprise he found three lads there instead of the two he had been looking for.

"You saw the fires?" asked Jimmie, in a low tone.

"Of course I did. Why didn't you come to camp?"

"This is the boy that built the Boy Scout signals!" Jimmie said, bringing the other forward. "His name is Dode Surratt, and he's a bold, bad boy, being at present lookout for a gang of counterfeiters!"

"That's a nice clean job," Oliver replied. "Where are the counterfeiters?"

"At work in a hole in the ground. Hear the click of their machines? They are turning out silver dollars faster than we can spend them. We hid around until they went to work, then came up to talk with Dode."

Jimmie pointed to a crevice in the rock and invited Oliver to look. A lance of light came up into the cave, and the boy's eyes followed it. He could see a square room below, with a bright fire burning at one end and figures moving about it.

"Making counterfeit money, are they?" asked Oliver.

"That's what they're doing! We were just thinking of getting out when you came. Dode wants to go with us, but we tell him to remain with the gang until they can be rounded up by the officers."

Dode started to make some remark, but Jimmie stopped him.

"They haven't got any consideration coming from you, have they?" he asked. "They stole you, didn't they? They brought you here from Washington to make a thief of you, didn't they?"

"And they beat you up for making the signals, too," Teddy put in. "And they're coming out now!" he added. "So we'll all git--but Dode!"