Boy Scout Explorers at Headless Hollow by Palmer, Don
[Illustration: Far above them, on the high cliffs, they saw two struggling men. (_See page 200_)]
BOY SCOUT EXPLORERS AT HEADLESS HOLLOW
_By_ DON PALMER
CUPPLES AND LEON COMPANY _Publishers_ _New York_
Copyright, 1957, by CUPPLES AND LEON COMPANY All Rights Reserved _Printed in the United States of America_
CHAPTER PAGE 1 Old Stony 9 2 Trouble in Camp 21 3 The Treasure Map 30 4 A Bag of Beans 37 5 The Search 46 6 The Threat 54 7 Under the Tent Flap 62 8 Walz’ Proposition 72 9 Short Cut 81 10 Trickery 90 11 Cloud Crest Ranch 98 12 An Unexpected Visitor 105 13 Thief in the Night 113 14 Ghost Town 122 15 Warm Ashes 131 16 Missing Supplies 139 17 Avalanche 146 18 Dead End 152 19 The Cabin 161 20 The Plane 169 21 The Enemy 177 22 Trapped 185 23 Escape 192 24 A Fight 200 25 Rendezvous 211
Chapter 1 OLD STONY
The road wound through spike pines which stood silhouetted in the fading daylight.
Long, empty miles lay behind the weary travelers since they had left Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in the New Mexico Rockies. More miles stretched endlessly ahead.
“Hey, when do we stop for grub? This air sure gives a guy a whale of an appetite!”
“War” Washburn, a skinny, freckled youngster, rode with feet dangling out the car window. His question was shot at their driver, Hap Livingston, leader of Boy Scout Explorer Post 21 of Belton City.
Mr. Livingston and the four explorers were returning to their home state after twelve days of rugged fun at the Boy Scout ranch. They had hoped to reach the Colorado border by nightfall, but now that seemed impossible.
“Yeah,” piped up tow-headed Willie Medaugh. “What say we start looking for a camp site? It’s going to get dark early tonight.”
The fifteen-year-old sat wedged in the back seat of the sedan between Jack Hartwell and Ken Dougherty, the two more serious members of the husky Scout crew.
“Okay, boys,” Mr. Livingston agreed. “We’ve had a hard drive, and I’m ready to hit the sack—since you insist.”
Already Jack was consulting the road map. “Nearest town is Rocking Horse, eight miles ahead,” he reported.
“We’ll stop there,” the Scout leader decided. “If we can find a camp site with all the comforts of home, I’m for taking it.”
“Why, Hap!” Ken drawled. “Can’t stand the gaff any more?”
The question was asked in jest. As the four explorers knew well, their leader, a former FBI man, could stand up under grueling physical punishment. This he had proven during recent adventure trips to Peru and Emerald Valley in Colombia.
“I feel sort of lazy tonight,” Hap confessed. “Riding herd over War at Philmont must have worn me out.”
“Dragging him away from the ranch was the hardest,” Jack recalled, his blue eyes twinkling.
“Well, there was so much to do,” War defended himself. “I wanted to make another pack trip on the trail Kit Carson once rode. And I wanted to visit the old mine.”
From his shirt pocket he pulled out a handkerchief in which were wrapped several bits of sparkling rock.
“Still hoarding that junk?” Ken asked with a grin.
“Junk! Just see it shine in the sunlight!”
Ken pretended to cover his eyes. “The glow blinds me!” he chuckled.
“Well, it’s genuine gold,” War said indignantly. “I panned it at Philmont.”
“Sure, we know,” drawled Willie. “You’ve told us at least twenty times.”
“That rare specimen of yours should assay about 1/800ths of a cent to the ton!” Jack teased.
“Anyway, it was fun panning it.”
“Everything at Philmont was fun,” Jack declared.
“Seeing deer, elk, and bear in natural surroundings. Learning how to climb and handle an axe. Instruction in fire building and cooking. But now it’s behind us.”
“And Rocking Horse is ahead,” reminded Mr. Livingston. “Save the arguments, lads. You’ll need your energy for making camp.”
The Scouts took the hint and fell silent. True, everyone would have enjoyed another two weeks in the West, but money was dwindling. So, laden with souvenirs and happy memories, they were now on the way home.
Presently the dusty car pulled into Rocking Horse. The city, with a cluster of adobe houses at the outskirts, appeared to have not more than about eight thousand residents. After inquiry at a filling station, Mr. Livingston drove to a motel and camp site at the city’s northern edge.
Few cars were parked near the tiny office on the roadside. The reason for the comparative desertion was immediately apparent to the Scouts, for the motel buildings were run-down and in need of paint. The pine grove and camp site at the rear did not look too attractive, either.
“How about it, boys?” Mr. Livingston asked doubtfully.
“Oh, it may not be so bad,” Jack replied. “We’re all tired, so let’s hole in.”
The others agreed. Accordingly, Mr. Livingston drove up close to the office. He and Jack went inside to register for the group.
An old man who wore a soiled Stetson hat sat tipped back comfortably in a chair. His big heavy boots came down from the desk, and he squinted at them with watery blue eyes which were bright and sharp.
Mr. Livingston returned the hearty greeting and inquired about a camp site.
“Sure, we’ve got plenty o’ room for you,” the old man replied. He dug into the old-fashioned roll-top desk for a registry book. “How many in your party?”
“Five. We won’t need a cabin—only space for our two tents.”
“That’ll cost you two bucks for the night.” The old man thrust a pen at the Scout leader. All the while, he was studying Jack’s green uniform with the “BSA” strip over the right shirt pocket.
“Here in Rocking Horse we don’t ask a man where’s he going, or where he’s been,” he drawled. “But danged if I’m not curious about that BSA on your pocket. Reckon it means Better Stay Away.”
“It stands for Boy Scouts of America,” Jack explained. “Are you the motel owner?”
“Not me.” The old man stretched out a calloused hand to take the two dollar bills Mr. Livingston offered. “These diggin’s are owned by a hard-fisted hombre by the name o’ Jarrett Walz.”
“You don’t like him?” Mr. Livingston asked, mildly amused at the old-timer.
“Didn’t say so, did I? Walz gives me my grub and a cabin for lookin’ after this place. When you’re pushing eighty and have a bad ticker, you’re not too particular.”
Jack and Mr. Livingston regarded the old man with new interest and respect. Despite shaggy white hair and a weather-beaten face, he did not look more than seventy, for his muscles were firm and his stooping shoulders were powerful.
“My name’s Stony,” the old man volunteered. “I’ll show you where to park.”
Shuffling out of the office, he directed them to the rear of the deep lot.
Old Stony loitered to watch as the Scouts efficiently set about unloading equipment and setting up their tents.
“Nested cooking pans and sleeping bags!” he cackled. “In my day, we used a lard pail and our own backs for a mattress. Anything you’ll be wanting?”
“Nothing, thank you,” Jack assured him.
Old Stony started to leave. Then he halted, hesitated, and said: “See that little cabin yonder? That’s where I flop. It gets kind o’ lonesome sittin’ there alone at night, so if you boys have nothing to do later on, drop by and we can chin.”
“Fine!” Jack agreed.
“I’ll bet you could spin some real tales of the Old West,” War interposed eagerly. “Were you a cow-puncher?”
“You wouldn’t catch me herding beef,” Old Stony said in disgust. “I was a prospector. If it hadn’t been for a bad run o’ luck, I’d own this joint instead o’ taking orders from Walz.”
“You nearly struck it rich?” War prodded.
“Dang it!” Old Stony snorted. “I hit gold—enough to put me on Easy Street for the rest o’ my days. Only—”
A melancholy, dreamy look crept over the old fellow’s leathery face, and his gaze became fixed upon the faraway mountains. For a long moment he seemed lost in the memory of a colorful past. Then, with a shake of his head, he broke up his reverie.
“Maybe I’ll tell you about it tonight,” he hinted. “Then again, maybe I won’t. Anyway, drop around.”
After Old Stony had gone, the Explorers got a fire started and made supper. Over the bacon and eggs, they discussed him and his invitation to drop around later at his cabin. Willie was sure it would be a waste of time, but the other Explorers wanted to go, especially War.
“That old boy will tell us about his prospecting days if we prime him right,” he insisted, stirring the camp fire.
“Sure, he’ll spin a wild tale of finding gold,” jeered Willie, “and you’ll fall for it!”
Meeting Old Stony had made the Scouts forget their weariness. They thought it would be interesting to chat with the aged camp worker. Accordingly, after the supper dishes were put away, War, Ken, and Jack went over to his cabin. It was a mild August night, and the cabin door stood open.
At Jack’s knock, the prospector’s deep voice boomed: “Come in!”
The interior of the one-room cabin was cheerless except for a small fire in the grate. It was furnished with a makeshift bed, a cracked mirror, a chest of drawers, and an old rocker.
“Sit down,” Old Stony invited, waving them to a seat on the sagging bed.
The boys could not fail to respond to the old fellow’s warmth and hospitality. Sensing his loneliness, they told him of their stay at the Scout ranch and then launched into an account of their previous exciting trips to Peru and Colombia.
“You’re not like the regular run o’ tourists that come through here,” Old Stony said, lighting his pipe. “Right off, when I saw you make camp I knew you weren’t softies.”
“How long have you lived in Rocking Horse?” War asked.
“Too long. But I reckon I’m stuck here until I hit the Long Trail. When I head for that last roundup—and it’s not so far off now—I reckon my secret will die with me.”
“Your secret?” Ken repeated, sensing that the old man was ready to launch into his tale.
“Yup. There are men who would give their lives to know what I got locked here.” Old Stony tapped his hairy chest. “Jarrett Walz in particular.”
War leaned forward on the bed. “A secret about gold?”
Old Stony hitched his rocker nearer the fire. Without looking at the Explorers, he began:
“Back in the early 1900’s my podner and I made our lucky strike.”
“Here in New Mexico?” asked Jack.
“No, in Colorado. My podner and I were lured West by the Shining Mountains—the Rockies, folks call ’em.”
“But weren’t the big Colorado gold strikes earlier than 1900?” Ken interposed thoughtfully. “I’ve read about Leadville and Cripple Creek in 1891—”
The interruption annoyed Old Stony. “This place I’m telling you about you’ve never read of,” he said, “and you never will because it’s a place hard to reach even today. My podner and I gave it the name of Headless Hollow.
“There’s a way in if you know the trail and can stand hardships. There’s no way out except the way in. It’s in an out-of-the way valley, rimmed by canyons, hard by a little lake no bigger’n a tin cup. To get there you back-pack over miles o’ rock so steep it makes me dizzy to think of ’em.”
“But you found gold?” prompted War.
“Ay, we found it, and a heap o’ trouble. Here, let me show you something.”
Abruptly Old Stony dug a polished nugget from his pants pocket. Even in the poor lamplight, the color of gold was there.
“Wow!” War exclaimed, breathing heavily. “That makes my sample look like peanuts.”
“This nugget came from Headless Hollow?” Jack asked, relishing the old man’s tale.
Stony sucked at his pipe as he carefully replaced the metal in his wrinkled overalls.
Without answering, he resumed: “I was a young fellow in those days, strong as an ox. If it wasn’t for my bad heart and some other things, I’d go back there now and make my fortune.”
“Where is this valley of gold?”
“I can’t tell you, son. But there are men who would pay me well to know my secret.”
“If you found gold,” Jack asked, “why did you leave the valley?”
“Don’t ask me that question, son. My past is my own and, God willing, it will die with me.”
The old man turned suddenly in his rocking chair.
Unnoticed by the Explorers, a tall man in his thirties, with a rock-like, expressionless face, had come to the open doorway. Ignoring the Scouts, he spoke directly to Stony.
“Crawl out, you lazy old buzzard! The man in No. 4 wants fresh towels.”
Stony got heavily from his chair. He made no answer, but the sparkle of life had vanished from his ruddy face.
Ill at ease, the Explorers started to leave. As if by design, the motel owner walked with them a short distance toward their camp.
“Old Stony spinning wild yarns again?” he demanded.
“He was telling us about striking gold when he was a young man,” War volunteered.
“I suppose he let you into the secret of where his precious map is hidden?”
“Why, no,” Jack spoke up. “Does he have a map?”
Jarrett Walz gave a snort. “That old goat is all talk. Everything he has, even the clothes on his back, comes from me. In exchange he gives me laziness and lies!”
“The old fool says I am after his gold. I figure he was giving you a line of chatter when I came up.”
“You weren’t under discussion,” Jack said dryly.
“What did he tell you about his wonderful valley?”
“We expect to.”
“That’s okay, then.” The motel owner seemed suddenly relieved. “If Old Stony bothers you again, call me. Good night now, and good rest.”
Chapter 2 TROUBLE IN CAMP
Cold night air seeped through the tent walls. Jack Hartwell stirred restlessly in his sleeping bag and sat up. What had awakened him? Beside him, Ken and Willie were dead to the world. All was quiet.
Annoyed at himself, Jack got up and opened the tent flap. A few stars were winking, but otherwise it was a dark night. It might be two A.M. or thereabouts, he judged. There was no sign of anyone around the camp, yet distinctly he sensed that something was wrong.
It was not the first time Jack’s instincts had acted as an alarm clock. The high school senior and Explorer crew leader was gifted with high intelligence and a certain intuition which had repeatedly saved him or his friends from near disaster.
Jack had proven himself the most valuable of the Explorers during the exciting adventure trips to South America which have been described in _The Boy Scout Explorers at Treasure Mountain_, and _The Boy Scout Explorers at Emerald Valley_. On this particular occasion, only the four tried-and-true Explorers had made the trip to Philmont Scout Ranch at Cimarron, New Mexico. In Belton City, however, they were associated with a large and active troop.
As Jack stood shivering in the chill night air, his ears picked up a disturbing sound. The noise, a series of thuds, and a groan, seemed to come from the direction of Old Stony’s cabin.
Jack did not hesitate. Diving back into the tent, he reached for trousers and shoes. By this time, Ken was awake and drowsily asked what was wrong.
“Something’s doing at Stony’s cabin,” Jack told him tersely. “I’m going to find out about it.”
Ken came fully awake in a flash. Asking no further questions, he too began to dress hurriedly. Willie slumbered peacefully on.
Once dressed, Jack and Ken started at a fast trot toward the cabin.
“What made you think anything’s wrong?” Ken demanded.
Before Jack could tell him, they both saw a light flash on and off in the cabin. Then the door opened, and a man ran out. In the darkness, the two Explorers gained only a general impression of someone tall and shadowy. His face was turned away from them, and he moved fast. They saw him dart past the unlighted motel office and into an alley.
“That wasn’t Old Stony!” Ken gasped.
The Scouts crossed the driveway and shoved open the cabin door. Jack found the light switch. As the room became illuminated, he and Ken both stiffened in horror.
Old Stony, his bed unmade, was sprawling on the floor, bleeding from a forehead wound. The aged man was moaning piteously. For just an instant Ken and Jack thought he had suffered a stroke and fallen. But the evidence convinced them otherwise. Even if they had not seen the fleeing intruder, the condition of the cabin would have told its graphic story. Drawers had been overturned. Old Stony’s few pathetic possessions were scattered on the bare floor.
“Robbery,” was Jack’s only comment.
Without attempting to lift the old man from the floor, they quickly examined his wound. It did not seem deep. However, the old man was certainly in a state of shock.
“Get Hap and our first-aid kit,” Jack directed Ken. “Better call a doctor, too. Stony’s an old fellow, and he has a heart condition.”
Ken hurried away. Left alone, Jack covered Stony with a blanket and pillowed his head. He was turning away to look for something he could use for a temporary bandage, when the old man’s lips began to move.
Jack bent closer. “Who was it that hit you?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” the old fellow mumbled. “Woke up—the skunk was pawing through my things. I yelled at him, and then he hit me on the skull. Last I knew for a while.”
“You didn’t see his face?”
“No,” Old Stony admitted in disgust.
“Whoever it was must have meant to rob you.”
“The thieving rascal was after my gold and the map.”
Over Jack’s protests, Old Stony raised himself up on an elbow. His gaze raked the entire cabin from the fireplace to the bed. What he saw seemed to satisfy him, for he gave a feeble, throaty chuckle.
“The skunk didn’t get what he was after! Old Stony is nobody’s fool. Young fellow, if you’ll help me, I’ll get back into bed.”
“You shouldn’t move,” Jack warned him. “The doctor will be here in a few minutes.”
“Doctor, fiddlesticks! It takes more’n a little tap on the head to knock out Old Stony.”
Because the aged man was not to be denied, Jack helped him into bed, but he was alarmed at the prospector’s pallor and weakness.
“I’m all right,” Stony mumbled. “Thank you, son.”
It was increasingly clear to Jack that the old man was not all right, so he was greatly relieved when Ken came back with Mr. Livingston, Willie, and War.
One glance at the man on the bed, and the Scout leader drew Ken aside.
“He seems to be in bad shape,” he said. “Go for a doctor, and tell him to hurry.”
While Ken was carrying out the order, the other Scouts dressed Stony’s wound. He made no further attempt to talk, but now and then managed to grin at them in a feeble way.
Jack and Willie made a fast tour of the motel grounds. However, it did not surprise them that they found no trace of the man who had so brutally attacked the cabin dweller.
“Whoever he is, he’ll be a mile from here by now,” Jack remarked as they walked back. “No question about it, theft was the motive.”
“The old man’s gold and map?”
“You think there is any gold?” Willie asked skeptically.
“Last night I didn’t,” Jack replied thoughtfully. “Now I’m not so sure. Old Stony certainly acted as if he had something valuable hidden in the cabin, and apparently it’s still there.”
“The thief was probably frightened away before he finished his search.”
“Either that, or he was scared, Willie. He may have hit Old Stony harder than he intended.”
Back in the cabin the boys found that Jarrett Walz had come from his nearby home to check on the activity. Informed by Mr. Livingston as to what had happened, he made no attempt to hide his annoyance.
“Now I suppose Stony will insist on lying in bed for a week!” he snapped.
“That’s for the doctor to decide,” Mr. Livingston rejoined.
“You’ve sent for a doctor?” the motel owner fairly screamed.
“And I’m to pay the bill?”
“It would be a humanitarian thing to do. Stony needs a doctor. No question about that.”
For the first time, Mr. Walz seemed concerned about his worker’s condition. He went over to the bed, peering intently at the colorless face. After a moment, he turned away and made no further protest about the doctor.
It was twenty minutes later when Dr. James Alcott reached the cabin. He checked Stony’s heart, examined the wound, and then told Mr. Walz to call an ambulance.
“An ambulance?” the motel owner repeated. “You don’t mean he’s bad off? Just from that little tap on the head?”
“It was a hard blow,” the doctor corrected him. “At the hospital we’ll take X-rays to see if there is a skull fracture. I rather doubt it, but in any case this man needs careful attention. How old is he?”
“Eighty-two,” Walz said. “At least, that’s what he claims.”
“He has a serious heart condition. At his age, a shock such as this could be very hard on him.”
“Doc, you don’t think he’ll die?” Walz gasped.
“His good physique is in his favor. I’d suggest, though, that you lose no time getting in touch with relatives.”
“Relatives? He has none that I ever heard of.”
The motel owner was plainly worried. Nervously, he paced back and forth in the cabin, not offering to help when Jack and Ken gathered together the few things which Stony would need at the hospital.
It was 3:30 A.M. by War’s watch when an ambulance pulled into the parking lot. Two attendants with a stretcher efficiently transferred Stony from his bed to their vehicle. Jarrett Walz did not offer to ride in the ambulance. Unwilling to see the old man taken without anyone to sit by him, Jack and Ken climbed in. Mr. Livingston, War, and Willie followed the ambulance in their own car.
At the hospital, matters were taken from the Scouts’ hands. Old Stony was passed through emergency and given a ward bed. Meanwhile, Mr. Livingston signed papers at the hospital office and provided what little information he could about the attack.
“Walz should have come along,” the Scout leader remarked to Jack. “I figure he stayed away for fear he’d be hooked on the bill. How is Stony?”
“No report yet,” Jack replied. “But when I looked in on him a minute ago, he was resting comfortably.”
“He didn’t tell you anything more about his attacker?”
“Stony didn’t say a word. In fact, he hardly recognized me.”
With a shake of his head, Mr. Livingston indicated that the information was disturbing. After a moment, he said: “Well, round up Warwick, Willie, and Ken. We’ve done everything we can for the poor old fellow. May as well get back to camp and try to catch a few winks before dawn.”
In sober silence the Scouts drove back to the motel. A light was on—in the front office, but Mr. Walz was not there.
“There’s a light in Stony’s cabin, too,” Jack noted as the car turned into the driveway. “That’s funny! I distinctly recall turning it off after everyone left.”
“That’s right, you did!” Ken exclaimed.
No one spoke for a moment as the same thought occurred to all: Stony’s mysterious attacker might have returned!
Mr. Livingston stopped the car and switched off the ignition.
“Come on, boys,” he said grimly, heading for the cabin. “We’ll find out about this!”
Chapter 3 THE TREASURE MAP
At the doorway of Old Stony’s cabin, Mr. Livingston and the Scouts halted. Inside, crouching on the floor, a man was riffling through a box of papers, evidently pulled from beneath the bed.
It was Jarrett Walz.
Mr. Livingston coughed. At once the motel owner whirled around. Caught by surprise, he lost his balance and collapsed awkwardly on the floor.
“Oh, back already?” he asked.
“We didn’t expect to find you here,” Mr. Livingston said pointedly.
Mr. Walz got to his feet. He shoved the box of papers back under the bed and said, “I was just looking through some of poor Old Stony’s junk.”
“So we noticed,” the Scout leader answered dryly. “Find what you were after?”
Walz gave him a quick, suspicious look. He said evenly, “I was trying to find the names of any relatives Old Stony may have.”
“Not a single clue?” Jack interposed dubiously. “Old Stony must have had a few friends.”
“No one—unless maybe you could say he kept up a writing acquaintance with Craig Warner.”
The motel owner shrugged. “Someone he wrote to in Colorado. A casual acquaintance, I guess.”
“Stony didn’t seem the type to bother with trivial friendships,” Jack commented. “Did he come from Colorado?”
“Stony must have told you that much himself,” Walz retorted, making no attempt to hide his growing distaste for the conversation.
“We don’t mean to be inquisitive,” interposed Mr. Livingston smoothly. “However, it’s rather important to know something of Stony’s past. What was his last name?”
“Who knows? When he came here, he told me his name was John Stone. That’s how he got his nickname, Old Stony. Later, he said his name was Adams. And once he told me it was Pickering. So take your choice.”
“He must have had something to hide.”
“Old Stony ran away from a past. I suspected that when I hired him.” Walz laughed without mirth. “He was afraid to set foot over the Colorado line, so I figured he was wanted for something in that state.”
“He kept it a secret?”
“Old Stony never told me anything. Nothing, that is, except wild yarns. The truth is, he disliked me and was ungrateful for all I did to help him.”
“Well, he’s in a bad spot at the moment,” Mr. Livingston said. “Any idea who might have attacked him?”
“Not the slightest.”
“Oh, I figure some hoodlum put faith in Stony’s story of having gold or a map to a gold mine. Trouble with him, he couldn’t keep his lips from wagging. He invited the attack.”
“You’ve reported it to the police?”
Walz frowned. “Why, no. Figured it was none of their business.”
“It’s customary, isn’t it, to report an assault and an attempted theft?”
“Not in Rocking Horse it isn’t,” Walz said shortly. “A police investigation here wouldn’t mean a thing. Far as I’m concerned, Stony will have to do the reporting, if any is done.”
“That may not be possible.”
“Oh, he’ll snap out of it,” Walz said carelessly. “That old boy has a constitution like iron.”
“I hope you’re right. Just what can you tell us about Stony?”
Walz edged toward the door. Plainly, he wanted to put an end to the questions. But he replied: “I told you about all I know. He drifted into this town like a tumbleweed some years ago. I gave him a job—his board and room in return for looking after the cabins.”
“He never told you much about himself?” Ken inquired.
“Oh, he talked enough, but always he handed out lies. The old coot was suspicious by nature. Why, he became obsessed with the idea I wanted to rob him of his gold and the map!”
“He did show us a nugget last night,” War said. “A big one.”
“Wasn’t it real gold?” War asked in disappointment.
“It’s gold, all right. But you can bet Old Stony never dug it from a mine or washed it from a creek.”
“By the way, I wonder what became of that nugget?” Jack asked. “Old Stony had it wrapped in a handkerchief last night.”
“I have the nugget.” Walz made the admission half defiantly. “Old Stony sets great store by it. I figured I’d better take it before someone went off with it. Tomorrow I’ll drop it around to him at the hospital.”
The Scouts had their own opinion of the motel owner’s motive in taking the nugget. However, they could not accuse him.
Jack did say, “Find any other nuggets?”
“Nothing.” Walz pushed past him, through the open door. “Excuse me, now. I’ve had a hard night and I’m turning in.” He started away, only to halt. “You’re leaving today?”
“We expect to,” Mr. Livingston returned.
“Well, have a good trip,” Walz said, with a show of friendliness.
The Scouts waited outside the cabin until the motel owner was beyond view. Then Willie remarked that Walz had neglected to lock the door.
“That indicates he’s gone through poor Old Stony’s possessions from A to Z,” Jack declared. “He’s satisfied there’s nothing of value here.”
“Even so, it would do no harm to look around ourselves,” War proposed. “Walz could have missed something.”
Mr. Livingston vetoed the suggestion. “No, War. This is Stony’s cabin. It ought to be locked.”
“Let’s all get to bed,” Willie urged. “Look at the horizon. It’s nearly dawn.”
After a bit of debate, the Scouts decided to try to catch an hour of sleep before breaking camp. Accordingly, forgetting the unlocked cabin door, they retired to their tents. Everyone slept soundly.
When Jack finally opened his eyes, a hot sun was beating down on the canvas. He was alone in the tent. Peering out, he sniffed the aroma of frying eggs. The others were up ahead of him.
“Gosh, am I lazy!” he exclaimed. “What time is it?”
“Ten to nine,” Willie told him as he turned the eggs. “You were sleeping like a babe, so we didn’t call you.”
Jack quickly dressed and helped Mr. Livingston strike and pack the two tents. By that time Willie had breakfast ready to serve.
“We’re making a late start,” the Scout leader said, looking ruefully at his watch. “But we all needed sleep. Last night was rough.”
“Wonder how Old Stony is getting along?” Jack speculated. “Any word?”
“I went up to the office to inquire,” Ken replied. “The place was locked up. No sign of Walz. He’s probably still in bed.”
“I sort of hate to pull out of here without knowing Stony’s okay.”
“Sure, we all do,” Ken agreed soberly. “After we’re packed and ready to hit the road, what say we stop somewhere to telephone the hospital?”
“Good idea,” Mr. Livingston approved. “I was going to suggest it myself.”
In short order the Scouts finished breakfast, disposed of the garbage, and put out their fire. Soon the car was packed ready for their departure.
“Well, we’re leaving the camp cleaner than we found it,” Ken said, making a last careful survey before they pulled out.
Mr. Livingston turned the car around on the lot and started to drive past the office. Before he could do so, a man came across the street from a drugstore and signaled for the car to stop.
As Mr. Livingston pulled up, the stranger said: “The hospital just called.”
“Yes, the motel office seems to be closed. So they called my place.”
“How is he?” Mr. Livingston inquired.
“He’s taken a turn for the worse.”
“You’ve told Walz?”
The man from the drugstore shook his head. “Old Stony doesn’t want to see Walz. It’s you folks he’s asking for. If you can, go right away, or it may be too late.”
Chapter 4 A BAG OF BEANS
In the corridor of Memorial Hospital, Doctor Alcott confirmed the information the Scouts had been given—Old Stony had suffered a heart attack and was not expected to live.
“Is he still conscious?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“Yes, and his mind remains alert. He has been asking repeatedly for the Scouts. That’s why we sent for you. Sorry to bother you, but it seems to mean a lot to the old man. Something appears to be on his mind.”
“I’m glad you did call,” Mr. Livingston replied. “May we go in now?”
“Yes, but it would be better if only two of you see him, and don’t stay long.”
Accordingly, while the others waited in the downstairs lobby, Hap and Jack followed a nurse into the ward. A screen had been set up at Old Stony’s bed to provide a measure of privacy.
As Mr. Livingston and Jack paused beside him, the old fellow opened his eyes and managed to grin feebly.
“How are you feeling?” Jack asked, because he could think of nothing else to say.
“Not so hot,” Old Stony returned. His bloodless fingers plucked at the sheet. “Reckon I’m about ready to mount my pale white horse and ride to the last roundup.”
“Not at all,” Mr. Livingston tried to reassure him. “In a few days you’ll snap out of this. There’s fighting spirit in you, Stony.”
“Ah, there’s fight, but the old ticker’s getting mighty tired.”
Stony closed his eyes and for several minutes seemed almost to forget his visitors. They were debating whether or not to slip away quietly, when he aroused himself again.
“Pull up your chairs and listen close,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you something important.”
“Are you sure you feel strong enough to talk?” Mr. Livingston inquired doubtfully, as he and Jack brought their chairs to the bedside.
“Fiddlesticks! If it takes my last breath, I have to get this off my chest. Now, listen close, because I’m winding up to tell you the true story o’ why I never went back to Colorado to live on my hard-earned gold.”
Jack and Hap exchanged a quick glance. Would the old man tell them another wild tale, they wondered? Or would this story, in all probability his last, be a true one?
“Don’t be wasting time trying to find any of my family after I’ve kicked off.”
“You have no relatives?”
“Nary a chick.”
“How about your friend in Colorado?” Jack suggested. “I think Jarrett Walz said his name was Craig Warner.”
Old Stony rolled his head on the pillow. “That snooping rascal!” he muttered. “He’s been in my things since they carted me off here!”
“I’m afraid he has,” Mr. Livingston admitted. Fearful of agitating the old man, he did not tell him the extent to which the motel owner had gone through his personal papers.
“Craig Warner isn’t exactly my friend,” Old Stony said slowly. “Reckon he’d hate me if he knew the truth.”
“You write to him sometimes?” Mr. Livingston suggested.
“Now and then I scratch him a line. I’m not much on writing, and he isn’t much on answering. Haven’t heard from him in more’n three years now.”
“If he’s not a friend, why write?” Jack asked, puzzled.
“It’s because of my past. Craig doesn’t know this—he thinks I’m Hank Stone, a screwball prospector. That’s the way I want it. But the reason I kept in touch all these years is because he’s the only son o’ my old podner, John Warner.”
The effort of talking had tired Old Stony. He lay a while with eyes closed and then continued.
“I’m not one to deal from the bottom of a deck. I’m honest, I am. That’s why I’ve never trusted Jarrett Walz. Maybe I’m being unfair. He gave me a job, and for that I’m grateful. But I’d never trust him with my secret.”
“About the gold?” Jack prodded.
Old Stony nodded. “I’ll start at the beginning,” he went on. “’Twas back in the early 1900’s. I don’t exactly recollect the date. My podner, John Warner, and I got ourselves enough grub to last three months. Then we hit for the valley we later named Headless Hollow.”
“Where was it?” Mr. Livingston asked. “West of Denver?”
“Ay, it’s hard by a mountain where even to this day gold has never been struck—at least, word of it hasn’t hit the papers.”
“Most of the old gold fields are known—” Mr. Livingston started to say.
The old man broke in: “Headless Valley is hard to get at. The vein my podner and I found is rich, but it isn’t extensive enough to make it worth while hauling in expensive mining equipment. So I reckon engineers have given it the go-by.”
“But you and your partner really found gold there?” Jack asked, rather impressed.
“We sure did. And then our troubles began. All that summer we worked till our hands were blistered. We stacked the ore in two caches—one big and one little. Our food began to run low. We knew we had to get out fast before winter set in, but the gold held us. And then—”
Old Stony shuddered and seemed unable to go on. But with an effort, he forced himself to resume:
“So far as we knew, there weren’t any human beings within forty miles of Headless Valley. We never set eyes on a soul all that summer. But one morning my podner showed up missing. I found him by the diggings, dead with a bullet hole through the back of his head.”
“What did you do?” Jack asked, becoming more engrossed.
“I buried him not far from the little cabin we had built. Marked the grave with his name too.”
“Who killed John Warner?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“All these years I’ve been asking myself that same question. Indians, I reckon. Maybe Headless Hollow was sacred ground to ’em, and they didn’t like us messing around.”
“The killing wasn’t because of the gold?”
“Reckon not,” Old Stony replied to the Scout leader’s inquiry. “Nary a nugget was touched. I’m telling you, after poor John got his, I was plumb scared. I couldn’t see anybody around, but I could feel ’em. Sort o’ like ghosts.”
“Ghosts don’t fire shots,” Mr. Livingston said dryly.
“Danged right they don’t! I figured I’d be next if I didn’t light out o’ there. I took a few of the nuggets that I could carry in a bag and hit the trail. Doggone near froze to death before I finally got back to the nearest town.”
“You left the hidden gold?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, and I reckon it’s still there today. At least, I don’t think those caches would ever be found, unless by somebody who was watching us, or by Indians.”
“Why didn’t you go back later?” Mr. Livingston asked.
Old Stony heaved a heavy sigh. “Figured you’d ask me that one. Reckon I’ve got to answer true. When I got back—well, folks began whispering that I was the one that did for poor old John. They said I shot him so I could have the claim all to myself.”
“Didn’t other prospectors try to find Headless Hollow?” Mr. Livingston asked thoughtfully. “It’s inconceivable that your arrival with gold wouldn’t set off a mad scramble.”
“I fooled ’em. Told ’em a mess of lies that led ’em packing in the wrong direction.” Old Stony grinned at the recollection. “They sure were burned up! So to even the score, they got out a warrant charging me with poor John’s murder. That was when I lit out.”
“You left Colorado?” Jack prompted.
“I sure did. First I went to California and lost my grubstake there. Then I drifted back to Arizona, then on here to New Mexico. Always figured some day I’d go back to Headless Hollow. But the years came on too fast, and before I knew it, I was an old man and my last chance was gone.”
By this time, Jack and Mr. Livingston were convinced that Stony’s story was at least half truth. As for his gold, they were of the opinion that the one hoarded nugget that Walz had must have represented his entire fortune.
Therefore, it came as a surprise when the old man went on: “Now I’m coming to the kernel o’ the nut. I reckon I owe poor old John a debt. Half of that gold I took out of Headless Hollow I figured was his. I’ve kept that half—never touched it, even when I didn’t know where my next mouthful of meat was coming from. Now I want that gold to go to John’s son, Craig Warner.”
Jack and Mr. Livingston began to catch the drift of Stony’s thoughts, so they were not too surprised at his request which came haltingly.
“Reckon it’s a lot to ask o’ strangers—but I have no one I can trust. I’m asking you—after I’m gone—will you get word to Craig Warner? Take him the map—the one that shows the true trail to Headless Hollow and the caches of gold. They’re his by rights, and I want him to have ’em.”
“Where is this map?” Mr. Livingston asked, trying not to show that the strange request troubled him.
Old Stony leaned over to the edge of the bed, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“You’ll find it under the stones—fireplace—my cabin.”
“We’ll be glad to look,” Mr. Livingston promised. “Where are we to find Craig Warner?”
“His address is in my box of papers—under the bed.”
The lengthy conversation had greatly wearied Old Stony but, when Jack and Mr. Livingston started to leave, with a feeble gesture of his hand the prospector waved them back.
“Just one thing more,” he said, his voice husky. “The gold—Craig Warner’s share—you’ll find it—”
A nurse had come to the bedside. With a quick glance at the patient, she told the two visitors they had to leave at once.
Old Stony summoned all his failing strength. Gazing steadily at Jack and Hap, he said clearly: “The bag of pinto beans. The bag of beans. You understand?”
To satisfy the dying old man, the two visitors nodded. Stony fell back on the pillow, a smile on his thin lips.
“I’ve said my piece,” he whispered. “Now I’m ready for the long trip over the range. God be with you.”
Chapter 5 THE SEARCH
The nurse motioned for Jack and Mr. Livingston to leave.
“Goodbye, Stony,” Jack said, reaching out to grasp the gnarled hand in a last farewell.
The old man’s lips twitched slightly, but his closed eyes did not open. Jack and Mr. Livingston quietly departed.
“I’m afraid we’ll never see the old fellow again,” the Scout leader said with a shake of his head.
Jack asked Hap what he thought of the story the old prospector had told.
“I don’t rightly know,” he replied. “Stony seemed to be telling the truth. It’s fantastic—and yet it’s possible that Headless Hollow may actually exist.”
War, Willie, and Ken were impatiently waiting in the hospital lobby. Eagerly, the trio plied Jack and their leader with questions. With deep interest, they listened to Hap’s report of the talk with Old Stony.
“What’s our move, now?” Ken asked. “Do we pull out of Rocking Horse or drive back to the motel?”
“Back to the motel,” Hap decided. “Jack and I made a promise to Stony. We must at least make an attempt to get Craig Warner’s address and notify him.”
“What about the map?” War demanded.
“Oh, we might make a brief search for that too,” the Scout leader said with a grin at War’s eagerness.
“What did Stony say about gold nuggets being hidden in a bag of pinto beans?” War went on. “And what are pinto beans?”
“Pinto means mottled, doesn’t it?” Jack recollected. “Stony must have meant some kind of fancy, painted bean. And that reminds me! I did see a bag of something hanging on the wall!”
“That’s right!” agreed Ken. “On a hook near the fireplace.”
“After Stony had been struck, he raised up and looked directly at that bag!” Jack added. “He seemed relieved that it was still there.”
“Well, if ever Old Stony had any valuables, it’s a cinch Jarrett Walz has them by now,” Willie contributed as the group left the hospital. “Are we telling him about our talk with the old man?”
“I think not,” Mr. Livingston decided. “Stony entrusted a secret to us. Let’s keep it a secret.”
The Scouts had hoped to return to the motel without meeting Walz again, but in this they were disappointed. As their heavily laden car turned into the driveway, the motel owner came out of his office. His scowl told them that their unexpected return did not please him.
However, he merely said: “Back so soon?”
“We ran into complications,” Mr. Livingston rejoined, without explaining about the hospital trip.
Evidently, Walz had not learned that the Scouts had gone to Old Stony’s bedside, for he continued: “You’re not figuring on staying here another night?”
“Well, we might,” the Scout leader replied. “It all depends. You don’t object, do you?”
“Object? Why should I? Not if you pay your camp fee. I’d think, though, that you’d want to hit the road. There’s nothing of interest to see in or around Rocking Horse.”
“We like the place,” Jack said. “I vote to stay another day.”
“Same here,” chimed in Willie.
Mr. Livingston dug into his wallet and handed the motel owner two dollars. For a moment, the Scouts thought Walz intended to refuse, but with a shrug he pocketed the bills and told them to go back to their former camp site.
The Scouts busied themselves setting up the tents. They had no intention of visiting Stony’s cabin while Jarrett Walz was near.
“Keep an eye on the motel office,” Jack advised Willie. “If he leaves, that’s our cue to go to work.”
But Walz did not leave, and the Scouts began to grow restless. Finally, Ken and Jack, without entering the cabin, began to inspect the ground outside. Without much hope of finding anything significant, they searched for a clue to the identity of Stony’s mysterious attacker. Almost at once, Jarrett Walz came out of the motel office. His sudden appearance made it clear he had been watching them all the while.
“What are you boys doing?” he demanded.
“Thought we might find a few footprints,” Jack replied carelessly.
He stooped to inspect a large shoe imprint in a moist spot of earth not far from the cabin door.
“That’s from my boot,” Walz informed him.
“Yes, it is,” Jack agreed, noticing that the heel print was identical with one made by the shoe Walz wore.
“Those prints don’t mean a thing. I’ve been in and out of that cabin several times this morning. Fancy yourselves detectives, eh?”
“No,” Ken told him evenly, “but we’d like to find out who attacked Stony. You reported the affair to the police?”
“The police were out here this morning. Reckon they heard about it from the hospital.”
“Not a one. Police are satisfied the motive was robbery. Probably some hoodlum who met Stony was taken in by his story of having great wealth.”
“You’re satisfied it was only a yarn?” Jack asked, watching the motel owner’s face intently.
“About the gold? Sure. He had only that one nugget.”
“And the map?”
Walz eyed Jack shrewdly. “Well, the old goat might have had a map,” he conceded. “If so, he hid it in a good place. He didn’t give you any hints, did he?”
“Hints?” Jack repeated, stalling for time. He had no intention of disclosing his knowledge to the motel owner.
“Say, what about this fellow Craig Warner?” Ken interposed, to distract Walz from the treasure map. “Do you know where he lives?”
“On some ranch in Colorado. That’s all I can tell you.”
“You didn’t find his address in those papers under the bed?”
“No,” Walz answered shortly.
He might have added more, but just then a call came from the motel office. Walz was gone about ten minutes. When he returned, his face was grim.
“That was a telephone message from the hospital,” he reported. “Stony’s—dead.”
Ken and Jack accepted the information in silence. Though the sad news was not unexpected, it gave them both an empty feeling to know that the old fellow had indeed mounted his pale pony and ridden to the Last Roundup.
“I’ve got to go to the hospital now,” Walz went on, looking worried. “Arrangements have to be made for the burial. I’d let the county do it, but folks would talk. So I’ll dig down into my pocket, I suppose.”
The Scouts did not reply. After a while, Walz went to his car and they saw him drive away.
“Now’s our chance!” Ken suggested. “I don’t like to do anything sneaky, but it’s just as well Old Eagle Eye doesn’t know what we’re about.”
“Now that poor Old Stony is gone, it’s even more important we find that map and Craig Warner’s address,” Jack added.
Ken went for Mr. Livingston and the other Scouts. The cabin door had not been locked.
Once inside, the group turned to the box of papers under the bed. The collection of letters was pathetically small. There were two notes written by a woman who signed herself Sadie, but the dates were so far back, that even had there been an address, she would probably have no longer been alive.
The Scouts could find no letters from Craig Warner. They were about to give up the search when Willie came upon the man’s address written in a tiny notebook with yellowed pages.
“Craig Warner, Red Cliffs Ranch, Elks Creek, Colorado,” he read aloud. Mr. Livingston wrote down the address and then the Scouts turned their attention to the search for gold and the treasure map. The bag of pinto beans had been removed from the wall hook. However, Jack came upon it in a corner of the room.
“That bag was hanging on the wall last night,” he commented. “I hope Jarrett Walz hasn’t been ahead of us.”
As Jack emptied the colored beans onto the bed, the Scouts gathered around. But the sight was disappointing. The bag contained nothing but beans.
“Not a single nugget,” War said in disgust. “Old Stony must have been handing us a line!”
“Not necessarily,” Jack replied, refilling the bag and returning it to its former place on the wall hook. “Last night or this morning after Stony was taken to the hospital, someone moved this bag.”
“Walz?” Willie asked.
“Could be. Of course, the cabin door has been unlocked, so maybe it’s not fair to accuse him.”
“It will be a waste of time even looking for the map,” Willie said.
The others were inclined to agree with him. However, no one would have willingly left the cabin without making the search.
Jack and Ken dropped on hands and knees before the fireplace. Raking away some of the loose, cold ashes, they began to explore the hearthstones.
To their surprise they hit one which moved a trifle.
Jack pried it up with his knife. Beneath the stone lay a yellowed paper, tightly folded.
“The map!” he chortled. “Old Stony’s story may be true!”
Chapter 6 THE THREAT
The Explorers and Mr. Livingston clustered close to Jack, peering at the paper he had found under the hearthstones. Carefully, he spread the yellowed sheet on the cabin floor.
“It’s a map, all right,” Ken confirmed, studying it over Jack’s shoulder. “A rough one, though. And the ink has faded.”
The area on the map appeared to be in the most rugged section of the Colorado Rockies, west of Denver and toward the southwest portion of the state. So far as the Scouts could determine, the take-off point for Old Stony’s Headless Hollow was a little town which had been mapped in as Buckhorn. Other landmarks were Cinnamon Pass and Superstition Canyon. Headless Hollow itself seemed guarded by twin mountain peaks, unnamed in the sketch.
“Well, it’s a map,” Mr. Livingston conceded. “That’s about all you can say for it.”
“Nothing is drawn in proportion,” Willie complained. “Most of the directions for reaching Headless Hollow—if there is such a place—must have been in Old Stony’s head.”
“It’s my bet he purposely made it vague,” said Jack.
“Probably wanted to fix it so that nobody stealing the map could have reached the valley too easily,” Ken agreed.
The Scouts politely waited for Mr. Livingston to offer his opinion.
“We more or less made Old Stony a promise,” he reminded the group. “So whether or not this map has value, it’s our duty to deliver it to Craig Warner if we can find him.”
“That may not be so easy,” remarked Jack. “Stony’s information isn’t very up to date. Elks Creek may or may not be a recent address.”
“In any case—” Happy started to say.
“Watch it,” Jack warned in an undertone.
Quick as a flash, he scooped the map from the floor, thrusting it under his jacket.
The reason for his action was immediately apparent. Footsteps had been heard on the gravel driveway outside the cabin. Before the Scouts could move away from the fireplace, Jarrett Walz loomed on the threshold. His suspicious glance roved from one face to another, but the Scouts volunteered no explanation for their presence in the cabin.
He said sharply: “Well! I hardly expected to find you here!”
“We weren’t looking for you back so soon,” Willie stammered.
“That’s quite obvious. What are you doing here?”
“No harm, I assure you,” Mr. Livingston said. “To be quite truthful, we promised Old Stony that if anything happened to him, we’d try to get in touch with someone he knew.”
“Looking after Stony’s affairs is my job, not yours,” the motel owner said, his dark eyes snapping.
“We’re not trying to intervene, we assure you.”
“You had no business seeing my workman in the hospital!” Jarrett Walz continued, his voice rising. “Oh, you kept quiet about your visit there, but I learned of it, all the same!”
“We made no secret of our trip,” Mr. Livingston replied. He was trying to remain polite, but the motel owner’s belligerent attitude annoyed him.
“That’s so,” War chimed in, glaring at Walz. “We went because the old man sent for us.”
“He sent for you?” the motel owner repeated, his eyes glittering. “Why?”
War had told more than he intended. He began to stall: “Well, the old fellow was dying. He just wanted to see us.”
“Just to see us.”
“You must think me very stupid to accept that! Why shouldn’t he have sent for me? Here I’ve given him bed and board, but in his last hour, he turns to five utter strangers! Folks in Rocking Horse will say—”
“Yes?” Mr. Livingston prompted, as the motel owner interrupted himself.
“They’ll say Old Stony was ungrateful,” Mr. Walz completed. “And he was!”
From the shifty look of the motel operator’s eyes, the Scouts judged that he had checked himself on the verge of saying something entirely different. Though they had no evidence, it struck them that in all probability over the years Jarrett Walz had profited quite handsomely from the old prospector’s unpaid labor.
“Any information on Stony’s attacker?” Mr. Livingston inquired.
“No. I talked briefly with a police officer at the hospital. Stony died from a heart attack, not the results of the blow.”
“So there will be no investigation?”
“Oh, a routine one,” Jarrett Walz answered with a shrug, “but whoever slugged Stony probably hopped a train and blew out of town.”
The Scouts were convinced that the motel owner had succeeded in discouraging any police investigation. Publicity no doubt would harm his business. Though they did not like the way he had handled the affair, they told themselves it really was none of their concern.
“Well, boys, we may as well get back to our own camp,” Mr. Livingston suggested, edging toward the door.
Jarrett Walz did not move aside.
“Just a minute,” he said. “I’ll appreciate an explanation before you go.”
“An explanation?” Mr. Livingston asked, puzzled. “For what?”
“Your presence in this cabin.”
The Scout adviser began to grow irritated, yet he managed to keep his voice controlled.
“We did explain, I think. We were looking for Craig Warner’s address.”
“You found it?”
“And what do you intend to do with it?”
“Notify Warner of Stony’s death, naturally.”
“You think he’d care?” Jarrett Walz demanded with a slight sneer. “I doubt he ever laid eyes on that old coot.”
“That’s beside the point. We made a promise to Stony, and we intend to keep it.”
“A Scout’s word is to be trusted, eh?”
“Okay,” Walz retorted triumphantly. “Then tell me the truth—no more of your double talk. You came here to find more than an address.”
“Perhaps we did,” the Scout leader rejoined. “As I recollect, you made a rather careful search of this cabin yourself.”
“That’s different,” Walz said, immediately on the defensive. “Stony was my workman. You are strangers here.”
“You have a point,” Mr. Livingston conceded, determined not to argue. “I suggest you lock the cabin door.”
“It’s like locking the barn after the horse is stolen!” Walz said, eying the Scout leader calculatingly. “You’re deliberately hiding something! I think you came here to find the old man’s gold!”
“Why, you—” War exclaimed, half lunging at the motel owner.
Ken and Jack restrained him.
“Spunky little tiger, aren’t you?” Walz demanded with a hard, mirthless laugh.
“It seems to me,” drawled Jack, addressing the motel owner, “that you’re changing your tune about the gold. Until now, you’ve maintained Stony’s tale was fantastic.”
“And so it is!”
“You’re the one who should know,” Willie said significantly. “You were the first to go through Old Stony’s things.”
The Scouts expected the motel owner to fly into a rage at this accusation, but to their surprise he shrugged it off.
“I found nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Not even in the bag of pinto beans?” War asked.
Walz’ lips twitched, and a flush overspread his ruddy cheeks.
“I see Old Stony did tell you quite a story,” he sneered. “Oh, you can’t fool me! You weren’t here on any good-will mission. You were looking for gold and a treasure map.”
“You’ve changed your idea about the map, too,” Jack accused him.
“Maybe I have! Maybe I’ve come to the conclusion Old Stony told you a few things he never entrusted to any other person in Rocking Horse.”
“Conclude as you please,” Mr. Livingston said shortly.
“I’m asking a straight question. Did you find a map in this cabin?”
“You’ll have to learn that answer for yourself, my friend.”
Walz and the Scout leader gazed steadily at one another. Then abruptly the motel owner’s manner changed. He moved aside so that the Scouts could file out the cabin door.
“You have the map,” he said in an oddly quiet voice. “I knew it the moment I stepped into this room.”
No one gave Walz the satisfaction of a reply.
He continued, his tone a warning: “Just bear in mind one thing. In trusting you with his secret, Old Stony may have passed on to you his own misfortune—the curse that hangs over Headless Hollow!”
Chapter 7 UNDER THE TENT FLAP
Back in their own camp, the Explorers made certain Jarrett Walz had not followed them.
Then, in the privacy of the larger tent, they eagerly spread out the treasure map for a closer inspection. Jack got the Colorado road guide from the car, and they pored over it, trying to pinpoint Headless Hollow.
“There’s no such place,” War announced after a long study of the basic Colorado map.
“You didn’t expect to find Headless Hollow printed in big red letters, did you?” Ken demanded.
“That was only a name Old Stony and his partner gave the valley,” Jack added.
“We can’t find any of the landmarks either,” War grumbled, “or that town where Craig Warner is supposed to live—Elks Creek.”
“It may be too small a place to be on a road map,” Mr. Livingston returned. “Buckhorn, too.”
“This treasure map isn’t drawn to scale, either,” Willie said with a frown. “Most of the canyons and mountain peaks aren’t named. The main landmark seems to be those twin peaks which guard the entrance to the valley.”
“We’re not going there, anyhow,” Ken said, giving him an amused, knowing look. “So why worry about it?”
“Well, it would be exciting to look for that cache of gold,” Willie retorted.
“If we could locate a take-off town it might not be too far out of our way,” War put in eagerly. “How about it, Hap?”
Mr. Livingston smiled but shook his head.
“No treasure hunting on this trip, boys. We’re supposed to be back in Belton City by the end of the week.”
“Oh, a few days more or less wouldn’t matter,” War said carelessly.
“There’s a little matter of money,” Ken reminded him. “We have just enough, with a few dollars in reserve, to make it home.”
“I know,” War admitted, crestfallen. “But a fellow can dream, can’t he?”
Jack continued to study the map.
“Make anything of it?” Ken asked.
“Either on purpose, or because he was careless, Stony made his markings vague. He was especially slack about printing in names.”
“What’ll we do with the map?” Willie asked the Scout leader.
“It’s our duty to turn it over to Craig Warner. Our best bet will be to send him a wire.”
“Telling him we have the map?”
“No, Willie. Not in the first wire. We’ll report Stony’s death and ask him to reply.”
It had been the Scout plan to start on toward Belton City, a journey of several days, but in view of the promise made to Old Stony, they now were uncertain what to do.
“We’ve already lost most of the morning,” Mr. Livingston said, looking at his wristwatch. “If I get a telegram off right away, we might have a reply by tonight if we’re lucky.”
He reflected a moment, then reached a decision.
“We’ve paid for the site until tomorrow morning, boys. If we’re ever going to hear from Craig Warner, we ought to have a reply by that time.”
Willie and Warwick decided to ride into the main section of town with the Scout adviser. Jack and Ken agreed to watch the camp while the others were dispatching the telegram.
“Don’t let Walz or anyone grab that map,” Willie warned, as the car pulled away.
Left to themselves, Jack and Ken discussed Old Stony for a while. Now that they were away from the hospital and the magic of his voice, the tale of treasure seemed farfetched.
“Maybe it was just a fixation he had,” Ken said thoughtfully. “I’ve read of old prospectors drawing maps of imaginary places. Then they’d dream over ’em so long they’d convince themselves the treasure was real.”
“Jarrett Walz seemed to think Stony’s story mostly hot air. At least, that’s what he put out at first. But if he didn’t believe it, why did he paw through everything in the cabin?”
“Including that bag of pinto beans.”
“Yeah, Ken, it’s just possible he found a few nuggets in the beans—enough to get him excited about the map.”
“What did you think of his crack about the curse of Headless Hollow?”
“Melodrama. Maybe he wanted to discourage us from going there.”
“If so,” Ken grinned, “he went about it the wrong Way. He should know that adventure is our dish!”
“Walz may know more about Old Stony’s past than he’s letting on,” Jack said thoughtfully. “You notice he gets his statements mixed. Another thing, he poohpoohs the idea of a treasure, but he seems wild to get his hands on this map.”
Ken nodded. “We should hide it in a safe spot.”
“Not in our duffel bags. That would be the first place he’d look.”
Jack’s eye fell upon the tent flap. “Why not under there?” he suggested. “At least until Hap gets back with the car?”
Folding the map into a tiny square, they hid it under the tent flap. Then, satisfied that it would be safe, they set about preparing lunch.
By the time Mr. Livingston, War, and Willie drove up, a big pot of stew was giving off a delightful aroma. Ken made tea and tossed a handful of raisins in the boiling rice.
“Any news?” Jack asked the Scout leader, as they all sat down at a picnic table to eat.
“Nothing of consequence. We sent off the telegram. The telegraph company agent promised to telephone us here if there is any answer.”
“What about Stony?” Ken questioned, after a moment. “Police haven’t caught that fellow who attacked him?”
“No. We dropped around at the station. Apparently, Jarrett Walz was right—the investigation won’t be carried on with any vigor.”
“What—about the arrangements—Stony’s burial?”
“Tomorrow at 10 A.M. The town is providing for a simple service.”
“Not Walz, then?”
“He’s contributing a small amount.”
“I’d like to chip in for flowers,” Jack said soberly. “Even if our money is short, we can manage it, can’t we?”
“Yes, Jack,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “While we were in town, we arranged for a wreath. It seemed the least we could do. Stony was a stranger and yet, somehow, he moved us all deeply.”
“I got a queer feeling about him,” War added, staring at his plate.
“What kind of feeling?” Ken asked.
“It’s hard to explain.” War groped for words. “It’s as if his ghost were here—sort o’ nudging us on—saying we should follow the lead he gave us.”
No one laughed.
Finally, Mr. Livingston said, “If we hear from Craig Warner, and Elks Creek isn’t too many miles out of our way, we could deliver the map.”
This thought at once caused the Explorers to become more cheerful.
“About going on to Buckhorn—” War began, but Mr. Livingston shook his head.
“It’s a matter of time and money, Warwick. After all, we’ve had our vacation.”
“And a dandy one it was!” announced Jack, beginning to gather up the cups. “I’m not going to grieve over Old Stony’s hidden gold. Quit your coaxing, War, and get those dishes done!”
Shortly after 2 P. M., as the Scouts restlessly idled about camp, they saw Jarrett Walz drive up. From the way he slammed the door as he went into the motel office, they judged he was in a bad mood. This was made even more evident a few minutes later when he tramped down the road to ask them if they had decided when they would leave Rocking Horse.
“Tomorrow some time, probably,” Mr. Livingston told him.
“Our town seems to have quite an attraction for you.”
“You’re certainly taking a deep interest in Stony’s unfortunate affairs,” the motel owner went on, scowling. “I heard about that telegram you sent to Craig Warner.”
“Oh! News travels fast in Rocking Horse.”
“It does. I might say you seem to be assuming responsibilities. Some might have a less polite name for it.”
“Ever since you hit this town, you’ve been sticking your nose into affairs that don’t concern you.”
“Sorry if it seems that way to you,” Mr. Livingston said with a shrug.
“Why did you send a wire to Craig Warner?”
“To notify him of Old Stony’s death.”
“That wasn’t your sole reason.”
“You have all the answers,” Mr. Livingston replied, finding it hard to keep his temper. “Why bother to ask any questions?”
“Because I strongly suspect Old Stony told you something you’re hiding from me.”
Mr. Livingston made up his mind to end the unpleasant conversation.
“We promised Stony we would get in touch with the son of his old partner. That’s why we sent the telegram. Tomorrow we’ll be away from here, and you can handle affairs as you see fit.”
The reply obviously did not satisfy Jarrett Walz but, apparently realizing his tactics would get him nowhere, he went away.
For the Scouts it was a long, boring day. With nothing to do, the hours dragged. All began to look forward to the morrow when they would take to the road once more. Twice Mr. Livingston and Ken drove to the telegraph office to inquire if an answer had been received to the wire. No word had come.
“Craig Warner may not exist except in Old Stony’s mind,” the Scout leader observed upon his return to camp at dusk, “or he may have moved to another community.”
“What’ll we do about the map?” Willie asked in a troubled voice.
“If there’s no reply by morning, I think the best thing to do is send it by registered mail,” the Scout adviser decided.
The warm night closed in somewhat cloudy. After supper, the Scouts sat for a while about the camp fire, cracking a few jokes and trying to shake themselves into a more cheerful mood. Old Stony’s death hung over them, and they could not seem to get him out of their thoughts. It was depressing to look at his darkened cabin.
“I’ll be glad to leave in the morning,” Jack said, preparing to turn in for the night. “Up at crack of dawn, you guys!”
The fire burned out, and the camp quieted. Jack, with the health of youth, slept soundly. Now and then he aroused briefly as cars drove into the motel section of the parking lot, but quickly he dozed off again.
Then suddenly he was awake once more. For a second, he could not imagine what had aroused him. But as he lay still, listening, he distinctly heard the crackle of a twig.
He crept to the door of the shelter, peering out.
The night was very dark but, even without switching on a flashlight, he could see a man moving stealthily toward the Scout automobile parked beyond the picnic tables.
As Jack watched in growing anger, the fellow deliberately tested the car doors to see if they were locked.
Chapter 8 WALZ’ PROPOSITION
The tall fellow, who crouched by the car, picked up a rock. Guessing that he meant to smash the door handle, Jack let out a wild yell.
“Get away from there, you!”
The man dropped the rock. Startled, he whirled and ran for the trees. Jack took after him, but he did not have on his shoes. The rocks and stones slashed his feet and impeded him.
The intruder, amazingly fast in retreat, vanished behind the motel buildings. Losing sight of him, Jack finally limped back to camp.
“Hey, what’s the idea?” Willie greeted him. “You made more noise than a tribe of Indians!”
“Lucky I did, too!”
All the Scouts and Mr. Livingston were awake by now. They pressed Jack for an explanation.
Recovering breath, he said in disgust: “I let him get away.”
“Who got away?” Mr. Livingston demanded.
“That’s what I don’t know. Someone was trying to break into the sedan.”
Mr. Livingston went over to try the car doors. All remained locked.
“I yelled and scared him away before he managed to break the handle,” Jack went on. “You know—he looked a lot like that fellow we saw streaking away from Stony’s cabin last night.”
“The attacker?” Willie interposed. “S-a-y, maybe it was the same guy!”
“And maybe it’s lucky we weren’t slugged in our sleep!” War added.
“He acted as if his main objective was the car.”
“Nothing in there except some of our unpacked luggage,” Mr. Livingston said thoughtfully. “He could have been after the car.”
“Or something he believed might be hidden or locked up there,” Jack suggested.
“The map!” exclaimed Ken.
“That’s how it struck me,” Jack nodded. “I’m glad we hid it under the tent flap. Let’s hope it’s still there.”
“It has to be,” Ken returned. “I’ve been in camp every minute since you hid it.”
Nevertheless, to reassure themselves, the Scouts peered beneath the flap. When folded back, it served as an open doorway. When lowered, it provided a curtain across the front opening.
“Still here,” Jack said in relief.
“Maybe that guy wasn’t after it at all,” Ken said doubtfully. “Who would know we have the map?”
“Jarrett Walz, for one,” piped up Willie.
“Can’t picture him coming to our camp at night,” Ken said. “Did it look like Walz, Jack?”
“Not especially. I didn’t get a glimpse of anything but his back. He lit out like a house afire.”
“Well, boys, he’s gone,” Mr. Livingston said, yawning. “We may have a rough day tomorrow. So I suggest we try to get a little more sleep before dawn.”
Once more the Scouts settled down. Throughout the remainder of the night, the only disturbing sound was the rumble of traffic past the motel office.
Jack was up with the sun. He and Willie were starting to prepare breakfast, when they heard the crunch of gravel. Looking around, they saw Mr. Walz approaching the camp.
“Trouble,” Willie muttered.
However, he was wrong. The motel owner seemed to be in a most pleasant mood. In fact, he carried a covered dish.
“Good morning, boys,” he greeted them. “My wife sent over these hot biscuits. We thought you’d like a taste of home cooking for a change.”
Willie opened his jaws to let fall a stinging comment. Then he closed his lips firmly and kept his thoughts to himself.
“Thanks,” Jack said. “Biscuits will go fine with our bacon and eggs.”
“My wife sent some jam, too. Nothing like a good breakfast before you hit the road.”
Jack and Willie exchanged a quick glance. They figured they knew the reason behind the motel owner’s unexpected generosity. He was eager to speed them on their way!
“Is your leader anywhere around?” Walz inquired, after he had set the pan down on a stump near the camp fire.
Just then Mr. Livingston came out of the tent carrying his shaving equipment.
“Good morning, good morning,” Mr. Walz cried heartily. “I hope you had a good night’s rest.”
“Not especially. Someone tried to break into our car.”
“You don’t say!”
With a show of concern, Mr. Walz asked for details.
“Y’ know,” the motel owner said, after they had explained, “now that Stony is gone, I’ll have to hire someone—a more active man—to guard these grounds at night.”
“You’ve had trouble before?” the Scout leader inquired.
“No, not until night before last. I was told, though, that a suspicious-looking character was seen loitering around here yesterday while I was away.”
“You didn’t mention it to us last night.”
“Didn’t want to alarm you. It may be he’s the same fellow who got into poor Old Stony’s cabin.”
“You’ve notified the police, I suppose?”
“Well, no,” Mr. Walz admitted, avoiding the Scout leader’s direct gaze. “I didn’t have enough evidence to go on.”
“Besides, you thought Stony’s attacker blew town yesterday. Remember?”
“Yes, that’s so,” the motel man agreed with a self-conscious laugh.
By this time, the Scouts had no faith in Walz’ word, and he seemed to be aware of the unfavorable impression he had created.
“I’ve been very upset about the attack on Stony,” he went on. “And all the talk about his gold and a treasure map worries me, too.”
“Why should that worry you?” Ken drawled.
“As I said before, I seriously doubt there is any gold—”
“There’s a place he calls Headless Hollow—” War exclaimed, and then faltered.
“Headless Hollow,” Mr. Walz repeated softly. “So he did tell you about that place in the Colorado Rockies? And he gave you the map too!”
“Stony wasn’t taking anything with him when he went to the hospital,” Jack reminded the motel owner. “As I recall, you were the first to go through his things.”
“And you were close on my heels!” Walz brought himself up short. “However, I didn’t come here to quarrel. I know you have the map and, as a gentleman, I request that you show it to me.”
Had Walz made his request in this manner the previous day, the Scouts would have allowed him to inspect the paper they had found. Now, distrusting his motives, they were unwilling to produce the map.
“Well?” he demanded impatiently.
“Sorry,” Mr. Livingston replied. “I’ll admit we do have a piece of paper Stony left. But it must be delivered to Craig Warner.”
“So that’s why you sent him a telegram yesterday?”
For a minute, the Scouts thought Jarrett Walz would storm and object. He seemed to gain control of himself only after an inward struggle. When he spoke, his voice was friendly, cheerful.
“I’ve told you how I took care of Stony for years—gave him a job, clothing, food—everything. Ask anyone in Rocking Horse if it isn’t true.”
“We don’t doubt it,” Mr. Livingston returned.
“Believe me, I have no desire for personal gain,” Walz resumed. “I do feel that if Stony left any money or a rich claim, I should be entitled to repayment for a portion of what I’ve put out in his behalf.”
“That seems fair enough,” the Scout leader agreed.
“Stony told me dozens of times he intended me to have everything he owned. At the very end, he turned against me—only because his mind was failing. He began to think of Craig Warner—a man he never saw in his lifetime, so far as I know.”
“That probably is so,” Mr. Livingston conceded.
“Now I’m willing enough the map should go to Craig Warner, if that was Stony’s last wish. But who knows where Warner is?”
“We’ve had no luck in getting in touch with him so far,” the Scout leader admitted.
“Exactly. Suppose you never find him? Then what becomes of the map?”
Mr. Livingston replied that he had given no thought to that possibility.
“It seems to me,” Walz said, speaking slowly, “that if you fail to find Warner, the map ought to be turned over to me.”
“Your request is a reasonable one.”
“I thought you’d see it my way,” Walz said in relief. “Then it’s settled. Turn the map over to me, and I’ll do my best to find Warner. If I don’t find him, I’ll keep it.”
“Hold on!” Mr. Livingston said, smiling broadly. “We made a promise to Stony, and we shall do all we can to find Craig Warner ourselves.”
“You mean you don’t trust me.”
“It’s not that,” the Scout leader replied. “We just feel we owe it to Stony to deliver the map ourselves.”
“And if you fail?”
“Then there may be no reason why you shouldn’t have it. The Scouts, I assure you, have no intention of going on a wild gold chase.”
When it became clear to the motel owner that he could not move Mr. Livingston, he asked, “Then how do you plan to deliver the map?”
“The safest way would be to take it to Elks Creek—if there is such a place.”
“Elks Creek is a real place, all right,” Walz informed him, “but it’s an out-of-the way cow town off the main highway. I could take you there, only my car is out of commission.”
The Scouts waited, wondering what the motel owner had in mind. It was obvious that he was leading up to something.
“This is my proposition,” Walz said. “Elks Creek isn’t any more than seventy-five or one hundred miles out of your way, if you’re traveling east. Take me along, and I’ll pay the entire cost of the trip from here to Craig Warner’s place.”
Despite themselves, the Scouts were rather amazed at the generous offer.
“There’s just one little string attached to my offer,” the motel owner added. “If we fail to find Craig Warner, then I’ll expect you to hand over the map.”
Chapter 9 SHORT CUT
“Well, how about it?” Jarrett Walz asked impatiently, as the Scouts stood mute. “My proposition is a fair one.”
“Yes, it is,” Mr. Livingston acknowledged.
“Then why hesitate? Are you afraid to team up with me?”
“No, we’re not afraid, Mr. Walz.”
“You don’t think I’m trying to outwit you?”
“We’re taken by surprise,” Mr. Livingston replied. “You offer to pay all the expenses of the trip?”
“I do. That is, from here to Elks Creek. Meals. Overnight lodging, if we have to hole up in Colorado.”
“What can you hope to gain from such an arrangement?” Hap went on.
“Nothing, probably. The chances are we’ll find Craig Warner and turn the map over to him. But if no such person exists, the map will be mine.”
“And you rate the map so highly?”
Walz began to feel hemmed in by his own conflicting statements. He hesitated, then said, “I want that map. Maybe I misled you at first because I didn’t know anything about you or your motives. But there’s an outside chance Stony’s map may have some value.”
The Scouts were far more inclined to trust the motel owner now that he made a frank admission of his interest in the paper.
“Well, what do you say?” he prodded.
“We’ll have to think it over,” Mr. Livingston stalled.
“How long will you need?”
“We figured on going to the telegraph office again before we pull out—and to the funeral.”
“I’ll meet you here at eleven o’clock,” Walz suggested. “By that time, I must have your answer.”
“You’ll have it,” Mr. Livingston promised. “If we should accept, how soon could you be ready to leave?”
“In ten minutes. All I need to do is toss a few things into a suitcase.”
“We’ll see you at eleven o’clock,” Mr. Livingston replied.
Over breakfast, the Scouts discussed the matter, finding it difficult to reach a decision. They still distrusted Jarrett Walz. On the other hand, it seemed selfish to deny him a ride to Elks Creek when his own car was not in good running order.
“And he’s offered to pay all expenses,” War reminded the group as he reached for a second biscuit. “That’s quite an item.”
“I’m for taking him up,” said Willie. “We’d get back to Belton City with cash in our treasury.”
Mr. Livingston gazed at Jack and Ken, waiting to hear their opinions.
“I don’t know,” Jack admitted frankly. “On the surface it looks okay, but—”
“I feel the same,” said Ken. “Before making a decision, why not inquire in town as to Walz’ reputation?”
“A good suggestion,” the Scout adviser answered. “We’ll do it on our trip to the telegraph station.”
After breakfast, the Scouts struck camp, packing everything into the car and transferring the map to Mr. Livingston’s billfold for safekeeping. As they started to pull out of the parking yard, Mr. Walz came rushing out of the motel.
“Don’t worry, we aren’t leaving for good,” Mr. Livingston reassured him. “We’ll see you at eleven o’clock as we promised.”
At the telegraph office, the Scouts were told that no answer had been received to their telegram. Then they stopped at the post office and the bank. While the Scouts were mailing cards home, Mr. Livingston made a few inquiries about Mr. Walz. The information he received was not very helpful. However, the motel owner seemed to be well regarded in the community.
“So far as I can gather, this is the picture,” Mr. Livingston told the Explorers. “Walz did give Stony a home when the old fellow wasn’t able to do much work. He’s considered a hard driver but fair. Stony wasn’t too grateful for what he received.”
“Maybe we misjudged Walz,” Jack said thoughtfully. “Well, what’s our decision?”
“How can we lose by taking him up?” Willie argued. “I’m for it.”
The others offered no objection, so it was decided that Walz’ proposition should be accepted.
“Just a word of warning,” Mr. Livingston advised. “Walz knows we have the map. Let’s not tell him who has it, or give him any detail of what it shows.”
“If I know him, he’ll try to pry it out of us,” War chuckled. “But my lips are sealed.”
The Scouts attended Stony’s funeral along with a few townspeople, and Walz was not present. When they drove back to the motel, he was waiting for them.
“My suitcase is packed,” he announced. “Ready?”
“You’re taking our acceptance for granted?” Mr. Livingston remarked dryly.
“Figured you wouldn’t turn it down,” the motel owner said with a grin. “Where do I ride?”
Willie slid out of the front seat to make room for him and crowded into the back with War and Jack.
“If you want, I can take the wheel,” Walz offered, once his suitcase had been stowed away. “I know this road like a book.”
“I’ll drive,” Mr. Livingston said, “but thanks.”
The Explorers had decided to be cordial to Walz, and therefore they kept up a polite conversation. The motel owner was in a good mood and seemingly had an endless stock of stories to relate. At first the Scouts did not mind, but after an hour or so they began to weary of his chatter.
When the car made its first stop at a filling station to get gas, true to his bargain Walz paid the bill.
“Maybe he’ll be okay, after all,” Willie remarked to Jack as they checked the tires before driving on.
“Maybe,” Jack agreed. “Time will tell.”
Once the party was well beyond the Colorado border, Walz began to suggest short-cut roads which he said would greatly reduce the mileage. Feeling that the motel owner knew the country, Mr. Livingston and the Explorers accepted his advice. But as the roads became increasingly poor, they wondered if they actually were saving any time. Late in the afternoon, when they were confronted with a choice of highways, Mr. Livingston stopped the car so as to study the road map.
“No. 416 will take us directly into Elks Creek,” Hap said. “With luck, we ought to get there before dark.”
With his forefinger, Walz traced another route. “It’s 40 miles shorter this way,” he pointed out.
“Your short cuts haven’t worked out so far,” the Scout leader objected.
“But I know this country,” said Walz. “This road is paved all the way.”
“All right, if you’re sure,” Mr. Livingston said, “but I don’t like the look of the sky.”
Black, fast-moving clouds were swirling over the distant mountain peaks.
“Oh, it may rain a little,” Walz replied carelessly. “All the more reason for taking the shorter road that’s paved.”
The highway he had insisted on taking ran for a while through desolate territory, and they didn’t meet any other cars. There were no houses or filling stations, and the only persons they saw along the road were occasional Indians. However, the highway was paved, as Walz had said. Instead of having bridges, the road dipped down through dry creek beds.
Jack called attention to a sign which read: “Notice to Motorists: Do not attempt to cross if creek is running more than six inches deep.”
“Sometimes these creeks come up fast,” Walz explained carelessly. “The mountains feed the streams at a terrific rate, especially if there’s been a heavy downpour above.”
“Cheerful thought,” commented Ken, studying the clouds again.
“I’ve read of cars being swept away,” Mr. Livingston remarked. “Maybe we should have taken the other road.”
Walz regarded him scornfully. “Why, the creeks are bone dry.”
“They won’t be for long,” Mr. Livingston replied. “It’s starting to rain.”
Huge drops splashed the windshield. Faster and faster they came down. Mr. Livingston suggested pulling up until the rain was over.
“That may be an hour,” Walz rasped. He was looking worried. “This is coming down like a regular cloudburst. If we don’t get through this area, we’ll be trapped maybe for half a day between creeks.”
The Scouts said nothing. They were deeply annoyed, however, that the motel owner by his stubborn insistence had brought them to this sorry situation. Mr. Livingston hesitated and then decided to accept Walz’ advice. He drove on.
Rain was already falling so fast that it became difficult for him to see the road ahead.
“This is awful!” the Scout leader gasped. “We ought to stop—”
“No!” Walz shouted. “Another creek lies ahead. Once we get through that, we’ll be all right.”
“Only a mile or two.”
With a worried shake of his head, Mr. Livingston kept on. Rain fell in a deluge, threatening to damp out the car motor.
“The creek is just ahead,” Walz encouraged him.
“How deep is the water running?” the Scout leader demanded.
Water sprayed the windshield and he could not make out even the drop-off of the pavement into the depression.
“It’ll be okay,” Walz assured him. “The rain hasn’t been falling long. Keep on.”
Mr. Livingston obeyed and immediately regretted it. The moment the car rolled down into the creek bed, he saw that the water was far higher than he had imagined. It swirled angrily around the tires and kept creeping higher. Too late, Mr. Livingston saw he could not back out.
“Jeepers!” Walz exclaimed. “The rain must have started earlier in the mountains! Keep going, man! Keep going!”
Mr. Livingston was doing his best, but the motor sputtered and died.
The car rolled a few feet farther and stopped in the lowest point of the raging torrent.
Chapter 10 TRICKERY
“We’re in it now!” Walz shrieked, staring in horror at the fast-rising water. “The car will be swept away!”
Mr. Livingston tried desperately to get the motor started.
“You should have seen the water was too deep for a crossing!” Walz whimpered. “It’s rising so fast you can see it!”
Ken, who was riding in the center of the front seat, shoved past the motel owner and got out of the car. Jack, Willie and War, in the back seat, followed suit. The water was up to their knees and rising unbelievably fast.
“Altogether, push!” Jack ordered.
The four applied their shoulders and shoved. The car moved ahead through the swirling, raging water, but could not make the steep incline. Back it rolled.
“Again!” Jack urged.
Walz did not offer to help, though he must have known that his strength was vitally needed in this desperate race against time.
“We’ll never get ’er out,” Willie muttered in despair.
Once more the Scouts heaved, and again the car began to roll. This time, as the uphill grade became too much of a barrier, Mr. Livingston helped move the car on the battery. Inch by inch it crept up the sloping bank to the higher road above.
War made a last powerful shove, lost his balance, and sprawled in the torrent. Jack grabbed him, and they all splashed out of the stream. Wet and bedraggled, they climbed back into the car to consider their plight.
“I suspect the spark plug is damp,” Mr. Livingston said, getting out a handkerchief with which to wipe it. “The engine stalled even before we hit the deep water.”
Despite protests from the Scouts, he took his turn in the rain. Walz, however, made no offer to help. Scowling, he sat huddled in the steamy car.
After twenty minutes of fussing with the spark plug, the Scout leader managed to get the engine started again. By that time, the rain had slackened considerably.
“Any more creek beds ahead?” Mr. Livingston asked Walz as the car crept forward once more.
“No,” Walz snapped. “I suppose you’re blaming me for what happened?”
“I didn’t hear anyone making any complaints,” the Scout leader replied. “An accident is an accident.”
“Well, it wasn’t my fault. How was I to know there had been a cloudburst up in the mountains?”
“It’s always a wise precaution—” Mr. Livingston started to say and then cut himself off. He finished: “Well, we’re lucky we didn’t lose the car, or at least damage it. The rain has almost stopped, too.”
In their wet clothes and shoes the Scouts were rather uncomfortable. At the first filling station, thirty miles farther on, they stopped, unpacked the luggage, and changed into dry clothing.
Walz fretted at the delay.
“It will be after dark before we get to Elks Creek,” he complained.
“Sorry,” Jack replied shortly. “Sometimes the shortest road is the longest way to a destination.”
“Real philosophical, aren’t you?” Walz asked, his lips curling.
To Jack, it was plain that the motel owner found it hard to hold his temper in check. Obviously he had no liking for the Scouts or Mr. Livingston and tolerated their company only to gain his objective. As for the Explorers, they now had even less respect for Walz than they had had before. His judgment, they thought, had been proven faulty. He was sullen, selfish, and, in addition, he had a cowardly streak.
After the rain, night came on fast. The Scouts would have preferred to camp, but Walz kept insisting that they push on to Elks Creek. Actually, it was 9:25 P.M. when the car finally pulled into that little mountainside hamlet. There was no suitable camp site, and for once the wearied Scouts had no enthusiasm about finding one.
Mr. Livingston suggested that they all spend the night at the town’s only hotel, an unimposing wooden structure.
“At my expense, naturally,” Mr. Walz said sarcastically.
The Scout leader shot him a quizzical look. “It was your proposition—”
“Yes, it was! Well, I’m not kicking. Not if you keep your end of the bargain. If we fail to find Craig Warner, you turn the map over to me.”
“Yes, if we’re convinced he can’t possibly be found.”
“It’s too late tonight to try to find Red Cliffs Ranch,” Walz went on. “We’ll register at this dump of a hotel. While you’re getting some supper, I’ll make a few inquiries.”
The Scouts took rooms, cleaned themselves up a bit, and joined Mr. Livingston in the dining room. A silent, shy waitress served them an excellent meal consisting of steak, potatoes, and fresh peas. For dessert came large cuts of juicy apple pie with big wedges of cheese.
“Say, this is real food!” Willie said with relish. “A mighty welcome change from that eternal stew Jack is always feeding us.”
“Just for that, you’ll get beans next time!” Jack retorted good-naturedly. “Such gratitude!”
“The best part of this meal is that it’s free,” War chortled.
“I hope so,” responded Mr. Livingston as he signed the check with Walz’ name. “But sometimes things don’t work out as we expect.”
“Meaning Walz is likely to welch on the deal?”
“Not if he gets what he wants, War.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Well, in that case, we may see fireworks. I have a hunch—”
Mr. Livingston left his remark unfinished, for Jack flashed him a warning glance. Jarrett Walz had just come into the dining room. Crossing over to the Scouts’ table, he sat down.
“Well, friends,” he began, “I’ve made a few inquiries. The outcome is just about what I expected.”
“Craig Warner doesn’t live here?” Ken asked quickly.
“He did live here years ago. Then he moved north. Three years ago, he died of pneumonia.”
“Craig Warner’s dead?” War echoed flatly.
“Yes. It’s disappointing but, frankly, I expected it.”
“You expected it?” Jack asked.
“I mean, it’s no more than I expected. Stony probably hadn’t written to Warner in six or eight years.”
“It seems our trip here is without purpose,” Mr. Livingston observed, looking down at his plate. “I admit I am disappointed.”
“I’ll be starting back to Rocking Horse early tomorrow morning,” Walz said briskly. “I can catch a train at nine o’clock. You boys will probably want to get an early start east, so the best thing would be to give it to me now.”
“The map?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“Naturally. That was the agreement.”
“Why are you sure Craig Warner is dead?” the Scout leader demanded.
“A dozen people told me so.”
“Can you give me their names?”
“You doubt my word?”
“No, but in a matter such as this, we can’t afford to make a mistake.”
“I don’t recall to whom I talked,” Walz said with a scowl. “But the dope was straight. Warner is dead. I’ve kept my agreement. Now I want that map.”
“See us in the morning at breakfast,” Mr. Livingston said suavely.
“I told you I have to take an early train.”
“We’ll be up before seven o’clock,” Mr. Livingston promised him. “Meet us here at seven thirty. Okay?”
Walz started to argue, then suddenly changed his mind.
“All right,” he agreed. “Breakfast at seven thirty. Get a good sleep. You still have a long ride before you.”
In leaving the dining room, the Scouts casually inquired of the hotel owner if he knew anyone by the name of Craig Warner.
“Never heard of him,” he replied.
Once the Scouts were in Mr. Livingston’s room, they discussed turning the map over to the motel owner.
“I may have to do it in the morning,” Mr. Livingston said reluctantly, “but, somehow, his information doesn’t satisfy me.”
“Why not do a little checking of our own?” Jack proposed.
The idea appealed to the others. It was decided, though, that Walz might become resentful if he saw the entire crew leaving the hotel. So Jack and Ken were assigned to tour the town to see what they could learn.
The two were away from the hotel more than an hour. When finally they returned, they fairly burst into the Scout leader’s room where the others had gathered.
“What did you find out?” War demanded, getting up from the bed where he had been sprawling.
“Plenty!” Jack announced.
“We talked to three people,” Ken said. “The first two had never heard of Craig Warner. Then we ran into an old-timer, a rancher who has lived in this country most of his life.”
“What did he say?” Willie asked impatiently.
“Craig Warner is very much alive,” Jack announced. “In fact, he lives less than forty miles from here—not at Red Cliffs Ranch, though. Another place.”
“Then Walz lied!”
“Ken and I think so,” Jack said soberly. “He’s made up his mind to get that map at any cost. And it’s up to us to prevent him!”
Chapter 11 CLOUD CREST RANCH
Jarrett Walz was waiting in the hotel dining room when the Explorers entered promptly at seven thirty the next morning.
“Well, right on time, I see,” he greeted them jovially. “You brought the map?”
Mr. Livingston did not reply. He and the Scouts seated themselves at the circular, old-fashioned table and ordered breakfast. The motel owner could not conceal his impatience.
“You brought the map?” he repeated as soon as the waitress went away.
“As for turning it over to you,” Mr. Livingston replied, “we have a different plan.”
Walz’ bushy eyebrows jerked up in surprise. “What d’you mean, a different plan?” he growled.
“Craig Warner happens to be alive.”
“We checked your information last night, Mr. Walz. I’m afraid you obtained it from unreliable sources.”
A flush slowly overspread the motel owner’s face.
“Craig Warner isn’t dead?” he stammered.
“No. He is operating a ranch less than forty miles from here.”
“A place called Cloud Crest,” supplied Jack, enjoying Walz’ discomfiture.
“I—I’m mighty glad to hear it,” the motel owner muttered.
“We’ve made further inquiry,” Mr. Livingston resumed. “Cloud Crest is off the main road in a rather inaccessible place. In dry weather, however, it can be reached by car. Fortunately, yesterday’s downpour missed this area.”
“Warner hasn’t been to town in a month,” Ken added. “That’s why he never replied to our telegram. It’s waiting here, if he ever shows up.”
Walz sat for a long moment, staring at the tablecloth. The waitress brought pancakes and hot sausages, but he scarcely touched his food. The Scouts, on the other hand, ate heartily.
When they had finished, Walz said, “You’ll be starting on East now, I suppose?”
“Not until we’ve delivered the map,” the Scout leader answered.
“It will be at least eighty miles out of your way, counting the return trip,” the motel owner pointed out. “You’ll have to figure on killing an entire day.”
“I suppose so,” Mr. Livingston admitted.
“I’ll tell you what! I can save you that trip. Let me have the map, and I’ll see that Craig Warner gets it.”
Mr. Livingston shook his head. “We’d prefer to deliver it ourselves.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“We made Old Stony a promise, that’s all.”
“You’ve become very devoted to his memory, haven’t you?” Walz asked with a slight sneer. “You think I deceived you?”
“Did we make any such accusation?”
“Oh, I can tell by the way you act! I’ve paid your expenses. I’ve been open and above board in all my dealings. You’ve done nothing in return.”
“We’ve kept our agreement, Mr. Walz.”
“At least let me see that map.”
“We’re turning it over to Mr. Warner,” the Scout leader said patiently. “After he gets it, if he wants to he can show it to you or do whatever he pleases. Until then—no.”
Walz suddenly got to his feet, pushing back his chair.
“Okay,” he rasped. “I’m through paying your bills. Settle your own hotel account. I’m finished with you!”
He strode from the dining room.
“Good riddance,” grinned Willie. “We never should have teamed up with him. Wonder how much we owe here?”
“Enough,” Mr. Livingston said, a bit grimly. “We can handle it, though. I half figured on a deal such as this.”
Hurriedly, the Scouts finished breakfast and gathered together their belongings. Jack obtained detailed instructions for reaching Cloud Crest Ranch. Mr. Livingston settled the hotel bill, which was not so high as he had expected, and they drove out of Elks Creek without seeing Walz again.
“We’re finished with him,” War said cheerfully, settling down for a long ride over a rutty road. “What did you learn about Warner, Jack?”
“Not much. They say he’s an able rancher but has had a run of hard luck.”
“The fellow we talked to said he’s a square shooter,” Ken contributed. “Peculiar, though—the lone-wolf type. His exact words were: ‘If Warner likes you, he’ll give you the shirt off his back. If he doesn’t, watch out! He judges a man fast, and once an opinion is formed, he doesn’t change his mind.’”
“Let’s hope he takes a liking to us,” Mr. Livingston remarked. “Not that it matters. We’ll give him the map and be on our way.”
The car made slow time on the winding dirt road. However, the way was scenic, if dusty. Rugged, snow-tipped mountains rimmed the valley. Their high peaks were circled with lazy, fleecy clouds.
The hot sun was high overhead when the car wound along a stream of fast-running water and emerged into a clearing.
A short distance ahead the Scouts saw a long log cabin, a barn, and a fenced area.
“Cloud Crest Ranch,” Jack read on the gatepost.
He jumped out to unbar the gate so that the car could pass through. Carefully, he closed it again before they drove on to the ranch house.
The car’s approach was evidently noted from the building for, as the Scouts alighted in front of the ranch building, a man who was nearly six feet tall, lean and muscular, came out the door.
At first glance they took him to be in his thirties, but as he came closer they saw the shock of gray hair and the lines on his face which made him seem to be in his fifties.
The rancher was soft spoken, and he looked straight at the Scouts as he greeted them. He wore a red shirt and brown riding breeches.
“Craig Warner?” Mr. Livingston inquired.
Mr. Livingston gave his name and introduced the Explorers. Since the rancher did not invite them into the house, Mr. Livingston decided to make the visit brief.
Going straight to the point, he told Mr. Warner of Old Stony’s death and his request that the map to the Headless Hollow region be delivered to him.
“Well!” Warner exclaimed. “You know, I never could figure out why that old fellow kept writing to me!”
“You never knew that he was your father’s partner?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“No. I was just a kid when my father went off into the mountains prospecting, and he never came back.”
“Stony didn’t tell you his connection with your father?”
The rancher shook his head. “No. I answered only one of his letters, I think. I couldn’t see any sense in writing a stranger, so I let the correspondence lapse. Stony, as you call him, never mentioned my father, except to say he had known him. But he did let on he owed me a great debt. I never could figure that out.”
“He sent you a map,” Mr. Livingston said. “A chart to an area where he claims there is a cache of gold. He called it Headless Hollow.”
“Have you heard of it?” Jack asked, noticing the startled expression of the rancher’s face.
“Well, yes. Not by that name. But it must be the same isolated valley where my father lost his life—and the same area where Joe Hansart disappeared.”
“Another prospector?” Ken inquired.
“Joe disappeared six or seven years ago. He set off into the canyons and never came back. It’s a bad locality.”
Warner seemed suddenly to remember his manners.
“Come into the house,” he invited them. “We’ll have a spot of coffee and give that map the once-over.”
Chapter 12 AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR
“See that jagged peak with the patch of snow almost at its tip? Right below is stunted timber land. Well, that’s Crazy Mountain. I figure Headless Hollow is somewhere in there behind those tumbles of rock.”
Craig Warner stood at the cabin window, pointing toward the distant horizon. Over mugs of strong, steaming coffee, the Scouts had studied Old Stony’s map with their rancher host. Somewhat to their surprise, Warner had seemed impressed by the crudely drawn paper as he compared it with a contour map of the mountain area.
“Y’ know,” he confessed, his grin boyish, “I’ve always had a hankering to find out what’s behind those barriers. Here I’ve lived fairly close to the place for years, and I never attempted it.”
“Well, you have a map now,” Mr. Livingston said. “A motive, shall we say? So perhaps you’ll decide to search for your fortune.”
The rancher laughed and shook his head. “I know better than to place faith in tales of hidden gold. The last great strike in this state was at Cripple Creek, just behind Pikes Peak. That district had been passed up for years because prospectors said it lacked the usual signs.”
“Headless Hollow may be the same,” Jack said.
“Afraid not.” Warner placed the map in a drawer of the living-room desk. “But the area might offer uranium possibilities.”
“Has no one ever been there?” Ken asked. “Recently, I mean?”
“Folks hereabouts are too busy to risk their necks on crazy climbs. Besides, as I told you, the area has a bad reputation.”
“You said something about a prospector disappearing there,” Warwick reminded him.
“That was Joe Hansart. He was a strange character—one of the real old-timers—always asking folks to grubstake him. He’d disappear for months at a time. Always broke when he showed up again. Well, he became obsessed with the idea there was gold somewhere on Crazy Mountain. About seven years ago, I think it was, he packed out of here, heading that way, and was never seen again.”
“Maybe he fell off a cliff,” Ken observed.
“The Headless Hollow locality has plenty of hazards. Something happened to him, that’s sure.”
“Could he have stayed on there alone year after year?” Jack asked thoughtfully.
“I don’t see how, but there’s a small lake where a man could fish, and if he had ammunition he could provide himself with meat. But the winters are bitterly cold. No, I don’t figure even a tough old knot like Joe Hansart could have made out. He must be dead. The question is, how did he die?”
“That seems to trouble you,” Mr. Livingston said. “Friend of yours?”
“Never set eyes on Joe except once or twice. It’s the stories about Headless Hollow that bother me.”
“It began years ago,” the rancher said, lighting his pipe. “I suppose my father’s death and Stony’s disappearance marked the beginning.”
“Was it known they were supposed to have struck gold?”
“Well, you can’t keep such things completely dark,” Warner replied with a smile. “I was a boy at the time, so all I know is hearsay. At first, feeling was high against Stony, because people thought he was responsible for my father’s death. My mother never shared that feeling. She always said the man was falsely accused—that it must have been an accident. But you know how folks are—they always want to blame someone. Stony could have cleared himself, but he ran away, and that made it look bad.”
“You think Stony shot your father by accident?” Ken questioned.
“Either that, or it was an Indian bullet, as Stony claimed.”
“Do Indians live in the hollow?”
“No. The area is uninhabited, as far as I know. Folks deliberately avoid that section of the mountain. Prospectors who have tried to go there in recent years—well, they just seem to have bad luck.”
“You’re referring to Joe Hansart’s disappearance?” Mr. Livingston remarked.
“There have been other things, too,” the rancher admitted reluctantly. “A couple of ambitious young rock climbers thought they would tackle Crazy Mountain two years ago. One of ’em had a bad fall.”
“That could happen to anyone.”
“True. But this kid claimed someone above him started an avalanche. No one hereabouts put any stock in it—but it did serve to stir up rumors again.”
“Oh, I’m not superstitious, and I know you folks aren’t, either. The tale is that the Spirit of Crazy Mountain guards the place.”
“Folks who go there always have trouble?” Jack asked, grinning.
“Yeah. As I said, it’s a wild area—no place for amateur climbers.”
“Odd you’ve never gone there yourself,” Mr. Livingston said, eying the rancher thoughtfully.
“I’ve often wanted to,” Warner confessed, “especially when I was younger and my legs were in better condition.”
“You seem in pretty fair shape to me right now,” the Scout leader replied.
“Oh, I try to keep fit.” Warner abruptly got up and walked to the window again. Staring toward the faraway mountains, he said: “I’d have tried to find that valley years ago, but I never had the time. Now—”
“Yes?” Mr. Livingston prodded as the rancher fell into meditative silence.
“Well, it’s no climb to tackle alone. Frankly, there’s no one hereabouts that I could take with me. Plenty would be eager to go, but they’d be a hindrance, not a help.”
“We know someone who would be tickled to go,” War cut in with a chuckle.
“You won’t want to meet him, either,” War laughed.
He then mentioned Jarrett Walz’ name and told to what lengths the motel owner had gone to gain possession of the treasure map.
“You don’t say!” Warner exclaimed, impressed. “If he’s so keen on getting his hands on this map, then it must have some value.”
“He thinks so,” said Mr. Livingston. “I would advise you to keep that bit of paper in a safe place.”
“Oh, no one ever comes here. Not once in a month,” the rancher answered. “You’re my first visitors since June. It’s a real pleasure having you.”
Warner, the Scouts now knew, lived alone, except for two ranch hands who looked after the stock. He had no wife or children.
After chatting a while longer, the Scouts started to leave, but their host would not hear of it.
“Stay until tomorrow morning at least,” he urged. “I like company, if it’s the right sort.”
The Scouts had enjoyed Craig Warner’s companionship, and his invitation flattered them. When Mr. Livingston left the decision to them, they voted to remain.
Warner cooked a hearty lunch for the boys and showed them around Cloud Crest. Whenever he was out of doors, they noticed, his steel blue eyes roved naturally to the distant peaks of Crazy Mountain.
“Y’ know,” he admitted with a self-conscious laugh, “that map has fired my imagination! Not in years have I felt so excited!”
“Gold fever?” Hap Livingston asked with a chuckle.
“No,” the rancher answered soberly. “It’s more than that. I’ve never seen my father’s grave. The tale of gold interests me, but only incidentally. I want to see this place you call Headless Hollow, because its mystery lures me.”
“A trip such as that would require careful planning,” Mr. Livingston observed.
“It would. That’s why so many who started for the region met disaster. Their expeditions were badly organized.”
Again Craig Warner became lost in thought. The Scouts sensed that he was seriously considering making practical use of the map they had turned over to him.
“Y’ know, except for one thing, I’d start for Headless Hollow at the drop of a hat,” the rancher suddenly announced, leaning on the rail fence. “I could get away from here for a week—”
“What’s that one thing holding you up?” Jack asked curiously, though he thought he could guess the answer.
“I know better than to go alone.”
“Maybe you won’t have to,” Jack drawled.
For a minute, the other Scouts were mystified by his remark. Then, following his gaze, they saw that a car was coming up the winding dirt road toward the ranch. It was a rented taxi.
A lone male passenger sat beside the driver. By this time, the car was close enough for the Scouts to make out the general outline of the man’s face.
The visitor was Jarrett Walz.
Chapter 13 THIEF IN THE NIGHT
The rented car rolled up the lane and halted near the fence where Craig Warner and the Scouts waited.
Paying off the driver, Jarrett Walz strode over to the group. He showed no surprise at seeing Mr. Livingston and the Explorers, nor did he make any apology for having followed them to the Cloud Crest Ranch. In fact, he deliberately ignored the Scouts, addressing Craig Warner.
“You don’t know me,” he said, offering his hand, “but I’m Jarrett Walz from Rocking Horse. An old friend of Stony’s.”
“Howdy,” the rancher responded. His manner was neither friendly nor unfriendly.
The motel owner then launched into a glorified account of the manner in which he had befriended Old Stony. Mr. Livingston and the Scouts let him run on without interruption.
Finally, Walz wound up his long-winded monologue by asking Warner if the Explorers had turned over the Headless Hollow map to him.
“I have it,” the rancher replied.
“I drove out here to make you a proposition,” Walz rattled on. “How about you and me teaming up for a bit of adventure?”
“You’re proposing we explore the Headless Hollow region?” said Warner.
“Why not? It’s a good time of year—everything’s in our favor. Since you have the map we may find a valuable mine site—or at least a cache of ore.”
“I don’t team up with a man on an hour’s notice.”
“I realize I’m a stranger,” Walz said, “but if you doubt my character, send a wire to anyone in Rocking Horse.”
“I don’t need testimonials to judge a man,” Warner replied dryly.
“How does the proposal strike you? The quicker we get started, the better I’d like it.”
Warner did not answer the motel owner’s question directly. Instead, he said, “No one has any business on Crazy Mountain without a good pair of legs. A trip such as you’re proposing would take a heap o’ planning. You’d need supplies—a list made out with care, because every pound you pack counts. Footwear’s important, too.”
“Oh, mere details. I can buy anything I need in an hour’s time. The essential thing is to have a guide who knows the country.”
“You’ll not find anyone hereabouts that has ever been to the Headless Hollow region.”
“You mean the place has never been explored?” Walz demanded.
“Men have gone there,” Warner drawled, “but they don’t seem to come back.”
The remark jarred Walz for a moment. “You’re trying to scare me out of it!” he accused.
“No,” the rancher answered quietly. “Just giving you the facts. I reckon a good mountain climber who’s willing to take punishment could reach the place, but he’d have to face hazards.”
“Animals shouldn’t give any trouble if a man minds his business.”
“Then what is holding us back?” Walz demanded impatiently. “Are you afraid of the climb?”
“It may be tricky finding a pass down into the valley.”
“They told me in town you’re one of the best mountaineers in this section—you and Pete Ranier, the half-breed Indian.”
“Why don’t you talk to Pete?” Warner suggested. “He might be induced to take you to the Headless region—for a price.”
“But he doesn’t have the map,” Walz growled. “That’s why I don’t want to team up with him. Besides, he’s a heavy drinker, they tell me—reliable only when he’s sober.”
“You’re welcome to stay here tonight,” Warner said. “We’ll talk some more. Maybe we can get together.”
“Fine!” the motel owner responded heartily. “I thought you’d see it my way. You team up with me, and I’ll pay all the expenses. If we hit it lucky, we’ll split any way you want.”
The Scouts remained out of doors while Warner showed Walz to a room.
“I wonder if this isn’t our cue to pull out of here?” Mr. Livingston remarked. “It’s not going to be pleasant, now that Walz has come.”
“He’ll only try to make us look bad,” Jack agreed.
When Craig Warner came outside alone, the Scouts mentioned leaving, but he would not hear of it.
“I couldn’t turn Walz away,” he said. “As for teaming up with him, I’m not even considering it. Stick around, boys. Things may get interesting.”
Whenever the rancher was near, Walz deliberately avoided the Scouts. Late in the afternoon, however, he ran into Jack and Ken near the corrals. They would have passed him without a word, if he had not blocked their way.
“You’ve been telling Warner things about me that aren’t true!” he declared.
Ken and Jack were amused by the accusation. It did not seem deserving of a reply.
“Get this!” Walz snapped. “I want that map, and I mean to get it! I’m warning you not to interfere! If you do—”
“If we do—what?”
“You’ll find out!” Walz blustered. “I’m fed up with your meddling. Take my advice and drive on!”
“We like the scenery,” Jack retorted, “so we’re staying.”
After the early chores were done, Warner told his visitors he would take them over to see Tarta Lake.
“It’s only a little hike,” he said. “Figured we could tote our grub up there and cook supper under the stars.”
The Explorers fell in with the plan at once. Walz seemed annoyed, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
They set off single file up a gentle slope, Warner leading the way. He had an easy, fast, smooth stride, which the Scouts deliberately imitated. Walz kept up at first, then fell to the end of the line. When the climb became more difficult—rocky and steep—Walz sat down to empty gravel from his shoes.
“How much farther?” he puffed.
“Not more than a mile,” the rancher replied.
The Scouts were all in good condition, and therefore the sharp climb was no test for their sturdy, muscular legs. Even War, who tired more easily than his older crew mates, found his breath holding.
At Tarta Lake Walz collapsed on the grass. He rested while Warner and the Scouts built a fire and set steaks to broiling.
The mountains had brought peace and relaxation to the Explorers. Even their irritation at Walz faded away as they gathered about the glowing log for an hour of rest and talk.
Warner, usually quiet, related a variety of stories about the area. Purposely, however, he avoided mention of Headless Hollow.
“It’s queer about mountains,” he said, watching sparks fly up from the fire. “They have a way of showing a man for what he is.”
Walz eyed him suspiciously but made no comment.
Soon it was time to start back to the ranch. Warner made certain every spark of the fire was out, and they began the long trek. Obviously very tired, Walz dragged at the end of the line. Warner slowed his pace, but even so the motel owner could not keep up. Once he stumbled against a tree and gave it a savage kick.
Finally, when they were at the ranch once more, the motel owner collapsed on the davenport with a little moan.
“I’m a mite out of condition,” he admitted. “A couple of days on the trail, and my muscles will be okay again. Most of my trouble today came from having the wrong kind of shoes.”
“A mountain can give a fellow quite a beating,” was Warner’s only comment.
After an hour of rest, Walz regained his strength. With reviving zest for the Headless Hollow adventure, he began to press Warner for a decision.
The rancher regarded him in surprise. “Haven’t the mountains given you your answer?”
“That jaunt we took was no fair test! Once I get better equipment—”
“Headless Valley is no place for an amateur,” Warner told him. “If you’re dead set on going there, Pete Ranier might take you. I doubt it, though. You’d be asking for trouble.”
“At least show me the map.”
The rancher hesitated. Then, apparently deciding his guest could make no practical use of it, he unlocked the paper from the desk drawer. Eagerly, Walz pored over it, his dark eyes sparkling.
“Let me make a copy of this!” he demanded.
Warner had begun to regret even showing the paper to the motel owner.
“Sorry,” he replied.
Taking the map from Walz, he relocked it in the desk.
“Walz,” the rancher said, eying him steadily, “you don’t seem to understand what I’ve told you about the Headless Hollow region. It’s a dangerous spot for any man, even if he’s at home in the mountains. You’d be a fool to attempt it, even with a guide.”
“Who says I’m going to?” Walz retorted.
With a shrug, he bade the group goodnight and went to the room assigned to him.
The Scouts soon retired, for the long hike and the fresh mountain air had made everyone very tired. They slept soundly, hearing nothing until Mr. Livingston pounded on their bedroom doors the next morning.
Ken and Jack were the first to get dressed and down to the kitchen. Warner was there ahead of them, frying bacon and expertly tossing flapjacks.
“Morning,” he greeted the pair cheerfully. “Sleep well?”
“Like logs,” Jack answered. “How’s Walz this morning? Still worn out?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the rancher drawled. “Our friend is no longer with us.”
“He left during the night?” Jack asked in astonishment.
“Reckon so. Brace yourselves, boys. Your car is gone.”
As the Scouts accepted this news in stunned silence, Warner added: “That’s not all. Our impulsive friend likewise has stolen the map!”
Chapter 14 GHOST TOWN
“The car gone?” Jack echoed the rancher’s words. “And the map too?”
“When did it happen?” Ken asked.
Craig Warner flipped another pancake, adding it to the stack he had baked.
“Don’t know. Some time during the night. I discovered the desk broken into when I came downstairs about twenty minutes ago.”
“If our car’s gone, we’re stranded,” Jack said slowly.
“I’ve already telephoned the sheriff. Don’t let it upset you. I figure Warner probably won’t go far. He has only one objective.”
“Headless Hollow,” Jack suggested.
“And he can’t drive the car up Crazy Mountain,” the rancher added dryly. “We’ll catch up with him. After breakfast, I’ll drive you to Elks Creek.”
Warner’s casual view of the situation only partly reassured the Scouts. Jack and Ken went at once to impart the bad news to the others.
“So Walz really is a crook!” Warwick burst out angrily.
It was impossible to determine how long Walz had been away from the ranch. However, Willie recalled that an hour or two before dawn he had heard an automobile motor.
“I was so sleepy I didn’t pay much attention!” he reproved himself. “Chump!”
The Explorers tried not to talk too much about the loss of their car, but of course it worried them. They were hundreds of miles from Belton City, and their money had run low. They knew they could wire their parents for more, but they had no intention of doing so except in an absolute emergency.
As they ate breakfast, Craig Warner seemed in as good spirits as ever. The loss of the map didn’t appear to disturb him.
“I can draw it myself from memory,” he said. “That paper won’t be nearly the help to Walz he thinks it will.”
“Your guess is he’ll head straight for the mountain?” Mr. Livingston asked.
The rancher nodded as he refilled the coffee cups. “He’ll tackle it if he can get anyone to go with him. Pete Ranier might be crazy enough to do it—for a price.”
“Is he a reliable guide?”
“One of the best, when he’s sober—and that isn’t often. But he has a fiery temper. He and our friend Walz would be sure to tangle. Ranier can’t stand a tenderfoot.”
The Scouts ate rapidly, impatient to be off in pursuit of Walz. Their host, on the other hand, was deliberate. Certainly he seemed in no hurry to drive them to town.
“Practically all our stuff is in that car,” Willie muttered to Jack as they stood in the yard, waiting for the rancher to start his motor in the barn. “Doesn’t he give a darn?”
Warner backed out the car and then went into the house again. When he returned, he was grinning.
“Good news, boys!” he told them. “The sheriff’s found your car.”
“Where?” Jack demanded eagerly.
“Abandoned at Elks Creek. I figured Warner wouldn’t take it very far.”
“How about our stuff?”
“That I don’t know.”
Though Warner’s car was old, it was durable. The Explorers all piled in, and the drive to Elks Creek was made in fast time. They found Mr. Livingston’s sedan on a side street near a gas station. One of the tires was flat, but otherwise the car seemed not to have been damaged.
Quickly the Scouts checked their luggage. A sleeping bag was missing, as well as one of the pup tents and a set of nested pans.
“At least Walz took only what he figured he’d need,” Ken said in disgust.
Inquiry established that Walz had been seen going to Ranier’s shack shortly after dawn.
Apparently the two had come to an agreement, for they had bought supplies and started off in the guide’s old car.
“They’re heading for Crazy Mountain,” Warner decided. “Ranier should have better sense than to start off with a fellow like Walz. He probably figures Walz will buckle up after a day on the trail and call the deal off.”
“He might be stubborn enough to keep on and get into real trouble,” Mr. Livingston said soberly. “He has the gold fever pretty bad.”
“I’m getting it myself,” the rancher confessed with a chuckle. “Maybe I’ll sling together an outfit and pack after him. I’d like to get that map back.”
“Would you head for Headless Hollow alone?” the Scout leader asked in surprise.
“Not if I can get you and your boys to come along.”
The Scouts regarded the rancher in surprise.
“It will be no trick to pick up Walz’ trail,” he said. “With luck we can overtake him by tomorrow. When we do, we’ll teach our friend a little lesson in manners.”
An expedition, even a short distance into the mountains, was not to be undertaken lightly, and Mr. Livingston had no great enthusiasm for the venture. Nevertheless, he agreed with the Scouts that Walz ought to be brought to justice and forced to pay for the articles he had stolen.
“Besides,” War urged eagerly, “don’t we owe it to Stony to see that Walz never gets his hands on any gold?”
“I can see you’re all for the trip,” Mr. Livingston said. “But isn’t this a job for the sheriff?”
“It is,” Warner agreed, “but getting the sheriff to tackle Crazy Mountain is another proposition. He’ll never do it.”
The whole matter was debated thoroughly, and in the end the Scout leader was persuaded by the Explorers to give his consent.
“Just what will develop if we do overtake Walz worries me,” Mr. Livingston admitted. “We can’t take the law into our own hands.”
“Leave that part to me,” Warner said grimly. “I know how to handle men of his stripe. We’ll bring him back and turn him over to the authorities. Sheriff Brown will deputize me.”
It was believed that Walz and his guide could be overtaken speedily but, to prepare for any possible emergency, the group decided to pack enough supplies for several days on the trail.
“Walz will never reach the Headless Hollow Valley,” the rancher predicted confidently. “Alone, Ranier might do it. But if I know him, he’s in this expedition only for a bit of quick cash.”
Despite the need for haste, Craig Warner and Mr. Livingston were very thorough in their planning. Warner bought the supplies, including a vial of saccharin for sugar because of its lightness, some powdered milk, flour mix, oatmeal, dried fruit, salt, tea, and coffee. He also added a first-aid kit, a fishing rod, and a revolver borrowed from a friend when Sheriff Brown made him a deputy.
One of Warner’s ranch hands drove the party to Buckhorn and on to the beginning of the mountain road. There the six climbers shouldered heavy packs and trudged upward, at first following a marked trail. After a while, the trail played out, and the going became harder.
Making only brief stops for rest, they climbed steadily, through ravines and steep-walled canyons. At intervals, Warner raked the distant rock shelves with his field glass, but he failed to sight the two men he believed to have gone on ahead.
The day was cloudless, and a warm sun blazed down. Laboring under the heavy packs, the Scouts perspired profusely. Their leg muscles, tough as they were, began to ache. No one, however, made complaint or suggested a slower pace. When they paused to drink at a spring and refill canteens, Warner consulted the rough map he had redrawn from memory and compared it with an accurate contour map.
“It’s only fair to warn you,” he said, “the climb so far is only a tiny taste of what’s ahead.”
With a pencil, he made a dotted line, showing their projected route over the top of the mountain and down to an isolated valley. Then the line went up again into the higher, desolate peaks of Crazy Mountain.
“Our problem—if we follow Walz that far,” the rancher said, frowning thoughtfully, “is to find a pass through to the Headless Hollow region. It may not be easy. So if anyone wants to turn back, now’s the time to say so.”
One and all, the Scouts shook their heads.
“Okay,” Warner said, well pleased. “Then let’s hit the trail. No time is to be lost if we’re going to overtake Walz.”
For hours, the party trudged on. They passed the water line into an area where the trees were twisted into grotesque shapes before they thinned out to only occasional trunks. Higher up, timber disappeared entirely. The air became light and chilly.
War and Willie were hard pressed to keep up with the others. Despite their fatigue, Warner had to keep on, for it was growing late and the area offered no suitable camp site.
On the other slope of the mountain the descent was easier, but by the time the rancher finally called a halt on a rock shelf above a racing stream, everyone was worn out.
“How do you figure Walz has managed to come this far?” Willie muttered, dropping his pack. “I never thought he had it in him.”
“Maybe we’ve lost him,” Jack replied. “We’ve not seen a trace of him or his guide since we left Elks Creek this morning.”
While the others busied themselves making camp, Jack and Warner scanned the ravines and mountainside with the powerful field glass.
“See any smoke?” the rancher asked.
Jack lowered the glass. “No trace of a camp. But I thought you said this was uninhabited country.”
“Not quite. A town is hidden down there on the slope. I can see buildings.”
The rancher smiled broadly. “Any people?”
Again Jack studied the distant cluster of buildings through the glass. “That’s funny,” he acknowledged. “The place looks lifeless. Dead.”
“You’re looking at a ghost town, Jack. No one has lived there for thirty years.”
“That’s right. The town flourished in the old gold days—then was deserted. It’s cut off from roads and railroads. All supplies had to be packed in. So when the gold bubble blew up, miners pulled out.”
“Well, the town has an occupant now,” Jack announced, a trace of excitement in his voice.
“Walz?” the rancher demanded eagerly.
Jack shook his head, offering the glass to Warner.
“Not Walz. His guide, perhaps. I saw a fellow with long white hair and a beard. I caught a glimpse of him before he went into one of the buildings.”
Warner gazed oddly at Jack as he began to adjust the powerful glass.
“Ranier,” he drawled, “doesn’t have a beard, or white hair either.”
Chapter 15 WARM ASHES
For some minutes, Craig Warner studied the ghost town below the Scout camp.
“I don’t see anyone,” he told Jack. “Sure you saw a man?”
“And he had a white beard?”
“Well, I thought so,” Jack replied. “It’s getting dark, though. I suppose I could have been mistaken.”
“It may have been Walz,” the rancher decided, lowering the field glass.
That night, there was little talk over the camp fire. The Scouts were tired, especially Warwick and Willie, and everyone turned in the minute the work was done.
They used fir boughs for beds, but even so the hard rock shelf was so uncomfortable that Jack slept fitfully. His legs hurt from the long, hard climb. His back ached, too. No matter how he adjusted himself, the cold night air seemed to hit him. He could hear Willie and War moaning and tossing not far away.
Of the Explorers, only Ken appeared to be getting a sound night’s sleep.
Jack was up at dawn, ready to help Craig Warner build the fire and start breakfast. Cups of strong black coffee, oatmeal, and pancakes made everyone feel better and revived zest for the adventure.
While the Scouts fixed their packs, Mr. Livingston and the rancher carefully went over the contour map.
“We’ll swing down to the old ghost town,” Warner decided. “Then we’ll have a hard climb to the pass which leads into the Headless Hollow area. We may not be lucky enough to find a way through.”
“That’s where Walz has the advantage of us,” Mr. Livingston replied. “The map he has probably shows the way.”
Since the Scouts had caught no glimpse of Walz and his guide, they had begun to wonder if they were following a phantom trail.
“I’d like to catch up with Walz,” the rancher said. “I sure would. But if we miss him, it may save us a lot of trouble.”
“In any case, you’ll push on to the Hollow?” Ken asked hopefully.
“I want to. Since we’ve come this far, we may as well have a look at that valley. This may be our only chance.”
The decision pleased the Scouts. Tired though they were, the hard climb was a challenge. Besides, they felt they never would be satisfied until they learned whether or not Old Stony’s tale of the valley was true.
With the distant ghost town as the immediate objective, the party soon started the sharp descent.
“Keep close together, boys,” Warner warned. “We don’t want to start any rock slides.”
The footing was slippery. Twice War, who had not balanced his horseshoe pack well that morning, stumbled and would have fallen if Jack had not seized his arm.
“Careful,” the rancher warned again. “A broken leg or even a sprained ankle could be a serious matter, now that we’re so far from help.”
As they continued, Jack saw the rancher glance frequently at the younger boys. War was a fairly new member of the Explorers and not so well seasoned as the others to withstand hardships. Jack himself wondered if War would be able to hold out.
At noon, the party stopped briefly by a stream, to drink and refill canteens. While the others rested, Warner whipped the pools with his fly rod and brought in four handsome trout for the meal.
The halt refreshed War only for a while. Soon it was apparent that he was beginning to falter. Warner, who was leading, slowed his pace but, even so, both War and Willie trailed.
It was a relief when finally, hours later, the party trudged into the old ghost town which had been built hard against the shadowy mountainside. The silence of the place was almost oppressive.
Dropping his pack, Jack stared at the unpainted wooden buildings which had fallen into decay. The two that were made of stone and brick were in somewhat better condition. The row of old, deserted cabins gave him an eerie, uneasy feeling. He wandered into one of the musty buildings.
Suddenly he heard Ken call. Stepping outside, he saw his friend in the doorway of the best-preserved building.
“Come here,” Ken urged.
Jack went quickly across the empty, dusty street.
“This is no ghost town,” Ken said in a low tone.
“What d’ you mean, Ken?”
“I’ll show you.”
Ken led inside to the stone-and-clay fireplace where ashes lay deep on the hearth. Beside the fireplace was a pile of neatly stacked wood.
“Feel those ashes,” Ken directed.
There was no need for Jack to do so for, when he stirred them with the toe of his boot, they gave off a thread of smoke.
“Someone’s been here!” Ken announced. “In the last few hours, too.”
“Then I was right!”
“What d’you mean, right?”
“Last night I was sure I saw someone through the field glass.”
“You didn’t mention it.”
“I did to Craig Warner. He thought I was mistaken, or that perhaps it was Walz.”
“Someone had a fire here in the last few hours,” Ken said reflectively. “Did you see smoke rising?”
Jack shook his head.
“Maybe it was Walz with his guide,” Ken decided, frowning. “Probably they camped here last night.”
“It wasn’t Walz,” Jack insisted. “And I don’t think the fellow I saw through the field glass was his guide, either.”
“Who else could it be?”
“Stony’s ghost maybe,” Jack said, chuckling. Then he sobered. “Guess we should warn the fellows. Someone might be prowling around here even now.”
“What you’re suggesting is sort of fantastic,” Ken protested. “This ghost town is out of the way. Why would anyone except Walz come here?”
“Maybe word has leaked out about Stony’s cache of gold.”
“Whoever it is, he’s been here for quite a while, Jack. Not just overnight.”
His gaze sharpened by Ken’s remark, Jack made a more minute inspection of the room. He saw a pile of empty tin cans, a clear indication that someone had eaten many meals here. Match stubs were scattered on the floor. The rotted boards, too, had been tracked heavily with mud, that was now dry.
Disturbed by their discovery, Ken and Jack went to warn the others. By this time, however, the Scouts had wandered through every building in the little town without seeing anyone.
“If anyone was here, he’s gone now,” Willie remarked, unworried.
Mr. Warner was inclined to think a prospector searching for uranium might have chanced that way. He seemed untroubled, so Jack and Ken decided they probably were making too much of the matter. No more was said.
Of far more concern was War’s state of weariness. Though he made no complaint and stubbornly insisted he felt able to go on, everyone could see that his strength had been overtaxed. After a quiet talk, Mr. Livingston and the rancher decided to make camp at the ghost town.
“You’re stopping because of me,” War protested. “I can make it okay.”
“We’re all tired,” Warner told him. “From here on, the climb will be rugged. No use killing ourselves.”
“I’ll feel fine by morning,” War declared, plainly relieved that the party would not press on at once. “All I need is a good night’s rest.”
Preferring to sleep under the stars, the Scouts set their camp in a sheltered spot at the edge of the empty little village. That night, around the camp fire Warner told the boys of the old Colorado boom days when mining towns had flourished.
“Nearly all of the old camps have shriveled and fallen into decay,” he said. “Some have become tourist attractions. Not this place, because it is inaccessible except to a hardy climber.”
War was the first to turn in for the night, and the others prepared to follow. Jack stood a moment, staring up at the jagged mountain peaks. Their way on the morrow lay amid a tumbled mass of rocks and pinnacles, with ridges running in several directions. Would Warner be able to find the pass?
Unnoticed, Mr. Livingston came up behind him.
“A penny for your thoughts, Jack.”
“They’re worth less. I was thinking we’re in for a real test tomorrow.”
“We are,” the Scout leader agreed, “and, frankly, I’m worried about War.”
“Yes. He has determination and nerve, but he’s not up to a trip as hard as this one.”
“What can we do?”
“Nothing except make it as easy as we can for him. Warner and I will lighten his pack tomorrow. We can’t cache any of the food, because we’re likely to run short as it is.”
On the mountainside the night was bitterly cold. Nevertheless, everyone slept soundly until dawn.
Chapter 16 MISSING SUPPLIES
Warner, the first one up, started the fire going and began mixing pan bread. Jack cut more wood and then went to get supplies from his pack.
“Hey, who took my stuff?” he demanded loudly.
The pack was not hanging where he had left it the previous night. While he searched, Willie let out a yip.
“Hey, the food I carried is gone too!” he yelled. “All the tea, the flour, and our raisins!”
Grimly, Mr. Livingston and the rancher joined in the search. Very quickly they realized it was a waste of time.
“Someone sneaked up here during the night and went off with the stuff!” Jack said angrily.
The loss of so much food was a serious matter. Carefully, the Scouts searched every building in the old ghost town. They came upon no one. However, as they went from cabin to cabin, they experienced a strange, uneasy feeling.
“I feel as if someone is watching us,” Jack muttered, expressing the thoughts of the others.
Back at camp, Warner rounded up everyone for a conference.
“Loss of our food is serious,” he said. “We have some left, but not enough to go on.”
The Scouts regarded him with sober faces. Until this moment, they had not realized how much it meant to them to attain their goal—Headless Hollow.
“What’s the verdict?” Jack asked, after a long silence.
“I hate to say this, boys,” the rancher replied. “But we’re up against it. There’s nothing we can do but turn back.”
Jack poked at the rocks with a stick, thinking over the rancher’s decision. He knew it was a wise one. So did all the Scouts.
“It’s like this,” Warner said. “I’ve made a fast check of our supplies. If we don’t have any further bad luck, there’s barely enough food to get us to Headless Valley, with nothing for the return trip.”
“Fish,” Willie said hopefully. “We could cut our rations.”
“Afraid it wouldn’t help much. We’ve made slower time than I figured. Naturally, we’ve consumed more food, and we were short enough even without this theft.”
“Who do you figure did it?” Jack speculated. “Not Walz?”
“I doubt Walz got this far. If he headed for the hollow as we assumed, he may have gone by a different route.”
“That fellow I saw through the field glass may have done it,” Jack pursued.
“Could be,” Warner agreed. “I thought you were wrong night before last when you said you saw someone, but it seems I was.”
“Stealing a man’s food is serious business,” Mr. Livingston remarked.
“It is,” the rancher agreed. “Why didn’t the fellow—whoever he was—come forward and ask for what he needed?”
“Where is he now? That’s what I want to know,” Willie grunted.
“Probably hiding out somewhere in the rocks and trees,” Warner replied. “For that matter, if he’s unfriendly, he could take a pot shot at us.”
“You assume he’s armed?” Mr. Livingston asked in surprise.
“Why not?” Warner hesitated and then added: “Along with the food, he took my gun. I thought I wouldn’t worry you by saying anything about it, but reckon I should.”
This additional bad news hit the Scouts hard. It was War who broke the gloomy silence.
“I’ve been a drag,” he admitted. “No, don’t try to feed me any soft soap. This is my point: suppose I turn back? Wouldn’t you have enough grub for the rest of the party?”
“It would be shaving it too close,” Warner replied.
“Maybe if two of us went back—?” suggested Willie slowly. “For instance, War and me.”
“Even at that, I doubt we could make it,” Warner said after a moment’s thought. “Thanks, boys, for offering.”
“Is there a forest ranger’s station near Elks Creek?” Jack asked suddenly.
“Yes,” Warner told him.
“Does the service have patrol planes?”
“Yes. They’re stationed about fifteen miles from Elks Creek.”
“The Headless Hollow area has a lake,” Jack reminded the group. “Do you suppose it would be possible to get the rangers to fly over that lake and drop a supply of food?”
“Jack, you have a brain!” Ken exclaimed. “Only how do we get word to the rangers?”
“That part’s easy,” Willie said quietly. “War and I will carry the message.”
The unselfishness of the two Scouts drew everyone’s admiration. Jack and Ken insisted that if anyone turned back, they would be the ones to do it. But in this they were overruled by both Mr. Livingston and the rancher.
After a thorough discussion, Willie’s plan prevailed. Accordingly, he and War took light packs with just enough food and bedding to see them safely back to Elks Creek.
“We’ll have a plane speeding to Headless Hollow in a couple of days,” Willie promised. “But if it should be a little longer, don’t worry. We’ll get it there somehow.”
“Take the return trip slowly,” Mr. Livingston urged them.
He offered to go with them, but they would not hear of it. War insisted that he felt strong again after his night’s rest and could make the return journey without difficulty.
“It’s better this way,” he said. “When I took a look at that mountain last night, I knew I never could make it to the pass.”
“Just be sure you bring back some gold,” Willie said with a grin, as the Scouts bade him good-by. “And keep your eyes peeled for trouble.”
The two trudged off, turning once to wave. Shouldering their packs, the others then started on the long climb in the opposite direction.
The sun glistened brightly on the high peaks. Jack tried to distinguish the two sentinel rocks which Old Stony had led them to believe guarded the entrance into the valley. However, all the peaks looked alike to him.
Warner had not exaggerated in warning that the climb would be hard. After two hours of it, the Scouts welcomed a rest. Jack dropped his bedroll and stretched out flat on his back.
Shading his eyes against the glare of the sun, he let his gaze wander over the distant peaks again. For just an instant, he thought he saw the flash of color against granite rock. Getting quickly to his feet, he asked Warner for his field glass.
“What do you see?” Ken demanded as Jack trained it on the rocks far above them. “The old man with whiskers?”
“Nothing,” Jack reported, crestfallen. “Thought for a minute it was someone’s red shirt.”
“You’re seeing things for sure!”
“Guess so,” Jack conceded with a grin. He returned the glass to its case and flopped on the ground once more.
After a twenty-minute rest, the party started on.
The way became increasingly difficult and the footing insecure. Once Jack dislodged a small rock and it clattered down the mountainside hundreds of feet. Canyons bore the scars of sizable slides. Warner told the Scouts that in winter avalanches were a great hazard in this area—that even a small rock slide could be very dangerous.
Lunch was frugal. Mr. Livingston boiled water for tea, but in the high altitude it took a long while. The Scouts satisfied themselves with crackers and cheese.
“It’s always wise to eat lightly when you’re climbing,” Jack said with a grin.
For another hour, they fought their way upward through the tumbled rocks. It was Warner’s hope that they could find the pass and before nightfall descend to a good camp site in the valley.
Chapter 17 AVALANCHE
The party worked itself on up toward the summit, climbing doggedly, single file—when suddenly a strange noise was heard.
Warner, in the lead, looked up quickly. A giant boulder was hurtling down the steep mountainside, taking all before it.
“Stand where you are!” he shouted hoarsely. “Don’t move!”
As the great boulder bounded down the mountainside toward the Scouts, they stood frozen. It was impossible to guess the exact course the big stone would take, for it was careening wildly.
To run when the footing was so treacherous would have been far more dangerous than to remain where they were. Craig Warner, an experienced mountaineer, had made his split-second decision and his shout of warning had been instantly obeyed by the Explorers. However, to remain motionless as the massive rock raced toward them required almost more willpower than they could command.
The crisis came quickly. The huge boulder, showering loose rock in all directions, loomed above the boys. Then as quickly as the danger had come, it was over. With the speed of an express train, the rock swept past them. By scant inches it missed Ken, setting up a breeze as it rushed by.
On rolled the big rock to crash hundreds of feet below in a tangle of twisted pines.
“Wow! That was close!” Ken exclaimed when he had recovered speech.
Jack, breathing hard, asked shakily, “What started that rock rolling down the mountain? An animal?”
“A two-legged one, I suspect,” rejoined Warner, his voice tight.
He adjusted his field glass to train it on the rocks high above them.
Lowering it after several minutes, he said: “No question about it. That rock was dislodged purposely.”
“By whom?” Jack demanded.
“I glimpsed the fellow only for an instant when I first saw the rock coming our way. Then he ducked back out of sight.”
“It wasn’t Walz?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“I don’t think so, but I couldn’t be sure,” the rancher returned, squinting thoughtfully into the sun.
“Maybe it’s that same bird who stole our food,” Jack speculated. “For an unpopulated mountain, this place seems to have quite a bit of activity.”
“Too much,” Warner tersely agreed.
The near disaster had slightly unnerved everyone. Both Mr. Livingston and Craig Warner were puzzled, for the rancher said again that he knew of no prospector who frequented Crazy Mountain.
“Why would anyone want to prevent us from reaching the pass?” he speculated. “Walz would have a reason, but I doubt he ever got this far. Even with Ranier he certainly couldn’t have made it.”
“Someone else may know about the cache of gold,” Jack suggested.
“It begins to look that way,” Warner agreed. “Either that, or we’re dealing with a screwball. If a man lives too long alone—well, sometimes his mind becomes twisted.”
After a brief rest, the party struggled on, the mystery unsolved. Warner used exceeding caution, keeping almost constant watch of the ledges above. But he didn’t get a glimpse of anyone.
Climbing was slow work, and the Scouts were hampered by the necessity for keeping constantly alert for further trouble from above. A misstep could have meant a bad fall because below were enormous cliffs and breath-taking drops.
“With luck, we should soon reach the pass,” Warner advised the group. “Our contour map doesn’t show it, so I’m depending entirely on that memory sketch I made.”
“We haven’t sighted those two twin peaks Old Stony told us about,” Jack said.
“That’s what bothers me,” Warner replied. “In taking his landmarks, maybe he made them on the return trip from Headless Hollow.”
“That’s so!” exclaimed Ken, startled. “In that case, everything would be different from the way we’re seeing it.”
“Don’t forget, Old Stony may have drawn his map purposely wrong to throw off anyone who might steal it,” Mr. Livingston reminded them.
“We’ll soon know,” Warner replied.
Settling themselves to a hard, relentless grind of climbing, the Scouts followed their guide with dogged determination. Progress now was painfully slow. An hour was required to make a few hundred feet.
Jack’s back had grown numb from the weight of the pack. His legs felt as if they would buckle beneath him. Mr. Livingston likewise was showing signs of fatigue, and so was Ken. Only their guide seemed utterly tireless. But as the overcast sun began to lower behind the jagged peaks, even Warner began to falter and show signs of strain.
His growing uneasiness began to be felt by the others. In the last few hours, they had caught no glimpse of the mysterious enemy believed to have dislodged the rock. In fact, they had half forgotten the incident. But a greater worry now confronted them.
Night was coming on, and unless the pass soon materialized, they must make camp. However, the narrow ledges provided little more than walking space. At times the grades were fairly gentle, giving the party a little breathing spell. Then again they became so steep it was hard to find good footing.
Warner and Mr. Livingston pushed desperately on, hoping to find the pass before darkness crept upon the lonely mountain. Though they gave no verbal hint of their growing concern, Ken and Jack could tell by the grim way the two men climbed that they were worried.
To add to the party’s mounting alarm, the sky was rapidly becoming veiled with black clouds that clung around the mountain peaks, ugly and threatening.
“We’ll have rain pretty soon,” Ken predicted, as he and Jack halted to drop their packs briefly. “That’s all we need to make this day complete!”
Jack was too weary to answer. But, scanning the darkening sky, he nodded.
The day’s climb had been unbelievably hard, and seemingly it was endless. How much longer, he wondered, would he be able to keep going? He was glad Willie and War were safely on their way back to Elks Creek—at least he hoped they were safe and comfortable.
“The pass shouldn’t be much farther off,” Warner said to encourage the Scouts. “We ought to come to it within another half hour.”
“A half hour,” Ken repeated. “Well, let’s get the agony finished as fast as we can!”
Chapter 18 DEAD END
The party wormed its way up Crazy Mountain, gingerly testing the crumbling rock lest it give beneath their feet. Tortuously, they made another five hundred feet. Then Warner, who was in the lead, halted.
“Boys,” he said, “I’m afraid we’re in a pocket. This can’t be the way to the pass.”
No one spoke.
“Wait here,” he directed them. “I think we’ve come to a dead end. If I can get up to that next ledge, maybe I can see a way on, but I doubt it.”
Feeling along the wall, he secured a firm hand grip and, with Mr. Livingston’s help from below, attained the ledge above. He crept along it and vanished from view. For a long while the Scouts waited, uneasily watching the darkening mountains. Their situation, they knew, was rapidly becoming precarious.
Finally, Craig Warner reappeared and lowered himself back onto the narrow ledge where the Scouts waited. His face told the story.
“No chance of going on?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“None.” Warner nursed his bruised hands. “We’re at an absolute dead end. We’ve reached a cul-de-sac.”
His words fell like a shroud upon the weary, footsore group.
“We can’t camp here,” Jack said at last. “What’ll we do?”
“There’s only one course open to us. We’ll have to return the way we came.”
“Return?” Ken echoed flatly. “Not all the way back to the ghost town?”
“Maybe half that distance,” Warner advised. “There’s no water here or fuel. Not even a place to pitch a tent. Temporarily at least, Crazy Mountain has licked us!”
Completely disheartened, everyone sat down on the rocky ledge to discuss the situation.
Night was fast coming on. A descent along the narrow trail would at best be a risky undertaking, but to remain where they were was out of the question.
“There’s no possibility of going on?” Mr. Livingston asked the rancher. “None whatsoever?”
Warner shook his head. “The ledge above us plays out entirely, and the one beyond can’t be reached. We’re in a pocket.”
“Then we’ll have to accept the situation,” the Scout leader said, getting wearily to his feet. “Let’s go.”
Nearing exhaustion as they were, it seemed to Ken and Jack that they could not trudge another mile. But they forced themselves to follow Warner. Knowing that their safety depended upon reaching the wider ledges before darkness completely enveloped the mountain, he took them at a brutal pace.
The Scouts were discouraged, footsore, and desperately hungry. Their only sustenance since noon had been a small piece of chocolate which had provided a little quick energy.
In less than an hour, darkness closed in. To add to their troubles, it began to rain. The fall was not hard, but it came steadily. Soon the Scouts were chilled through.
It seemed to Jack and Ken they never could make it. Every step had become an agony. Minds and bodies had become half paralyzed. Yet automatically their feet kept plodding on.
Warner seemed to have an instinct for making his way, even in the dark and rain. His flashlight guided them at the dangerous turns.
Then gradually their route became easier, the slope more gradual. They reached a shelf and a little wooded area beside a fast-rushing stream. It was not the best camp site, but by this time none of them was too particular.
Dropping their packs, the Scouts went in search of firewood. Jack found dry kindling material inside a log. Ken, after hard chopping, gathered enough wood to get a little blaze going. By that time, Mr. Livingston had the pup tents up.
Everyone huddled near the fire, waiting for tea water to boil. Some of their misery began to fade.
The rain had practically ceased. The air, however, was damp, and a mist shrouded everything.
Little by little, the Scouts began to dry out and relax. Hot tea revived their spirits. By the time Warner had prepared oatmeal and bacon, they were feeling almost normal again. But no one spoke of plans for the next day.
After the simple meal the Explorers chopped more wood. Then they rolled into their beds and slept soundly.
By morning, the unpleasant experience on Crazy Mountain was only a dim memory. Ken and Jack, even Mr. Livingston, awoke feeling only a little tired and muscle sore.
Once they were astir, most of their aches disappeared. The day was bright and sunny. Warner had risen early to whip the eddies for a few trout and these were cleaned and in the pan, delicately browning for breakfast.
Over the food, the group discussed procedure. A full day had been lost in the futile search for the pass. There was no assurance that, if they went on, it ever would be found before their skimpy food supply became exhausted.
“I’ve been looking over the map again this morning,” Warner said, spreading it on the rocks. “There’s another way up, and it may lead us through—that is, if you’re game to tackle it. I’m leaving the decision to you fellows.”
Ken glanced first at Mr. Livingston and then at Jack.
“After that mess of trout, I could tackle anything,” Jack declared. “Let’s go!”
“Those are my sentiments,” Ken echoed. “No mountain is going to lick me.”
“We may run into another cul-de-sac,” the rancher warned. “It’s a chance we have to take.”
Breaking camp, the party set off once more. This time, they chose a way which at first was more difficult than the one they had taken the previous day. Nevertheless, as the day wore on, they became hopeful it might lead them to their objective.
“It’s queer we’ve seen nothing of Walz or Ranier,” Jack remarked as the group paused to catch breath after a particularly steep stretch.
“We may run into them yet,” Warner said. “With Old Stony’s map, they had a better chance than we of reaching the pass without trouble.”
As the party climbed higher, a sharp wind whistled eerily around the crags. At times, Jack imagined he heard hollow laughter, as if the spirit of Crazy Mountain were chortling at some secret joke.
“This place gives me a queer feeling,” he confessed to Ken. “Ever since we left the ghost town, I keep thinking we’re being watched.”
Ken did not laugh as Jack had expected him to do. Instead, he said: “I know. I’ve been having that same feeling. I figure it’s because our stuff was stolen, and then someone shoved that rock down on us.”
“It could have been an accident—”
“Sure, but Warner isn’t the kind to make a mistake like that.”
“No, he’s levelheaded,” Jack returned soberly. “I figure if we do find that pass today—well, we may run into rugged going beyond that point.”
“You think someone besides Walz wants to keep us out of the valley?”
“It’s a possibility, isn’t it? I was thinking about it last night, Ken, before I dropped off to sleep. Maybe someone stumbled onto Old Stony’s secret long before we came here.”
“In that case, the gold’s gone—if ever there was any.”
“Maybe not,” Jack replied thoughtfully. “If the gold had been toted out, word of it would have spread like wildfire. Beside, wouldn’t the discoverer have cleared out of the valley as fast as he could, once he had the cache?”
“It’s all too deep for me,” Ken answered with a shrug. “My bones tell me, though, that we’d better be prepared for a dose of trouble before we’re through.”
“Double trouble,” Jack added with a grin.
By two o’clock doubt again began to assail the climbers. The going was hard once more, and the pass seemed as elusive as ever. The prospect of having to retreat a second time sent shivers of weariness down the spines of the Scouts.
“If we don’t make it today, we’ll have to turn back to Elks Creek,” Mr. Warner announced.
Presently, from a high point which gave a clear view of the surrounding peaks he made another careful survey. Impatiently, the others awaited his verdict.
“I think I see what might be called twin peaks,” he said finally. “If so, we’re close to the pass.”
His words cheered everyone. Jack even hummed a little tune as he tramped on. The heavy pack actually felt lighter on his back.
The feeling of exultation grew as signs gave increasing encouragement that this time their way would not be blocked. Soon the Explorers came out on the round top of the mountain.
While the others drank in the view, Warner and Jack searched for a way down into the green valley.
“You can see the tiny lake from here,” the rancher pointed out. “We ought to reach it before nightfall. And if all goes well, the plane should soon drop our supplies.”
After careful consideration, Warner selected a route down which did not look too difficult. Mr. Livingston and Ken were willing enough to leave, for the bald dome was wind-swept and uncomfortably chilly. Patches of snow lay in the more protected crannies.
In crossing an open space to join Jack and the rancher, Ken abruptly halted. He directed the attention of his companions to moccasin prints, plainly visible in the snow.
“And we thought we were the first to reach this pass!” he exclaimed.
The prints, the Scouts decided, had been made within a short time—but by whom? They were fairly certain that Walz had been wearing shoes and not moccasins.
“Any Indians living on Crazy Mountain?” Hap Livingston asked the rancher.
“Not that I ever heard.”
Led by Warner, the Scouts started soberly down through the pass. Now that their objective was close, they wondered all the more at the dangers. Walz and Ranier, of course, were known hazards who, even though they might be hostile, could be dealt with. But what of the unknown inhabitant of the mountain?
Thoughts were tumbling without pattern in Jack’s mind, when Warner up ahead suddenly halted. Pulling himself up short, Jack saw that the rancher was staring fixedly at something.
“What is it?” he demanded.
Without replying, the rancher moved aside so that the others could see.
A stunted pine was growing out of a rock at a rakish angle and dangling from its twisted lower limb was a skeleton.
Chapter 19 THE CABIN
At sight of the swinging skeleton, the Scouts stood rooted to the rocks. Jack was the first to recover speech.
“Jeepers! Is it a warning intended for us?”
“A little hint we’re to go no farther?” demanded Ken.
Upon closer inspection, the skeleton proved to be one of a bear with several head bones missing. Mr. Livingston cut it down with his pocket knife.
“I don’t like this,” he said.
“We may be walking into a trap,” Warner conceded. “From the map, I judge there’s no entrance or exit to Headless Hollow except through this narrow pass.”
“You mean once down there we may find it hard to get back?”
“We face that chance. There’s no question this skeleton was hung here as a warning. It was probably meant for anyone who might chance this way.”
“Then the valley must hold treasure,” Ken said, his eyes kindling.
“Don’t build up that hope,” Mr. Livingston warned him. “We may be dealing with a man who is out of his mind.”
“That’s what alarms me,” agreed Craig Warner. “I’d feel safer if I had my gun.”
“We’re four to one,” Ken pointed out.
“True,” the rancher replied, “but numbers can be misleading. Besides, we don’t know for sure if there’s only one against us.”
Despite the discussion, no one considered turning back. The climbers had suffered too intensely to think of giving up their objective now. At least the valley was attainable, and the route down did not look too hard. But certainly the warning skeleton had alerted them to possible danger, and they knew they had to remain constantly on guard.
Pressing on, the Scouts followed Warner single file down the slope.
Deep blue shadows were lengthening by the time the four swung through a deeply wooded area. Here they proceeded with even greater caution. But, without incident, they finally came out on a flat shelf overlooking the valley.
With a common impulse, everyone halted, for the view snatched away their breath. A tiny sapphire lake lay far below. Against the dark backdrop of the mountainside stood a tiny cabin.
“That must be the place Stony and my father built,” Warner said. “We’ve reached our goal—Headless Hollow.”
“But not the gold,” Ken reminded him.
“That doesn’t concern me too much,” the rancher replied. “If Stony left a cache and it’s still here, I admit I’d like to have it. I could enlarge my ranch, rebuild the barn, and make a lot of repairs. But getting the ore out of this valley would take some doing, I reckon.”
With darkness fast coming on, the Scouts pushed rapidly along. Gone was all fatigue. An excitement which steadily mounted buoyed up their spirits and made them forget their weariness.
The sun was nearly down when at last the party trudged up to the cabin they had seen from the distance. They approached cautiously, mindful that Walz and his guide or the unknown inhabitant of Crazy Mountain might have taken refuge there. They found no one, though. Jack pointed out that the cabin logs were in a remarkable state of preservation for having stood so long.
“This cabin has been kept repaired,” Warner announced after he had looked it over.
Telling the Scouts and Mr. Livingston to keep back, he crept to the glassless cabin window and peered in. Seeing no one, he motioned that it was safe for the others to approach.
The cabin was practically without a floor, since the boards had deteriorated. Furniture consisted of a broken-down table, a stool, and a pile of fir boughs which had served as someone’s bed.
Jack went over and touched the ashes in the crumbling fireplace. “Warm,” he reported.
“Someone has certainly been living here recently,” Warner said. “No sign of anyone around now, though.”
It was too late to search that night for the caches of gold ore which Old Stony had claimed he hid in the hollow. Feeling almost as if they were intruders in the valley, the Scouts set about preparing supper.
Warner fished the lake, bringing in a nice mess of trout. It heartened the group. They had decided to hoard enough of the meager supplies for an emergency return to Elks Creek if necessary.
“Willie and War should be able to get help to us by tomorrow,” Mr. Livingston said. “If the Forest Service plane drops food, we’ll be all right. But if the plan goes amiss for any reason, we may have a rough time of it.”
The night was closing in chilly, with a threat of rain, so the Scouts decided to sleep inside the cabin.
A fire brought a little cheer to the dreary room. Mr. Livingston and Craig Warner told a few stories of past experiences in the wilds. However, talk soon died for, although no one said so openly, the atmosphere was oppressive.
Twice Jack left the fire to gaze out the open window. He couldn’t see anyone in the dark, yet he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that someone was prowling near the cabin.
“Think we ought to post a guard?” he suggested.
“Not a bad idea,” Warner agreed. “I’m a light sleeper, though, so maybe we can take a chance.”
Before turning in, he and Mr. Livingston made a tour of the cabin area. Everything was quiet. A light rain, however, had started to fall.
“This may prevent the plane from dropping our food tomorrow,” Mr. Livingston remarked, scanning the sky.
The Scouts made up their beds and turned in. Jack was too weary to sleep. After a while, above the sound of the rain, he thought he heard footsteps outside the cabin. Quickly, he got up.
Before he could investigate, the door was flung open. Jarrett Walz, his clothing torn and wet, staggered in.
His arrival awakened the others, and Ken built up the fire, which provided a flickering light in the cabin.
“Where’s Ranier?” Warner demanded.
“That yellow dog deserted me,” Walz muttered, collapsing onto the bed of pine boughs.
“You quarreled?” the rancher guessed.
“Yes,” Walz admitted sullenly. “I made it here after he left me at the pass. The thief took my food. I’m half starved.”
It was evident that the motel owner had suffered severely on the trail. Despite their intense dislike for the man, the Scouts could not help feeling sorry for him.
Mr. Livingston brewed him a cup of strong tea and used the last of the flour to make pancakes for him. Walz ate ravenously.
“Why did Ranier turn back?” Warner asked when the motel owner had finished eating. “You say you quarreled?”
“Almost constantly. He said I wasn’t paying him enough for the risk of the trip, and that I wasn’t doing my share of the camp work. Then we came to the pass—”
“And the bear skeleton?” Jack suggested.
“Yes. That finished Ranier. He said the valley was evil and he wouldn’t set foot in it. So he deserted me.”
“You have the map you stole from me?” Warner asked.
Walz eyed him defiantly.
“Hand it over.”
“Like fun I will! I didn’t all but kill myself to get here, only to make things easy for you. Oh, no!”
“We can take the map,” the rancher quietly reminded him.
“You can’t,” Walz sneered. “I’m not dumb enough to walk in here with it in my pocket.”
“You’ve hidden it?”
“Better than that. I’ve destroyed it.” Triumphantly, the motel owner tapped his forehead. “The secret is here—right here. Known only to me.”
Warner shrugged. He had no reason to doubt Walz’ statement.
“You may regret destroying the map,” he observed. “A memory sometimes proves faulty.”
“Not mine,” Walz boasted. “I’ll find that gold, and it will be mine—all mine!”
“You’re loco,” Warner retorted. “We ought to heave you out of here, but we’ll be generous—a weakness you wouldn’t understand.”
The Scouts made room for the motel owner near the fire. He had not feigned exhaustion. Almost at once he fell into a deep sleep.
“He should make no trouble tonight,” Warner said contemptuously. “Tomorrow may be a different story.”
Once more the Scouts turned in for the night. Again Jack slept, though fitfully. At times he imagined Walz was stirring. Always it was his fancy. Then again, he imagined he heard a noise outside the cabin.
Actually, it was toward morning when he awoke with a start. His imagination again?
Suddenly he knew that it was not. He felt smothered, suffocated.
Starting up, he began to cough and choke. The cabin was filled with smoke!
Chapter 20 THE PLANE
For a moment, Jack thought the cabin was on fire. But there were no flames. Groping his way through the blinding smoke, he flung open the door.
As he reached the better air, he heard a hard thud on the ground at the rear of the wretched cabin. Then, in the semi-darkness, he saw a shadowy figure darting toward the dense bush rimming the lake.
By this time, Ken too was awake, coughing and fighting the smoke. The others quickly rose and made their way out into the night air.
If Jack had cherished any thought that Walz was responsible for the condition of the cabin, it was dispelled. The motel owner staggered out, rubbing his eyes and whining that he had been asphyxiated.
“You closed the flue!” he accused them. “You wanted to get rid of me!”
The Scouts paid no attention to his mutterings. Instead, Jack and Ken checked the fireplace. Smoke from the half-burned-out fire was pouring into the room instead of rising up the flue.
“Must be a down draft,” Ken said, fighting the smoke. “The air’s heavy because of the rain.”
“Not that heavy, Ken.”
Jack recollected the strange thudding noise he had heard and the fleeting shadow he had seen. Someone, he was convinced, had been on the roof of the cabin.
“I’m going to see what’s wrong,” he announced. “Help me up there, will you?”
“You may crash through the roof,” Ken warned. “One good puff of wind and this whole place will fall down like a cardboard box.”
He and Craig Warner gave Jack a boost onto the sloping roof. In a moment they heard his shout of discovery.
“No wonder we were smoked out!”
“What’s wrong?” Ken demanded.
“A hunk of wood has been jammed down the chimney! The smoke couldn’t escape, so it went out into the cabin.”
Jack tugged and pulled, but the piece of wood had been wedged tightly into the chimney. Ken climbed up with a hatchet. Together they chopped the chunk to splinters, then dropped back down onto the ground.
“Who did it?” Walz demanded in a shaky voice.
“The ghost of Old Stony,” Jack replied in jest. “Maybe he’s upset to find us in his valley.”
At mention of the old prospector, Walz seemed to go to pieces.
“Don’t be saying things like that!” he fairly screamed.
“Sorry,” Jack apologized. “It was only a joke. I don’t know any more than you do about who wedged that wood into the chimney. But it was done on purpose.”
“I’m not going back in there tonight,” Walz whined with a shudder. “Why, it’s a wonder we weren’t burned in our beds!”
By this time, the sky had grown lighter, an indication that dawn was not far off. The clouds were clearing, and the rain had stopped.
“If Willie and War got through to the Forest Service station, we may sight their plane today,” Mr. Livingston said hopefully.
No one attempted to go back to sleep. Warner and Jack made a brief but futile search for their mysterious enemy.
“I suspect it’s the same fellow who stole our food and my gun,” the rancher said.
“You think it’s somebody who has been living here in the valley?”
“It looks that way, Jack. Who he is, or how he manages to keep alive, I don’t know. We’ll have to be eternally on guard.”
Mr. Livingston and Ken had fished the lake during their absence, and now near the cabin they proudly displayed four good-sized trout.
“Where’s Walz?” Ken suddenly asked.
The motel owner was not to be found near the cabin nor in it. Very shortly the Scouts learned the reason: during their absence, he had disappeared. With him had gone their few remaining supplies.
“Why, that thieving rascal!” Warner exclaimed. “We took pity on him and shared what little we had. This is our pay.”
Only a perfunctory search was made for Walz. It was certain he had taken refuge in the bush not far from the cabin, but to track him down would have been a difficult and useless task.
“By this time, he’ll have hidden what he can’t consume,” Warner said in disgust. “He probably figures on finding those caches and getting out of here fast.”
Breakfast was a disheartening meal. The fish, baked in leaves, was tasteless without salt.
“We’ll not starve,” Warner said. “But it’s sure we have to replenish our supply of staples or hit the trail for Elks Creek. The question is, can we be sure that Willie and War have gotten help for us?”
Mr. Livingston spoke with quiet confidence: “Unless they had some bad luck the plane will get here.”
“Good flying weather today,” Ken added cheerfully.
“It’s settled then that we stick it out,” Warner said.
They decided that one of them should remain close to the clearing throughout the day to make certain the plane would not be missed. Selecting a fairly level place where the packages of food might be parachuted down, Jack laid out a bright-colored cloth as a signal.
In the meantime Warner, Mr. Livingston, and Ken set off to try to find the gold caches. At noon they returned, tired, hungry, and discouraged.
“No luck,” Ken reported, “but we did find a grave on a hillside not far from the lake.”
“My father’s,” Craig Warner said. “There was a marker with his name.”
“An odd thing,” Mr. Livingston contributed. “Ferns and flowers have been planted beside the grave.”
“Recently too,” added Ken. “At least, the earth around them has been loosened recently.”
Warner gazed toward the distant mountains, glistening in the bright sunlight. “This trip has already been worth while for me,” he said. “The gold doesn’t matter.”
“But there is gold!” Jack insisted. “At least, when I was at the lake I saw particles of it that had washed down from the hills. And I found a sluice box someone had been using.”
“Our unknown enemy, probably,” Warner said. “He didn’t show himself while we were gone?”
“Any sign of a plane?”
In the afternoon, Ken took his turn staying behind, while the others resumed search for the caches of ore. According to Warner’s recollection of the map, both had been near the entrance to a ravine some distance from the lake, but the morning search had proven unfruitful.
“I may have made a miscalculation,” the rancher admitted.
“Maybe we picked the wrong ravine,” said Jack.
They began the afternoon search nearer the lake and cabin. Immediately, landmarks seemed somewhat more familiar and similar to the chart markings they remembered.
“We must be on the right track!” Jack said jubilantly.
They were encouraged to find old holes drilled in the hillside. This they took to be evidence that Old Stony or other prospectors who followed him had tested the area as a possible mine site.
But the hiding place, if ever there had been one, could not be found.
“Maybe Walz has had better luck,” Jack said, sinking down on a rock. “Queer we haven’t had a glimpse of him all day.”
“He’s lying low,” Mr. Livingston said. “Either that, or he’s hit out for Elks Creek.”
Disheartened, the trio finally headed back toward the cabin. As they rounded a ridge, Jack suddenly stiffened.
Faintly in the distance, they could hear the drone of an airplane engine.
“War and Willie are sending help!” Jack cried. “Food!”
With all haste, the three fought their way up the crumbling rocks. Reaching a high spot, they eagerly scanned the sky.
Far to the east, a tiny moving speck could be discerned.
“It’s coming this way!” Jack shouted. “The pilot can’t miss the lake!”
Although the plane was still far away, he took off his hat and began waving it in a wide arc. He might have spared himself the trouble.
The plane came on closer for a moment longer and then, for no apparent reason, it banked and turned back on its course.
Jack kept thinking that it surely would circle again. But it did not.
As he and his companions watched in stunned silence, it vanished between the mountain peaks.
Chapter 21 THE ENEMY
Heartsick, Jack, Craig Warner, and Hap Livingston trudged back to the cabin. Ken, too, had seen the plane from the woods where he had been gathering a few edible berries. He reported that it had not come close enough to the clearing for him to signal.
“What made it turn back?” he grieved. “Surely the lake makes a sizable landmark.”
“It may not have been the Forest Service plane,” said Warner.
“Something’s wrong,” Mr. Livingston declared. “Warwick and Willie may have had trouble getting through. If anything happened to them—well, I’ll always blame myself for letting them go off alone.”
“They’ve made it by now,” Jack said.
However, he spoke with more confidence than he felt. War’s condition had not been the best, and it was quite possible he had fallen ill on the trail. Resolutely, he put the matter from his mind. There was enough to worry about as it was, he told himself.
“Any visitors while we were away?” he asked Ken as the group walked to the cabin.
“Only a bear. He didn’t stick around long when he found there was no food.”
“Not a glimpse of him.”
“He’s hidden out in a canyon somewhere,” Jack guessed. “He may give us trouble yet—especially if we should find the gold before he does.”
“Not much chance of that,” Ken replied. “In fact, I’m beginning to think Stony dreamed up that gold. The valley’s real enough, but that cache may have been all fancy.”
Jack made no answer. Weary, hungry, and discouraged, he too wondered if the trip to Headless Hollow might not have been a mistake. However, he had no intention of saying so. Fetching water from the lake, he went into the cabin and flung himself onto the bed of boughs.
Despite his weariness, he did not lie there long. Something which was propped against the fireplace drew his gaze. He rolled off the bed and went over to pick it up. It was a long strip of bark, and on the inside surface a message had been printed in uneven charcoal letters.
“GIT OUT OF THIS HEAR VALLEY BEFOR IT IS TOO LATE.”
Jack carried it outside to show to the others.
“Walz never left this,” he said. “That fellow who tried to smoke us out last night must have printed it.”
“He’s an unfriendly coot,” Warner observed. “It’s a mystery how he manages to live here.”
Ken said he had seen no one near the cabin while the others had been searching for the caches. Nevertheless, he had been absent himself for half an hour. It was during this period, they decided, that the fellow had sneaked out of the woods to leave the warning message.
After another frugal meal of fish and berries, everyone except Warner turned in for the night. He insisted upon keeping watch until midnight. At that hour, Mr. Livingston relieved him. It was nearing dawn when Jack awoke to see the Scout leader dozing by the fire.
“It’s my turn now,” he volunteered.
Mr. Livingston reluctantly permitted him to take over the watch. Jack sat a while with only his dreary thoughts for company. In his mind’s eye, he tried to reconstruct the treasure map as first he had seen it in Rocking Horse.
Definitely, he recalled that the two caches of gold had been close to each other at the mouth of a ravine. But the years might have wrought changes in the terrain. Wind and rain and rock slides could have altered the area.
For that matter, with the valley inhabited, might not the gold long ago have been removed?
Jack’s thoughts rambled back to his last talk with Stony in the hospital. Then he had seriously doubted that the prospector had found gold in this remote valley. Now that he was here, he had gradually begun to believe that the tale had been true.
The grave and marker with John Warner’s name indicated that Stony had indeed lost his partner in Headless Hollow. Mystery still shrouded the death. Restlessly, Jack rose and walked to the window. The sky was beginning to lighten. Very soon the sun would be up.
He built up the fire. Noticing that the supply of wood was low, he took the axe and went for more. He chopped a dead jackpine, stacking the pieces near the cabin door.
As he went down to the lake for water, he thought he heard mocking laughter from amid the willows. But he could see no one, and when he halted to listen, there was no further sound. He continued to the water’s edge and stooped to fill the vessel. Some instinct warned him. He still had heard no sound but, without knowing why, he whirled suddenly.
A dark figure loomed behind him. He caught a blurred impression of an aged face as he ducked.
A heavy object struck him a glancing blow on the side of his head. Senses reeling, he staggered crazily backward into the water as wild laughter rang in his ears.
Dazed as he was, he realized his opponent had struck him with the butt of Warner’s stolen gun. And now the crazed fellow was pointing it at him, laughing idiotically!
Off balance from the stunning blow, Jack let himself collapse into the lake. Then, fearful his assailant would fire, or hurl a rock at him if he emerged, he dived deeper.
Holding his breath, he went down into the chilly depths until he struck sand, and then he swam underwater. When his lungs screamed for air, he cautiously rose to the surface. Raising his nose and mouth just above water, he gazed toward shore.
At first the wild creature who had assaulted him so viciously was nowhere to be seen. But as Jack scanned the shore, he saw the dark figure retreating as stealthily as he had come. He was a bent, twisted man who moved with cat-like tread over the rocks toward a distant ravine.
Scrambling out on shore, Jack ran to the cabin. He met Craig Warner, who only that moment had dressed.
“You fell in the lake!” Warner exclaimed, staring at him.
Jack related what had happened and added: “The fellow who attacked me is as crazy as this mountain! He headed for the far ravine.”
“I’m going after him,” Warner said.
Jack would not allow the rancher to trail the old man alone. Without taking time to change his wet clothes, he guided Warner in the direction his attacker had taken.
The sky was rapidly brightening. At the edge of the ravine they caught their first glimpse of the old man. He wore moccasins and moved with amazing swiftness over the rough terrain.
“Unless I’m mistaken, he’ll lead us to Old Stony’s gold,” Warner whispered. “Our best bet is to keep out of sight.”
Agile as a monkey, the old fellow scrambled over the rocks with the energy of a much younger man. He came at last, as the rancher predicted, to a pit opening that was covered by brush.
Not even glancing about, the man pulled the debris aside and dropped out of view.
“It’s a mine, all right,” Warner declared as he and Jack crouched behind the bushes, waiting.
“Stony’s caches of ore must be somewhere close,” Jack whispered.
Warner nodded. “Probably, unless this daffy old fellow has moved them. He has certainly been living here a long while, Jack.”
By this time the sun was up, and Jack’s wet clothing had begun to dry a little. But he remained cold, uncomfortable, and drowsy. He craved action.
“Shouldn’t we try to find out what’s doing down in that mine?” he urged.
“He may stay down in that hole all day!”
“He’ll come out sooner or later. We’d be crazy to go after him, Jack. Remember, he has a gun.”
“I know,” Jack conceded with a sigh. “It’s hard to wait, though. What’s he doing down there, anyhow? Counting his gold?”
“Digging it, more than likely.”
Jack’s tired eyes sparkled. “You think we’ve stumbled onto Old Stony’s source of gold?”
“We’ve found something,” Warner grunted. “But don’t forget, Colorado is thick with abandoned mines—most of ’em worthless.”
As the sun rose higher, Jack became convinced the old fellow would never reappear. He was half asleep, when Warner unexpectedly nudged him. Then he came awake with a start.
The old man could be seen backing awkwardly out of the pit hole.
In the bright daylight, he looked like a grotesque creature with long, windblown white hair and a straggling, dirty-white beard.
But Jack was not inclined to chuckle. The old fellow had an intensity of purpose which was frightening. He was chattering to himself, but the only word the listening pair could distinguish was: “Gold.”
Then, as they watched, the old man turned his half-glazed eyes toward the bush where they crouched. In that instant Warner obtained his first direct look at the withered, weather-tanned face.
“Well, what d’you know!” he whispered. “It’s Joe Hansart!”
Chapter 22 TRAPPED
The gaunt man who had crawled from the mine pit did not see them crouching in the dense thicket. He stood facing them, however, a revolver dangling carelessly at his belt. He was a grotesque, powerfully built fellow amazingly agile, and he was wearing a ragged, red-wool shirt and an open, tattered leather jacket.
As Jack and the rancher watched, Joe Hansart wheeled and trotted off over the rocks in the general direction of the pass.
“We missed our chance to nab him,” Jack said, emerging.
“Yes, but he has my gun, and it’s probably loaded,” Warner replied. “If he sees us he may shoot. The poor old fellow seems completely off his rocker.”
“You know him?”
“Not very well, but he’s Joe Hansart.”
“Is he the prospector you mentioned at your ranch?”
“Yes. Years ago I saw him a few times.”
“Didn’t you tell us at the ranch that he had set out for this hollow and vanished?”
“Yes,” the rancher answered. “So far as I know, Joe hasn’t been seen in Elks Creek for years.”
“But how has he managed to live?”
Warner shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he makes trips out, though not to Elks Creek. Probably he stashes food for the winter. In the summer, a man of his ingenuity could get along on very little.”
“But why would he stay here year after year?”
“Evidently he’s been seized with gold fever, Jack, and it has twisted his brain.”
“You think he’s found Old Stony’s caches?”
“I suspect so, Jack. Perhaps he has even stumbled onto a rich vein in that pit mine. Let’s find out.”
Making certain the old prospector had not doubled back on his trail, the two dropped down into the hole.
The mine was a shallow one, bolstered with crudely cut timber. Water dripped from above, making the floor slippery and slimy. Warner’s flashlight came to rest on a box of dynamite.
“Watch it!” he advised sharply, as Jack would have investigated. “That stuff’s old—and dangerous.”
A little farther on they came to a pile of mined ore. Warner picked up one of the chunks of rock, studying the dull-looking metal under the flashlight.
“This looks like rich stuff!” he exclaimed. “It’s hand sorted!”
“Then Stony was right!” Jack cried. “He did find a fortune, only to lose it.”
“Hard to tell until the stuff is assayed, but this ore looks rich to me. Almost pure gold, Jack.”
“And there’s a lot of it! Piles and piles! Old Joe Hansart must have been mining it here for years.”
Warner went on to a second and third pile of ore, but his enthusiasm began to die.
“What’s wrong?” Jack demanded, puzzled by the rancher’s change of attitude. “Isn’t it gold, after all?”
“It’s gold, all right.”
“But not quality stuff?”
“Well, it’s hard to tell much just by looking at it, Jack. That first pile of hand-sorted stuff was rich—no question about it. But this—” Warner dropped a chunk of ore contemptuously.
“I wouldn’t say that. I’m no expert. It’s easy to see, though, that’s it’s not the same rich ore as that first pile.”
“Even so, there’s a lot of it,” Jack said optimistically.
“Oh, that one pile might be worth thousands,” Craig Warner replied. “And it’s available to anybody who hauls it out.”
“Why do you suppose Joe Hansart hasn’t done it?” Jack speculated.
“Two reasons probably: one, he hasn’t wanted anyone to know of his discovery; two, ore is heavy.”
“You figure Hansart never filed a claim?”
“I doubt it, Jack. If he had, word would have swept this section of country like a prairie fire. He’s probably panned enough pure gold from the lake to keep him in supplies. Meanwhile, he has stayed on here alone, enlarging the mine.”
A short distance further into the pit, they came to a tunnel opening which had been half covered with debris. Pulling the brush aside, Warner ran the beam of his light over the rough wall.
“This seems to be where Hansart has done his most recent work,” he observed. “You can see the vein. But it’s thin—played out.”
“Then this is only another worthless mine?”
“I couldn’t pass judgment on such a brief inspection,” Warner returned. “Besides, as I say, I’m not an expert.”
“But it doesn’t look too promising to you?”
“Frankly, it doesn’t, Jack. I don’t want to build up your hopes, only to have them collapse.”
“Oh, I hadn’t figured on cashing in on this trip except in fun and experience,” Jack rejoined cheerfully.
“There’s gold here,” Warner said soberly. “These days, though, it takes capital—lots of it—to operate any mine profitably. Headless Hollow is hard to get at. So to make it worth while, the vein would have to be exceedingly rich.”
They went on to the end of the narrow tunnel.
“In my opinion the vein was better near the surface,” Craig Warner said, as he and Jack turned back. “It’s one of those freak things. Old Stony thought he had made a rich find. He must have found ore that would be worth maybe twenty to fifty thousand dollars in the present market. But the streak seemingly plays out.”
“Mightn’t it pick up again somewhere in the valley?” Jack suggested hopefully.
“Yes. But if in all these years Joe Hansart hasn’t improved on this site, I doubt there’s any bonanza here.”
“The lure of gold, though, has held him here.”
“True,” Warner agreed. “And there’s the tragedy of it. Poor Joe! I don’t know what’s to be done about him. He’s dangerous in his present state of mind, and it won’t be easy to help him.”
“He already regards me as Enemy No. 1,” Jack said with a rueful chuckle. “My head still aches from that crack he gave me on the head.”
“Joe’s probably afraid we’re here to steal his gold.”
“I suppose so. He must have been the one who stole our food at the ghost town. And he must be the one who put up that animal skeleton at the entrance to the pass.”
“Except for Joe, this valley must have been uninhabited for years,” Warner said thoughtfully. “Prospectors who drifted this way always got into trouble—minor accidents, food disappearing.”
“Hansart must have been behind it all!”
“He certainly wasn’t suspected, Jack. But what we’ve seen today convinces me—”
“No search ever was made for him?”
“None that I recall, Jack. You see, Joe was a queer one, even as a young man. The lone-wolf type. He had no relatives anyone ever heard about. When he’d vanish for a year or so at a time, no one thought anything of it. Then finally the story grew that he’d disappeared on a prospecting trip into this valley.”
“He must have lived in that wreck of a cabin we took over—the one built by your father and Old Stony.”
“Yes,” Warner agreed. “I’d guess that gold ore we found at the mine entrance—the good stuff—came from the original cache and poor old Joe stored it in here.”
“Probably he keeps pretty close watch of this mine,” Jack remarked, a note of uneasiness in his voice. “How long have we been down here, anyhow?”
“Let’s get out,” Jack urged, starting over the rough, uneven tunnel floor.
Warner’s flashlight guided them to the main opening into the mine.
“It must still be pretty dark outside,” Jack remarked, mystified because no daylight filtered down. “A fellow can’t see an inch ahead of his face.”
He groped on up the rough steps in the rock. But where the exit to the mine should have been, his hand encountered first a mass of brush, and then solid rock.
“Something’s wrong!” he muttered. “This can’t be the way we came.”
“Sure, it is,” Warner insisted, pressing close behind him. “This mine is a simple affair. No offshoots. Here, let me have a look.”
His light beam swept the mine exit.
Both the rancher and Jack drew in their breath sharply.
The opening through which they had entered a few minutes before was now blocked. They were trapped in the mine!
Chapter 23 ESCAPE
Jack’s first thought was that a rock slide had dammed up the mine entrance. Sober reflection, however, told him that such was not the case.
Obviously, someone had quietly shoved a great boulder across the narrow opening.
“Joe Hansart!” he exclaimed. “He must have seen us come in here.”
“We’re trapped, all right,” Warner muttered.
He and Jack applied their shoulders and heaved with all their strength. They could move the rock a trifle, but not enough to shift it from its position.
“Other rocks have been piled on top,” Warner gasped.
Once more the pair worked and heaved in unison, but without the slightest success.
Exhausted, they sank back against the rock wall to consider their desperate plight. Soon they would be missed at the cabin. That was certain. But it was doubtful Ken or Mr. Livingston would pick up their trail to this remote ravine until many hours, perhaps days had passed.
Meanwhile, they were without food or water. And Joe Hansart might lie in wait for any rescuers and attack them as he had attacked Jack.
“Crazy coot!” Warner exclaimed. “He’s outwitted us. We became so intent on exploring the mine that we forgot everything else.”
“Listen!” Jack directed suddenly.
He was certain he had heard a scratching sound on the huge rock above their heads.
“Maybe it’s Joe Hansart piling on more stones!” he muttered.
Together, the trapped pair shouted. At once the scraping sound ceased.
“Someone’s out there,” Warner decided. “It must be Joe. Maybe if we can convince him we don’t want any of his gold, he’ll relent and let us out.”
They shouted, but only their own voices echoed weirdly back in the pit. Desperately, they shoved again at the rock barrier. This time they succeeded in dislodging enough of the loose debris to permit a little daylight to filter down.
As they nursed their bruised hands, they heard harsh laughter.
“Joe, listen to reason!” Warner bellowed at him. “We don’t want your stupid gold.”
“No?” asked a mocking voice.
Warner and Jack stiffened.
“That’s Walz!” the latter identified him. “Not Hansart!”
For a fleeting instant, the two prisoners took heart. They thought they would be able to reason with the motel owner.
“Listen!” Warner shouted to him. “There must have been a rock slide. Help us get out of here!”
“And why should I do that?” the motel owner asked in the same mocking tone. “You won’t make any trouble where you are now!”
“Have you lost your senses?” Warner stormed.
“Quite the contrary,” Walz rejoined, plainly enjoying his triumph. “You’ve both been a pain in my neck ever since I set eyes on you. Now you get what you deserve.”
“What’s the idea blocking the exit?” Warner demanded. “What’s your game?”
“My game? Only a little device to gain time. It was your bad luck that you stumbled onto the vein.”
“The vein—” Warner started to explode, then held his tongue.
“Oh, I saw you sneak into the mine after the old man went away,” Walz rattled on.
“You’ve been down here yourself?”
“I have,” the motel owner admitted. His voice carried plainly to the pair below, for he was close to the opening between the rocks. “I found the gold ore, and I have samples now in my pack.”
“What are you aiming to do with ’em?”
“I’ll have them assayed. But first I’m staking out a claim to this section of the valley.”
“Sure someone hasn’t beaten you to it?”
“This is unclaimed valley—the entire hollow. Ranier told me so. That dirty, low-down scamp deserted me. I’ll get even with him when I get back to Elks Creek.”
“Listen,” Warner said in exasperation, “you’ve had your little joke. Now let us out of here. We can’t raise that rock from below, but you can roll it aside.”
“Maybe I can, but I’m not going to do it,” Walz retorted coolly. “You trailed me to Headless Hollow, but you’re not going to beat me filing a claim.”
“Who wants to file one, you stupid ox?”
“You!” the motel owner accused. “I’ve risked everything to get this gold. Nothing is going to stop me now. Nothing!”
“You’re welcome to the gold—whatever you can find,” Warner said wearily. “Just let us out.”
At first, the trapped pair had not believed that the motel owner seriously meant to keep them confined below, but his intention could no longer be doubted.
“Walz, pay close attention,” Warner pleaded. “I came to this place largely to see the grave of my father. The gold—if there was any—didn’t mean too much to me.”
“That’s a lie!”
“It means everything to you, but you have the wrong slant. Unless I’m mistaken, this mine would never pay well enough to interest a company. Old Stony gathered some rich ore, it’s true. He died without knowing that the vein wasn’t extensive.”
“You’re wasting your breath,” Walz retorted. “Talk till you’re blue in the face. It won’t move me. I have my samples of gold, and I’m hitting the trail!”
There was no answer. The two prisoners realized that he had carried out his threat and left. They were indeed trapped in the mine.
“Hap and Ken will start searching any minute now,” Jack said, trying to remain cheerful. “If they come this way, they may see that pile of rock.”
“And again they may not,” Warner grunted. “We may never be found until it’s too late. Walz is a blackguard, if I ever met one! Like as not, even after he’s filed his claim he won’t send anyone.”
“There’s always Joe Hansart. He’ll be coming back.”
“Yeah,” Warner agreed, “our best hope probably lies with him. But the old coot may stay away for days. Meanwhile, we can get pretty fed up in this hole.”
The two sat down, their backs to the rough wall. Jack’s clothing had only partially dried after his ducking in the lake, so he was damp and uncomfortable.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Warner said determinedly. “You’ll get pneumonia, if we don’t.”
“No exit except this one?”
“The tunnel ended against a blank wall. I checked that.”
“If Walz could push that stone into place alone, the two of us ought to be able to shove it away.”
“We’re pushing against gravity, Jack. He rolled it down the incline. Besides, once he got it into place, he piled on other rocks and debris. We’re caught like two animals in a cage.”
Suddenly Jack straightened as a thought occurred to him.
“That dynamite!” he suggested. “Any chance we could blast our way out of here?”
“Maybe we could!” the rancher exclaimed. “It would be risky business, though. Old dynamite, especially, is dangerous to handle.”
“A tiny charge would turn the trick.”
“Sure,” Warner grinned, “providing we aren’t both blown to bits before we set it off. But I’m willing to try. Anything’s better than just waiting in this hole.”
The rancher would not allow Jack to go near the stored boxes. He insisted, “You go and take refuge in the far end of the tunnel.”
Using the utmost care, Warner placed the dynamite sticks without accident. Breathing hard, he joined Jack after the fuse had been set. For a full minute, they waited tensely. Nothing happened.
“The stuff is dead,” Jack declared.
“Maybe not,” Warner said. “It was a long fuse. Wait.”
They waited. Suddenly the tunnel was rocked by a terrific explosion. As they hit the earth, covering their faces, small bits of rock showered down. When the dust had cleared, they groped their way back to the entrance. Climbing up through the debris, they saw daylight. Warner squeezed out through the tumbled rocks, and reached down to help Jack.
“We’re free and still in one piece,” the rancher chuckled.
Setting out from the ravine, they started for the cabin. However, they had covered less than a third of the distance when they saw Hap Livingston and Ken coming toward them at a run.
“What happened?” Ken demanded, as he glimpsed the dirt-streaked faces and disheveled clothing of the two. “We heard an explosion!”
Tersely, Jack and the rancher related their harrowing experience in the mine.
“Now Walz is streaking for Elks Creek!” Warner ended the account. “He’s on a fool’s chase, in my opinion. I could be wrong.”
“Shouldn’t we try to head him off?” Jack proposed eagerly. “He’s not had too big a start.”
“It won’t take long to sling our equipment together,” Ken added. “Maybe we can overtake him. We have a score to settle, regardless of the gold!”
“It may not be necessary,” Warner advised quietly.
Chapter 24 A FIGHT
His words were mystifying. Then the other three noticed that the rancher had turned his gaze toward the distant pass which guarded Headless Hollow. Far above them, on the high cliffs, they saw two struggling men.
“Walz and Joe Hansart!” Jack exclaimed. “They’re fighting.”
The watchers below were too far away to see the struggle plainly. It was apparent, though, what had happened. Evidently Walz had attempted to leave the valley with his sack of sample gold, and Joe Hansart had caught him. Now the two were locked in a death struggle. As the Explorers watched in horror, the two men fought close to the edge of the cliffs.
“They’ll kill each other, if we don’t stop them!” Mr. Livingston exclaimed.
At a run, he and the others started for the pass.
The trail, such as it was, wound in a gradual climb. Jack and Ken tried the steeper, direct route. Even so, they were less than a third of the way up to the cliff when they heard a hoarse, frightened shout.
Joe Hansart, despite his age, had overpowered his adversary. Inch by inch, he crowded him to the edge of the precipice. Walz rocked back and forth on the ledge, fighting for his life. Beneath him yawned the chasm.
The end of that desperate struggle was inevitable.
Walz’ boot went over the slanting rock. He tried wildly to regain a foothold, but could not. As he fell, he held fast to the old man, pulling him along.
Locked in each other’s arms, the two men fell to a ledge fifteen or twenty feet below. There they struck bushes which in part broke their fall. Then over and over they rolled, to the bottom of the long slope.
“What an end!” Ken gasped, shuddering.
Peering over the cliff, Jack saw Walz move one of his hands. It revived his hope that the motel owner at least might have survived the long drop.
“Quick!” he cried. “A rope!”
Ken went as fast as he could back to the cabin. Without waiting, Jack scrambled down the steep slope.
He lost his footing almost at once and rolled. He managed to break the fall with his hands, and brought himself to a stop, unhurt, not far from the two injured men.
Joe Hansart, he saw at a glance, was the more seriously injured. The old man lay in a crumpled heap, bleeding from a head wound. Walz was conscious, though in a state of semi-shock.
“Help me,” he whimpered. “Help me. My leg is broken.”
Ignoring Walz for the moment, Jack checked Joe Hansart’s bleeding. The wound was superficial. The old man, however, was pale, and his lips were blue. His pulse was weak and rapid. He drew breath irregularly and with difficulty.
“Take it easy,” Jack advised. “Help is on the way.”
He moved the old man so that his head lay downhill. He was relieved to see that this position restored Joe’s color a trifle and improved his pulse, but he saw that the prospector was quivering from shock and chill. Stripping off his jacket, he covered the old man.
Leaving him for the moment, he turned his attention to the whimpering motel owner.
“I’m dying,” Walz moaned. “The pain is horrible. Do something!”
It was plain to see that the motel owner’s left leg was broken. Possibly, too, he had suffered some internal injuries. Jack, however, was inclined to doubt it, for Walz, now that he had partially recovered from the stunning impact, was becoming talkative.
“Don’t move,” Jack advised the moaning fellow. “Lie still until we can splint that leg.”
Walz, disregarding the order, tried to pull himself to a sitting position. The effort brought new pain.
“That fool has done for me,” he moaned. “I’ll never get back to Elks Creek.”
“After the way you left Warner and me trapped in the mine, you don’t deserve any help,” Jack said. “We ought to leave you here to suffer.”
His words were not meant to be serious. Walz nevertheless considered them so.
“Don’t leave me here,” he begged. “I can’t walk a step. I’d never get back to Elks Creek alive. You must help me!”
“And if we do?”
“I’ll give you a share of the gold,” Walz whispered. “I swear it. I did wrong to take the map.”
“What about the way you left us in the mine?”
“I meant to send help to you as soon as I reached Elks Creek,” Walz mumbled.
Jack had his own opinion on this matter, but he let it pass.
“You wanted the gold from the very first,” he said. “It was you, wasn’t it, who broke into Old Stony’s cabin back in Rocking Horse? You beat him when he woke up and found you trying to steal the map!”
The motel owner’s lips trembled, for he was not willing to answer.
“And it was you,” Jack went on, “who stole Stony’s nuggets from the bag of pinto beans. If you want any help, admit the truth.”
“Am I going to die?” Walz asked, his voice quavering.
“You’re miles from a doctor,” Jack reminded him. “Unless we can get help to you, the situation is bad.”
“I’m going to die,” Walz groaned. “I—I may as well tell you the truth and get it off my conscience.”
“You slugged Old Stony?”
“It was an accident. I went to the cabin, hoping to get the map—yes, I admit that. The old man woke up and tried to stop me. I flew into a rage and hit him. Then I ran.”
“Old Stony never knew it was you who tried to rob him,” Jack said. “You can be thankful for that.”
“I felt terrible about it,” Walz sobbed. “I didn’t mean to hurt Stony. Why, I liked the old duffer. I gave him a good home. I fed and clothed him.”
“It was the thought of gold that turned you against him.”
“And I found the gold too,” Walz whispered. “It meant to me more than anything else. Now I’ve lost everything.”
By this time Mr. Livingston and Warner had reached the site of the accident. Ken soon came with the rope and first-aid supplies.
While Mr. Livingston made a splint for Walz’ leg, the others improvised a stretcher. They bound Joe Hansart to it, and by dint of great labor and ingenuity they finally carried him down to the valley floor and from there to the cabin.
Meanwhile, the Scout leader had made Walz fairly comfortable. Gradually, as it dawned upon the motel owner that he might not die, he lapsed into sullen silence.
It was only after he too had been transported to the cabin that he began to deny his previous statements.
“I was out of my head,” he muttered to Jack. “If I said anything about harming Old Stony, it was the bunk. I don’t have any idea who broke into his cabin at Rocking Horse.”
Jack and his friends avoided discussing the subject further. Once they reached a town, they intended to turn Walz over to the authorities. To get out of the valley, however, was their first problem.
“We’re in a bad spot,” Warner admitted, drawing the others aside for a serious conference. “Both of those men need a doctor.”
“Hansart, especially,” Mr. Livingston added. “He has scarcely opened his eyes since we got him here. We need food and medical supplies.”
“There’s only one thing to do,” Warner decided. “Something has happened to the Forest Service plane, I’m afraid. I’ll start right away for Elks Creek. The only thing—I hate to leave you alone here with two injured men.”
“We’ll make out,” the Scout leader assured him. “Wait a few hours, though, before you start. If I know Willie and War, they won’t let us down.”
Ken and Jack set out the signal cloth near the lake, hoping that any pilot flying that way would see it. Several hours elapsed.
The day was clear, with very little wind. Conditions were nearly perfect for flying, yet no plane appeared over the mountains.
“Something must have happened to Willie and War,” Mr. Livingston declared, pacing nervously up and down. “Otherwise, help would have reached us by now.”
“They’ve had plenty of time to get through,” Warner agreed. “To wait and hope any longer is foolish.”
Without further discussion, he gathered his gear together. Jack and Ken walked with him toward the trail to the pass.
“I’ll make as fast a trip as I can,” he promised.
A bright glare was on the jagged mountain peaks. Staring toward the pass, Jack thought he saw a small moving speck in the sky. He rubbed his eyes. Imagination, he told himself, for he had given up hope that the plane would come.
Then Ken let out an excited shout. He too had seen the moving object against the dark mountainside.
“It’s coming this way!” Craig Warner cried, dropping his pack.
For a few brief moments, the trio watched anxiously. Would the plane turn back as it had done on the previous occasion?
Warner finally identified it: “It’s a Forest Service ship, with pontoons. Boys, I think it’s heading straight for the lake.”
Fearful that the pilot might miss the cabin area or falsely conclude that no one remained there, the three made all haste back to the lake.
By the time they arrived there, breathless from running, the roar of the powerful engines could be heard distinctly. Hap Livingston had come hurrying out of the cabin. Anxiously the four waited, waving their arms.
Their signals were unnecessary. As the plane made a practice run, the watchers knew that help had arrived. In fact, as the Forest Service ship dropped closer, Jack was able to recognize War and Willie riding with the pilot.
Again the plane circled. Down fluttered a parachute with packages of food attached. It hit the ground about a hundred feet from where the Scouts stood. Ken and Jack ran to retrieve it.
“This will be a help,” Ken declared jubilantly. “But we need medicines—and a doctor.”
Working fast, Mr. Livingston and Craig Warner ripped up the signal cloth into two flags. These the Scout leader attached to sticks. With the improvised wigwag device, he then began sending the message:
“TWO MEN BADLY HURT. NEED MORE HELP.”
Over and over, he repeated the message. Whether or not the flags could be correctly interpreted from above, those on the ground had no way of knowing. The plane, however, kept circling. Finally, the pilot dipped the wings in signal.
“They got it!” Ken cried.
The watchers expected the plane to turn and head back toward its base. Instead, it kept circling.
“The pilot is going to try a landing on the lake!”
Warner exclaimed. “He can get in, all right, but will he ever be able to take off again?”
The seaplane came in low, skimmed above the willows, and made a smooth landing. Jack, Ken, and the two men waded out to meet their rescuers.
“You read my wigwag!” Mr. Livingston exclaimed, embracing first Willie and then War, who splashed out into the shallow water.
“Couldn’t get a reading except on one word—‘HELP’,” Willie admitted. “We knew something was really wrong, though, so we risked a landing.”
“Why did you turn back on your first trip here?” Ken demanded.
“Engine trouble,” War explained briefly. “Just as we came in sight of the pass, we had to turn and go back to the base. What’s wrong here?”
“Quite a bit,” Mr. Livingston replied. “We have two men on our hands—both badly hurt. We ought to get them to a hospital without delay.”
After the seaplane had been anchored so that a wayward wind would not dash it against rocks, the group went into serious conference.
The pilot, Dave Fallouby, was confident he could get his ship into the air again, if it was not too heavily loaded. However, he could safely carry only three passengers. It was decided that Walz, Hansart, and Mr. Livingston should make the return flight with him, and that the four Scouts with Craig Warner would go back to Elks Creek afoot by easy stages.
Accordingly, the two injured men were carried by stretcher and propped with blankets as comfortably as possible in the plane. Mr. Livingston was the last to climb aboard.
“We’ll rendezvous at the Elks Creek Hotel,” he said. “Take it easy, boys, on the trail.”
Nervously, the four Scouts and Craig Warner watched as the pilot stepped up the motors. The lake was small. If Dave failed to gather speed rapidly, he might crash into the rocks or willows.
With a mighty roar, the seaplane ploughed through the waves. Its pontoons lifted slightly, only to drop again into the water.
“Too heavily loaded!” Willie groaned.
“Dave will make it,” Warner said confidently.
A moment later the plane cleared the water. It skimmed along barely above the lake for a distance.
“Climb—climb!” Jack muttered, his fists clenched.
The plane cleared the rocks at the far end of the lake. Everyone took a deep, relieved breath.
Twice the ship circled after attaining safe altitude. Mr. Livingston waved to reassure the Scouts that all was well. Then the plane headed over the blue mountains and soon was lost in the distance.
Chapter 25 RENDEZVOUS
Jack sprawled on the hotel bed, munching an apple. The Elks Creek weekly newspaper was spread before him, but he had not been reading.
“Hap and Craig Warner are an hour overdue,” he complained, looking at his watch. “Why don’t they get here?”
“Because they’ve been held up at the hospital,” Ken replied calmly. “Easy, boy! You’ve been fretting all morning.”
Jack rolled off the bed. Going restlessly to the window, he gazed down on the street below. It was nearly deserted, and there was no sign of either the Scout leader or the rancher.
“Joe Hansart is in a bad way,” Willie contributed from the other side of the room. “That’s why they sent for Warner and Hap.”
“I know,” Jack acknowledged. “I ought to be patient. It’s just that I’m eager for news.”
Late the previous night, the four Scouts and their guide had reached the hotel. The long hike over the mountains had been exhausting, if uneventful. Nevertheless, even War and Willie had stood the hard trip surprisingly well. A good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast had revived everyone.
Very early, both Mr. Livingston and Mr. Warner had been called to the hospital. The Scouts had received no word from them since their hurried departure.
To kill time, the Explorers began mapping out the route they would take on the remainder of the trip back to Belton City. For the first time since they had left their homes weeks before, they eagerly looked forward to returning.
“Route 52 looks the best to me,” Ken said, marking it with a red pencil. “To be sure, though, we’ll have to check at the first Automobile Club office.”
Footsteps were heard outside the hotel room. Instantly, the Scouts lost interest in the map. The door opened, and both Mr. Livingston and Craig Warner came in. Looking tired, the two men sat down.
The Scout leader said, “Joe Hansart is dead.”
“Dead!” Jack repeated sadly.
Mr. Livingston nodded. “Pneumonia,” he explained briefly. “The doctors did everything possible, but not even the miracle drugs could save him.”
“Did he die without recovering his senses?” Willie asked in a low voice.
“No,” the Scout leader answered. “At the end he was quite clear in his mind. That was why the hospital officials sent for us.”
“Did the old man tell you anything?” War demanded.
“We learned everything,” Craig Warner said, taking up the story. “It’s a bit fantastic, but understandable if you know Joe’s type as I do. As a very young man, he chanced upon the Headless Hollow area.”
“About the time Old Stony and your father found gold there?” Jack commented.
“Yes, even as a young man, Joe wasn’t right in his mind. He suffered hallucinations and had obsessions. To make it short, poor Joe thought that the valley and the gold belonged to him and that my father and Stony were intruders. He spied on them and even shot my father. Then he fled.”
“Did Hansart himself make that confession?” Ken demanded.
“Yes, and I think it’s the truth,” the rancher replied. “As I said, Joe’s mind was clear at the end. I doubt if Joe ever knew Old Stony was blamed for my father’s death.”
“What about the caches of gold?” War interposed eagerly.
“Joe found them. He moved the ore to the mouth of the mine. Over the years, at remote places, he sold just enough to keep him in supplies. You see, he thought he had found one of the richest mines in the state and was afraid word would leak out.”
“Didn’t he ever file a claim?” Ken inquired.
“He filed several, but improperly. As soon as we hit town, I checked on that. I’ve filed one of my own now. Not that it matters much.”
“The mine is worthless?”
“Not entirely so,” the rancher replied. “A man could make a hard living there, perhaps. Only the hand-picked ore left by Old Stony and my father has real value. The rest assays too low to make commercial mining profitable.”
“What of the ore itself?” Jack asked thoughtfully. “Isn’t it worth anything?”
“Roughly, I figure it ought to net from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on transportation costs. Whatever it tallies, I’ll give you boys your share.”
“We’ve already had our share,” Mr. Livingston said with a smile. “The gold never interested us as much as the adventure.”
“Even so, cash is handy to have,” the rancher insisted. “You could use another vacation next year, couldn’t you?”
“We’re always r’arin’ to go!” War chuckled.
“If I have luck getting the ore out, I’ll send you a check,” Warner promised. “Nothing spectacular. Enough, though, to pay you for your lost equipment—and for a vacation next summer.”
“What will you do with your share?” Jack asked curiously.
“Pay off the mortgage on the ranch,” Warner answered. “Of course I’ll take care of Hansart’s last expenses at the hospital too, and his funeral.”
“You don’t bear him any grudge, do you?”
“No, Jack. He wasn’t responsible for his actions. What a miserable life he had!”
“He was the one who stole our food at the ghost town, wasn’t he?” Willie speculated.
Warner nodded. “Yes, Hansart used that place as a sort of base for supplies he carried in. He had caches of canned food and other items stored where he could dig them up when he wanted them. He ventured out only when he couldn’t avoid it. Even then, he never in recent years showed up in Elks Creek. That’s why everybody assumed he had died.”
“Hansart, of course, was responsible for the area’s bad reputation,” Mr. Livingston added. “He considered the valley—the cabin—the gold—everything—his. He drove off everyone who ventured that way.”
“What of Walz?” Ken asked presently. “Did you talk to him again?”
“Only briefly,” Mr. Livingston returned. “He is in a savage mood.”
“Oh, yes. He’ll be as well as ever, once his leg mends. Naturally, he denies everything.”
“It will do him no good,” Warner interposed. “I’ve talked to the sheriff. A guard is being posted at his hospital room.”
“Then he’ll be returned to Rocking Horse?”
“At the state’s expense,” Warner chuckled. “He’ll have to stand trial for manslaughter in the death of Old Stony. Perhaps he can convince a jury the attack was unintentional. I seriously doubt it.”
That night, the entire party had a big dinner in the hotel at Craig Warner’s expense. He introduced them to town officials and many of his friends.
“If this keeps on, we’ll begin to think we’re more important than a bank president!” War protested. “Anyway, I’ll be glad to pull out of here tomorrow morning.”
The Explorers expected to rise at dawn, slip quietly out of the hotel, and be on their way. Therefore, it came as a surprise the next morning, when they found Craig Warner waiting for them beside their car.
“Nice day for traveling,” he drawled. “Reckon I’ll drive a piece with you, to show you the first fork in the road.”
The rancher drove ahead through the sleepy little town and into the hills. A blue haze hung over the distant mountains. A few miles out of Elks Creek, Warner pulled up, and the Scout automobile drew alongside.
“Take the road to the left,” the rancher said, indicating it with a wave of his hand. “The highway is paved all the way.”
Gravely he shook hands with Mr. Livingston and each of the Scouts in turn. Then his eyes roved toward the high peaks, behind which Headless Hollow lay hidden.
“By the way,” he said casually, “I forgot to tell you. We’re changing the name of Crazy Mountain.”
“Changing it?” Jack repeated.
“Yes, from now on it will be known hereabouts as Old Stony.”
The Scouts were silent, thinking it over. Jack turned to gaze toward the faraway mountain top, magnificent in the colored dawn.
“Old Stony,” he said, his voice husky. “I like it. So would he. You know, fellows, that mountain couldn’t have a more appropriate name.”
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