All this seemed to be too much for Skeeter, who stretched out his neck till his muzzle was in a line therewith, literally shed tears, opened his mouth, distended his nostrils, and with ears quivering, emitted the most startling sound ever heard. It was not a neigh like his mother would have given, nor a bray such as his father would have uttered, but a hoarse yell made up of the most discordant elements of both, and it was no wonder that the doctor's voice was drowned.
"Be quiet, you brute!" he cried angrily, making a pretence of kicking it in the pack; and then he stared in wonder, for it seemed as if a fresh misfortune had affected one member of the expedition in a peculiar way. That member was Chris, who suddenly dropped his hold of Skeeter's rein, and with his face horribly distorted, began to roll about in his saddle.
"Oh, Griggs!" he gasped. "Ned! Somebody! Hold me on."
"What is it, boy?" cried the doctor—"Bitten?"
"N-n-n-n-no, father," he panted. And then, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I—I— I—I—I can't help it. I—"
There were other words, but they were confused and strange; but though they did not convey in words the meaning of the seizure, they pointed out what was the matter. For it became evident that Chris was laughing wildly—madly—hysterically, and to such an extent that he had lost all control of himself, and had hard work to keep in the saddle.
To make matters worse, the mirth proved contagious to such an extent that Griggs sat looking at him, then at the mules, and back again, with his mouth expanding into a broad grin, while Ned slid off his mustang quietly, held on to the rein, and then lay down in the sand, to laugh in the same uncontrolled fashion.
"Well," cried Bourne angrily, "this is a nice way to treat our misfortunes!"
"I—I—I can't help it, father," panted Ned, and he laughed more than ever, while Wilton's lips as he sat looking on began to quiver and then widen out.
"Here, stop it, you two," he growled at last. "Come and help collect the things."
"I—I can't yet," panted Ned, who laughed more than ever, till Wilton gave the doctor and Bourne a sharp look, and then said aloud—
"Oh, let them laugh it out; but I say, are those some of the rattlesnakes coming after us?"
"Eh?" cried Ned, who was sobered in an instant, and sat up to exclaim, "Which way? Whereabouts?"
"I—I—I can't help it if they do come," gurgled out Chris. "Oh, father, plea-please stop me; it hurts. Gi-give me something—a drop of water."
"Yes, the boy's quite hysterical," said the doctor. "Water. Ah! Where are the kegs?"
All looked round, but no kegs were visible. There was the mule that should have borne them, though, with the rough pack-saddle upon which they had been lashed one on each side, twisting its head round and striving to reach a fly that was busy at work depositing its eggs in the animal's coat, the teeth being not long enough to scrape it out.
"Why, the water-kegs have gone!" cried the doctor wildly.
"Here, catch hold of the mule, somebody," cried Griggs, and Chris was sobered in an instant, for the water represented life to all, and it was no time for laughing then.
IN A STRANGE NEST.
Chris's mirth had passed away as quickly as it came, and he sat erect in his saddle.
"Going back to look for the kegs, Griggs?" he said faintly.
"Yes, of course, unless you like the job," was the gruff reply.
"I'll go with you," said Chris briskly.
"Then you'll have to nip your pony's ribs pretty tightly," cried Griggs, "for the moment he sees a snake he'll spin round and bolt."
"I'll mind," said Chris, setting his teeth.
"Come on, then."
The pair rode off back along the track littered with their impedimenta, while the doctor and the others began to try and reduce the loads of the mules in difficulty to something like order.
"Oh dear, what a muddle!" cried Chris, as they went back at an amble. "Why, half the things are lying about."
"Not a quarter," said Griggs gruffly, as his eyes scanned not only the scattered necessities, but every stone and scrap of dry, parched-up growth.
"Think any of the rattlers will be about?" said Chris.
"I dunno. I want to set eyes on those two tubs."
But the tubs were not visible, and the pair rode on till they felt that at any moment they ought to be in sight of the enemies that put horse and mule to flight.
Still nothing was visible. The last-kicked-off pack had been passed, but there were no tubs, and the part of the desert where the tangled mass of serpents had been seen was so close that the next minute they felt that they were bound to see the writhing creatures somewhere among the stones in front.
But strange to state, their ponies displayed no uneasiness, the tight hands kept upon their reins were not needed, and the docile little animals stepped steadily onward towards the stone-dotted slope and basin.
"Why, where are they?" said Chris, in a whisper, as he gazed wild-eyed and excitedly over his mount's ears and from side to side.
"I dunno, my lad," replied Griggs. "It caps me. Why, there were hundreds and thousands all about yonder when the stampede began."
"Of course there were," said Chris, "and now I can't see one."
"Not so much as a rattler. They must all have holes somewhere here among the stones. Mind! Take care!"
"What for? Why?"
"They may come darting out and attack us."
"I say," continued Griggs, after a careful look round, "weren't dazed with the hot sun and dreamed all that, did we?"
"Did the mules and horses dream it too?" cried Chris scornfully.
"No, of course not. But it's a puzzle, my lad. I wouldn't have believed such a sight possible; but there it was. And now I wouldn't have believed this could have happened; but it has, for I can't see a snake."
"Never mind the snakes as they're not here," said Chris, setting the example of reining up, for the two mustangs to stand calmly enough; "I want to find those two water-barrels."
"Ah, to be sure; we've come for them," said Griggs, looking curiously about. "I say, was that the mule that carried the kegs?"
"Oh yes; didn't you see the pack-saddle?"
"To be sure. If it hadn't been for that I should have been ready to say that the one with the water had gone right off somewhere."
"Oh, that was the one," persisted Chris. "I know him well enough by his white muzzle."
"To be sure. That's right. Then where are the kegs? Snakes ain't thirsty things. They couldn't have rolled them away, could they?"
"What nonsense!" cried Chris. "But it is really strange. If we were on a slope I should have thought that they had gone rolling right away out of sight."
"We are on a steep slope, lad, but the barrels would have to roll up it to get out of sight like this, and I never knew barrels carry on games like that out of a book of fairy tales."
"Griggs," cried Chris, after a moment or two of thought, "are we in the right place? These stones are very confusing."
"Right place? Yes, look there; you can see our trail."
"Yes," replied Chris thoughtfully, as he bent down over his saddle-bow, "and—Ugh! Look there!"
"Eh? See snakes?" cried Griggs excitedly.
"No, but look there; surely all those windings in the sand were made by them."
"To be sure. Oh yes, we're in the right spot, without a doubt. Then I tell you what. We can't see very far away any way amongst these dotted-about stones; there must be a sharp slope somewhere near, perhaps the edge of a precipice, or great hole in the ground."
"Crater of a volcano, perhaps," cried Chris.
"That's it, lad; the one that played at pitch-and-toss with all these blocks of stone, and threw them all over the place."
"Then where is the hole?" said Chris.
"I dunno; somewhere about," said Griggs thoughtfully, as he looked about, peering in among the rocks.
"I shouldn't wonder," said Chris, as thoughtfully, "if it is quite close here, and when the mule kicked off the tubs they went rolling down into it and were lost."
"Oh, don't say that, boy!" cried Griggs excitedly. "You don't think of what value that drop of water may be to us now."
"Oh yes, I do. I'm so thirsty; but I say, Griggs, suppose the hole into which they have rolled is the one that the snakes live in."
"Not it; they live in little holes and cracks just big enough for them to creep into. Well, I don't know where the things have gone. Look sharp and find 'em; your eyes are younger than mine. We shall have the doctor after us directly to physic us both for not finding them."
"Hurrah!" cried Chris. "There they are!"
"Where? I can't see from here."
"Come nearer this way," said Chris, easing his horse off to the right. "There, just at the foot of that great block."
"And hurrah the second!" cried Griggs, as soon as he had pressed his horse into the right position. "I couldn't have seen them from where I was even if we had been closer. My word! They rolled a good way, didn't they?"
"No; they couldn't, because they are chained together so that they hung across the pack-saddle. The mule must have galloped round that way when he kicked them off."
"Yes, I suppose you're right. Come along; I'll sling 'em across my tit and walk back."
Griggs sprang off his mustang, and was in the act of passing the reins over the animal's head, when Chris made a snatch at his collar and held on.
"What did you do that for?" cried Griggs.
"Hist! Don't make a sound. Look," whispered Chris.
"Why, what's the matter?" said Griggs, lowering his voice, for the boy's manner impressed him, he looked so blank and strange.
"Look! Can't you see?"
"No, not from where I am," was the reply.
"Oh, it's horrid," whispered Chris; "dreadful! The kegs are lying on a nest of snakes, and they're rising and falling and playing about them like flames round logs of wood."
A FIGHT WITH THE ENEMY.
Griggs uttered one low whistle as he slipped his arm through the rein so as to leave his hands at liberty, one to press back his cowboy's hat, the other to sweep the gathering drops of perspiration from his brow. "I never could abear snakes," he said huskily. Then after a pause he drew a long, deep breath, to say with an attempt—a very sorry attempt— at cheerfulness—"Well, we've found the kegs, anyhow."
"Yes," said Chris bitterly, "and where the snakes are."
"Bless 'em, yes!" said Griggs, looking in the direction of the horrible reptiles. "Well, we don't want them."
"But we want the water."
"What's to be done, Griggs?"
"I can't think o' nothing but say Sh! to 'em to frighten them away."
"Oh, don't do that," cried Chris, in alarm. "It might make them attack us."
"It might," said Griggs thoughtfully. "Well, I'm about beat. I've got a tidy bit of pluck in me when I'm stirred up—as much as most men have—but I can't stand rattlers. The idea of getting bitten sends a cold chill all down my back. I'd a deal sooner be hugged by a grizzly. Poison snakes and mad dogs make a regular coward of me."
"They would of anybody," said Chris. "But I say, what is to be done?"
"Sit down and wait, my lad. I s'pose snakes have some sense in 'em, same as other critters. They're bound to find out before long that they can't break the iron hoops nor bore through the staves to get at the water; and when they're tired perhaps they'll give up and go home."
"But we can't wait. Father will be coming soon to see why we're so long."
"Well, he'll be able to see without our telling him."
"But can't we do something to drive them away?"
"I know what I should do if we were in some places," said Griggs.
"Light a big fire of brushwood and green-stuff that would make a stifling smoke just to wind'ard of them. That would soon scare them off."
"But there's not a handful of stuff that would burn," cried Chris, in despair.
"Nary scrap, my lad."
"Look here; suppose we creep as near as we dare, and then fire off all four barrels of our rifles as closely together as we could, right at them. That would startle them into moving off."
"P'r'aps," said Griggs; "but the thing would be, which way would they go?"
"Which way? Why, from where the smoke and fire came."
"Maybe, but I shouldn't like to risk it. I'm afraid we shall have to wait, my lad—wait till it's dark. Snakes always go back to their holes when the sun sets."
"But that will take so long, and I'm choking with thirst," cried Chris peevishly. "I say, how would it do to keep on pitching great pieces of stone in amongst them, or handfuls of small bits that would scatter and make a noise?"
"Only make 'em savage, I'm afraid. I should have most faith in putting a pound of powder and laying a train ready, so that one could light a bit of touch-tinder and get away to a safe distance. When that went off with a good explosion, I should think the rattlers would scuttle away."
"Oh, nonsense, nonsense, Griggs!" cried Chris. "Who's to go and lay the train and place the powder ready?"
"Ah, that would be awkward," said the American thoughtfully.
"Besides, if you had such an explosion you'd burst the barrels."
"Hah! So we should. I say, couldn't lasso the barrels, could we? I can throw a noose pretty well."
"You'd catch serpent as well as the barrels."
"Yes, and that would be nice, to have a savage rattler thrashing and striking about, trying to get his fangs into you somewhere. Say, Chris Lee, lad, we've got in a tangle. Hallo! I thought as much; here's the doctor."
The gentleman in question rode slowly up.
"Well," he said, "have you found the barrels?"
Chris answered him mutely by pointing to the objects of their search.
"Very well," said the doctor. "Why don't you—Oh, I see, you've just dismounted to sling them across your saddle. We were beginning to think you very long. But I don't see any snakes. Where are they, Chris?"
"Yonder, twining all about the water-kegs, father. It's alive with them."
The doctor shaded his eyes with his hand and looked across at the barrels, his face contracting with horror at the sight which met his eyes.
"No wonder you were so long," he said bitterly. "What do you propose to do?"
"Nothing, father. We can't think of a way," said Chris sadly. "Can you tell us?"
"There seems to be no way save one."
"Wait till the snakes have gone back to their holes, father?"
"Yes, after dark; and then it will not be a pleasant task to get the kegs away. Worse and worse."
"Oh, there can't be anything worse, sir," cried Griggs.
"I think there can, sir," replied the doctor. "This forces us to bivouac, as the soldiers call it, in the serpent-inhabited desert. But we must do it, I suppose. The snakes will not be stirring during the darkness. But we must hope that when we find the gold region, it will not be such a serpent-haunted spot as this; the gold could not have better guardians to keep it safe."
No one spoke for a few minutes, during which the doctor sat upon his horse watching the movements of the serpents.
"That seems to be the only way," he said at last.
"To wait, father?"
"Yes. We had better build up a cairn with some of these stones to guide us to the spot when we come to hunt for it in the dark."
"No need to build a cairn, sir, if I plant three or four stones on the top of that big rock there."
"No; but what about finding it in the dark?"
"Lanthorn will set that right, sir."
"Very well. Up with them, then. Help him, Chris; I'll hold the horses."
The reins were handed to the speaker, and Griggs pointed to a large light-grey piece of lava.
"If you can lift one end of that, squire, to help me, that bit would stand upright on the top of this block. This would do, for it's light-coloured. Can you do it?"
"Oh yes; it's the same sort of stone as this," said Chris, pushing a piece with his foot, "all full of holes, like sponge and cinder."
"Come on, then."
They stooped down one at either end of the fragment, some three feet long and one wide, looking squared like a crystal, and as if Nature had taken the first steps towards providing the builder of a house with a piece to form part of a door-post.
"Yes, it's light enough," said Chris, lifting one end, and then uttering a cry as he dropped it again, to start back, for there was a sharp hiss, a dull rattling sound—not sharp enough for a rattle—and a large snake glided from beneath, to curl up menacingly, while from the other side a second had appeared, to begin writhing and darting about, striking at random into the air as far as it could reach, while the doctor had hard work to restrain the prancing horses.
Needless to say, Chris and his companion had lost no time in getting beyond reach of the poisonous reptiles, and helping the doctor by each seizing his horse's rein.
"A pretty narrow escape," cried the latter. "Why, the place is alive with the reptiles."
"Looks like it, sir," said Griggs. "Dessay we're standing on some of their holes now."
"But don't you see?" cried Chris excitedly; "that second one's pinned by the tail. When I let my end fall it must have caught it fast."
"Rather a pity," said Griggs cynically. "It must have spoiled the rattle. S'pose it hurts too. Look at him!—That's no good, my beauty. Stone can't feel. Ah, you idiot, you don't belong to the wise serpents we read about. Look at him biting at the stone."
"In impotent malice," said the doctor, watching the frantic efforts of the reptile.
"That chap's safe enough now, Squire Chris."
"Safe! I shouldn't like to risk going near him."
"But you might; he's held fast by that tail of his, and all he could do would be to thrash you with his long body."
"And bite," said Chris.
"Nay; his biting would go for nothing now."
"What about his fangs?"
"Snapped off like points of glass. They were sharp enough and poisonous enough, but bound to say the poison's all out on the stone, along with the teeth. Razors are very sharp and would make horrible cuts, but not after you'd been chopping a piece of stone with them like that, eh, doctor?"
"I think you are right, Griggs," said the doctor, who seemed fascinated by the reptile's impotent struggles.
"Well, you are a sneak," cried Griggs. "Gahn with you! I'd put my tail between my legs if I were you, only you haven't got none. That's right; rattle away. I say, I hope he hasn't gone to fetch a lot of his mates to pitch into us."
"That's not likely," said the doctor, as he watched the bigger and free snake gliding swiftly away, heedless of the struggles of its companion, which was evidently growing exhausted by its furious efforts to release the lower portion of its body.
"What are you going to do?" said the doctor quickly, as Griggs handed him his horse's rein again.
"I'm going to put that chap out of his misery, sir," replied the American.
"No, no; don't fire. It's waste of a charge."
"Not a-going to, sir. There's more ways of killing a cat, you know, than hanging it. Eh, Squire Chris?"
As he spoke Griggs put his hand to his belt, in which a stout keen hunting or bowie-knife was stuck, and drew out the glittering blade.
"Going to cut his head off?" said Chris eagerly.
"Yes, unless you like to, squire."
"I will," cried Chris.
"I don't want you to run any risks, my boy," said the doctor. "Do you think you can do it without danger?"
"Oh yes, father," said the lad, drawing his own perfectly new knife. "See how slowly the thing keeps on lifting up its head, to hold it quivering in the air before letting it fall down again on the rock."
"But if it saw you go near it might strike at you."
"I don't think so, father. Look, it must be blind. It has battered its head horribly against the stone. I think it's quite blind."
"So it is, sir," said Griggs. "There's no more danger there, sir. Let him do it. We want him to be cool and ready for anything now."
"May I do it, father?"
"Well, yes; but stand well at arm's length, and give a good, careful, sweeping draw-cut with your knife."
Chris eagerly handed his rein to his father, and then went cautiously towards the quivering reptile, which kept on rising up and falling down inert with a regular action, save that it grew more slow.
Chris drew near till he was almost within striking distance, and waited till the snake had risen to its greatest height, that is to say, about two feet above the stone and three feet in all from the sand on which the boy stood.
"Take care," said the doctor.
Chris made an offer, as boys call it, cutting horizontally from his left shoulder, the knife flashing in the sunshine as it whished through the air, passing inches from the snake's neck; but the motion of the air affected the reptile, which winced, dropped flat to the stone, and began to writhe frantically.
"Be careful, Chris; there's a great deal of life in it yet."
"That was only a try, father," replied the boy; "I didn't try to cut it. I will, though, now," he continued, as the writhing ceased; but the battered head began to rise again slowly and steadily in the air till it was at its greatest elevation, and seemed to be kept up by a stiffening of the whole body.
Meanwhile, watching it carefully, the boy had advanced his foot a few inches till he felt that he was in exact striking distance, when there was another bright flash of rays reflected from the glistening blade, as the cut was made and the snake dropped down again upon the stone, for the writhings to recommence.
"Missed him?" cried Griggs excitedly.
"No; I just touched him with the point," said Chris coolly. "I wasn't quite near enough."
Proof of the correctness of his words was given by a red mark or two on the surface of the stone as the writhings ceased and the reptile began once more to raise itself, quivering slowly till it was rigid, and at its full height, when without a moment's pause the knife flashed again, there was a vigorous draw-cut, and the dangerous head dropped with a loud pat on the stone, leaving the erect neck and body stiffly poised for a few moments, slowly waving to and fro, before falling like a piece of stick, and seeming to break as part fell out of sight.
"Bravo!" cried Griggs.
"Ah, my boy! Mind!" cried the doctor.
But before his warning cry was half uttered there had been another flash as of something glistening in the air, and Chris started back again, receiving what felt to be a sharp blow in the chest, while a larger rattlesnake than either of the others dropped back behind the stone and glided rapidly away.
The doctor had Chris by the arms the next moment.
"Where—where did it strike you?" he cried.
"Here, father—such a thump," said the boy coolly, touching the fold of his Norfolk jacket with his left hand. "Ugh! Something wet."
He snatched back his hand, to hold it out, for a tiny smear of moisture to be seen glistening in the sun upon the palm of his hand.
The doctor seized him by the wrist, and then examined the fold of the jacket.
"Do you feel anything—a prick in the chest?" he said hoarsely.
"No, father. It was a sharp thump, as if some one had thrown a stone."
"Here is the venom on the thick frieze," said the doctor, tearing open the jacket and examining the thin flannel shirt beneath. "No! Thank Heaven!" he cried, with a sigh of relief. "The fangs did not go through. Chris, boy, you have escaped. If the reptile had driven its fangs deeper, I fear that I couldn't have saved your life."
"That doesn't sound very nice, father," said the boy coolly; but Griggs noted that he changed colour, and then laid his hands upon his father's shoulders, after dropping his knife on the ground.
"It was a miss, doctor," said Griggs, breaking the silence, as he scooped up some of the dried sand and rubbed Chris's hand, and with another handful dried the fold of the jacket.
This he repeated two or three times, and also paused to look well inside the fold next the boy's chest.
"Didn't go through, sir; that's for certain," he said. "There'll be no danger in the poison as soon as it's dried in the sun."
"None whatever, I should say," replied the doctor. "There, let's get away from this horrible place. I don't know how we're going to get those kegs again. The danger seems too great."
"Not after dark, sir," said Griggs coolly. "We must have 'em though, and I'm going to do it somehow, cost what it may."
The next minute they had mounted and were riding slowly back to where the others were about to come in search of them, in alarm at their prolonged absence.
There was a short, sharp council of ways and means held in the soft evening light which bathed the sterile rocky plain and the distant mountainous land with a weird beauty, that made those who gazed around feel a sensation of wonder, that nature could spread such a mask over a scene whose aspect to the adventurers was full of the horrors of thirst, and death by the stroke of the venomous reptiles.
Close at hand, and showing no disposition to stray, were the horses and the mules, with their coats bristling with dried sweat, and the dust through which they had travelled.
Their packs remained untouched, for every one felt that it was impossible to stay where they were, while before starting afresh water was an absolute necessity—a draught each to allay the feverish thirst, and the contents of one keg carefully divided so that about a pint each could be given to the wearied beasts.
"But there must be water somewhere near on that higher ground," said Wilton excitedly, and the doctor noted that his eyes looked bloodshot and wild. "Here, I tell you what; I'll take our bearings and ride off to see what I can find, and then come back."
"No," said the doctor, "it is impossible. Look at your horse: he cannot carry you right up yonder for miles upon miles in the state he is in."
"Then I must walk," cried Wilton impetuously.
"You would break down before you had been gone an hour," said the doctor, "and we should have to search for you and bring you back."
"Oh! give me credit for a little more strength and determination, sir," said Wilton petulantly. "We must have water, and it is to be found up yonder in the hills. What do you say, Bourne?"
"I agree with you that water may be found yonder, but we must keep together. Our party is small enough as it is; we must not make it less by letting one of our most active members break away."
"Then what are we to do?" cried Wilton, and the boys' lips moved as if they echoed his words.
"We must wait till dark, and then get the kegs. After the whole party is refreshed, we must strike up into the hills at once and search the valleys till we find a fall or spring, but on no account must we separate."
So spoke the doctor, but Wilton was in no humour for obeying orders.
"I think you are wrong," he cried.
"Well," replied the doctor stiffly, "you have a right to think so, but you might as well bear in mind that you have sworn to obey orders, that I was elected to be chief of this expedition, and that it is your duty to obey—in reason."
"Do you want to quarrel?" cried Wilton, clapping his hand to his revolver-holster.
"Certainly not with a man half mad with thirst," said the doctor quietly. "Come, Wilton, be reasonable."
"Reasonable! Are we not all half dead with thirst?"
"Suffering, not half dead," replied the doctor, who noted that Bourne and Griggs had moved a little nearer to their angry companion. "Now, look here, we want your cool consideration of our position. We have water a few hundred yards away."
"In the kegs, which lie where I told you."
"Oh, there!" cried Wilton contemptuously. "We don't want that, but some big clear flowing spring such as I offer to risk my life to find."
"Risk your life in another way," said the doctor firmly.
"Go and fetch in the kegs from where they are lying."
"Bah! If I am to die, it shall be a decent death—not stung by some horrible reptile. I'll risk losing my way going in search of water."
"I have already told you," said the doctor, "that the state of the horses will not allow of such a search being made till they have had such water as we have near. The only thing to be done is to contrive some way of getting the kegs here without risk."
"Exactly," said Bourne laconically; "but can you propose any way? For I must own that I cannot without horrible risk."
"At present no way," said the doctor sadly. "My only hope is in the horrible pests returning deeply underground at night; but I am sorry to say I know very little about the habits of these creatures. Do you, Wilton?"
"No," replied their companion bitterly. "Latin, Greek, and mathematics were taught me, rattlesnakes left out."
"But you," said the doctor, wincing at his companion's contemptuous manner, "you, Griggs, have seen a good deal of these reptiles in your time?"
"Tidy bit, sir. I saw one poor fellow die four hours after being bitten, and I've killed a few of the varmint; but I've seen more of 'em to-day than in all my life before."
"Then you cannot say whether it would be safe to risk an attempt to get the kegs away?"
"Well, I don't know about that," said Griggs, who noted that Chris was watching him intently. "You see, sir, I've been thinking pretty closely about that matter. We must have those kegs somehow, even if the one who gets 'em is bitten for his pains."
"Oh, but no such risk must be run," cried the doctor excitedly.
"It seems to me, sir, that it must. There's half-a-dozen of us, and one has to take his chance so that the other five may live."
"Our position is not so bad as that, Griggs," said the doctor warmly.
"I don't want to contradict, sir, but I about think it is. It's the sort of time like you read about at sea when they cast lots and one has to swim ashore with a rope so as to get help. We must have that water, and Mr Wilton here says he won't risk the job of fetching the kegs, so it rests with five of us instead of six. Then you go a bit further and one says, here's three men and two boys, and we who are men can't hold back and let a boy go."
"Certainly not," said the doctor and Bourne, as if in one voice.
"Then we come down to three," continued Griggs, "and one of them is the boss of the expedition—the captain. He can't go, of course. So you see, Mr Bourne, it lies between us two."
"No, no," cried the doctor, "between us three."
"Us two, Mr Bourne," said the American, almost fiercely. "The doctor's out of it. Now, sir, you're a deal better man than I am in learning and proper living, and several other things that I've noticed since we've been neighbours, all through your having been a minister, I suppose?"
"I am but a man, Griggs, with the weaknesses of my nature."
"Exactly, sir," cried the American, totally misconstruing the speaker's meaning. "That's what I was aiming at—weaknesses of your nature. Consequently I'm a much better man than you are for this job. So we want no casting lots, for I'm going to get those kegs out of that serpent's nest, if I die for it."
"No, no," cried the doctor fiercely. "I will not consent to your going. We must try some other plan."
"There aren't no other plan, doctor."
"I think there is," cried Chris excitedly.
"Be silent, boy!" said the doctor.
"Yes, you're out, squire," said Griggs good-humouredly. "You've had your innings, and nearly got bitten. That's taste enough for you. Let me have a bit of the fun. But look here, doctor; when a man is bitten you get out a bottle and a little squirt thing, make a hole in one of the veins, and send in a lot of stuff, don't you?"
"Inject ammonia?" replied the doctor. "Yes; as a resource after lancing the wound and drawing out the poison, I should try that."
"Ammonia," said Griggs thoughtfully. "Yes, that's it—counteracts the poison, doesn't it?"
"Yes, and in some cases successfully, if it has been injected soon enough."
"Hah!" cried the American. "That's what I wanted to get at—soon enough. Now how would it be if to get quite soon enough you got out your bottle and gave me a dose of that stuff before I started?"
"What, injected into one of your veins?"
"Yes, sir. What do you say to that?"
"Impossible! I would not venture upon such an experiment except with a bitten subject."
"Sorry to hear that, sir," said Griggs thoughtfully. "Well, how would it be if I swallowed some?"
"I fear that it would be useless."
"Very well, sir; you know best, and I must do without it. My boots will pull up a bit higher, and I'll slip on another pair of trousers and my thick jersey over my jacket; then if one of the beauties bites, his teeth may not go through. There'll only be my hands and face."
"But what do you propose doing—running in, seizing the kegs, and trying to carry them out?"
"Nay, that makes the job too risky, sir. It would be just stirring the creatures up like bees in a hive, and they'd come raging out to fight. I've got a better plan than that."
"Yes; what is it?" said the doctor, and Chris took a step nearer.
"Just this, sir. I'll take a couple of the hide-ropes, knot them together, and coil them up lasso fashion. After that I'm going to make a fire and heat one of these iron tent-pegs red-hot—one of those with the eye to them. Soon as it's well hot I'm going to bend it round into a hook, slip one end of the rope through the eye and make fast, and then I'm going to fish with that hook—throwing it in till it catches the keg chain that couples them together, and as soon as I've got a bite run out the line ready for a couple of us to haul the water right away clean from the snake's nest. What do you say to that?"
"I say it isn't fair," cried Chris excitedly. "You, Ned, you are a sneak to go and tell him."
"I didn't tell him," cried Ned indignantly.
"How did he know, then?" said Chris, growing angry. "I never said a word to any one else."
"What do you mean, Chris?" said the doctor sternly.
"Why, I invented that plan, father," cried Chris, "exactly as Griggs says; and I was going to propose it, only Griggs spoke first."
"I never knew you thought the same way, squire," said Griggs quietly.
"It was my invention," said Chris warmly.
"Very well, lad, you may have it," said Griggs. "It's yours, then."
"Yes," cried Chris, "and I'll go and throw the hook till I catch the chain."
"Nay! That's where I come in, my lad," cried Griggs. "You shall have all the credit, but I'll do the work."
"No, no," said Chris angrily. "It's my invention, and I shall do it."
"No," said the doctor firmly; "you both had the same idea, my boy, but Mr Griggs is your senior, he is better adapted for the dangerous task, and you must give way."
"Must I, father?" said the boy, in a disappointed tone.
"Yes. You have run risks enough for one day."
"Ha, ha!" cried Ned, laughing, to the astonishment of all, and his satisfaction rang out in his tones. "You can't do it, after all, Griggs," and though he said no more his eyes looked a finish to the sentence—serve you right for getting the better of Chris!
"Why can't I do it?" said Griggs quietly.
"Because there's no fire to heat the iron."
"But I can soon make one."
"What of? Stones?"
Griggs brought his right fist down into his left hand with a loud spang, uttering a low hiss the while, for there was not a scrap of wood in sight.
Then his face lit up and he went to the mule laden with the tent, cast loose a rope, and ran an iron ringed peg about two feet long off from where it had been placed for safety, and walked off amongst the rocks till he found a crevice suited to his purpose. There he thrust the thin end of the peg in between the sides some six inches, and exerting his strength a little, bent the iron round till the lower part stood off at right angles to the upper. This done, he raised the iron, placed the point upon the surface of a level block, and pressed heavily down, the point yielding slowly, and, the iron being fairly soft, he very shortly produced a roughly-made hook.
"'Taint so neat as I could wish," he said quietly; "but it is a hook, and you can't call it anything else."
"Yes," said Chris frankly, "and it's a better one than I expected; but wouldn't it be better to try if you can catch the chain with it before it gets dark?"
"He would have to keep on throwing several times perhaps," said Bourne, "and bring the snakes swarming out."
"Well I don't know that it would matter much," said Griggs thoughtfully. "I should be standing perhaps a dozen yards from where the hook kept on falling, and they'd strike at it and not at me. I shall try it at once, doctor, for it'll be far better than doing it by lanthorn light."
"Yes," said the doctor thoughtfully; "and at the worst, if the reptiles swarmed out, we would hurry away till they settled down again."
"Yes," said Griggs, with a quick nod of the head, and a few minutes later he had his tackle ready, the hook securely tied on, the rope hanging in coils from his hand, and all ready for the advance.
"I'll go alone, please, and at once," he said sharply. "In ten minutes it will be getting dusk. Did any one notice whether the chain lay at the top?"
"Yes," cried Chris sharply; "I did. So that it would be quite easy to catch."
"Good," cried Griggs, in a satisfied tone. "Then here goes."
"Promise me you'll be careful, Griggs," said the doctor.
"Yes, sir," said the American, smiling, "if you'll strike a bargain."
"What do you mean?"
"Promise me you'll have that stuff ready to give me a strong dose if I'm bitten."
"Trust me," said the doctor.
"And trust me, sir," cried Griggs.
The next minute he was striding along over the sand in and out amongst the scattered blocks of stone, and followed by his friends, cautiously on the alert for any reptiles that might be coiled up asleep.
But it was past their time; the sun had gone down, and the dusk of evening was rapidly growing into darkness, showing the party that if they had waited until a lanthorn was necessary there would have been great difficulty in putting into practice that which in theory sounded as easy as drawing on a glove.
Not a snake was to be seen when the party halted, following Griggs's example, and standing about thirty feet behind him, the many blocks of rugged stone in front completely hiding the place where the barrels lay.
"Can you see any of the enemy?" said the doctor, just loudly enough for his voice to reach the American's ears.
Griggs turned quickly, shook his head to indicate that the coast was clear, and then turned back to face his task.
The next minute they saw the deftly-thrown hook flying through the air, describing a curve, and the rings of the rope opening out as they followed the iron.
There was a loud jangling sound, and Chris held his breath as he saw the operator begin to draw upon the rope hand over hand, fully expecting to see a check, and that the hook had caught.
The boy was not disappointed—it had, and Chris uttered a low cheer.
"Got it!" he whispered.—"Why is he doing that?"
That was the jerking of the rope to set it at liberty to be drawn in again, for the simple reason that the catch was only the corner of a rock.
But Griggs was soon ready again, and he mounted on to the top of a stone before taking careful aim, as he swung the hook to and fro, and then once more launched it through the air, to fall this time with a dull sound as if it had struck upon wood.
"He'll do it this time," whispered Ned excitedly. "Yes: he has got it."
For as Griggs hauled there was again a check, evidently, from the sound of the iron, against wood.
"Oh!" groaned Chris, as they saw the rope hauled in again quickly for another throw. "What a while he is! He won't be able to see."
"All right, Chris," cried Ned cheerily; "third time never fails."
"We shall have to do it, Ned," replied Chris merrily. "Now then, once to be ready, twice to be steady, three times to be off: there it goes."
Away went the hook, and after it the dimly-seen coils of rope, followed by a sharp clang again of iron upon stone.
"Now he's hauling," whispered Ned, and all held their breath, for the change from daylight into darkness was rapidly going on, and Griggs's figure standing erect upon the grey rock began to look as if some thin, filmy, smoke-tinted veil was being drawn over it.
Tchingle! came—clearly heard!
"Hurrah!" cried Chris. "He has caught the chain this time. He'll want us to help haul."
The boy strained forward as if ready to start at the first call; but he did not, for no call came, but Griggs himself began to move sharply after a tug at the rope, and then leaping down from the stone upon which he had stood, he came running towards them swiftly, dodging in and out amongst the stones standing in his way.
"Off with you," he shouted; "the varmint are coming along the rope!"
All turned at the order, retreating steadily to allow Griggs to overtake them, which he did directly.
"I don't think we need go far," he said. "I don't suppose they'll come further than the end of the rope. I could see dozens of them striking at the barrel and the hook at that last throw. We shall have to let them settle down before we try to get the water, but I've hooked the chain fast."
"Then we can do the rest after dark," said the doctor.
"Well, not quite, sir. We shall have to bring a light to find the end of the rope and see that there are none of the reptiles hanging on to it."
"Why not bring one of the mules next time?" cried Chris eagerly.
"What for?" said Griggs sharply.
"To make fast the line to his saddle or pack, and let him drag the barrels over the sand."
"Good!" cried Griggs.
"Excellent!" said the doctor.
"I wonder whether the snakes will follow when the kegs are being dragged over the sand?" said Bourne.
"I don't think they will, sir," said the American. "They might perhaps if there are any about after dark, but there are lots of small stones about where they lie, and the critters will have an ugly time of it ground under those two heavy tubs."
"I'm in hopes that we shall have no further trouble," said the doctor thoughtfully. "The only thing to decide now is, how long had we better wait?"
"An hour," said Wilton decisively; and that hour was passed in luxury, for a soft cool air came whispering among the reeking stones which had been bathing all day long in the sunshine, and there was a crispness and revivifying sensation in that gentle evening breeze which seemed to affect even the animals, the mules crouching down in the sand and the horses standing facing the quarter from which the wind blew, as if satisfied to wait for the water that they instinctively expected would come.
The hour seemed long, and then with a dull star-like lanthorn Griggs began to pick his way through the transparent darkness, holding the light low in his lookout for enemies, till the end of the rope was found, though not without difficulty, the boys, who led one of the mules between them, having to stop at last and wait till the search came to an end.
"No snakes about here," said Griggs, in a low voice; "bring the mule on, lads. That's right. Now then, turn. Back him a little more."
This was done, the rope made fast to the pack-saddle, and all was ready.
"Now," said the doctor, "will the enemy follow the two kegs or no? Forward!"
The start was made in the direction of the spot where the rest of the train was gathered together, and with all present feeling flushed with excitement and in dread of what might happen, the rope tightened with a jerk, and then threatened to break, for there was no yielding on the part of the kegs after they had followed for a few yards, the sound announcing that they had caught and become wedged amongst the stones.
In the midst of a painful silence Griggs said in rather an altered tone—
"Well, it's of no use to make bones about it. I shall have to go and give 'em a clearing shove or two."
"You'll do no such mad thing," cried the doctor angrily. "If the rattlesnakes will face the darkness they must be swarming out of their holes after this disturbance. Here, start afresh, Chris. Take the mule's rein and lead him on steadily a little more to the right."
This was done, but the kegs did not move.
"Try to the left now, my boy."
Chris led the animal in the required direction, but the kegs remained fast.
"You'll break the rope," said Griggs.
"Then we must make fast another," replied the doctor. "We must go farther off now, and pull at right angles."
"You'll only get the rope cut by some of the upright stones," said Griggs bitterly. "It's of no use, doctor. I must go back and—"
At that moment, before the American had finished his sentence, there was a quick movement, the tubs had yielded to the steady strain kept up by the mule, and for the next few minutes they came on, gliding easily over the sand, bumping and hopping over stones, against some of which they collided in a way that threatened to knock off hoops or drive in staves, but they kept on coming till the mule reached the first of its companions, when the doctor called a halt.
"Now then," he said, "lanthorn here!"
"What are you going to do, father?" cried Chris anxiously.
"Pass the light along the rope till I reach the tubs, to see if there are any snakes twisted about the chain."
"Nay, that's my job, sir," cried Griggs eagerly.
"We'll go together," said the doctor. "Every one else stand back."
The next minute Chris and Ned stood anxiously watching the light of the lanthorn, which was made to run along the rope and the ground till it played only upon the two kegs, which looked dull and indistinct by the shadowy figures which could be dimly-seen.
"Look out, sir; there's one!" shouted Griggs out of the gloom, and the lanthorn seemed to make a sudden jump.
So did Chris's heart at the thought of the danger to which his father might be exposed.
The next moment the boy's pulsations seemed to have ceased, but only for a heavy throbbing to set in, before he gave vent to a low gasp of relief. For the doctor's voice came clearly to them in the grateful word, "Crushed!"
"It's all right, sir," said Griggs loudly then. "I've cut through him twice, and he has dropped off. Haul away there and pull 'em close up."
The order was obeyed by hand, and the kegs, illumined by the light cast upon them by the lanthorn, were drawn right up to the halting-place.
"Don't cheer, boys," said the doctor, anticipating a shout. "Here, Griggs," he continued, "let's have a little sand over the chain where you cut that horrible reptile away."
"Hold the light a little lower, sir," said the American. "It's all right," he added the next minute, after the light had played over the connecting-links of the two kegs. "Sand's cleared it all away as they came. They're as clean as can be. I can't see anything on the rope or hook either."
"Was there one on it?" asked Chris eagerly.
"Yes, a big 'un," replied Griggs. "He'd tied himself in a tight knot close round the hook and the chain."
"It must have been that he was crushed when the kegs were first moved," said the doctor.
"Nay, sir; I fancy that it was when I hooked the chain. I fancy I must have caught him fast and dragged him close up."
"And then, in resentment," said the doctor, "the beast twined itself up tightly;—just like an eel on a night-line, boys," he added.
"Did you cut it away, Griggs?" asked Chris.
"Yes. I just slipped the point of my knife in between two of his coils twice over, gave a sharp push, and he dropped down wriggling at once."
"Did you see many more?" asked Ned.
"Nary one, my lad."
"A bucket here," said the doctor. "Let's run out a pannikin from one keg for each of the mustangs."
"Won't want a bucket then, sir."
"Nonsense, man! We can't give the mustangs their drop out of a tin. I want it poured into the bottom of the bucket so that each can suck it up to the last drop."
"I see, sir," cried Griggs, and as the tompion-like stop was unscrewed from the bung-hole of a keg, a shallow iron bucket was cast loose from one of the mule's loads, the noise in the darkness nearly driving the whole team frantic, connecting the rattle of the handle as they did with water.
But they were kept back while the mustangs each took their tiny portions, uttering a piteous remonstrance-like sigh as the bucket was withdrawn again from its muzzle; and this done, the mules had their turn, two of them proving outrageous after getting their taste of water, Skeeter, as Griggs called him, seizing the edge of the bucket with his teeth and holding on till a sharp crack on the flank made him let go.
"Poor brutes!" said Ned's father. "It seems very hard upon them. Such a tiny drop each."
"Yes," replied the doctor, "but a score of these tiny drops make a hole in the contents of the keg. There, I don't think we have been unmerciful to our beasts. They have had the first turn. It is ours now."
The animals were driven back, and after the first keg had been as carefully closed up as if its contents were fine gold-dust, the second was opened, and a tin mug filled by the doctor, Wilton holding the little cask.
"Now, Ned, you're the youngest," cried the doctor.
"Oh, you have some first, sir," said the boy.
"Tip it up," cried the doctor fiercely. "My good lad, you don't know what agony it is to practise self-denial and etiquette at a time like this."
The doctor spoke so fiercely that his words, combined with the intense thirst from which he suffered, made the boy raise the cup to his lips, to feel a thrill of delight as the lukewarm water trickled down his parched throat.
The next moment, thanks to his father's teaching, he literally dragged the cup from his lips and thrust it in the face of Chris, who was looking at him by the lanthorn light, feeling in agony, and as if his eyes were starting out of his head.
"No, no!" he panted.
"Drink!" yelled Ned savagely.
"Yes, drink, boy!" cried the doctor. "Quick!"
The doubling of the emphatic command made Chris obey, and he too sighed bitterly as he drained the last drop from the half-filled mug and passed it back.
"Quick, no more ceremony," cried the doctor, "or I shall be ready to forget myself, for I'm half mad with thirst. Fill up, Wilton. Now, Bourne, drink."
"No, no; you first."
"Drink!" roared the doctor, in a tone which startled his son, and without another word Ned's father half emptied the mug and handed it to Wilton, who hurriedly drained it, and began to fill it once more.
"My turn to order now," he cried, holding it to the doctor. "We've all had a taste now, Lee; you drink all that."
Griggs did not move a muscle, but stood firm, holding the lanthorn now; but he gave a side glance at the glistening cup as the doctor drank, suffering agony the while, but only to heave a sigh of thankfulness on seeing that his leader only swallowed half and then passed him the remainder.
"I thought dad wouldn't forget him," whispered Chris to Ned, and perhaps it might have been only a couple of drops of the water that had gone the wrong way, but certainly something like a couple of tears glistened for a few moments in Chris's eyes.
"Thank ye, doctor," said Griggs hoarsely, and the next moment there was a sound like glug—glug!! and the tin mug was empty.
"Must have another drink round; eh, doctor?" said Wilton.
"Drink?" was the reply. "Well, yes; fill up. We must find water to-morrow."
Half a cupful was passed to each then, swallowed with avidity, and then Wilton sighed as he helped to secure the tompion in its place.
"Now," cried the doctor, "we all want to lie down and rest, but I'm sure we should none of us sleep for thinking of water. The night is fairly clear, and I feel that I can guide you up the rising ground, so I propose that we go on at once."
"Yes, yes," cried Bourne; "on at any cost, to get away from this horrible nest of reptiles."
"But suppose we go blundering on among them," cried Wilton. "What do you say, Griggs?"
"I say let's get on, sir, for if we stop here we shall be getting no nearer water, and we shall be having the snakes coming to see where we are for killing that last one of their friends."
To get away from the horrors that haunted the spot was the great desire of all, and with the doctor and Griggs leading, the first a little in advance, and bearing the light, so as to avoid the blocks of stone projecting from the sand, the little party went slowly on hour after hour, ready to stop again and again to throw themselves down and rest. But no one dared to do so lest the jar given to the earth should send some of the poisonous reptiles to the surface in search of the enemy that had intruded upon the solitude which they seemed from their numbers to have marked down for their own domain.
The greater part of that night seemed to the two boys like a feverish dream, during which they had been compelled by some strange force to keep plodding on through horrors unspeakable, and tortured by a thirst that was maddening.
At times, where the stones lay thick, hardly a word was spoken, but now and again Chris would begin questioning his companion loudly, eager to obtain his opinion as to whether he did not think it must be nearly morning.
But Ned's answers were not encouraging. There was no romance in them; they were too near the truth to suit Chris, and he liked them the less because at heart he felt that they must be correct and his own hopes too sanguine. But all the same he clung to his own ideas—they were so tempting. They were that with daylight they should have reached the end of the wild desert, and that from high up on some sunlit slope they would be gazing down into a broad green valley—some natural paradise through which flowed a rippling stream.
He described his notions to Ned, who seemed to be listening attentively in the darkness, and now and then said "Oh," or "Ah, yes;" but all the time he was clinging involuntarily to his saddle, his head nodding forward again and again, only to be brought back to the perpendicular with a jerk, while Chris was too drowsy himself to notice it, as he went muttering on.
"It won't be the place where the gold city and temple are, Ned," he said; "but it will be just the spot where we can rest for a few days."
"Ah!" said Ned.
"There'll be fish in that river, you know," said Chris—"salmon that have come up out of the Pacific; and we can spear them after we've drunk all we want, and bathed till we've soaked all this horrible dryness out of our skins. All along by the river too there'll be park-like meadows—meadows—green meadows. Do you hear?" Ned grunted.
"And in those park-like prairie places there are sure to be droves of buffalo. Beef—do you hear?—beef!"
Chris's head bowed down as if he were going to lay his forehead upon his mustang's neck; but the thought of roast beef woke him up again, and he clung a little more tightly with his knees and kept on with his muttering.
"I say, don't go to sleep, Ned," he said, as he saw his companion follow his own example and bow low. "I feel as sure as sure that's the sort of place we shall come to. There'll be great spreading fir-trees too, such as Griggs talked about seeing up north in the Rockies—trees with boughs that will keep off the sun and rain, eh?"
"Ah!" grunted Ned.
"It will be just the place that we want, to give the horses and mules a good long rest for a few days, to feed up well on good pasture while we shoot, and amuse ourselves, and kill buffalo, and eat hot roast beef— hot roast beef. And drink beautiful, clear, cold water—and you can lie down upon your chest with your face over the running stream, and drink as long as you like of the clear, cold, sparkling water—sparkling water—sparkling water—sparkling—wa—"
"Ah!" said Ned.
"Come, boys; come, boys!" said a familiar voice out of the darkness.
"Sparkling water," repeated Chris drowsily. "Much as you like, Mr Bourne."
"To be sure, my boy," said the owner of the name, laying one hand upon Chris's shoulder, the other upon Ned's, but with no effect whatever save to make them both seem to roll in their saddles as he forced his horse in between them. "Sit up; come, or you'll be falling out of the saddle. Very sleepy, Ned?"
"Ah!" grunted the boy.
"Poor fellow!" said Bourne, with a sigh. Then aloud—"Can't you keep awake, Chris?"
"Spear fish—salmon—sparkling water," sighed the boy, bowing very low this time.
"Come, try and wake up, my lad; we're getting on higher ground, and it's not so rocky here. As soon as day begins to break we shall come to a halt, and rest for a few hours—that is, if we can be sure that there are no rattlesnakes near."
"Eh? Snakes?" said Chris, sitting very upright now, and gazing in the face of Ned's father. "Yes, snakes. Made the water taste snaky. Horrid! Dries up your tongue. Tasted snaky."
"Mine didn't," said Bourne. "I thought it was the sweetest drop I ever tasted in my life. Come, come, Ned; do you want me to hold you on your pony? Keep up a little longer, boy."
"Ah!" grunted Ned, straightening himself and feeling about for the reins, which had escaped his hand, not that any guidance was wanted, the intelligent beast following the fight of the lanthorn, clearly seen moving ahead as Griggs' mustang plodded on.
"Why, you're asleep, Ned."
"No, father," answered the boy, telling a most brazen falsehood, for the moment before he was breathing so hard that the sounds were first cousins to heavy snores.
"That's right, then. We've had a long weary ride to-day, but we're going up-hill now and the air's growing cooler. We must be leaving the sandy plains behind."
"Yes, leave behind. Won't fall off," muttered Ned, who was sinking fast into a state of stupor.
And all the while from ahead, close by the moving lanthorn, came the musical cling, cling, cling, cling of the mules' bell, with the low muttering sound made by the doctor and Griggs as they entered into a conversation about the state of the country into which they were penetrating.
"Poor fellows!" said Bourne half-aloud. "I can do nothing to keep them awake. Perhaps they will not fall off, after all."
It was growing darker, but he noted that the mustangs seemed to regulate their movements to those of their riders, and in nowise altered their steady walk when one or the other lurched and made a spasmodic effort to recover himself.
Then Bourne sighed and looked right ahead at the dull star of the lanthorn in front, some of whose rays fell from time to time upon the moving pack carried by one of the mules. From that he turned his eyes upward to the glorious stars, whose rays gave just sufficient light to enable the line of animals to avoid any obstacle in the way, though that was seldom, for Skeeter plodded steadily along with his bell, and the mules which followed almost planted their hoofs, elephant-fashion, in the prints made by those which had gone before.
"What a long, long, weary night!" sighed Bourne at last. "Will the morning never come?"
"Who's that?"—a sharp voice from close behind.
"I. Anything the matter, Wilton?"
"Yes; I nearly fell off my nag just now, to be left behind."
"You mustn't do that. 'Ware snakes."
"Oh, don't mention them," came with a shudder. "But thank goodness!"
"By all means; but for what in particular now?"
"You gave me such a fright."
"I did? How? I've been here with the boys for the last quarter of an hour."
"The boys? Where are they?"
"Here, one each side."
"Oh! I thought those were mules with packs. Do you hear, lads?"
There was no reply.
"What's the matter with them? Tired and sulky?"
"Tired? Yes! Sulky? No. They're both fast asleep."
"Poor fellows! No wonder. So was I just now."
"But you said I gave you a fright. I did nothing. What was it?"
"I was fast asleep, I tell you, holding on I suppose by my knees, when I woke up and found that you were not by my side."
"But I told you I was going to ride on and see how the boys were getting on."
"Did you? I didn't hear a word. I must have been sound."
"But you answered me, and said, 'All right.'"
"Very likely, but it was in my sleep. When I woke up, though, and found you were not with me, it was a regular shock, for I thought you must have fallen off and be lying somewhere in the darkness and your nag beside you. The sensation was horrible, for in my stupid sleepy state I felt that we might never find you again."
"It was, I can tell you. It roused me up a bit, and I had common-sense enough left in the midst of my scare to push on first and make sure. You can't think what a feeling of relief it gave me when you answered. I say, it would be awful if either of us were lost."
"Awful indeed," said Bourne, with a sigh. "We're on a wild chase, Wilton."
"We are; but we're in for it, and we must carry it through."
"I suppose so; but one night like this is enough. I say, will it ever be morning?"
There was no reply, and they went on for a few minutes in silence, and then there was a sudden check.
"What's wrong now?" said Wilton sharply.
"Anything the matter, Lee?" cried Bourne, for the mules seemed to have come to a sudden stop, just as if all had been moved by one impulse communicated to them by their leader.
"I don't know yet, and I'm obliged to be very cautious."
"Strikes me that we've been coming up and up for the last hour, sir," said Griggs, "and that we're now just at the edge of a canon with a drop down to nowhere just ahead. Skeeter came to a stop all at once."
"I'll get down and see what I can make out with the lanthorn."
"Wait a minute, sir, while I get a rope uncoiled. You shall have it fast round you and the other end to my saddle. These places go straight down sometimes hundreds of feet to a river. Listen! Can you hear water?"
There was silence for a few moments before the doctor said—
"Too deep down perhaps, sir."
"Well, I can soon see if I go cautiously, and you let the rope pass slowly through your hands. But try first if the bell-mule will take a step or two in advance."
"Not he, sir. I can see; he's got his legs all spread-out like a milking-stool."
The doctor was off his horse, and the next minute he was advancing slowly, with the lanthorn held near the ground.
"There's nothing here that need have stopped him, but—Oh, what a blessing!"
"What is, sir?"
"Here's short grass, and the mules cropping it."
"Then there's no canon, sir," said Griggs sharply. "The poor brutes are all dead beat; they've come to something that they can nibble, and they've struck work. The ponies are at it too. It's as good as saying that they won't stir another peg till daylight, if they will then."
"Why, two of the mules have regularly squatted down, with their loads touching the ground," said the doctor, holding up the lanthorn.
"Yes, it's all right, sir," cried Griggs. "There's no canon, but level ground all about, I'll be bound. They've called a halt without being told, so we must do the same."
"But here, with those horrible snakes about?" cried Bourne.
"None here, sir," said Griggs. "If there were one it would have been smelt out by this time, and the poor beasts wouldn't have been so quiet. Oh, we're right for a time, sir; and, I say, hadn't we better follow the beasts' example and find a bit of something to eat?"
"And drink?" said Wilton.
"Nay, eating will make our mouths turn a bit moist; we've no business to touch any more of that water till we know where the next is to come from. Let's chance it, sir, and relieve the poor brutes of their packs."
"Very well," said the doctor, "but I don't like halting without knowing our ground. You know my rules that I laid down."
"No rule without an exception," said Wilton drowsily. "This is one. I don't want anything to eat, but if I die for it I must sleep."
"Well, I'll do the best I can to keep watch with the lanthorn," said the doctor; "but some one must relieve me soon."
"Put the light out, sir," said Griggs. "There's morning coming yonder. It's of no use, sir. We must chance everything and sleep. I can't keep awake any more."
"Let's have the packs off, then. By the way, where are the boys?"
"Here are their ponies," replied Bourne, peering about in the darkness. "Tut, tut, tut! Here they are upon the ground, fast asleep too. Here, Ned—Chris! Wake up, my lads; you can't lie there."
Ned's father was never more away from the truth in an assertion. In fact, he was quite wrong, for the two boys were proving that they could lie there, and were sleeping heavily, careless of snakes, and ponies' or mules' hoofs, careless of everything but obeying the stern dictates of a monitor who bade them sleep and make up for lost time.
Hunger and thirst did not exist to them then, nor did they to any other member of the expedition, for when day came brightly, not very long after, it was to look down upon the strange group of horses, mules, packs, and men, lying anyhow upon a wide down-like place covered with thin, short, crisp grass, which the animals were browsing upon contentedly enough.
Fortunately for the party there was no sign of danger far or near— nothing but rolling down for a few miles, and beyond that mountains towering up towards the clouds, looking clear and distinct in the pearly grey of morning, and apparently close at hand, though some sixty or seventy miles away.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE, BUT—
"Hallo! What's that?" said Chris softly, as he lay on his left side gazing at an elevation about a couple of feet from his nose; and it was some time before he could make out that it was a sack, stuffed so full that it threatened to burst the coarse stitches down one side.
His head felt confused and thick. His thinking apparatus would not work properly, but seemed to be struggling to carry on the narrative of some weary dream in which there had been snakes, heat, thirst, and riding, till his bones seemed to ache and he felt sore all over.
It was very puzzling, and though he tried to make out where he was, he could see nothing but that big sack.
After lying still for some minutes, his reasoning powers began to act, and overcoming the disinclination to move, consequent upon his being so horribly stiff, he gave himself a wrench and turned right over on his other side.
This brought a little illumination, bodily and mental too, for the sun was beating down upon his face making him raise his hand stiffly to shade his eyes; and there before him lay Ned, flat upon his back, with his mouth wide open.
The mist floating in his brain now began to disperse, and rising upon one elbow he could see first one and then another of the party, lying fast asleep in different attitudes with the packs belonging to the expedition dotted-about anyhow, just as they had been released from the mules' backs.
Then there were the bearers of the said packs about a couple of hundred yards away, every one with its muzzle near the ground, browsing busily at some kind of low, scrubby, greyish growth that looked like very dwarf juniper, while in quite another direction, there they were—all six— forming a group to themselves—the mustangs, their saddles still on and the reins upon the ground, cropping away at the thin wiry grass that clothed the sandy earth.
"Of course; I recollect now," thought Chris. "I went to sleep on my pony, and must have fallen off without waking. Am I hurt?"
He screwed himself about and raised arms and legs, wincing a little the while.
"Yes, I am hurt," he muttered. "I can hardly move, but I don't think anything's broken: it's just as if the mules had been kicking me and the ponies walking about on my chest."
His eyes wandered round again, and he sat up now with a start, the aforesaid eyes dilating and the lids getting so wide that he showed a good deal of white, while it seemed as if all the blood in his body had rushed to his heart, so horrible were his thoughts. But he could see no sign of rattlesnakes, and the heavy throbbing in his breast calmed down, to give place to a sensation of pleasure, as he breathed in the fresh elastic air and let his eyes rest upon a great blue mountain which towered up above a clump of a dozen or so on one side and as many more spreading away in a row, their tops looking like the teeth of a gigantic saw. In fact, it was one of the ranges to which the old Spanish settlers gave the name of Sierras.
"It is not what I dreamed about," said Chris to himself. "Let me see— yes, that was of looking down into a glorious green valley with a sparkling river running through and beautiful park-like prairies on each side for the mules and ponies to graze in while we hunted and shot the buffaloes. Of course; I remember it all quite clearly, and about our going to bathe and drink, and—oh, how thirsty I am!"
"Why, there must be water here, or the animals wouldn't be so contented. Get enough juice out of what they're eating, I suppose," he added, after a few minutes' more thought. "Well, this is a hundred times better than the salt desert, and there must be water in the valleys over yonder. How blue it all looks! That doesn't seem as if there were trees, because they'd look green. But there must be valleys because there are mountains, and—Here, I say, Ned, don't snore like that," he said aloud. "Wake up, lazy! It's ever so late."
His words having no effect, he reached out one foot and gave the boy such a vigorous push that Ned sat up, staring.
"Who—Here, you, Chris, why did you kick me like that?" he cried.
"I didn't kick, only pushed. To wake you up. You can't sleep all day. Oh, I say, what a face you've got!"
Ned, who had roused up at once, clapped his hands to the part of his person alluded to, and retaliated.
"So have you got a face," he cried. "Why, it looks as if it had got a crust of salt and sand all over it."
"So it has, I suppose," said Chris, rather gruffly, as he began to pat his cheeks softly, rub his eyes, and then deal very tenderly with his cracked lips. "Oh dear, shouldn't I like a swim, even if it was only in a water-hole that was half mud!"
"But I say, Chris, look here. What about the rattlesnakes? Have we left them all behind?"
"I hope so. There seems to be no sign of any here."
"And I say, this is quite a different sort of country. Look at the mountains."
"We must be all right then, now," continued Ned. "I began to think yesterday that we were going to tramp along till the heat and thirst were too much for us, and we had to lie down and die. I say, I shouldn't have liked that."
"And you'll never find any one who would. Bother the old gold! It would have been horrid. Better have gone on weeding in the plantation."
"Ever so much; but do you think the place marked in the plan is over yonder?"
Ned pointed at the beautiful amethystine mountains, but Chris shook his head.
"Don't look like the place; but never mind that now. Let's see about breakfast."
The boys rose as if animated by one spirit, and stood looking round.
"What about a fire?" said Ned dismally.
"No wood," replied Chris, with a groan, and his voice made his father start, look sharply round, and spring to his feet.
"Ah, boys!" he cried. "How long have you been awake?"
This question, loudly uttered, had the effect of a call to the other sleepers, who rose to their feet to look about in a dazed and wondering manner, but with signs of satisfaction dawning upon their countenances as they grasped the improvement in their position.
"Yes," said the doctor, after a brief conversation, "the cattle are all right, and will be able to go on after another hour's grazing; but there is no water, I'm afraid, nearer than the mountains yonder."
"But there'll be plenty there, doctor," said Griggs confidently, "and I don't see that we need wait for the animals to graze any more; they haven't done much amiss by the state of their portmanteaus. We can halt again when we like, and the pasture's sure to get better as we go along towards the mountain-slopes. Would you mind getting out your glass?"
This was quickly done, and the American focussed it and stood gazing long and intently at the distant range.
"Far as I can make out," he said at last, "there's river and valley and forest yonder, sir."
"Forests with blue trees, Griggs?" said Chris.
"Forests with trees that look blue at this distance," replied the American. "That last makes a wonderful difference in the look of things. So do sunrise and sunset. Why, you've seen the woods look orange and scarlet, haven't you?"
"Yes, of course," said Chris, looking abashed. "I forgot. But, I say, if there were water there, shouldn't we see it glitter?"
"Not a bit. Don't you know how the rivers in these parts run down in the canons? Why, I've seen a dozen or two that you didn't know were there when you were a hundred yards away."
"And these may be ten miles off," cried Ned.
"Ten? Yes, quite that," said Griggs dryly.
"Ah, they're a long way off, Ned, my boy," said Bourne thoughtfully. "How far do you make it, Griggs?"
"Well, sir, I should say it's a hundred miles from here to the highest part of that peak."
"A hundred miles!" cried Ned.
"Yes, and a good sixty to the hills about the foot."
"Then we shan't get there to-day," said the doctor decisively.
"If we do half of it, sir, we shan't have done badly," replied Griggs; "but in thirty miles I fancy we shall have reached water, and be in a better country than we're in now, worse luck."
"What!" cried Chris.
"What I say, squire. We don't want to go dawdling about in pretty places. We must go yonder for rest and water, say for a day or two, but the old prospector's map won't fit in there."
"How do you know?" said Wilton sharply.
"Because if there'd been a landmark like that big peak anywhere near the city he'd have been safe to mark it down."
"Of course," said the doctor thoughtfully. "Where should you think that mountain is?"
"Don't know, sir, and I don't see that it matters to us in what State the old temple and its treasure is. All we've got to do is to find the wilderness that hides it away, and we may as well make up our minds that it'll take all the patience we can store up. But what do you say about our start, sir?"
"As soon as we have had something in the way of breakfast," replied the doctor. "Unfortunately we can have no coffee. It seems impossible to scrape together enough fuel to make a fire."
"Not till to-night, sir, but I think we might drink what water we like. The horses and mules will be able to get along without."
"Yes, we might venture upon a tinful each before starting," said the doctor.
That tinful each was the first part of the meal, and declared merrily by both boys to have quite a rattle-snaky flavour. The solid portion of the late breakfast was not appetising.
"But never mind, squires," cried Griggs cheerily; "we're going to get game as we go along to-day. It'll be roast birds for dinner if you keep your eyes open. I don't mean for the game."
"For what then?" asked Chris.
"The wood to cook it, my lad. We must carry the axe ready, and if we do happen to come across a few shrubs they must be loaded on top of the water-kegs, for the mule that carries them is getting to have a precious light load, and he deserves a heavy one for causing us all that trouble yesterday."
A very short time after they were going straight for the mountain—the great peak forming their goal, and the doctor taking its bearings by compass so as to know their route if mist should hide it, and when darkness came on.
To the surprise of all, both ponies and mules stepped briskly and well, the pasture upon which they had been busy having had a wonderfully good effect. The hardy beasts seemed now to need no water, and made light of their loads, while as the stiffness suffered by the riders passed off with movement in the warm bracing air, the difficulties and perils of the past seemed to die away.
Griggs proved to be right, too, before they had been two hours on the way, for first one or two, then a covey of the large partridge-like birds that haunted the open appeared, and as the day went on several plump additions to their stores fell to the guns.
But the wood was so far wanting, and it was not until evening was approaching that they came upon a scattered patch of trees, which grew for a long distance in a meandering way, just one here and there, and from which a sufficiency for their purpose was obtained; but the pasture was no more plentiful, and they kept on, till all at once Griggs slapped his hand down heavily upon his leg.
"Got it!" he cried.
"Got what?" exclaimed the doctor, and the boys stared.
"That idea. Can't you see, doctor? These trees have been all along on our right for quite a time."
"Yes, that's plain enough," was the reply.
"And they go right on as far as we can see, wandering in and out, but getting thicker."
"Yes, I can see all that, but I confess that I don't see what it has to do with your excitement."
"Don't you, doctor?" cried Griggs. "Well, it means this: there's been a watercourse here some time or other, and there's enough moisture underground to keep these little scrubby trees alive."
"I see. It is possible."
"As it gets farther from the hills there are fewer trees, but as we follow it up you can see they are getting thicker, and I believe that if we keep on far enough we shall come upon grass and water, perhaps a pool."
"Then we'll keep on," said the doctor, "certainly; and may you prove to be right."
Griggs did prove to be right, for when the course of the trees had been followed for about four miles, the party found themselves upon a marshy patch of a vivid green, the trees they had followed ending at the very edge. Pools of clear water were plentiful, and the banks and swampy ground between them and the lakes were rich in deep green succulent and coarse reeds and grassy patches such as cattle delight in.
A dry slope some fifty feet above the swamp was soon selected for the temporary halt—a place which proved to be quite free from reptiles; and here the mules were unladen, the fire was lit, and the boys joined eagerly in the culinary preparations, all being eager to help in the preparation of the evening meal.
PEACE AND PLENTY.
"What do you think of this, boys?" said Griggs, at sunrise the next morning.
"Splendid!" cried Chris.
"Glorious!" shouted Ned. "Oh, bother the old gold and the tramping through choking deserts. Come along, Chris."
"Here, what are you going to do?" cried Griggs.
"Swell ourselves out again," replied Chris. "I'm dried-up like a stalk with all that miserable tramping, and I shan't come right again till I've been in for an hour."
"Why, in that big pool. You listen. You can hear me crackle with the salt and dust caked over me. I'm afraid to laugh, for fear I should crack my skin."
"Get out! But a good wash will be a treat. I say, though, that place looks deep. You can both swim very well?"
"Oh, tidily—eh, Ned?"
"I should think so!"
"That's all right then," said Griggs; "but how about—"
"About what?" cried Chris, for the American stopped.
"The anacondas and alligators and snapping turtles and garfish with teeth sharp as sharks?"
"Oh, I say," cried Ned, with his face contracting as he glanced at the smooth clear waters of the largest pool in sight. "You don't think there's anything of that sort in there, do you?"
"I dunno. Haven't given it a thought," replied the American.
"Come along," cried Chris; "he's laughing at us."
"Not I," said Griggs.
"Anacondas," said Chris thoughtfully. "Yes, they are the big boa-constrictor-like chaps that half live in the water, and lay hold of anything that goes in. No, it's all stuff, Ned. They don't live here; they're in South America. There's nothing to mind."
"I don't know so much about that," said Griggs. "What about alligators and snapping turtles? There's safe to be plenty of them in a place like this."
"But they wouldn't try to touch us," cried Chris. "I shall chance it."
Ned looked anxious.
"Here, I say, Griggs," he said. "No games. We want a bathe horribly. You don't think there really are any biting things in the water, do you?"
"I dunno, my lad. This is a new place altogether to me. There are plenty of vicious hungry things down in Mississippi and Florida, I know that."
"But we're not in Mississippi nor yet in Florida," cried Chris. "I say, Griggy, where are we?"
"Why, here, to be sure," replied the American.
"Don't talk stuff!" cried Chris angrily. "What part are we in?"
"I'm not a geography-book, my lad, and I don't know where we are, only that we've travelled south-west. No finger-posts up here and no lines to show where the States are divided."
"Now you're bantering again, Griggs," cried Chris irritably. "You must know."
"If you come to that, why, so must you, my lad. But I really don't know, only that we're well into the wild unsettled parts of the country, and I should say nobody had ever been here before but prospectors—chaps like the poor fellow who came crawling to us regularly done up."
"But where should you think we are?"
"Well, I'm inclined to think that we're got well into Arizona, my lad, where the great unexplored salt deserts are."
"Very well, then, we've explored that part and come across the deserts, and got into the good land now."
"Oh, have we?" said Griggs derisively. "Why, we've only just tasted a bit of one. Do you know how big these wilds are?"
"A few miles across, I suppose—fifty or so, at the outside."
"That's mild for a guess," said Griggs. "Why, I believe, there's room enough out in these wilds for us to lose ourselves and wander about for years."
"Very well, then, let's wander," cried Chris. "That's nothing to do with what we want to do here, and that's to bathe and get rid of all this sand and dust."
"Well, then, if you'll take my advice you'll keep on the shallows close to the edge, in case—Yah! Look at that!"
The boys were already looking, their attention having been caught by the rising of a little wave caused by some fish or reptile rushing through the water for a few yards before curving over, making a great splash as it disappeared.
"A big fish seizing a small one," cried Chris. "Well, that won't hurt us," and hurrying along the edge of the pool they were not long before plunging in for a good swim, to come out ready to dry themselves in the sun, and, after dressing, enjoying the sensation of being freed from the dust and salt which had clung to their skins.
"I say, bother the old gold!" said Ned again, as they stood gazing at the mountains half bidden by the delicate clouds of mist curling about their sides and clinging to the great peak which had formed their guide. "Isn't it lovely! Why can't we live here?"
"Because we've got something else to do," said Chris grimly. "Besides, how could we live?"
"Live? Why, the same as we did at the plantation. I believe that everything would grow here and that we could raise abundance of fruit."
"And who should we sell it to?"
"Bother! Never mind about selling it," cried Ned contemptuously. "Eat it ourselves."
"Live on oranges, eh? What stuff you talk! Ask your father what he thinks."
"But there'd be plenty of other things here to eat. We could grow corn, and graze cattle, and keep poultry. I dare say we shall come across buffaloes and deer. Then there are abundance of birds, and I dare say these fish in the pools would be good, without reckoning on the salmon."
"What salmon?" said Chris grimly.
"The salmon in the rivers that come down from the mountains over there."
"Of course!" cried Chris mockingly. "Here, let's go salmon-fishing this morning. We've got hooks and lines packed up somewhere, and I don't suppose it will take us long to find a salmon-river."
Ned stared wide-eyed at his comrade, who burst out laughing.
"Oh I say, Ned, what a baby you are! I shall tell them over our breakfast everything you—Oh! I say! Smell that?"
"Yes," cried Ned eagerly. "Coffee."
"No, no; that other smell. I know! old Griggs is frying something for breakfast. Come on."
The scene around was glorious; there was the blue sunlit sky, in the distance the purple mist and the glistening silver of pool after pool, while all else was golden green—tree, bush, and waving reed, rush and grass. To a couple of boys whose eyes had been smarting for days in the dusty glare, the country around seemed perfect in its beauty. But though they had been revelling therein, and enjoyed it to the full, now that they were refreshed by their bath all seemed as nothing compared with the film of grey smoke that arose from close by the heap of packs beyond which the ponies and mules were grazing, half-hidden by the lush rich grass which brushed their flanks.
But it was not only the sight of that slow-rising smoke, there was the odour which floated to their nostrils, and set them off running in a way which seemed to suggest that their swim had washed away all the stiffness and languor of the day before.
"Breakfast," shouted Griggs as they drew near, and his cry brought up Wilton, Bourne, and the doctor, each with his double rifle and shot-gun across his shoulder.
The change was so great after the sufferings and excitement of the past hours, that every one was enthusiastic, and the conversation became general about the future; but very soon all but one became listeners, the one being the doctor, who laid down the law as to future proceedings, giving it as his opinion that the success of the expedition, or more especially the continuance thereof, must depend upon their keeping in touch with water.
"Yes, that's right," said Griggs, as if speaking to himself.
"You see," said the speaker, "our stores must rapidly grow less, and we have to face the fact that we shall have to throw ourselves upon the resources of the country; hence to go on journeying through the deserts means failure, perhaps worse, for we may find some day that we have gone so far that we cannot retrace our steps. You follow me, Griggs?"
"Quite, sir," was the reply. "You are saying what I think, only much better. I don't want to push forward my opinions, but I know a little about these matters, having journeyed farther north years ago, and having had a good deal to do with the horrible alkali plains, as they called them."
"Exactly, and we shall always be glad of your advice and counsel," said the doctor. "Now, it seems to me that wherever we can we must keep to the mountains. It will be more arduous for our beasts, but near the high lands we may generally find water. Where there is water there are grass and trees, and where there are these we may find food in the shape of birds and other animals, as well as provision for our ponies and mules."
"Plenty of fish in that big pool," said Chris.
"Oh!" cried Ned in protest. "We only saw one."
"But he was after another," said Chris sharply, "and that big one is sure to have plenty of young ones."
"His relatives, eh?" said Bourne, smiling.
"Of course," added Wilton, with a laugh, "and that will include the old folks as well as the young."
"Yes," said the doctor, "and you boys must try your hands at catching them whenever there is a chance. In fact, we must all bear in mind that it is urgent that we should be on the lookout for food—not in a destructive way, but so as to have the next day's supplies in hand. But now about to-day. We have excellent quarters here, the beasts are revelling in good pasture, and though I am anxious to go on I think we had better stay where we are, say for a couple of days more, not to do nothing, but to let this be the camp from which we make an expedition or two towards that peak and part of the way up its slopes, so as to determine in which direction we shall go next."
There was a murmur of assent here, and Wilton took up the debate.
"I believe," he said, "that we shall find the source of a river up there, and that then it would be wise to follow it down."
"That would take us towards the sea," said Ned's father decisively.
"Not for certain, sir," cried Griggs.
"Well, then, towards where the river joined another which ran into the sea."
"Not for certain, sir," repeated Griggs.
"Very well, then, where it runs into some good-sized lake."
"Not for certain, sir," paid Griggs, so decisively that Chris laughed, "But a river must fall into something," said Ned's father sharply, Griggs' interruptions having made him feel nettled.
"Yes, sir, of course; but in a desert country such as it is about here they fall into difficulties."
"I know," cried Chris; "Griggs means that they tumble down into those great canons like that one on the Colorado, isn't it, where the banks are a mile deep?"
"No, I don't, squire," said Griggs firmly, "though I shouldn't be a bit surprised if we came across one of those gashes in the desert. I meant that some of the little rivers that come down from the mountains run bright and clear for a time in amongst the rocks till they get to the more level ground, and then they spread-out and grow wide and shallow so that you find they're only up to your knees. A mile or two lower down they're not up to your ankles, while a bit lower there's no river at all."
"What, gone down a sink-hole?" cried Chris.
"No, squire; spread-out and soaked away into the sand, which begins by looking dark-coloured and has patches of grass growing in it for a bit, and then you get farther and the sun has drunk up all the sand had not swallowed."
"But there must be pools and marshes," said Wilton.
"Pools sometimes, but where you do find one it's as salt as the sea, only a deal nastier, and if you drink any of it you find it makes you ill."
"You've had that experience?" said the doctor.
"More'n once, sir," replied Griggs, "and it aren't nice. Which way do you mean to go to-day, sir?"
"Straight for the mountains," replied the doctor.
"Humph!" grunted Griggs. "Won't get there in one journey."
"No," replied the doctor, scanning the beautiful elevation through his glass, "but I think we might do what we can in the way of selecting another camp to which we can move a day or two later."
"Yes, we can do that, sir. But what about here?"
"I should set up the tent here before we start," suggested Wilton.
"What for, sir?" asked Griggs sharply.
"It will be a big white object for our guidance on our way back."
Griggs shook his head and smiled.
"We shall take our bearings, and be able to find our camp again. The water here will do for one big mark when we're yonder on the hills. If you set up that tent with no one to mind it, the mules won't be long before they come rubbing themselves against the ropes and upsetting it, for one thing. Another is, that if a roving band of mounted Indians came along they'd be down upon it at once to see what there was worth taking."
"But surely there are no mounted Indians about here?" said Ned eagerly.
"Maybe no, maybe yes, my lad. I don't know that there are, and I don't know that there aren't. Here's plenty of room for them, and a nice country where there's water and perhaps game. Likely enough there may be Indians. For they're here to-day and a hundred miles off to-morrow, roving about in search of eatables."
"Yes," said the doctor gravely, "and the thought of the life they lead is encouraging to me."
"Encouraging?" cried Bourne and Wilton together.
"Certainly. I have been a good deal exercised in my mind about the failing of our provisions forcing us at last to turn back, but if we follow the example of the Indians there is no reason why we, so long as we have sufficient ammunition, should not be able to keep on for years if it were necessary. What one band can do, surely another can."
"That's what you think, then, is it, sir?" said Griggs sharply.
"Yes; why do you speak like that?"
"Only because I'm glad you see fully what we've got to do, sir, and are ready to do it."
"But we must husband our stores," said Bourne.
"Of course, sir," said Griggs, with his eyes twinkling. "We will, as long as they'll stop to be husbanded; but they'll shrink away to nothing at last, and we must look forward to the time when all the extras'll be gone and we shall have to live on meat and water."
"Rather starvation rations, Griggs," said Wilton, while the boys stared at one another.
"Oh no, sir. I've been through it, and it isn't half bad. You soon get used to it, and then you find out what roast meat and cold water really are—about the most delicious eating and drinking in the world. Your appetite's splendid; you can sleep like a top; and as to what you can do, it's wonderful. You never seem to be tired."
"Then you don't feel any apprehension about our having to give up for want of supplies?"
"Not a bit, sir, as long as the powder and shot last. When they're done the sooner we make for civilisation the better."
"Yes," said the doctor thoughtfully. "You must be right, Griggs."
"Yes, sir, I am right," said Griggs, without a shadow of brag in his way of speaking. "I wouldn't speak out as I do if I hadn't proved it."
"How long did you lead such a life as that?" asked Chris.
"Going on for four years. Why, I've talked to you and Squire Ned here often."
"Yes, of course, about your experiences in the big north-west," said Chris; "but I didn't know it lasted so long."
"Don't you remember about his fight with the Indians, when they rode round his party?" asked Ned.
"Yes, I remember," said Chris. Then thoughtfully, "You think we shall find Indians out here?"
"No, I don't, my lad; but I feel pretty sure they'll find us."
"Most likely," said the doctor, nodding his head; "but we can beat them off. You feel, then, Griggs, that we need be under no apprehension about our stores?"
"Not a bit, sir, so long as we keep within touch of the mountains. I'd almost go as far as to say that we could do better without them. We could after a time, for it will save a lot of trouble in loading up the baggage. But they won't fail yet awhile. A man can do without tea and coffee and sugar and pepper, and without meal too when he's obliged. We shan't want for salt, I dessay, though the less we come across that the better. We shan't fail over finding where that poor old chap made his map, on account of the eating and drinking. I was thinking about him in the night when I woke up to have a look round."
"What about him?" said Chris, for the American had stopped short.
"'Bout how long he'd been living out somewhere in these parts."
"Or some other parts," said Wilton.
"That's right, sir."
"How long had he been out here, then?" asked Ned eagerly.
"Can't say, squire; but a many, many years, for he was pretty nigh worn out, warn't he, doctor?"
"By privation principally," said Bourne thoughtfully.
"Privation had had a good deal to do with it certainly," said the doctor; "but Griggs is right, he was nearly worn out."
"With his long fight?" said Wilton.
"Principally from old age. He must have been very far past seventy."
"What?" cried Bourne.
"Oh yes, he was very old," replied the doctor quietly.
"Ay, he seemed so," said Griggs. "Old enough to be a hundred; not that he was. I'll say eighty. Well, he might easily have been wandering about in his gold hunt for twenty or thirty or forty years."
"Oh, absurd!" cried Wilton.
"P'r'aps so, sir; but look here, he went out with a party of prospectors, didn't he?"
"And he was the only survivor?"
"To be sure; he told Lee so."
"Well, it's an old story about the parties of prospectors going out into the desert in search of gold and never coming back."
"Yes, we have heard it often."
"Then tell me this, Mr Wilton," said Griggs sharply. "When a party goes out exploring, what sort of chaps are they?"