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    Chapter 18

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    Chapter 19
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    THE STOLEN HORSES

    "Oh, look!"

    "That horse is going over the cliff!"

    "Take care, Phil, or he'll drag you with him!"

    Such were some of the cries which arose as the others looked back on the rocky trail and saw the situation.

    The horse with the outfit had struck against a projecting rock and been thrown sideways, to where the trail crumbled away in some loose stones close to the edge of the dangerous cliff. The animal and the outfit were in danger of going down to the depths below. Phil, on his own horse, had caught hold of the other horse's halter and was trying to haul him to a safer footing. But the youth and his steed were losing ground instead of gaining it.

    "Let go, or you'll go over!" screamed Roger, in increasing alarm. "Let the outfit go, Phil!"

    The shipowner's son tried to do as bidden. But now a new difficulty presented itself. In his eagerness to hold the halter Phil had twisted it about his hand and wrist. Now it was caught in the very flesh and almost pulling one arm from its socket, as he tried to make his own horse hold back.

    Dave turned swiftly and so did the others, and for the moment there was quite a mix-up on the narrow trail, and all were in danger of losing their footing. Then they crowded to Phil's side, and while Dave caught hold of the halter, Tom Dillon and Roger caught the falling horse with the outfit.

    "Turn him around--this way!" yelled the old miner, and, old as he was, he showed a wonderful strength in shoving the falling horse back to a firmer footing. The loose stones went clattering over the cliff in a shower, and more than one horse snorted in fright.

    It was a moment of dire peril and it looked as if somebody, or at least one of the animals, must go over into that yawning chasm below. A stone was flung up by a hoof, hitting Dave in the cheek. But he retained his hold on the halter and pulled for all he was worth. Then came another struggle, and at last the horse with the outfit stood on the safe portion of the dangerous trail; and the peril was at an end.

    "Oh!" gasped Phil, and for the moment that was all he was able to say.

    "Give me that halter," said Tom Dillon. "I'll lead him while we are on this narrow part of the trail."

    "Are you hurt, Phil?" asked Dave.

    "I--I guess not!" was the panting answer. "But I--I sure did think I was going over there!" And the shipowner's son shuddered.

    "Your cheek is cut, Dave!" cried Roger. "How did that happen?"

    "Oh, it's only a scratch--made by a flying stone," was the answer. "It doesn't amount to anything."

    "I didn't dream that this trail would be so dangerous," went on the senator's son. "If I had known it, I wouldn't have asked you fellows to come along."

    "Oh, it's not so bad," returned Phil, hastily. "That horse was awkward--he's the worst of the bunch."

    "That's right, an' they had no right to hire me such a hoss," put in Tom Dillon. "When we git back I'll give that feller who did it a piece o' my mind. I tole him I wanted critters used to the mountain trails. The hosses we are ridin' are all right, but this one, he's a sure tenderfoot. He ought to be in the city, behind a truck."

    Soon the narrow portion of the rocky trail was left behind and then all of the boys breathed easier.

    "That trail back thar is bad enough," was Tom Dillon's comment. "But ye ought to see it in the winter time, with ice an' snow on it! Then it's some travelin', believe me!"

    "None for mine!" answered Phil. "I want to see the ground when I travel in a spot like that."

    As soon as the trail became better they went forward at the best possible speed, for they wished, if they could, to catch up with Abe Blower and those with him.

    "You don't suppose Blower would turn off of this trail?" questioned Roger, of the old miner, as they rode along.

    "He couldn't turn off until he reached wot we call Talpoll Crossin'," answered Tom Dillon. "And we won't git thar until some time to-morrow."

    They were climbing up a steady grade and so had to stop again and again to rest the horses. The trail wound in and out among the hills, and before the party was the big mountain.

    "Stop an' I'll show you something!" cried the old miner, presently, and as they halted he pointed toward the mountain with his hand. "See that knob a stickin' out ag'in the sky?" he questioned.

    "The one with the yellowish spot on it?" asked Dave.

    "Yes. Well, that is where the big landslide took place an' buried the Landslide Mine an' my claim out o' sight."

    All of the boys gazed with interest at the spot which, of course, was many miles away. They saw they would have to work their way over two more hills and through several hollows to get to it. Ahead they could occasionally see the trail, but not a soul was in sight.

    "Look!" exclaimed Dave, as he turned to gaze below them along the trail they had been pursuing. "I can see something moving!"

    "Maybe cattle," suggested Roger, after a long look.

    "No, I think it is a crowd on horseback," answered our hero, after another look.

    Roger had with him a small pair of field-glasses, and he had brought them forth to gaze at the mountain where the Landslide Mine had been located. Now he turned them on the distant objects Dave had discovered.

    "Horsemen true enough," he said, after a look. "Three of them."

    "Oh, say, do you think they can be Sol Blugg and his two cronies?" burst out Phil.

    "Maybe," answered Roger. "I can't make them out from this distance."

    "Let me take a look," suggested Tom Dillon, and adjusted the glasses to his eyes. "You are right--they are three men on horses. But who they are I don't know. Plenty o' miners travel this trail at one time or another."

    They looked at the distant horsemen for several minutes. Then the field-glasses were put away and they continued their journey.

    Nightfall found them in a district that, to the boys, was desolation itself. Rocks were on every side, with little patches of the coarsest kind of growth, brushwood, stalk-like grass, and cacti. The air was so pure and thin that it fairly made one's nose tingle to breathe it.

    All were tired out--indeed the boys were so stiff from the long ride that they could scarcely climb down from their saddles. But not for the world were they going to let Tom Dillon know this. They had told the old miner that they were used to roughing it and they wanted to "make good" in his eyes.

    Some brushwood was gathered and a fire started, and the horses were tethered near by. The old miner knew where there was a spring of drinkable water--something occasionally hard to find in a district full of all sorts of minerals--and soon they had some boiling for coffee. Then their outfit was unstrapped, and they prepared supper and got ready to turn in for the night.

    "I wonder if we can't see something of the campfire of Abe Blower, if he is ahead," remarked Dave.

    "We might have a look for it," answered Roger.

    There was a tall rock just behind their camp, and this the two youths climbed, Phil saying he was too tired to stir. It was harder work than Dave and Roger had anticipated, but, once they had started, they hated to give up. Up and up and still up they went, climbing from one elevation to another by means of the rocks themselves and bits of coarse grass and brushwood.

    "There, I reckon we are high enough now!" cried the senator's son, after nearly half an hour's climbing. "Anyway, I am going to stop!" And he began to pant for breath.

    The two boys looked around them. The sun had sunk to rest behind the mountain in the west, and the hollows between the hills were deep in the gloom of the oncoming night. Far back on the trail they had come they saw a small fire start up.

    "That must be the campfire of those three horsemen," said Dave.

    "More than likely," responded his chum. "Do you see anything ahead?"

    Both looked, but for a long time could see nothing. Then they caught a faint gleam from a point apparently halfway up the mountain, in the direction where the Landslide Mine was supposed to be located.

    "Maybe that's Abe Blower's camp!" cried Dave, who was the first to discover the light.

    "I'd like to know if Link Merwell and Job Haskers are really with him," said Roger.

    "We ought to be able to catch up to them by to-morrow, so Mr. Dillon said."

    "Unless Merwell and Haskers fix it so that they throw us off their trail, Roger. You know Mr. Dillon said they could branch off at Talpoll Crossing. That is where a spur of the railroad cuts in, to reach the mines on the other side of the hills--the railroad I suppose the Landslide Mine would have to use in getting out ore."

    The boys watched the distant light for a while longer, and then descended to the camping spot. The others listened with interest to what they had to report.

    "We'll be after 'em at sun-up," said Tom Dillon. "An' now all o' yer had better turn in an' get what rest you can."

    This was sensible advice, and the three youths lost no time in following it. They turned in around the fire, which was kept burning, so as to keep away any possible prowling beasts. Tom Dillon was the last to retire, he looking to it that all of the horses were tethered.

    It was just growing daylight when Dave awoke with a start. Something had aroused him--what he could not tell. He sat bolt upright, and at the same moment the old miner, who was beside him, did the same.

    "What's up?" asked Tom Dillon, instinctively feeling for the pistol he carried.

    "Our horses!" cried Dave. "They are running back on the trail!"

    "Somebody is stealin' 'em!" roared Tom Dillon, and was on his feet on the instant.

    By this time the noise had awakened Phil and Roger, and all three boys followed the old miner in arising. In the gray light of the morning they could see that their four horses were moving along the back trail on a gallop. A single man seemed to be in charge of them, on a steed of his own.

    "Halt!" yelled Tom Dillon. "Halt, or I'll fire on you!" And he raised his pistol.

    At this sharp command the man with the horses turned slightly to look back. He crouched low, and wore a sombrero pulled down well over his face. On the instant he rode to the front of the galloping steeds, thus getting out of range of the old miner's weapon.

    "Come on, we must get our hosses!" sang out Tom Dillon, and started forward on the run. Then he let out a shrill whistle, one he knew was used for calling the animal he had been riding.

    The effect of the whistle was all that could have been desired. The horse dropped to a walk and then turned back. And as Tom Dillon continued to whistle, the intelligent steed came closer and closer, until the old miner was able to grasp it by the halter.

    But all this had taken valuable time, and meanwhile the other horses continued to gallop on, led by the man in front, who was now riding like the wind. Who he was they could not make out, but they strongly suspected Sol Blugg or one of his cronies.

    "I'd shoot if them hosses wasn't in the way!" cried Tom Dillon, wrathfully.

    "Can't you go after them?" asked Dave and Roger, in a breath.

    "I can and I will!" answered the old miner. "Stay right here till I get back!" And with those words he saddled his horse with all speed, and in less than a minute later was flying down the back trail after the stolen steeds and the rascal who was making off with them.
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