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    Chapter 23

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    Chapter 24
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    Dave had been in perilous situations before, and had learned the important lesson that if he lost his wits all would be lost. The mountain lion was large and powerful and evidently in full fighting humor.

    The youth was armed, carrying a pistol by Tom Dillon's orders. Now, as he backed against the nearest rock, he drew the weapon and pointed it at the beast.

    The mountain lion crouched still lower and the tail of the creature moved from side to side with greater swiftness. Dave felt that in another second or two the beast would make a leap for him.

    In the semi-darkness of the rocky defile he could see the lion but indistinctly. But the two eyes were glaring at him and on one of these he centered his aim as best he could.

    As he pulled the trigger of the pistol the mountain lion jumped at him. Crack! went the weapon, echoing loudly in that confined space. The bullet missed the beast's head and buried itself in the shoulder. As Dave fired he leaped to one side.

    It was well that our hero made that move, otherwise the mountain lion must have come down directly on top of him. As it was the beast fell at his side, snarling and snapping fiercely, and turning in an effort to ascertain what that thing was which was burning him in the shoulder.

    Crack! the pistol sounded out again, and this time the mountain lion was hit in the neck. Over and over he rolled, but got quickly to his feet, and, wounded as he was, prepared for another spring at our hero.

    Again Dave fired, but this time his aim was not so true, and the bullet, grazing the lion's tail, struck a rock with a sharp click. Then the savage creature hurled himself straight for Dave's breast.

    Bang! bang! It was the double report from a huge, old-fashioned horse-pistol that Tom Dillon carried. The old miner had come clattering to the spot on horseback and with a single glance had taken in the situation. The leap of the mountain lion was stayed, and with a final snarl the beast rolled over and over, disappearing of a sudden into the opening of the cave Dave had discovered.

    "Are you hurt, lad?" asked the old miner, after he had waited anxiously for several seconds for the mountain lion to reappear.

    "Not in the--the least," was our hero's panting answer. "But it--it was a close call!" and he shuddered. "Do you think he's dead?"

    "I shouldn't wonder. You hit him, didn't you?"

    "Yes, twice. But they couldn't have been very good shots, or he wouldn't have come for me again."

    "Mountain lions is mighty tough, lad. I've seen one with six bullets in him still show fight. Load up, as quick as you can. His mate may be around."

    This advice was, however, unnecessary for Dave was already recharging the empty chambers of the pistol. From his Uncle Dunston he had learned years before the advisability of keeping one's weapon ready for use at all times.

    The sound of the shots had called the others of the party to the scene, and numerous were the questions asked.

    "Wow! a mountain lion!" cried Phil. "And did you kill him, Dave?"

    "I don't know whether he is dead. Mr. Dillon and I both hit him, and he flopped around here until he slid down into that hole yonder."

    "Maybe he isn't dead yet," suggested Roger.

    "Even so, being badly wounded, he'll stick to his shelter," said Abe Blower. "Say," he went on, "thet looks like a putty good sized cave!"

    "Just what I was thinking," returned Dave. "I was going to have a look inside, when that mountain lion growled and sprang out at me."

    "We'll light some torches, and take a look at the place," suggested old Tom Dillon.

    "Oh, supposing it's an entrance to that lost mine!" cried Phil.

    "It would be great!" added the senator's son, enthusiastically.

    "I hardly think it could be thet," put in Abe Blower. "But if the cave is long enough, it might lead to one o' the shafts as was sunk fer the mine; eh, Tom?"

    "That's true," responded the old miner.

    "I've got my electric torch with me," said Roger, bringing that useful article from his pocket. "We can use that in the cave."

    "The light wouldn't be strong enough, an' steady enough," answered Abe Blower. "We'll have to have regular torches, and plenty of 'em, too. Caves like thet are often full o' holes, an' ye might step into one an' fall down to Chiny, or somewhere else," and he smiled, grimly.

    The old miners had picked up some sticks for torches on the way, thinking they might come in useful for firewood if for nothing else, and several of these were now lit and swung into a lively blaze.

    "No use of all of us goin' in there," said Abe Blower.

    "No, somebody has got to stay here an' watch the hosses," answered Tom Dillon.

    A brief discussion followed, and it was agreed that Abe Blower and Roger and Dave should go down into the opening, leaving Tom Dillon and Phil to guard the animals and the camping outfit. Possibly the shipowner's son was disappointed by this arrangement, but if so he did not show it.

    "It might not take more'n a few minutes to look into the cave," said Abe Blower. "An' then ag'in, it might take some hours. But, no matter how big the hole is, we won't be gone more'n two hours, Tom;" and so it was decided.

    As they entered the cave--for such it really proved to be--they held their torches over their heads and looked anxiously for the mountain lion.

    "I don't see anything of his majesty," said Roger, in almost a whisper, for the strange adventure had set his nerves on an edge.

    "Oh, I suppose he had life enough left to crawl quite a distance," answered Dave.

    The cave was irregular in shape, forming something of an underground split in the rocks. The flooring led steadily downward, with here and there an opening of unknown depth.

    "A good place to prospect," said Abe Blower, as he flashed his torch over the rocky walls.

    "Do you imagine there is gold in those rocks?" asked Dave.

    "Might be, lad, an' silver, too. But there might not be enough to make it pay to git it out."

    "I see the mountain lion!" cried Roger, a minute later. "There he is, in yonder corner, in his den. And look, it's his mate!"

    All gazed and not far distant beheld a scene that touched their hearts. On the rocks lay the dead lion and over him stood his mate, licking his face with her rough tongue.

    "Look out!" cried Abe Blower, and drew his horse-pistol--a companion weapon to that carried by Tom Dillon. "She'll come fer us, sure!"

    The old miner was right. Swiftly the lioness turned, and set up a savage roar that echoed and reechoed throughout the cavern. Then, in spite of the torches--for all savage beasts are afraid of fire--she prepared to fight those she felt had slain the one she loved.

    It was Abe Blower who fired first, and scarcely had the sound of the shot died away when Roger and Dave pulled trigger. Over and over whirled the lioness, and then of a sudden struck one of the wide cracks in the flooring of the cave and disappeared from view. They heard the body strike on some rocks far below; and then all became silent.

    "Oh, wasn't that awful!" gasped Roger, and felt of his forehead, where the cold perspiration had gathered.

    "I--I kind of hated to do it," answered Dave. "She was mourning over her mate!"

    "Shall we send the other body down, too?" went on the senator's son.

    "Might as well," was the quick answer, and soon the other lion was dragged to the opening and dropped down. Abe Blower looked on at the work and smiled grimly.

    "I suppose ye are sorry for thet lioness, but I ain't," he said. "They are wicked critters, I can tell ye, an' they do a whole lot o' damage."

    "I suppose they live according to their nature," replied Dave, softly. In his mind's eye he could still see the tawny lioness licking the face of her dead mate.

    On they went again. The cave was narrow here but presently broadened out. The roof was, for the most part, less than ten feet high, so the boys felt just as if they were "walking between big pie crusts," as Roger quaintly expressed it. The cave seemed to be dry, although when they stopped once more to look around, they heard the distant gurgle of a stream of water.

    "Wall, I can't see as it looks anythin' like a mine," announced Abe Blower, presently. "Nothin' like a shaft around here."

    "I wonder how long the cave is?" came from Dave. "It must end somewhere."

    "Say, wouldn't this make a good place to camp out in?" asked Roger, of the old miner.

    "Not much!" was the quick answer.

    "Why not? It would be cool in the daytime and warm at night, with a little campfire."

    "Maybe, lad. But wot if some o' these rocks should shift? They'd squash ye as flat as a flapjack!"

    "I didn't think of that."

    "I don't believe it is very safe in here," said Dave. "This cave must have been formed by that landslide, and, if so, perhaps the dirt and rocks haven't finished settling yet. I don't want any rocks to come down on my head!"

    "Nor on any of us!" added the senator's son.

    "I've got an idee thet we are a-comin' to another openin'," remarked Abe Blower, a few minutes later, after they had made a sharp turn to the right.

    "Why so?" asked Roger.

    "I kin feel some fresh air from somewhere."

    "I feel it too," returned Dave. "Doesn't it come from overhead?"

    "Mebbe, lad; although I thought it was ahead."

    "Here is that stream of water!" cried Roger, as they made another turn. "But we can't get at it," he added, somewhat disappointedly.


    "It's down below the split in the rocks. Look!"

    He held up his torch so they could look down into something of a sharp-edged basin of rocks. A dozen feet below they could see the water pouring from one hole in the rocks and disappearing farther on.

    Nearly an hour had been spent in walking and crawling around the big cave. They had had several narrow escapes from pitfalls and were moving with caution.

    "Maybe we had better go back," suggested Roger.

    "I was thinkin' thet myself," answered Abe Blower. "Nothin' much in here, so far as I kin see. We might come back later an' have another look--if we don't discover thet lost mine elsewhere," he added.

    "You are sure this is the right district?" asked Dave.

    "Oh, yes, the lost Landslide Mine can't be very far away," was the old miner's reply.

    They turned back, heading, as they thought, for the opening by which they had entered. On and on they walked, occasionally slipping and sliding where the rocks sloped. Then they came to a spot where there was a wide crevice to cross.

    "My gracious, did we jump over that when we came this way?" queried the senator's son, as all gazed at the wide opening, which was of unknown depth.

    "We certainly did not!" declared Abe Blower.

    "Then we have come the wrong way!" put in Dave, quickly.

    "It sure looks like it, lad."

    "If that's the case, we'll have to go back!" came from Roger. He looked around them and his face paled a trifle. "Oh, do you think we are lost?"

    "If we are not, we are next door to it," was Abe Blower's serious answer.
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