JACK OF THE PONY EXPRESS
The Young Rider of the Mountain Trails
FRANK V. WEBSTER
I. JACK IN THE SADDLE
II. POSTMISTRESS JENNIE
III. A NARROW ESCAPE
IV. IMPORTANT LETTERS
V. JUST IN TIME
VI. THE SECRET MINE
VII. THE STRANGERS AGAIN
VIII. A NIGHT ATTACK IX. IN BONDS
X. A QUEER DISCOVERY
XI. DUMMY LETTERS
XII. A RIDE FOR LIFE
XIII. THE INSPECTOR
XIV. THE CHASE
XV. A CAUTION
XVI. SUNGER GOES LAME
XVII. AN INVITATION DECLINED
XVIII. A QUEER FEELING
XIX A DESPERATE RIDE
XX. AT GOLDEN CROSSING
XXI. THE ARGENT LETTERS
XXII. THE MASKED MAN
XXIII. THE ESCAPE
XXIV. JACK'S IDEA
XXV. JACK'S TRICK—CONCLUSION
JACK IN THE SADDLE
"Your father is a little late to-night, isn't he Jack?"
"Yes, Mrs. Watson, he should have been here a half-hour ago, and he would, too, if he had ridden Sunger instead of his own horse."
"You think a lot of that pony of yours, don't you, Jack?" and a motherly-looking woman came to the doorway of a small cottage and peered up the mountain trail, which ran in front of the building. Out on the trail itself stood a tall, bronzed lad, who was, in fact, about seventeen years of age, but whose robust frame and athletic build made him appear several years older.
"Yes, Mrs. Watson," the boy answered with a smile, "I do think a lot of Sunger, and he's worth it, too."
"Yes, I guess he is. And he can travel swiftly, too. My goodness! The way you sometimes clatter past my house makes me think you'll sure have an accident. Sometimes I'm so nervous I can't look at you."
"Sunger is pretty sure-footed, even on worse mountain trails than the one from Rainbow Ridge to Golden Crossing," answered Jack with a laugh, that showed his white, even teeth, which formed a strange contrast to his tanned face.
"Sunger," repeated Mrs. Watson, musingly. "What an odd name. I often wonder how you came to call him that."
"It isn't his real name," explained Jack, as he gave another look up the trail over which the rays of the declining sun were shining, and then walked up to the porch, where he sat down. "The pony was once owned by a Mexican miner, and he named him something in Spanish which meant that the little horse could go so fast that he dodged the sun. Sundodger was what the name would be in English, I suppose, and after I bought him that's what I called him.
"But Sundodger is too much of a mouthful when one's in a hurry," and Jack laughed at his idea, "so," he went on, "I shortened it to Sunger, which does just as well."
"Yes, as long as he knows it," agreed Mrs. Watson. "But I guess, Jack, I had better be going, I did think I'd wait until your father came, and put the supper on for you both, but he's so late now—"
"Yes, Mrs. Watson, don't wait," interrupted Jack. "I don't know what to make of dad's being so late. But we're used to getting our own meals, so you needn't worry. We'll get along all right."
"Oh, I know you will. For two men—for you are getting so big I shall have to call you a man," and she smiled at him. "For two men you really get along very well indeed."
"Yes, I'm getting to be something of a cook myself," admitted the lad. "But I can't quite equal your biscuits yet, and there's no use saying I can. However, you baked a pretty good batch this afternoon, and dad sure will be pleased when he sees 'em. I wish he'd come while they're hot though," and once more Jack Bailey arose and went out to peer up the trail. He listened intently, but his sharp senses caught no sound of clattering hoofs, nor sight of a horseman coming down the slope, a good view of which could be had from in front of the house that stood on a bend in the road.
"Well, then, I'll be getting along," Mrs. Watson resumed, as she threw a shawl over her shoulders, for, though the day had been warm, there was a coolness in the mountain air with the coming of night. "Everything is all ready to dish-up" went on the motherly-looking woman, as she went out of the front gate, "The chicken is hot on the back of the stove."
"Oh, we'll make out all right, thank you," called Jack after her, as she started down the trail. Mrs. Watson lived about a quarter of a mile away. Her husband was a miner, and she had a grown daughter, so it was quite convenient for Mrs. Watson to come over twice a week, or oftener on occasions, and do the housework in the cottage where Mr. Peter Bailey and his son Jack lived. Mrs. Watson would do the sweeping, dusting and as much cooking as she had time for, and then go back to her own home.
Jack's mother was dead, and he and his father had managed for some years without the services of a housekeeper. Mr. Bailey was a pony express rider, carrying the mail and small express packages between the settlements of Rainbow Ridge and Golden Crossing. Mr. Bailey and Jack lived on the outskirts of Rainbow Ridge.
This was in the Rocky Mountain country of one of our western states, and the trails were so wild and winding, and, for that matter, so unsafe, that it was out of the question to use a mail or stage coach between the two places.
From Rainbow Ridge, however, there was a stage route going east, which took the mail and express matter as it was brought in by Mr. Bailey. And from Golden Crossing going west the same arrangement was made. Golden Crossing was a settlement on the banks of the Ponto River, a small enough stream in ordinary times, but which was wild and dangerous during heavy rains or freshets.
So the pony express, as run by Mr. Bailey, was the only regular means of communication between Golden Crossing and Rainbow Ridge. It was of importance, too, for often valuable mail and packages went through, the route being shorter and quicker than by a roundabout stage line.
When Mrs. Watson was out of sight around a bend in the trail, Jack went into the cottage. It really was a cottage, though when Mr. Bailey first brought his family to the West it had been but a cabin, or shack. But Mr. Bailey and his wife had labored hard to make it more of a "home," and they had succeeded very well. Then came the sad occasion of Mrs. Bailey's illness and death, and for a time life had seemed very hard to Jack and his father.
The latter had been interested in mines, but found the work too difficult with his failing health, so he had secured the pony express contract, which he had carried on now for several years.
"It certainly is a shame to have this fine supper spoil," mused Jack, as he lifted the cover from a pot of chicken, and glanced at the pile of browned biscuit in the warming oven.
"I can't understand what makes dad so late," he went on. "Of course, the mail from the Golden Crossing office might not have been ready for him to take. It's been pretty heavy of late, and is almost more than Aunt Matilda can handle. Though I suppose Jennie gives her a hand now and then," and as he said that Jack looked at the photograph on the mantel of an attractive girl, who seemed to smile at him. Jack looked cautiously around the room, and then raised a hand to his lips and threw a kiss from the tips of his fingers at the picture.
This done he blushed—but you would not have known it, he was so bronzed by the sun and the wind. Mrs. Matilda Blake was a distant relative of Mr. Bailey's, and Jack called her "Aunt Matilda," though she really did not bear that relationship to him. She was a widow, and she and her only daughter, Jennie, a girl of about sixteen, lived in Golden Crossing, where Mrs. Blake was postmistress. Jack and Jennie were the best of friends.
"Well, if dad doesn't come pretty soon, I'm going to eat," decided Jack. "He won't mind, I'm sure. But I would like to know what's keeping him. I hope he hasn't had any accident. His pony is sure-footed, I know, but I'd feel better if he had Sunger."
Jack was plainly nervous—that is as nervous as a young, healthy lad can be. He went outside again, and walked a little way back along the trail over which his father would come. But the trail seemed deserted. The Bailey cottage was in a rather lonely location, there being no other habitation in sight.
There were other houses not far away, and a number in the town, but because of the winding nature of the trail, and the ruggedness of the mountains, they could not be seen from where Jack stood.
As the lad was about to turn back and again enter the cottage with the determination to eat his supper, he heard something which caused him to start.
"Here he comes!" he exclaimed. "But he's walking his horse! That's queer! Something must have happened!"
Speed was one of the prime requisites of the pony express. The men who rode the routes over plains and mountain trails secured the speediest horses or ponies possible. Their life, when in the saddle, was a continual rush, for the mail and express matter must go through as quickly as possible, and where no steam and railroads were available recourse was had to horseflesh. And knowing the value of speed Jack wondered when he heard the approach of a horse at a walking pace.
Mr. Bailey was supposed to arrive at Rainbow Ridge in time to deliver his express and mail matter to the night stage coach going east, and the hour for its leaving had passed some time since. Of course, the stage would wait for the pony express, but this meant a delay all along the rest of the route.
"Something sure must have happened!" said Jack to himself. "I'll go to meet dad."
He set off on foot, but came running back.
"I'll get Sunger," he told himself, speaking aloud, a habit engendered by the lonliness of the mountains. "He's quite a way off yet, but Sunger will make short work of the distance."
Though the sound of the approaching footsteps of the horse of the pony express rider could be plainly heard by Jack, so clear and resonant was the mountain air, he realized that his father had yet nearly half a mile to travel.
Leaping to the saddle of his pony, and patting the animal lovingly on the neck, Jack set off once more. He went quickly, for Sunger was fresh and eager.
In a few minutes Jack turned at a place where the trail followed a great rocky ledge, and in front of him, almost collapsed in the saddle was a man. He seemed to sit on his horse only by a great effort, and on his face was a drawn look of pain.
"Why, Dad!" cried Jack. "What's the matter? Has anything happened? Did they hold up the mail?"
"No, the mail and other stuff is all right," was the answer, broken by an exclamation of pain. "But I'm all in, Jack. I'm afraid I'm going to be quite ill. It was all I could do to ride the last few miles, but I wouldn't give in."
Jack was at his father's side in an instant.
"Get on Sunger," he urged. "He's easier for you to ride. Let me help you. What is the trouble? How did it happen?"
"I don't know, Jack, my boy. But I won't change horses. I can keep on until I get to the cabin. Here, you take the mail and express and ride on with it to the stage. I'll keep on toward home. Come back as soon as you can, and you—you'd better bring the doctor with you!" he faltered.
For a moment Jack Bailey did not know what to do. He looked at his father, who was evidently quite ill and suffering much pain. Then the lad glanced at the bags of mail and small express matter which lay over the saddle in front of Mr. Bailey.
"Take the mail, Jack, my boy!" the pony express rider exclaimed, with an effort. "Take the mail, so the stage can get off. I'm late now, but I couldn't make the trail any faster. Get the mail through, and then stop and bring a doctor back with you if he'll come."
"But I can't go away and leave you like this, Dad!"
"You must, Jack!"
"But you're too ill!"
"That can't be helped. The mail and express must go through on time if I'm to keep the contract. And I certainly don't want to lose it. I'll manage to get to the cottage. Once there, I can sit down, and if I get a cup of hot tea I may feel better. It seems to be acute indigestion, though I don't remember eating anything that didn't agree with me. But ride on, Jack. And don't worry. I'll get to the cottage all right and be there when you come back."
"All right, Dad! I'll do it. But I sure do hate to leave you like this!"
"It's better than having the mail delayed. Ride on. Explain to Jed Monty how it is. I think Jed takes the stage out to-night."
"Yes, he does. I'll tell him."
Jack quickly transferred to his own saddle the bags of mail and express matter. Mr. Bailey seemed easier now, though there was still that look of pain on his face.
"Come on, Sunger," called the lad to his pony. "We've got to make time!"
The intelligent and beautiful animal whinnied as if he understood. Then, with a fond and anxious look at his father, Jack wheeled about and set off down the trail at a gallop, Mr. Bailey going on more slowly, for every motion of his horse gave him pain.
Jack was soon out of sight around a bend of the trail. He flashed past his cottage, and thought with satisfaction that there was hot water on the range, so his father could make himself a cup of tea.
Jack paused long enough at Mrs. Watson's cabin to tell her what was the matter, and to inform her that he was taking the mail over the last mile of the route into town.
"Your father ill!" exclaimed Mrs. Watson. "I'll go right over there, Jack, and look after him."
"I wish you would. It will he awful good of you."
"Of course I'll go. Mary can look after things here," and she hurried into the house to get ready for her second trip that day to the Bailey cottage.
Jack galloped on, trusting to the sure-footedness of his pony to avoid the dangers of the rough mountain trail. And Sunger justified the confidence reposed in him.
"Hello! We've been wondering what kept you! Why, it's Jack!" exclaimed Jed Monty, the grizzled stage driver, as the lad galloped up to the Mansion Hotel, whence the start for the east was made.
"Sorry to be late, but dad's taken sick!" cried Jack, as he flung the bags to the driver.
"Sick, eh? That's too bad. Well, I guess I can make up the lost time. Haven't much of a load on to-night."
The stage was all ready to start, the few passengers having been impatiently waiting.
"Pile in!" cried Jed, and with a crack of his long whip he sent the four horses off at a gallop.
Jack did not linger, but, wheeling his pony, set off for the doctor's office, hoping he would find the physician in. He was fortunate in this respect, and Dr. Brown promised to come at once. Jack did not wait for him, however, but hastened back to the cottage.
There he found that Mrs. Watson had made his father some hot tea, which had relieved him somewhat. The look of pain was not so apparent now.
"The doctor will be here right away," Jack reported. "Now tell me how it happened, Dad. We were quite worried about you."
"Indeed we were, when you didn't come in on time, as you nearly always do," said Mrs. Watson.
"I can't tell just how it did happen," said the pony express rider, "but I was taken with a sharp and sudden pain soon after leaving Golden Crossing. I'd have turned back then, and gotten some one else to ride the route for me, but I knew there were important letters in the mail, and it had to come through. So I kept on, hoping I would get better. But I grew worse, and I had to slow up. I thought I'd never get here! But I did." And he shut his lips grimly.
Pony express riders have to be made of stern stuff and they have to keep on their routes in rain or shine, calm or storm; and often when it is torture to sit in the saddle on a galloping horse.
"You'd better get your supper, Jack," advised Mrs. Watson.
"No, I don't feel like eating," the lad objected.
"Yes, you'd better, son," said his father. "There's no telling what you may have to do tonight, and it is possible you will have to ride for me to-morrow, though I hope I'll be able. But eat, and keep up your strength."
This was good advice, and Jack realized it. So he sat down to the meal which Mrs. Watson had prepared as a finish to her housekeeping work earlier that day. Jack had scarcely finished when Dr. Brown came in, and spent some time ministering to Mr. Bailey.
The pony express rider felt much relieved after he had been given some quieting medicine, and as Dr. Brown was about to leave Mr. Bailey asked:
"Shall I be able to ride the route to-morrow?"
The physician shook his head.
"No, indeed!" he exclaimed. "I'm sorry to have to tell you that you have a severe illness. I'm afraid you're going to be laid up for several weeks, if not longer. You have been neglecting yourself too long, and you've been worrying haven't you?"
"Well, yes, I have," admitted Mr. Bailey.
"Oh, Dad! worrying?" cried Jack. "Is it about that old Harrington matter?"
"Yes, Jack, it is. I can't get that off my mind."
"Why, every one knows that wasn't your fault!" exclaimed Dr. Brown.
"Of course," chimed in Mrs. Watson.
"Well I can't help thinking that the Harrington crowd believes I was to blame," went on the pony express rider. "But I never let that letter get away from me. It never left my bag from the time it was put in until I delivered it. But I can't prove that, and I can't help worrying over what people think of me."
"You're foolish to let a thing like that annoy you," said Dr. Brown. "That's what has helped to make you ill. Now you must take a good rest. I'll be in to see you to-morrow."
"But what about the trail, Doctor? Some one will have to carry the mail."
"You can't!" exclaimed the physician, with decision. "That's certain!"
"I will, Dad, of course!" cried Jack. "Who has a better right than I?"
"Well, I'd like to see you do it, Jack, for I'd be sure the mail and express would be safe with you and Sunger," said the man. "But I don't know that the company will consent. You're not of age—"
"I couldn't ride any better if I were twenty-one than I can now," interrupted Jack. "I'll go to see Mr. Perkfeld the first thing in the morning. I'll meet the early stage and make the trip to Golden Crossing. Are they all well there?" he asked, trying to make his voice sound indifferent.
"Pretty well," answered his father. "Aunt Matilda is ailing a little, but Jennie is a big help. She handles all the mail alone now. Well, Jack, I guess it's the only thing to do. You see Perkfeld in the morning, and explain things. The only thing I'm afraid of is that he may make the Harrington matter an excuse to take the contract away from me. There are several who want to ride the trail in my place. But do the best you can."
Amos Perkfeld was the president, as well as general manager of several stage and pony express lines. He controlled the one between Golden Crossing and Rainbow Ridge, and it was he who had engaged Mr. Bailey.
The "Harrington matter" had taken place some time before. Tyler Harrington was an influential mine owner, and an important letter had been sent to him by one of his agents. This letter was carried by Mr. Bailey, and, in some manner, the contents of it became known to interests opposed to Mr. Harrington and his associates. In this way they lost in a mining deal.
While there were no open accusations, there had been hints on the part of the Harrington interests that the pony express rider might have been bribed to let some one open and read the letter on the journey over the mountains. Of course, Mr. Bailey had done nothing of the kind, and he had no idea how the contents of the letter became known. He felt distressed because he was suspected, and worried greatly over the matter. But he could not disprove the unfounded suspicion against him.
As he had admitted, he had been worrying more than usual lately over the affair, and this, with a general run-down condition, and the hardships of his calling, had made him ill.
Mrs. Watson offered to stay all night and help look after Mr. Bailey, and Jack was glad to have her do so. The sick man was a little better in the morning, but far from being able to ride the mail route.
So Jack saddled Sunger and went into town to meet the early morning stage which arrived every other day with mail and express matter to be taken to Golden Crossing and points beyond. The pony express was a connecting line between the two settlements.
To Jack's relief Mr. Perkfeld made no objection to the young man's taking his father's place.
"I can't say just how long it will last," went on the manager, "but we'll make it a temporary arrangement, anyhow. You've ridden the route before, you say?"
"Yes, twice, when father was laid up with slight ailments."
"Well, do the best you can. And another matter. There are some valuable letters—But never mind. I'll speak about them later," and Mr. Perkfeld turned away. Jack wondered what he had been about to say.
"If there are any valuable letters to be carried," mused the young rider, "I hope none of them gets lost, or that the contents become known. I'll have to be careful."
He was given the bags of mail and light express matter from the stage as soon as it rumbled in, and then Jack set off over the mountain trail to go to Golden Crossing. The trip would take about four hours, and if the other mail matter was ready he would come back with it, making the round trip in about eight or nine hours.
But sometimes there were delays at one end or the other, for accidents happened to the stages once in a while. There had been hold-ups, too, but not since Mr. Bailey had taken charge.
If the stage at Golden Crossing was not on time the pony express rider had to wait for it, sometimes all night. On such occasions Mr. Bailey had stayed with his relative, Mrs. Blake, and Jack reasoned that he could do the same thing. He caught himself almost wishing that the stage might be late this time, as it would give him a chance for a long visit with his "cousin" Jennie.
On his way past his cottage Jack stopped to see how his father was, and also to report that he had been commissioned, at least temporarily, to carry the mail.
Jack found his father better. Mrs. Watson said she thought it would be best if he could be moved down to her house, and both Jack and Mr. Bailey agreed to this, Dr. Brown sanctioning the suggestion.
"I can look after him better then," said the housekeeper, "and my daughter can help me. And then, too, Jack, if you're delayed and have to be away all night, you'll know that he's being well cared for."
"Yes, it will be best," Jack agreed. And so, as he rode off, preparations were made to transfer Mr. Bailey to the other place.
"Now, Sunger, we'll show 'em what we can do when we carry the mail!" exclaimed Jack, as his faithful pony started off along the mountain trail again.
Nothing of moment occurred on that ride. Jack half-wished that he might be called upon to defend the mail and express from bandits. He was armed, and he dwelt on the thought of what a hero he might prove himself to be.
But everything was very prosaic. His pony did not even slip and fall, but came through on schedule time, or, rather, a little ahead of it, for Jack urged Sunger on.
"Oh, it's you, is it, Jack!" exclaimed Jennie Blake, as our hero rode up to the post office with the bags. "Why is this? Where's your father?"
"My father is ill. But aren't you glad to see me?"
"Oh, yes, of course!" she answered, and then she seemed obliged to look down very closely at some mail matter she was sorting.
"The in-stage will be five hours late," she said. "A messenger rode in to say that one of the horses died, and he had to take back another. So you'll have to stay over, Jack."
"That's good!" he exclaimed.
"What? Good that a poor horse died?"
"Oh, I don't mean that. But—er—say, what's that big official-looking envelope addressed to you? From Washington, too, and without a stamp," and Jack looked over the girl's shoulder.
"Oh, official letters from the post office department don't require stamps."
"What are you getting official letters for?" Jack wanted to know.
"Why, didn't I tell you?" Jennie asked with a teasing laugh. "I'm going to be postmistress at Golden Crossing from now on. That's my official appointment! Aren't you going to congratulate me?" and she looked archly at Jack and smiled.
A NARROW ESCAPE
"Say, Jennie, what is this; a joke?" asked Jack, as he leaned up against the table on which was piled the mail and some express matter, for the post office was also used as the headquarters of the pony express company and stage line.
"A joke? The idea! How dare you!" and the young lady appeared to be very indignant, indeed. "A joke! I guess not! Look at that, Mr. Jack Bailey," and she flourished in front of him an important-looking document whereon her name could be discerned in large letters.
"Hum! So you are really postmistress of Golden Crossing," remarked Jack. "Is your mother—"
"Oh, it isn't anything serious," was the quick answer. "But we are going to make certain, changes, and—"
"Changes!" cried Jack, in some surprise. "I hope you aren't thinking of going away!"
"Oh, no indeed!" Jennie answered. "We like it too well here. But mother has a chance to do some sewing, at which she can make some much-needed money, and she realized that she would be too busy at that to look after the post office properly. So I said I'd apply for the place. I know all about the work," Jennie went on, "for whenever mother went away I used to look after the mail. Tim does the heavy work, lifting the pouches and packages and all that," and she indicated a red-haired and freckled lad named Timothy Mullane, a genial Irish chap, who did odd jobs around the post office, and in the settlement of Golden Crossing.
"So, with Tim to help me, I felt that I might just as well be the full-fledged postmistress," the girl went on. "As soon as mother had arranged to do this sewing I applied for the place to the President—"
"To the President—in Washington?" cried Jack, in surprise.
"Well, I wrote to the President, though I don't suppose he ever saw my letter," Jennie said. "I thought he appointed all postmasters and postmistresses. But I had an answer from some official of the post office department, and I received the appointment!" she laughed in conclusion.
"So after this, Mr. Jack Bailey, of the pony express, you'll get the mail from me and deliver it to me."
"No greater pleasure, I'm sure," Jack answered with a low bow, and he also laughed. "When did all this happen?" he asked.
"The letter came yesterday," Jennie answered.
"And I received my temporary appointment this morning," Jack said. "You didn't beat me by very much, Jennie! Shake!" and with true western good fellowship, Jack held out his hand, meeting the warm clasp of the pretty and smiling girl.
The two young persons found much to talk about. Jennie was sorry to hear of the illness of "Uncle Pete," as she called him, and when her mother came in to greet Jack, Mrs. Blake had to hear the whole story over again.
Mrs. Blake was a widow, whose husband had been killed in a mining accident. She was left with Jennie, then a little girl, to bring up, and friends secured for her the place as postmistress of Golden Crossing. She managed to make a living from the money received in this way, and from the sewing she was able to do for the residents of the settlement.
And now, as she explained to Jack, her needlework would take up much of her time, so she and Jennie planned that the latter should be made postmistress so that she could act officially when her mother was not on hand.
"Of course, I'll help her, Jack," Mrs. Blake said, "for it isn't easy for a young girl to have to do this work."
"And I'll help, too!" cried the young pony express rider.
"I knew you would, Cousin Jack!" Jennie exclaimed, clapping her hands. "But now we must talk business. Let me have your slips to sign, and here is a registered letter that you'd better put in an inside pocket where the stage robbers won't find it," and she laughed merrily at her joke.
There was considerable routine work attached to the post office and to the pony express route, and for some time Jack and Jennie were busy over this. The mail and express matter which Jack had brought in on the back of his pony, Sunger, had already been sent off on the outgoing stage.
"Will you ride back to-night, after the other stage comes in, or will you stay here?" asked Mrs. Blake.
"I guess I'll stay," Jack said. "But I can go back as far as Painted Post," naming a mountain settlement a few miles east of Golden Crossing. "I stopped there on my way here, and Harry Ward said he was going to ride in to Rainbow Ridge to a dance to-night. I can have him take a message for me, saying the mail will be late. And he can also tell my father that I'll stay over night, and be in early to-morrow morning."
"That would be a good idea," said Mrs. Blake. "We'll try and make you comfortable, Jack."
"Oh, you won't have to try very hard," he laughed. Jennie blushed and smiled, and Mrs. Blake looked wise.
Jack spent that afternoon helping Jennie straighten up her post office, for she had determined on a new arrangement of tables and desks, which Mrs. Blake had never had time to settle on.
"It's your post office, Jennie," her mother remarked. "Do just as you please as far as the regulations permit."
The in-coming mail was later than had been reported, and did not arrive until nearly dark. In such cases, when a night trip would be necessary over the mountain trail between Golden Crossing and Rainbow Ridge, the pony express rider was permitted to postpone his trip until the next day. The trail was rather dangerous at night, though on occasions, when there had been a bright moon and some important letters and express packages had come in, Mr. Bailey made the night trip. Jack had done so once, but he did not greatly care to do so again.
"But if there were any need of it I'd do it now," he said, though he would have regretted leaving Jennie, with the prospect of a pleasant evening in her company.
However, as it happened, there was nothing of such importance that it could not wait over until the next day, so Jack did not have to ride away. He put up his pony in the express stable, and he and Jennie spent a pleasant evening together.
Jack was a little worried about his father, and made an early start the next morning, carrying the mail and expressage. He made a quick trip and was relieved, on stopping off for a moment at the Watson cabin, to find that his father had passed a fairly comfortable night, and was considerably better.
"But he can't ride the trail yet," said Mrs. Watson.
"And I don't intend to let him!" exclaimed Jack. "I'm going to be the pony rider for a while."
Dr. Brown confirmed what he had at first said—that Mr. Bailey would be ill for a long time, and when this had become known Jack at once made arrangements to be permanently named as rider between Rainbow Ridge and Golden Crossing. Mr. Perkfeld agreed to this, but, most unexpectedly, some opposition developed among the members of the express firm. It appeared that one of the stockholders wanted the place of express rider for a relative of his. There were several others who wanted the place, and there was quite a scramble for it.
But Jack really had the most logical claim to it, and, as Mr. Perkfeld was able to make the appointment, at least for the time being, it came to Jack.
But there was bitter feeling against him on the part of some unscrupulous men who wanted the place, for it paid well and carried some privileges. It was also an honor.
"You want to watch yourself, son," said Mr. Bailey, rather weakly, to Jack one day, before the lad was about to set out on his ride to Golden Crossing. "Watch yourself, for there is no telling what tricks some of those fellows may be up to."
"Tricks, Dad? What do you mean?" asked Jack in wonder.
"Well, I mean they might try to do something to discredit you. Try to make you late with the mail, or even have you lose a valuable letter or package. They might think, if you failed to deliver promptly, you would lose the place, and they'd have a chance. So be careful. Hold on to it, for I'll need it when I get well again. My illness is going to cost a pile of money."
"Don't you worry about that Dad!" exclaimed the young mountain trail rider. "I'll watch out, and they won't catch me napping!"
He rode off up the road, followed by the fond looks of his father.
"He's a good boy," murmured Mr. Bailey, "A good boy!"
Once again the in-stage to Golden Crossing was late, but as Jack was told by Jennie on his arrival at her post office that several important pieces of mail were expected, he decided to ride back with the pouches, even if it was after dark.
"There's half a moon," he said, "and I know the trail like a book. I'll make a night ride of it."
While waiting for the stage to come in Jack remained about the post office. Among those who came in for mail was Jake Tantrell, one of the men who had tried unsuccessfully to get Jack's place.
"Goin' back to-night?" he inquired casually.
"Yes," Jack answered. "Anything you want carried?"
"No," was the surly answer. "An' if I had I wouldn't trust a kid like you with it! It's a man's job to ride pony express, an' I'm surprised that they let you have the place."
"Oh, if that's the way you feel about it, I don't want to take any of your stuff," snapped Jack, filled with indignation. "But I've made good so far, and I expect to keep on."
"Huh! Maybe you will, an' maybe you won't!" was the snarling retort.
It was quite dark when Jack finally started with the mail. He also had several express packages, one of which was securely sealed, indicating that it contained valuables.
"Guess I'll stow that away in an inside pocket," Jack said to himself, and he suited the action to the words.
The first part of the trail leading out from Golden Crossing was not especially bad, and Jack ambled along it slowly enough. About two miles out from the settlement he had to cross, on a rather frail wooden bridge, a rushing mountain stream.
As Jack neared the middle of the bridge he felt a plank suddenly give way with the pony. In an instant he clapped his heels to the side of the horse, and slapped him sharply on the flank.
Sunger sprang forward, and only just in time, for in another second he would have stepped through a hole in the bridge where a plank had fallen off into the stream below. And had the pony fallen Jack would probably have been thrown over the bridge railing into the water.
"Whoa! Steady old boy! Easy now!"
Thus Jack exclaimed, as he leaped from the Saddle and held the reins lightly to restrain Sunger.
The pony snorted, whinnied, and, after prancing about a few moments, stood still.
"That's better!" commented Jack. "Now let's see what happened."
There was, as Jack said, "half a moon," and by the light of this he was able to see, as he glanced over the part of the bridge he had traversed, a place where a plank had fallen out. A gap was left—a gap wide enough to have allowed a horse's leg to slip through, with disastrous results to animal and rider.
"Well, Sunger, old boy," went on Jack, "did we do that; did it just happen of itself; or was it done on purpose?"
For, in a second's flash, there had come to him his father's warning.
"Well, if it's some one after my job, it's a mean trick they have played in trying to get it," mused Jack, aloud. "I wouldn't so much mind for myself, for I guess I could have swum out all right. But I guess you'd have been pretty well banged up, old boy," and he patted his pony, which now had gotten over his first fright.
Jack, whose wildly-beating heart had now somewhat calmed itself, stood beside his faithful pony and considered what his next move had best be. Among other thoughts was the one that he must, in some way, repair the bridge so that any one coming after him would not slip through the holes left where the misplaced planks had fallen into the stream.
"I can get a couple of logs or some big branches in the woods," thought Jack, "and stick them in the holes."
Instinctively he looked to see if the mail and express pouches were safe. Yes, there they were on the saddle front. None of them had slipped off when the pony rider himself had so narrowly escaped.
Then, with a quick motion, Jack's hand went to the breast pocket of his coat, where he had placed the small, sealed express package. To his consternation he felt no bulky protuberance there, such as would have been made by the parcel.
"Whew!" whistled Jack. "Great Scott! I hope I haven't lost that!"
It was very possible that he might have done so, for he remembered pitching forward on his pony's neck, as he leaned over to save himself. The package could easily have slipped from his pocket.
In a veritable frenzy of alarm, Jack rapidly searched through his other pockets, thinking he might, by some chance, have thrust the valuable parcel into one other than the first he had selected as being the most secure. But it was not to be found.
"Just my luck!" he cried aloud. "It's lost. This will end my services as a pony express rider!"
His steed whinnied, thinking, perhaps, that his master might have been speaking to him, as Jack frequently did. Indeed, the lad often talked to his horse as one might to a human being, and Jack stoutly maintained that Sunger understood as much if not more than some people.
"Well, if it's gone, it's gone," Jack said, sadly enough "And it wasn't my fault, either. I couldn't know those planks in the bridge were loose. It's lucky Sunger felt them giving in time, and gave me the alarm, or we might both be lying somewhere with broken legs, if not worse."
He glanced back to the place where the accident had so nearly occurred. In the gleam of the moon he could see two black streaks in the otherwise level flooring of the bridge, the planks of which were white from the bleaching of the sun and the dust of the mountain trail.
"That's where I nearly went through," mused Jack. Hardly had the thought come to him than he saw, lying on the very edge of one of the black openings, a small, light object.
"Jove! If that could be it!" he murmured. Cautiously he started toward it, in fear lest the vibration of his steps jar the sealed packet into the stream, for that it was the sealed packet Jack now felt sure.
As the lad started forward his horse followed him, so well trained was Sunger.
"No; stay back, old fellow!" Jack exclaimed. The pony, whinnying, obeyed. Jack noticed that one of the mail bags was hanging loose, as if about to fall, but he reasoned that he could fasten that securely after he had learned whether or not the white object was the package missing from his pocket.
Cautiously he approached, and there, lying on the very verge of one of the openings made by the missing planks, was the packet, which Jack was sure contained jewelry, if not money.
"Well, if this isn't lucky!" he cried, as he picked it up, and thrust it into the bottom of his inside vest pocket. "Just pure luck! You won't get out again," he added, patting the package.
It was the work of but a few minutes to drag from the nearby woods some big branches to fill in the holes left by the missing planks. Of course, the branches did not make the bridge secure, but they could easily be seen, even after the moon went down, and would warn chance passersby of the danger. There was a chance that some one might come after Jack passed, though the pony express trail was one not often followed after nightfall.
Jack tried to ascertain by careful looking how the planks had come to give way under the hoofs of his steed. But there was no clew that he could discover. The bridge was not a carefully made one, and it would have been an easy matter for any one to so loosen a couple of the planks that the least motion would send them into the stream below.
"But who would want to do a thing like that?" Jack reasoned. "I might have been killed, and so might Sunger. Well, all's well that ends well, I guess. Now I'd better be getting along."
The bridge was as secure as Jack could make it in his haste, and having made sure that nothing was missing from the mail and express pouches, and fastening them securely, he mounted his horse again, and set off at a lively pace. For a while he was worried lest his pony might have strained a shoulder or a tendon, but Sunger appeared to be none the worse for the adventure.
Jack rode on, and had covered about half the distance to Rainbow Ridge when he heard, on the trail ahead of him, the sounds of other hoof-beats. At first he thought it might be the echo of his own, but a moment of listening told him it was some one else on the road,
"I wonder who it can be," he asked himself.
He saw a few minutes later. It was Jake Tantrell, the man who had sneered at him—the man who was anxious to have his place. Was it fancy, or did Tantrell start and draw back his horse at sight of Jack.
"Look out for the bridge," Jack called as he passed the man, making up his mind, even though the fellow had scorned him, that he could do no less than warn him. "A couple of planks gave way with me a while ago."
"Oh—er—they did! Planks gave way?" Tantrell stammered.
"Yes," Jack said. "I nearly had a bad fall."
He said nothing about the dropped package.
"Well, that's too bad," the man said. "They ought to fix that bridge."
"Some one did," said Jack.
"Eh? What's that?"
"I said some one did. I mean some one fixed it for me, I think."
"What—what do you mean?"
"I mean those planks never came loose by themselves. I stuck a couple of branches in the holes. Look out when you ride over."
"Oh—I—I will. Thanks!" the man exclaimed, almost as an afterthought.
Then Jack rode on, and Tantrell passed him, giving the lad a sharp glance in the gloom, for the moon was now down below the hills.
Rather shaken by his night's adventure, and a bit anxious, Jack finally reached his own cottage. He turned in there, preferring to do so rather than to awaken Mrs. Watson and her family at this hour, though he was anxious to know how his father was feeling.
"But I guess he must be all right, or they'd have sent me some word," reasoned Jack.
He put his horse in the stable, and, after a hasty lunch from the cupboard, turned into his own room, and slept soundly until morning. He was up early in order to deliver the mail for the stage which would soon go out, and among the things he turned over to the driver was the package that had so nearly been lost.
"I'm glad to get rid of that," he said to Jed Monty. "It looks as if it's worth something," and he pointed to the many seals.
"That's so, it does," Jed replied. "Guess I'll stow it in a safe place myself."
Jack gave a warning about the missing planks of the bridge, and the road commissioner promised to have repairs made. The lad said nothing of his suspicions that the planks had intentionally been loosened, for he felt it would do no good.
"I'll just keep my eyes open myself," he reasoned, "and maybe I can find out a few things. It might be that some one who wants to be a pony express rider in my place might try to make trouble for me in that way. Maybe they didn't actually want to harm me or my horse, but they might have wanted me to lose some mail. But I didn't!"
For the next few days nothing of moment occurred. Jack rode the trail without anything happening to him, and there were only light loads to carry. His father improved slightly, but Dr. Brown predicted that it would be at least two months before he could be out.
At Golden Crossing Jennie was busy with her post office duties, but she found time to spend a few hours with Jack when he was at the settlement.
It was one morning when the young rider went to the Mansion Hotel, as the one hostelry in Rainbow Ridge was called, that Samuel Argent, who had once been a prominent miner, but who had lost several fortunes, came to the stage station and post office with several letters in his hand. Each one was sealed with red wax.
"Going to make the trip straight through today, Jack?" he asked, for he knew the lad slightly, though better acquainted with his father.
"Yes, I expect to, Mr. Argent," was the answer. "Is there anything I can do for you?" Jack often executed small commissions, for which he was paid extra.
"Well, this is in your regular line," the miner said, "but I have some important letters here, and I'd rather give them to you, personally, than put them in the mail. I'd like to have you hand them over to the Golden Crossing stage man and—"
At that moment a man came running out of the hotel. He waved his hand to Mr. Argent.
"Don't send those letters!" he exclaimed, and he seemed quite excited. "Hold 'em! Don't let Jack take 'em!"
JUST IN TIME
Mr. Argent paused in the act of handing the sealed documents to the young pony express rider, and turned to look at the man who had called to him. Jack recognized him as a mining expert who did assaying. He had not lived in Rainbow Ridge long, but he had done considerable work elsewhere for Mr. Argent.
"What's that you said?" inquired the miner.
"I said, don't send those letters by Jack!"
The young pony rider felt the hot blood come into his cheeks. To him there seemed to be but one meaning in the warning. He was being distrusted. The service which he performed in riding at top speed from Rainbow Ridge to Golden Crossing was under suspicion.
Was this because of the letter that had put his father under suspicion—the Harrington epistle—or was it because of false reports being spread by those who wanted Jack's place?
Something of what was passing through Jack's mind seemed to communicate itself to the mining assayist, whose name was Payson Wayde. He smiled at our hero, and said:
"Don't worry, my lad. It isn't that I think you wouldn't carry the mail safely. It's that I have just heard something," he went on, turning to Mr. Argent, "that makes it advisable to postpone the sending of those letters now. Hold them until we can investigate a bit."
"Oh, that's different," the miner said. "I thought from the way you spoke that you didn't want Jack to take them."
"Well, I don't; that is, I don't want him to take them just yet. Perhaps you won't want to send them for a week or more after you hear what I have to say," he went on to his employer. "But when we do send them you shall take them, Jack," he said, with a smile of confidence.
The young pony express lad felt better on hearing this.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked the two men.
"Not this trip, Jack, I guess," was the answer from Mr. Argent. "I may have something for you day after to-morrow, though. Not these letters, but some more samples I want checked up. I'll see you on your return trip."
"All right, Mr. Argent. Then I'll be getting along." And, having secured his pouches of mail and express stuff to the saddle, Jack leaped to the back of Sunger and was off at a gallop.
"A fine lad," murmured Mr. Wayde to the miner, as they turned back to the hotel.
"Yes, indeed. I was afraid you were going to hurt his feelings by saying it wouldn't be safe to send mail by him."
"Oh, no, indeed. I guess you can trust him, can't you?"
"I should say so! Jack is really doing his father's work, you see, Mr. Bailey being laid up with a severe illness. Jack is working hard to make good on this express route, and I'd hate to see him lose it, though there are several around here who would be glad to take his place. But what's up—why didn't you want me to mail these letters, after our agreement of last night?"
"I'll tell you. I think some of your enemies have gotten wind of what is going on."
"You mean about the new claim I'm going to stake?"
"Hush!" the other cautioned him. "No use in talking secrets out here. Come to my room and I'll tell you all about it. Perhaps it may be well to take Jack Bailey into your confidence a little later. You can decide on that after I've told you just what came to me."
"Well, it all seems a bit mysterious," commented Mr. Argent, "but maybe you know what you're talking about."
And as Jack rode off on his usual trip, the two mining men went into the hotel deeply engaged in conversation.
Jack had several stops to make that morning before getting on the more lonesome part of the trail, where he could give Sunger free rein to make as good time as possible. In some places this would only be a walk, for the road was treacherous and difficult. In other places along a comparatively level slope, or down grade, Sunger would make up for lost time.
As Jack made a turn in the road, he saw, riding ahead of him, two men on horseback. They turned in their saddles at the sound of his steed's hoof-beats, and Jack recognized one of the men as Jake Tantrell. The other man was a stranger to the pony rider.
"I hope Jake doesn't take it into his head to give me some mean talk now," mused Jack.
He made up his mind not to speak to the fellow, but he reckoned without Jake. For as Jack came up the bully held up a hand as a signal to halt. Jack was not a little apprehensive at first, but Jake, in surly tones, only asked:
"You got anything for me?"
"Not this trip," answered Jack.
"Well, I'm expectin' a package and it ought to be here. Keep your eyes open for it, young feller, and don't lose it," was the unnecessary caution. "It's a valuable package."
"I'm not in the habit of losing things," Jack answered, with dignity. As he rode on he heard the stranger remark to Jake:
"They ought to be there now?" oughtn't they?"
"Yes," was the reply. "They ought to be there now. But I'm not so sure they'll get what they want. She's a plucky little girl, and she may be so spunky she won't answer their questions."
"Well, they know how to make her," responded the stranger.
"Humph!" mused Jack, as he heard this. "I wonder who it is they are going to try to make answer questions? A spunky little girl, so Jake said. I wonder—"
It suddenly flashed into his mind.
"Could it be Jennie? She's in the post office, and she's sometimes there alone! If some one should try to find out something about the mail or express business they had no right to know!"
Jack hardly knew what to think. But there came a sudden desire in his heart to be near Jennie—to be ready in case she called.
"Come on, Sunger, hit it up!" Jack cried, as this idea came to him. "We've got to hustle and get to Golden Crossing as soon as we can!"
The intelligent beast appeared to know what was said to him, and increased his pace. Jack thundered over the bridge where once he had so nearly had an accident. He thought of the loosened planks, which had been fixed, and again he wondered who had misplaced them—if it had been done by design.
On and on he rode over the trail, until he swung into Golden Crossing. He was ahead of time, and the crowd that usually congregated about the post office to wait for the sorting of the mail was not there.
The road about the little office was thick with dust, and the feet of Jack's pony made scarcely a sound as he rode up. As he leaped to the ground he heard through the open windows of the place voices in loud conversation. One voice was that of a man, and said:
"Well, now, miss, you'd better tell us what we want to know. We'll find out somehow, and the more trouble you give us, the more trouble we'll give you. If you don't—"
"There's no use asking me!" broke in the voice of Postmistress Jennie herself. "You're not going to get that information, and the sooner you understand that the better!"
"Say!" exclaimed the third voice—that of a man—if you don't tell us, we'll—"
"Mail!" cried Jack, in a loud voice, as he sprang into the place through the window. "I thought I was too early, but I guess I'm just in time," he grimly added, as he swung around and faced two men who stood in front of Jennie Blake.
THE SECRET MINE
Whether the young postmistress, or the two strange men, was the more surprised could not be told. Both Jennie and her annoyers started at the sudden appearance of the young pony rider. Then looks of anger and annoyance came over the faces of the two men, while Jennie appeared relieved.
"What's the trouble?" asked Jack, and with a seemingly careless motion he threw open his coat. In his belt was a revolver, which he carried more because the regulations compelled him to than because he really thought he would ever need it.
"Trouble? There's no trouble," said one of the men in surly tones. "Who are you, anyhow, to come butting in?"
"Oh, Jack!" exclaimed Jennie. "They want—"
"I'm the pony express rider on this route," interrupted Jack, with a nod at Jennie, as if to beg her pardon for not letting her finish. "I just came in with the mail. It's outside, but I thought I heard some trouble in here, so I just jumped in—just in time, perhaps, too," he added, significantly.
"If you're looking for trouble," began one of the men, "I guess we can accommodate you."
"That's enough," his companion said. "Come on out. Don't you know when to quit?"
"Oh, Jack, they were so annoying!" cried Jennie. "They came in here when I was all alone, and insisted on knowing the times when all the mails and express shipments went out and came in. I said I wasn't supposed to tell strangers that unless there was a particular reason why they should know. Ought I to have told them? They said if I didn't they would make trouble for me."
"They'd better try it!" Jack exclaimed, with flashing eyes. "Now, look here, you fellows!" he went on. "I don't know who you are, nor what your game is, but you'd better get out of here. This is government property, and I'm a government employee for the time being, and I've got authority to order you out of here. Now, you—get!"
For a moment one of the men hesitated, though the other seemed anxious to leave. Jack threw open the door, and pointed in the direction of the trail outside.
"Get out!" he exclaimed again, "and if you think I'm not big enough to handle you I can get help. Tim!" he called, as he saw the doughty red-haired youth who helped Jennie, "just come in here, will you?"
"Why sure I will, Jack," was the answer, Tim having just loomed into sight. "I didn't know you were here. Is there mail to carry out?"
"Well, there are a couple of males who need putting out, if not carrying out," said Jack, smiling grimly at his play upon the words.
"Come on!" muttered the more conciliatory of the two intruders, and with black looks at Jack and Jennie, the two men left the post office.
"Were those the men?" asked Tim, coming in as the two went off down the rail.
"Yes," said Jack. "But they saved us the trouble of carrying them out. Now, Jennie, what was it all about?"
For a moment the girl seemed on the verge of tears, and Jack found himself earnestly hoping that she would not have hysterics. But she bravely conquered her inclination.
"Oh, Jack! I'm so glad you came!" she exclaimed, as she held out both her hands, which the young pony rider clasped warmly.
"I guess this is no place for me!" muttered Tim, with a sly wink.
"Oh, yes, Tim, stay!" Jennie begged. "I'll tell you about it, too. You'll want to know in case these men ever come back."
"If they do!" exclaimed Jack, doubling up his fists, "I'll—"
"Oh, please don't fight with them!" pleaded Jennie. "Just let the sheriff deal with them, Jack."
"Well, if I can't manage them myself, I'll call for help," promised the youth. "But now tell me about it. Who were they?"
"I don't know, Jack. They are strangers around here. I was working all alone in the office, getting my reports into shape, and was just going to check up my stamps, when they came in. I had left the private door open, as I didn't expect any one. Mother is away for the day, but I didn't in the least mind being left, as I had a lot of work to do.
"Well, these men began asking all sorts of questions. I don't mind giving information to strangers if it's the kind I can safely let out of the office, but they wanted to know too much. Why, they even asked about you!"
"They did? Why, they didn't seem to know me just now!"
"Perhaps they didn't by sight, but they knew your name, and they asked me how often you made the trips, where you stopped, how long it took, and they even wanted to know what kind of a horse you rode.
"I simply refused to tell them, and then they began to threaten and bluster. I was beginning to get frightened, but I made up my mind I wouldn't give in to them. And then—well, you came along, and I guess I never was so glad to see you, Jack! But, of course, they really did me no harm. How did it happen that you got here ahead of time?"
"Oh, I just hurried, that was all," Jack answered. He did not want to tell Jennie what he had overheard on the road. It might make her nervous, as she might think there was some plot afoot to rob the post office.
"And there is something in the wind, or I'm mistaken," mused Jack, "though what it is I can't guess. I'm going to be on the watch harder than ever. The plot is beginning to thicken, as they say in stories," and he made a mental picture of the two men.
The stage coach came in a little later, and Jack received a number of parcels for transmission to Rainbow Ridge. As he was ahead of time, and as there was some mail of importance, Jack resolved to make an immediate trip back, though he would not arrive at the other end of the trail until after dark.
"Oh, Jack! Do you think it will be safe?" Jennie asked.
"What safe?" he asked, with a smile. "The mail?"
"Why shouldn't I be safe? I've ridden the trail before after dark."
"I know. But those—those men—"
"Nonsense! I'm not afraid."
Nevertheless, Jack was a little nervous as he galloped along the mountain path after night had fallen. He started at every little noise, for while there had been no robberies of the mail for some time, still such things were known to happen occasionally.
But the two strangers who had annoyed Jennie were not seen around town after the episode, and Jack did not think they were desperate enough to try to hold him up. Besides, while there were some letters and parcels of importance, there was not enough of value in the pouches this trip to make it an inducement for robbery.
"They wouldn't take the risk for what I've got with me," reasoned Jack. And he was right. At least there was no attack on him, and he reached Rainbow Ridge safely and delivered his stuff.
Mr. Bailey was not quite so well next day, and Jack was worried about him. But Dr. Brown said the ailment, which was a form of intermittent fever, might often take a turn like that. Jack said nothing to his father about the two men who had annoyed his cousin, but he did report the occurrence to Mr. Perkfeld, who promised to have an investigation made.
But nothing was heard of the men, nor could any trace of them be found, after a somewhat limited search was made.
"I guess they were just fresh tenderfeet," said the manager of the pony express company.
Jack, however, did not altogether share this view.
It was about a week after this that, as Jack reached the Mansion Hotel one morning to receive the mail, he was approached by Mr. Argent, who had a number of red-sealed letters in his hand.
"This time I'm really going to let you take them, Jack," he said. "My friend Wayde thinks it's all right to forward them to their destination now."
"Are they as important as ever?" asked Jack, with a smile.
"Yes, and more so, Jack. I'll just give you a hint," the miner said, in a low voice. "Wayde and I have discovered a secret mine, and if things go right it may mean a big thing for us."
"A secret mine?" questioned the young pony express rider.
"Yes. It was one located by a prospector some years ago, but he died after he came into town with some mighty rich nuggets. He gave the location of the mine to a friend, but the latter lost the papers and never could find the claim. Lately a relative discovered the documents in an old coat pocket, and sent them to me, suggesting that we work the claim on shares.
"I went into it with Wayde, and we've found the mine. It's rich, too, and it isn't far from here. But there are certain legal forms to comply with before we can actually begin work, and these letters refer to those matters. The reason Wayde didn't want to send them the other time was because he feared a counter legal move on the part of some men who are trying to locate the mine and get it away from those entitled to it But now matters are about straightened out, and I'm going to send off these letters by you. I'll expect answers back soon, and when they come—"
Mr. Argent paused suddenly, for a sound came from around the corner of the porch where he and Jack had been standing during their talk. The miner suddenly turned the corner of the hotel, with Jack following. They saw a man walking rapidly away along the other part of the porch.
THE STRANGERS AGAIN
"Was he listening?" asked Jack of the miner.
"It rather looks so," was the answer. "I thought I heard some one moving about there as I was talking to you, and I wanted to make sure."
"Well, you did all right," replied Jack, grimly. "Do you know who he is?"
"Say! Wait a minute!" suddenly exclaimed Jack. He had but a glimpse of the man's back, but there seemed to be something familiar about the manner in which the man walked off. Like a flash it came to Jack.
"I think I know him—at least I've seen him before," he said hurriedly to Mr. Argent. "I'm going to find out for sure."
In a flash Jack had sprung over the porch railing, and was rapidly running alongside the porch on the soft grass. He did this in order to get ahead of the retreating man. Had he remained on the porch Jack's footfalls on the boards would have given the alarm.
As it was, he was able to get ahead of the eavesdropper, and obtain a view of his face. And Jack was not mistaken in his surmise. It was one of the two men who had annoyed Jennie in the post office. The fellow seemed startled on confronting our hero.
"So you're here now, eh?" asked Jack.
"Well, is that any of your business?" was the challenge. "Isn't this a free country?"
"Of course," Jack answered. "But even in a free country there are certain laws about causing trouble, and listening to private talk."
"Who was listening?" demanded the fellow.
"You were!" Jack exclaimed.
At that moment Mr. Argent came sauntering along the piazza. The fellow turned sharply. Neither appeared to recognize the other.
"This chap is the same one I thought he was," explained Jack, "It was he and a partner of his who made the fuss in the Golden Crossing office, Mr. Argent. If you could find Mr. Perkfeld we might make a charge against him."
The man seemed disconcerted at this.
"Charge? What charge?" he blustered.
"You'll find out soon enough," Jack replied.
He started off, thinking Mr. Argent would keep the man there until Mr. Perkfeld could be summoned. But the fellow made a sudden dash, leaped to the saddle of a horse that was near the end of the porch, and was off down the road on a gallop.
As he rode off he was joined by another man, who also made a hurried exit from the hotel and leaped to the back of his horse. But he was not so quick but what Jack recognized him as the other man who had annoyed the young postmistress of Golden Crossing.
"Well, they got away!" Jack said, regretfully, as he came back to Mr. Argent.
"Perhaps it's just as well," answered the miner. "I don't know that you could have really held them on the charge of being impudent and rough to Miss Blake, and you tell me that is all they did."
"Yes, that's so. But what about one of them listening to what you were telling me about the secret mine."
"Oh, bless you, that doesn't worry me!" said Mr. Argent, with a laugh. "I'll defy anybody to find that mine without the proper directions, and I don't intend to tell even you those, Jack—at least not yet. I really didn't let out any information of any account, and what that chap overheard, if he heard anything, won't do him any good. I'm not worrying, but, of course, I don't like to have strangers sneak up and listen to what I say. But no great harm has been done."
"I'm glad of it. And perhaps it's just as well we didn't have them arrested. It would make it unpleasant for Jennie to be brought into court."
"That's right, Jack. Well, the fellows got away, so we won't worry about them. Now take these letters, and I needn't tell you to be careful of them."
"I sure will look out for them," Jack promised, earnestly.
"And just mention them to your cousin at the other end of the line," went on the miner. "Have her use a little extra care."
"I'll tell her," promised Jack.
"Another matter," went on the miner, and this time he lowered his voice to a whisper as if afraid of being overheard. "These letters aren't so important as their answers will be."
"What do you mean?" asked Jack.
"I mean that we expect some legal documents by mail, after these letters have reached those for whom they are intended," answered the miner. "The replies will be very important, and I wouldn't want them to fall into the hands of those who are trying to get the property away from us.
"So if you'll just mention to your cousin to bear in mind when any letters like these come for me that they're important, and if you'll remember that yourself, Jack, why, we'll be much obliged to you."
"I sure will be on the watch," promised Jack. "They'll be registered, of course."
"Oh sure! But I don't imagine anything will happen to them. For no one can know exactly when they will come. Only be on the watch for them."
"I certainly will! Now if you'll give me those I'll put them in a safe place."
Mr. Argent handed over the missives, and Jack put them in his inside pocket, and then used a safety pin to close the opening.
"Safety first!" he exclaimed with a laugh.
"That's right," assented the miner.
As Jack rode off on the back of his pony, which was becoming quite famous because of his speed and the regularity with which he made the trips, the young express rider thought of the two strangers who had suddenly reappeared after having annoyed Jennie.
"I just wonder who they are, and what their game is," he reflected. "After all, maybe it would have been a good thing if we had caught them. I guess Jennie would be game enough to go to court and testify. But I don't know on just what charge we could have held them."
"Anyhow, we haven't got 'em, so perhaps it's all for the best. But I sure will be on the watch for them again. And I'll have to be on the lookout for the replies to these letters. Well, it's all in the game," Jack reflected. "Dad probably has gone through the same, and worse, maybe, and he never backed down. I've got to keep up his reputation, if I'm doing his work. It would be fine, too, if I could find some way of proving that he wasn't at fault in that Harrington matter. But I suppose that's too much to expect."
Thus reflecting, Jack rode on.
A NIGHT ATTACK
Naturally, after the little experience of the morning, having received the sealed letters, and having again seen the two men who had acted so roughly toward Jennie, Jack was a little apprehensive as he rode along the trail toward Golden Crossing. There were several places very favorable for holding up a stage coach, had one used the mountain road, but, as has been said, the route was too difficult for a vehicle to traverse.
"Though they might hold me up, more easily than they could a coach if they wanted to," reflected Jack. Consequently he approached all suspicious places with more than his usual caution.
But as he covered mile after mile and nothing happened, he became easier in his mind.
"I guess they aren't going to have a try for us, after all, Sunger," he said to his faithful pony. The plucky creature whinnied in answer, as Jack patted his neck.
"It wouldn't do 'em much good to make us stand and deliver," mused the young express rider. "For Mr. Argent said these letters weren't of prime importance. Still, I wouldn't like to have them taken away from me, or lose them, and get a bad reputation in this business. I don't want to lose my job just now, when dad is laid up."
Jack had feared that the two strangers who had fled in such a hurry from the hotel in Rainbow Ridge, might at least try to annoy him on the road, as they had taken the trail leading up the mountain to Golden Crossing.
But nothing like this happened, and in due time Jack arrived at the other post office and was greeted by Jennie. Jack gave Jennie the message about Mr. Argent's letters, but said nothing to her about having again seen the two men who had annoyed her.
"It would only worry her," he reflected, "and she has worries enough without my adding to them."
Jack remained that night in Golden Crossing, spending a pleasant evening with Aunt Matilda and Jennie. He was off early the next morning for the ride to Rainbow Ridge. Having delivered the mail, and before going to see his father, Jack made some inquiries around the Mansion Hotel about the two strangers who had left so suddenly.
No one knew much about them, except that they had ridden in early the previous morning, and had eaten a hasty breakfast It had been observed that they kept well to themselves, and conversed in low tones.
Then had come the episode of the listening on the part of one, and the flight of both of them. That was really all Jack could learn.
"And as long as you didn't see anything of them on the road," said Mr. Argent, "I guess you needn't worry. You got my letters off all right?"
"Well, now the next thing will be the replies. Watch out for them."
And Jack said he would.
The young pony express rider had a few hours' spare time that day, and he spent them with his father. Mr. Bailey was discouraged at the progress he was making.
"I don't seem to get at all better, Jack," he complained.
"Well, Dad, it takes time, Dr. Brown says," his son observed.
"I know. But it seems as if I ought to get stronger. I want to be back at work."
"Oh, don't worry about that, Dad! I'm on the job, you know. I may not be doing as well as you, but I'm taking the mail and express stuff back and forth, and I haven't heard any complaints yet"
"Then you haven't lost anything, Jack, and nothing has been taken from you?"
"No, Dad. Not a thing."
"And the contents of no important letters have leaked out?"
"Not yet. But I know what you're thinking of, Dad. It's about that Harrington letter."
"Yes, Jack, I am. I wish I could prove that it wasn't my fault."
"Don't worry, Dad! Your friends know it wasn't your fault, and some day we may be able to prove to your enemies that it wasn't."
"I hope so, Jack, but I've about given up," was the weary answer.
Jack had carefully kept from his father all the little worries that had occurred since the change in the pony express business had been made. He had said nothing about the misplaced planks of the bridge, nor about the two strangers.
"What's the use of worrying dad?" reflected our hero. "He has troubles enough of his own. I'll keep mine to myself."
That afternoon, late, as Jack was waiting at the Golden Crossing post office for the mail, a messenger rode in to say that the stage would be delayed because of a slight accident.
"But the driver wants you to wait," the messenger told Jack, "as there are some important letters to go to Rainbow Ridge, and be forwarded from there on."
"All right, I'll wait," promised Jack.
"It will mean a night ride," suggested Jennie.
"I know it, but it can't be helped. It's part of the game. I'm not afraid."
But when Jack helped Jennie sort the mail a little later, and found among the letters and parcels some large envelopes addressed to Mr. Argent and sealed with red wax, a strange feeling came over him.
"Here are those answers," he thought. "These must be the important papers about the secret mine. And I've got to carry them through on a night ride. Well, I wish they hadn't come just at this time, but there's no help for it. I've got to take them through."
He paused for a moment, with the important letters in his hand.
"What are those?" asked Jennie.
"Oh just some stuff for our town," Jack answered, indifferently.
In a flash he had made up his mind not to tell his cousin of the value and importance of the mail that night. She would worry if she knew what he was carrying along the trail after dark.
And Jack had another plan. He realized that the enemies, or business rivals of Mr. Argent, (call them what you will) might know of the arrival of the documents.
"They may try to get them away from me," reflected Jack. "Now, I've' read somewhere that the best way to throw off suspicion is to make something important look unimportant. That's what I'm going to do."
There were a number of newspapers in the mail. While Jennie was out of the room a moment Jack opened one bundle of papers, folded the red-sealed letters up in one of the papers, put back the wrapper and tossed the package into the pouch he would carry over his saddle.
"There!" he thought. "That doesn't look like anything of value. If I am held up, the thieves will throw away the newspapers anyhow, and I can get them later. I think that's a pretty good scheme, myself."
An hour later Jack was on his way along the mountain trail. It was quite dark, for there was no moon. But Jack laughed and sang as he parted from Jennie. He pretended that his heart was light, though, truth to tell, he was a bit apprehensive.
"Maybe those fellows don't know that the letters have arrived, and, if they do, my newspaper stunt will fool 'em," he decided.
It was near the bridge where once he had so nearly had a serious accident that, as Jack was riding along, he heard a sudden command:
"Go on, Sunger! Go on!" yelled Jack in his pony's ear, as he slapped the animal on the flank. Then Jack felt himself suddenly attacked, as some one rode up alongside him, and dealt him a blow on the head.
For a moment Jack was so overcome by dizziness and a faint, sick feeling, that he could do nothing. Everything seemed black before his eyes, a blackness not of night, but the blackness of a fainting fit.
The young express rider reeled in his saddle, but he kept his seat by a great effort. Then he fought back the growing faintness that was overcoming him.
"I mustn't give in! I mustn't give in!" he told himself fiercely, over and over again. "I mustn't give way! I won't! I've got to protect the valuable letters—the mail—the express."
Then, somehow, Jack's head cleared. He felt more able to hold himself back from that terrible black void. He straightened up in the saddle, and his vision was again normal.
In the darkness he could see several men, three at least, standing around him. These three were not mounted, though off to one side of the trail Jack could see several dark forms which he could make out to be horses. Then he saw, as he turned in his saddle, a man behind him on a big horse. This man held something in his hand, and Jack guessed it was this individual who had struck him. All four of the men wore masks.
"What—what does this mean?" faltered Jack, though he could pretty well guess.
"Huh! Don't you know?" was the question shot back at him. He tried to distinguish the voice, but could not. It was the mounted man who had spoken.
"A hold-up, eh?" asked Jack, his tones faltering in spite of his effort to make them steady. That this should come to him in spite of his watchfulness was a bitter thing. And a robbery, of all time, when the valuable papers and letters expected by Mr. Argent were in the mail pouches, too! There was also some valuable express matter. Jack gritted his teeth in anger. Then his hand moved toward the pocket where he carried his weapon.
"No you don't!" was the sudden and fierce exclamation of the man on the horse beside him, and with a quick motion he caught hold of Jack's hand, and jerked it away. "Take his gun!" the man directed. "I'll hold him."
One of the dismounted men came up, and while the man on the big horse held Jack in a cruel grip, another of the robbers brought out the revolver which Jack's father had given him to carry for protection. But it had afforded little of that in this instance.
The young rider tried in vain to pierce behind the masks, and ascertain the identity of those holding him up, but it was of no avail.
"What do you want? What's the game?" Jack asked, as the man let go of his wrist. The fellow, however, kept one hand on the bridle of the pony, so that there was no chance for Jack to make a sudden spurt to escape.
"The game is we want what you've got with you," said one of the men. "And you might as well admit that we're going to get it. You may be a pretty smart lad, or think you are, but I guess we've got you right now!"
"No, you've got me all wrong," Jack answered bitterly. "And while you were about it why didn't you bring a few more along. Four crooks seem hardly enough to hold up one pony express rider. Aren't you afraid I'll do something to you?"
He spoke lightly—sarcastically. He was fighting for time. Trying to think of some plan of escape. He even thought perhaps some one might come along to whom he could appeal for help. But there was as small a chance of that as there was of his being able to get away by his own efforts.
"I suppose you could have scared up half a dozen more like yourselves," he went on. "There are more outlaws in the mountains. Or, maybe, you have another force back on the trail, and another ahead here."
"Say, young feller, none of your fresh talk now!" cried one of the men, fiercely. "I won't stand it!"
"No, let's get it over with," remarked another.
At these words a chill of fear, such as he had not experienced before, seemed to flash over Jack. Did the men mean to harm him—put him to death, perhaps, to hide the living witness of their crime? He tried to be brave, but again came that faint feeling, and his head ached where he had been struck—ached cruelly.
"Yes, lets finish and get a move on," agreed the man on the horse. "Here, one of you take the pouches, and another hand me the ropes. I'll have him triced up in a jiffy."
Jack breathed more easily. He was only to be bound then, as the outlaws of the mountains usually did bind the stage drivers or express messengers whom they robbed. There seldom was a killing, unless the victims resisted or shot at the hold-up men.
One of the three unmounted men advanced to Jack, and began loosening the fastenings of the mail and express pouches.
"Don't touch them!" the pony rider cried. "Leave those mail sacks alone!"
So vehement was he, and so much energy did he put in his voice that, for the moment, the man was startled, and drew back.
"What's the idea?" he asked.
"That is government property!" went on Jack, trying to follow up the impression he had made. "You are interfering with the United States' mail. And I don't need to tell you what sort of a crime that is! You won't have to deal with me, you'll have to answer to the government, and the inspectors will be on your trail inside of twenty-four hours! Don't you touch that mail!"
For a moment the men did seem impressed by Jack's sharp warning. Then the man on the horse laughed, and said:
"Oh, quit your talking. Go on, take the sacks and we'll get away. We can't stay here the rest of the night!"
"Say, he has a pretty lively tongue," observed the man who was loosening the sacks from Jack's saddle. "He gave me a start for a second or two."
"Forget it! Yank 'em off and come on."
Jack felt that it would be useless to protest further. Besides, there was a growing feeling of sickness and pain. The man took the express and mail packages and tied them on one of the three horses.
"Now then get off, you pony rider!" ordered the man on the big horse. "Get off, and get off quick! We're in a hurry and we're done fooling!"
"What—what are you going to do?" faltered Jack. He was beginning to be afraid of what was to come.
"We're going to tie you up so tight that you won't get loose in a jiffy," was the answer he received. "You say the inspectors will be on our trail inside of twenty-four hours. Well, maybe they won't if you can't get loose to give the alarm. So we're going to tie you up."
"That won't prevent the alarm from being given," Jack said. "When I fail to arrive there'll be a search made, and they'll find me."
"That's right," Jack heard one of the unmounted men say in a low voice. "He's right about that."
"Oh, what of it?" impatiently asked the man on the horse. "Of course this thing is bound to be found out sooner or later. I expect that. But we can gain a little time by trussing him up with ropes. Now come on—be lively. Get off or I'll yank you off, and I won't be easy about it, either!"
Jack felt it best to obey. He leaped from the Saddle, and then, with a sharp slap on the flank of Sunger, he cried to his pony: "Go on, boy! Home!"
The intelligent animal sprang forward, and before any of the men could catch him had darted off down the dark trail in the direction of Rainbow Ridge.
"Look out—get him!" one of the men cried, sharply.
"What's the use—he's gone, and he's one of the fastest horses in the mountains; we'd never catch him," said the mounted man. "It was a sharp trick, lad, but it won't do you any good. Tie him up!"
Jack was handled roughly by the outlaws, and was soon so tightly bound that he felt he never could get loose without help. He once more tried to look behind one of the masks, but it was so dark that he could see nothing. He tried to get a mental picture of the shapes of the men and the tones of their voices, so he might know them again if he ever saw or heard them.
"Lay him over here, on one side of the road," ordered the man who seemed to be the leader. "Some one may be along before noon to-morrow and take care of you," he said to Jack, who did not answer. "If they don't we'll send an anonymous message, telling where you can be found. We don't want to hurt you, but we had to have this stuff from you, and this was the only way to get it," the outlaw went on. "Come along, boys," he concluded.
Then the four men, taking with them the mail and express pouches, galloped away in the darkness.
A QUEER DISCOVERY
Left to himself, tied tightly with the ropes that cut into his wrists and made his legs ache, poor Jack lay in a sort of stupor. He could hardly understand what had happened, and his head hurt him very much where he had been struck. He was lying on the road at one side of the trail. Overhead he could see the stars twinkling. It was still very quiet.
"Not much chance of any one coming along the trail to-night," mused Jack. It was the first thought that had come clearly to him, and, in a measure, it served to rouse him from his stupor. Then his brain seemed to clear.
"I've got to do something! I can't lie here and wait for some one to come and help me!" he decided, Already there was more vigor in the activity of his mind.
Jack's first idea, as soon as he had begun to think clearly, was that he must loosen his bonds. To this end he writhed and struggled as he lay on his back. He managed to roll over on his side, but he found himself more uncomfortable than in his first position, and soon rolled back to that.
During this operation he tried, by every means in his power, to stretch or strain the knots. He thought if he could only get one of the bonds to give he might manage to get one hand out.
"And if I can do that, I'll soon be clear," Jack reasoned, "But it isn't going to be easy to get one hand out."
It did not take him long to discover this. The robbers had done their work well. They were taking no chances. Jack rested after his struggles. His head ached worse than ever because of the rush of blood to it from the strain.
"I wonder if it will do any good to call?" he mused. "I'm going to try. But I've got to get my breath first."
A little later he began shouting and calling for help, doing it at intervals. But he had not much hope. He was on the lonesomest part of the trail, which, at best, was seldom traveled. Often days would pass without any one, save the pony express rider, going over the mountain.
"I might as well save my breath, I guess," reasoned Jack. "This is only playing me out. Maybe they'll come for me when Sunger gets home. Whoever sees him without me and the mail will know something has happened. The only trouble is they won't know where to look. But it's my best chance, I think."
He lay quiet for a period, thinking over the momentous events that had just occurred.
"I wonder who those men were, and what they were after," mused Jack. "There wasn't enough valuable stuff in the express packages to make four men risk state's prison for it. It must have been the mail they were after. And nothing of great value was in the mail, except the letters for Mr. Argent. Of course, they were what they wanted. And in that case he ought to know who would be most interested in taking them. We may be able to arrest the men yet.
"But it may be too late," Jack reflected. "They may get the information they want and take the secret mine away from those to whom it belongs. That would be too bad! But if my plan only works, and those fellows don't open that bundle of papers, the letters may be safe yet. It was my best chance. If I could only get loose!"
Again Jack struggled and squirmed, but the ropes would not give an inch. Suddenly, as the young pony express rider was trying to work loose his bonds, he felt a sharp pain in one hand, which was under him, behind his back, pressing on the earth.
"Whew! Something cut me then!" Jack exclaimed. "Must be a knife one of the men dropped. If I could only get at that and on a rope!"
Carefully he felt along on the ground, so as not to cut himself again. His fingers touched something sharp.
"A piece of glass—part of a broken bottle," he murmured. "Well, it may be as good as a knife, but I'll probably cut myself more in using it."
He managed to work himself down until he had a firm grip on the piece of glass under him—a grip that did not cut.
"Now let me figure this out," he mused.
It was obvious that he could not hold the piece of glass in his fingers and saw away at the ropes around his wrists. He could not bend his fingers back far enough.
"If I could only get the glass between my feet, I might be able to bend them back far enough, by lying on my face, so I could saw on the ropes that way," he reflected. He tried, but soon had to give it up. He also endeavored to do this by lying on his side, but it was of no use. Then, in a flash, it came to him.
"I'll bury the glass in the ground, to hold it," he told himself. "By leaving a sharp, jagged edge sticking out I ought to be able to saw through the ropes on my wrists, by rubbing the cords up and down against the glass. I'll do it!"
It was hard work, but by lying on his side Jack managed, after a fashion. He had to work without seeing what he was doing. Even daylight would not have helped him, for he could not see behind his back.
By using the glass as a sort of shovel, Jack managed to dig a hole in the earth. He then put the long piece of glass in this, upright, and packed dirt around it. His fingers came in contact with a small stone, and he used this to tamp the soil and gravel around the glass knife, to hold it more firmly upright. He cut himself several times while doing this, but he kept on.
Finally he was ready to make the attempt. It was more than an hour after he first began his operations, and he was weary, for he had to work in a cramped and uncomfortable position. He rested a few minutes, and then began sawing the rope around his wrists up and down on the sharp piece of glass stuck upright in the ground.
It had to be done slowly and gently, because too much pressure would have overturned the queer knife. Jack knew he must be patient. He cut his wrists more than once, but the gashes were slight, and he thought the bleeding would soon stop.
Finally he felt the bonds loosening slightly. Some of the rope strands were cut through.
"It won't be long now," Jack thought, gladly.
Again and again on the jagged edge of the glass knife did he rub the cords, and finally, with a sudden spreading apart of his hands, he found he could break the remaining strands.
His hands were free!
Jack's heart beat high with hope now. He waited a few minutes to let the slackened circulation of blood take up its work. Then it was the work of but an instant, with the same piece of glass that had served him so well, to sever the ropes about his legs. But when Jack tried to stand up he nearly toppled over, so weak was he, and so numb were his legs. They had gone to sleep from the lack of circulation of the blood.
But in a little while he was all right, and could walk about.
"Now, the question is, what's the best thing to do?" he asked himself. "Make for home, as soon as I can, and give the alarm," he reasoned. "I've got to give the alarm, if Sunger hasn't already gotten there and given it for me."
Off on the dark and lonely trail he started. It was quite different from traveling over it on the back of his speedy pony. But it was something to be free, and free sooner than the robbers had any idea he would be.
"I may even be able to catch up to them, and trace which way they go," Jack thought.
He walked on for nearly an hour, when he heard the trot of a number of Horses some distance ahead of him. Jack halted and listened intently.
"I wonder if those are the hold-up men coming back, to make sure I'm still tied up, or if it's my friends?" thought Jack. "I can't afford to take a chance. I'll hide in the bushes until I see who they are."
He knew every inch of the trail. Near the spot where he was, was a hole in the side of the hill where some badly directed man had once started to dig a gold mine. He had not gone far before he discovered that iron pyrites was the only "gold" in that locality. The hole was never filled up, and was now almost hidden from sight by a heavy growth of underbrush.
"That's the place for me," Jack mused. A few strides took him to it, and he stepped in to await, in concealment, the passage of the oncoming horsemen.
Something soft and yielding came in contact with Jack's foot. He started, thinking he must have stepped on some sleeping beast. But there came no outcry, which would have followed in that case.
"It can't be dead leaves," mused the lad, "it doesn't feel that way. What—"
He stooped down and felt with his hands. A thrill ran through him.
"The mail pouches!" he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper. "The mail pouches the robbers took from me! They hid them here, and I've found them! What luck!"
Jack was so overjoyed at his queer and unexpected discovery that, for the moment, he forgot all about the approaching horsemen from whom he had hidden himself. Then there came a thought to him.
"Perhaps the pouches are empty! If the rascals have taken all the mail out and just thrown the empty pouches in here, that isn't such a great discovery after all!"
Once more he felt of the pouches in the darkness. He could tell that they were well filled—almost the same as when he had tied them to his saddle.
"I don't believe they opened them!" he exclaimed, half aloud. "They must have been frightened and thrown them in here, thinking to come back for them when they had the chance."
Then he had another idea.
"And that must be the robbers coming now!" he reasoned. "They're coming back to get the pouches. What shall I do?"
There was but one answer to that question—he must hide the mail and express matter in some other place. He paused a moment to listen. The galloping hoof-beats were nearer now, but it would still be some time before the riders would be opposite the old mine hole. The trail wound in and out at this point, and while sounds came up plainly through the rarefied mountain air, bodies themselves could not travel so swiftly.
"I've got five minutes, anyhow," reasoned Jack.
He caught up the mail pouches, one in either hand, though his cut fingers and wrists hurt him cruelly. But he gritted his teeth and kept on. He knew the ground well. Back of the hole was a slope that extended to a deep patch of woods. Jack would hide himself and the mail in there.
He was too excited to notice whether or not the locks on the bags had been tampered with. In fact he could not see in the dark and he had no time for extended investigation. He just tucked the bags under his arms, and ran with them. That is he made as good time as was possible under the circumstances. The ground was rough, and Jack himself was very weak. He had suffered much that night.
He found a good hiding place down in between two big logs, and there he stuffed the mail bags, covering them over with dried leaves. Then he hurried back to the hole to get the express stuff.
Fortunately that was light, this trip, and he could easily carry the few small parcels that had been entrusted to him. In fact, in those days, only light packages were accepted by the pony riders. The mail was their chief concern.
So Jack had no trouble in carrying the sacks of express matter to their new hiding place. This done he had only to watch to see who the approaching riders might be.
Jack worked quickly, and when he had taken the last of his recovered stuff to the place between the two logs he sat down in such a position that he had a view of the trail. It was getting lighter now, for the dawn was at hand. There was a faint glow in the east.
"Well, I certainly have put in a night of it!" Jack thought. "And I may be in for more if these are the robbers coming back. They may look for their stuff, and make a search if they find it missing. But I don't believe they'll find me."
Nearer came the approaching hoof-beats, Jack peered from his hiding place. He could hear voices now, but the sound was uncertain. It would not do to call out. He must see who it was that was coming.
Suddenly several men rode into view. Jack counted their heads as they were outlined against the faintly-glowing eastern sky. There were seven of them. Unless the robbers had come back reinforced these must be members of a searching party looking for the pony express rider. Yet Jack would take no chances. He must be certain.
"Hello, Jack! Jack Bailey! Pony Express! Where are you?"
This was the cry that echoed on the dying night.
Now there was no doubt of it!
Jack leaped to his feet.
"Here I am!" he cried. "Be with you in a second! Send some one up to help me carry down the mail!"
He was wildly excited, but he managed to calm himself long enough to light a match, and ignite a piece of bark. He wanted to indicate his position to the rescuers. They saw the flare and some one cried:
"All right, Jack! Be with you in a minute! Are you all right?"
It was the voice of Dr. Brown.
"Yes, I'm all right. It was a hold-up," Jack explained. "But I have the mail and express stuff back—that is I hope I have it all," he added.
Another moment and he was surrounded by his friends. There were Jed Monty, the stage driver, Dr. Brown, Amos Perkfeld, the president of the express company, Payson Wayde and Mr. Argent, besides Henry Applebaugh, the hotel keeper, and one of his stable boys.
"Are you all right. Jack?" Dr. Brown repeated, "Your father insisted that I come out and help look for you."
"Yes, I'm all right. Just cut a little, where I sawed off the ropes on a piece of jagged glass. But does my father know?"
"Yes, your pony came galloping up to the Watson house, all lathered up, with you and the mail missing. We knew right away something had happened, after Mr. Watson came rushing into town with the news. So we organized a searching party at once. But what happened to you?"
Jack told everything, down to his unexpected finding of the mail, and his hiding from the anticipated robbers.
"And so you got everything back!" exclaimed Mr. Perkfeld. "Well, I call that luck! Of course neither the government nor I could blame you for being robbed, but it is good to get it all back."
"And did my pony get home safe?" asked Jack eagerly. Sunger meant much to him.
"He's all right," said the hotel keeper. "I had one of my boys look after him. He's a bit winded, that's all. Smart little horse, that! If ever you want to sell him, Jack—"
"You needn't ask. I don't," was the quick answer. "But what about my father, Dr. Brown? Is he worrying, much?"
"Well, some, of course, Jack. But I gave him Some quieting medicine, and he'll soon hear the good news. He's much better these last few days."
The men questioned Jack at length about the appearance of the hold-up men, but he could not give a very clear description. No one recognized them as any one they knew.
"But we'll get a posse out after them as soon as we get back to town," declared Mr. Perkfeld. "We'll show them they can't hold up the pony express and get away with it."
"They didn't get away with it—that's the joke," said Mr. Argent. "I guess Jack is right. They probably feared pursuit, or might have gotten an alarm, so they dumped the stuff in the old mine hole and rode away, intending to come back later. Only Jack got ahead of them."