The tide of cool water restored Will's nerves. After drinking he bathed his face in it, and then poured it over his neck. Good as he knew water to be he had never known that it could be so very good. It was in truth the wine of life. He shook out his thick hair, wet from the rill, and said triumphantly and aloud to the animals:
"We beat 'em back, Jim Boyd, the Little Giant and me, and we can do it again. We beat back a whole band of the Sioux nation, and we defy 'em to come on again. And you predicted it, all six of you! And you predict that we'll do it a second time, don't you?"
He was in a state of great spiritual exaltation, seeing things that others might not have seen, and he distinctly saw the six wise heads of the brutes, dumb but knowing so much, nod in affirmation.
"I accept the omen!" he said, some old scrap of Latin translation coming into his mind, "and await the future with absolute confidence!"
The horses and mules, stirred at first by the shots, and then not caring, perhaps, to rest, began to graze. All sign of alarm was gone from them and Will's heart resumed its normal beat. He listened attentively, but no sound came from the pass where his comrades, those deadly sharpshooters, watched. Far overhead the cliffs towered, and over them a sky darkly blue. He looked at it a little while, and then went back to the pass.
He had left his glasses with them, and they had not been able to discover anything suspicious.
"They won't come again into the mouth of the pass," said Boyd with confidence. "That rush cost 'em too much. They'll spend a long time thinking up some sort of trick, and that being the case you go now, Giant, and have a drink at the stream, and pour water over your head and face as Will has done."
"So I will, Jim. I'm noticing that young William has a lot o' sense, an' after I've 'tended to myself fine I'll come back, an' you kin do ez much fur yourself. A good bathin' o' your face won't hurt your beauty, Jim."
He was gone a half hour, not hurrying back, because he felt there was no need to do so. Meanwhile Will lay behind his rock and watched the dusky pass. Wisps of vapor and thin clouds were floating across the heavens, hiding some of the stars, and the light was not as good as it had been earlier in the night, but constant use and habit enable one to see through the shadows, and he also had the glasses to fall back upon. But even with their aid he could discern nothing save the stony steep.
"They won't come again, not that way, as I told you before," said Boyd, when young Clarke put down his glasses after the tenth searching look. "When they made the rush they expected to have a warrior or two hit, but they didn't know the greatest marksman in all the world, the Little Giant, was here waiting for 'em, and if I do say it myself, I'm as good with the rifle as anybody in the west, except Tom, and you're 'way above the average too, Will. No, they've had enough of charging, but I wish to heaven I knew what wicked trick they're thinking out now."
The Little Giant returned, bathed, refreshed and joyous.
"Your turn now, Jim," he said, "an' you soak your head an' face good in the water. Don't dodge it because you think thar ain't plenty o' water, 'cause thar is. It keeps on a-runnin' an' a-runnin', an' it never runs out. Stay ez long ez you want to, 'cause young William an' me kin hold the pass ag'inst all the confederated tribes o' the Sioux nation, an' the Crows an' the Cheyennes an' the Blackfeet throwed in."
Boyd departed and presently he too returned, strengthened anew for any task.
"Now, Will," he said, "you being the youngest, and it's only because you're the youngest, you'd better go back there where the horses and mules are. They've got over their fright and are taking their rest again. They appear to like you, to look upon you as a kind of comrade, and I think it's about time you took a bit of rest with them."
"But don't hev a nightmare an' kick one o' my mules," said the Little Giant, "'cause the best tempered mule in the world is likely to kick back ag'in."
Will smiled. He knew their raillery was meant to cheer him up, because of his inexperience, and their desperate situation. He recognized, too, that it would be better for him to sleep if he could, as they were more than sufficient to guard the pass.
"All right," he said. "I obey orders."
"Good night to you," said the hunter.
"Good night," said the Little Giant, "an' remember not to kick one o' my mules in your sleep."
"I won't," replied Will, cheerfully, as he went around the curve of the wall.
He found the horses and mules at rest, and everything very quiet and peaceful in the alcove. The rill murmured a little in its stony bed, and, far overhead, he heard the wind sighing among the trees on the mountain. He chose a place close to the wall, spread two blankets there, on which he expected to lie, and prepared to cover himself with two more. He realized now that he was tired to the bone, but it was not a nervous weariness and sleep would cure it almost at once.
He was arranging the two blankets that were to cover him, when he heard a rumbling noise far over his head. At first he thought it was distant thunder echoing along the ridges, but the wisps of cloud were too light and thin to indicate any storm. He saw the horses and mules rise in alarm, and then not one but several of them gave out shrill and terrible neighs of terror, a volume of frightened sound that made young Clarke's heart stand still for a moment.
The sound which was not that of thunder, but of something rolling and crashing, increased with terrific rapidity, stopped abruptly for a moment or two and then a huge dark object shooting down in front of his eyes, struck the ground with mighty impact. It seemed to him that the earth trembled. He sprang back several feet and all the horses and mules, rearing in alarm, crouched against the cliff.
A great bowlder lay partly buried. It had rolled from the edge of the cliff high above, and he divined at once that the Sioux had made it roll. They had climbed the stony mountains enclosing the defile, and were opening a bombardment, necessarily at random, but nevertheless terrible in its nature. While he hesitated, not knowing what to do, a second bowlder thundered, bounded and crashed into the chasm. But it struck much farther away.
The Little Giant came running at the sound, leaving Boyd on guard at the mouth of the pass, and as he arrived a third rock struck, though, like the second, at a distance, and he knew without any words from Will, what the Sioux were now trying to do. As he looked up, a fourth crashed down, and it fell very near.
"So that's thar trick?" exclaimed the Little Giant. "Simple ez you please, but ez dang'rous ez a batt'ry o' cannon. Look out, young William, thar's another."
It struck so close to Will that he felt the shock and ran back to the shelter of the overhanging cliff, where, driven by instinct, the horses and mules were already crowding. Nor did the Little Giant, brave as he was, hesitate to follow him.
"When you're shot at out o' the sky," he said, "the best thing to do is to go into hidin'. One ain't wholly under cover here, but it ud be a long chance ef any o' them rocks got us."
"What about Jim, watching at the mouth of the pass?"
"He won't stir until he hears from me. He'll set thar, unmoved, with his rifle ready, waitin' fur the Sioux jest ez ef he expected them to come. I'll slip back an' tell him to keep on waitin', also what's goin' on in here."
"Skip fast then! Look out! That barely missed you! They're sending the rocks down in showers now."
The Little Giant, as agile as a greyhound, vanished around the curve, and Will instinctively crowded himself closely and more closely against the stone wall while the dangerous bombardment went on. The animals, their instinct still guiding them, were doing the same, and Boyd's brave Selim, which was next to him, reached out his head and nuzzled Will's hand, as if he found strength and protection in the presence of the human being, who knew so much more about some things than he or his comrades did. Will responded at once.
"I don't think they can get us here, Selim, old boy," he said. "The projection of the wall is slight, but it sends every rock out toward the center. Now, if you and your comrades will only be intelligent you'll keep safe."
He arranged them in a row along the wall, where none would interfere with the protection of another, and standing with Selim's nose in his hand, watched the great rocks strike. Luckily at that particular point the bottom of the defile was soft earth and they sank into it, but farther up they fell with a crash on a stony floor, and when they did not split to pieces they bounded and rebounded like ricochetting cannon balls.
The Little Giant returned presently, but as yet no damage had been done, although the bombardment was going on as furiously as ever.
"They'll keep it up awhile," he said, as he huddled against the wall by the side of Will. "I knowed they would be up to some trick, but I didn't think 'bout them bowlders that lay thick on the mounting. They hev got 'nuff ammunition o' that kind to last a year, but arter a while thar arms will grow tired, an' then they'll grow tired too, o' not knowin' whether they hit or not. It wears out the best man in the world to keep on workin' forever an' forever without knowin' whether he's accomplishin' anything or not. All we've got to do is to hug the wall an' set tight."
"Wouldn't it be well, Giant, when the bombardment lets up, to gather together our own little army and take to flight up the pass?"
"An' whar would we fetch up?"
"It's not likely to be a box canyon. I've read that they abound more in the southern mountains, and are not met with very often here. And even if the pass itself didn't take us out we might find a cross canyon or a slope that we could climb."
"Sounds good, young William. We'll git the hosses an' mules ready, packs on 'em, and bridles in thar mouths, an' ez soon ez the arms an' sperrits o' the Sioux git tired, I'll hot foot after Jim, an' then we'll gallop up the pass."
The Little Giant's psychology was correct. In a half hour the bombardment began to decrease in violence, and in ten more minutes it ceased entirely. Then, according to plan, he ran to the mouth of the pass and returned with the hunter, who had promptly accepted their plan. Coaxing forth the reluctant animals, which were still in fear, they set off up the great defile, passing among the bowlders, some of great size, which had been tumbled down in search of their heads.
"Thar's one consolation," said the Little Giant, philosophically, "ef any o' them big rocks had hit our heads we wouldn't hev been troubled with wounds. My skull's hard, but it would hev been shattered like an eggshell."
"They may begin again," said Boyd, "but by then we ought to be far away."
It was a venture largely at random, but the three were agreed that it must be made. The Sioux undoubtedly would resume the bombardment later on, and they might also receive reinforcements sufficient to resume the attack at the mouth of the pass, or at least to keep up there a distant fire that would prove troublesome. Every motive prompted to farther flight, and they pushed on as fast as they could, although the bottom of the defile became rough, sown with bowlders and dangerous to the fugitives.
They made no attempt to ride, but led the horses and mules at the ends of their lariats, all the animals becoming exceedingly wary at the bad footing.
"It's a blind canyon after all!" suddenly exclaimed the Little Giant in deep disgust. "The stream comes down that mountain wall thar, droppin' from ledge to ledge, an' here we are headed off."
"Then there's nothing to do," said the hunter, "but choose a good place among the rocks and fight for our lives when they come."
Will looked up at the steep and lofty slopes on either side. The one on the right seemed less steep and lofty than the other, and upon it hung a short growth of pine and cedar, characteristic of the region. His spirit, which danger had made bold and venturesome, seized upon an idea.
"Why not go up the slope on the right?" he asked.
"It's like the side of a house, only many times as high," said Boyd in amazement.
"But it isn't," said the lad. "It merely looks so in the dark. We can climb it."
"Of course we could, but we'd have to abandon the horses and mules and all our packs and stores, and then where would we be?"
"But we won't have to leave 'em. They can climb too. You know how you boasted of our horses, and the Giant's horses are mules which can go anywhere."
"I believe the boy's right," said the Little Giant. "By our pullin' on the lariats an' thar takin' advantage o' ev'ry footgrip, they might do it. Leastways we kin try it."
"It's a desperate chance," said the hunter, "but I think with you, Tom, that it's worth trying. Now, boys, make fast the packs to the last strap, and up we go."
"Bein' as my hosses are mules," said the Little Giant, "I'll lead the way, an' you foller, each feller pullin' on two lariats."
He started up the slope, whistling gayly but low to his mules, and, after some hesitation, they attacked the ascent, Tom still whistling to them in his most cheerful and engaging manner. There was a sound of scrambling feet, and small stones rolled down, but not the mules, which disappeared from sight among the cedars.
"Thunderation! I wouldn't have thought it!" exclaimed the hunter, "but I believe you're right, Will! The mules are climbing the wall. Now, we'll see if the horses can do it!"
"Let me start with 'em!"
"All right! But pull hard on the lariat, whenever you feel one of 'em slipping."
Will attacked the steep wall with vigor, but he had to pull very hard indeed on the lariats before he could make the horses try it. Finally they made the effort, and, though slipping and sliding at times, they crept up the slope. Behind him he heard Boyd, coming with the last two and speaking in encouraging tones to Selim.
The lariats were a great help, and if Will had not hung on to them so hard his horses would have fallen. But he was right in his judgment that the face of the wall was not so steep as it looked. Moreover there were little shelves and gullies, and the tough clumps of cedar were a wonderful aid. The horses justified their reputation as climbers, and, although Will's heart was in his mouth more than once, and his hands and wrists were cut and bleeding by the pull on the lariats, they did not fall. Always he heard in front of him the low and cheerful whistling of the Little Giant, to his mules, which, sure-footed, went on almost without a slip.
At last they drew out upon the crest of the slope and the three human beings and the six animals stood there trembling violently from exertion, the perspiration pouring from them.
"My legs are shaking under me," said the hunter. "I'd never have believed that it could have been done, and I know it couldn't, but here we are, anyhow."
"It wuz young William who thought of it, and who dared to speak of it," said the Little Giant, "an' so it's his win."
"Right you are, Giant," said the hunter heartily. "When I looked at that cliff it stood up straight as a wall to me. It was like most other things, it wasn't as hard when you attacked it as you thought it was, but I still don't see how we ever got the animals up, and if I didn't see 'em standing here I wouldn't believe it."
Will, holding to a cedar, looked into the gulf from which they had climbed. As more of the stars had gone away he could not now see the bottom. The great defile had all the aspects of a vast and bottomless abyss, and he felt that their emergence from it was a marvel, a miracle in which they had been assisted by some greater power. He was assailed by a weakness and, trembling, he drew back from the ledge. But neither the hunter nor the Little Giant had seen his momentary collapse and he was glad, pardonable though it was.
"The ground back o' the cliff seems to be pretty well covered with forest," said the Little Giant, "an' I reckon we'd better stay here a spell 'til everybody, men an' animals, git rested up a bit."
"You never spoke truer words, Tom Bent," said Boyd. "I can make out a fairly level stretch of ground just ahead, and I'll lead the way to it."
They crouched there. "Crouch" is the only word that describes it, as the horses and mules themselves sank down through weariness, and their masters, too, were glad enough to lie on the earth and wait for their strength to come back. Will's senses, despite his exhaustion, were nevertheless acute. He heard a heavy, lumbering form shuffling through a thicket, and he knew that it was an alarmed bear moving from the vicinity of the intruders. He heard also the light tread of small animals.
"I judge from these sounds," said Boyd, "that we must be on a sort of plateau of some extent. If it was just a knife edge ridge between two chasms you wouldn't find so many animals here. Maybe we'd better lay by until day, or until it's light enough to see. In the dark we might tumble into some place a thousand feet deep."
"What about the Sioux who were on the heights throwing down the rocks?" asked Will. "Mightn't they come along the cliff and find us here?"
"No. The way may be so cut by dips and ravines that it's all but impassable. The chances are a thousand to one in favor of it, as this is one of the roughest countries in the world."
"A thousand to one is good enough for me," said Will, stretching himself luxuriously on the ground. Presently he saw Boyd and Bent wrapping themselves in the blankets and he promptly imitated them, as a cold wind was beginning to blow down from the northwest, a wind that cut, and, at such a time, a lack of protection from the weather might be fatal.
The warmth from the blankets pervaded his frame, and with the heat came the restoration of his nerves. There was also a buoyancy caused by the escape from the Sioux, and, for the time being at least, he felt a certain freedom from care. His comrades and the animals did not stir, and, while not thinking of sleep, he fell asleep just the same.
He was awakened by a long, fierce shout, much like the howl of hungry wolves, and full of rage and disappointment. He sat up on his blankets, and was amazed to hear the two men laughing softly.
"It's them thar Sioux, Will," said the Little Giant. "They've found out at last that thar was no outlet at the end o' the pass, an' they've come up it to the end, jest to run ag'inst a blank wall, an' to find that we've plum' vanished, flew away, hosses an' mules an' all."
"But won't they find our trail up the cliff?"
"No, they won't dream o' sech a thing, but in case they do dream o' it we'll all three creep to the edge an' set thar with our repeatin' rifles. A fine time they'd hev climbin' up thar in the face o' three sharpshooters armed with sech weapons ez ours."
Will saw at once that their position was well nigh impregnable, at least against foes in the defile, and he crept with the others to the edge, not forgetting his invaluable glasses. A lot of the stars had come back and with the aid of the powerful lenses, he was able to penetrate the depths of the pass, seeing there at least a score of Sioux in a group, apparently taking counsel with one another. He could not discern their faces, and, of course, their words were inaudible at the distance, but their gestures expressed perplexity. Their savage minds might well believe that witchcraft had been at work, and he hoped that they had some such idea. The climbing of the cliff by the animals was an achievement bordering so closely upon the impossible that even if they saw traces of the hoofs on the lower slopes they would think the spirits of the air had come down to help the fugitives.
"What are they doing, young William?" asked the Little Giant.
"Nothing that I can see except to talk as if puzzled."
"I almost wish they would strike our trail and start up the cliff. We could pick off every one of 'em before they reached the top."
"I'd rather they went back."
"That's what they're likely to do, young William. Even if they saw our trail going up the cliff, they won't follow it. They've had a taste of our marksmanship, an' they know it would be certain death. It looks to me ez if they wuz goin' to drift back down the trail."
"You judge right, Tom. There they go. I wish I could read the expression on their faces. They must be wild with rage. They're moving a little faster now, and the sooner they disappear from my sight the better."
He handed the glasses to the Little Giant, who, after taking a look, passed them to Boyd. The hunter had the last glimpse of them as they turned a curve and were hidden by the rocky wall.
"That settles 'em, for the time, anyway," he said, "and now I think we'd better see what kind of a country we've come into. You stay here with the animals, Will, they like you and it's easy for you to keep 'em quiet, while Giant and me scout about and see the lay of the land."
Will promptly accepted his part of the task. The horses and mules, alarmed perhaps by such a wild and lonely situation, and tremulous, too, from memories of that frightful climb up the cliff, crowded close about him, while he stroked their noses and manes, and felt himself their protector.
The hunter and the Little Giant vanished without noise, and Will waited a full hour before either returned. But he was not lonesome. The horses and mules rubbed their noses against him, and in the dark and the wilderness they made evident their feeling that he was the one who would guard them.
The noise of a light footstep sounded and the hunter, who had gone south, stood before him.
"It's good news I bring," said Boyd. "We're cut off to the south by a cliff that no one can climb, and it seems to run away toward the west for countless miles. The Sioux can't reach us from that direction. Ah, here is Tom! What has he to say?"
"What I hev to say is always important," replied the Little Giant, "but this time its importance is speshul. A couple o' miles to the north a great transverse pass runs out o' the main one, an' cuts off toward the west. It's deep an' steep an' I reckon it bars the way thar."
"That being the case, we're on a peninsula," said Boyd, "and this peninsula rises in the west toward very high mountains. I can see a white dome off in that direction."
"All these facts now bein' diskivered," said the Little Giant, "I think we've shook off them Sioux fur good, though thar ain't no tellin' when we'll run afoul another bunch. But we'll take the good things the moment hez give us, an' look fur what we need, wood, water an' grass."
"Wood we have all about us," said Will. "Water is bound to be plentiful in these forested mountains, and we may strike grass by daylight."
They began an advance, making it very cautious, owing to the extremely rough nature of the country, and all their caution was needed, as they had to cross several ravines, and the ground was so broken that a misstep at any time might have proved serious. In this manner they made several miles and the general trend of the ground was a rapid ascent. Toward dawn they came to a brook flowing very fast, and they found its waters almost as cold as ice. Will judged it to be a glacial stream issuing from the great white dome, now plainly visible, though far ahead.
A short distance beyond the stream they found an open space with grass for the animals, and very glad, too, they were to reach it, as they were shaken by their immense exertions and the hard trail in the dark.
"This valley jest had to be here," said the Little Giant, "'cause we couldn't hev stood goin' on any more. The hosses an' mules theirselves are too tired to eat, but they will begin croppin' afore long."
"And it's so cold up here I think we'd better light a fire and have warm food," said Boyd. "We can smother the smoke, and anyway it will pay us to run the risk."
It was a task soon done, and long before breakfast was finished the horses and mules were peacefully grazing. Will then took his rifle and examined the country himself in some detail, going as far as the great precipice on the south. It was not a gulch or ravine, but the ground dropped down suddenly three or four hundred feet. Beyond that the forest extended as before.
The view to the west was magnificent and majestic beyond description. Up, up rose the slope, cliff on cliff and the imperial white dome beyond! That way, too, apparently, they had to go, as they were cut off by the precipices on all other sides, and at the moment Will felt no particular sorrow because of it. The gold had taken a second place in his mind, and with these two wise and brave comrades of his he would penetrate the great mysteries of the west. The southward turn into the plains, following the diagram of the map, could wait.
When he returned to the camp he found the animals still grazing and his comrades sitting by the fire, which had now burned down to a bed of coals.
"I don't see anything for us to do except to go straight on toward the great snow mountain," he said.
"That's about the same conclusion that Tom and I have come to," said Boyd. "We're likely to get up pretty high, where it's winter all the year 'round, but it's better than running into the hands of the Sioux, or any of the mountain tribes. I vote, though, that this army of three spend the rest of the day here, and since storms gather at any time on these uplands, we'd better build another wickiup."
"An' make brush shelters for the animals, too," said the Little Giant.
The wickiup was built and they arranged crude, but nevertheless excellent, protection for the horses, a precaution that was soon justified, as it began to rain the following night, and they had alternating rain, snow and sleet for two days and two nights. The animals were able to dig enough grass from under the snow for sustenance, but most of the time they spent in the shelter devised for them. When the fair weather returned and the snow melted, they left the second wickiup, resuming the ascent of the mighty slopes. They were all restored by their rest, and despite the elevation and the wildness they were able to find plenty of forage for the animals.
"We've got to be mighty partic'ler with them hosses an' mules," said the Little Giant, "'cause even ef we should reach the mine without 'em we're bound to hev 'em to pack out the gold fur us. I expect we'll hev to ketch an' train 'bout twenty wild hosses, too, ez we'll need 'em fur all the gold that I'm countin' on findin'. Didn't you say thar was that much, young William?"
"I didn't give the exact amount," replied the lad, "nor do I suppose anyone can tell from surface indications how much gold there is in a mine, but from the word my father brought we'll need the twenty wild horses and more."
"O' course we will. I knowed it afore you said it. I've hunted gold fifteen to twenty years without findin' a speck, an' so it stands to reason that when I do find it I'll find a mountain of it."
Although the slope rose steadily, the ground, for the present, was not much cut up, and they were able to ride in comfort. Much of the country was beautiful and parklike. While far below there were endless brown plains, here were great forests, without much undergrowth, and cold, clear streams, running down from the vast snowy dome that always loomed ahead, and that never seemed to come any nearer.
"How high would you say that peak wuz, young William?" asked the Little Giant. "You're an eddicated lad, an' I reckon you know 'bout these things."
"You give me too much credit," laughed Will in reply. "One has to have instruments with which to calculate the height of mountains, and I couldn't do it even if I had the instruments, but I should say from what I've heard about the country and the tales of explorers that the peak we're looking at is about 14,000 feet high."
"I've seen it once before, though from the south," said Boyd, "and I've also met an exploring geographer kind of fellow who had seen it and who told me it rose close on to three miles above the sea. Different Indian tribes have different names for it, but I don't remember any of 'em."
"I think I'll call it the White Dome," said Will, examining it for the hundredth time through his glasses. "From here it looks like a round mountain, though it may have another shape, of course, on the other three sides. It's a fine mountain and as it's the first time I ever saw it I'm going to call it my peak. The forest is heavy and green clear up to the snow line, and beyond that I think I see a vast glacier."
Two days later they made another stop in a sheltered valley through which ran a mountain torrent. The hunter and the Little Giant shot two mule deer and a mountain sheep, and they considered the addition to their larder very welcome, as they had been making large inroads on their stores. The weather, too, had grown so cold that they kept a fire burning both day and night. Far over their heads they heard a bitter wind of the mountains blowing, and when Will climbed out of the valley and turned his glasses toward the White Dome he could not see the peak, it was wrapped around so thoroughly by mists and vapors and falling snow.
They built the fire large and high on the second night, and as they sat around it they held a serious consultation. They feared incessant storms and blizzards if they rose to still higher levels, and attempted to pass around on the lofty slopes of the peak. It would, perhaps, be wiser to follow the torrent, and enter the plains below, braving the dangers of the Sioux.
"What good will the gold be to us if we're all froze to death under fifty feet o' snow?" asked the Little Giant.
"None at all," replied the hunter, "and it wouldn't be any good to us, either, if we was to slip down a precipice a thousand feet and fall on the rocks below."
"I believe I'd rather be frozen to death in Tom's way," he said.
"Then I vote that in the morning, if the wind dies, we turn down the gorge and hunt the plains. What say you, Will?"
"It seems the wise thing to do."
"And you, Giant?"
"Me votin' last, the vote is unany-mous, an' I reckon ef we wuz to put it to the four hosses an' two mules they'd vote jest ez we're votin'. Tomorrow mornin', bright an' early, we start on our farewell journey from the mountings."
They had saved and tanned the skins of three black bears they had slain, and with big needles and pack thread they had turned them into crude overcoats with the hair inside. Now when they put them on they found them serviceable but heavy. At any rate, wrapped in furs they ceased to shiver, though the wind of the mountains was still exceedingly bitter.
Fortunately the gorge down which the stream flowed was wide, and, the descent not being too rapid, they were able to follow it a long time, though the pace was very slow. At points where the gorge narrowed, they took to the water, and were compelled to lead the animals with great care, lest they slip on the bowlders that were thick in the bed of the stream.
When night came they were far down the mountain and there had been no accident, but they were wet to the waist, and as quickly as they could they kindled a big and roaring fire in the lee of a cliff, careless whether or not it was seen by enemies. Then they roasted themselves before it, until every thread of clothing they wore was dry, ate heavily of their food and drank two or three cups of coffee apiece.
Only then did Will feel warmed thoroughly. The older men found a fairly level place with sparse grass for the horses, and then they put out their fire. They told the lad there was no need to keep a watch, and, wrapped in his bear overcoat and blankets, he slept in the shadow of the cliff. But the hunter had seen a trace which he believed to be a human footprint. When the Little Giant knelt in the dusk and looked at it he was of the same opinion.
"It's too faint, Jim," he said, "fur us to tell whether it wuz made by a white man or a red man."
"We don't care to meet either. If it's a white man it may be an outlaw, horse thief or murderer, and that's not the kind of people we want to join us on this gold hunt. If it's Indians, they're enemies, no matter to what tribe they belong."
"An' then, whichever it is, our repeatin' rifles are our best friends."