The creature, balked in its spring, came down in the midst of the hot ashes of the smoldering fire. Instantly a piercing howl of anguish split the night. The Mexican leaped up and appeared to be fully awake the instant he opened his eyes. At any rate the great, tawny body was still writhing about in the embers when two shots crackled from his revolver. The big animal gave a spring and another howl of pain and then fell over in a heap, rolling to one side of the fire.
“What – whatever was it?” cried Jack, rather timorously, for the suddenness of the attack had rather unnerved him.
“A mountain lion, and a monster, too,” came the reply. “Come up and take a look at him.”
“Are you quite sure he is dead?”
“Positive. Wait a minute and I’ll make sure, however.”
So saying the Mexican stooped and picked a glowing coal out of the fire. He threw it so that it fell on the motionless beast’s hide. But the animal did not stir. Unquestionably it was quite dead. Jack approached it, having poked up the fire the better to see the brute. He marveled at its size. It was indeed a giant of its kind and must have weighed six hundred pounds or more, and was lithe and sinewy as a cat.
“What splendid condition it is in! I’d like to skin it and take the hide out of this valley as a souvenir.”
“So you are still certain that we can get out?”
“I am not certain, but I don’t want to give over trying till we have tested every avenue of hope.”
“Caramba! But you Americans are wonderful people! A Mexican boy would be sitting around crying if he were in the same fix. In the morning we will take the pelt off this brute, and if we ever do get out, the skin will always serve as a memento of a dreadful time.”
The mountain lion scare being over, they composed themselves to sleep again. Jack recollected having read or heard that when a mountain lion is killed, its mate will find it out and avenge it. But even though the thought gave him cause for disquietude he was not able to stay awake; and although distant howlings told him that another puma was in the vicinity, nature asserted herself and sealed his eyes in slumber.
The sun had hardly peeped above the rim of the bowl–like valley when Jack and Alvarez were astir. Breakfast was cooked and eaten hurriedly, and then the great lion was skinned. This done, Jack started out to put his plans in execution.
The Mexican did not accompany him. He deemed Jack’s mission a useless one. In fact, it did seem very like an attempt at suicide to try to scale the valley’s lofty, almost perpendicular walls.
Jack strolled along at the foot of the cliffs, anxiously scanning every inch of them in the hope of spying some place that afforded an opportunity to climb upward. The cliffs varied in height from two hundred to three, and even four hundred feet. Great beetling crags of gray stone, too steep to afford roothold to more than a few scanty shrubs, filled him with oppression and gloom.
The boy felt this disheartening influence as he made his way along the edges of the valley.
At last he halted at the foot of a cliff that was less precipitous than the others. It had, in fact, a slight slope to it, and was more closely grown with bushes and small trees which might be grasped by any one attempting to climb it.
Jack had his knife with him, a heavy–bladed, business–like bit of cutlery of finely tempered steel, but strong and thick withal. He drew it out, opened the blade and began hacking at the cliff’s face. It was of a soft sort of stone, and he could easily cut depressions in it.
“Good,” murmured the boy, “I actually believe that I may be able to scale this cliff, although it may take a long time.”
He gauged its height carefully and estimated that from the floor of the valley to the summit of the precipice it must be fully three hundred feet.
“If the situation was not so desperate I would never dream of attempting to climb that awful height,” mused the boy, “but necessity often drives where courage would falter.”
So thinking, he cast off his coat, laid it on the ground and his hat beside it. Then he clambered over the pile of stones that lay at the foot of the cliff and began his climb. For the first forty feet or so his task was not so difficult. But it was hot, and the perspiration began to run off the laboring lad in streams.
He paused to rest. Jack was now, as has been said, about two score feet from the floor of the valley. Up to this point the cliff had sloped at quite an angle; but now it reared itself upward in a seemingly impassable escarpment, like the wall of a giant’s castle.
“Now for the real tug–of–war,” thought Jack, when he had rested.
Tightening his belt, he braced himself for what he knew would be a desperately dangerous climb. First he dug out holes to fit his hands and then began working his way up. From time to time he was able to grasp bushes and stunted trees, and these helped him greatly in his task. When he reached even the narrowest ledge he laid down to rest, extending himself at full length and panting like a spent hound.
Owing to the soft nature of the rock, however, he progressed rather better than he had anticipated. But it was slow work. From time to time the face of the cliff was so precipitous that he was compelled to make a detour to find an easier place to cut his steps.
Once he looked down; but he did not repeat the experiment. The sight of the dizzy height, to which he clung like some crawling insect, almost unnerved him. For several minutes, with a palpitating heart and a sickened feeling at the pit of his stomach, he hugged the rock, not daring to look either up or down.
But at last his courage came back and he began his painful progress upward once more. Foot by foot he climbed, and at last, when resting on a ledge, he dared to look about him to see what progress he had made. To his delight he saw that he had come more than halfway up the precipice, although above him its rugged face still towered frowningly as if daring him to surmount it.
“Well, I would never have believed that I could have climbed to such a height with so little inconvenience,” mused the boy. “Of course, the climb is a good deal rougher than it looks from below; but still it’s an experience I wouldn’t go through again for hundreds of dollars.”
Having rested on the ledge and munched some deer meat and acorn flap–jack which he had brought with him, Jack recommenced his climb. It spoke marvels for his cool head, great strength and wonderful endurance that the boy had progressed as far as he had. Few but an American youth of the most steel–like fiber and sterling grit would have dared to undertake such a task. And yet, before Jack there still lay the hardest part of his endeavor.
So steep was the cliff face now that the lad did not dare to pause in his climb. He steadily progressed although his hands were cut and bleeding by this time, and his feet ached as cruelly as did other parts of his anatomy. But just when it seemed to the lad that his body could not stand another fraction of an ounce of strain, he happened on a place where a watercourse from above had cut a sort of shallow cleft in the precipice. In this grew shrubs and several trees, and Jack struggled to gain this oasis in the dangerous desert of his climb for life.
Gaining it, he flung himself at full length on a bed of sweet smelling yellow flowers under the shade of a broad–leaved bay tree. In the stillness of that lonely and awful height, halfway between earth and sky, his breathing sounded as loud as the exhaust of a steam engine. But by–and–by he recovered his breath, and began to wish with all his soul for some water.
That fearful climb had racked both nerve and muscle; but even more than his fatigue did Jack feel the cruel pangs of a burning thirst. Some grass grew in that lonely little grove on the cliff face, and he chewed some of this for the sake of the moisture that exuded from it. But this was far from satisfying. In fact, it only aggravated his thirst by mocking it.
He rose on one elbow and looked about him. At a short distance up the steep, dry watercourse he saw a patch of vivid green. To his mind that could betoken nothing but the presence of water near the surface. At any rate he felt that it was worth investigating.
Reaching the patch of verdure, the boy fell on his hands and knees, and with a sharp–edged stone began scraping away at the ground. To his unspeakable delight he had not dug down more than a few inches before the ground began to grow moist.
Greatly encouraged, he dug away with his improvised tool with renewed vigor. He excavated quite a hole, and then lay down in the shade waiting for it to fill up. Before long a few inches of warm, muddy–colored liquid could be discerned at the bottom of the hole. It did not look inviting, this coffee–colored, tepid mixture, but Jack was not in the mood to be fastidious.
Casting himself down on his stomach, he plunged his face into the water, sucking it greedily in. Then he bathed his hands and face. He was still engaged in this last occupation when his attention was distracted by a low growl from below him.
The boy looked up quickly, and then almost toppled over backward with astonishment.
Facing him, and lashing its stubby tail angrily, was a large bob–cat. The creature had its wicked–looking teeth bared, and the boy could see its sharp claws. How it came to be in that place he could not imagine. But its emaciated condition seemed to indicate that it must have in some way fallen from the cliff above.
Evidently it was half mad from deprivation of food and water, for under ordinary conditions a bob–cat – although a really dangerous foe if cornered – will not attack a human being without provocation.
The wild beast’s object was, evidently, to get at the water hole which Jack had so painstakingly scooped out. The boy would have been willing enough to allow it to accomplish its purpose. But evidently the half famished creature regarded him as an enemy to be dispatched before it proceeded to slake its thirst.
It crouched down till its fawn–colored belly touched the ground and then, uttering a snarling sort of cry, it launched its body through the air at the boy.
So strong was its leap that tempered steel springs could not have hurled its body forward with more velocity. Jack uttered an involuntary cry of alarm. Above him was the steep cliff, while to move even a short distance in either direction from the dry watercourse would mean a death plunge to the valley below.
But Jack Merrill’s mind never worked quicker or to better effect than in an emergency. He perceived the instant that the creature crouched that its intention was to spring on him. Swift as a flash he reached down and seized a stone.
As the bob–cat hurled itself into the air Jack’s arm shot out. The stone sped from his hand and caught the creature fairly between the eyes. Had a bullet struck it the animal could not have been checked more effectually. It dropped to the ground, rolled up in a furry ball, scratching and spitting furiously, and then, with a yowl of rage and pain, it lost its footing on the edge of the watercourse.
The last Jack saw of it the creature plunged over the brink of the precipice up which the Border Boy had so laboriously toiled. As he heard the body go rolling and bumping down toward the valley, Jack shuddered. Had things turned out differently he might have been in its place, for the boy well knew that if once the maddened animal had fastened its claws in him he would not have stood a chance without a weapon.
Jack sat down to rest once more, this time keeping a cautious lookout for any other wild creatures; but none appeared, and it was evident that his theory that the animal had accidentally dropped from above was a correct one.
“Well,” said Jack to himself, after an interval, “if I’m to get to the top of that cliff I’ve got to start in right now. Ugh! It doesn’t look as if I could possibly make it; but then it’s equally certain that I can’t climb down again. The thought makes me sick; so I’ve got to tackle it. There’s no other way out of it.”
Fortifying himself by a cooling drink, to which he added another wash, the boy prepared to take up his task again.
Above the dry watercourse the cliff shot up more precipitously than the part he had already traversed below it; but Jack steeled himself to the thought of the dizzy climb. Knife in hand he worked his way up, clinging to the face of the cliff desperately at times, and again resting where some vagrant bush offered him a hand or foothold.
In the meantime, below in the valley, Alvarez, returning from a hunt for more food, began to worry about the boy. Not a bad man at heart, Alvarez was a true son of the Mexican revolution. He decided that all Americans, or Gringoes, as he contemptuously called them, were the born foes of the Mexicans. It had been with this conviction that he and his companions had set out to spy on the Rangers who, they thought, menaced them, instead of merely patrolling the Border to prevent lawless acts on American soil.
Since his brief acquaintance with Jack, however, Alvarez had found cause to revise his opinion. Himself a courageous man, he admired courage and grit in others, and of these qualities we know Jack possessed full and abundant measure.
Returning, then, from his hunt with some quail and rabbits, Alvarez began to be seriously alarmed about Jack. Not for one moment did the Mexican deem it possible that the lad could have actually found a way to scale those awful cliffs. He had confidently expected that on his return to camp he would find Jack awaiting him. When, therefore, he could see no trace of the boy his alarm was genuine and deep.
He carefully deposited his game out of harm’s way in the trees, and then set out to see if he could find any trace of the boy to whom he had become attached in their short acquaintance.
As he advanced below the cliffs he carefully scanned the foot of the precipitous heights for what he dreaded to find; for Alvarez had begun to fear that Jack had made a daring attempt to escape and summon help and had met death in a fearful fall from the rocky crags.
“The boy would have been mad to attempt such a climb,” he muttered, as he moved along, “why, not even a mountain goat could find a foothold up yonder. It is impossible that he should have tried such a thing. It would have been sheer madness. And yet – and yet when it comes to such things the Gringoes are assuredly mad. They will dare anything it seems.”
Musing thus the Mexican traversed the greater part of the valley, pondering deeply over the possible fate of his young friend.
“It is a thing without explanation that he could have climbed even a few feet up those cliffs,” ran the burden of his thoughts; “yet if he has not, why do I not see a trace of him here below?”
“Caramba! Can it be that he has slipped on a lofty crag and is suspended high above the valley, injured, perhaps dying, and beyond reach of human aid?”
On and on trudged the Mexican, growing more and more alarmed every instant.
Suddenly, as he cast his eye up toward the summit of a lofty precipice, his attention was caught by an object moving slowly up its surface, like a fly on a high wall.
The Mexican gazed steadily at it. He believed that it was an eagle or condor hovering about its nest in the dizzy heights, but still something odd about the moving object arrested and gripped his attention irresistibly.
“No, it is not an eagle,” he muttered, “but, then, what is it? No quadruped could climb that cliff. What, then, can it be?”
The sun was sinking low over the western wall of the ca?on and the valley itself was beginning to be shrouded in purple shadow. But at that great height the light was still bright. Suddenly the moving object emerged from a patch of shade cast by an overhanging rock.
Simultaneously the Mexican almost sprang into the air under the shock of his amazement. He crossed himself and then his lips moved.
“By the Saints! It’s Jack Merrill!” he cried, in a hollow voice.
For an instant he stood like a thing of wood or stone, every muscle rigid in terrible suspense. And all the time that tiny speck on the cliff face was moving slowly and painfully upward.
Clasping his hands the Mexican stood riveted to the spot. Then his dry lips began to move.
“The saints aid him! The brave boy is working his way to the top of the cliff. He has neared its summit. But can he win it? And, see, there are the steps he has cut in the lower cliff face. It must be that he is working his way upward still by those means. Santa Maria! What courage!
“I dare not call out to him. At that fearful height one backward look might cause him to lose his hold and plunge downward like a stone. Oh, if I could only help, only do something to aid him! But, no, I must stand here helpless, unable to move hand or foot.
“Never again will I say anything against a Gringo. No boy south of the Border would dare such a feat. See now! Caramba! For an instant he slipped. I dare not look.”
The Mexican buried his face in his hands and crouched on the ground. Emotional as are all of his race, the sight of that battle between life and death, hundreds of feet above him, had almost unstrung him.
At last he dared to uncover his eyes again and once more fixed them on the toiling atom on the sunlit cliff face.
But now he burst out into tones of joy.
“Sanctissima Maria! See, he is almost at the summit. Oh, brave Gringo! Climb on. May your head be steady and your hands and feet nimble.”
The sweat was pouring down the Mexican’s face, his knees smote together and his hands shook as he stood like one paralyzed, stock still, watching the outcome of Jack Merrill’s fearful climb. His breath came fast and the veins on his forehead stood out like whip cords. As he watched thus his lips moved in constant, silent prayers for the safety of the young Border Boy.
At last he saw the infinitesimal speck that was Jack Merrill reach the summit of that frowning height. He saw the boy thrust his knife into his belt, and watched him place one hand on the ridge of the precipice and draw himself up.
The next instant the cliff face was bare of life. The fight with death had been won. But Alvarez as he saw Jack attain safety on the summit of the precipice sank back with a groan. The strain under which he had labored had caused the Mexican to swoon.
As he lay there perfectly still three figures appeared at the upper end of the valley in the direction of the Pool of Death. They began advancing down the valley just as Alvarez opened his eyes and staggered dizzily to his feet.
It was about an hour after he had secured the firearm which he intended for Jack’s use that Baldy rode back into the Rangers’ camp in, what was for him, a state of great perturbation. The Chinaman was still up scouring dishes, and to him Baldy rode, spurring his pony almost into the remains of the camp fire in his anxiety.
All about lay the recumbent forms of the Rangers, sleeping under the stars on the expanse of plain. Snores and deep breathing showed that every one of them was deeply wrapped in the healthy slumber of the plainsman.
“Wallee maller, Massel Baldy?” cried the Mongolian, as Baldy spurred his pony up to him.
“Nuffin, you yellow–mugged Chinee,” shot out Baldy, breathing tensely, despite his effort to appear careless; “have you seen anything of that Tenderfoot that went on watch with me a while ago?”
“No, me no see him, Massel Baldy. Whafo’ you so heap much ’cited?”
The keen–eyed Oriental had pierced Baldy’s mask of carelessness, and saw readily enough that the old plainsman was badly worried.
“Me excited, you pig–tailed gopher!” roared out Baldy angrily. “I was never so easy–minded in my life. Where’s the cap sleeping?”
“Over yonder, Massel Baldy. Him litee by chuck wagon.”
Baldy did not wait to make a reply. He steered his plunging pony skillfully among the sleeping Rangers till he reached a bundled–up heap of blankets which he knew must contain Captain Atkinson. Baldy threw himself from his horse in an instant, at the same time slipping the reins over his pony’s head, according to the plainsman’s custom.
Reaching down, he shook the captain vigorously.
“Hello! hello, there, what’s up?” came a muffled rejoinder from amidst the blankets.
But the next instant Captain Atkinson, broad awake, was sitting up.
“Oh, you, Baldy? Well, what’s the trouble?”
“Dunno jes’ erzackly, boss,” stammered out Baldy, “but it’s about that Tenderfoot kid that you gave me ter mind.”
Baldy was plainly embarrassed. He shoved back his sombrero and scratched his head vigorously. At the same time he jingled his spurs as he shifted his feet nervously.
Captain Atkinson’s tone was sharp when he next spoke.
“You mean Jack Merrill? I’d have you understand, Baldy, that he is no Tenderfoot. He’s only a boy, but he’s been through as much as most men of twice his years. But what about him?”