By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Illustrated by C. Nelson White
“We are trapped.”
As her cousin’s voice died away in the inky blackness Laura found her reason returning.
“We can never do anything as long as we are afraid,” she said. “If we quit being afraid we shall think of something.” Hardly were the words spoken when she laughed. “Why, we were going ahead anyway. What are we worrying about. Come on.” She flashed the light before her and started down the steps again. Janet, close beside her, kept hold of her cousin’s sweater. Even their breathing sounded like cannons in their ears. Every second step they stopped.
“Suppose we shouldn’t ever find our way out?”
“Oh, we will.” Laura hoped her voice sounded reassuring. “But we must not be too long about it. This flashlight might go out any minute. Doesn’t it seem to you the air is fresher?”
“I can hardly tell. I only know I want to hurry.”
Again Laura stopped to see what was before them. The light seemed to strike nothing but rock. The walls were crowding them. Janet clutched her in fear.
“Now what shall we do? The tunnel is ended. Anyway, it looks as if it is.” As Laura did not answer she went on. “There isn’t one chance in a thousand that we could lift the door but we had better try it again. I don’t want to be buried alive as Bill Gasper was.”
“Do you want to go ahead or follow?” Laura asked her.
The tunnel was so low they had almost to go on their hands and knees. Crouching they crept along inch by inch. Laura, pushing her pail before her, played the light over it. Its tiny beam showed only a rocky, bumpy pencil of space.
“There is really nothing to fear.” Laura’s voice startled her with its matter of fact tone. “I have done this in mines many times and so have you.”
“But we knew we could get out.”
“We shall get out of here, too. I am sure I feel fresh air.” She stopped and circled the light about slowly, then a cry burst from her lips.
“Here is an opening through solid rock. It is awfully small and jagged looking.”
Janet did not know whether to weep or shout for joy. That might mean anything. Then Laura was at the opening. She thrust her pail and then her arm through. After considerable wiggling her body followed. Then with a shout she stood up.
“We are safe. We are in a cave.”
Janet sighed with relief. Once again she was able to stand without feeling the breath was being crushed from her. They had no way of knowing how large the cave was, for the light did not strike rock except above. Where they were standing they could have reached the roof with their hands. Ahead shone a beam of light.
“An opening.” Janet jumped up and down. “Let’s get the sky above us once more.”
“Now that we know we are safe why not look for the treasure?” Laura asked. “It might accidentally be in here. If we circle, keeping close to the wall we would not be likely to get lost.”
Starting where they were they followed the sloping wall toward the beam of light. The cave was not nearly as large as they had thought. In fact it was very small.
“I think the narrow passage must have made it appear large,” Laura said as they stood at the opening. “It is a relief to know we can get out. I am tempted to go out right now.”
But Janet’s courage had returned. “No, you don’t. Not until we find the gold dust.” She even managed to laugh.
Slowly, breathlessly, watchfully the girls crept away from the light. They had taken only four or five steps when the light found another sloping wall. Laura turned the light down.
“Look.” Laura stopped short. Janet looked and with one wild shriek turned and bolted for the opening. Laura followed.
The cave mouth was small and half screened by brush and weeds but the girls went through it in record time. Not until later did they notice the scratches on their hands and faces. Once again on firm earth with the blue sky above them their fears vanished.
“Did we imagine it?” Janet asked over the lump in her throat.
“It looked like a – a man.”
“That is just what it was. What a spooky place. Let’s get away from here.”
Laura had been looking around. “Why, Janet,” she exclaimed joyfully. “We are just below the cabin. See, this is the cliff we looked over a while ago.”
“A while ago!” Janet’s voice was scornful. “A year ago you mean.”
“That passage cannot have been very long. It was the strangeness and darkness that made it seem endless. You know Janet, there is something decidedly strange about it all. A man could have come through that secret tunnel and escaped but I am not sure of it. The sheriffs were as wise those days as the robbers. The entrance might have been hidden and again it might have been watched. We know what is back in there and if it really was Bill Gasper the gold might be there, too.”
“There is a skeleton in there. that much is certain. Did you see anything else?”
“Yes. There was a mound beside him but it was a small one.”
“All right, I will go back but be ready to dash out.”
Back into the cave they went. The skeleton did not frighten them so much this time for they knew it was there. Parts of it were covered with shreds of clothing. The girls were advancing step by step. they kept close together.
“There. See that. It looks like a sack.”
“Do you dare go nearer?”
“I must if I get it.”
“What if he won’t let you have it?” Janet whispered.
“Hush such talk. We are nearly there.”
Watching fearfully as if they expected the skeleton to rise and bar their way, they crept nearer. Their feet raised the fine dust that covered the floor of the cave. Walking as carefully as they could it was still stifling in their nostrils. Janet sneezed once and the reverberations froze them in their tracks. They hadn’t noticed it when they were going toward the light.
“I shan’t go a step nearer,” Janet declared.
“Then take the light and keep it turned on the mound. I’ll snatch the sack and run.”
Laura handed the flash to her cousin and crept a foot closer. The sack lay so the bones of one arm lay on it.
“Watch the light and keep it right on the sack,” she cautioned and then very carefully she reached for the portion of the sack that lay beyond the bones. In that instant the light gave out. Janet dropped it and fled.
Laura made one frantic snatch and followed. They reached the outer opening shrieking and laughing hysterically.
“Blame it all. I am so disappointed I could cry.” Janet started to dry but stopped before more than two tears had reached her dirty cheeks. “Why, Laura Carter. You brought it after all. What is it?”
Laura was breathing too hard to answer. She held up the thing she had found.
“That’s not a gold sack. “It’s –” Janet pounced suddenly upon it. “Do you see what it is? Do you?”
“A mail sack. A U.S. mail sacks.” Laura’s disappointment changed to quick pleasure. “It is rotted some but it is still a mail sack.”
The side that had lain next the ground was rotted and from it old letters were dropping. Both girls went to their knees beside it. The addresses on the first letters were too dim to read but as they got farther into the bag the envelopes were in a better condition. The dry air of the cave had been conducive to their preservation. On these the excited girls could make out both address and postmark.
“See.” Janet destroyed some in her haste. “This is postmarked ‘Quartzburg, May 5, 1900’.”
“Nearly thirty-eight years ago. That seems to prove definitely that it was Bill Gasper.”
When all the letters had been taken from the sack the two looked at each other. Each hardly knew just what they had expected but both were disappointed.
“So many things have just about happened,” Janet complained, “but nothing has come of it. We found a secret but did not solve it. We found a robber but not his gold. Why couldn’t there have been an ending?” She looked so doleful Laura started to laugh.
“If you are not a sight.”
“You are another. Why couldn’t some of those letters have been registered or had money in them. Who do you suppose killed him and why did they do it in that cave?”
“There is nothing certain he was killed. He might have been ill or injured and died.”
“But, Laura, if he had been sick or injured he would not have been in a place like that. Ill people do not go in caves to die.”
“Bill Gasper may have. He may have been trying to escape. He may not have been able to get any farther. Most likely his pal turned traitor and left him cold. That class of men did that.”
The excitement was passing and the girls found themselves weak and trembling.
“What shall we do now besides go home?”
“We must immediately try to locate ourselves. When we do get to Quartzburg we will try and get Daddy to come back here and look over the situation. But I shall take these old letters. I can put them in the pail.”
Janet started to gather the letters that had fallen. One caught her eye. She stared at it and then asked, “Who is James R. Beamer?”
“Why – why that was grandfather’s name.” Hands trembling from fatigued and excitement Laura dropped beside her cousin and reached for the letter. “Who is it from?”
“I can hardly make out. It looks like Shields.”
Laura put it very carefully in the bucket. “We will take it to Father. He is administrator of the estate and if it is of value he will know it.”
As they prepared to leave Laura reached down and picked up two pieces of rock. During the storm of the night before an old half dead tree had been blown over and around the torn out roots were bright bits of ore that had not been worn by exposure to the air. Laura’s rocks were chosen from these. Janet was out of patience.
“You are the worst person I ever knew to collect rocks. You have your house full of them now.”
“That is prospector blood, handed down from Grandfather.”
Beyond the sharp slope they entered a thicket of spruce and they had gone a bare hundred yards when they came suddenly and unexpectedly upon a road. A real road. One that showed signs of having been used this very day. Janet started laughing hysterically. “So near and yet so far,” she quoted. Laura as usually was practical.
“I shall mark this place so we can find our way back.” She was wearing her sweater and thrusting her hand in her pocket drew out, not her own handkerchief as she had intended, but the one she had picked up at the cabin the day before. She tied it to the limb of a tree at the side of the road. Janet’s eyes opened in surprise.
“Where did you get Mr. Jenkins’ hanky?”
“Mr. Jenkins’? Are you sure it was his? I picked it up at the locked cabin yesterday morning. I meant to tell you about it but forgot.”
“Certainly it is his. I remember him cleaning his glasses with it on the way up.”
“That is where I had seen it. I knew there was something familiar about it.”
Between brush and around mountain curves, through forests of pine and spruce and fir the road led them. In less than twenty minutes the girls came upon a logging crew where men and teams stopped to gaze in amazement at the tired, disheveled girls. The boss of the crew came forward to meet them.
“Whur you bound?” he asked.
“We are lost,” Janet answered and in a few words outlined their plight. The men were all sympathy. The boss bundled them into a cart he used to travel from one crew to another and turned the horse’s head in the direction from which they had just come.
“Hey. Where are you taking us,” Janet demanded. “That isn’t the way to Quartzburg.”
The man lay back his head and roared good-naturedly.
“Don’t you worry about me running away with you. It was you that wuz going in the wrong direction. The tram is jest over this ridge ahead.”
The girls looked at each other in astonishment. Then they had been near home all the time. It made their adventure seem less serious. It did not take them long to reach the place where the handkerchief was tied. The girls held their breath for fear the driver would notice it.
“Is that smoke from Quartzburg?” Janet asked, pointing to a plume of smoke rising into the air north of them. She doubted it herself but she must get his attention away from the hill side of the road. They had not told the men of their find. The man bit at her bait. Obligingly he turned his eyes to the north. He laughed again.
“Laws, no. That there smoke is from Banner. It’s all of twenty mile frum here.”
“How strange we should see it from here.” Janet was without interest in the matter now that they were past the tell-tale sign. But the woods boss was just warming to his subject. He began telling in detail how far objects could be seen in this clear air and he had apparently not exhausted the subject when he deposited them at their own door. Thanking him profusely the girls left him.
There was no one in the cabin and the girls could see that no one had slept in it over night. Laura went up to the boarding house to see if she could get any word of her father. While she was gone Janet put some water to heat for baths. She was placing a warm meal on the table for them when Laura returned.
“What is it?” she cried, at sight of the other’s face.
“There has been an accident at Rocky Bar. Two men were hurt but I could not find out who they were. The woods boss was there and when I told them about father and Mr. Jenkins being gone he and two other men left immediately to look for them. Janet, what if it is Father!”