Dad, are you all right?” I screamed. My father had started down the ladder with a lamp in one hand and some tools in the other. Suddenly a rung gave way, and he lurched against the ladder, losing the tools.
A painful grunt was his first response. Then he reassured me. “I’m OK, Winston, but that was close!” His answer was more cheerful than the look on his face as he examined the broken rung. “A flying rock from our last blast must have hit it,” he concluded.
“But Dad, we looked things over yesterday, as we usually do after we blast.” I spoke with an insistent voice. “How could we miss anything so obvious?”
Dad opened his mouth, but no words came out at first. Then he spoke to Mr. Johnson, who had just come down. “Mike, take a look at this broken rung. Didn’t you do some repair work here yesterday?”
“Well, let’s see,” Mike responded, as he started down to join my father. A quick glance was all he needed. “Yep, I replaced that rung you’re standing on. It was just before quitting time.”
We stared at each other. “But that means it was damaged after we left,” I jabbered excitedly. “And there’s no sign of a cave-in.”
Mike cut off my torrent of words. “You don’t suppose John Brently came over after dark, do you? He’s been acting more and more edgy the closer we come to the depth we’re after.”
“Let me look at the footprints in the tunnel,” suggested Dad. “Maybe I can figure it out.”
A few minutes’ investigation was all it took for Dad to decide it was no use. “We’ve scuffed things up too much for me to see anything, and that rain early this morning would have destroyed any sign outside.”
“What’s going on, fellows?” It was Uncle Jim, who had come down to see what was causing the delay in getting started today.
Mike explained briefly and suggested, “Let’s not say anything about this to Brently. If he did it, maybe he’ll give himself away.” Still, Mike looked worried.
We all agreed, and after a complete safety check went to work.
The excitement of Dad’s close call only added to the tensions that had been building during the past week. We were nearing the depth where our calculations suggested we’d discover a vast hoard of wealth. Mr. Brently had made some sort of excuse to go to town between trips, and had telegraphed a message to his other partners. We were aware of this, but the sweet thoughts of success still filled our minds and speech.
“What are you going to do with your share, Mike?” prodded my uncle that evening after supper. “Spend it all on another glory hole like this one?”
“Oh, I’ll just enlarge my air-conditioning business a bit,” Mike replied casually.
Uncle Jim snorted his disapproval and launched into his version of every cowboy’s dream. It included a ranch with streams, horses, and registered cattle. Dad spoke of travel and a home of some sort. I dreamed of a thousand things I could do if I were rich.
Well, if John Brently was supposed to “give himself away,” as Mike had suggested, he didn’t. In fact, it was a question of his that put us on our guard about something else. Some fallen rock, a close call with a frayed cable, some missing dynamite that turned up later in an unexplained spot, and some tools out of place reminded us that something strange was going on. Dad searched in vain for footprints or other signs of prowlers.
“Bill,” John said as he approached Dad one morning, “did your dog bark last night at all?”
“No,” Dad replied. “Why?”
“Well, Hitler went outside growling and then whined a time or two before lying back down. He acted as though someone or something was across the canyon and downstream a bit, then turned away as if he had lost interest. Were any of you fellows out last night after midnight?”
“Nobody left our tents that I know of. Snipe didn’t make a sound. Maybe we ought to check it out.”
Dad and his Uncle Jim were the most obvious ones to look into the matter, since they knew the most about tracking and trailing. I was more than just a little worried when I noted that they each took a rifle along.
Those of us who stayed behind stood around outside trying to see or hear the two men as they searched for clues some distance away. We caught an occasional glimpse of them through the brush and rocks around the mine and down canyon about a quarter of a mile. They returned looking grim but satisfied.
“Two horses were tied to some brush down the canyon sometime last night,” Uncle Jim volunteered in answer to our unspoken questions.
“One man stayed with the horses while the other entered the mine.” Dad took up the story.
“But the dogs didn’t bark,” countered Mike.
“That’s right,” echoed John, suspicion darkening his face. “And maybe that means our visitors weren’t strangers—or at least the one who entered the mine wasn’t,” he corrected himself.
For a time nothing more was said. Then Mrs. Brently whispered everyone’s unasked questions: “What should we do? Who was it? Why did they come?”
“I don’t know,” Mike answered. “But a mining claim is almost like private property.” He paused. “Let’s go talk to the sheriff—maybe he’ll have some advice. This day is shot anyway, and our working now might destroy valuable clues.”
Suddenly the old chill of fear fell over me. To think that we had had night visitors that might be known to our dogs was disconcerting. My dad’s eyes burned with suppressed anger—an anger that boded little good for anyone he might catch in the act. He hadn’t forgotten how close that broken rung had come to pitching him 80 feet down a rocky shaft!
In town, the sheriff agreed with Mr. Johnson. “Yes, a mining claim is almost like private property, even when it’s on public land. But what can I do? Nobody has actually been injured, nothing has been taken, no people have been seen.” He then added, “I know you fellows have guns. Don’t do anything foolish.”
The disgruntled group filed out of the sheriff’s office.
“He didn’t even sound sympathetic,” complained John.
“Couldn’t care less,” agreed Mike.
“I think he knows more than he lets on,” observed Dad. “He hedged on some of my questions and wouldn’t look any of us in the eye.”
“Psst! Over here!” came an interrupting voice. It was the friendly deputy sheriff we’d met in connection with the two spies. “Come on out to the parking lot. I’ve got something to tell you.”
Near our truck, at a spot not visible from the sheriff’s office, we stopped. The deputy still spoke in low tones, however.
“Just listen and don’t ask questions. I don’t have much time before my partner will be here. Lots of people in town know you fellows may be close to something at your diggings. The sheriff knows it too. The rancher nearest your canyon has been seen taking another person to your claim after dark. I learned this from some teenagers camping out nearby. They were frightened by the guns they saw. Now, don’t you fellows panic and do anything foolish. It would be mighty embarrassing for everyone if you shot at a shadow and killed a priest.”
“A priest?” I exploded.
“Hush up and listen, son,” Dad cautioned. Turning back to the deputy, he said, “Explain yourself.”
“Mr. Armistead, the local priest considers that treasure to be the rightful property of the Catholic Church. It goes way back to the revolution. Anyway, he’s just trying to keep track of what’s going on. Don’t worry. He knows by now that he’s been discovered—or will, just as soon as the sheriff hangs up the phone. He’ll probably not go out there again after that.”
Sheriff? Phone? Priest? What strange stuff! Yet now I understood why the dogs hadn’t barked. They knew our rancher friend, Señor Espinosa.