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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Mercer Boys on a Treasure Hunt » CHAPTER IX THE RUINED CASTLE
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CHAPTER IX THE RUINED CASTLE
The professor enjoyed his day of solitude. Long years of serious study and instructive reading had made him one of the men who prefer being alone to mixing with a noisy crowd. Not that the professor was the least bit snobbish or unsociable, but he loved the quietness of inner thought and the companionship of a book.

After the boys had disappeared over the hill he returned to the living room and sat in a sunny window looking out over the rolling country which extended for miles back of Ned’s ranch, away to the purple mountains in the distance. A feeling of warm contentment came over the elderly man, for an hour or more he simply dreamed there, enjoying the comfort of Ned’s best armchair.
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After that he read for a long time, until the cook announced that dinner was ready. He ate alone, well served by the silent Indian and then went back to smoke his pipe and dream in the window once more. When afternoon came on he imitated the actions of the cook and Yappi, who both went to sleep, the cook in a bunk off the kitchen and Yappi beside the barn, his battered hat over his eyes. The professor sought the dull colored sofa in the living room and slept until the sun began to go down.

He awoke much refreshed and drank copiously, realizing for the first time in his long life just how good water could be. Another lone meal followed and he spent the evening with another book, sitting under the oil lamp until it was nearly time to go to bed. Then, enchanted with the fine moonlight, the professor went out on the front porch to smoke a final pipe before retiring.

The whole landscape was flooded by the brilliant slice of moon which hung far over in the sky, and the professor drank in its beauty. The cook had finally cleared up everything in the kitchen and gone out to the small bunkhouse, to listen for a time to the guitar which Yappi was playing and then finally to coax the old mestizo into playing a game of cards with him, over which they droned half asleep, seriously intent. When Professor Scott had finished his pipe he knocked out the ashes, yawned and with a final look around, went to his room.
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This was in the back of the long, low building, facing the plains and mountains. He opened the window and finding that there was enough light from the moon, extinguished the lamp which he had lighted and took off his necktie. His eyes wandered dreamily over the landscape. Then he suddenly stopped unbuttoning his collar, his eyes narrowed, and he became all attention.

On the top of a sand dune a man was standing and looking toward the ranch. It was only for an instant and then the man disappeared, slipping down the other side noiselessly. He had on a cape and a sombrero, and the professor was puzzled. He wondered if Yappi or the cook had left the place, and after a moment of thought he went back to the front porch and looked around. There was no light in the bunkhouse now. But when he started to go out there he saw the cook walking toward the kitchen door and the ranchman coming out of the barn.

His first impulse was to speak to Yappi, but thinking it useless to alarm the man he returned to the house and to his room. It was not either of the men whom he had seen, but some stranger who was carefully looking down on the ranch. It was possible that it was only some chance wayfarer who had topped the rise and was examining the ranch, but the professor knew that Sackett was in the neighborhood and that it would be well to keep his eyes open. For an hour he looked steadily out of the window, but he saw nothing more to alarm him, and at last, after making a tour through the house and locking every door and window, including the window in his bedroom, he went to bed and soon fell asleep.
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When morning came he was awakened by the sound of the cook trying the back door, and he hastily opened it for the Indian. The cook answered his cheery morning greeting unemotionally. The Indian had never known Ned to lock the doors, and he wondered why the older man did it, but no sign of his thoughts appeared on his shiny dark face and he set about getting breakfast ready. The professor dressed and then sat down to his morning meal, after a hasty look around to see that all was well.

Yappi had already attended to the horses when the professor went out to take a walk around the ranch, and the mestizo was busy in the barn. After enjoying the clear morning outside the professor went back to the house and once more resumed his reading, sitting in the window through which the sun came brightly. From where he was sitting he could see Yappi at work on a saddle, mending a flap on it, sitting on the low doorstep of the bunkhouse.
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The professor had read for perhaps a half hour and was in the act of turning a page when he happened to look up and out at the old mestizo. The man had ceased his stitching and was looking back of the house, the saddle hanging loosely in his hand. And to the professor’s vast astonishment, he suddenly tossed the saddle over his shoulder and with the agility of a cat rolled himself without rising into the doorway of the bunkhouse.

Struck with amazement at the man’s actions the teacher put down his book and got up, striding for the front door. But even before he reached it he heard the back door pushed open and he turned. His worst fears were realized when he found Sackett standing on the threshold, a rifle in his hand, and Abel just back of him. Both men were smiling in triumph, but keeping a wary eye on the house just the same.

“Ah,” said Sackett, grinning broadly. “We didn’t know you was going out the front door, governor! Or maybe you was goin’ to let us in?”

“What do you want here?” asked the professor, stiffly.

Sackett looked all around. “We ain’t sure, yet. We want you, for one thing. Keep your gun on him, Abel. Where’s Manuel?”

“Watching the front door,” growled the former mate.
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The two men stepped into the house and the professor saw that he was trapped. He had no idea what the men wanted with him, although his heart sank a little he resolved to face them unflinchingly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the cook glide out of the back door.

“You two men get out of this house!” the professor snapped.

Sackett laughed and walked boldly through the rooms, while Abel kept his rifle pointed in the professor’s direction. After he had looked through every room the leader came back.

“Nobody else in the place, just like Manuel said,” he reported. He faced the old savant. “Where did those boys go to?”

“Off on a camping trip,” answered the professor, calmly.

“Sure they didn’t go looking for that treasure?” inquired the outlaw, thrusting his face close to Mr. Scott’s.

“Do you mean to say that you believe that story?” sniffed the professor, scornfully.

“I believe it, and so do you,” replied the chief.

“A fairy story,” said the professor, contemptuously. “My boy has long since found out that there isn’t anything to it.”

“You and your boy know more about that treasure than you feel like telling,” retorted Sackett. “You’re coming with us and stay with us until you tell us what you do know.”
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“I guess I’ll stay with you a long time,” said the professor, humorously. “Because I don’t know anything about it.”

“Stow the talk and come on,” growled the mate. “Want them boys to come back again?”

“Yes, we had better get moving,” agreed the leader of the gang. He walked to the desk and took out a piece of paper and a pen, which he dipped in the ink. “You write a note saying you have gone for a little exploring trip,” he directed the professor.

“I won’t write a line!” said the professor, stubbornly.

“You write quickly or I’ll punch your head!” growled the outlaw, raising his heavy fist.

Convinced that he would gain nothing by arguing with these men the professor took the pen and wrote a short note. He hesitated a moment and then signed it “Duress Scott.”

“Hey!” cried Sackett, suspiciously. “What’s that you’re putting?”

“You want me to sign my name, don’t you?” asked the teacher, blandly.

“That isn’t your name,” argued the man.

“Oh, it isn’t, eh?” said the professor. “Very well, I’ll sign it just plain Dad, and then Ned will know that something is wrong.”
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The leader thought a moment. “Never mind,” he growled. “That will do as it is. Now come along, and mind, no funny business, or it will be the worse for you.”

The professor accompanied them out of the house, jealously guarded by the two men, and in the back yard Manuel, a short and stolid Mexican, was waiting for them with a horse from Ned’s own stock. In silence the professor mounted and the cavalcade moved out of the ranch grounds, the professor looking around for the cook and Yappi. Neither of them were in sight.

“Miserable cowards!” muttered the professor, between his set teeth.

They headed for the mountains, the Mexican in front and the professor riding just ahead of Sackett and Abel, who kept watchful eyes on him. They travelled in silence during the morning and stopped at noon to eat and rest, after which they pushed on, in a direction southwest of the mines. Manuel, it seemed, was the lookout and rode ahead to see to it that they did not unexpectedly run across some party from the mines or from other scattered ranches. They had passed to the north of the Senorita Mercedes ranch and there was no help from that quarter. And when at last they entered the trees at the foot of the central range they had not been seen by anyone.
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There Manuel waited for the party and they rode on in a compact body, ascending the long slopes, skirting abrupt cliffs and rising high above sea level. The woods were of a semi-tropical nature, with thick trees and bright green leaves, surrounded by dense bushes of undergrowth. It was cool above the level of the plain and they made good time, coming out onto a flat plateau late in the afternoon. Before them was a wall of vegetation, and to the professor’s astonishment they rode straight to it, pushed their way through and came unexpectedly upon the ruins of a small castle.

The building was small and now nothing more than a tumbled heap of ruins. Looking at it closely the professor was inclined to think that it had never been completed at all, but had been abandoned before the roof had been put on. Creepers grew in reckless profusion all over the stones and a bright green snake glided across a door sill with a slight hiss. The men sprang from their horses and the professor got down slowly, waiting the next move.
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Guided by his captors he was led across the first floor of the place, evidently the effort of some Spanish nobleman to plant a small empire of his own in a new country, and ushered into a single room toward the back of the castle. This room had a ceiling to it and he could see at once that it was the headquarters of the gang. A stove, made out of bricks held together by clay, stood in one corner and several strings of red peppers, dried with heat and age, hung from strings over the stove. A rough table, two chairs and a bench, and a long box made up the furniture of the place. Besides the door, which was constructed of heavy wood, there was a single window in the place, which was barred, though it had no glass in it. The forest grew close to the back of the place.

“Now look here,” commanded the leader, as soon as they were all in the room. “Are you going to talk, or do we have to starve it out of you?”

“If you mean I am to tell you anything about that treasure, I guess you’ll have to starve me,” returned the professor, with spirit. “I tell you I don’t know a thing about it.”

Sackett turned to Abel. “No use arguing with this man now, I can see that. Maybe when he gets hungry he’ll sing another tune. Put him in the dungeon.”

Without wasting a word on the matter Abel drove the professor before him to a small door which opened in one side of the room. This door, when opened, disclosed a turning flight of narrow stairs, and down this the professor went, guided by the light from a lantern which Manuel had lighted and handed to the mate. After turning around and around they came suddenly to a narrow cell, in front of which swung a heavy wooden half door, the upper part of which was composed of iron bars. Abel opened the door by pulling it toward him and then pushed the professor inside.
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“Stay there until you get hungry,” he said, grimly. “When you feel like talking just yell for the captain.”

He closed the door with a sharp slam, snapped a padlock in place, and taking the light with him, remounted the stairs. The professor stood still, watching the light flash and twinkle on the white stone steps until it was gone and he was in the darkness alone.


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