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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Mercer Boys on a Treasure Hunt » CHAPTER XXI THE CAIRN
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CHAPTER XXI THE CAIRN
Professor Scott, the captain, Don and Ned were all sitting around a fire in the living room discussing the next move to be made. To their intense disappointment they had not found the missing boys upon their return to the ranch, nor had they come across a single trace on their homeward journey. They had just decided that a more vigorous hunt must be started in the morning when Yappi hastily entered the living room.

“There is a large fire at the ranch of Senorita Mercedes, senor,” he informed Ned.

The young man jumped to his feet in dismay. “Oh, I hope those fellows haven’t set her ranch on fire!” he groaned. “Let’s see what is up.”
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The entire party ran to the back door and looked across the plains in the direction of the Mercedes ranch. Just as the mestizo had said, the sky in that direction was red and they could see the flames against the sky. But it was several feet south of the house.

“It isn’t the house,” decided Ned. “Perhaps they are just burning some old rubbish.”

“Why should she select a hilltop to burn rubbish on?” asked the professor, sensibly. “Does she usually burn things at night?”

“No,” admitted Ned. “There must surely be something wrong. Yappi, the horses!”

The mestizo sprang around the house and went to the barn, from which he soon led mounts for all of them. He was instructed to stay at the ranch with the cook, in case the boys should return, and then the others threw themselves on the animals and started off. Ned and Don rode well in front, their anxiety making them impatient, while the professor and the captain, who were not riders of note, lagged somewhat.
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It was not a long journey to the ranch of the senorita, but to the boys it seemed long, and when at last they ascended the last hill they drew a breath of relief. They were now near enough to see that the blazing beacon was a tar barrel, and the circumstances became more puzzling than ever. But before they had much time to wonder about it they had topped the rise and were looking down on the scene below.

The light from the blazing barrel showed them a curious scene. The outlaws had realized that they must make one last desperate assault, and at the present moment they were making it. Four men were close to the front door, flat in the yard, a log rolled before them as a shield, over which they were firing at the door, splintering the wood badly. They were rolling the log before them as they advanced, and hoped in this manner to get close enough to the door to make a determined rush. From the interior of the house came occasional flashes of fire from three rifles and from the corner of the barn came another.

While the relief party was taking this in the professor and the captain joined them. The attacking party had not yet become aware of their presence, and seeing that the moment was favorable Ned and Don charged down the hill, the older men following. A single shot, fired by Ned, told Sackett and company that help had arrived, and without even stopping to offer resistance they fled in every direction.
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The captain instantly discharged his gun at one of the fleeing men and he went down in a heap. The professor shot Abel in the shoulder and Ned and Don pounced on the same man, springing from their horses upon the man. The fourth man, who was Sackett, ran to the thicket, made a single bound into his saddle, and thundered away, passing close to Jim in his corner of the barn, who fired at him but missed in the excitement.

Jim looked for an instant after the fleeing outlaw and then dashed around the barn and entered it. The horses stood there, moving restlessly, and he selected a fine looking steed and hastily saddled it. Leading it from the barn he mounted and started off with all speed after Sackett.

The slim edge of a moon was rising above the horizon and by its somewhat sickly light Jim was able to follow the course of the bay pirate. The man was making straight for the mountain and felt confident that he would make it, but he was soon undeceived. The horse which Jim had selected from the stables of the senorita was a high strung, fiery animal, and he was eager to run. Jim needed no spur to keep him at top speed, and the lead which the bandit had held was steadily cut down.
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Seeing that he could not make the mountains before the pursuing boy was well within gunshot the outlaw made for a patch of trees that stood nearby. They were a little more than a mile before him, and consisted of a fairly dense tangle of low bushes and trees. His idea was probably to make a last stand there, Jim decided, and the race settled down grimly in that direction.

Once Sackett turned and fired at Jim, but the shot went wide of the mark, for the ground was uneven and the distance too great for accuracy. From that time on he gave his attention to the task of escaping, bending low over the neck of his steed and urging it on. The patch of trees was now very near and Sackett well in the lead.

The outlaw drove his horse into the shelter of the little refuge at headlong speed and vanished from Jim’s sight. Jim pulled the steed to a halt and paused uncertainly. Sackett was in the thicket and armed, and he knew better than to recklessly dash on. If his theory was right the pirate was waiting for him to do that very thing, and it would be the worst move he could make. So he sat quietly in the saddle, wondering what his next move should be.
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It was impossible for Sackett to escape to the mountains without being seen for Jim could see all around the thicket, and if the man tried to slip from the other side and continue his flight Jim would surely spot him. And yet, his object in running into the brush also puzzled Jim. What could he gain by that? In a few minutes the others would come up and they would be able to charge him and take him prisoner. It seemed to Jim that there was some deep scheme in the head of the outlaw, and so he watched with all his senses alert, keeping well out of gunshot.

In this position Don and Ned found him when they galloped up a half hour later. Don fairly threw himself on his brother in his joy and Ned was equally enthusiastic. Jim was in rags but was a welcome sight to Don.

Jim explained the position of the outlaw in the thicket and they were undecided. No sound had come from the thicket all the time that Jim had been stationed there, and no one had left the place. Ned decided that they had better spread out and rush the cover.

“If we rush the woods on three sides we’ll have him,” he said. “He can’t shoot at all three of us at once, and we can fairly hurl ourselves into the place. By coming up on three different points we can prevent him from running out of one side of the thicket while we charge in another.”
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“We must rush the thicket in a zigzag course,” Don put in. “If we don’t, we’re likely to be shot.”

Agreeing on a gunshot for signal purposes the three boys took up positions on three sides of the silent thicket and looked to their rifles. Each one could see the other and at last Ned discharged his gun. At top speed they bore down on the thicket, driving the horses in an irregular line.

To their astonishment there was no shot or sound from the thicket and they entered it together, to find it empty of life except for Sackett’s horse, which was quietly grazing close to the edge of the brush. The patch inclosed by trees was about twenty-five feet in diameter and was nothing more than a mere cluster of trees and bushes. The only thing to be seen, beside the horse, was a huge pile of stones. They jumped from the horses and looked at each other in perplexity.

“Now, where in the world did that man go?” demanded Ned, holding his rifle in instant readiness.

“You can search me!” answered Don, in bewilderment. “He’s not in the trees, is he?”

Ned looked quickly up and then shook his head. “No, there isn’t room enough in these trees for anyone to hide themselves. He must be in the place, because he certainly didn’t walk out while we were there.”
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“He didn’t get away before you came, either,” Jim said. “I kept an eagle eye on the place, and he couldn’t have made it without my seeing him.”

“Well, he’s gone,” said Ned, walking to the horse and examining it. “Just vanished into thin air.”

Don was looking at the heap of stones. It was a high cairn, composed of stones which had been heaped there generations ago for some unknown reason, and moss had grown over the mound. Stones of a larger size made up the bottom and smaller stones lay above these. Near the base of it he found a straight slab with some Spanish lettering cut upon it.

“What is written on this stone?” he asked Ned. The young engineer bent over the stone, lighted a match and read the inscription.

“I can’t make it all out,” he replied, as the match expired in his hand. “But it seems to be the burial place of someone of importance. They had a custom once of taking a distinguished man and piling a cairn of stones over his grave. Sometimes the custom was for anyone who came past to add a stone to the pile and in that way it grew larger. This is one of those piles, and someone is buried down at the bottom of it.”
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“All of which doesn’t bring us any nearer Mr. Sackett,” murmured Jim. “I’d give anything to know where that gentleman went to!”

“It just seems silly!” said Ned, impatiently. “You chase him in here and he simply disappears. That isn’t logical.”

“Look here!” cried Don, who had been moving around the pile of stones, and who was now on the other side. “Shouldn’t all of these stones be covered with moss?”

“I suppose so,” Ned replied. “Why.”

“Because they aren’t covered with moss on this side. The stones here are different than the others, and seem to be looser. Come here and give me a hand.”

The other two boys hastened to Don’s side and found that he was right. The stones to which he pointed had a brighter look than the others, and where the chinks and crevices of the other rocks had long since been stopped up by moss, these rocks were singularly free. Moreover, they were not well placed, and the boys were struck by the same idea.

“Ah, ha!” exclaimed Ned, as he began to tear away the upper stones. “I think I see a thing or two! Help me with these stones.”
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The other two went to work with a will and soon the stones were pulled out and tossed to one side. To their intense satisfaction a large opening was revealed.

“Just as we thought, the opening of a tunnel!” exclaimed Don.


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