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CHAPTER XXIV


A NIGHT TRIP


Dick and his chums saw many interesting sights on their drive to the mines. All about them were evidences of the hustling West, and the noise of the stamping mills, or machines, which crush up the rocks and ore to enable the precious metals to be extracted from them could be heard on every side. They met many teams hauling ore from the mines to distant "stamps," and saw throngs of miners in their rough, but picturesque, garb, tramping along.

"Do you think they'll let us visit the mines?" asked Dick of the driver. "We want to find out all we can about 'em."

"Oh, I guess so. This is a free and easy country. Visitors are always welcome, providin' they don't want to know too much," and the driver winked his eye.

"Too much?" repeated Dick.

"Yes. Lots of men out here don't care to have their past history raked over. It ain't always healthy, son, to ask a man where he came from, or why he left there. There's secrets, you understand, that a man don't like strangers to know."

"I understand," replied Dick, with a laugh. "But we only want to see how they get the gold out of mines."

"Oh, yes, you can see that," was the driver's answer. "But there's lots of mines nearer than the Hop Toad and the Dolphin; lots of 'em."

"Aren't those good mines?" asked Dick, anxious to get the opinion of what might be presumed to be an unprejudiced observer.

"Well, so folks say," was the cautious answer. "All mines is good—until they're found out to be bad. I guess they're getting gold out of both mines. Leastways, that's what the men that's working 'em say."

When the buckboard with its passengers arrived at the Hop Toad mine the driver called to a man who seemed to be in charge:

"Say, Nick, here's a crowd of college students that want to see how you make gold. Any objections?"

The man addressed looked up quickly. Dick knew at once, from a description the lawyer had sent to Mr. Hamilton, that the man was Nick Smith, commonly known as "Forty-niner Smith," an old-time miner, who was in charge of the active operations at the two mines Dick and his father were interested in. But Dick resolved not to disclose his own identity unless it became necessary to do so.

"Come on, and welcome," responded Forty-niner Smith, with an assumed heartiness, but Dick did not like the look on the man's face. "We're just settin' off a blast," the miner went on. "Th' tenderfeet kin see a bucket full of gold in a minute."

The boys joined a group of waiting miners, who regarded them curiously. All about were piles of ore and, not far away, were the ruins of a stamp-mill.

"Our stamp's out of business," said Smith, noting Dick's glance at it. "We send our ore, and that from the Dolphin, down to the Wild Tiger mill. They're crushing it for us. Ah, boys, there she goes!"

There was a dull rumble from a hole in the ground, and the earth seemed to tremble. Then some smoke lazily floated from the mouth of the mine.

"As soon as it clears away they'll send up some gold ore," went on Smith, and, in a short time, a big iron bucket came to the surface on a strong, wire cable It was filled with what looked like pieces of stone, but Smith, taking some of the fragments, passed them to Dick.

"See that yellow stuff!" he explaimed, pointing to numerous shining particles. "That's pure gold! Here, take some samples along," he added, in a burst of generosity. "We'll never miss 'em," and he filled the hands of the four boys with the precious metal. "This is one of the richest mines in this locality," he added. "Now come on over and I'll show you the Dolphin," and he led the way toward the ruins of the stamp-mill.

"Somebody dropped a dynamite cartridge near it," he explained as he passed it. "But we don't mind. We've ordered two new ones. I guess they've got through blasting here. Yes, here comes some ore," he went on as a bucket of the stuff that looked like broken cobblestones came to the surface.

Dick's heart beat fast. At last he was looking at the mine in which he had invested two thousand dollars. And, best of all, real gold was being taken from it. At least it looked like real gold, and had the same appearance as that from the Hop Toad mine. Besides, if it was not gold, why would the men work so hard to get it up?

"Maybe I'm having all my trouble for my pains," thought Dick. "I guess these mines are good, after all. Vanderhoof may have been a swindler, but this looks as if dad and I had made good investments."

"Here, have some of this ore," added Smith, with another show of generosity. "We'll never miss it. Have it made into watch charms or scarf pins. That's what lots of 'em do."

"Can we go down in the mine?" asked Frank Bender.

"Not to-day," replied Smith, with a sharp look at Dick. "You see it's a little dangerous, so soon after a blast, unless you've had some experience. Come out some other day and maybe you can. Glad to see visitors any time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll have to go and see about sending some of this ore to the stamp-mill. It's so rich we have to send a guard with it to protect it from thieves," he added, in a burst of confidence.

"Well, I guess we've seen enough," spoke Dick. "Come on, boys."

As they rode back to the hotel, Dick soon decided on a plan of action. He would take to a government assayer the ore he and his companions had received, and learn whether the mine was or was not a good one. This time there would be no chance for deception, he thought. He had seen, with his own eyes, the ore taken from the mine. The government assayer, he knew, would tell the truth about the value of it. Then he could be satisfied that his investment, as well as his father's, was a good one.

Explaining his purpose to the boys they readily gave Dick their samples of ore, though he suggested they save small pieces for souvenirs, which they did.

"Maybe you'd better see the lawyer your father wrote to," suggested Walter Mead, when they were almost at the hotel.

"Good idea," declared Dick, but he could not carry it out, for, on inquiring, he learned that the lawyer had gone on a journey and would not be back for a month.

"I'll go ahead on my own responsibility," Dick decided. "I think I'll hunt up the government assayer. I wonder where Tim is?"

The newsboy was not about the hotel, and, thinking he had gone off to see the sights, Dick did not look for him. He got the address of the assayer from the hotel proprietor, and was soon at the official's office.

"So you want some of this Hop Toad and Dolphin ore tested, eh?" inquired the assayer. "Well, you're not the first person who has brought me some. I tested some for a man named Hamilton, away out East, some time ago. His lawyer brought it to me. I found it good then and I guess it's good yet."

"Was it really good ?" asked Dick, eagerly, and then, judging the government official could be trusted, he told the object of his western trip.

"Young man," said the assayer, when Dick had finished, "I'll tell you all I know. This ore is good. It's very rich. In fact, I don't need to assay it to tell that it runs many dollars to the ton. But one thing I can't tell you to a certainty is that it came from the Hop Toad or Dolphin mine. You see we assayers have to take the word of the miners as to where the ore comes from. All we do is to make a test, and, by finding out how much gold there is to a certain amount of ore, figure out how much it will assay to a ton of the same ore. That's the basis on which mines are valued."

"I can assure you that this ore we have came from the Dolphin and Hop Toad mines," said Dick. "We saw it taken out."

"Seeing isn't always believing, when it comes to mines," replied the assayer. "Still it may have been taken directly from the drifts. I wouldn't say it to everyone," he went on, "but I believe there is something crooked about those mines. I have thought so for some time, but I can't decide just what it is. They have a reputation of being very rich, and the ore assays well, but I don't like the actions of the men running them."

"Do you think I have been cheated?" asked Dick.

"I do, but I can't give my reasons for it."

"Then what would you advise?"

"Well, you're out here to investigate. Keep on investigating. I'm a government official and I can't take either side. But if I were you," and he came close to Dick and spoke in a low tone, "I'd visit that mine when none of the men were around. I think they knew you were coming and prepared for you."

"Why?" asked Dick, much surprised.

"Well, I can't tell you all my reasons now. Do as I advise, and try to inspect the mines when no one is around."

"When would be the best time for that?"

"At night. That's the only time it would be safe. But be very careful. This is a queer country. Men act quickly out here and they don't always stop to ask questions before they shoot. But you boys are quick and sharp and—well, good luck to you, that's all I can say."

"I'm much obliged to you," answered Dick. "I'll do as you advise."

As he and his chums left the assayer's office they met Tim, who had returned to the hotel, and, on inquiring, had learned where they had gone.

"Have a good time?" asked Dick, of his newsboy friend.

"Not so very," replied Tim, rather solemnly.

"Why not?"

"Because I was chasin' after a fellow what called himself Simon Scardale, and I couldn't catch him."

"Simon Scardale here?" exclaimed Dick.

"That's what he is, and he's on to our game," replied Tim. "Dick, youse has got to act quick, I guess."

For a few moments Dick was too surprised to know what to say. He began to see through it now. Simon was a friend of Vanderhoof, and, though he might not be mixed up in the swindling games, he had, likely, given information that would prevent the millionaire's son from accomplishing his object. Dick was in a maze. He was not altogether sure that the mines were a swindle, but he strongly suspected it. Simon's presence in the western city seemed to argue that some strange game was about to be played.

"We must talk this over," decided Dick. "Come on, boys. We'll go back to the hotel and have a conference. Then we can decide what to do."

In Dick's room the chums went over all the points of the matter. But, try as they did, they could not see a reason for Simon's presence in Yazoo City, nor for his remarks to Tim.

"But dat government feller give youse good advice," declared the newsboy. "Why don't youse go out to de mine? Maybe youse kin git on to der game. I'm wid youse."

"I believe I will," decided Dick. "Tim, you and Frank and I will go. Yes, Walter, you and Bricktop had better stay at the hotel," he added, as he saw a look of disappointment come over the faces of the other two boys. "Five would be too many, and, by some of us staying here, there will be less liability of suspicion. We'll make a night trip to the mine and, if it's at all possible, I'll go down inside."

"Dat's de way to talk!" exclaimed Tim.

Cautiously they made their plans. Dick decided he and his two companions would walk to the mines, as, if they hired a rig, it would become known to Smith or Simon, who were probably spying on their actions. Tim related how he had tried to follow Simon when he rode off on the pony, but had been unsuccessful.

"It's a nice moonlight night," said Dick, when the plans had been made. "We can take some candles with us and I guess we can get down the cable at the mine. Then we'll see if there's any crooked work going on."

After supper Tim, Frank and Dick started off. They little realized what was before them, or perhaps they would not have been so light-hearted.