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   Chapter 21 THE WOLVES ON THE SNOW CRUST

The Young Engineers in Nevada; Or, Seeking Fortune on the Turn of a Pick By H. Irving Hancock Characters: 14683

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


The blizzard lasted for two days. Toward the end the temperature rose, with the result that three feet of loose snow lay on top of the harder packed snow underneath.

Harry Hazelton had passed out of the delirium, but he was weak, and apparently sinking. He was conscious, though he spoke but little, nor did poor Tom seek to induce him to talk.

By this time Reade knew the little medicine book by heart. He also knew the label and dose of every drug in the case. But he had not been able to improve upon his first selection of treatment.

"Do you think he's going to die, Jim?" Tom frequently asked.

"What's the use of a strong young fellow like him dying?" demanded

Ferrers.

"Then why doesn't he get better?"

"I don't know. But he'll come around all right. Don't worry about that. Strong men don't go under from a cold in the head, or from a bit of wheeze in the lungs."

"But the fever."

"That has to burn itself out, I reckon," replied the Nevadan.

"Reade, you'll be sick yourself next. Lay out the medicines, and

I'll give 'em, to the minute, while you get six hours' sleep."

"No, sir!" was Reade's quick retort.

"Then, before you do cave in, partner, suppose you pick out the medicines that you want me to give you when you can't do anything for yourself any longer."

Tom went back to his chair by the side of Harry's bunk.

Outdoors some of the men were clearing a path to the mine-shaft.

Not that it was worth while to try to do any work underground.

The rock at the tunnel heading was too stubborn to be moved by

anything less than dynamite.

"I'd get some lumber together, and make a pair of skis," suggested Jim, the next day, "but what is the use? We'll have to have twenty-four hours of freezing weather before we'll have a crust. As soon as we can see snow that will bear a human being I'll start for Dugout City."

"But not for dynamite," declared Tom.

"No; for a doctor, I suppose."

"A physician's visit is the only thing I'm interested in now," Tom declared, glancing at the bunk. "I'd give up any mine on earth to be able to pull poor old Harry through."

On the fifth day, while the weather still remained too warm for the forming of a snow-crust, Harry began to show signs of improvement. He was gaunt and thin, but his skin felt less hot to the touch. His eyes had lost some of the fever brightness, and he spoke of the pain in his chest as being less severe than it had been.

"I've been an awful nuisance here," he whispered, weakly, as his chum bent over him.

"Stow all that kind of talk," Reade ordered. "Just get your strength back as fast as you can. Sleep all you can, too. Get a nap, now, and maybe when you wake up you'll be hungry enough to want a little something to eat."

"I don't want anything," Harry replied.

"He's a goner, sure!" gasped Tom Reade, inwardly, feeling a great chill of fear creep up and down his spine. "It's the first time in his life that I ever knew Harry to refuse to eat."

"The weather is coming on cold," Jim Ferrers reported that evening, when he came back from the coon shack with Tom's supper.

"Is it going to be cold enough to put a crust on the snow?" Reade eagerly demanded.

"If it keeps on growing cold we ought to have a good crust by the day after tomorrow."

"I'll pray for it," said Tom fervently.

Next day the weather continued intensely cold. Jim Ferrers went to another shack to construct a pair of skis. These are long, wooden runners on which Norwegians travel with great speed over hard snow. Jim was positive that he could make the skis and that he could use them successfully.

Harry still remained weak and ill, caring nothing for food, though his refusals to eat drove Reads well-nigh frantic.

The morning after the skis were made, Jim Ferrers, who had relieved worn-out Tom at three in the morning, stepped to the young engineer's bunk and shook him lightly.

"All right," said Reade, sitting up in bed. "I'll get up."

He was out of the bunk almost instantly.

"I'm going to send Tim Walsh in to help you a bit," Jim whispered. "The crust is right this morning, and I'm off for Dugout. Before we forget it give me that nugget."

Tom passed it over, saying solemnly:

"Remember, Jim, you've got to bring a doctor back with you--if you have to do it at the point of a gun!"

"I'll bring one back with me, if there's one left in Dugout,"

Ferrers promised, fervently.

Fifteen minutes later Jim was on his way. Tim Walsh came in on tip-toe, and seemed afraid to stir lest he make some slight sound to disturb the sleeping sick lad.

"A day or two more will tell the tale, Tim," Tom whispered in the big miner's ear.

"Oh, it isn't as bad as that, sir; it can't be," protested the big fellow in a hoarse whisper. "I reckon Mr. Hazelton is going to get well all right."

"He won't eat anything," said Tom.

"He will when he's hungry, sir."

"Tim, have you ever had any practice in looking after sick people?"

"Quite a bit, sir. When I was a younker I was private in the hospital corps in the Army."

"Why on earth didn't you tell me that before?" Tom gasped.

"Why, because, sir, I allowed that a brainy young man like you would know just what to do a heap better than I would."

"Tim, do you know anything about temperatures and drugs?"

"Maybe I'd remember a little bit," Walsh answered modestly. "It's twelve years since I was in the Army."

Tom brought the medicine case with trembling hands.

"To think that, all the time," he muttered, "I've been longing for a doctor's visit, and yet I've had a man in camp who's almost a doctor."

"No, sir; a long way from that," protested Tim Walsh. "And, besides,

I've forgotten a whole lot that I used to know."

Tom rapidly explained how he had been treating Hazelton, according to the directions in the little medicine book. Tim listened gravely. "Was that all right, Tim?" Tom asked, breathlessly, when he had finished.

"I should say about all right, sir."

"Tim, what shall I do next?"

"Do you want me to tell you, sir?"

"Yes, yes, yes!"

"Then I might as well do it, sir, as tell you," Tim drawled out.

"Mr. Reade, you're worn to pieces. You get into your bunk and

I'll take charge for an hour."

"I want to see you do the things you know how to do."

"Not a thing will I do, Mr. Reade, unless you get into your bunk for an hour," declared Walsh, sturdily.

"Will you call me in an hour, if I lie down?"

"I will."

"You'll call me in an hour?"

"On my honor, Mr. Reade."

Tim Walsh thereupon bundled the young engineer into another bunk, covered him up, and then watched until Tom Reade, utterly exhausted, fell into a deep sleep that was more like a trance.

"But I didn't say in which hour I'd call him," muttered Walsh under his breath, his eyes twinkling. Then he tip-toed over to look at Harry Hazelton, who, also, was asleep. Through the whole day Tom slept nor did the ex-Army nurse once quit the shack.

When dark came Tim Walsh had just finished lighting the lamp and shading it when he turned to find Tom Reade glaring angrily into his eyes.

"Tim, what does this treachery mean?" Reade questioned in a hoarse whisper.

"It means, sir, that you had tired yourself out so that you were no longer fit to nurse your partner. He

was in bad hands, taking his medicines and his care from a man as dog-tired as you were, Mr. Reade. It also means, sir, that I've been looking after Mr. Hazelton all day, and he's a bit better this evening. Him and me had a short chat this afternoon, and you never heard us. Mr. Hazelton went to sleep only twenty minutes ago. When he wakes up you can feel his skin and take his pulse, and you'll find him doing better."

"Tim, I know you meant it for the best, and that I ought to be thankful to you," Tom murmured, "but, man, I've a good notion to skin you alive!"

"You'd better not try anything like that, sir," grinned Walsh.

"Remember that I'm in charge here, now, and that you're only

a visitor. If you interfere between me and my patient, Mr. Reade,

I'll put you out of here and bar the door against you."

Tom, though angry at having been allowed to sleep for so long, had the quick good sense to see that the big miner was quite right.

"All right, Tim Walsh," he sighed. "If you can take better care of my chum than I can then you're the new boss here. I'll be good."

"First of all," ordered Walsh, "go over to the cook shack and get some supper. Don't dare to come back inside of an hour, so you'll have time to eat a real supper."

Tom departed obediently. Once out in the keen air he began to understand how much good his day's sleep had done him. He was alive and strong again. Taking in deep breaths, he tramped along the path over to the shaft ere he turned his steps toward the cook shack.

"Come right in, Mr. Reade, and eat something," urged Cook Leon.

"This is the first time I've seen you in days. You must be hungry."

"There's a fellow ten times smarter than I who's looking after Hazelton," spoke Tom cheerily, "so I believe I am hungry. Yes; you may set me out a good supper."

"Who's the very smart man that's looking after your friend?" Leon asked.

"Tim Walsh."

"Why, he's nothing but a miner!"

"You're wrong there, Leon. Walsh has been a soldier, and a hospital corps man at that. He knows more about nursing in a minute than I do in a month. Oh, why didn't I hear about Walsh earlier?"

Leon soon had a steaming hot supper on the table. First of all,

Reade swallowed a cupful of coffee. Then he began his supper.

"I wonder if Ferrers can get back tonight?" Tom mused, after the meal.

"He might, but a doctor couldn't get here tonight, unless he, too, could move fast on skis," Leon replied.

"Anyway, I'm not as worried as I was," sighed Reade.

The door opened, and Alf Drew entered. That youngster rarely came to the cook shack alone, but the lad learned that Tom Reade was present.

"Sit down and keep quiet, if you're going to stay here," ordered

Cook Leon.

Alf went to the corner of the shack furthest from the other two. Tom, watching covertly, saw Alf furtively draw out cigarette and match.

Very softly Drew scratched a match. He was standing, his back turned to the others, over a wood-box.

Click-ick-ick! sounded a warning note.

"Ow-ow-ow-ow!" howled Alf, jumping back, dropping both match and cigarette.

"What's the matter, youngster?" demanded Tom placidly.

"There's a rattlesnake in there under the wood," wailed the boy, his face ashen.

"How do you know?"

"I heard him rattle!"

Leon, too, had heard the sound, and would have started after a poker, intent on killing the reptile, had he not seen Tom shake his head, a twinkle in his eye.

"There are no rattlesnakes about in the dead of winter on this

Range," Tom declared positively.

"That one has been keeping hisself warm in the bottom of the wood-box," insisted Alf.

Click-ick-ick!

"There, didn't you hear it?" quivered the cigarette fiend.

"I heard no rattler," declared Tom, innocently. "Did you, Leon?"

The cook thought, to be sure that he had heard one, but he caught the cue from Reade and answered in the negative.

"Go and turn the wood-box out, Leon, to show the young man that there's no snake there," Tom requested.

Just then that task was hardly welcome to the cook, but he was a man of nerve, and, in addition, he reasoned that Reade must know what he was talking about. So Leon crossed the room with an air of unconcern.

"Here's your rattlesnake, I reckon," growled the cook, picking up Alf's dropped cigarette and tossing it toward the boy.

"That's the only rattlesnake on the Range," Tom pursued. "I've been trying to tell Alf that cigarettes are undermining his nerves and making him hear and see things."

Leon unconcernedly overturned the wood-box. Alf, with a yell, ran and jumped upon a stool, standing there, his eyes threatening to pop out from sheer terror.

Leon began to stir the firewood about with his foot.

Click-ick-ick!

Alf howled with terror, and seemed in danger of falling from the stool.

"You'll keep on hearing rattlers, I expect," grunted Reade, "when all the time it's nothing but the snapping of your nerves from smoking cigarettes. The next thing you know your brain will snap utterly."

Click-ick-ick! On his stool Alf danced a mild war-dance from sheer nervousness.

"Come, be like a man, and give up the pests," advised Tom.

"I--I--be-believe I will," half agreed the lad.

Click-ick-ick-ick!

"Didn't you hear that?" quavered the youngster.

"I hear your voice, but no rattlers," Reade went on. "Are you still hearing the snakes? Be a man, Alf! Come, empty your pockets of cigarettes and throw them in the fire."

Like one in a dream Alf Drew obeyed. Then he sat down, and presently he began to recover from the worst of his fright.

When his hour was up, Tom Reade went back to the other shack. Harry was awake, and feeling rather comfortable under big Walsh's ministrations.

Soon after nine that night, the camp lay wrapped in slumber, save in the partner's shack, where the shaded light burned. Tim Walsh was still on duty, while Tom sat half dozing in a chair.

For the first time in days the young chief engineer was fairly contented in mind. He now believed that his chum would surely recover.

Had Tom been outside, hidden and keeping alert watch over the surroundings, his content would have vanished into action.

In the deep darkness of the night, Dolph Gage glided about on the firm snow crust at the further side of the mine shaft. With him, looking more like two evil shadows or spectres, were his two remaining companions.

Most of the time since they had been seen last, Gage and his confederates had been within a mile or so of Reade's camp. They had found a cave in which they had been passably comfortable. For food they had depended upon the fact that the commissary at the Bright Hope Mine was easily burglarized, and that no very strict account was kept of the miners' food. Thus the three scoundrels had managed not only to hide themselves from the law's officers, but to keep themselves comfortable as well.

"Now we can fix these youngsters, and slide back to our hiding place during the excitement," Gage whispered to his two friends. "This crowd is broke. If we fix the mine in earnest tonight they won't be able to open it again. With the dynamite we brought up from the Bright Hope on this sled we can fire a blast that will starve and drive Reade and Hazelton away from the Indian Smoke Range for good and all!"

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