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   Chapter 4 PITCHBLENDE

Riddle of the Storm / A Mystery Story for Boys By Roy J. Snell Characters: 10930

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The fight waged at Joyce Mills' camp with the gray shadows that were timber wolves was short and furious. A great gaunt giant of the forest, large as a man and quick as a tiger, who had been ready the instant before to engage in an uneven battle with Joyce's dog leader, Dannie, saw Jim Baley approaching on the run and turned to leap at him.

Jim was no child. Born and reared in the rough timber-grown hills of Kentucky, he was as slim and active as a blacksnake. For him an axe was not alone an axe. It was a weapon.

As the gray beast leaped for his throat, he gripped the axe handle, one hand at each end, and swung it high. It caught the wolf squarely under the chin. That same instant Jim's heavy boot shot forward in a vicious kick.

With a savage snarl the beast fell groveling in the snow. Before he could regain his feet he was dealt a blow on the head that left him quite out of the combat.

Seeing their leader lying motionless before them, the five wolves that remained turned to go slinking away.

"Cowards! Cowards!" Jim shouted. "A sorry lot, you are! Wouldn't even attack a dog unless he's chained. You-"

He turned to find Joyce at his side. In her hand she still gripped an axe.

"So you thought you'd take a hand?" he grinned. "Well, 'tain't necessary. They've left. Right smart glad I am to see your spunk. You'll need it in this land."

Bending down, he scooped a handful of snow to rub it across the back of his left hand. It came away red.

"You're hurt!" Joyce's words came quick.

"Nothing much. Take a heap more'n that to kill a tough timberjack like me. Scratched me with his claws, the ornery beast!"

"We'd better tend to it anyway."

"All right."

"Bounty on him," Jim added, poking his foot at the dead wolf. "Twenty dollars or more. Right enough, too. Destroyer he is. Kills everything from pretty white ptarmigan to the lambs people try to raise further south."

Back at the cook-shack Joyce bathed his wounded hand, applied iodine, then bound it up. And all the time she was thinking to herself, "It can't be Jim. True courage and a feeling for others, even dumb animals, does not go with a dishonest heart."

But if Jim had not stolen the films that had cost so much and might mean a fortune to some one, who had? Ah, well, there was time enough to think of that. Now she must finish preparing supper. The others would be in very soon.

* * * * * * * *

In the meantime there was cause for excitement in Johnny Thompson's camp. Scarcely had Johnny arrived when Sandy MacDonald, a bearded giant of a prospector, came tramping in. Over his back he carried a load that would have broken the back of a slighter man.

"That," he declared as he dropped the sack with a heavy sigh, "is more pitchblende. It looks better than the last."

"Tell us more about this pitchblende," Johnny begged.

"Pitchblende," explained Sandy, as he dropped heavily into a chair, "is the ore from which we take uranium.

"And from uranium we get radium."

Radium-Johnny knew in a general way what radium was. He knew little of its value.

"Radium," Sandy reminded Johnny with a benevolent smile, "is at present worth about a million dollars an ounce."

"How-how do you get it from that stuff?" Johnny pointed at the bag.

"It's a slow process," said the aged prospector a trifle wearily. "You crush the ore fine, then you leach it in acid. After two or three leachings you get a fair amount of uranium. Then you separate the radium from other elements. And if you've a ton of ore you'll get, if you're lucky, as much radium as you can tuck under your thumb nail."

"That is," he went on to explain, "if it's ore as rich as has been found thus far. Of course mineralogists are always hoping to find richer deposits. And when some one does make the discovery, even if it's on the North Pole, men will go after it. And the man that finds it will be rich beyond his wildest dreams; what's more, he will be classed as one of the world's greatest benefactors. What better could he ask?"

"What indeed?" murmured Scott Ramsey, his young partner.

"This stuff," said Sandy, touching the sack with his moccasined foot, "must go where the other samples have gone, to Edmonton."

"Be a week before the next mail plane goes south," said Johnny.

"That just gives us time for a cup of coffee." Sandy smiled a broad smile. "What do you say we have it now?"

They were an interesting group. Sandy, cumbersome, hearty, powerful even in his old age, ever a prospector, never very prosperous, he had wended his long way across the world always in a valley of golden dreams. Scott Ramsey, blonde-haired and still youthful, with an air of business about him, seemed to say with every move: "This is an adventure, but it must be more. It must be a financial success." And so it must. He had led Sandy to invest his all, a tidy little cabin in Edmonton and a wee bank account, in this venture.

Johnny Thompson had been included in the party because of his familiarity with the North. He it was who selected and managed dog teams, built camps and purchased supplies. Joe Lee, the silent, soft-footed Chinaman, was the cook. Johnny was all else that goes toward making a prospector's camp a place that may be called "Home."

So, satisfied with their lot, glorying in the abundant health God had given them, dreaming golden dreams of the morrow, they sat down to their meal of pilot biscuits, caribou steak, potat

oes, pie and coffee with the feeling that the world was theirs for the asking.

One question troubled Johnny a little: the affair of the afternoon, his talk with Joyce Mills. Should he tell his companions of it?

After due consideration, he decided to keep silent. "Who knows but we may have made our great strike?" he reasoned to himself. "Pitchblende, radium. Who knows? If we win, if they lose, nothing will come of it."

Then a thought struck him. This was to be a race for treasure. Who would win that race? Sandy and his group, or the others? Only time would tell.

"We must do our best." He spoke aloud without really meaning to.

"Yes indeed!" agreed Sandy heartily. "So we must, son. And so we will!"

* * * * * * * *

Strange to say, at this very moment Joyce Mills sat in the small cabin allotted to her father, dreaming dreams and thinking of the revelation that had come to her from Johnny's lips on that very afternoon.

"One of them is a thief," she repeated to herself. "It does not seem possible!" And indeed it did not. Never in all her life had she come upon young men so frank, so kind and so generous, so whole-heartedly serious about their work, and yet so joyous, as the three who at that moment were sending out from the other cabin, to the accompaniment of Jim's banjo, the hilarious notes of an old backwoods song.

"It can't be, yet it must be," she told herself.

Then her brow clouded. If they should find gold; if those others came to file claims, as they undoubtedly would do, there would be trouble.

"A fight. A terrible fight," she said aloud.

And yet, how were those others to know when a strike was made? If necessity required, would she tell them? To this question she could form no answer.

"Moccasin Telegraph," she murmured. "Those were the very words Johnny used. I wonder what he meant?"

Having thought this thing through as far as her mind would carry her, she allowed mental pictures of her father's three young partners to drift before her mind's eye. Jim, tall and slim, with a Kentucky mountaineer's drooping shoulders and drawling voice; Clyde, big and strong, a little loud, full of fun and ready for the best or the worst of any adventure; and Lloyd, a Canadian, quiet, soft-spoken, apparently very well educated. These were the three.

"And one is-

"No, I won't say it!" she told herself stoutly. "It may not be true. And if it's not, I must prove it."

Having put this subject to rest, she allowed her mind to drift back over the days that had just passed.

She had come all the way from Edmonton, eight hundred miles, in an airplane, her first journey through the air. What a thrilling experience that had been!

As she sat there listening to the roar of the fire, its roar became the thunder of their motor as they went racing across the landing field at Edmonton.

The snow had been soft and sticky that day. It clung to the airplane's eight-foot skis. Three times they crossed that broad expanse of whiteness. Then came a redoubled roar from the motor, and some one said:

"Up!"

To her surprise, she found that passing through the air was not different from skiing across the snow. Seated beside her father, with his three young partners reposing on a pile of canvas bags before them, she had watched through the narrow window while the houses grew small and then began to pass from sight.

They appeared to be moving very slowly, yet reason told her they were doing better than a hundred miles an hour. The city vanished, and broad stretches of farm land lay beneath them.

"It's not exciting at all!" she shouted in her father's ear. "Just like riding in a bobsled."

Yet this was not entirely true. She did experience a thrill as they passed from the land of broad farms to the world of great silent forests where a lonely river wound its white and silent way.

"We are pioneers!" she whispered to herself. "Adventurers entering an unknown land!" And so they were. When at last they landed on the white surface of Great Slave Lake, they found themselves a full hundred miles from the nearest settlement. And beyond them, hundreds of miles to the north, the east, the south, was a great, white, empty wilderness. Here there was no one.

"What a store of wealth must be hidden yonder!" her father had exclaimed. "There are lakes no eyes have seen. Magnificent waterfalls tumble over rocks that may be loaded with silver, copper and platinum. Those waters may fall on sands of yellow gold. Yet no one has heard the rush of that water. No eyes have been gladdened by the gleam of the rainbow in its spray."

He had been jubilant, happy as a boy. And Joyce had been happy with him.

Yet, even now as she thought of it, her brow wrinkled. All this was very well. They were comfortably housed and well fed in a land of real enchantment. Yet all this must have an end. The three young men were financing it. There was a limit to their resources. Her father, the expert mineralogist of the group, was to receive his pay from the profits of the enterprise. When the strike was made they were to share alike, an even quarter to each man. "But if there is no strike!" She shuddered. "We must win!" she told herself, rising and walking the floor. "We must!"

Strangely enough, at that moment in his far off camp Johnny Thompson, her trusted pal of other days, was declaring stoutly:

"We will win!"

Would they? And if not both, which party would win?

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