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An Ali Baba Of The Sierras
by [?]

Johnny Starleigh found himself again late for school. It was always happening. It seemed to be inevitable with the process of going to school at all. And it was no fault “o’ his.” Something was always occurring,–some eccentricity of Nature or circumstance was invariably starting up in his daily path to the schoolroom. He may not have been “thinkin’ of squirrels,” and yet the rarest and most evasive of that species were always crossing his trail; he may not have been “huntin’ honey,” and yet a wild bees’ nest in the hollow of an oak absolutely obtruded itself before him; he wasn’t “bird-catchin’,” and yet there was a yellow-hammer always within stone’s throw. He had heard how grown men hunters always saw the most wonderful animals when they “hadn’t got a gun with ’em,” and it seemed to be his lot to meet them in his restricted possibilities on the way to school. If Nature was thus capricious with his elders, why should folk think it strange if she was as mischievous with a small boy?

On this particular morning Johnny had been beguiled by the unmistakable footprints–so like his own!–of a bear’s cub. What chances he had of ever coming up with them, or what he would have done if he had, he did not know. He only knew that at the end of an hour and a half he found himself two miles from the schoolhouse, and, from the position of the sun, at least an hour too late for school. He knew that nobody would believe him. The punishment for complete truancy was little worse than for being late. He resolved to accept it, and by way of irrevocability at once burnt his ships behind him–in devouring part of his dinner.

Thus fortified in his outlawry, he began to look about him. He was on a thickly wooded terrace with a blank wall of “outcrop” on one side nearly as high as the pines which pressed close against it. He had never seen it before; it was two or three miles from the highroad and seemed to be a virgin wilderness. But on close examination he could see, with the eye of a boy bred in a mining district, that the wall of outcrop had not escaped the attention of the mining prospector. There were marks of his pick in some attractive quartz seams of the wall, and farther on, a more ambitious attempt, evidently by a party of miners, to begin a tunnel, shown in an abandoned excavation and the heap of debris before it. It had evidently been abandoned for some time, as ferns already forced their green fronds through the stones and gravel, and the yerba buena vine was beginning to mat the surface of the heap. But the boy’s fancy was quickly taken by the traces of a singular accident, and one which had perhaps arrested the progress of the excavators. The roots of a large pine-tree growing close to the wall had been evidently loosened by the excavators, and the tree had fallen, with one of its largest roots still in the opening the miners had made, and apparently blocking the entrance. The large tree lay, as it fell–midway across another but much smaller outcrop of rock which stood sharply about fifteen feet above the level of the terrace–with its gaunt, dead limbs in the air at a low angle. To Johnny’s boyish fancy it seemed so easily balanced on the rock that but for its imprisoned root it would have made a capital see-saw. This he felt must be looked to hereafter. But here his attention was arrested by something more alarming. His quick ear, attuned like an animal’s to all woodland sounds, detected the crackling of underwood in the distance. His equally sharp eye saw the figures of two men approaching. But as he recognized the features of one of them he drew back with a beating heart, a hushed breath, and hurriedly hid himself in the shadow. For he had seen that figure once before–flying before the sheriff and an armed posse–and had never forgotten it! It was the figure of Spanish Pete, a notorious desperado and sluice robber!