OLD STONY

The road wound through spike pines which stood silhouetted in the fading
daylight.

Long, empty miles lay behind the weary travelers since they had left
Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in the New Mexico Rockies. More miles stretched
endlessly ahead.

“Hey, when do we stop for grub? This air sure gives a guy a whale of an
appetite!”

“War” Washburn, a skinny, freckled youngster, rode with feet dangling
out the car window. His question was shot at their driver, Hap
Livingston, leader of Boy Scout Explorer Post 21 of Belton City.

Mr. Livingston and the four explorers were returning to their home state
after twelve days of rugged fun at the Boy Scout ranch. They had hoped
to reach the Colorado border by nightfall, but now that seemed
impossible.

“Yeah,” piped up tow-headed Willie Medaugh. “What say we start looking
for a camp site? It’s going to get dark early tonight.”

The fifteen-year-old sat wedged in the back seat of the sedan between
Jack Hartwell and Ken Dougherty, the two more serious members of the
husky Scout crew.

“Okay, boys,” Mr. Livingston agreed. “We’ve had a hard drive, and I’m
ready to hit the sack—since you insist.”

Already Jack was consulting the road map. “Nearest town is Rocking
Horse, eight miles ahead,” he reported.

“We’ll stop there,” the Scout leader decided. “If we can find a camp
site with all the comforts of home, I’m for taking it.”

“Why, Hap!” Ken drawled. “Can’t stand the gaff any more?”

The question was asked in jest. As the four explorers knew well, their
leader, a former FBI man, could stand up under grueling physical
punishment. This he had proven during recent adventure trips to Peru and
Emerald Valley in Colombia.

“I feel sort of lazy tonight,” Hap confessed. “Riding herd over War at
Philmont must have worn me out.”

“Dragging him away from the ranch was the hardest,” Jack recalled, his
blue eyes twinkling.

“Well, there was so much to do,” War defended himself. “I wanted to make
another pack trip on the trail Kit Carson once rode. And I wanted to
visit the old mine.”

From his shirt pocket he pulled out a handkerchief in which were wrapped
several bits of sparkling rock.

“Still hoarding that junk?” Ken asked with a grin.

“Junk! Just see it shine in the sunlight!”

Ken pretended to cover his eyes. “The glow blinds me!” he chuckled.

“Well, it’s genuine gold,” War said indignantly. “I panned it at
Philmont.”

“Sure, we know,” drawled Willie. “You’ve told us at least twenty times.”

“That rare specimen of yours should assay about 1/800ths of a cent to
the ton!” Jack teased.

“Anyway, it was fun panning it.”

“Everything at Philmont was fun,” Jack declared.

“Seeing deer, elk, and bear in natural surroundings. Learning how to
climb and handle an axe. Instruction in fire building and cooking. But
now it’s behind us.”

“And Rocking Horse is ahead,” reminded Mr. Livingston. “Save the
arguments, lads. You’ll need your energy for making camp.”

The Scouts took the hint and fell silent. True, everyone would have
enjoyed another two weeks in the West, but money was dwindling. So,
laden with souvenirs and happy memories, they were now on the way home.

Presently the dusty car pulled into Rocking Horse. The city, with a
cluster of adobe houses at the outskirts, appeared to have not more than
about eight thousand residents. After inquiry at a filling station, Mr.
Livingston drove to a motel and camp site at the city’s northern edge.

Few cars were parked near the tiny office on the roadside. The reason
for the comparative desertion was immediately apparent to the Scouts,
for the motel buildings were run-down and in need of paint. The pine
grove and camp site at the rear did not look too attractive, either.

“How about it, boys?” Mr. Livingston asked doubtfully.

“Oh, it may not be so bad,” Jack replied. “We’re all tired, so let’s
hole in.”

The others agreed. Accordingly, Mr. Livingston drove up close to the
office. He and Jack went inside to register for the group.

An old man who wore a soiled Stetson hat sat tipped back comfortably in
a chair. His big heavy boots came down from the desk, and he squinted at
them with watery blue eyes which were bright and sharp.

“Howdy!”

Mr. Livingston returned the hearty greeting and inquired about a camp
site.

“Sure, we’ve got plenty o’ room for you,” the old man replied. He dug
into the old-fashioned roll-top desk for a registry book. “How many in
your party?”

“Five. We won’t need a cabin—only space for our two tents.”

“That’ll cost you two bucks for the night.” The old man thrust a pen at
the Scout leader. All the while, he was studying Jack’s green uniform
with the “BSA” strip over the right shirt pocket.

“Here in Rocking Horse we don’t ask a man where’s he going, or where
he’s been,” he drawled. “But danged if I’m not curious about that BSA on
your pocket. Reckon it means Better Stay Away.”

“It stands for Boy Scouts of America,” Jack explained. “Are you the
motel owner?”

“Not me.” The old man stretched out a calloused hand to take the two
dollar bills Mr. Livingston offered. “These diggin’s are owned by a
hard-fisted hombre by the name o’ Jarrett Walz.”

“You don’t like him?” Mr. Livingston asked, mildly amused at the
old-timer.

“Didn’t say so, did I? Walz gives me my grub and a cabin for lookin’
after this place. When you’re pushing eighty and have a bad ticker,
you’re not too particular.”

Jack and Mr. Livingston regarded the old man with new interest and
respect. Despite shaggy white hair and a weather-beaten face, he did not
look more than seventy, for his muscles were firm and his stooping
shoulders were powerful.

“My name’s Stony,” the old man volunteered. “I’ll show you where to
park.”

Shuffling out of the office, he directed them to the rear of the deep
lot.

Old Stony loitered to watch as the Scouts efficiently set about
unloading equipment and setting up their tents.

“Nested cooking pans and sleeping bags!” he cackled. “In my day, we used
a lard pail and our own backs for a mattress. Anything you’ll be
wanting?”

“Nothing, thank you,” Jack assured him.

Old Stony started to leave. Then he halted, hesitated, and said: “See
that little cabin yonder? That’s where I flop. It gets kind o’ lonesome
sittin’ there alone at night, so if you boys have nothing to do later
on, drop by and we can chin.”

“Fine!” Jack agreed.

“I’ll bet you could spin some real tales of the Old West,” War
interposed eagerly. “Were you a cow-puncher?”

“You wouldn’t catch me herding beef,” Old Stony said in disgust. “I was
a prospector. If it hadn’t been for a bad run o’ luck, I’d own this
joint instead o’ taking orders from Walz.”

“You nearly struck it rich?” War prodded.

“Dang it!” Old Stony snorted. “I hit gold—enough to put me on Easy
Street for the rest o’ my days. Only—”

A melancholy, dreamy look crept over the old fellow’s leathery face, and
his gaze became fixed upon the faraway mountains. For a long moment he
seemed lost in the memory of a colorful past. Then, with a shake of his
head, he broke up his reverie.




“Maybe I’ll tell you about it tonight,” he hinted. “Then again, maybe I
won’t. Anyway, drop around.”

After Old Stony had gone, the Explorers got a fire started and made
supper. Over the bacon and eggs, they discussed him and his invitation
to drop around later at his cabin. Willie was sure it would be a waste
of time, but the other Explorers wanted to go, especially War.

“That old boy will tell us about his prospecting days if we prime him
right,” he insisted, stirring the camp fire.

“Sure, he’ll spin a wild tale of finding gold,” jeered Willie, “and
you’ll fall for it!”

Meeting Old Stony had made the Scouts forget their weariness. They
thought it would be interesting to chat with the aged camp worker.
Accordingly, after the supper dishes were put away, War, Ken, and Jack
went over to his cabin. It was a mild August night, and the cabin door
stood open.

At Jack’s knock, the prospector’s deep voice boomed: “Come in!”

The interior of the one-room cabin was cheerless except for a small fire
in the grate. It was furnished with a makeshift bed, a cracked mirror, a
chest of drawers, and an old rocker.

“Sit down,” Old Stony invited, waving them to a seat on the sagging bed.

The boys could not fail to respond to the old fellow’s warmth and
hospitality. Sensing his loneliness, they told him of their stay at the
Scout ranch and then launched into an account of their previous exciting
trips to Peru and Colombia.

“You’re not like the regular run o’ tourists that come through here,”
Old Stony said, lighting his pipe. “Right off, when I saw you make camp
I knew you weren’t softies.”

“How long have you lived in Rocking Horse?” War asked.

“Too long. But I reckon I’m stuck here until I hit the Long Trail. When
I head for that last roundup—and it’s not so far off now—I reckon my
secret will die with me.”

“Your secret?” Ken repeated, sensing that the old man was ready to
launch into his tale.

“Yup. There are men who would give their lives to know what I got locked
here.” Old Stony tapped his hairy chest. “Jarrett Walz in particular.”

War leaned forward on the bed. “A secret about gold?”

Old Stony hitched his rocker nearer the fire. Without looking at the
Explorers, he began:

“Back in the early 1900’s my podner and I made our lucky strike.”

“Here in New Mexico?” asked Jack.

“No, in Colorado. My podner and I were lured West by the Shining
Mountains—the Rockies, folks call ’em.”

“But weren’t the big Colorado gold strikes earlier than 1900?” Ken
interposed thoughtfully. “I’ve read about Leadville and Cripple Creek in
1891—”

The interruption annoyed Old Stony. “This place I’m telling you about
you’ve never read of,” he said, “and you never will because it’s a place
hard to reach even today. My podner and I gave it the name of Headless
Hollow.

“There’s a way in if you know the trail and can stand hardships. There’s
no way out except the way in. It’s in an out-of-the way valley, rimmed
by canyons, hard by a little lake no bigger’n a tin cup. To get there
you back-pack over miles o’ rock so steep it makes me dizzy to think of
’em.”

“But you found gold?” prompted War.

“Ay, we found it, and a heap o’ trouble. Here, let me show you
something.”

Abruptly Old Stony dug a polished nugget from his pants pocket. Even in
the poor lamplight, the color of gold was there.

“Wow!” War exclaimed, breathing heavily. “That makes my sample look like
peanuts.”

“This nugget came from Headless Hollow?” Jack asked, relishing the old
man’s tale.

Stony sucked at his pipe as he carefully replaced the metal in his
wrinkled overalls.

Without answering, he resumed: “I was a young fellow in those days,
strong as an ox. If it wasn’t for my bad heart and some other things,
I’d go back there now and make my fortune.”

“Where is this valley of gold?”

“I can’t tell you, son. But there are men who would pay me well to know
my secret.”

“If you found gold,” Jack asked, “why did you leave the valley?”

“Don’t ask me that question, son. My past is my own and, God willing, it
will die with me.”

The old man turned suddenly in his rocking chair.

Unnoticed by the Explorers, a tall man in his thirties, with a
rock-like, expressionless face, had come to the open doorway. Ignoring
the Scouts, he spoke directly to Stony.

“Crawl out, you lazy old buzzard! The man in No. 4 wants fresh towels.”

Stony got heavily from his chair. He made no answer, but the sparkle of
life had vanished from his ruddy face.

Ill at ease, the Explorers started to leave. As if by design, the motel
owner walked with them a short distance toward their camp.

“Old Stony spinning wild yarns again?” he demanded.

“He was telling us about striking gold when he was a young man,” War
volunteered.

“I suppose he let you into the secret of where his precious map is
hidden?”

“Why, no,” Jack spoke up. “Does he have a map?”

Jarrett Walz gave a snort. “That old goat is all talk. Everything he
has, even the clothes on his back, comes from me. In exchange he gives
me laziness and lies!”

“Lies?”

“The old fool says I am after his gold. I figure he was giving you a
line of chatter when I came up.”

“You weren’t under discussion,” Jack said dryly.

“What did he tell you about his wonderful valley?”

“Not much.”

“Leaving tomorrow?”

“We expect to.”

“That’s okay, then.” The motel owner seemed suddenly relieved. “If Old
Stony bothers you again, call me. Good night now, and good rest.”