“Hadn’t we better go back and get Mr. Pratt?” I asked.
This was obviously the wrong thing to say. It put the fiery little man all the more on his mettle. His beard bristled. “Nothing of the sort!” he said. “Those fellows are cowards and vagabonds anyway. They can’t be far off; you haven’t been away more than an hour, have you? If they’ve done anything to Bock, by the bones of Chaucer, I’ll harry them. I thought I heard him bark.”
He hurried up the lane, and I followed in a panicky frame of mind. The track wound along a hillside, between a high bank and a forest of birch trees. I think the distance can’t have been more than a quarter of a mile. Anyway, in a very few minutes the road made a sharp twist to the right and we found ourselves looking down into the quarry, over a sheer rocky drop of a hundred feet at least. Below, drawn over to one side of the wall of rock, stood Parnassus. Peg was between the shafts. Bock was nowhere to be seen. Sitting by the van were three disreputable looking men. The smoke of a cooking fire rose into the air; evidently they were making free with my little larder.
“Keep back,” said the Professor softly. “Don’t let them see us.” He flattened himself in the grass and crawled to the edge of the cliff. I did the same, and we lay there, invisible from below, but quite able to see everything in the quarry. The three tramps were evidently enjoying an excellent breakfast.
“This place is a regular hang-out for these fellows,” Mifflin whispered. “I’ve seen hoboes about here every year. They go into winter quarters about the end of October, usually. There’s an old blasted-out section of this quarry that makes a sheltered dormitory for them, and as the place isn’t worked any more they’re not disturbed here so long as they don’t make mischief in the neighbourhood. We’ll give them....”
“Hands up!” said a rough voice behind us. I looked round. There was a fat, red-faced villainous-looking creature covering us with a shiny revolver. It was an awkward situation. Both the Professor and I were lying full length on the ground. We were quite helpless.
“Get up!” said the tramp in a husky, nasty voice. “I guess youse thought we wasn’t covering our trail? Well, we’ll have to tie you up, I reckon, while we get away with this Crystal Pallis of yourn.”
I scrambled to my feet, but to my surprise the Professor continued to lie at full length.
“Get up, deacon!” said the tramp again. “Get up on them graceful limbs, if you please.”
I guess he thought himself safe from attack by a woman. At any rate, he bent over as if to grab Mifflin by the neck. I saw my chance and jumped on him from behind. I am heavy, as I have said, and he sprawled on the ground. My doubts as to the pistol being loaded were promptly dissolved, for it went off like a cannon. Nobody was in front of it, however, and Mifflin was on his feet like a flash. He had the ruffian by the throat and kicked the weapon out of his hand. I ran to seize it.