THE CAVE IN THE MOUNTAIN
A Sequel to In the Pecos Country
LIEUT. R. H. JAYNE
Author of Lost in the Wilderness, Through Apache Land, In the Pecos Country, etc.
New York The Mershon Company
I. A Strange Guide II. Alone in the Gloom III. Strange Experiences IV. Sunlight and Hope V. Mining and Countermining VI. A Daring Exploit VII. Fishing for a Friend VIII. Fishing for a Prize IX. Groping in Darkness X. "Here We are Again!" XI. Through the Mountains XII. Through the Mountains—Continued XIII. In the Nick of Time XIV. Between Two Fires XV. On the Defensive XVI. Friend or Enemy? XVII. Fortunate Diversion XVIII. An Old Acquaintance XIX. How it was Done XX. Sut's Camp-Fire XXI. Safety and Sleep XXII. Two Old Acquaintances XXIII. Border Chivalry XXIV. Night Visitors XXV. Hunting a Steed XXVI. Lone Wolf's Tactics XXVII. The End
A STRANGE GUIDE.
"Well, if he doesn't beat any one I ever heard of!"
Mickey O'Rooney and Fred Munson were stretched on the Apache blanket, carefully watching the eyes of the wild beast whenever they showed themselves, and had been talking in guarded tones. The Irishman had been silent for several minutes, when the lad asked him a question and received no answer. When the thing was repeated several times, he crawled over to his friend, and, as he expected, found him sound asleep.
This was not entirely involuntary upon the part of Mickey. He had shown himself, on more than one occasion, to be a faithful sentinel, when serious danger threatened; but he believed that there was nothing to be feared on the present occasion, and, as he was sorely in need of sleep, he concluded to indulge while the opportunity was given him.
"Sleep away, old fellow," said Fred. "You seem to want it so bad that I won't wake you up again."
The boy's curiosity having been thoroughly aroused, all tendency to slumber upon his part had departed, and he determined that if there was any way by which he could profit any by that wolf, he would do it.
"He may hang around here for a day or two," he mused, as he heard the faint tappings upon the sand, "thinking all the time that he'll get a chance to make a meal off of us. So he will, if we don't keep a bright look-out. It seems to me that he might be driven out."
The more he reflected upon this suggestion of his own, the more reasonable did it become. His plan was to drive out the wolf, to compel him to show up, as a card player might say. Considering the dread which all wild animals have of fire, the plan was simple, and would have occurred to anyone.
"The camp-fire seems to be all out, but there must be some embers under the ashes. Mickey threw down his torch somewhere near here."
Carefully raking off the ashes with a stick, he found plenty of coals beneath. These were brought together, and some of the twigs laid over, the heat causing them at once to burst into a crackling flame. This speedily radiated enough light for his purpose, which was simply to find one of those "fat" pieces of pine, which make the best kind of torches. A few minutes search brought forth the one he needed, and then, shoving his revolver down in his belt, he was ready.
The light revealed the large beautiful Apache blanket, stretched out upon the ground, while the Irishman lay half upon it and half upon the earth, sleeping as soundly as if in his bed at home. Beyond him and in every direction was the blackness of night. But, looking to his right, he discovered the two eyes staring at him and glowing like balls of fire.
The animal was evidently puzzled at the sight before him. Fred dreaded a shot from the Indians above, and, as soon as he had his torch ready and had taken all his bearings, he drew the ashes over the spluttering flame. Save for the torch, all was again wrapped in impenetrable gloom.
The glowing orbs were still discernible, and, holding the smoking torch above his head, Fred began moving slowly toward them. The animal did not stir until the lad was within twenty feet, when the latter concluded that it would be a good thing for him, also, to take a rest.
"Wonder if he's been trained not to be afraid of torches," mused the little fellow. "I hope he hasn't, and I hope too there won't be any trouble in scaring him."
The lad dreaded another possibility,—that his torch might be suddenly extinguished. If that should go out, leaving them in utter darkness, the wolf would immediately rise to a superior plane, and speedily demonstrate who was master of the situation.
Fred swung the torch several times around his head, until it was fanned into a bright flame, after which he resumed his advance upon his foe. At the very first step the beast vanished. He had wheeled about and made off in a twinkling.
The lad pressed onward at the same deliberate gait, watching carefully for the reappearance of the guiding orbs. It was not long before they were observed a dozen yards or so further on. The wolf was manifestly retreating. He had no fancy for that terrible torch bearing down on him, and he was falling back by forced marches. This being precisely what Fred desired, he was greatly encouraged.
"He is making his way out, and after awhile he will reach the place, and away he'll go. If he's a wolf or fox, the hole may be so small that Mickey can't squeeze through, but I think I can follow one of the animals anywhere."
After going some distance further, Fred noticed that the animal was not proceeding in a straight line. He would appear on his right, where he would stare at the advancing torch until it was quite close, when he would scamper off to the left, and go through the same performance.
"He knows the route better than I do, so I won't try to disturb him," reflected the boy as he followed up his advantage, with high hopes of discovering the secret which was so important to himself and friend. "I won't crowd him too hard, either, for I may scare him off the track and fail."
The wolf was evidently a prey to curiosity—the same propensity which has caused the death of many bipeds and quadrupeds. The action of the torch puzzled him, no doubt. He had seen fire before, and probably had been burnt—so he knew enough to give it a wide berth; but it is doubtful whether he ever saw a flaring torch held over the head of a boy and solemnly bearing down upon him.
Fred's absorbing interest in the whole affair made him wholly unmindful of the distance he was traveling. He had already advanced several hundred yards, and had no idea that he was so far away from his slumbering friend. The fact was that the singular cave was only one among a thousand similar ones found among the wilds of the West and Southwest. Its breadth was not great, but the distance which it ran back into the mountains was amazing.
The wolf was leading the lad a long distance from the camp, and, what was more important (and which fact, unfortunately, Fred had failed to notice), the route was anything but a direct one. It could not have been more sinuous or winding. The course of the cavern, in reality, was as winding as that of the ravine in which he had effected his escape from the Apaches, and from which it seemed he had irrevocably strayed. Had he attempted to make his return, he would have found it impossible to rejoin Mickey O'Rooney, unless the two should call and signal to each other.
However, the attention of the lad was taken up so entirely with the task he had laid hold of, and which seemed in such a fair way of accomplishment, that he took no note of his danger. The wolf was leading him forward as the ignis fatuus lures the wearied traveler through swamps and thickets to renewed disappointment.
"He has some way of reaching the outer world which the Indians haven't been able to find. Of course not; for, if they knew, they would have been in here long ago. They wouldn't stay fooling around that opening, where they're likely to get a shot from Mickey when they ain't expecting it. Now, if the wolf will only behave himself, all will come out all right."
Fearful of being caught with an extinguished torch, the lad kept up the practice of swinging it rapidly round his head every few minutes. When he ceased each performance, the flame was so bright that he was able to penetrate the darkness much further upon every hand.
On one or two of these occasions he caught a glimpse of the creature as it bounded away into the darkness. In shape and action it was so much like the mountain wolves which had besieged him some nights before that all doubts were removed. He knew it was one of those terrible animals beyond question.
"Wonder how it is he's alone? It wasn't long after I saw that old fellow the other night, when there was about fifty of them under the tree. One of them is enough for me, if he doesn't give us the slip. Maybe he has come in to find out how the land lies, and is going back to report to the rest."
Fred could not help reflecting every few minutes on the terrible situation in which he would be should his torch fail, and the other bring a pack of ravenous creatures about him. They would make exceedingly short work of a dozen like him.
"It seems good for hours yet," he said as he held it before him, and examined it for the twentieth time.
The stick was a piece of a limb about as thick as his arm, and fully a yard in length. It felt as heavy as lignum vitae, and, by looking at the end held in his hand and that which was burning, it could be seen that it was literally surcharged with resin—so much so that, after being cut, it had overflowed, and was sticky on the outside. No doubt this, with others, had been gathered for that express purpose, and there was no reason to doubt its capacity.
As Fred advanced he caught occasional glimpses of the jagged overhanging rocks, which in some places were wet, the water dripping down upon him as he passed. The fact, too, that more than once both sides of the cave were visible at the same time, told him that the dimensions of their prison were altogether different from what he had supposed.
"There must be an end of this somewhere," he muttered, beginning to suspect that he had gone quite a distance, "and I'm getting tired of this tramping. I hope the wolf hasn't gone beyond the door he came in by, and I hope he has nearly reached it, for it will take me some time before I can find my way back to Mick."
ALONE IN THE GLOOM.
Before Fred could complete the sentence his foot struck an obstruction and he was precipitated headlong over and down a chasm which had escaped his notice. He fell with such violence that he was knocked senseless.
When he recovered he was in darkness, his torch having been extinguished. The smell of the burning resin recalled him to himself, and it required but a moment for him to remember the accident which had befallen him. For a time he scarcely dared to stir, fearing that he might pitch headlong over some precipice. He felt of his face and hands, but could detect nothing like blood. The boy had received quite a number of severe bruises, however, and when he ventured to stir there were sharp, stinging pains in his shoulders, neck and legs.
"Thank God I am alive!" was his fervent ejaculation, after he had taken his inventory. "But I don't know where I am or how I can get back again. I wonder what has become of the torch."
He could find nothing of his flambeau, although he was confident that it was near at hand. Fred believed that he had fallen about twenty feet, striking upon his chest and shoulders. At this juncture, he thought of the wolf which had drawn him into the mishap, and he turned his head so suddenly to look for him that the sharp pain in his neck caused him to cry out. But nothing of the beast was to be seen.
"Maybe he went over here ahead of me, and got killed," he thought; "but I don't think that can be, for a wolf is a good deal spryer than a boy can be, and he wouldn't have tumbled down as I did."
Fred recollected that he had several matches about him, and he carefully struck one upon the rock beside him. The tiny flame showed that he had stumbled into a rocky pit. It was a dozen feet in length, some three or four in width, and, when he stood erect, his head was level with the surface of the ground above. In consequence, it would be a very easy matter for him to climb out whenever he chose to do so; but above all things he was desirous of regaining his torch. Just as the match between his fingers burned out, he caught sight of it, lying a short distance away.
"It's queer what became of that wolf," he said to himself, as he recovered the precious fagot and painfully climbed up out of the pit. "Maybe he thought I was killed, and went off to tell the rest of his friends, so that they can all have a feast over me. I must fire up the torch as soon as I can, for I'm likely to need it."
This did not prove a very difficult matter, on account of the fatness of the torch, which ignited readily, and quickly spread into the same thick, smoking flame as before. But Fred noted that it was about half burned up, and he could not expect it to hold out many hours longer, as it had already done good service.
"I wish I could see the wolf again," he said to himself, looking longingly around in the darkness, "for I believe he entered the cave somewhere near here, and it was a great pity that I had the accident just at the moment I was about to learn all about it."
He moved carefully about the cave, and soon found that he had reached the furtherest limit. Less than twenty feet away it terminated, the jagged walls shutting down, and offering an impassable barrier to any further progress in that direction.
All that he could do, after completing his search, was to turn back in quest of his friend Mickey. The belief that he was in the immediate neighborhood of the outlet delayed the lad's return until he could assure himself that it was impossible to find that for which he was hunting, and which had been the means of his wandering so far away from camp.
Fred occupied fully an hour in the search. Here and there he observed scratches upon the surface of the rocks in some places. He was confident that they had been made by the feet of the wolves; but in spite of these encouraging signs, he was baffled in his main purpose, and how the visitor made his way in and out of the cave remained an impenetrable mystery.
"Too bad, too bad!" he muttered, with a great sigh. "I shall have to give it up, after all. I only wish Mickey was here to help me. I will call to him, so that he will be sure to hear."
As has been intimated in another place, the two friends had a code of signals understood by both. When they were separated by quite a distance, and one wished to draw the other to him, he had a way of placing two of his fingers against his tongue, and emitting a shrill screech which might well be taken for the scream of a locomotive whistle, so loud and piercing was its character.
When the lad uttered his signal, he was startled by the result. A hundred echoes were awakened within the cavern, and the uproar fairly deafened him. It seemed to him that ten thousand little imps were perched all around the cavern, with their fingers thrust in their mouths, waiting for him to start the tumult, when they joined in, with an effect that was overwhelming and overpowering.
"Good gracious!" he gasped, "I never heard anything like that. I thought all the rocks were going to tumble down upon my head, and I believe some must have been loosened."
He looked apprehensively at the dark, jagged points overhead. But they were as grim and motionless as they had been during the many long years that had rolled over them.
"Mickey must have heard that, if he is anywhere within twenty miles," he concluded.
But, if such was the case, he sent back no answering signal, as was his invariable custom, when that of his friend reached him. Fred listened long and attentively, but caught no reply.
"I guess I'll have to try it again," he added, with a mingled laugh and shudder. "I think these walls can stand a little more such serenading."
He threw his whole soul in the effort, and the screeching whistle that he sent out was frightful, followed, as it was, by the innumerable echoes. It seemed as if the walls took up the wave of sound as if it were a foot-ball and hurled it back and forth, from side to side, and up and down, in furious sport. The dread of losing his torch alone prevented the lad from throwing it down and clapping his hands to his ears, to shut out the horrid din. Some of the distant echoes, coming in after the others were exhausted, gave an odd, dropping character to the volleys of sound.
Had the expected reply of Mickey been the same as the call to him, the lad would have been deceived thereby, for the echoes, as will be understood, were precisely the same as answering whistles, uttered in the same manner. But Fred understood that, if the Irishman heard him, he would reply with a series of short signals, such as are heard on some railroads when danger is detected. But none such came, and he knew, therefore, that the ears which he intended to reach were not reached at all.
"I don't understand that," he mused, perplexedly, "unless he's asleep yet. When I left him, it didn't seem as though he'd wake up in a week. Perhaps he can hear me better if I shout."
A similar racket was produced when the boy strained his lungs, but his straining ear could detect no other result. It never once occurred to Fred that he and his friend were separated by such a distance that they could not communicate by sound or signal. And yet such was the case, he having traveled much further than he suspected.
Having been forced to the disheartening conclusion that it was impossible to find the outlet by which the wolf had escaped, Fred had but one course left. That was, to find his way back to the camp-fire in the shortest time and by the best means at his command. If the mountain would not go to Mohammed, then Mohammed would have to go to the mountain.
The lad began to feel that a great deal of responsibility was on his shoulders. The remembrance of Mickey O'Rooney going to sleep was alarming to him. He looked upon him as one regards a sentinel who sinks into slumber when upon duty. Knowing the cunning of the redskins, Fred feared that they would discover the fact, and descend into the cave in such numbers that escape would be out of the question.
And then again, suppose that their enemies did not disturb them, what was to be their fate? The venison in the possession of the Irishman could not last a great deal longer, and, when that was gone, no means of obtaining food would be left. What were the two prisoners then to do?
Mickey had hinted to Fred what his intention was, but the lad felt very little faith in its success. It appeared like throwing life away to make such a foolhardy attempt to reach the outside as diving into a stream of water from which there was no withdrawal, and the length of whose flow beneath the rock could only be conjectured, with all the chances against success. But Fred recalled in what a marked manner Providence had favored him in the past, and he could but feel a strong faith that He would still hold him in his remembrance. "I wouldn't have believed I could go through all that I have had in the last few days; and yet God remembered me, and I am sure He will not forget me so long as I try to do His will."
On the eve of starting he fancied he heard a slight rustling on his right, and he paused, hoping that the wolf would show himself again; but he could not discern anything, and concluded that it was the dropping of a stone or fragment of earth. The lad was further pleased to find, upon examination, that the revolver in his possession was uninjured by his fall. In short, the only one that had received any injuries was himself, and his were not of a serious character, being simply bruises, the effects of which would wear off in a short time.
"I hate to leave here without seeing that wolf," he said, as he stood hesitating, with his torch in hand. "He may be sneaking somewhere among these rocks, popping in and out whenever he has a chance; and if I could only get another sight of him, I would stick to him till he told me his secret."
He awaited awhile longer, but the hope was an illusive one, and he finally started on his return to camp.
Young Munson was destined to learn ultimately that he had undertaken an impossible task. The hunter, in the flush and excitement attending the pursuit of game, can form no correct idea of the distance passed, and so he, in attempting to run the shadowy wolf to earth, had traveled twice as far as he supposed. The case is altogether different when the hunter starts to return. It is then that the furlongs become miles, and the wearied pursuer feels disgusted with the enthusiasm which led him so far away from headquarters.
When the lad was certain that he had labored far enough on the back track to take him fully to the camp-fire, he really had not gone more than one-half the distance. Worse than this, he saw, from the nature of the ground, that he was "off soundings." Several times he was forced to leap over openings, or rents, similar to that into which he had stumbled, and the broadening out of the cave made it out of his power to confine his path to anything like reasonable limits. The appearance of unexpected obstructions directly in his way compelled numerous detours, with the inevitable result of disarranging the line he intended to pursue, and causing his course to be a zigzag one of the most marked character.
There were no landmarks to afford him the least guidance. In short, he was like the ill-fated steamer caught on a dangerous coast by an impenetrable fog, where no observations can be made, and the captain is compelled to "go it blind." He was forcibly reminded of this difficulty by unexpectedly finding himself face to face with the side of the cavern. When he thought that he was pursuing the right direction, here was evidence that he was at least going at right angles, and, to all intents and purposes, he might as well have been going in exactly the opposite course.
"Well, things are getting mixed," he exclaimed, more amused than frightened at this discovery. "I never tramped over such a place before, and if I ever get out of this, I'll never try it again."
But there was little cause for mirth, and when he had struggled an hour longer, something like despair began to creep into his heart. Worse than all, he became aware that his torch was nearly exhausted, and, under the most favorable circumstances, could not last more than an hour longer.
While toiling in this manner, he had continued to signal to Mickey in his usual manner, but with no other result than that of awakening the same deafening din of echoes. By this time he was utterly worn out. He had been traveling for hours, or, rather, working, for nearly every step was absolute labor, so precipitous was the ground and so frequent were his detours. He had accomplished nothing. When he expected to find himself in the immediate vicinity of the campfire, there were no signs of it, and the loudest shout he could make to his friend brought no reply.
This fact filled the mind of Fred with a hundred misgivings. He had given up the belief that it was possible for Mickey to remain asleep all this time. He was sure the night had passed, and, great as was the capacity of the Irishman in the way of slumber, he could not remain unconscious all the time. And then nothing seemed more probable than that he was placed for ever beyond the power of response. If a dozen Indians quietly let themselves down through the opening during the darkness of the night, they could easily discover the sleeping figure, and dispatch him before he could make any kind of resistance.
It was this fear of the Indians being in the cave that made the lad apprehensive every time he gave utterance to his signals. He believed they were as likely to reach the ears of the Apaches as those of Mickey, and his faith of the extraordinary shrewdness of those people was such that he did not doubt but that, by some means or other, they would learn the true signal with which to reply. As yet, however, no such attempt had been made, so far as his ears informed him, but his misgivings were none the less on that account. What was the use of their taking the trouble to answer when he was walking directly into their hands? There was a cowering, shrinking sensation from his own noise, caused by the expectation that a half-dozen crouching figures would leap up and swoop down upon him.
The darkness remained impenetrable, and, as Fred toiled forward, he was continually recalling the words of Byron, which he had read frequently when at school, and had learned to recite for his father. He found himself repeating them, and there was no doubt that he realized more vividly than do boys generally of his age the meaning of the author:
"The world was void: The populous and powerful was a lump, Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless; A lump of death, a chaos of hard clay. The rivers, lakes and ocean, all stood still, And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths."
Such fancies as these were not calculated to make him feel particularly comfortable while carrying the torch. Such a person in such a situation makes an especially inviting target of himself, and, although Fred dreaded to see it burn itself out, when the chances were that he was likely to be in sore need of the same, yet he had wrought himself up to such a pitch that he more than once meditated extinguishing it altogether, with the purpose of putting himself on an equality with those of his enemies who might be prowling in the night around him.
"I wonder whether Mickey would be more likely to hear my pistol than a shout or whistle?" he said, as he drew the weapon from his belt and held it up to inspect it in the light of the flaring torch. "It seems to be all right, although there's no telling how long since it has been loaded. Here goes."
With this, he pointed the muzzle toward the cavern and pulled the trigger.
The response was as prompt as though he had charged the chamber but a short time before, proving not only that the weapon was of the best quality, but that the ammunition was equally so, and the slight moisture that characterized the atmosphere of the cave had not been sufficient to injure the charge. It seemed as if he had fired a cannon, the echoes rolling, doubling, and repeating on themselves in the most bewildering and terrifying fashion.
Fred could not understand how it was that such a pandemonium of sound could escape filling the subterranean world from one end to the other, and so he sat down on a ledge of rock to listen for some reply from his friend.
It was several seconds before the trickeries of nature, in the way of echoes, terminated and matters settled down to their natural quiet. And then, when quiet came again, it was like that of a tomb—deep, profound, and impressive. The bent and listening ear could detect nothing that could be supposed to resemble the noise of the cascade, which had excited his wonder when he was stretched out upon the ground directly above it.
"This must be about forty miles round," he said to himself, when he had waited for the reply until convinced that it was not forthcoming, "and I have strayed away altogether."
The luxury of rest was so great, after his long, wearying toil, that he concluded that he might as well spend a half hour in that fashion as in any other. The echoes and pains of his bruises had departed,—or, more properly, perhaps they were consolidated with the aches and pains following upon the overtaxing of his limbs.
"Oh, dear! How tired I am!" he sighed, as he stretched out his limbs. "It seems to me that I won't be able to walk again for a week. I must rest awhile."
His fatigue was so great that he was not conscious of any desire for food or rest.
"Maybe I will need that torch more after a time than I do now," he added, as he looked listlessly at it. "It seems good for a half hour yet, and I don't want it." With this he thrust the burning end in the sand at his feet, and held it there until it was entirely extinguished, and he was wrapped again in the same impenetrable darkness. So far as possible, he had become accustomed to this dreadful state of affairs. He had been viewing and breathing the atmospheric blackness for many hours, although it may be doubted whether one who had spent so much of his life in the sunshine could ever become accustomed to the total deprivation of it.
Fred had assumed an easy position, where he could lay his head back, and, straightening out his legs, he made up his mind to enjoy the rest which he needed so badly. When a lad is thoroughly and completely tired, it is difficult for him to think of anything else; and although, while walking, the fugitive was tormented by all manner of wild fancies and fears, yet when his efforts ceased, something like a reaction followed, and he sighed for rest, content to wait until he should be forced to face the difficulties again.
When he closed his eyes all sorts of lights danced before him, and strange, indescribable noises filled the air. It seemed that impish figures were frolicking all around, sometimes grinning in his face, and then skurrying far away through the aisles of the gloom. At last he slept. The slumber was sweet and dreamless, carrying him through the entire night, and affording him the very rest and refreshment which he so sorely needed.
This sleep was nearly completed when Fred was aroused by some animal licking his face. He arose with a start of exclamation and terror, and the animal growled and darted back several feet. A pair of gleaming eyes flashed in the darkness—the same pair which he had seen before. The wolf had come back to him.
Fred drew his revolver with the purpose of giving him a shot, when he reflected that it would be wisdom not to kill the animal until he was forced to do it in self defense. So he shoved the weapon back in its place, where it could be seized at a moment's warning, and sat still. In a few moments the wolf ventured softly up to him, and preparing to begin his feast. The boy, yielding to a strange whim, threw out his arms and made a grab at him.
The affrighted creature made a leap to escape the embrace, and Fred grasped his tail with both hands. This made the wolf wild with terror, and away he leaped. The boy hung on, running with might and main in his efforts to keep up. The brute, not knowing what he had in tow, was only intent upon getting away, and he plunged ahead as furiously as if a blazing torch was tied to his tail. Fred was fully imbued with the "spirit of the occasion," and resolved not to part company with his guide, unless the caudal appendage should detach itself from its owner. The wolf was naturally much more fleet of foot, but his efforts of speed only increased that of the lad, who, still clinging to his support, labored with might and main.
Away, away they went!
Now he was down on his knees; then clambering up again; then banging against the rocks—still onward, until he found himself flat on his face, still holding to his support, while the wolf was clutching and clawing to get away. They were in such a narrow passage way that Fred could not rise. Unclasping one hand, he held on with the other, while he worked along after him. For a long time this savage scratching, struggling and toiling continued, and then, all at once, Fred was dazzled by the overpowering flood of light.
He had escaped from the cave in the mountain, and was in the outside world again.
SUNLIGHT AND HOPE.
By clinging to the tail of the terrified wolf, Fred Munson had been assisted, dragged, and pulled from the Cimmerian gloom of the mountain cave into the glorious sunlight again. When the glare of light burst upon him, he let go of the queer aid to freedom, and the mystified animal skurried away with increased speed.
For a time the lad was so dazed and bewildered that he scarcely comprehended his good fortune. His eyes had been totally unaccustomed to light for so long a time that the retina was overpowered by the sudden flood of it and required time to accommodate itself to the new order of things. A few minutes were sufficient. And then, when he looked about and saw that he was indeed outside of the cave which had been such an appalling prison to him, Fred was fairly wild with joy.
It was all he could do to restrain himself from shouting, whooping and hurrahing at the top of his voice. It was only the recollection that there were a number of Apaches near at hand that sufficed to keep his voice toned down. But he danced and swung his arms, and threw himself here and there in a way that would have made a spectator certain that he was hilariously crazy. Not until he was thoroughly used up did he consent to pause and take a breathing spell. Then he gasped out, as well as he could, during his hurried breathing:
"Thank the good Lord! I knew He would not forget me. He let me hunt around for a while, long enough to make me feel I couldn't do anything, and then He stepped in. The wolf came. I didn't think I could make anything out of him, but I grabbed his tail. I held on and here I am. Thank the good Lord again."
When able to control himself still further, Fred made a survey of his surroundings. In the first place, he observed that the forenoon was only fairly under way, the sun having risen just high enough to be visible. The sky was clear of clouds and the day promised to be a beautiful one, without being oppressively warm.
"It is strange that I could not find the opening when the wolf scampered straight to it."
However, he did not stop to puzzle over the matter. It was sufficient to know and feel that he was back again in the busy, bustling world, saved from being buried in a living tomb.
An examination of the point where he had debouched from these Plutonian regions showed Fred that he was considerably below the general regions of the earth. He was in a sort of valley, surrounded by rocks and boulders, and the opening through which he had scrambled was situated sidewise, so that at a distance of ten feet it could not be seen. This accounted for the fact that none of the Indians knew any other means of ingress and egress excepting the opening in the roof of the cave. It was almost impossible to discover, except by accident or long continued and systematic search.
Fred's next thought was regarding Mickey O'Rooney, and he questioned himself as to the best means of reaching him, and assisting him to the same remarkably good fortune which had attended himself. The immediate suggestion, naturally, was to re-enter the cave and, after hunting up his old friend, conduct Mickey to the outer world, but it required only brief deliberation to convince him of the utter folly of such an attempt. In the first place, should he re-enter the cave, he would be lost again, not knowing in what direction to turn to find his friend and entirely unable to communicate with him by signal, as had been their custom when separated and looking for each other. Should he venture away from the tunnel to renew his search, it was scarcely possible that he could find his way back again. He would not only lose Mickey, but he would lose himself, with not the remotest chance of finding his way into the outer world again. So it was clearly apparent that, having been delivered from prison, it would not do for him to go back under any circumstances. He must remain where he was, and whatever assistance he could render his friend, must be given from the outside. How was this to be done?
To begin with, he felt the necessity of getting out of the circumscribing valley and of taking his bearings. He wished to learn where the opening through which he had fallen was situated. It was no difficult matter to work his way upward until he found himself up on a level with the main plateau. There, his view, although broken and interrupted in many directions, was quite extended in others, and his eye roamed over a large extent of that broken section of the country. He was utterly unable to recognize anything he saw, but he was confident that he was no great distance from the spot for which he was searching. It was only through the entrance that he could hold communication with Mickey, whenever the way should be left clear for him to do so. But he was fully mindful of the necessity for caution in every movement.
It was not to be supposed that the Apaches, having struck what might be called a gold-mine, intended to abandon it at the very time the richest of results were promised. And so, after long deliberation, the boy decided upon the direction in which the opening lay, and he made toward a small peak from which, in case his calculations were correct, he knew he would see it. Strange to say, his reckoning was correct in this instance; and when he stealthily made his way to the elevation and looked down over the slope, he saw the clump of bushes covering the "skylight," not more than a hundred yards distant.
He saw something else, which was not quite so pleasant. Six Apache warriors were guarding the same entrance.
"I wonder if they think Mickey expects to make a jump up through there!" was the thought which came to Fred, as he peered down upon the savages, and counted them over several times. "I don't see what they are to gain by waiting there, unless they mean to go down pretty soon."
He could not be too careful in the vicinity of such characters, and, stretching out flat upon his face, he peeped over the top, taking the precaution first to remove his cap, and then to permit no more of his head than was indispensable to appear above the surface. The six redskins were lounging in as many different lazy attitudes. One seemed sound asleep, with his face turned to the ground, and looking like a warrior that had fallen from some balloon, and, striking on his stomach, lay just as he was flattened out. Another was half-sitting and half-reclining, smoking a pipe with a very long stem. His face was directly toward Fred, who noticed that his eyes were cast downward, as though he were gazing into the bowl of his pipe, while Fred could plainly see the ugly lips, as they parted at intervals and emitted their pulls in a fashion as indolent as that of some wealthy Turk. A third was seated a little further off, examining his rifle, which he had probably injured in some way, and which occupied his attention to the exclusion of everything else.
The bushes surrounding the opening had been torn away, although it was difficult to conceive what the Indians expected to accomplish by such an act, as it only served to make them plainer targets to the Irishman, whenever he chose to crack away from below.
The remaining trio of Apaches were occupied in some way with the cavern. They were stretched out upon the ground, with their heads close to the orifice, down which they seemed to be peering, and doing something, the nature of which the lad could not even guess.
"That don't look as though they had caught Mickey," he muttered, with a feeling of inexpressible relief; "for, if they had, they wouldn't be loafing around there."
Nothing of their horses could be seen, although he knew they must have a number of them somewhere in the neighborhood. An Apache or Comanche without his mustang would be like a soldier in battle without weapons.
"I'd like to find them," thought Fred, lowering his head, and looking back of him. "I'd take one and start all the others away, and then there would be fun."
The lad had it in his power to take an important step toward his return to his friends. Nothing was more likely than that a little search through the immediate neighborhood would discover the mustangs of his enemies, which, as a matter of course, were unguarded, the owners anticipating no trouble from any such source. Mounted upon the fleetest of prairie rangers, it would not require long to reach the open country, when he could speed away homeward.
But to do this required the abandonment of his friend, Mickey O'Rooney, who would not have been within the cavern at that minute but for his efforts to rescue him from the same prison. It was hard to tell in what way the lad expected to benefit him by staying, and yet nothing would have persuaded him to do otherwise.
"I may get a chance to do something for him, and if I should be gone and never see him again, I should blame myself forever. So I'll wait here and watch."
The three redskins on the edge of the opening remained occupied with something, but the curiosity of the lad continued unsatisfied until one of them raised up and moved backward several steps. Then Fred saw that he had a lasso in his hand, and was drawing it up from the cave. He pulled it up with one hand, while he caught and looped it with the other, until he had nearly a score of the coils in his grasp. This could not have been the cord which held the blanket when the shot of Mickey O'Rooney cut it and let the bundle drop, for that was much smaller, while this was sufficient to bear a weight of several hundred pounds, it having been used to lasso the fleet-footed and powerful mustangs of the prairies.
"They've been fishing with it," concluded the youngster; "but I don't believe that Mickey would bite. What are they going to do now?"
After drawing up the rope, the whole half dozen Apaches seemed to become very attentive. They gathered in a group and began discussing matters in their earnest fashion, gesticulating and grunting so loud that Fred distinctly heard them from where he lay. This discussion, however, speedily resulted in action.
Another of the blankets already described was very artistically doubled and folded into the resemblance of a man, and then the lasso was attached to it. The Apaches experimented with it for several minutes before putting it to the test, but at last everything was satisfactory, and it was launched. The aborigines seemed to comprehend what the trouble was with the other, and they avoided repeating the error.
When they began cautiously lowering the bundle, the six gathered as close to the margin as was prudent to await the result. Their interest was intense, for they had mapped out their programme, and much depended upon the result of this venture. But among the half dozen there was no one who was more nervously interested than Fred Munson, who felt that the fate of Mickey O'Rooney was trembling in the balance.
MINING AND COUNTERMINING
Fred expected every moment to catch the dull crack of the rifle from the subterranean regions as a signal that Mickey O'Rooney had neither closed his eyes to the impending peril, nor had given way to despair at the trying position in which he was placed. But the stillness remained unbroken, while the lasso was steadily paid out by the dusky hands of the swarthy warrior, whose motions were closely watched by the others.
Lower and lower it descended as the coils lying at his knees were steadily unwound, until the disturbed lad was certain the bottom of the cavern was nearly reached, and still all was silent as the tomb.
"I'm sure I would hear his gun if he fired it," he said, worried and distressed by what was taking place before his eyes; "and if I did not, I could tell by the way they acted whenever he pulled trigger. What can he be doing?"
The lad thought it possible that his friend was absent in some distant part of the cave hunting for him, and was, therefore, totally unaware of the flank movement that was under way. It could not be that he was still asleep; he had no fears on that score. It might be, too, that the Irishman had arrived at the conclusion that the situation had grown so desperate as to warrant him in the dernier resorte he had fixed upon. If such was the case, then, as Mickey himself might have said, "the jig was up."
Two or three coils still remained upon the ground when the Apache stopped lowering the lasso, and, looking in the faces of his companions, said something.
"It has either reached the bottom of the cave, or else Mickey has fired at it," said Fred, who became more excited than ever.
He had caught no sound resembling a shot, and he concluded that it must be the former, as was really the case. In a few seconds the Indian began drawing up the lasso again, and a short time thereafter the roll of blanket was brought to the surface. It was carefully examined by all the group. The dirt on it proved that it had rested on the bottom of the cave, but there were no marks to show that it had received any attention at the hands of any one there.
There were grunts of pleasure, as this fact was gathered by the redskins. The experiments had been satisfactory and they were prepared to venture upon the more dangerous and decisive one—the one which they intended should bring matters to a focus.
Fred was in doubt what this plan was to be until he saw the blanket unfolded and as carefully wrapped around the form of one of the Apaches, encasing him from head to foot. Great pains were taken to hide his head and feet from view, the warrior lying upon his back, and suffering himself to be "done up" with as much thoroughness as if he were a choice sample of dry-goods. Viewed from a disinterested stand-point, the wonder was how he was to breathe in such wrappings.
"They have tried the blanket, and finding that was not disturbed, they're going to send down one of their number, thinking that if Mickey does see it he'll believe it is the same blanket, and won't fire at it, because he didn't fire at the other."
It looked very venturesome upon the part of the warrior thus to enter the lion's den. But while, as a rule, the Indians of the Southwest are treacherous and cowardly, there are occasional instances in which they show an intrepidity equal to that of the most daring white scouts.
When everything was arranged to the satisfaction of all, three of the most stalwart Apaches braced themselves, with the lasso grasped between them, while a fourth carefully piloted the body over the edge of the opening, and began slowly lowering it to the bottom.
The bravest man, placed in the position of the enwrapped redskin could not have avoided some tremor, when he knew that he was hanging in midair, in plain view of the rifleman who had separated the thong which supported the blanket in the first attempt. The Indian must have experienced strange emotions; but if he did, he gave no evidence. He remained as passive as a log, his purpose being to imitate the appearance of the first bundle.
"Now, if Mickey let's that go down without sending a bullet through it, he hasn't got one half the sense that I think he has."
Fred was hasty and impatient at the seeming success which marked everything that the red-skins undertook. He looked and listened for some evidence that the Irishman was "there;" but no dull, subterranean report told him of the fatal rifle-shot, while the three Apaches continued steadily lowering their comrade with as much coolness and deliberation as if not the slightest particle of danger threatened. Minute after minute passed, and the lad was in deep despair. It could not be, he was compelled to think, that Mickey O'Rooney was anywhere in the vicinity. He must be a long distance away, searching for his young friend, not knowing, and, perhaps, not caring about the Apaches. He might consider that, within the darkness of the cave, they all had an equal advantage, and he could hold his own against each and every one. There was no denying that the defender had a vast advantage over those who might come into his "castle," provided he was really aware of their movements, but it was this doubt that caused the boy his uneasiness.
"He must be near the bottom," he concluded, when this paying-out process had continued some minutes longer, and he thought he saw very little of the lasso left.
Such was the fact. Only a few seconds more passed, when there was a general loosening up on the part of the redskins, as in the case of men who have just finished a laborious job. They looked into each others faces, and there were guttural exclamations, as if they were congratulating themselves upon what had been accomplished.
"And, now, what next?" asked the disgusted watcher. "Good luck seems to go with everything they undertake, and I suppose they'll bring Mickey up by the heels."
But such was not the sequel, and probably not the expectation of the Apaches. They had succeeded in planting a man in the breach, and their purpose was to follow him, as they speedily proved. The behavior of the group around the opening showed that the Indians were holding communication with their ally below, probably by a system of signals with the lasso, such as the man in the diving-bell employs when below the surface. These, too, must have been satisfactory, for, in a very brief time thereafter, the decisive operations were taken up and continued.
There was considerable of the lasso still left above ground—more than Fred imagined—and this was secured about a jutting point in a rock near at hand. It was fixed so immovably that it could not fail. "I wonder if they mean to roll that thing in upon Mickey's head, or what is it?"
They speedily showed what their intentions were. In less than a minute after the lasso was fastened, one of the Apaches caught hold of it and slid down through the opening so rapidly, that it looked as if he had lost his hold and dropped out of sight. A second did precisely the same thing; then a third, fourth and fifth, until only one warrior was left above ground.
"Oh! I hope he'll go," whispered Fred to himself; "and then I can do something big."
But the Apaches had evidently concluded that it would be an imprudent arrangement not to leave any of their friends on guard—not because they expected any interference from outside parties, but to provide against accident. If the lasso should fail them at a critical moment, they would be in a bad predicament, cut off from all means of getting out, as the skylight was the only avenue known to them, while, if a comrade remained above, all such danger would be escaped. Their purpose had been to send the five warriors down into the cave to attend to the case of the parties there.
The redskins were now down below and the whole thing was put in shape for operations to begin. All that remained was to find their man, and Fred could not tell what the prospects of success were in that direction; but he was almost ready to believe that they were all that the Indians could ask. The sixth Apache, who remained visible, took matters very comfortably. He stretched himself flat upon the ground, with his head hanging almost in the opening, so that he could catch every sound that came up from below. It was plain that he expected to be called upon to render important service, and he did not intend to let a signal escape him.
The hour that succeeded made little change in the situation. The action of this redskin showed that he occasionally received and sent messages—most probably by the subterranean telegraph—but he shifted his position very little. While he was thus engaged, Fred Munson was intently occupied with another scheme, and he had speedily wrought himself into a high pitch of excitement.
"I believe I can do it," he muttered, more than once, as he revolved the desperate scheme in his mind; but, whatever his plan was, he waited in the hope that fortune would appear more propitious.
When the Apache had sat thus for some time, he changed his position. He had been lying with his side toward the lad, but now he sat up, with his back to him, and as close to the edge of the opening as was prudent, while he held the lasso in his hand, like the fisherman on the bank of a stream, who patiently waits and is sensitive to the slightest nibbling at the other end of his line.
He had scarcely settled himself in this position when Fred Munson changed his own. Rising from the ground where he had lain so long, he stepped over the ridge, and advanced directly toward the redskin, who harbored no suspicion that there was any of his race in his neighborhood. The plan the lad had resolved upon required nerve, resolution and quickness. He stepped as lightly as was consistent with speed until he had passed half the distance, when he began to slacken his gait and to proceed with greater caution than ever.
All depended upon his ability to keep from being heard or detected. Of course, he had no wish to engage in a fight with one of these fierce warriors, but he was prepared, even for that. His hand rested upon the hilt of his revolver, so that he could whip it out at an instant's warning and discharge it, as he meant to do if necessary.
It was while he was yet some distance from the redskin that Fred felt that his position was one of frightful peril. His foe had his rifle within easy reach, and, if he turned too soon, he could pick off his young assailant before he should arrive within striking distance,—but each moment raised the hopes of the lad.
A DARING EXPLOIT.
A veteran Comanche warrior could not have advanced with greater skill than did young Munson approach the unconscious Apache. The warriors who had taken this little business in hand seemed to have cleared away the treacherous ground surrounding the opening, so that it was not likely to give way beneath their weight, even when they advanced close to the edge. The single redskin who remained seemed to have shifted his position more for the purpose of relieving himself from his cramped posture than anything else.
He was standing erect, about a foot away from the edge, with the lasso in both hands, looking down into the cavern of gloom below, listening and watching, with the sense of touch also on the alert. His blanket and rifle lay at one side, out of the way, but where they could be reached at a single leap, if necessary. The end of the lasso was still fastened to the rock, but the savage held it loosely, so that the slightest twitch upon it would become known to him on the instant.
It is not often that an Indian can be taken off the guard. Years of danger have made the senses of the savages preternaturally acute, and they are as distant as the timid antelope of the plains. But, for all that, there was a boy within a dozen yards of a swarthy warrior whose senses were on the alert, and yet had failed to detect his proximity.
Fred gazed upon him with the fixed intensity of the jungle tiger stealing upon his prey. With his right hand resting upon the hilt of his revolver, he never removed his eyes from the muscular figure of the Apache, bending over the entrance to the cavern.
"Shall I shoot, or push him over?"
This was the question the lad kept revolving in his mind, as he advanced step by step. With the pistol he could bury two or three balls in the body of the redskin before he could suspect where they came from, and thus completely clear the path before him. But there were doubts in the way. The revolver might miss fire, in which case all hope would be gone. In a hand-to-hand tussle the Apache would be more than a match for a dozen such lads. True, the weapon had not failed when he pulled the trigger in the cave, but there was no certainty that it would not do so when he most needed it.
Then, too, he felt a natural repugnance against stealing upon a foe in this fashion, and shooting him in the back. It had a cowardly look, even when certain that the threatened party would have done precisely the same thing, had the opportunity come in his way.
"I will push him over, if he don't make me shoot him."
But to do this necessitated a much closer approach. He must literally be within "striking distance." Could he place himself there without discovery? If the redskin were asleep, or if his mind was occupied with something of a different nature, or if there were some extraneous noise, the case would be different. The blowing of the wind, the murmur of a waterfall (such as Fred had heard when lying upon the ground in the same spot) would have been a most fortunate diversion. But there was nothing of the kind. There was a dead calm, not a breath of air stirring, and the day was hot.
Fred had approached within twenty feet, and still the Apache did not stir. How vivid and indelibly his appearance was impressed upon the vision of the boy! He could never forget it. The redskin, although of powerful build, was anything but pleasing in appearance, even when viewed from the rear.
His blanket being thrown aside, he was naked, with the exception of a breech-cloth. His feet were of large size, encased in shabby moccasins, while frowsy leggins dangled between the knee and ankle. His body, from the breech-cloth to the shoulders, was splashed and daubed with a half dozen kinds of paint, while his black, thin hair straggled about his shoulders and was smeared in the same fashion. Like most of the Indians of the Southwest, he wore no scalp-lock, but allowed his hair to hang like a woman's, not even permitting it to be gathered with a band, nor ornamenting it with the customary stained eagle-feathers. His arms were also bare, with the exception of the wrists, around which were tied bracelets, which, no doubt, he considered very attractive. The boy could fancy what a repulsive face he possessed.
Step by step, inch by inch, the young hero made his way, his eyes fixed upon the savage with a burning intensity, until it seemed that he would burn him through and through. And the Apache heard him not, although they were no more than ten feet apart.
"He will hear the thumping of my heart," was the constant fear of the boy.
Slowly lifting one foot, he put in on the ground as softly as if it were held in a slipper of eiderdown. He was treading upon a thin growth of grass, interspersed plentifully with gravel, but he never once looked to see what he was stepping upon. Indeed, he could not remove his eyes from the one central figure of his thoughts and vision.
One obstruction, no matter how slight—the turning of a pebble, a slip, even the most trivial, and the Apache would turn like lightning, and be upon him in a flash. Two more steps were taken, and only eight feet separated the lad and the Indian, and still the latter remained all unconscious of what was going on. Fred's heart was throbbing violently, but he retained control of himself. He felt that the critical moment was close at hand. A slight advance more, and the attempt was to be made.
He grasped the handle of the revolver more firmly than ever, but he raised his foot for another step, feeling that the distance was still too great. At this juncture the Indian moved!
He stepped one pace backward directly toward the boy, and he looked up and away. But not behind him. The glance was a mere casual one. He had heard nothing, and he expected to see nothing, when he looked off in the manner mentioned.
The Apache remained standing in this attitude for a minute. Then he stepped forward and resumed his former position on the edge of the opening, still clinging to the lasso, as if in constant expectation of some signal.
During this little episode Fred remained as motionless as if cast in bronze. His eyes were still centred upon the Indian, and he partially drew his revolver from the girdle he wore about his body, with the expectation of using it. But when his foe gave his attention to the cave below, the lad softly shoved the weapon back in its place, and again raised his foot.
The movement was slow and painful, but it was accomplished successfully. Only a single step more remained to place him where he wanted to be. That taken, and one bound was all that he needed to make. Finally, and for the last time during the advance, the right foot ascended from the ground, was poised for a few seconds in the air, and then came down with the same care as before. But it touched a loose pebble which turned with the lightest imaginable noise.
As quick as a flash the Apache raised his head, looked in front, and then darted his vision from left to right, when his keen eyes detected something crouching behind him.
At the very instant of the discovery, Fred concentrated all his energies in one effort, and bounded forward like a catapult. The distance was precisely what it should have been, and, as he threw out his hands, he struck the Indian squarely in the back with the whole momentum of the body. In fact, the daring boy nearly overdid the matter. He not only came near driving the Apache to the other side of the opening, but he came equally near plunging himself down it. As it was, the victim, taken completely off his guard, was thrown against the other side, where his wonderful dexterity enabled him to throw out his hands and check his downward descent.
Fred, after his narrow escape from going down into the cave, scrambled back to his place, and saw the Indian struggling upon the opposite side, with a good prospect of saving himself. "That won't do," was his thought, as he ran round the opening so as to bring himself directly before him. "I don't want you up here."
Thrusting his pistol almost against his painted forehead, he fairly shouted:
"Get down—let go, or I'll shoot!"
Whether the Apache possessed much knowledge of the English tongue can only be conjectured, but the gestures accompanying the command were so expressive that he could not fail to take in the whole meaning. The Indian, no doubt, considered it preferable to drop down into the pit rather than run against the bullet. At any rate, he released his hold, and down he went.
As he drooped into the gloom he made a clutch at the lasso, doubtless for the purpose of creeping up unawares upon the lad, who, by a strange providence, had so suddenly become his master. But the Indian, although a pretty good athlete, had not practiced that sort of thing, and he failed altogether, going down to join his comrades much the same as if he had dropped from a balloon.
Fred proved himself equal to the emergency. The moment he saw that he was relieved from the presence of his enemy, he darted back to the other side of the opening, caught hold of the lasso, and hurriedly drew it up out of reach of those below.
"There! they can't come crawling up that when I ain't thinking," he said, when the end of the thong was in his hand.
He coiled the whole thing up at his feet, and then, with a feeling of relief and pleasure which cannot be described, he looked about to see whether he was alone. Alone he was, and master of the situation. Where there had been six daring Apache warriors a half-hour before, not one was now visible. All were in the cave. Five had gone willingly, while it looked very much as if the sixth had not been so willing. At any rate, they were all beyond the power of injuring Fred Munson, who, after considering over the matter, concluded that he had done a pretty good thing.
FISHING FOR A FRIEND.
"I think I dumped that Apache down there just as nicely as any one could have done it," said Fred, as he sat upon the ground. "It must have taken him by surprise when I banged into his back that way. I'd like to know whether he fell on his head or feet. He hadn't much time to get ready for the fall, and so maybe it wasn't just as he wanted it. I don't think it was, either, with Mickey or me. Such things ain't generally in this part of the world. Maybe some of the others were standing around, and this fellow went down on their heads. If he did, it must have shaken all their dinners up. That's a pretty good way to fall down there, and although I didn't get hurt much, I wouldn't want to try it again."
Fred had had remarkable success, but there was a question as to what he was going to do with it. He was on the outside of the cavern, with the means at command for assisting Mickey to the surface, but, the Indians being down below, it was not clear how this was to be done, as they were likely to take a hand in the matter.
As preliminary to any elaborate attempts in that direction, it was necessary that he should apprise him of his presence, and establish some sort of communication with him. This, under the circumstances, was exceedingly difficult, as it was not likely that the Irishman would suspect that his young friend had succeeded in reaching the outside until he had received strong proof of it. Very fortunately, however, the couple possessed a code of signals which were easily understood, if they were only heard.
"I will try him on our old call," said Fred, as he crept as close to the edge as he deemed safe, and emitted a whistle that must have extended far within the cave.
"If he hears that, he will understand it," he added, turning his ear, so that he could catch any response; but the dim, soothing murmur of the cascade was the only sound that came up from the cavernous depths.
"He must be there—he must be there, and he will come back, so he will catch the signal sooner or later."
There was one aspect of the business which had not yet occurred to Fred, and which was likely to inure to the benefit of Mickey O'Rooney, the gentleman who just then stood in need of everything that came along in that line. The Apaches were skillful and wise enough to learn from the trail which had first told them the story, that a boy and man had been caught in the cavern, and it was very evident that they all believed that there was no other avenue of escape except that by which they had entered. At the same time, their knowledge of the peculiarities of their own country must have convinced them that it was possible that other openings, of which they knew nothing, might exist, and might become known to the prisoners.
The last Indian who went down must have known that the lad who assisted him was one of the parties for whom they were yearning, and his presence was proof that he had made the fortunate discovery which was denied the natives of the territory. If the lad had emerged by that means into the outer world, the natural supposition would be that his companion had done the same, and that, therefore, neither of the fugitives were below, the inevitable conclusion being that the tables had been completely turned upon them. Such was certain to be the conclusion of the Apaches, and it remained for Mickey O'Rooney to use ordinary prudence and keep himself out of the way of the redskins, to secure a chance of further outwitting them by a bold piece of generalship.
Fred repeated his whistle four or five times, with an interval of ten minutes, when his hopes were raised to the highest pitch by hearing it answered. In his excitement he thrust his head far over the opening, gave the signal again to prevent mistakes, and listened.
A full minute elapsed, when the reply came, sounding faint and far away. It showed that Mickey was at a considerable distance from the opening, and that he heard and understood the situation. To make matters still more certain, the lad now shouted at the top of his voice, holding both hands so as to inclose his mouth like a tunnel.
"Mickey, I'm up here with a lasso! Nobody else is here! Whenever you can get the chance, get hold of the lasso, and climb up! I will let it down after a while!"
It cannot be said that this was a very wise proceeding upon the part of the lad; for it was likely that some one of the half dozen Apaches understood English well enough to comprehend what he said. To clinch the business, Fred yelled a few more words.
"If you understand me, Mickey, whistle!"
The words were no more than fairly uttered when the desired response was made, faintly, but, nevertheless, distinctly.
"That's good," concluded the delighted lad. "Now all I have to do is to wait for him to get the chance, and he will come up the lasso, and then we'll be done with the cave."
This, certainly, was all that he had to do, but, at the same time, this amounted to a good deal.
"Now, if I let this rope down," added the lad, as he thought the matter over, "one of those Apaches will try to climb up it, and I will have to cut it, and that will leave it in his hands, and then what will become of Mickey?"
He debated a long time as to the best plan of overcoming this serious difficulty; but none presented itself, and he concluded that it was an inevitable contingency, which he must prepare himself to defeat, at all hazards.
Fred had been so absorbed with the business which had succeeded admirably up to this hour, that he scarcely noted the passage of time. He was not a little amazed when he came to look at the sun and to note, from its position, that the afternoon was considerably advanced, and that night was much nearer than he supposed. Nearly twenty-four hours had elapsed since he had tasted food, and, although he felt somewhat faint, he was not troubled with hunger. He made up his mind to make no effort to obtain food until he should succeed in bringing the Irishman from his prison—as he hoped to do before the night should pass away. But he was thirsty, and, believing that he could quench his thirst without going very far, and without jeopardizing the safety of his friend, he started off on a little hunt for water.
"That stream runs out of the cave not very far from here, and, if I can find that, it will be just what I want."
Fixing in his mind the direction of the stream, he started off, taking an almost opposite direction from that which led to the ridge, where he had lain so long watching the movements of the Apaches. This led him directly behind a mass of boulders and rocks, tossed irregularly together, and surrounded by a peculiar growth of stunted vegetation, with rich, succulent grass beyond.
Fred was hurrying along, with no thought of seeing anything unusual, when he was startled by coming directly upon a half dozen mustangs, all bound to the limbs or trunks of trees with strong lariats, while they were lazily cropping the grass where they had been left undisturbed for several hours. They were all fine-looking animals, every one of them—not one having saddle or bridle, and nothing, indeed, excepting the long thong, which, like the lasso, was made of bull's hide, and which prevented them from straying beyond their appointed limits. There could be no doubt that the animals belonged to the little party taking an airing in the cave, and the eyes of the lad sparkled as they rested upon them.
"Oh! if Mickey were only here!" he exclaimed to himself; "we couldn't want anything nicer. We would just pick out two of the best here, stampede the others, and then gallop toward home as fast as we could, and we'd be there inside of two or three days; but I must wait, and so must he."
The place selected by the Indians for their horses could not have been better chosen. In addition to the rich pasture, a rivulet of clear, cold water flowed by, within reach of each and all, so that all their wants were supplied in the best manner possible.
Every one of the mustangs raised their heads and looked up at the stranger, and one or two gave a faint whinney, as if to inquire the business of such a character with them.
"I don't believe any of you can go like my Hurricane that I had to leave at home; but I can't have him, and I would be mighty glad to take one of you—that is, if Mickey could go along, for I don't intend to leave him, so long as I know he's alive. You seem pretty well fixed, so I'll let you alone till we get a chance to turn you to account, and you can eat and get yourself in good condition."
He took a good long draught of the refreshing water, and then made a little survey of his surroundings.
"I should like to know whether those six Indians were all looking for me. Maybe Lone Wolf has found out that I gave the three the slip, and he sent a half-dozen fresh ones to look me up. They were all strangers to me, and I am sure I never saw them before. Lone Wolf seems to want me very bad, and if these don't bring me back pretty soon, he may send somebody after them."
A careful survey of all the suspicious points failed to show him anything alarming, and he made his way back to the mouth of the cavern, where he sat down to await the moment for him to lower the lasso that he hoped was to give Mickey O'Rooney a chance for his life. It seemed to him that it would not be safe to attempt it until the sun went down. His theory was that the Apaches would not remain directly beneath the opening all the time, but that there would be a chance for the Irishman to creep up without detection. He would be looking for the lasso, and in the darkness might be able to ascend it without discovery.
The lad hoped that all the redskins had reached the conclusion that both he and the man were outside; and, finding that it was out of the question for them to escape by the opening, which was at such a distance over their heads, had scattered to search for some other egress. It was not impossible that such was the case, and if it were, it placed the situation in a light by no means discouraging.
It was hardly dark when Fred Munson carefully shoved the end of the rope over the edge of the opening, and let it descend slowly, gently and noiselessly to the bottom, permitting it to pass through his hands in such a way that he could tell the instant it was disturbed. When he knew that it had struck, he waited for a "bite."
To his astonishment, it came within the next five minutes. He was startled by feeling a decided pull repeated several times.
The situation was so delicately critical that it would not do to speak nor whisper, nor even to utter their whistle, no matter how cautiously made. So, by way of reply, Fred gave the lasso, several responsive jerks, intended to signify that everything was ready, and his friend might come ahead.
A moment later the lariat was jerked from his hand, showing that a heavy weight had suddenly fastened upon it, and the man was making his way upward from the cave.
FISHING FOR A PRIZE.
It is no easy task, even for a trained athlete, to climb forty or fifty feet of rope. The majority of men, if put to the test of making their way out of that cave by shinning up the long lariat suspended from the opening above, would have failed altogether.
Remembering how well his hearing had served him under somewhat similar circumstances, young Munson, watching so anxiously for the appearance of his friend, pressed his ear against the tough, untanned rope and listened. He could hear the scraping of the hands and the friction of the limbs against the rope, working steadily and in such a manner as to show that the man was succeeding well in the excelsior business and was sure to reach the top in time, if his strength held out.
"I guess that's Mickey O'Rooney climbing up," muttered the boy, "and yet I can't tell till I get a sight of him. It may be an Apache, and I'd better get ready, for I don't mean to have any of them creeping up on me."
Fred did not wish to cut the rope, as that would have ended the operations, so he concluded to resort to his weapon. There were two or three chambers of the revolver undischarged and he did not believe that it would be necessary to use them. The simple presentation of the muzzle had accomplished his purpose some hours before, and there was little doubt that it would do the same thing again.
The sky was absolutely free from clouds, and the moon, near her full, shed such a light over the scene that the lad almost dreaded the result.
While all remained profoundly dark in the cave, at the moment the man reached the surface and was brought into relief against the sky beyond, he would be distinctly visible to any one who might be looking upward, and half a dozen rifles pointed and fired at that juncture could scarcely fail of fatal results. The lad's misgivings increased as the man neared the top. When he again applied his ear to the lariat, he could understand that the fellow was working hard, and could only be a few feet below him.
"There's nothing like being ready," he concluded, as he straightened up, and, rising to his feet, stood, pistol in hand, ready for the issue.
He stepped back several feet, where his vision was entirely unobstructed.
"If it's an Indian, he won't have a chance of showing anything more than his head, and if he don't take that out of the way in a hurry, I'll let a ray of moonlight through it."
He stood thus, as rigid as a statue, fully appreciating the difficulties of his position and the fatal consequences of allowing himself to be outwitted.
"Mickey, is that you?" he asked, in a cautions whisper, a moment later.
As he asked the question he noticed that work upon the rope instantly ceased.
"It's Mickey," he said to himself, "but he doesn't think it safe to speak."
Then to him: "All right old boy, come ahead, and you may do the speaking after you land. Come ahead—you're near the top."
Again the toiling climber resumed his labor, and he was within a foot or two of the opening. One more hitch and he would emerge into the moonlight.
"Come old fellow, give me your hand," he added; "you've had pretty hard work."
Just then the bronzed face of an Apache Indian, smeared with paint and contorted with eager passion, slowly rose in the moonlight. The exhausted warrior, feeling that the critical moment was at hand, when all depended upon prompt and decisive work, made furious efforts to clamber out of the cavern before the lad who held the key of the situation could prevent.
Although Fred had contemplated this issue, and had prepared for it, yet he had become so thoroughly imbued with the belief that it was Mickey O'Rooney who was toiling upward that he was almost entirely thrown off his guard. Because of this, the cunning Apache would have secured his foothold and clambered out upon the daring lad, but for one thing. He had done, tremendous work in climbing a rope for such a distance, and his strength was nearly gone when he reached the open air.
Before he could reap the reward of all this labor, Fred recovered. Whipping out his revolver as before, he shoved it directly into his face, and said: "You ain't wanted here, and you'd better leave mighty quick!"
The warrior made a clutch at the weapon so close to him, but his exhaustion caused a miscalculation, and he failed altogether. He was supporting himself at this moment by one hand, and he acted as if the single effort to secure the pistol was to decide the whole thing. He failed in that, and gave up.
Instead of letting go and going to the bottom in one plunge, he began sliding downward, his head vanishing from sight almost as suddenly as if the lasso had been cut. It is generally easier to go down than up hill, and the work of twenty minutes was undone in a twinkling. A rattling descendo, and the Apache was down the rope again, standing at the bottom of the cave, and Fred was again master of the situation.
"Goodness!" exclaimed the lad, when he realized this gratifying state of affairs, "I had no idea that that was an Indian; but I ought to have suspected it when I called to him and he didn't make any answer. That stops that little sort of thing; but I don't know when Mickey is going to get a chance at the rope."
The lad was disheartened by this great disappointment, for it looked very much as if the redskins would guard all approaches to the lower end of the lasso, and his friend be shut out from all participation in the chance that he was so confident was placed at his disposal.
"I don't know what they can do with the rope," thought the lad, as he carefully took it in hand, "but then it's no use to them, and I may as well keep it out of their reach while I can."
He gently pulled it, to test whether it was free.
No one at that juncture seemed to have hold of it, and, fearful that it would not remain so, the lad gave it a sudden jerk, which brought it far beyond the reach of any one who might be gathered on the sand below.
"That upsets all my calculations," said Fred, with a sigh. "The chance of getting out of here is poorer than ever. I am afraid Mickey is in a scrape where there ain't much show of his helping himself!"
The lad remembered, however, that his friend still had one resort—the last one—at his command. When it became absolutely apparent that no other way was open, he would make the plunge down the stream, and risk all in the single effort to dive from the inside to the outside of the cave.
"I don't want him to try that, just yet," added Fred, as he lay upon the ground, carefully considering the matter; "for I think that will wind up the whole thing."
The boy seemed to be considering every phase of the question, and he debated with himself for a long time whether he couldn't do something for his friend. He thought of going back to the entrance by which he had escaped—thanks to the assistance of the wolf—reenter it, without going to a distance which would cause any danger of losing his way, and signal to him. The great obstacle to this was that, as he could readily see from the distance he had gone over since emerging therefrom, it would be utterly impossible to send a signal so far, through such a chamber of sound as the cave had proven itself to be. There remained the same probability that the Apaches would hear it as soon as Mickey, and they would be stupid beyond their kind if they had not already gained a correct idea of the situation.
Still, it was possible to see how the Irishman could succeed. Men placed in fully as desperate situations as he had pulled through by showing nerve and readiness of resource when the critical moment should arrive.
Mickey O'Rooney possessed originality and pluck. He had acquired considerable experience and knowledge of Indian "devilments" on his way across the plains, and, if the Apaches comprehended the situation, it was not to be supposed that he was not posted fully as well. If he could see no chance of getting a pull at the rope, he could easily keep out of the way of the redskins. He had no fear of meeting any of them singly, and if he could arrange it so as to encounter them one after another, and at his own convenience, he might clear the track in that fashion.