Chapter XXIII. In a Perilous Position
 

As root mass swung upward, a man with a vicious slap on the animal's thigh, sent a horse bounding in. He followed the horse. Then after him came five other men, crowding in with every appearance of haste. Not a word had been spoken up to this time.

"Now run for your life!" whispered Tad in the ear of his companion. "No, this way. Stoop low. I don't want to get pinned in that other place."

Tad had been using his eyes while glancing about the compartment, and using them to good purpose. He had espied a heap of blankets, either discarded ones or some that had been used for the ponies. He was inclined to the former opinion. He was quite sure that blankets would not be used for the animals at this time of the year. At any rate there was now no time for reflection. It was a time for quick action.

Leading Chunky to the heap, which lay under a projecting ledge of rock some four feet from the floor, Tad forced his companion over behind the pile, then himself crawled in, puffing the blankets over them.

Stacy's teeth were still chattering.

"Stop it!" commanded Tad, giving the fat boy a violent pinch.

This time Chunky did say "ouch!" But before the word was out of his mouth Tad had clapped a blanket over the offending mouth.

"Do you want to be killed?"

"N---n---no."

"Then keep still!"

"Wha---what are they doing?"

"That is what I want to find out if you will lie quiet and not give me any further trouble. They are staking their horses. This must be the stable. The men, as I thought, will go back further. I hope we can hear what they say."

"I don't care what they say. I want to get out of here."

"You never will if you don't muzzle yourself. Now do try to keep quiet while I listen."

Tad raised his head cautiously, but quickly drew it back. What he had seen was the face of the man who had passed himself off as captain of the Rangers when visiting the camp of the Pony Rider Boys a few days before that. This was Willie Jones, the man for whom every Ranger in the state was searching at that moment. And then---Tad shivered in spite of himself when he made the discovery---stepping up to the leader to ask him a question was Dunk Tucker, the fellow whom Tad had captured. Dunk had regained his freedom and had joined his band. His presence here indicated that it was not a good place for the Pony Rider Boys. Tad hoped his own fellows might keep close to their camp. He wondered if the Rangers would be able to trace the bandits to their lair, or if the former even knew the outlaws had returned to that locality again. The words of Tucker answered his question.

"Well, we outrode them, Cap," said Tucker.

"Yes, but if you hadn't made a fool of yourself and tried a pot shot on McKay they wouldn't have known we were anywhere about. That was a fool play on your part, Dunk. Your temper will be the death of you. We'll be lucky if it isn't the death of the whole outfit. I don't want any more of it. If you can't control yourself better, the word will go out that you aren't safe. You know what that means?"

Dunk grinned maliciously.

"I reckon I do. How long we going to stay in here this time?"

"I'll let you know when I am ready to go."

"But ain't you going to clean out that camp?"

"If you mean the boys, I am not. I am looking for bigger game just now. When we get through you can settle your little grudge if you want to. I reckon you'll get your fingers burnt, the same way you did before, if you try it. Those boys are pretty slick."

Tucker's face grew black. No need to tell Tad of what the outlaw was thinking at that moment. He was thinking of the time when the boys had made him a prisoner and how they had been responsible for his having been taken to El Paso and locked up. There was murder in the heart of Dunk Tucker at that moment, as Tad Butler well knew.

The men had lighted candles and stuck them in crevices in the rocks, so that the chamber was fairly well lighted. The horses were white with foam, showing that they had been ridden hard. The watching boy understood. The bandits had been hard pressed by the Rangers.

Jones walked away, leaving Tucker standing there nursing his deadly rage. After a time Dunk followed into the other chamber, where the men fell to discussing their escape in tones plainly audible to the boys hidden under the blankets. From the conversation Tad drew that the men had been on a raid and that they had been forced to throw away much of their plunder because of having been so hard pressed by the pursuing Rangers. Still, three small packs had been unloaded from the ponies in the cave and carried to the inner chamber. The outlaws were not in good humor. Their leader was the only one whose face reflected a smile. Willie could smile even when facing a gun. That smile had upset more than one man's aim and saved Willie's life. Jones fully realized the value of his disconcerting smile.

Tad's reflections were interrupted by the voice of one of the outlaws.

"They're here," said the voice. "I'd like to take a pot at them."

"It'll be your last if you try it," threatened Jones. "This is the only safe retreat we've got. We don't propose to give it away by any, such fool play as shooting at a Ranger from it, much as we'd like to get rid of some of those fellows. They're crowding us pretty close. And right here, I've got a proposition to make. By the way, Gregg, what are they doing?"

"Looking for trails."

The outlaw captain smiled grimly.

"Let 'em look. Precious little trail they'll find, and precious little good it'll do them if they do find it."

"Joe said those stones weren't where he'd left them."

"That's all right. Probably some of those boys have been fooling around here. They're a nosey crowd. But there's no chance that they have discovered anything yet. Give them time and they may. Once we break up the Ranger camp the boys will take French leave mighty quick. It will be too warm for them here. As I was about to say, I have a proposition to make to you. Until things quiet down a little it is my suggestion that we get across the Rio Grande and go into retreat there in our old joint. We've got a lot of valuable stuff here that we can't get out at present and we'll have to leave it here. The Rangers are watching this locality altogether too closely for comfort so far as we are concerned. Withem is nosing around El Paso as you know, lying low for some folks that we know of there. No use to take chances when we don't have to. If you're all agreed we'll just slope to the other side of the river and lie low for a month. What's your idea?"

"I'm agreed, if you'll give me a chance to get even with that gang of boys first," spoke up Tucker.

"You mean that you want to stay here after we've gone?" smiled Captain Willie.

"I reckoned I'd like to until I'd done what I told you."

"Well, I reckon you won't do anything of the sort. When we go out of here, none of us comes back till the whole crowd returns. Is that clear, Dunk?"

The outlaw growled an unintelligible reply.

"The Rangers have drawn off, Captain," called the lookout.

"Which way?"

"Toward the camp."

"They're going to stay there all night," decided the leader. "Well, we'll watch our chance and perhaps we'll be able to get away some time late in the night. Are you all agreed on getting across the river if we can make it?"

The men said they were.

"Then that's settled. Get out the grub. We'll feed up while we've got the chance."

No fire was built. The men munched their food cold. Little was said among them.

And now Tad began to ponder over certain other phases of his situation. How were these outlaws going to get out? There surely must be some way of opening the way to the outside. Still, the boy did not see how they could move the tree from the inside. If they could do it he could. He decided, however, that it would not be safe to trust to his finding the secret of the opening. Far better would it be to bolt at the first opportunity.

Stacy had kept unusually quiet, though his eyes had grown large when he heard the conversation of the men. At least there was a peep-hole through which the lookout was keeping watch. It occurred to Chunky that he could yell after the men left, and thus attract the attention of his own fellows. Tad had a different idea in mind, though he had not yet fully formulated his plans along this line.

The outlaws having finished their lunch, some rolled up in their blankets and went to sleep undisturbed by the fact that a band of Rangers was encamped within a short quarter of a mile of them.

As for the boys who were in such a tight place, they hardly dared move for fear of frightening the horses and thus exciting the suspicions of the outlaws further down the underground passage. When the boys did change their positions it was done as cautiously as they knew how. One Pony near them evidently scented them, for it grew restless and kept snorting, but that was all.

The hours dragged on wearily. The boys did not know whether it were night or day. Finally the lookout came down to where Jones was pacing steadily back and forth.

"Well?"

"Something going on over there," answered the lookout, jerking his head toward the opening.

"What do you think?"

"I don't know. They're running around out there with torches."

"Where are they?"

"On the other side of the clearing."

"Got their rifles with them?"

"No."

"McKay there?"

"The whole crowd's there."

"They've missed us," whispered Chunky. "They're looking for us."

"Sh---h---h---h," warned Tad softly. Jones pondered for a moment, then he turned to the lookout sharply.

"Wake up the men," he said.

"I reckon something is going to be did," whispered the irrepressible Chunky. Something was.