Chapter XV. The Battle in the Cave
 

Reaching the rifle range, Tad sat down to think over the occurrences of the past half hour. Why anyoue should wish to do him harm, he could not understand. And, if anyoue did, why should he adopt such a peculiar way of attack? Had it been a mountaineer, Tad was sure the man would have used a gun instead of standing off and throwing stones at turn like a petulant school boy. He realized too, that they had a different mode of procedure in the mountains.

"I'd have been as dead as Chunky's bob-cat if the stone had hit me fairly," muttered the boy. "Anyway, I've got a chunk of something that looks a good deal like gold, in my pocket," he added.

Deciding to say nothing about his recent experience to his companions, Tad strolled slowly toward camp. Yet, he had firmly made up his mind to go back to the spot later and make sure that his suspicions were correct.

Most of the boys had returned by the time Tad arrived, and there was a clamor to know the result of his hunting trip.

"Maybe I shot a cat. But, I didn't," he grinned.

"What's that!" demanded Ned.

"Anyway, I've brought back a chunk of gold and discovered a cave. That's more than the rest of you have done, I'll warrant."

Either announcement would have been sufficient to arouse the interest of the campers, and they crowded about Tad, demanding to know what he meant by his mysterious words.

"I found a cave, I tell you," he repeated.

"Where?" asked Lige.

Tad explained its location as well as he could.

"And I found this chunk of gold, too," he added proudly.

The guide took the piece of ore, examining it carefully.

"That isn't gold," he laughed. "That is what is known as 'fools' gold.'"

"Scientifically known as 'iron pyrites'" explained the Professor.

Tad's jaw fell at this shattering of his hopes. Yet, when Lige tossed the piece of mineral on the ground, the boy picked it up and dropped it back in his pocket. Why he did this he did not know. Perhaps it was instinct. However, after a few moments he had forgotten all about it.

"You must have had a fight with a bob-cat to get that fierce scratch on your cheek," chuckled Ned Rector. "I must say that Chunky has you beaten to a--a-- I've forgotten the word I want --when it conies to fighting cats."

"I have seen no cats to-day, Ned. But I have found a real cave. Will you take us over to explore it, in the morning, Mr. Thomas? I'll show you the biggest thing of its kind you ever have seen, if you'll go," promised Tad, enthusiastically.

"Providing we don't go hunting, yes, and-- and find some more fools' gold," laughed the guide.

Tad went to his tent, for the wound in his cheek was giving him considerable pain, and a glance into the hand mirror showed him that the cheek was beginning to swell.

Taking a towel with him, the boy hurried off to a mountain rivulet, where he bathed the wounded cheek, holding the wet towel to it to reduce the swelling.

Chancing to look up, he observed the guide, Lige Thomas, standing before him, eyeing him keenly.

"Warm, isn't?" grinned Tad.

"Rather. Put the towel down. I want to look at that cheek."

Tad hesitated, drew the towel away, and gazed back at the guide with a challenge in his eyes.

Lige examined the wound carefully.

"How'd you get it?" he demanded, straightening up.

"Why do you ask that? It's only a scratch."

"Because I want to know. If you do not wish to tell me, of course I shall not press you. However, it will be my duty to call the attention of the Professor to it. You see, I am responsible for you boys while you are up here, and----"

"A stone did it," interrupted Tad, with a touch of stubbornness in his tone.

"A stone?"

"Yes."

"How?"

"Somebody threw it at me."

For a moment the guide gazed at Tad doubtingly.

"I'll tell you all about it," exclaimed Tad impetuously. "But promise me that you won't tell the boys. They'd never cease joking me about it. I'm going back there to-morrow to see if I can find the fellow who shied the rock at me. No; I didn't see him at all. I was sitting with my back to him when he let fly at me. But I pinked him, Mr. Thomas. Believe me, I did----"

"Pinked him?"

"Yes, I let him have an arrow full tilt, and I know it hit him, for he yelled and ran away," explained the boy.

"This matter must be looked into," decided Lige thoughtfully. "It begins to look as if Ben Tackers was right about the gang after all. No; I'll not say anything to the crowd. It would only stir them up. We will visit the cave to-morrow, and, while the others are amusing themselves, you and I will look the ground over a bit. I'll go back now, and you may come along when you get ready."

Tad remained by the stream until he heard the supper call, whereupon he rose slowly and picked his way over the rocks to where the others had assembled about the table in the gathering twilight.

The boy's appetite, however, had not been affected by the experience through which he had passed that afternoon, and he stowed away a hearty meal, after which the evening was spent in listening to stories of the chase related by Lige Thomas.

There being still no sign of Ben Tackers on the following morning, a visit to the cave was decided upon. They reached the place about nine o'clock, guided by Tad, who took them to the hole in the rock at once.

"I guess you boys had better fix up some torches," directed Lige. "Sometimes there are holes within holes, in these mountains, and we don't want to take a sudden drop down a hundred feet or so. Three torches will be enough to light. You had better take along two or three more in case of need."

Before entering, the guide took the precaution of unslinging his rifle, and, placing the boys behind him with the torches, he entered the cave first. They were obliged to stoop to get through the opening. Once within they followed what appeared to be a passage hewn out of the solid rock.

"Ah, here we are!" exclaimed Lige finally, straightening and glancing about him curiously.

They found themselves in a dome-like chamber, from which hung suspended hundreds of stalactites that threw back the rays of the torches in a thousand sparkling, scintillating points of fire.

The Pony Riders gasped in amazement. Never had any of them seen anything like this.

"Wha--what is it?" breathed Tad Butler.

"Stalactites," announced the Professor.

"Look like icicles to me. B-r-r-r," shivered Stacy Brown.

"It is a very common thing to find them in caves," added the Professor. "But I never have had the pleasure of observing the formation before."

"I can show you some better than these," stated the guide. "I know of a cave, not so very far from here, that is as big as a church, and a regular picture of one, too."

"Is this the end of the cave?" asked Ned.

"No; there are other passages leading further into the mountain, at the other end of the chamber there," replied Lige.

"Are we going to explore them?" inquired Walter.

"Yes; we can go further, if you wish. But you boys must keep a sharp lookout where you are going. Don't fool too much. It's easy to get into trouble here, you know."

While Lige was speaking, Tad had edged cautiously to one side of the chamber, where he had observed what appeared to be a small rock, glistening in the light of the torches. He picked it up, unobserved by the others, and dropped it into his pocket for further observation.

The party then pushed on into the cave, one chamber leading into another, forming a bewildering maze, the brilliant reflections almost blinding them at times, until at last Lige Thomas was forced to admit that he never had quite seen the like of it anywhere else in the Rockies.

"Didn't I tell you I'd show you the biggest thing you ever saw in your life?" glowed Tad Butler.

At that instant a yell of terror from Stacy Brown drew their attention sharply from Tad, their eyes bulging with fear at what they saw before them.

There, sitting on its haunches, paws extended menacingly, showing its teeth as it uttered low, angry growls of protest, was a full-grown black bear.

Tad Butler, indeed, had shown some of them the most surprising things they had ever seen. Yet this was not exactly the surprise he had planned for them, or for himself.

The guide had put his gun down as he entered the chamber, to get one of the stalactites for Professor Zepplin, who wished to examine it. As a result, Lige was now some twenty-five feet away from his weapon.

At first, with the bright reflection in his eyes, the guide was unable to understand what it was that had caused their sudden fright. Yet the breathless silence about him told him instantly that something serious had happened.

The bear had dropped to all fours and was lumbering straight toward Stacy Brown, who stood fascinated, watching the approach of the hideous object, whose raised upper lip showed a row of white gleaming teeth.

"Look out!" yelled Tad suddenly finding his voice.

"Quick, guide!" begged the Professor, weakly.

"What is it? Where?" snapped Lige, crouching down and shading his eyes to protect them from the glare.

He quickly saw what had caused the startling alarm. He saw too, the hulking beast drawing nearer and nearer to Stacy Brown, and knew that only some sudden shock to his mind would break the spell that seemed to possess the boy at that moment.

"Run!" thundered the guide.

But Chunky stood as rigid as a statue.

Lige sprang for his rifle. In his haste he slipped on the smooth, damp floor and went sprawling.

By the time he had recovered himself, the bear had ambled up to Stacy, until the boy could feel the hot, nauseating breath beating against his face.

Tad Butler without regard for his own safety, leaped for the bear. But Professor Zepplin was too quick for him. He caught Tad by the arm, jerking him back.

Now, at that instant, Stacy Brown did a thing that brought a groan from each one who witnessed the daring act.

Chunky drew back his pudgy fist and let go with all his might.

His knuckles smote the bear fairly on the point of its nose, and the impact sounded loud and clear in the tense stillness of the cave.

If the Pony Riders were surprised, Bruin was even more so. With a grunt the bear suddenly sat down on its haunches, passing its paws over its nose, bewilderment plainly written on its countenance. Under ordinary circumstances the boys would have laughed. But now they were too horrified to do so.

Chunky, either because he was emboldened by the success of his attack, or through the excitement of the moment, picked up a rock from the cave floor, and stepping back, hurled it with all his strength. The stone hit the bear a glancing blow on the head, bringing from the animal a growl of rage. Now, the brute was dangerously angered.

It charged the party savagely, jaws wide apart, but uttering no sound, not even a growl. By this time some one had pulled Chunky from his perilous position and Tad and Professor Zepplin were pushing the other boys back toward the exit with all possible haste. It all had happened in a few seconds. Lige scrambled to his feet, rifle in hand, just in time to see the big brute charging straight at him, as if recognizing that in that quarter lay its gravest danger.

There came a sudden flash of flame, a crash and a roar as if the very mountain had been rent in twain, followed by another and still another.

Tad had grabbed a torch from the hands of one of his companions, the instant Lige began to fire, and sprung back to give the guide sufficient light to shoot by.

In doing so, however, the boy had unwittingly placed himself in the direst peril.

The wounded bear was charging madly here and there, uttering terrific growls of mingled rage and pain. But the instant its bloodshot eyes were fixed upon the boy with the torch, the animal rose on its haunches, and, with paws making powerful sweeps in the air, bore down upon Tad.

The boy was too far over in the chamber to be able to make his escape without getting between Lige and the bear, and escape seemed well-nigh impossible

However, Tad did not lose his presence of mind. With a leap as unexpected as it was surprising, he sprang straight for the savage beast. It seemed as if he was throwing himself right into the wide open jaws to be crushed to death.

"Don't shoot!" he warned, leaping forward. As he did so, he lowered the torch to the level of his own eyes, and drove it straight into the gaping mouth of the maddened bear. Then Tad sprang lightly to one side, throwing himself prone upon the floor.

The great bear was not growling now, but its groans of agony as it fought to get the deadly thing from its throat, sent a chill to the hearts of all who heard them.

At the instant when Tad threw himself down, Lige pulled the trigger.

His bullet ploughed its way through the brain of the bear, relieving its fearful sufferings. Bruin collapsed and rolled over, dead.