Chapter XXIII. The Pony Riders Under Fire
 

With many a whoop and hurrah, the boys dashed into the home camp in the early forenoon of the following day.

Lige had left them three miles down the trail, that he might make a short cut to Eagle Pass for the purpose of getting word to the parents of the boys, that their trip had been concluded, and asking that directions for their further journeys might be sent to them at Denver, where they were to travel by easy stages.

The trail to camp being clear and easily followed, he felt no apprehension in allowing them to go on alone.

"Halloo the camp!" shouted Ned, hurling his sombrero on high, riding under and deftly catching it as it descended.

"Why, there's no one here!" exclaimed Tad Butler, looking about inquiringly, as they rode in.

Walter swung from his pony, and, hurrying to the tents, glanced into each in turn.

"That's queer. Looks as if no one had been here in a month. Well, suppose we unpack and wait."

"Somebody has been through these tents in a hurry," declared Tad after having made a hasty examination on his own account. "Did you notice that everything in the Professor's tent had been fairly turned inside out? There are our bows and arrows lying out there near where the camp fire was."

Now, the boys began to feel real concern.

"Tether the ponies and we will go out and see if we can find them," commanded Tad Butler.

"Shall we take our guns?" asked Stacy.

"Better not. Take your bows and arrows if you wish. We are going on the trail of two-footed game now, and we do not want to have guns. We might use them and be sorry for it afterwards."

Realizing the wisdom of his words, the boys laid aside their rifles, grabbed up their bows and quivers, and following Tad, who immediately struck off in the direction of the cave. Tad's own experience there was still fresh in memory.

At the entrance, they halted.

"Look at that! What do you think of that?" exclaimed Tad.

Above the entrance to the cave hung suspended a broad strip of sheeting. On it had been scrawled, evidently with a piece of blunt lead, the words:

 THIS CLAIM BELONGS TO AB DURKIN. KEEP OFF!

The boys gazed at each other in amazement.

"We'll find out whom this claim belongs to!" declared Tad sternly. "I don't believe what that notice says at all. There is something more to this than we know about. Who'll go into the cave with me?"

"I will," chorused the boys.

"Follow me, then."

Tad moved forward, with the rest of the boys following closely behind him. But, as they started, a revolver shot rang out and a bullet sang by the head of Tad Butler.

"Back to the rocks!" shouted the boy, springing from the open place where they had been standing, at the same time urging his companions forward.

"What does this mean?" demanded Ned Rector.

"I don't know. We are in for trouble. Spread out and hide behind the boulders as well as you can, while we crawl back to camp. Chunky, you run for Ben Tackers as fast as your fat legs will carry you!"

With more order than might reasonably have been expected under the circumstances, the boys retreated rapidly, two more shots zipping over their heads as they leaped over a projecting ledge and scurried to cover without losing any time.

"I guess they're trying to scare us, that's all," decided Ned.

They could hear their unseen enemies, clambering down the rough ground that lay on either side of the cave, evidently bent on following them, now and then sending a bullet at one or the other of the dodging figures of the Pony Riders.

"Humph! Looks like it, doesn't it?" snapped Tad.

Suddenly rising to his full height, the boy waved his sombrero and hailed the men who bad been firing at them.

"Hold on, there! What are you trying to do? You're shooting at us! You had best look out what you are doing, unless you want to got into trouble yourselves. I----"

The answer came promptly.

A gun barked viciously, and the plucky lad's sombrero was snipped from his hand, with a bullet hole through its broad brim.

Tad ducked behind a rock with amazing quickness.

"Spread out a little more, fellows. It won't he so easy to hit us," he commanded. "Walter, you watch out on either side of us, while Ned and I take care of the front."

"Wish I had my rifle. I'd show them," growled Ned.

"I don't," snapped Tad. "We've got trouble enough as it is."

The boys had been carrying on their conversation in low tones, that they might not betray their positions to their enemies.

"Get out of there, you young cubs!" suddenly roared a voice, whose owner they could not see. "I'll l'arn ye to interfere with other folks' business. I'll give yer five minutes to shake ther dust of this hy'ar mounting off yer feet. If any of ye is here then, it'll be the worse for ye. This claim belongs to Ab Durkin. Now, mosey! D'ye hear?"

Tad Butler did hear. And now he saw as well as heard.

Ab, confident that he had nothing to fear from the boys, had taken his station on a large boulder, from which position he was giving his orders to the Pony Riders. Tad, peering from behind the rock where he had taken refuge, saw an evil face, topped by a weather-worn sombrero, and, beyoud it, the figures of four other men whose faces he was unable to make out.

"I say, will ye git?"

"No!" shouted Tad, his face flushing, as all the old fighting spirit in him came to the surface.

"Then, take the consequences!"

Ab Durkin raised his revolver, peering from rock to rock, not certain now as to the exact location of the boys. He seemed ready to fire the instant he made out the mark he was seeking.

Tad Butler never had been more cool in his life, and a strange sense of elation possessed him.

Motioning to the boys to lie low, Tad fitted an arrow to his bow, after which he waited a few seconds, keenly watching the enemy and measuring the distance to him, with critical eyes.

All at once the boy's right arm drew back. There followed a sharp twang.

"Ouch!"

The mountaineer leaped straight up into the air, which action was followed by two shots in quick succession, as both of the man's revolvers were accidentally discharged, the bullets burying themselves harmlessly in the ground in front of him.

Tad's arrow had sped home. Its blunt end had been driven with powerful force, straight against the left ear of Ab Durkin, having been deflected slightly from where Tad had intended to plant it.

"Lie low!" commanded the boy.

The next instant, a shower of revolver shots flattened themselves against the rocks all about the boys.

"Give them a volley and drop back quickly!" ordered Tad.

Three bows twanged, and yells of rage told the boys that at least some of their missiles had gone home. This was a different sort of warfare from anything to which these mountaineers had been accustomed, and, somehow, it had begun to get on their nerves, desperate men though they were.

"Follow me. We must change our positions again. They've got our range now," directed Tad, and the boys, wriggling along on their stomachs, to the left, dutifully followed their leader.

Tad was heading for a clump of sage brush, so that their operations might be the better masked. While he was doing so, the mountaineers, who also had taken to cover, were bombarding the rocks from which the Pony Riders had just made their escape.

From their new position the boys were overjoyed to find that their enemies were in plain view.

"Take careful aim, and when I count three, let go at them. See that not one of you misses," directed the leader.

"Ready, now! One, two, three!"

Three bowstrings sang, and as many mountaineers, with yells of rage, began shooting, fanning every rock and bush about them, in hopes of driving from cover their tantalizing opponents.

At first they were at a loss to locate the boys' new position, but, after a little, as the arrows kept coming persistently from the sage bush, the mountaineers' bullets began to snip the leaves over the heads of the Pony Riders.

"Shoot slowly, and make every shot count!" directed Tad with stern emphasis.

Once, a bullet grazed Tad's left cheek, and Ned Rector narrowly missed death, escaping with the loss of a lock of hair. With rare generalship, Tad continually changed their positions, which tactics also were followed by the mountaineers, all the time crowding the boys nearer and nearer to their own camp.

Chunky had not yet returned, and Tad devoutly hoped that the boy would not be rash enough to attempt to do so now.

If anything, the boys thus far had the best of the battle, and although none had sustained a serious wound, every one of the mountaineers had marks on his body to show where blunt tipped arrows, driven by a strong arm, had been stopped.

Now, a new danger menaced the brave little band. Their quivers were nearly empty. Tad, discovering it, drew his hunting knife from its sheath, tossing it to Walter Perkins.

"Quick! Cut some sticks and make some arrows. Don't lose a second. Make them as straight as possible, or we shall be unable to hit a thing."

By the time their supply had become almost exhausted, Walter had succeeded in turning out more than half a dozen new arrows. Yet no sooner had they begun driving these at their enemies than the mountaineers sent up a yell of defiance. They recognized the predicament the boys were in.

"Cease firing!" commanded Tad, realizing at once that their enemies had discovered their plight.

"Fellows, we are about at the end of our rope. Give me the arrows. Then, you two make your get-away. But be careful not to expose your bodies to the fire of those brutes. When you get far enough away run for Ben Tackers' cabin. You can hide there, anyway," directed Tad Butler.

"Yes, but what are you going to do? You surely don't intend to remain here?" protested Walter.

"I'm going to cover your retreat. They'll think we have no more ammunition left and then they'll start to rush us. That's the time I'll surprise them. We have a few arrows left. They won't be so fast to----"

"See here, Tad Butler, what do you take us for?" demanded Walter, his eyes snapping. "Do you think we are going to desert you and leave you here, perhaps to he killed?"

"While we run away?" added Ned. "I guess not. What breed of tenderfoot do you think we belong to?"

"No! We stay with you," announced Walter firmly.

"Oh, very well. I'm sorry. Hold your arrows till you have to shoot, but it would he much better for you to go while you have a chance."

Recognizing the helplessness of the boys, the mountaineers began moving on their position, revolver shots occasionally zipping against the rocks. It was almost impossible for the boys to return the fire with their few remaining arrows, for fear of exposing themselves to too great danger.

"I guess it's about up with us," said Tad, coolly stringing his last arrow.