Chapter XXIII. In the Ruby Mountain
 

Tom Phipps nodded. He recalled his conversation with Tad upon the other's upon his return from his visit to the Ruby Mountain, and the lad's description of the mysterious voice he had heard there. Mr. Phipps did not give very serious consideration to that part of the boy's story at the time. Now, however, he was startled beyond words.

All of them were startled. To hear a strange voice many feet down under the ground, when all supposed they were far beyond the reach of a human voice, was enough to give almost anyone a start.

Yet Tad was not as much surprised as were his companions, for it will be rememberred he already had been through the experience that was so new to the others.

"Who are you?" demanded Mr. Phipps almost sternly.

There was no reply to his question.

"Tad, are you sure that is the same voice?"

"Positive. There can be no doubt. And, besides, she has used the same words."

"But it's impossible," insisted the young engineer. "No one, let alone a woman, could get near enough to this chamber to be heard as distinctly as that."

"I--I think it must be somebody who can go right through a rock," stammered Ned.

"Ghosts," nodded Walter.

"That's what I thought at first. But I knew it couldn't be after I had time to think twice. And I--"

"He-l-l-l-o-o-o!"

"There it goes again," fairly shouted Tom Phipps. "I'm going to find out what this means before I'm another minute older."

Hastily lighting a match he made a tour of the chamber, every corner of which he examined carefully, ending by a long, critical survey of the hole in the roof.

"It is just as impossible for anyone to be up there as it is to expect to see some one walk through the solid rocks here beside us," he decided, throwing the spent match on the floor where it glowed briefly and went out, leaving the darkness more dense than before.

Tad struck a fresh match.

"Hello, what's this?" he cried, reaching for a small package that lay wrapped in a piece of newspaper on the floor near him. "I didn't see that before."

"Doughnuts!" shouted Ned, who had been peering curiously over Tad's shoulder as the latter opened the package.

"Yes, and they are real," exulted Tad. Already one of them was in his mouth, and the others of the party quickly helped themselves. There was just enough to go around.

"I don't care who you are, but we're much obliged just the same," called Ned in a muffled voice.

"Yes, there's nothing ghostly about this 'bear sign,'" added Tad.

As for their companion, Tom Phipps, words failed him.

"I'm sure I'm going crazy now," he said. "If you are real, for goodness' sake tell us who you are and where you are?" he pleaded.

A merry, chuckling laugh answered him.

"She's up there!" said Tad Butler sharply. He had been listening with every sense on the alert, determined to locate the owner of the voice when next she spoke. Now he was sure that he had succeeded. "I know where you are but I don't know how you ever got there."

"Do you know a way out of this?" interjected Walter.

"Of course," answered the girl.

Tad nodded to his companions. They were burning up their matches very fast now in an effort to catch sight of the owner of the voice.

"How did you suppose I got there if I didn't know the way?"

"No ghost about that, I guess," said the boy.

"Will you help us to get out of here?" asked Tom.

"Can't."

"Why not?" demanded Ned.

"Can you climb up here?"

"No, certainly not."

"Well, that's the answer."

They laughed in spite of themselves.

"Will you tell us how you got where you are?" asked Mr. Phipps.

"That's a secret," replied the girl.

"And I presume your name is a secret too?"

"Yes."

"We'll find out who you are when we get out of here. I promise you that," threatened the assistant superintendent.

"Then good-bye."

"No, no, don't go! Don't go!" begged Tad.

"Say you won't tell on her, Mr. Phipps. "Don't you see--"

"All right, girl, I'll promise to keep your secret."

"You'd better," retorted the girl.

"How did you know we were here?" asked Mr. Phipps.

"I didn't. I heard about the explosion, so I came in here to see if my cave had been harmed any."

"You knew we were right under it, then?"

"Of course. How stupid you are!"

"Where is your cave?"

"I'm in it."

"Yes, I understand that, but where?"

"You ask too many questions."

"Say, young lady, can you find a rope that will reach down to us?" asked Tad, who had been turning over a plan in his mind.

"I guess."

"Please do so then. And hurry, won't you?"

"You will ask no questions?"

"Certainly not!"

"You won't try to find out anything about my cave?"

"No, no, of course not," answered Mr. Phipps impatiently.

"And you will do as I tell you?"

"Yes."

"All right. I'll be back in a minute."

Mr. Phipps sat down nonplussed. "I never was so mixed up in my life," he grumbled. "I can't understand it at all. How did she ever get there?"

"She says it's a cave," suggested Tad.

"But I know of no caves about here."

Tad shrugged his shoulders. That there was one and through it a prospect of their being liberated from their unpleasant and perilous position, was enough for him to know.

"Hello," shouted the girl after a few minutes.

"Yes, did you get the rope?" called Tad excitedly.

"Uh-huh."

"Then drop the end of it down."

A heavy coil hit Tad on the top of his head, nearly knocking him down. He scrambled from under while from above there sounded a peal of merry laughter.

"I don't care, so long as we have the rope," laughed the boy.

"Can you fasten the end of the rope to something up there?"

"No."

"Oh, pshaw! that's too bad," grumbled the boy. "But wait a minute."

Striking a match and shading his eyes with one hand, he peered up to the hole in the rocks. He noted a long narrowing crevice extending back from the main opening.

"I'll tell you what to do."

"Yes."

"Draw the rope into that crack as far as it will go, then tie a knot in the rope so it cannot slip through. I'll climb up--"

"You couldn't get up here. The end of the crack is too far from the place you see. Hold on, here's another crack just like it, right here in the rocks by me. I'll fix it. You all promise not to tell on me?" insisted the girl.

"Yes, yes, yes, we promise. We'll promise anything just now," laughed Ned.

An interval of silence followed while the girl was adjusting the end of the rope. Then she called down to them:

"All ready?" asked Tad.

"Yes, try it."

Tad grasped the rope, and swinging himself clear of the floor, jounced up and down several times.

"I guess it will hold. I'll go up first to see that the rope is secure; then the rest of you can follow me up."

"Why, I couldn't climb that rope to save my life," objected Mr. Phipps.

"I'll fix it so you can. I'll tie some knots in it, then climbing will be easy."

With that Tad once more swung clear of the floor and went up hand over hand with amazing rapidity. By the light of their matches they saw him disappear through the hole in the roof of the chamber.

"It's all right, fellows," he called down to the others. "I'll just haul up the rope and fix it for you."

This he did, letting the rope down to them a few moments later. Walter was the first to try the climb.

"I can't do it, Tad. I just can't," he cried, slipping back to the floor where he landed in a heap.

"Hold the rope down for him, then he ought to be able to make it," directed Tad.

Walter, however, had apparently lost his courage and declared that he could not do it.

"Take a hitch under his arms, good and strong. I'll pull him up," he commanded. They did as the boy above directed, then Tad began his pull. It was a fearful task.

"Grab hold of me, put your arms around my waist and brace yourself," he commanded, and the girl with quick wit comprehended what he wished her to do. Slowly, foot by foot Tad hauled the dead weight up. The last few feet of the rope seemed a mile to him.

With a final desperate effort, just as his muscles seemed to be at the breaking point, Tad, hauled his companion safely to the flat rock beside him, then fell on the floor of the cave, gasping for breath.

"Le--let the r-rope down," he said faintly.

The girl obeyed.

Ned shinned it with little difficulty, Tom Phipps insisting that the lad should precede him, though Ned wanted him to go first.

Tad was on his feet again.

"Can you make it?" he called down.

"I don't know. I'm going to make a big attempt at it," answered the miner. They heard the rope creak and knew that he had thrown his weight upon it.

"I'm afraid I can't get all the way up. My arms are giving out," they heard him gasp.

"Don't let go! Don't let go!"

"I'm afraid I can't help it, my muscles won't stand the strain."

"Twist the rope about one leg and rest. You can hang there all day if you'll do that," snapped Tad. "How is it!"

"Yes, that works fine. My arms are all a-tremble. I didn't suppose I was so weak?"

"You are not used to it, that's all. That's right; come along. I'll strike a match to light the way."

Little by little and with frequent rests, Tom worked his way up and up until within reach of Tad's strong arm. The lad grasped him by the coat collar and pulled him clear of the hole, dropping him flat on his back safe and sound on the rock where he had previously dumped Walter.

"Good gracious!" breathed Mr. Phipps. "Boy, you must be made of cast iron. You--you pulled me up here with one hand."

"You're here, that's all we need worry about just now," answered Tad, breathing heavily. "Now, Miss, will you please tell us how to get out of here?"

"Come," she said, taking Tad by the hand. She turned away, the others following in single file.

Almost at once they emerged into a high-ceilinged cave, dimly lighted as if through stained glass windows.

The lads uttered an exclamation of amazement.

"I know you now. You're Rose Cravath, Tom Cravath's daughter!" cried Phipps, striding forward and grasping the girl by the shoulder. "I demand to know what all this means?"

Tad stepped between them, pushing Tom aside.

"Remember your promise, Mr. Phipps," he warned.

"Yes, but do you realize where we are, boys?"

"No, and I don't care."

"We're in the Ruby Mountain."

"Look! Look!" shouted Tad excitedly, grasping the arm of Phipps.

With this, he dashed away to a distant part of the chamber that lay in deep gloom. Phipps looked in bewilderment.

A few moments later, Tad emerged from the darkness leading a broncho.

"Didn't I tell you?" he asked triumphantly. "I knew I'd get him some day--this is my stolen broncho." And then patting the pony's neck affectionately, he added: "Good old fellow. I'm glad to have you again."

He had indeed recovered his pony. Probably awaiting the departure of the Pony Riders from Ruby Mountain, the desperadoes had kept the pony--with two others--secreted in the mountain chamber. The other two ponies did not, however, belong to the Pony Rider Boys, much to the disgust of the latter.

"Just Tad's luck," growled Ned.