Chapter XXIV. Conclusion
 

Before the Pony Rider Boys had an opportunity to voice their astonishment, Rose held up a hand for silence. Voices were heard approaching.

"Hurry, hurry!" she whispered excitedly, leading the way through a low, narrow opening into another part of the cave.

Tom Phipps's hat was knocked off by the low archway, but not realizing the loss of it, he did not stop. As they entered the second chamber, which was even more brightly lighted than the one they had just left, they heard the sound of water, but were unable to locate the stream which they knew must be near by.

The voices died away to a low murmur and the girl who had been trembling violently, began creeping cautiously toward the opening to reconnoitre when all at once she started back with a little cry of alarm.

Before the eyes of the astonished boys there suddenly appeared two men. Mr. Phipps's hat had warned the men of the presence of strangers in their stronghold. Their faces, therefore, reflected anger instead of surprise.

For a few seconds the newcomers stood glaring at Phipps and the Pony Rider Boys.

"Tom Cravath!" exclaimed the assistant superintendent. "So, you are the mystery, are you?"

"Poaching, eh?" sneered Cravath unabashed.

"What business you got in here?" snapped his companion.

"I might ask you the same question, you fellow and Tom Cravath?" retorted Mr. Phipps, holding the two men with a level gaze. "And what's more I think your peculiar doings will bear looking into. There's something mighty queer about this business. I shouldn't be surprised if we found we'd solved a greater mystery than we thought--"

"You'll solve nothing!" shouted Cravath, suddenly drawing a revolver. His companion did likewise, both men quickly covering Tom Phipps and the boys with their weapons. "You'll find it ain't profitable to meddle with other folks' business."

"Pity you hadn't learned that lesson yourself," jeered Tom.

"It's over the cliff for the whole blooming bunch of you. I'll give you all the mystery you want."

"Father, father," protested Rose, horrified at her parent's cold-blooded threat. "They haven't done anything. They--"

"You shut up!" roared the miner. "Get out of here! Get in under the arch there! I'll attend to you later!"

The girl hesitated, then crept away sobbing as Cravath made a threatening move toward her.

"Now, I'll settle with you and your bunch of meddling tenderfeet," announced Cravath sternly. "Right about face!"

They hesitated, then turned in obedience to his command. There seemed nothing else for them to do, for both men were fingering their weapons suggestively.

"These boys have done nothing to harm you, Cravath," protested Mr. Phipps. "And no more have I. Mark me, you'll pay for this indignity, and dearly too."

"You don't say?" sneered the miner.

"I suppose this is where you hide the ponies you have been stealing," said Phipps boldly, a sudden thought having come to him.

"Forward march!" roared the enraged miner.

"Not--not over the cliff--you--you can't mean it?" begged Phipps, his face going suddenly pale.

"That's what I mean. You fellows are supposed to be buried in the mine down there. It'll take 'em months to blast into the place where they think you are, and when they reach the place you all will be gone a long time."

Cravath laughed harshly.

"Come now, over you go, unless you prefer to stand there and take your medicine."

"Hold on there a minute. I guess if anybody does the leap for life, it'll be you that does it," shouted a voice behind the two desperate men.

A second dynamite explosion could not have surprised them more. The men wheeled like a flash.

From the shadow of the archway, through which they had just entered, protruded a rifle barrel. The Pony Rider Boys who had also turned sharply at the interruption, observed that the gun barrel had a telescope attachment. Their eyes following further back, observed something else, too.

"Chunky!" gasped the lads in one voice.

Cravath made a move to level his weapon at the boy who had interfered with his plans thus unexpectedly.

"You stop that, now! I've got six bullets in this gun. If you get me excited I may press too hard on the trigger, and--well, maybe you'll think you've stepped into a hornets' nest. Drop those pistols!"

The muzzle of the repeating rifle never wavered. Behind the sights, the eyes of Stacy Brown had contracted into two narrow slits.

The desperadoes hesitated, measuring their chances shrewdly. They must have considered that these were not worth the taking, for they permitted their fingers to relax, the weapons falling to the floor with a clatter.

Chunky lowered his rifle ever so little, and the Pony Riders uttered a yell of triumph.

For one brief instant Chunky was off his guard. In that second he lost his prisoners.

With a bound the two men cleared the intervening space that lay between them and the cliff. They reached it at a point near the corner of the chamber some distance from where they had attempted to drive the boys over. Throwing themselves flat on their faces, they wriggled over the edge and disappeared. A faint splash below, a few seconds later, told the lads that their desperate assailants had reached the water.

"They'll drown, they'll drown!" cried Walter.

"No such luck," growled Tom Phipps. "They've got away, that's all. They know what they're doing."

Chunky swaggered to the edge with rifle dropped over his left arm, and peered over.

"Guess I'll hurry 'em along," he announced, clearing his weapon for action.

Tad sprang forward and forced the barrel up.

"Chunky, Chunky!" he warned.

"I was just going to scare 'em, that's all," grinned the fat boy, lowering his rifle.

At that moment the boys fell upon Chunky, fairly hugging him in their delight. After the keen edge of their excitement had worn off, they pressed him for the story of how he had happened to find his way into the Ruby Mountain at that time.

The lad explained that having been hunting in that vicinity and becoming tired out he had sat down to rest. While thus engaged the men had come along. They were talking of the explosion, and from them he learned that the drift in which the Pony Rider Boys were imprisoned was immediately beneath their hiding place in the Ruby Mountain.

Interested at once, the lad followed them into the mountain.

"But, how did they get in here?" demanded Tom.

"Through a hole in the rocks, that went straight in."

Phipps insisted on being taken to the place at once. He found that entrance had been made through an abandoned shaft that extended into the mountain a short distance on the level. A door had been skilfully constructed, shutting off the entrance to the cave itself. Years before a notorious band of outlaws had been known to have a hiding place somewhere in the vicinity. Tom Cravath and his associates had come upon it and used it for their own nefarious purposes.

"I think we'll find we've come upon a very important discovery," decided Mr. Phipps after listening to the fat boy's story. And so it proved.

Cravath had been at the head of a band of thieves, who made way with their plunder through the Ruby Mountain. A large quantity of it was found there on the following day. As for the stock which they stole, this was led into the mine entrance, down into a subterranean water course along which it was directed for several miles along towards the Indian Territory where it was eventually sold by other members of the gang.

No trace of any of the desperate band was ever found. Eagle-eye, the missing Indian guide, was discovered bound and gagged in a remote chamber in the Ruby Mountain, weak from loss of food. He had caught some of the band stealing the ponies and they had taken him prisoner.

It was proved, however, that neither Rose Cravath nor her mother had any knowledge of the transactions of the desperate band.

Great was the rejoicing in the mining camp when the news of the discovery became noised about. The lads were made heroes by the enthusiastic miners. But this did not bring back the lost ponies. Rather than purchase others for the brief time they would be in the Ozarks, it was decided to close the trip and continue their journeyings amidst other scenes.

On the second morning after their exciting experiences in the mines they rode away, bound for the nearest railroad station, all anticipation at the prospect of a sojourn on the great Nevada desert, of which they had heard so much. How they lost themselves there, their efforts to extricate themselves from the desert maze, attended by a remarkable series of strange happenings, will be told in a following volume entitled, "The Pony Rider Boys in the Alkali."

THE END