Chapter XVII. In the Home of the Cave Dwellers
 

Ned Rector sat up just in time to meet the wreck of the descending table. Down he went again with Stacy's howls ringing in his ears.

A firm hand jerked Rector free of the debris as Kris Kringle laughing heartily hauled Ned to his feet. At the same moment Professor Zepplin had laid more violent hands on the fat boy, whom he shook until Stacy's howls lost much of their mirth. About this time Tad and Walter rode in, having hurried along upon hearing the disturbance in camp.

"Stacy Brown, are you responsible for this?" demanded the Professor sternly.

"I'm more to blame than he is," interposed Ned.

"No, I-- I had an idea," chuckled Stacy, threatening to break out into another howl of mirth.

"Next time you have one, then, you will be good enough to let me know. We will tie you up until the impulse to make trouble has passed."

Tad and Walter could not resist a shout of laughter. Kris Kringle was not slow to follow the example set by them, and all at once Professor Zepplin forgot his dignity, sitting right down amid the wreck and laughing immoderately.

Ned washed his face, and when, upon facing them, he exhibited a peeled nose and a black eye, the merriment was renewed again.

Supper was a success, in spite of the fact that many of their dishes were utterly ruined, as well as some of the provisions. But the lads gathered up the pieces and made the best of a bad job. Fortunately they carried another folding table that they had had made for their trip, and this was soon spread and a fresh meal prepared.

"Well, have you two been getting into difficulties also?" questioned the Professor, after they sat down to supper.

"No; we've been exploring, Walter and I," answered Tad.

"Exploring?"

"Yes. We discovered something that I should like to know more about."

"What is that?" asked Kris Kringle, looking up interestedly.

"We were over yonder, close to the mountains, which are straight up and down, and half way to the top, we saw three or four queerly-shaped rocks that looked like houses or huts. Did you ever see them, Mr. Kringle?"

"No; but I think I know what you mean. They must be some of the cave dwellings of the ancient Pueblos, or perhaps as far back as the Toltecs. They built their homes in caves on the steep rocks for better protection against their enemies."

"And nobody ever discovered these before?" questioned. Walter. "How queer!"

"Perhaps these dwellings, if such they are, have been seen by many a traveler, none of whom had interest enough in the matter to investigate. Then again, they may have been fully explored. There's not much in this part of the country that prospectors have not looked over."

"May we explore these caves, Professor?" asked Tad.

"Please let us?" urged Walter.

"I see no objection if Mr. Kringle will be responsible for you. I rather think I'll look into them myself. I'll confess the idea interests me. Are they easy to get at?"

"I'm afraid not," answered Tad.

"Santa Claus will show us the way," interrupted Stacy enthusiastically.

He was frowned down by the Professor.

"Why not start now?" urged Tad.

The guide consulted the sun.

"We might. It lacks all of three hours to dark."

There was much enthusiasm in camp. The idea that they were to visit some unexplored caves, dwellings of an ancient people, filled the lads with pleasant expectancy.

Before starting, Mr. Kringle sorted out some strong manila rope and several tent stakes all of which he did up into two bundles. Then he filled the magazine of his rifle, throwing this over his shoulder.

"What's that for?" questioned Ned.

"The gun?"

"Yes."

"Can't tell what we may run into in a cave, you know."

After a final look at the camp all hands set out for the place indicated by Tad. It was only a short distance, so they decided to walk.

Reaching the base of the mountain they gazed up.

"Yes, those are cave dwellings," declared Kris Kringle. "And they are still closed. Probably they haven't been opened in two hundred years."

"I'd hate to live there and have to go home in a dark night," mused Chunky.

"Yes, how did they get to their houses?" wondered the other boys.

"The question is, how are we going to get near enough to explore them? How shall we get up there, Mr. Guide?" asked the Professor.

"We'll find a way. We shall have to climb the mountain, first."

All hands began clambering up the rocks. To do so they were obliged to follow along the base of the mountain for some distance before they found a place that they could climb.

Reaching the top, the guide examined their surroundings carefully.

"See those little projections of rock slanting down toward the shelf?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Well, in the old days they probably felled a tree so it would fall on them. The occupants of the cave probably cut steps in the tree trunk over which to travel up and down. The tree has rotted away many years since."

"And we can't get down, then?"

"We'll find a way, Master Walter. I thought I should be able to make a rope ladder that would work, but I see it is not practicable."

"How shall we do it?"

"Try the old way, I guess, Master Tad."

"What's that?"

"The tree."

"But there are no trees near here?"

"Yes, there are, a few rods back. We are all strong and I guess we shall be able to make a pretty fair pair of steps."

Kris Kringle had brought an axe with him. With this he cut some long, straight poles which, he explained, were intended for pike poles such as woodsmen use to roll logs. This done, he began industriously chopping at the tree after deciding upon the exact position in which he desired it to fall.

"It won't reach," declared Chunky, who, with hands in pockets, legs spread wide apart, stood looking up at the flaring top of the great tree.

The guide stopped chopping long enough to squint at the fat boy.

"It'll reach you all right, if you stay where you are," he said, then resumed his vigorous blows.

Stacy promptly took the hint and moved a safe distance away.

"Get from under!" shouted the guide finally. One more blow would send the tree crashing downward.

All hands scrambled for safety. One powerful blow from the axe, and with a crashing and rending, the great tree began its descent. When it struck the onlookers fully expected to see it broken into many pieces, but the bushy top, hitting the rocks first, broke the blow, and the body of the tree settled down gently without even breaking its bark.

"Fine! Hurrah!" shouted the boys.

"It won't reach to the edge. Going to pull it over?" questioned Stacy.

"Not exactly, but we're going to get it there. Perhaps we shall not have it in place in time to explore the caves to-night, but we shall be ready to do so early in the morning. It took our friends longer to do this job, two hundred years or more ago, than it will take us. We have better tools to work with."

"And better bosses," suggested Stacy.

Some little time was consumed in chopping the tree loose from its stump, after which the guide worked the pike poles under the trunk at intervals near the base. The others watched these operations with interest.

"Now here is where you young gentlemen will have a chance to show how strong you are. Each one grab a pike pole," Kringle directed.

"Shan't I go hold the top down?" asked Stacy.

"You just grab a pike pole and get busy!" laughed Mr. Kringle.

"Can't get out of work quite so easy as you thought," scoffed Ned. "This is where we make you earn your supper."

"I don't have to earn it. Had it already."

"There are other meals coming," smiled the Professor.

"Now, heo-- he!"

All raised on the pike poles at the same time with the result that the tree was forced down the gentle incline several feet. This was repeated again and again, the boys pausing to cheer after every lift.

The tree being now perilously near the edge of the cliff Kris Kringle called a halt. Next he fastened a rope around the top and another around the base, taking a turn around a rock with each. One boy was placed on each rope, the others at the pike poles, while the guide stood at the edge giving directions.

The tree trunk gently slipped over under his guidance and a few minutes later rested on the projecting rocks, that were just high enough to hold it in place.

"Wouldn't take much to send it over, but I guess it will be perfectly safe," he mused.

"May we go down now?" cried the boys.

"No; I'll make some steps first."

He did so with the axe, chopping out scoop-shaped places for steps, until finally he had reached the rock in front of the cave dwellings.

The tree lay at an easy slope, its bushy top partly resting on the ledge, the latter being some eight feet deep by ten feet wide.

Running up the log Mr. Kringle made another rope fast at the top, throwing the free end over.

"Hold on to the rope while you are going down and you'll be in no danger of falling," he warned.

The boys scrambled down the tree like so many squirrels, the Professor following somewhat more cautiously.

The explorers found themselves not more than twenty feet from the ground.

"Not much of a door yard. Where's the garden?" wondered Stacy, looking about him curiously.

The entrance to the cave dwelling was blocked by a huge boulder, that completely filled the opening. How it had been gotten there none could say. The only possible explanation was that the boulder had been found on the shelf and applied to the purpose of protecting the cave dwellers' home.

"Now we're here, we can't get in," grumbled Ned.

"Nothing is impossible," answered Kris Kringle.

"Except one thing."

"What's that, Master Ned?"

"To hammer the least little bit of sense into the head of my friend, Chunky Brown."

"You don't have to, that's why," retorted Stacy quickly. "It has all the sense it'll hold, now."

"I guess that will be about all for you, Ned," laughed Walter. "At least, Chunky didn't foul the dinner table when he jumped it."

The guide, in the meantime, was experimenting with the boulder, inserting a pike pole here and there in an effort to move the big stone. It remained in place as solidly as if it had grown there.

"There's some trick about the thing, I know, but what it is gets me. Better stand back, all of you, in case it comes out all of a sudden," Mr. Kringle warned them.

All at once the boulder did come out, and it kept on coming.

"Look out!" bellowed the guide.

"Low bridge!" howled Stacy, hopping to one side and crouching against the rocks.

The guide had sprung nimbly to one side as well. The big rock had popped out like a pea from a pod. Instead of stopping, however, it continued to roll on toward the edge.

"Hug the rocks! She's going down!" shouted the guide.

Go down it did, with a crash that seemed to shake the mountain. Rolling to the edge of the shelf, it had toppled over, taking a large strip of shelving rock with it.

"Wow!" howled Chunky;

The other boys uttered no sound, though their faces were a little more pale than usual.

Kris Kringle stepped to the edge, peering over.

"No one will get that up here again, right away," he said.

"The cave, the cave!" shouted Walter.

Everyone turned, gazing half in awe at the dark opening that the removal of the stone had revealed-- an opening that had been closed for probably more than two centuries.