Chapter XVIII. Facing the Enemy's Guns
 

"Do we go in?" asked the Professor.

"Wait, I'll get some light inside first," answered the prudent guide. "Can't tell whether we shall want to go in or not."

He built up a small fire within, then called to the others that they might enter. They crowded in hastily, finding themselves in a fairly large chamber, at the far end of which was a sort of natural alcove in the rocks.

The remnants of a fire still lay at one side, where the last meal of the ancient dweller had probably been cooked. Several crude looking utensils lay about, together with a number of pieces of ancient pottery.

"This is, indeed, a rare find!" exclaimed the Professor, carrying the precious jars out into the light for closer examination.

Chunky, about that time, pounced upon an object which proved to be a copper hatchet.

"Hurray for George Washington!" he shouted, brandishing the crude tool. "The man who never told--"

"We've heard that before," objected Ned. "Give us something new, Chunky, if you've got to talk."

The Professor came in, searching for other curios just as Stacy went out to examine his "little axe," as he was pleased to call it. He tried the edge of it on the ledge to find out if the stone would dull it, but it did not.

"I'll use that to cut nails and wire with when I get back home," decided the boy. "Guess I'll chop my name in the side of the mountain here." Stacy proceeded to do so, the others being too much engrossed in their explorations to know or care what he was about. He succeeded very well, both in making letters on the wall and in putting several nicks in the edge of his new-found hatchet.

He was thus engaged when all at once something struck the axe hurling it from his hand. At the same instant a rifle crashed off somewhere below and to the southeast of him.

"Ouch!" exclaimed the fat boy holding his hand. "Wonder who did that?" His mind had not coupled the shot with the blow on the hatchet.

Bang!

A bullet flattened itself close to his head, against the rock.

With a howl, the lad threw himself down on the ledge.

At that instant Kris Kringle sprang to the opening of the cave.

"What does this mean?" he snapped.

"I don't know. Somebody knocked the axe out of my hand then shot at me."

The guide discovered the trouble right there. A bullet snipped his hat from his head; and, striking the ceiling of the cave-home, dropped to the floor with a dull clatter.

Kris Kringle ducked with amazing quickness. Crawling back into the cave, he reached for his own rifle and then sought the opening, taking good care not to expose himself to the fire of the unseen enemy.

Stacy, on his part, had lost no time in getting to a place of safety inside, though he was prudent enough to crawl instead of getting up and walking in."

"What does this mean? It can't be possible that anyone is deliberately shooting at us?" questioned Professor Zepplin in undisguised amazement.

"If you doubt it step outside," suggested Kris Kringle. "Master Stacy and myself know what they tried to do, don't we, lad?"

"We do."

The fat boy again swelled with importance.

"Look out you don't swell up so big you'll break your harness," warned Ned.

"Better break it than have it shot off," mumbled Stacy.

"Who can it be?"

"I can't say, Professor."

"It's our friends from the fire dance," was Tad's expressed conviction.

"Told you they'd be here," nodded Chunky. "Why don't you shoot at them?"

"Going to, in a minute. Got to find out where they are first."

Now the lads were excited in earnest. Some one was shooting at them, and the guide was going to fire back. This was more than they had expected when they visited the home of the cave-dweller.

"Let me take a crack at 'em," begged Chunky. "I owe 'em one."

"Master Stacy, you will do nothing of the sort," reproved the Professor sternly. "The idea!"

"No; if there's any shooting to be done I'll do it," announced Kris Kringle.

"And Santa Claus isn't shooting with any toy gun, this time," chuckled Chunky.

"Can you see the camp, to know if anyone is there?"

"Yes, but only part of it, Professor. I wish you would all get over into the right hand corner there and lie flat on the floor. I'm going to try to draw their fire so that I can locate them. Can't afford to waste ammunition until we are reasonably sure where our mark is."

The others quickly got into the position indicated.

Placing his hat on one of the pike poles, Kringle slowly pushed it outside.

There was no result, The ruse failed to draw the enemy's fire.

"Oh, they've gone. We're a lot of babies," jeered Ned, jumping up and starting for the opening.

Kris Kringle gave him a push with the butt of the rifle.

"Want, to get shot full of holes? Wait! I'll show you."

The guide sprang up, showing himself out on the ledge for one brief instant then throwing himself flat.

A sharp "ping" against the rocks, followed by a heavy report, told the story. The guide had been not a second too soon in getting out of harm's way, for the bullet would have gone right through him had be remained standing.

Quick as a flash Kringle's rifle leaped to his shoulder, and he fired. He had taken quick aim at a puff of smoke off toward the camp.

Not content with one shot he raked the bushes all about where the puff of smoke had been seen, emptying the magazine of the rifle in a few seconds.

Stacy Brown was fairly dancing with glee.

"Did you hit anything?" asked the boys breathlessly.

"Of course, I hit something; but whether I winged an Indian or not, I don't know. If I did, he probably is not seriously wounded. You'll hear a redskin yell when he's hit bad."

"That one I punched didn't. He was hit hard," volunteered Stacy.

"He didn't have time," grinned Tad. "You were too quick for him."

"Look out! There comes a volley!" warned Mr. Kringle.

The boys, led by the Professor tumbled into the corner in a heap, while the lead pattered in through the opening, rattling with great force like a handful of pebbles.

"They're getting in a hurry," averred the Professor.

"It's growing dark. They want to finish us before then, so we can't play any tricks on them after that. But, if they only knew it, and they probably do, they've got us beautifully trapped. One man below and another at the other end of our tree would be able to keep us here till the springs run dry. If there's only two of them there, as I suspect is the case, they may not want to separate. We'll see, the minute it gets dark enough so that we can move about without being observed."

Some of the sage brush that Kris Kringle had brought down to light up the cave lay outside on the ledge. Using one of the poles, he cautiously raked the stuff inside, heaping it up not far from the entrance.

"What you doing that for?" questioned Stacy, unable to conceal his curiosity.

"You'll see, by-and-by, when we get ready to do something else. You don't think I'm going to stay here all night, do you?"

There was no further firing on either side, though Mr. Kringle showed himself boldly several times.

Finally Tad tried it, and was greeted with a shot the instant he appeared in the opening.

"Must be me they're after," he suggested, with a forced grin, falling flat on the ledge, and wriggling back into the cave.

The twilight was upon them now. The guide had been able to see the flash of the rifle below him, and had taken a quick shot at it when the enemy attempted to wing Tad Butler. Kringle had no means of knowing whether his shot had been effective or not.

"I'm going to try something else in a few minutes, now," the guide told the Professor and the boys, "and I hope you all will do just as I tell you."

"You may depend upon our doing exactly that," answered the Professor.

"I am going to crawl out of here. The rest of you remain here until I call to you to come out, no matter if it is until morning. After I have been gone about ten minutes, light a match and toss it into the heap of sage there, but watch out that you don't get into the light. Throw the match. You're liable to be shot if you show yourselves."

"Why should we make a fire and thus make targets of ourselves?" protested Ned.

"That is to cover Mr. Kringle's retreat," Tad informed them.

"Exactly. Master Tad, you may come along with me if you wish."

Tad jumped at the offer.

"But not a sound. Ask me no questions. Follow a rod or so behind me, and walk low down all the time. If you make a mistake it may result seriously for you and your friends. And, another thing."

"Yes?"

"Should there be any shooting, throw yourself on the ground. You will not be as likely to be hit there."

"I'll obey orders, sir."

"I know it."

"When do we start?"

"I guess we can do so now, as safely as at any time. The rascals will not be likely to be on the mountain just yet, because it is not dark enough. Yes; we'll go now."

Tad waited until Kris Kringle had crawled from the cave, then lay down on his stomach and wriggled out on the ledge.

There were no signs of the enemy and the camp-fire of the Pony Rider Boys glowed dimly down below. Tad, peering off into the gloom, for the moon had not yet risen, thought he saw a figure flit by the fire. He could not be sure, however. He wished he might tell the guide of his fancied discovery; but, remembering the injunction for absolute silence, he said nothing.

By this time, Tad's arms were about the log. From the slight vibration he knew that Kris Kringle was somewhere between himself and the top, yet not a sound did the guide make. Tad made no more, and they would have been keen ears, indeed, that could have detected our friends' presence by sound alone.

When the lad finally reached the top a hand was laid on his shoulder. The touch gave him a violent start in spite of his steady nerves.

"You're all right," whispered the voice of Kris Kringle. "You'd make a good Indian. I want to explain something that I didn't wish the others to hear."

"Yes?" whispered Tad.

"I have only one shell left in my rifle. That's why I wanted you to go along. If, by any chance, the rascals should get me, you lie low. They'll make for the cave, as they know, by this time, that there is only one rifle in the party. The minute they do, should such an emergency arise, slide for the camp and get your gun. You'll know what to do with it. It'll be a case of saving the lives of your companions if it comes to that."

"I understand," answered Tad bravely; and without a quaver in his voice.

"Mind you, I don't think for a minute that it will happen. I can handle these fellows if I get the lay of the land. Keep close enough to hear me."

"That's not so easy."

"No; but you'll know. When I stop you do the same."