Chapter X. "Packed Away Like Sardines".
 

Even in that underground room Ned could hear the shooting outside and the screams of the aggravated mule. Several weapons seemed to be pouring out lead, and the boy wondered if the outlaws were getting the range of his chum.

The firing seemed to grow fainter as he advanced into the room. Either the outlaws were pursuing Frank or the shooters were taking refuge behind rocks which deadened the sound.

At first the boy kept his eye out for an attack on himself, but there seemed to be none of the outlaws left in the subterranean place. The fire was built at one side, and the light from it filled the whole apartment. Counterfeit dollars lay about, scattered over the floor as if dropped in great haste.

Halting in the center of the room, after closing and baring the outer door, Ned put his fingers to his lips and gave out a low whine, one of the signals used by the boys of the Wolf Patrol. While he listened for a response, the firing outside came nearer, or appeared from the sound to do so.

"I'd be in a nice fix if they should seek to retreat to the cave!" Ned thought.

While he listened an answer came to his call--the low, sharp signal of the Wolves!

"That's Jimmie!" Ned muttered. "He's in some of the holes just outside this room."

"Where are you?" he asked, and the answer came with a giggle.

"We're packed away like sardines! Come get us out! We're only tied with ropes, but the ropes know their business! Here! To the right of the fire!"

Ned soon found that the wall at the point indicated was of plank, like the door, painted and sanded to imitate rock. He had no difficulty in finding the opening, and in a short time the boys were relieved of their bonds. Ned opened his eyes wide at sight of Dode, the fourth boy, and of Oliver, who had been left at the camp.

"What's the shooting outside?" asked Jimmie, stretching his arms, cramped from long confinement. "Who's out there with Uncle Ike? Say, but I was glad to hear the gentle voice of that wicked old mule!"

"And now," Teddy observed, "how about getting out of this? I'm hungry."

"If Frank keeps that racket going," Ned answered, motioning the group toward the door by which he had entered, "we may be able to get out without being seen. You can tell me how you got caged later on. Now we'll try the door."

"Wait!" whispered Jimmie.

"Wait!" said Dode.

Ned turned and faced both boys with enquiring eyes.

"Why wait?" he asked.

"I want my gun!" Jimmie replied. "They searched us and put the plunder in that alcove in the rock on the other side of the fire. We'll need the guns, I take it."

The three boys, Jimmie, Teddy, and Oliver, made a quick rush for the alcove and soon came back with their guns and electrics. The firing outside was again farther away, and the chances for getting out without being attacked appeared to be good.

"What is it?" Ned asked Dode, as he pulled at his sleeve.

"There's another door," the lad explained. "It opens on the slope on the west side of the ridge we are under. We can go that way without being seen."

"That's just the thing!" Jimmie exclaimed. "We can get out and join Frank in the mess outside! Then I reckon we'll put the skids under the outlaws!"

Dode led the way to the opening indicated, passed, with the others at his heels, through a long passage, and finally came to a plank door which was securely fastened on the inside. From this position the racket outside became only a hum.

The boy unfastened the door and swung it inside. Beyond lay the slope, and, beyond that, the valley and the distant mountains. The air of the night was sweet and clear after the close atmosphere of the underground room.

From the other side of the ridge, which was not very high, came shots and the vicious shrieks of a pestered mule! Ned turned to the south, from which direction the clamor came, and passed as swiftly as possible along the slant of the elevation.

"Are you going to attack the outlaws from the rear?" asked Teddy. "We are taking the wrong course if you want to go back to camp."

"Huh!" Jimmie grunted, trudging along puffing at every breath, "we've got to find Frank and Uncle Ike, I guess."

When the party came to the end of the ridge under which the counterfeiters had been working, they faced the valley, some distance away, in which the cabin of Mary Brady stood. Through the moonlight they could just distinguish the crude stone chimney of the structure.

"Now, Ned," Jimmie explained, "if we turn up the slope here and do a little shooting when we reach a good elevation, the counterfeiters will think they are being attacked by a fresh party and duck back to the cave. Then Frank can come along with that blessed old mule. Did you ever hear a lop-eared old rascal of the mule tribe make such a racket? I wonder what Frank was doing to him?"

"I know!" Teddy broke in. "He was tickling him with his heels. That makes Uncle Ike half crazy! There goes another yell! Fine old bird, is Uncle Ike!"

It was plain to the boys that the battle was quite a distance to the south and leading down into the valley, so they began the ascent of the rocky slope and continued up until they were all out of breath. Then they stopped and looked back.

The outlaws came into sight, in a minute, making for their cave. They fired an occasional shot as they retreated, and this fact convinced the boys that Frank had not been wounded by any of the shots which had been fired at him.

"We'll quicken their steps a trifle!" Ned said. "You boys go on up to the next shelf and I'll fire from here. They may charge us, and if they do I can cover your retreat. Besides, you will have a longer start."

"I'm going to stay right here and shoot, too!" Jimmie declared. "Those men have several bumps coming from me!"

"Ain't he the great little gunman?" snickered Teddy.

"But I need you up there with the others to protect my retreat," urged Ned, so Jimmie unwillingly toiled up the acclivity. They came to a shelf perhaps three hundred feet beyond Ned's stand and crouched down.

Ned's fire, when it came, had the effect of sending the outlaws on a run toward their cave, so the boy joined the others without facing a return fire.

"They'll be out again when they see what's been going on at the cave!" Jimmie predicted, but the prophecy was not a good one, for no figures were seen in the canyon after that, and no more shots were fired from that direction.

"I know what the bogus money-makers will do now," Jimmie snickered. "They'll pack up their tools and vanish! They'll be thinking the whole Secret Service bunch is after them!"

"That's just the trouble," Ned said. "I'm afraid the mountaineers will also think we are Secret Service operatives and spies and make trouble for us."

"We'll have to get busy with our cameras, then," Jimmie went on, "and take pictures of everything in sight. We may be believed if we tell the truth, that we blundered on their cave and they attacked us. I wonder why Frank doesn't show up? He may have been killed or wounded!"

"If he has been hurt," Teddy observed, as the sound of hoofs came From the south, "Uncle Ike hasn't, for here he comes, ugly as ever."

Believing that Frank was indeed approaching, the boys fired a number of shots to direct his course and waited. The hoofbeats, the labored breathing of the mule, became more distinct directly, and then Frank came into sight.

The greeting he received was a warm one, and Uncle Ike was petted and permitted to search every pocket for sugar!

"I don't see how you escaped being hit," Ned observed. "The outlaws fired enough shots to cripple an army."

"They never saw me," declared Frank. "I kept behind ridges and outcropping rocks, and in the shadows. They were afraid to come too close, for they must have thought a dozen men were attacking them. Whenever I fired I changed my position, and when Uncle Ike yelled I hustled him along! I reckon a good many of the shots you heard came from my gun! When you began shooting that settled it! They will be fifty miles from here by tomorrow noon!"

"That's likely, for they won't dare remain here after they have been caught at their work," Ned admitted. "Moonshiners might remain and fight, but counterfeiters will get away right soon. I take it they don't belong to this section anyway."

On the way to the camp, during the brief rests, Jimmie explained how they had been surprised while in the outer cave and had been taken inside and tied up. The boy Dode was overjoyed at his escape from the gang, and explained that they had captured him not far from Washington and forced him to accompany them, the idea being to use him in the future in getting rid of the spurious coins.

"They are making a lot of it," he declared, "and the country will be flooded with their work if the government doesn't catch them."

It may be well to state here that the reasoning of the boys with regard to the future actions of the outlaws was correct, as they disappeared from that section that night. When the lads visited the cave later on some of the counterfeit coin which had been made was still scattered about the subterranean room.

When they first reached the camp Jack was not in sight, but he soon appeared, coming from a hiding place near the summit.

"I thought I'd better not expose myself by remaining in the tent," he explained, "so ducked away and hid where I could watch the mules and the provisions without being seen. I had about made up my mind that the state militia had been called out, you made such a racket!"

"We're going to give Uncle Ike a medal, also a barrel of sugar, for heroic conduct in the face of the enemy!" Jimmie declared, and the mule, for once in his life, found a full pocket when he nosed about for sweet lumps!

While the lads were eating a delayed supper, Jack turned to Oliver with a mock frown on his face.

"The next time you go away in the night and leave me alone in camp," he said, "I'm going to break your dial in! I might have been shot while asleep. According to the conversation between the outlaws, just related by Jimmie, one of the toughs came up here! Don't you ever do that again, if you want to keep a whole hide."

"I guess Uncle Ike has a larger kick coming than you have!" Jimmie remarked.

When the boys compared notes and thoughts concerning the child, the old lady, and the blonde stranger, they could not agree at all. Some of them insisted that the boy was Mike III., while the others declared that he was the prince!"

"If he isn't the grandson," one asked, "why this American slang?"

"And if he is," questioned another, "why this talk about French and other foreign languages? Mike III. wouldn't know a foreign tongue, would he?"