Chapter IX. A Lank Mule as a Decoy.
 

Judd Bradley, the young man who had brought the boy into the mountains, stood for a moment watching the mule curiously. Then he stepped nearer to Ned, who was trying to quiet the fractious animal.

"Be careful," Ned warned, as Bradley approached. "Uncle Ike doesn't take to strangers. He may kick if you come within reach."

"Hell kick you whether you come within reach or not!" grumbled Buck, who had been brought from the cabin by the clatter of the mule's hoofs. "He reached over forty acres of rock to hand me one on the laig!" he added, rubbing his left thigh.

Mrs. Brady came to the doorway of the cabin and stood there, outlined against the red firelight within, with the boy in her arms. The child reached forth his arms impatiently, then began beating the old woman with his small fists.

"Go an' get me the horse!" he commanded. "Mike wants a ride!"

"That's the prince, all right!" whispered Frank to Ned. "That's the prince of some slum alley in Washington. What he needs is a club, applied just before and after meals, and just before retiring, with a dose at intervals during the night!"

"I'm not thinking of the prince now," Ned returned, still in a low tone, for the others were not far off, "I'm wondering how Uncle Ike came to be here."

"Broke away and eloped with himself, probably," laughed Frank.

"Yes," grinned Ned, "and put on saddle and bridle before he started!"

Frank's eyes now began to stick out.

"S-a-a-y!" he whispered. "We'd better be getting back to camp! There's something out of whack there! If the mule could only talk!"

Bradley, who had backed away at Ned's warning, now came up to the mule's head.

"He doesn't kick with his ears, does he?" he asked, with a smile.

"He's an outlaw," Ned answered, wishing Bradley would return to the cabin. "He's thrown one of the boys, and we must be on our way. If you have time before you leave, come up to the camp. We've got the latest things in cameras and photographic material."

"I may get up there in the morning," was the reply.

Bradley and Mrs. Brady entered the house and closed the door, and Ned turned to his chum with an odd look on his face.

"I've seen that man somewhere before tonight!" he said.

"Then you'd better try hard to place him" Frank answered, "for we are going to see more of him in the future, if I'm not mistaken. Perhaps you saw him on one of your visits to Washington."

"That may be," Ned replied. "Anyway, I may be able to think it out before morning."

Uncle Ike laid his nose against Ned's shoulder and gave him a push.

"He's in a hurry!" the boy laughed. "We ought to be, too! Is it possible that one of the boys saddled him for a ride on the mountain in the night?"

"Just like Jack or Oliver. Or Jimmie may have returned and planned one of his midnight expeditions!"

"Get up and ride," Ned advised. "I'll walk and try to place that man's face."

"You might have seen it in the rogue's gallery," suggested Frank, leaping into the saddle and starting away, the mule pulling and rearing every moment.

Finally Ned called out to him to stop, and walked up to his side.

"What is the matter with Uncle Ike?" he asked.

"He insists on keeping down toward the canyon," was Frank's reply. "We came cat-cornering down the slope, didn't we?"

"We certainly did," Ned answered, considering the matter gravely. "Tell you what you do," he went on, "let the mule have his head! Let him go just where he wants to. It is the instinct of animals to follow precedent, same as men. A man will follow a cow path until it becomes a city street, and a cow, a horse, or a mule will follow a trail previously used--if only passed over once! Let the mule have his head, and he may take us to the place where somebody was dumped!"

"Solomon had nothing on you, Ned!" laughed Frank. "Go to it! Uncle Ike, it is you for the scene of the abduction! And you may go just as fast as you please!"

The mule started off at a fast pace, keeping to the bottom of the valley and finally entering the canyon at the south end. Ned walked by Frank's side, his hand on the stirrup, listening for a sound he dreaded to hear. He was afraid one of the boys had been thrown from the animal's back, and might be lying, suffering, in one of the crevices or breaks which marked the bottom of the canyon.

After traveling some little distance in the canyon, Frank drew up and pointed ahead.

"Right over there," he said, "is the spot where we saw the smoke signs!"

"That's a fact!" Ned answered. "One of the boys must have come here to investigate and left Uncle Ike without tying! The mule has been here before, or he wouldn't plod along so steadily. Suppose we leave him here and walk on cautiously?"

"Just what I was about to propose," Frank agreed.

Uncle Ike seemed to resent being left alone in the canyon, which was now almost as light as day, save where the shadows of the mountain to the east lay along the wall on that side. The mule was finally quieted and left in a dark angle.

Moving in the shadows, the boys soon came to an angle in the cut and looked out on the remains of a campfire. They pushed on until they came opposite to it, but saw no one. In order to reach it they would be obliged to cross the canyon, not very wide there, but flooded with moonlight in the center.

While they stood in the shadow of the mountain a man came stumbling down the slope ten yards away from them. At first they thought it was one of their chums, but when the man's figure came into the moonlight they saw that he was tall, heavily built, and also heavily bearded. He walked straight across to the fire and passed it, turning into a shallow cave there was in the rock of the outcropping ridge.

The boys saw him enter the cave and look sharply around, then he disappeared as suddenly and completely as if he had walked into the solid rock.

"We're getting all the stage effects!" Frank whispered. "That man ducked into a moonshiner's establishment!"

"He ducked in somewhere, all right," Ned answered. "I wish we could get across there without exhibiting ourselves to the whole country."

"I believe the boy that rode the mule is over there!" Frank suggested.

"Yes; and he's probably been picked up by the moonshiners," Ned agreed. "We've got to get over there, so here goes!"

The boys went across the streak of moonlight like a couple of flashes, and drew up at the mouth of the cavern. So far as they could determine no one had observed them.

They crept to the very back of the cave and huddled close together, listening.

"Not a soul in sight!" Frank whispered. "That might have been a ghost!"

"Do ghosts rattle metal?" asked Ned.

There followed another silence, and then the clink of metal came clearer to the ears of the listening boys.

"Where does it come from?" asked Frank. "There's not a crack in sight in this rock."

A puff of soft coal gas wafted into the cave, causing the boys to hold their breaths. Then, in spite of all he could do to prevent it, Frank sneezed.

Almost instantly a dark figure appeared between the place where the boys were hidden and the space of moonlight in front. The man stepped out, looked up and down the canyon, and came slowly back to meet another figure.

"Nothing doing!" a gruff voice said.

"But that wasn't any bird!" insisted another gruff voice.

"Well, you may look for yourself!"

"I tell you," the second speaker went on, "that those boys are still out in the hills! When I was at the camp there was only one in the tent, and he sat there with a gun in his lap, watching for the others to come back."

"Did you speak with him?"

"What for would I speak with him?"

"To get his story. What are they here for? That is worth knowing."

"Well, I didn't show myself because we're not supposed to be here ourselves!" came the other voice. "If you hadn't built the fire outside to-night we'd have been in no danger. Now we've got a lot of boys sneaking around. What did you do with the others?"

"They're in the work-room."

"In the work-room, seeing everything! You're a bright lot! You know now, I suppose that we've got to leave those lads here when we go away?"

"I have known that all along. There are plenty of kids in the world. These won't be missed. It is a bad job, but it must be done!"

"They shouldn't have come sneaking around!"

The two men disappeared again, but this time Ned saw the opening to the work-room, as they had termed the underground apartment, when they swung an imitation rock made of plank aside and stepped down. For a moment their figures were illumined by the red light of the fire within, and then they were no longer in sight.

"They're a cheerful pair!" Frank whispered.

"Counterfeiters!" Ned whispered, in reply. "And murderers!"

"How are we going to get the boys out?" asked Frank. "They'll be killed if we don't."

"One must raise a ruction on the outside, and the other must sneak in while the outlaws are gone. That is the only way I can think of now. If you go out there and get Uncle Ike, and coax a couple of sobs out of him, and rattle stones, and shoot your automatic like rain, the outlaws may all rush out of the cave."

"I can do all that, but how will you get in?"

"When they run out, they will pass me. Then I'll get in through the door," Ned replied. "If there's no one in there it won't take me long to find the boys and turn them loose."

"But if there is some one in there?"

"Then you'll hear shooting," Ned answered, grimly. "In that case, mount the mule and get back to camp and bring Jack and Oliver and a lot of guns."

"But one of those boys must be in there," Frank insisted. "Some one rode Ike here!"

"We don't know who it is that is here," Ned reflected. "Anyway, you've got to get away with the mule after making all that noise. Don't go in the direction of the Brady cabin. We don't want that man Bradley mixing us up with police officers!"

"Every minute counts!" Frank declared, "I'm off. You'll hear a racket like the blowing up of a world in about three minutes! Good luck!"

The lads shook hands and parted. It seemed to each one that the other was going to his death, but only encouraging words were spoken.

In five minutes a horrible clamor rang down the canyon. Uncle Ike screamed, and the beating of hoofs sounded like a charge of cavalry. Then came sharp, quick pistol shots.

Three men dashed out of the cavern and Ned crept in at the open door!

"I don't know what I shall find in here!" he mused, as he came into the light of a great fire, "but I'll know all about it right soon!"