Boys of the Fort/17
It did not take Joe and Darry long to retrace their steps at the water-course. They continued to call to the young captain, and once Joe shot off his rifle as a signal, but, as we know, no answer came back.
"I can't understand this at all," said Joe, when they halted near the shelter. "I didn't hear him do any firing, did you?"
"Not a shot," answered Darry. "He must have gone away from the brook instead of along the bank."
The two boys hung around the shelter for some time, and then decided to follow up the trail left by the young officer.
This was easy for part of the distance, but soon the footprints became so indistinct that they came to another halt.
"Stumped!" muttered Joe. "We might as well go back to the shelter and wait till he returns. One thing is certain, he hasn't found any game, or we would have heard the firing."
Tired by their long tramp the boys sat down in the shelter, thinking that Captain Moore would return at any moment.
Thus an hour was passed. It was now noon, and Joe and Darry set to work to prepare dinner for themselves.
The repast was just finished when Joe let out a cry of alarm.
He was right. The captain of the desperadoes had appeared, followed by several others.
The boys were taken completely off their guard. Darry made a clutch for his rifle, but on the instant Gilroy had him covered.
"Leave the gun alone!" cried the rascal. "Leave it alone, or it will be the worse for you."
"What do you want?" questioned Joe.
"We want you to behave yourselves," answered Fetter, who was in the crowd.
"You played us a nice trick that time you escaped from the cave," growled Gilroy, eying Joe darkly.
"Do you blame me for wanting to get away?"
"Hardly. But I'll warrant you won't get away again."
"Then you consider me your prisoner?"
"Oh, Joe, do you think they met Will—" began Darry, and then stopped short.
"Yes, your brother is waiting to meet you," said Fetter, addressing Joe.
"Then he is also a prisoner?"
Joe's heart sank within him.
"If old Benson was only here!" he muttered.
Still guarding the boys, the desperadoes took their guns and also a pistol the young captain had loaned his brother.
"Now get on your horses," commanded Gilroy. "And mind, if you try to play us foul both of you will get shot."
"Are you going to take us to Captain Moore?" asked Darry.
The desperadoes would answer no more questions, and in a few minutes the whole party was off for the cave. Both Darry and Joe wished to leave behind some sort of message which Benson might pick up, but they were watched so closely they could do nothing.
When the cave was gained the boys were told to go inside and keep quiet.
"Joe! and you too, Darry!" cried Captain Moore. "I was afraid of this."
"No wonder we couldn't find you!" said Joe, and told of the hunt he and his cousin had made.
"These rascals are up to some deep game," whispered the young captain. "I just picked up a message which Gilroy must have dropped," and he told what the sheet contained.
"If I were you I'd burn the paper," said Darry. "Then he won't know you have seen it."
"No, I would like to keep the sheet to show—to Colonel Fairfield if I can manage to get away."
"Who wrote the message?"
"I have no idea. There used to be a half-breed around here whom the soldiers called Mose, but I thought he was dead. He was thick with the Modoc Indians."
"Then if he was the writer that would show that the Indians are going to help the desperadoes, wouldn't it?" asked Joe.
Before his brother could answer, Matt Gilroy stalked into the cave.
"I told you not to talk," he growled, as he cast his eye on the table and then around the rocky floor. "You can't get away, so it won't do you any good to plot against me and my men."
He was evidently looking for the sheet of paper, for presently he lit a torch and went over the whole cave carefully.
"See anything of a bit of paper around here?" he asked presently.
"What kind of a paper?" questioned Darry.
"Something with writing on it."
"I haven't seen anything."
"What was the writing about, Gilroy?" asked Captain Moore.
"That's my business. Then you haven't seen the paper? All right," and the desperado stalked from the cave again.
"That was a close shave," whispered the young captain. "And it proves that the paper is valuable and that he is worried about it."
Slowly the balance of the day wore along, and at nightfall one of the men brought them a scanty supply of food.
They ate sparingly, fearing the food might be drugged, but no evil effects followed the meal.
At the mouth of the cave sat two of the desperadoes on guard, each with his rifle across his knees.
"A dash into the darkness might save us," suggested Darry, but the captain shook his head.
"No, those fellows are too good shots," he said. "We will have to remain as we are until something turns up in our favor."
Our friends wondered if the desperadoes would remain about the cave all night. The other party which had gone off when Gilroy went for Joe and Darry had not yet returned, and the leader of the gang seemed to grow anxious concerning them.
"Something has happened to them," he said to Fetter. "Perhaps we had better send somebody off on the trail to find out what's up."
So it was agreed, and Fetter was the man chosen for the mission.
As may have been surmised by some of my readers, the other party had gone off to watch for old Benson and make him a prisoner. The crowd numbered three, and were desperadoes well acquainted with that territory.
The old scout had spent several hours in a vain endeavor to locate some buffalo, when, on resting in the crotch of a tree, he saw the desperadoes approaching.
The rascals were tired out with their search for the scout, and came to a halt directly under the tree.
"It's a fool errand," old Benson heard one of the men say. "Matt Gilroy ought to have been satisfied with corraling Captain Moore and those boys."
"The captain wants to make a grand round up," answered another of the men. "He told me that if we missed Benson the scout might make trouble."
Benson listened to this conversation with intense interest, and soon learned the truth—that Captain Moore was already a prisoner, and that another party had gone off to bring in Joe and Darry.
"This is a nice state of affairs," he thought. "These rascals mean mischief. I wish I could get the drop on them. I'd soon teach them a thing or two."
He watched the men as a cat watches mice, and, when the party of three moved on, stole after them like an Indian on the warpath.
The desperadoes skirted the brushwood, but did not go out on the grassy slope of the valley, fearing that the old scout might be near by in hiding and see them.
They were a shiftless lot, and soon came to another halt, under some small trees. Here they threw themselves on the ground, and while two of them smoked their pipes the third indulged in a nap.
Not a great distance off was a spring of pure cold water, and presently one of the men got up and walked over to this to get a drink.
"My chance for number one!" muttered old Benson, and crawled after the desperado. As the man turned the corner of a number of rocks, he came up behind, clapped his hands over the fellow's mouth, and bore him to the earth.