Boys of the Fort/19
ESCAPING IN THE DARKNESS.
It was after midnight when the camp settled down to rest. Fetter had not returned, and Matt Gilroy was much worried in consequence. Yet he was tired out, having lost a good portion of the night previous in traveling, and he lay down with the others.
The guards at the entrance to the cave had been changed. Those now there were two young men, recruits to the desperadoes organization.
Inside of the cave Captain Moore, Joe, and Darry, having untied each other's bonds, held a long consultation, the upshot of which was that they intended to escape if the deed could be accomplished.
"There is no use in telling you that we will run a big risk," said the captain. "But as for myself, these rascals are plotting against Colonel Fairfield and the soldiers at the fort, and I feel it my duty to do my best toward getting away and warning my commander."
"Whatever you do, Will, I will back you up, so far as I am able," was his brother's answer.
"And I will back you up, too," came from Darry. "But we must be cautious, for these desperadoes will not hesitate to shoot, and shoot to kill." And the boy shivered in spite of himself, for no matter how brave a person may be he seldom cares to run the risk of losing his life.
The prisoners had been ordered to keep to the back of the cave, but after all but the guards had retired Captain Moore made bold enough to walk carefully to the mouth of the place.
"Hi, you want to keep back there," growled one of the guards, promptly raising his rifle.
"Don't be hard on us," pleaded the captain. "Let me get a little fresh air. It's vile in the back of the cave."
"Orders were to keep you out of sight," growled the second guard.
"All right, I'll go back as soon as I've cleaned out my lungs."
While the captain was speaking he was peering around sharply, trying to locate the other desperadoes and ascertain what the chances of escape really were.
As he gazed first to one side and then the other, he caught sight of a hand waving in the air. A second later he made out the head and shoulders of old Benson, as the scout rose to his feet behind some brushwood.
The thought that the scout was at hand to assist them cheered the young officer wonderfully, and he drew a deep breath of satisfaction.
"Are you going back soon?" growled one of the guards.
"Yes," answered the captain. "But I say," he went on, "why can't we come to terms?"
"Don't want to make any terms with you," growled the other guard.
"It might be better for you to do so."
"We know our own business best, captain. You just go back as you was ordered to do. If you don't—"
"I don't feel safe in the cave, men, to tell the truth. What is that pounding overhead?"
"Don't know of any pounding. Do you, Ike?"
"Nary a bit," replied the other guard.
By this time Joe and Darry were just behind the young officer.
"Watch out," whispered Captain Moore. "Old Benson is outside, in the bushes on the left."
"Good for him!" whispered Joe joyfully.
"What are you talking about?" demanded one of the guards.
"I want to know about that pounding overhead," said Captain Moore. "I don't want the roof to cave in on us."
He spoke so decidedly that both of the guards were deceived.
"Nobody is up there," said one of the two. "It must be some wild animal."
"Can't one of you go up and look?" asked the young officer.
"You want the chance to get away," was the suspicious answer.
"How can we get away, when we are unarmed and you have that rifle," went on the captain, speaking loudly, for old Benson's benefit. "It won't take you a minute to look."
The men, however, refused to budge.
"We'll stay right here," said one, and the other nodded affirmatively.
In the meantime old Benson had crawled closer, until he was directly behind the pair.
Now of a sudden he leaped between them, and as quick as a flash caught their rifles and twisted the weapons from their grasp.
As the old scout did this, the young captain also leaped in, followed by Joe and Darry.
The guards struggled, but with four against them could do little or nothing. One, however, had a powerful pair of lungs, and before he could be stopped, set up a loud cry of alarm.
"Come with me!" cried old Benson. "Be quick, or it will be too late!"
He led the way to the wood where the horses were tethered, and the captain, Joe, and Darry came close behind him.
Hardly had they gotten away from the guards when the whole camp was in alarm.
"What's the trouble?" demanded Matt Gilroy, leaping to his feet and catching up his rifle.
"The prisoners have escaped!" answered one of the guards. "We were attacked by some men from behind. There they go!"
"Stop!" roared the leader of the desperadoes, and raised his rifle. But before he could take aim our friends were behind the shelter of the trees.
It took but a few seconds to loosen the horses, and as the captain and the two boys had long since relieved themselves of their bonds they were soon in the saddle and following the old scout, who seemed to know the way perfectly, despite the darkness.
"It was lucky you came up, Benson!" cried Joe, as they dashed along.
"Wait, we are not yet out of this trouble," answered Benson. "Hark! they are following!"
He was right. Gilroy and several of his men had rushed to their horses, and were now coming along the forest trail at a good rate of speed.
But their horses were no better than the animals our friends rode, so the desperadoes did not succeed in cutting down the distance between the two parties, and at last gave up the chase.
"It has been a most stirring adventure from start to finish," said Captain Moore after each had told his story. "And it brings to an end this outing. I must now get to the fort without delay."
"And I am perfectly willing to go along," said Darry. "There is no fun in hunting in a country where the desperadoes are so thick."
"This will open Colonel Fairfield's eyes," went on the young officer. "I shouldn't be surprised if he organized another expedition against Gilroy's gang and didn't let up on them until they were all either in prison or shot down."
"It's what they deserve," came from old Benson. "I'll go on such a hunt with pleasure."
Our friends continued in the saddle all night and until ten o'clock the next morning. Then, tired and hot, they went into camp by a cooling stream. Here they went fishing, and soon caught enough fish for dinner, after which they took a nap lasting several hours.
"And now for the fort!" cried Captain Moore; "and the sooner we get there the better."
The nap had done the boys a world of good, and as they rode along their spirits rose so high that Darry proposed a race. Joe was willing, and away they went, along the well-defined trail, before either the young officer or the old scout could stop them.
"They are full of life," said Joe's brother. "Let them go. We'll make the fort to-night, even if they do tire the horses a bit."
"It's all right if they don't get into trouble," answered Benson.
On and on went the two lads, down something of a slope and then along a level stretch. The bushes grew thick upon both sides, and here and there were numerous wild flowers. At last they reached a glade rich with green grass.
Joe was slightly ahead when he came to a sudden halt.
"Back, Darry!" he cried. "Get back behind the bushes."
"What's up?" queried his cousin, as he brought his steed to a standstill.
"Right around the cliff on our right. See, they are coming this way! Here's luck."
Joe was right; they had come most unexpectedly upon a herd of seven buffaloes. The shaggy beasts were all large and powerful-looking. They were not in the least alarmed, and came toward the boys at a slow but steady walk.