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"How many miles have we still to ride, Benson?"

"About fifty, Joe, But the last half is pretty much uphill, lad."

"Can we make the fort by to-morrow night?"

"Well, we can try," answered the old scout, who sat astride of a coal-black horse and rode slightly in advance of his two youthful companions. "It will depend somewhat on what the weather does."

"Why, do you think it is going to rain?" put in Darry Germain. "I'm sure it looks clear enough."

"Aint no telling what the weather will do in this valley," answered Sam Benson. "It may stay clear for a week, but to me the signs don't exactly p'int that way," and he shook his head gravely.

"A little rain wouldn't hurt;" said Joe Moore. "A couple of miles back the road was fearfully dusty."

"The trouble is, when it rains out here it rains." answered the old scout. "The clouds come a-tumbling over yonder mountains, and inside of half an hour you'd fancy the water was going to drown out everything."

"Then if it rains we'll have to put up somewhere," said Darry Germain.

"Aint no cabin on this trail short of Hank Leeson's place, twenty miles this side of the fort. If we can get that far I reckon we can make the fort."

"Then where will we stop to-night?" asked Darry with interest.

"At the Star Hotel—if the sky is clear," said Sam Benson, with a laugh at what he considered his little joke.

"You mean in the open, under the stars!" cried the boy; and, as the old scout nodded, he went on: "That will be nice. I've been wanting to camp out in regular trapper style ever since we left Riverton."

"So have I," put in Joe Moore. "But I don't know as I care to camp out and get soaked."

"If it rains we'll find some kind of shelter," answered Benson. "But come, let us make the most of the daylight while it lasts," and he urged his steed forward, and the two boys did the same.

The three were pursuing their way along a gap in the Rocky Mountains, where the so-called valley was broken up by tiny water-courses, walls of rock, and dense patches of forest and underbrush. It was midsummer, and the hot air was filled with the scent of green growing things. Deep in the forest the song-birds sang gayly and the wild animals had full play to come and go as they pleased, for to get at them in those vast fastnesses was next to impossible.

The party of three had left the town of Riverton four days before. They were bound for Fort Carson,—so named after Kit Carson, the celebrated scout and Indian fighter,—and Sam Benson carried messages of importance to Colonel Fairfield, the commandant at the fort.

Joe Moore and Darry Germain were cousins, and both were boys of sixteen, well built and well trained in outdoor athletic sports. Joe came from Chicago and Darry from St. Louis, and each had graduated from his local high school but a few weeks before.

It was while Darry was spending a brief vacation with his cousin Joe that a plan for visiting the fort was formed. Joe's older brother, William, was a West Point graduate and a captain at the fort, and he wrote on stating that he had received permission to have Joe visit him, and Darry could come too if he desired. Colonel Fairfield was an old friend of both families, and promised to treat the lads well should they make the trip.

"Hurrah! just the thing!" Joe had cried "Of course you'll go, Darry. We couldn't have a grander outing."

"I'll go if father and mother will let me," had been Darry's answer, and he had at once written home concerning the affair. Two weeks later the boys were off, the parents of each cautioning them to be careful, and wishing them the best of luck.

The journey westward as far as the mining-town of Riverton had occurred without special incident. They had been told to hire a guide at this point, and while looking for a man had fallen in with Sam Benson. Benson knew Captain William Moore well, and he at once promised to take the boys along with him and do the best he could by them.

"You'll want good hosses," Benson had said, and had aided them in selecting their animals and in getting together the necessary outfit. The start was made one fine morning in August, and all three of the party were in the best of spirits.

The four days in the mountains had opened the eyes of both lads. The traveling had been rather hard, yet they had enjoyed every minute of the journey. They had stopped once to do some fishing, and Benson had brought down a small mountain deer. At night they had put up at the cabins of hunters and trappers, and before retiring had listened to thrilling tales of adventures with wild beasts and with the Indians.

But now Joe was anxious to get to the fort and see his brother, from whom he had been separated for nearly two years. Darry was also anxious to reach the outpost, to meet not only his cousin William, but likewise Colonel Fairfield, who was an old friend not easily forgotten. Once at the fort the two boys felt that a vacation full of fun and pleasure would follow. Never once did they dream of the perils which awaited them in that wild region, which was not as civilized as it was to become a handful of years later.

"It seems to me it is growing hotter," remarked Darry, after riding a quarter of a mile in silence.

"It is growing hotter," answered the old scout. "And that makes me more certain than ever that a storm's at hand."

"We'll have to take what comes," said Joe.

"But I did hope we'd reach the fort by to-morrow."

On they went, around a bend of the trail and over some rough rocks, where the horses had to step with care, for fear of slipping into a gully on the left. Then they reached a patch of timber and plunged beneath the low-drooping trees. Here it was both dark and cool, and Darry breathed a long sigh of relief.

"How delicious!" he murmured. "It's almost like going into a cave. Benson, there must be lots of caves in these mountains," he went on reflectively.

"There are," answered the old scout. "I've been in a score or more."

"I should like to explore a big cave," came from Joe. "It would be a novelty to me."

"You may get the chance, lad," said Benson; "and get it soon."

"What do you mean? Are we going to ride by a cave?"

"There are a dozen or more ahead, and we may have to seek one of 'em for shelter. Do you hear that?"

Benson threw back his head to listen, and the two boys did likewise. From a great distance came the rumble of thunder, echoing and re-echoing throughout the mountains. To the westward the sun was hidden by a dense mass of black clouds which grew more ominous each instant.

"The storm is coming, sure enough," muttered Joe. "What do you propose?"

"We'll ride on a bit, lad. It won't hit us right away. Come!"

The horses were urged forward at an increased speed, and soon they passed the patch of timber and came out to where a thick fringe of brush skirted a long, high cliff. The sky was now dark on every side, and the wind was rising with a dull, humming sound.

"We'll catch it in a few minutes!" cried Benson; and hardly had he spoken when the big drops came splashing down, hitting the broad leaves in the underbrush with resounding smacks.

The old scout continued to lead, and presently he turned to the left, where the cliff, parted. Here was an opening, lined on either side with rocks and dirt, and a short distance further was the entrance to a cave of unknown depths.

"We'll stop here," said the old scout, leaping to the ground, followed by the boys. "This aint the best place in the world, but it's better than the open, in such a blow as is coming."

He was right about the blow—already the wind was rising, and hardly had the three led their horses into the cave, the entrance to which was over a dozen feet high, when there came a crashing through the timber left behind, which sent many a frail limb and sapling to the ground and carried the leaves and twigs in all directions.

"I'm glad we didn't stay in the woods!" cried Darry. "We'd be in danger of falling trees."

"And lightning too," added Joe. "Oh, my! look at that!" he continued, as a blinding flash lit up the heavens. "That must have struck somewhere."

"We'll go back a little," said old Benson. "The lightning is just as bad here as it is in the woods. Wait till I get a torch."

Pine was plentiful in that locality, and soon he had a knot which was full of pitch and which burned well when a match was applied to it. With the torch in hand, he led the way further into the cave, and the boys followed with their animals.