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The two boys had expected to find the large cave damp and unwholesome, and they were surprised when they learned how dry the flooring and the sides were, and how pure the air was. There was no breeze in the place, but a gentle draught kept the air stirring. Of course the atmosphere was much cooler than it had been outside.

Hardly had the travelers gained the center of the first chamber of the cave, when the storm outside burst in all its fury. The lightning and thunder were almost incessant, and the rain came down in broad sheets which completely obliterated the landscape.

"It's little short of a flood," said Darry, after having gone to the mouth of the cave to investigate. The water is already two or three inches deep on the trail."

"Well, such a downpour can't last long," returned Joe. "It's only a shower, or a cloud burst."

"No, it's a regular rain, and it's good for all night," answered the old scout.

"All night!"

"Yes, lad, and we'll be lucky if it don't last through the morning, too. It don't rain very often out here, you see, but when it does it tries to make up for lost time."

"Then we'll have to camp right here, won't we?"

"To be sure. Even if it did let up, you wouldn't want to camp in the wet timber."

"Then we might as well start up a fire," came from Darry, in something of a disappointed tone. "I was hoping we'd be able to camp under the stars just once before we got to the fort."

"Perhaps you'll get a chance to go out after you're at the fort," said the old scout, by way of comfort. "Yes, we'll start a fire, if we can find any dry wood."

The horses were tied up between some rocks, and then the three searched around. At the entrance to the cave was a mass of brush and tree limbs which previous storms had sent in that direction, and from this they gathered enough for a good-sized fire. It did not take long for the brush to blaze up, sending the sparks to the roof of the cave and throwing fantastic shadows all about them.

"I declare, the fire makes the cave look quite home-like!" was Joe's comment, as he threw himself down on a flat rock with his blanket under him. "Staying here won't be so humdrum as I anticipated."

"I'm going to explore the cave, now I am here," returned Darry. "Who knows but what I might locate a gold mine!"

"You be careful of where you go," cautioned old Benson. "These caves are full of pitfalls, and now you two boys are with me I don't want anything to happen to you. If something did happen, neither Captain Moore nor Colonel Fairfield would forgive me."

"To be sure we'll be careful, Benson," answered Darry. "There'd be no fun in getting hurt—even if we did locate a gold mine."

"You won't find any gold mine here. This ground was prospected years ago—before even the fort was located. I came out here once myself, with a miner named Hooker Brown. Hooker was dead certain there was gold here, but although we stayed here about two weeks nosing around we never got even a smell of the yellow metal."

"Well, we'll have a look around, anyway," said Joe. "But we must get good torches first."

Pine knots were procured and lit; and, with another caution from the scout to be careful, they set off, leaving Benson to care for the horses and prepare such an evening meal as their stores afforded. Luckily the scout had brought down half a dozen good-sized birds, and these he now prepared to broil in true hunter style.

The front chamber of the cave was somewhat semi-circular, and behind this were several other irregular apartments, running down to a passageway which wound in and out between jagged rocks almost impossible to climb or explore in any manner. At a distance could be heard the trickling of water, but where this came from, or where it went to, nobody in the cave could imagine.

The boys advanced from one opening to another with care, one with his torch held high, that they might see ahead, and the other with the light close to the ground, to warn them of a possible pitfall.

"A regiment of soldiers could quarter in here," observed Darry, as they pushed on. "What a defense it would make!"

"An enemy could fire right into the entrance. And, besides, supposing the enemy started to smoke you out? I can smell the smoke from the camp-fire away back here."

At last the two boys reached the passageway back of the rear chamber, and here came to a halt. The dropping water could be plainly heard, and Joe flashed his torch in several directions in the hope of catching sight of the stream.

"I'm going to climb the rocks," he said, after a pause. "Perhaps there is another opening behind them."

"Remember what Benson said, and be careful," cautioned his cousin. "There is no use in taking a risk for nothing."

"Yes, I'll be careful," answered Joe, and crawled forward with care. Darry held his torch as high up as possible, to light the way.

The youth had advanced a distance of fifty feet when he came to a turn in the passageway. Here the side walls were not over two yards apart, while the roof could be touched with ease.

Thinking the walking better at this point, Joe struck out once more. The flare from his torch showed him something of a chamber ahead, and the water sounded closer than ever.

But hardly had the lad taken a dozen steps when the smooth rock upon which he was advancing tilted up, sending him headlong. As he went down the torch was knocked from his hand. Then he slid forward into the darkness.

"Help!" he managed to cry. "Help!"

"What's up?" came from Darry, but the words were drowned out in the crashing of one stone against another. In the meantime Joe had fallen, he knew not whither. He landed on some soft ground, turned over and slid along, and then took a second drop. A stone fell beside him and pinned his jacket to the ground.

For the moment the lad was too dazed and bewildered to do anything but try to get back his breath. Then, as it gradually dawned upon him that he was not hurt in the least, he endeavored to arise.

"Fast!" he muttered, and tore his jacket away from under the rock. Then he turned about, trying to locate his torch. But that was missing, and all was dark around him.

"I'm in a pickle now," he thought. "I wish I had taken old Benson's advice and remained around the camp-fire. But who would have imagined that big rock would play a fellow such a trick? How in the world am I to get back again?"

From a great distance he could hear Darry shouting to him. He tried to answer his cousin, but whether or not his voice was heard he could not tell.

With his hands before him, he moved around, and scarcely had he taken a dozen steps when he slid down a rocky incline. Here there was water; and he shivered, thinking he might be dropping into an underground stream from which there would be no escape. But when a pool was gained it proved to be but several inches deep.

As Joe stood in the pool there came a sudden rumble of thunder to his ears. He listened, and by the sounds became convinced that an opening into the outer air could not be a great way off. Then came an unexpected flash of reflected light on the rocks by his side.

"Hurrah, that light came from outside!" he cried. "I'm not buried alive, after all. But I may be a good way from daylight yet."

He had some matches in his box, and lighting one of these he discovered a passageway below him, running off to his left. Further on he picked up a bit of dry wood and lit this. It made rather a poor torch, but proved better than nothing.

"Now to get out, and then to find my way back to where I left old Benson," was his mental resolve.

With extreme caution he stole forward to where the lightning revealed a distant opening. He did not leave one foothold until he was sure of the next, for he had no desire to experiment with another moving rock.

The thunder now reached his ears plainly, and the lightning at times made the front of the cave as bright as day.

"It's quite another place," was his thought. "That dangerous passage connects the two."

Suddenly, as Joe was advancing, he heard a clatter of horses hoofs, and into the cave ahead rode three rough-looking men, all armed with rifles and pistols and each carrying small saddle bags across his steed.

At first Joe thought to call out to the newcomers, but he checked himself, for their appearance was decidedly against them.

"I'll try to find out something about them first," he muttered. "Perhaps they belong to that gang of bad men Benson was telling us about yesterday." And then, as the three came to a halt in the center of the outer cave and dismounted, he crept closer, in the shadow of some sharp rocks, to overhear what they might have to say.