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CHAPTER III.


AN IMPORTANT CONVERSATION.


"Who ever saw such a downpour before?" growled one of the three men, as he switched the water from his soft felt hat. "I'm wet to the skin."

"I'm no better off," replied one of the others. "I think we were fools to leave Macklin's place, Gilroy."

"Just what I think, Fetter," said the third man. "We could have waited as well as not."

"Yes, we could have waited, Potts," answered Matt Gilroy; "but, to tell the truth, I don't want to trust Macklin too far. He might play us foul."

"He wouldn't dare to do that," returned Gus Fetter.

"Why not—if he thought he would get a reward?" came from Nat Potts, the youngest of the trio. "One thing is certain, Macklin is crazy to make money."

"I know a thing or two of Macklin's past— that's why," went on Gus Fetter. "If he got us into trouble I wouldn't keep silent about him, and he knows it."

"Macklin is slippery, no two ways about it," said Matt Gilroy, as he took off his jacket and wrung the water out. I am not inclined to trust him, and that is all there is to it."

"Did he ever belong to the old gang?" questioned Nat Potts. "Some say he did, and some say he didn't."

"He was a hanger-on, that's all," came from Matt Gilroy. "He was always afraid to take the chances of being shot, but was on hand when the spoils were divided. They used him as a messenger and a spy, but I don't believe he ever really helped to hold up a coach."

"Humph, then it's a wonder the old crowd had anything to do with him!"

"Oh, they had to have messengers and spies, and they never gave Macklin more than was coming to him, you can bet on that! I understand that when the Riverton coach was held up six years ago, and the gang got twenty-two thousand dollars, they gave Macklin five hundred, and he was glad to get that."

"That was a big haul!" cried Nat Potts enthusiastically. "I wish I had been in it."

"The gang was followed for two days—by the soldiers under Colonel Fairfield," went on Matt Gilroy, as he threw himself on the rocks, leaving his companions to start up a fire. "They had a hot time of it over to Bear Pass, I can tell you. Two men were shot, and one of them, Dan Hickey, my old chum, died from his wounds. They say Colonel Fairfield himself fired the shot that took poor Hickey in the head, and if that's so—well, I've got an account to square with the colonel, that's all."

"You can square that after we've had our little interview with the quartermaster," returned Gus Fetter with a hard laugh.

"That's right—we'll be sure to have the soldiers after us," put in Nat Potts. "They'll be doubly mad when they learn that the hold-up resulted in the emptying of the box with their wages."

"It will be a good haul if it goes through, boys. The quartermaster will be carrying not less than twelve thousand dollars of the government's money besides his other stuff," returned Matt Gilroy.

Here the conversation came to a temporary end, for Nat Potts had produced a black flask, from which each of the men took a deep draught. Then Potts and Fetter started in to build a roaring fire at which all might dry their clothing, leaving Gilroy, the leader of the crowd, to do as he pleased.

Joe had listened to the talk with mingled interest and horror. It did not take him long to realize the truth—that these men were thoroughly bad, and that they had been mixed up in road robberies of the past and were contemplating another robbery some time in the future.

"They mean to rob the quartermaster of the fort, when he is bringing in the soldiers wages from Rockspur," he thought. "And that leader is going to shoot down the colonel if he can. Who would imagine men could be so bad! And that leader seems to be educated, too!"

Joe would have been very much surprised had he known the truth, which was that Matt Gilroy, often called The Shadow, was a college-bred man, having passed through one of the leading institutes of learning of the Pacific coast. But, following this college career, Gilroy had forged checks and committed a burglary, in company with an old chum named Hickey, and then the two had left Sacramento "between two days." Hickey had immediately joined the "knights of the road" and been shot down, as previously mentioned. Gilroy had drifted first to the Mississippi and then to Denver, and had not gone into the mountains until later. Now he was at the head of a desperate gang, numbering ten or a dozen, who had already committed several "hold-ups" of importance.

Soon the fire was burning brightly, and the three men took off part of their wearing apparel, that the articles might dry. They had brought some food with them, and as they sat eating and drinking they continued to discuss their plans. Nat Potts, who was not over nineteen or twenty, was evidently something of a new member, and asked many questions regarding the organization, and as he took in what was told him, so did Joe, listening with "all ears," as the saying goes.

"They must be as bad a crowd as can be found anywhere," thought the youth. "I wonder what they would do with me, if they found out I had been listening to their talk? Perhaps they'd kill me on the spot." And he gave a shiver.

The thunder and lightning had gradually abated, but with the coming of night the rain continued as steadily as ever. Fortunately for the desperadoes, however, the rocks sloped away from the entrance to the cave, so that no water came inside, while the fire made everybody quite comfortable.

Hardly knowing what to do, Joe continued behind the rocks, taking care to remain in the shadow. More than once he was afraid one or another of the men would start to investigate the surroundings and that he would be discovered.

"I wish they would go to sleep," he said to himself. "Then I might get a chance to slip past them and their horses."

With great impatience he watched the men finish up their supper, get out their pipes, and fall to smoking. In the meantime the horses had been led to the opposite side of the cave and fastened to the rocks.

As Joe waited for a chance to get away he wondered what Darry and old Benson were doing. More than likely they were looking for him. But were they in that other cave, at the narrow passageway, or did the old scout know of this second cave and the secret entrance to it?

"If Benson leads the way around to here there may be trouble," he mused. "It would be better if I could get out and head him off. But if I do get out, how shall I turn to find the trail we were pursuing? In this darkness a fellow couldn't see his hand before his face."

At last Fetter threw himself down on a blanket to rest, leaving Gilroy and Potts still conversing earnestly by the fire. The two desperadoes talked in a low tone, so that Joe now caught but little of what was said.

The backs of both men were turned toward the side of the cave where Joe was in hiding; and, plucking up courage, the youth started forward on tiptoe, bent upon getting out of the cave before the men should make some move which would expose him.

Step by step he advanced, until he reached a point where he was within a dozen feet of Gilroy and almost as close to Potts. He hardly dared to breathe, and his heart thumped madly beneath his jacket. But the men continued to smoke and talk, unconscious of his proximity.

At the entrance to the cave the rocks were somewhat rough and the mist had made them slippery. Joe was crawling forward rapidly, when one foot slipped, and he pitched headlong, making considerable noise.

"What was that?" cried Matt Gilroy, and leaped to his feet. He had been gazing into the fire, and for the moment could make out little in the darkness.

"I don't know," returned Nat Potts. "Something moving around out there, I think." And the younger man reached for his pistol, which still remained in his belt.

As rapidly as he could Joe sprang to his feet. A good bit of his wind had been knocked out of him, but he felt that he must not delay, and he ran for the outer air gasping for breath.

"Hi! stop!" roared Matt Gilroy, catching sight of him at last. "Stop, I tell you!"

"A boy!" ejaculated Nat Potts. "He must have been hiding in here!"

"If he was he overheard too much," growled Gilroy. "Come, we must catch him by all means," and he ran after Joe, with Potts following.