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CHAPTER XX

AN OFFER FROM THE ENEMY


"This is a cheerful outlook, I must say. I wonder how long it is going to last?"

The question came from Sam, after an hour had been spent in the damp and lonely cell under Red Rock ranch.

"That is a riddle to me, Sam," answered Dick. "I don't think they will let us go in a hurry. We have learned too much."

"Do you imagine they will find Tom and the others?"

"I hope not. If they do, we'll be in a pickle, for I guess it will be Tom and the others who will have to get us out of this hole."

"I wish we had a light."

"I am afraid it would do us small good. This seems to have been built for a regular prison, and I suppose the only way out is through the door, and that is securely fastened."

The two Rovers were in no cheerful frame of mind. They realized that Sack Todd was much exercised over the fact that they had discovered the secret of the ranch, and what he would do to them in consequence there was no telling.

"Perhaps we'll never get away from here alive!" cried Sam after another talk.

"Oh, I don't think he'll dare to go as far as that, Sam. He knows we have friends and that they will do all in their power to rescue us or find out what has become of us."

Another hour went by, so slowly that it seemed three. Then, of a sudden, Dick uttered an exclamation.

"I've struck a prize, Sam!"

"What is it?"

"A bit of candle."

"Humph! What good will that do, if you haven't any match?"

"But I have several matches," answered the eldest Rover, and a second later came a faint scratch, and then the bit of candle, dirty and mouse-gnawed, was lit.

It was not much of a light, but it was far better than nothing, and both boys felt light-hearted when they could see each other once more.

"Let us make another examination of the hole," suggested Dick. "Something may have slipped us before."

They went over each part of the walls with great care. On one side, a portion of the stones was set in squarely.

"This looks as if they had at one time closed some sort of a passageway here," remarked Dick. "I should like to know what is beyond."

"Can't we pick out one or two stones?"

"We can try."

The candle was set down on the stone flooring, close to the wall, and the two lads started to work without delay. In a corner of his jacket, Dick found an old jack-knife that had not been taken away from him, and this he used on the mortar. Sam had nothing but a long, rusty iron nail, so their progress was necessarily slow.

"Don't seem to be making much headway," observed Sam, after pegging away for a while. "Wish we had a hammer and a cold chisel."

"If we used a hammer they could hear us, Sam."

At last they had one stone loose and pulled it out of the wall. Holding up the light, they saw that there was a wall of plain dirt behind it.

"Beaten!" muttered the youngest Rover, and a disappointed look came over his face. "Dick, we have had our labor for our pains."

"I am not so sure of that, Sam."

"Why not, I'd like to know? That doesn't look much like a passageway."

"That is true, but we may be able to dig through the dirt without great trouble, and if this spot is close to the outer wall of the building——"

"Oh, I see," and Sam's face took on a more hopeful look. "But it might take a long time, anyway," and his face fell once more. They had just started to loosen a second stone, when the candle began to splutter. They saved it as much as they could, but in five minutes it flickered for the last time and went out, leaving them in a darkness that seemed more intense than ever.

"We might as well continue to work," said Dick as bravely as he could. "There is nothing else to do."

But, at the end of an hour, they had to give up the task. All of the stones around the hole they had made refused to budge, and, as the opening was not over eight inches in diameter, it availed them nothing.

"It is no use, Sam," said Dick finally. "We are simply wearing ourselves out for nothing. Give it up."

Both boys were exhausted, but were too much disturbed to take a good sleep. Yet, as they sat on a bench, the eyes of each closed, and he took a series of naps, arousing at every unusual sound that penetrated to the underground cell.

Overhead, everything had become unusually quiet, but toward morning came heavy footsteps, and they heard the opening and closing of an outer door.

"Somebody has come in," said Sam. "I wonder if it is the party that went to look for Tom and the others?"

"More than likely. I wish I knew if they discovered anything, or if Tom managed to keep out of sight."

Again there was silence, and once more the boys dozed off, not to rouse up until there came the unlocking of the cell door. Sack Todd stood there, lantern in hand, and beside him Andy Jimson.

"Hope you had a good night's sleep," said the owner of Red Rock ranch.

"Fine," answered Dick sarcastically. "Your feather beds can't be beat."

"And the quilts were extra warm," put in Sam, catching his cue from his brother.

"Humph! Your night here doesn't seem to have tamed you down much," growled Sack Todd.

"I said they were gamy youngsters," came frpm the long-nosed man. "They showed that when they were on the houseboat."

"I want to question you," said Sack Todd. setting down his lantern. "How many were there in your party?"

"How many did you catch?" questioned Dick, at the same time pinching his brother's arm to make Sam keep quiet.

"You answer my question, boy!" growled the owner of the ranch.

"Why don't you answer mine?"

"I am not here to answer questions."

"Who said I was, then?"

"You are a prisoner."

"You had better answer up, if you know what's good fer you," broke in Andy Jimson. "Sack doesn't stand for any nonsense."

"Tell me, how many were in your party?" repeated the owner of the ranch.

"Something less than half a hundred."

"What!" The owner of Red Rock ranch leaped to his feet, and then sat down again on a bench opposite the two Rovers. "You are fooling."

"All right; then don't question me."

"They must have organized a regular searching party," burst out the long-nosed man. "If they did, Sack, we are in for it."

"It's all talk, Andy. They couldn't get up such a party around here. Folks know better than to bother me. Besides, they know I am a good spender, and they like to help, not hinder, me," and the ranch owner winked.

"Are you boys going to tell me the plain truth, or not?" demanded Sack Todd after a pause.

"What I want to know is: what do you intend to do with us?" returned Dick.

"That will depend on yourselves, young man."

"Will you explain?" asked Sam.

"You came here entirely uninvited—you have got to take the consequences."

"That doesn't explain anything," put in Dick.

"You have learned a very important secret. If that secret was given to the world at large, it would spell ruin for me and all of my associates," went on Sack Todd.

"That is your fault, not ours."

"Bah! Don't talk like a child, Rover. Do you think I'll allow a couple of boys to ruin me? Not much!"

"Well, what do you intend to do—keep us prisoners?"

"I must see about the others first. After that, I'll make you an offer."

"What sort of an offer?" broke in Sam.

"You'll either have to join us, or take the consequences."

"Join you!" gasped Sam and Dick in a breath.

"That is what I said."

"I'll never do it!" came quickly from Dick.

"It's foolish to think of it," added Sam. "We are not criminals."

"You had better give the matter careful consideration. If you won't join us—" The ranch Owner paused.

"What?" asked both boys.

"I shouldn't like to say. One thing is certain, though: you shall never leave Red Rock ranch to expose us."

"That's the talk!" put in Andy Jimson. "You had better make up your mind to join us, just as that other young fellow did."

"You mean Dan Baxter?"

"Yes."

"Has he really joined?" questioned Dick with interest.

"To be sure he has, and he'll make a good thing out of it, too."

"In what way?"

"In what way? Can't he have all the spending money he wants? What more does a fellow need?"

"Counterfeit money, you mean?"

"What's the difference, so long as it passes?"

"Maybe you'll get caught passing it some day," said Sam.

"It is not likely. We are careful, and the money made here is very close to the real thing."

"Don't tell the kids everything," broke in Sack Todd.

At that moment there came a shrill whistle from the top of the stairs leading to the cell.

"Hullo! I'm wanted!" cried the owner of Red Rock ranch. "Come on, Andy, we'll finish this talk some other time." And he stepped to the doorway. Both were soon outside, the door was fastened as before, and off the men hurried, leaving Sam and Dick in anything but a comfortable frame of mind.