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CHAPTER XXII


IN A SNAKES' DEN


"Just in time, and no mistake," remarked Songbird as he surveyed the scene outside. "No use of talking, when it rains down here, it rains!"

"Well, a rainstorm isn't a picnic party," returned Tom. "I wouldn't care so much if I wasn't so anxious to hear from Sam and Dick."

"Dot is vot ve all vonts," broke in Hans.

They crouched in the back of the shelter, so that the rain might not drive down upon them. It was a steady downpour for half an hour, when it began to slacken up, and the sun looked as if it might break through the clouds once more.

"We won't be detained so long, after all!'* cried Fred.

"I am just as well satisfied," began Tom, and then gave a jump. "Boys, look there! Did you ever see anything like it?"

They looked in the direction pointed out, and each one sprang up as if he had received an electric shock, while Wags began to bark furiously. And small wonder, for directly in front of the shelter was a collection of snakes numbering at least thirty or forty. They were black, brown and green in color and from two to four feet in length. Some were lying flat, while others were curled up in various attitudes.

"Snakes!" faltered Fred. "And what a lot of them!"

"Dere ain't no choke apout dis!" gasped Hans, his eyes almost as big as saucers. "Vot shall ve do?"

"Get your pistols, boys!" came from Songbird, and he drew his weapon.

"Don't shoot!" and Tom caught the other by the arm. "If you kill one snake, the others will go for us sure. What an awful lot of them! This locality must be a regular snakes' den."

"If they come in here, we'll all be bitten, and if they are poisonous—" Fred tried to go on, but could not.

"There is no telling if they are poisonous or not," returned Tom. "One thing is sure, I don't want them to sample me," and the others said about the same.

What to do was at first a question. The snakes lay about ten feet from the front of the shelter and in a semicircle, so that the boys could not get out, excepting by stepping on the reptiles or leaping over them.

"They are coming closer!" exclaimed Fred a moment later. "It looks as if they were going to tackle us, sure!"

"I have a plan," cried Tom. "Come here, Hans, and let me boost you up."

The others understood, and while the fun-loving Rover gave the German boy a boost, Songbird did the same for Fred. The edge of the cliff of rocks was rough, and, when hoisted up, Hans and Fred were enabled to grasp at several cracks and projections. They laid hold vigorously and soon pulled themselves out of harm's way.

By this time, the snakes had wiggled several feet closer to the shelter. Evidently, it was their den and, while they wished to get in, they did not know exactly what to do about the intruders.

"Can you get a hold?" questioned Songbird as he stood on a flat rock and raised himself into the air a distance of two feet.

Tom was already trying to do so, and soon he was crawling up the edge of the cliff. As the rocks were slippery from the rain, it was by no means an easy or sure task. But he advanced with care, and soon joined Fred and Hans at the top.

"I am glad we are out of that!" exclaimed Fred. "Ugh! how I do hate snakes!"

"I think everybody does," returned Tom. "Hi, Songbird!" he called out "Coming?"

"I—I guess I am stuck!" was the gasped-out answer. "The rocks are too slippery for me."

"We'll give you a hand up," sang out the fun-loving Rover, and got down at the edge of the rocks.

"Look out that you don't slip over," came in a warning from Fred.

"Of you go ofer, you land dem snakes your head on," put in Hans.

The words had scarcely been uttered, when there came a wild shriek from Songbird. The poetic youth had lost his hold and slipped to the ground below. He came down directly on top of three of the snakes, and with an angry hissing they whipped around him.

"Songbird has fallen on the snakes!"

"Run for your life!" sang out Tom. "There goes Wags!"

And Songbird did run the moment he could regain his feet. One snake got tangled up in the boy's legs and was carried along, whipping one way and another. But it soon lost its hold and then wiggled through the grass to rejoin its fellows. In the meantime, the dog had disappeared.

"Are you safe?" called out those at the top of the cliff.

"I—I guess so," came in a panting answer. "But two of them did did their be-best to bite me!"

"Bring the horses around while you are about it," said Tom, and then the three on the cliff walked around to rejoin Songbird. When they reached him, they found the poetic youth trembling from head to foot.

"Never had such an experience in all my life," said he. "Why, I came down almost headfirst on those snakes! I never want such a thing to happen again."

"I've got no use for snakes," said Tom. "I don't know what they are good for, excepting to scare folks."

"I believe they rid the land of many insects."

"Say, Songbird, I tole you vot," put in Hans, with a twinkle in his eye now that the danger was past. "You vos make a nice poem up apout dem snakes, hey?"

"A poem on snakes?" shivered Songbird. "Ugh! the idea is enough to give one the creeps!"

The rain had now ceased completely, and soon they were leading their horses forward as before. It was very wet in the brushwood and, as far as possible, they kept to the open spaces. The outlook look was certainly a dismal one, and the boys felt in anything but a good humor.

"Our little trip to Mr. Denton's ranch isn't panning out so beautifully, after all," remarked Fred. "I thought we were going to have the nicest kind of an outing. All told, I rather think I would prefer to be back on the houseboat."

Presently they came out on a road in the rear of Red Rock ranch. There was a ditch to cross, and then a line of thorns, which gave all more than one scratch.

Suddenly they were startled by a shot, fired at a distance. Another shot soon followed.

"What does that mean?" cried Fred. "Where's the dog?"

"Perhaps Sam and Dick are trying to escape," returned Songbird.

"I hope nobody is shooting them," put in Tom, "I must say," he added, "I don't like this at all. The dog is gone."

"Hadn't we better place the horses in the woods and investigate?"

"No, we'll take the horses along, and if there is trouble, we'll use our pistols," answered Tom firmly.

They advanced with caution, and soon came to where the road made a turn westward. Tom uttered an exclamation of surprise, and not without good reason.

"Man—on the road—flat on his face!"

"Is he a spy?"

"Is he dead?"

"I don't know," answered Tom. "Go slow—we may be running into a trap."

They advanced with caution. Not another soul seemed to be in sight, and presently they stood over the man. He was breathing heavily.

"Looks like a planter," observed Fred, noticing the apparel the stranger wore. "What's the matter with him?"

"Perhaps he was shot. Let us turn him over."

This they proceeded to do, and then, without warning, the man sat up and rubbed his eyes. His wig and beard fell off, and to Tom's astonishment there was revealed James Monday, the government detective.

"Mr. Monday!" cried the boy. "How in the world did you get here?"

"Wha—who are you?" stammered the man. "Wha—what hit me?"

"I don't know what hit you. I am Tom Rover. Don't you remember me?"

The government official looked perplexed for a moment, and then his face brightened.

"To be sure I remember you, Rover," he stammered. "But I am all in a twist." He brushed his hand over his face. "I thought I was down and out, as the saying goes."

"Did you fire those shots?"

"I fired one shot. The other was fired by a man who ran away. I believe the villain wanted to take my life. The bullet struck a rock and then struck and stunned me, and I keeled over."

"And the man ran away?"

"I suppose so. You didn't see him, did you?"

"No."

"Where are you bound?" went on the government official curiously.

"We are looking for my two brothers, Sam and Dick. They went over to the ranch yonder, and we have heard that they are being held prisoners."