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CHAPTER XXVII


THE BURNING OF THE RANCH


Left to themselves, Tom and Dick scarcely knew what to do for the time being. What was to become of Sam they did not know, but they felt that the outlook was darker than ever.

"Dick, we must get out!" cried Tom at length "I can't stand this sort of thing."

"I can't stand it myself. But how are we going to get out? That door is like the wall, for strength."

There was more noise overhead, but presently this ceased, and all became as quiet as a tomb.

"What do you make of it, now?" came from the fun-loving Rover.

"I think they have left the ranch, Tom."

"Left—for good?"

"Perhaps. They know that James Monday will make it warm for them. That letter put them on their guard."

"What a fool I was to deliver it, Dick! I ought to be kicked for doing it. If we had only opened it and read it!"

"The others must still be on the watch."

"Yes, unless they, too, have been captured."

The boys returned to the hole in the wall and, to occupy themselves, dug away at it harder than ever. Another stone was loosened and pulled into the cell.

"We're making a little progress, anyway," sighed Tom.

"Hark! I hear something," said Dick a little later. "Listen!"

They stopped their work and both strained their ears. A curious roaring and crackling came from overhead.

"That's odd," mused Tom. "What do you make of it?"

"I am almost afraid to say, Tom."

"Afraid?"

"Yes. If it is what I think, we may be doomed," went on the eldest Rover seriously.

"Dick! What do you think it is?"

"The crackling of flames. They have set the ranch on fire."

"Would they do that—and leave us here? It is—is inhuman."

"Those men are desperate characters. Tom, and they'd stop at nothing."

They continued to listen, and soon the roaring and crackling grew plainer. Then came a dull thud as some timbers fell, and a current of air carried some smoke into the cell.

"We must get out—somehow, some way!" cried Dick. "If we don't, we'll be caught like beasts in a cage." A sudden thought struck him. "Tom, take up one of the stones."

Dick lit what was left of the candle-wick as he spoke and placed it on the bench. Then he took up the other stone.

"Now, aim for the lock of the door," he went on, "and both throw together. Ready?"

"Yes."

"One, two, three!"

Crash! Both large stones hit the door with tremendous force. The barrier was split from end to end, but still held firm.

"Again!" cried Dick, and once more the stones were hurled in mad desperation. There was another crash, and the door tottered and came away from the lock. Then Tom threw his weight against it and it burst open fully.

A rush of hot air and smoke greeted them as they leaped into the passageway. Looking up, they saw that the flooring above was already burning.

"We can't go up through the trap-door," said Dick. "We have got to find some other way out."

"Is there another way?"

"I don't know. Come."

The passageway ran in both directions. They felt their way along for ten feet, to find themselves against another wall.

"The other way!" sang out Tom. "Phew! it's getting pretty warm down here, isn't it?"

"And smoky," answered his brother, beginning to cough.

They passed the cell again and started down the passageway in the opposite direction. Twenty feet further on they reached a wooden door, bolted on the other side.

"Stumped again," muttered Tom. "Dick, what shall we do now?"

"Try to break it down. Now, then, with all your might, Tom!"

It was their only hope, and with increased energy they hurled themselves at the door, which bent and creaked. Then, at the fourth onslaught, the door flew open and they went sprawling into the underground chamber beyond.

Here the light from the blazing building could be plainly seen, and by this they made out that they were in a regular printing office. Three foot-power presses were there, also a quantity of variously colored inks and packages of odd-colored paper.

But they could waste no time in investigating. The burning-brands were dropping around them, and they leaped across the printing room to where they saw another passageway. This had a door, but the barrier stood wide open.

"In you go!" sang out Dick. "It must lead somewhere—and, anyway, we can't stay here."

They rushed into the passageway, not an instant too soon, for a second later there came another crash and the printing room was filled with sparks and bits of burning timber. Then a cloud of smoke all but choked them.

Half-blinded, and scarcely knowing what they were doing, the two Rover boys ran on and on, down the passageway. It had several crooks and turns, and more than once they brought up against some stones and dirt in anything but an agreeable fashion. But they felt that they were getting away from the fire and smoke, and that just then meant everything to them.

At last, the danger from the conflagration seemed to be passed, and they slackened their pace, and finally came to a halt. Both were out of breath.

"Whe—where does this lead to?" gasped Tom.

"That's a riddle, Tom. But I know it has taken us away from the fire, which is a blessing."

"Dick, we have had a narrow escape."

"Right you are."

"Those rascals meant to burn us up!"

"They were afraid we knew too much about their affairs."

"They ought to go to jail for this, and Dan Baxter with them."

"I wish we were out of this passageway and could find the rest of our crowd."

"We must find a way out."

This was easier said than done. They went on once more, and soon, without warning, stepped into water up to their knees.

"Back!" cried Dick, who was in advance. "We don't want to get drowned. That would be as bad as being burnt up."

"We can swim," answered Tom as he scrambled back.

"True, but I want to know where I am swimming to, don't you?"

Tom got out his waterproof match safe and found that it contained just one match. This was lit, and then he set fire to some leaves from a notebook in his pocket. By this light, they saw another turn of the passageway, leading upward.

"That must be a way out," exclaimed Tom, and started in the direction, followed by his brother.

"Now, go slow," warned Dick when they were once more in darkness, the paper having burnt itself out. "We don't want to run into any more danger, if we can avoid it."

"I am on my guard," answered Tom.

They soon found that the side passage narrowed greatly, so that they had to proceed in single file and with heads bent. They moved with their hands in front of their heads, so as to avoid a possible collision with the rocks along the way.

Presently Dick's hand came in contact with something long and straggling. He drew back, thinking he had touched a snake. But then he grew bolder and found it to be a tree root.

"That shows we are close to the surface of the ground," said he. "If the worst comes to the worst, I fancy we can dig our way upward with our hands."

"Maybe, but we don't want this roof to cave in on us, Dick. Come on."

They continued to go forward, but now the passageway was so small that they had to crawl on their hands and knees.

"This looks as if we were going to be blocked, after all," said Tom.

"Something is ahead," whispered Dick. "Be quiet!"

"What do you see?"

"There is an opening, and I can see a little light, and, what is more, I hear the sounds of voices. Maybe we have run into our enemies again!"