Chapter VI THE CAVERN

Jack Van Ryder of two saddled horses on a trail

THE rolling drivers of the engine slowed as the train pulled to a, stop at the little station of Pantano. The engineer leaned far out of his cab to see the cause of the unexpected stop signal and the fireman standing in the gangway also sought the answer to the red light in the tower instead of the expected green. Far to the rear a twinkling lantern indicated that the conductor and the brakeman were equally curious. Pantano, a little way-station, was dark and silent in the drizzling rain of the desert night.

From the brush beside the track three masked men ran toward the engine and the express car behind it. A shot and a hasty "Hands up !" drove the engine crew back into their cab as they gazed into the muzzle of a pistol.

At the express car one of the bandits broke the rear coupling and on his shouted signal the bandit in the cab ordered the engineer downward. The locomotive and express car moved off, leaving the coaches with their curious passengers and frantic crew in the rain.

A second stop was soon ordered. While the robber in the cab held the engine crew helpless his companions forced an entry to the express car. As they broke into the car the messenger fired twice, then fell wounded as the masked men went into action. No word was spoken as they sorted out sacks of registered mail, crammed some express money into saddlebags and dropped off into the dark. Joined by their companion from the engine, they dashed to waiting horses and fled down a rocky twisted trail toward the Rincon Mountains.

Soon the twinkling lights along the right-of-way told of the reconnected train speeding toward Tucson and the law.

The leader of the bandits twisted in his saddle, waved an exultant hand and laughed. It had been a fast, smooth job.

"Hey, Bronc, slow up. I'm bleeding pretty bad," called the smallest of the thieves as the leader kept the swift pace at which they had ridden away from the tracks.

"Hang on and rattle, Shorty," replied the leader. "We'll be at the cave soon where we can take care of you." Turning to the third member of the band he added, "Pecos give him a hand. Take that sack on your horse."

"Let him tote his own pack," said Pecos. "I've already got all I can hang on to. Why don't you give him a hand yourself? You're riding light."

"Do as you're told. I'm running this show," said the leader, pulling his horse alongside that of Pecos.

Pecos took the sack from the wounded man as he had been ordered to do and grumbling to himself followed along the crooked trail, his head bent to keep the rain from his face.

At last the long ride ended and the leader turned nto the yard of a small ranch, dodged outbuildings with the assurance of knowledge, and swung down at the entrance of a pole corral. He turned his weary horse in, then helped Shorty from the saddle. Pecos followed. The three horses, saddles removed, stood head down in the corral as the men who were packing the mail-bags turned away into the brush. No sound had come from the ranch-house.

"Bronc, are you sure the Indian knew what he was talking about in this cave business?" Shorty asked as he painfully made his way after the leader.

"Sure. Don't worry about that Indian. Those Apaches have been dodging white folks in that cave for more years than white folks can remember," the leader told him. "How're you making out, Kid?" he added after a pause. "Hurt much?"

"I can make it," Shorty assured him.

Pecos, stumbling along in the rear, said nothing. Soon the low dark entrance of a cave loomed before them.

Inside the cave all was still. Soft dust muffled the bandits' footsteps while the staccato pattern of the rain was lost outside the entrance. The panting breath of the wounded man and the rustling of the mail-sacks as Pecos set down his load were the only sounds. Bronc, the leader, felt about in the dark, then struck a match and lighted a smoky globed lantern.

The first flare of the match brought a swooping, hissing rush which drew a startled curse from Pecos. Hundreds of bats, disturbed by the light and the alien sounds, dropped from the ceiling of the vaulted cavern and swung in circles over their heads. Bronc laughed and led the way deep into the cavern, which despite its small entrance opened up into huge gallery-like rooms connected by narrow passages. Stalactites hung from the domed roof; large ivory-colored stalagmites loomed in the lantern light as Bronc worked his way deep into the mountain's heart.

Shorty, stumbling along with part of the loot from the express car, finally fell.

"I can't make it, Bronc," he said. "I'm drained dry. Hell, I've got more blood in my boots than I have in my hide."

Bronc put the lantern down beside the wounded man. He pulled open the bloodsoaked shirt and his dark face twisted into a grimace as he saw the wound high in the other's chest. Blood oozed from it in little surges as the man breathed.

"See, it's no use," said Shorty. "I'm checking out."

Pecos spoke. "Leave him here and come on," he said to Bronc. "We can't carry him with us. The sheriff'll find him and take him in anyway. There's no use in all of us getting caught."

"Better do it, Bronc," advised the wounded man. "Old Leatherwood's hell on cutting sign and he's the only sheriff that don't fool easy. Leave me some water and go on."

Bronc refused but the decision was soon taken out of his hands. Shorty died.

With Pecos helping in surly fashion Bronc buried him beside the wall of the cave. Then in the flickering lantern light the two survivors slit the mail-bags open and went through the contents sorting and discarding. When they had finished they went on again with Bronc leading the way. Dust, undisturbed for years, swirled beneath their feet.

Hours afterward while they were taking a short rest Pecos slowly edged his hand toward his gun. It was partly drawn when Bronc, turning and seeing the action, himself drew and fired. The two pistols cracked almost as one and Bronc slowly slumped forward.

"I knew you was a coyote," he said to Pecos. "But now you've made your last mistake. You got me all right but you'll never leave this cave alive. Without me you don't know the way through and you can't find your way back. This way of going is easier than the way you're going to die. You'll never get out."

And Pecos never did.

Jack Van Ryder drawing of yucca

Chapter VII IN THE LINE OF DUTY