IN THE MESA DWELLERS' BURIAL GROUND.
Down, down, they plunged, bumping and scraping painfully in the darkness. Terror had deprived them of speech or the power of uttering a sound, or they would have shouted. As it was, however, when they finally landed in a heap on some hard surface at the foot of the steep declivity down which they had fallen, it was some seconds before any of them breathed a word. Then it was Jack who spoke.
"Yes, Jack." The rejoinder came out of the darkness in Walt Phelps' voice.
"Ralph, are you there?"
"No; I'm dead. That is, I feel as if every bone in my body had been broken. What in the name of Old Nick has happened?"
"Thank goodness there are no bones broken," breathed Jack thankfully, as Ralph spoke, "as to what happened, you can take your own guess on it. My idea is that there was some sort of hinged trap-door at the bottom of that altar, and that when our combined weight came upon it at the time I pulled Ralph down, the blamed old thing tipped and dumped us down in here."
"That's my idea, too," chimed in Walt. "Can't account for it in any other way. But what is 'here'? Where are we?"
"You can answer that as well as I can," was the rejoinder. "Anybody got a match? Oh, here; all right, I've got some, plenty in fact—a whole pocketful."
Jack struck a lucifer, and as its yellow glare lit up their surroundings, they could not repress a cry of astonishment. They had landed at the foot of a steep flight of stairs, at the summit of which they correctly surmised was the trap-door through which they had been so startlingly dumped.
"Good gracious, did we fall down all those?" murmured Ralph, rubbing his elbow painfully.
"Guess so. I know I feel as if I'd been monkeying with a buzz-saw," same [Transcriber's note: came?] from Walt Phelps.
"Well, fellows," said Jack, as the light died out, "the question now before us is, what are we going to do?"
"Try to get out again," said the practical Walt Phelps.
"All right, Walt. Then we'd better remount those steps—slower than we came down them—and try to reopen that trap-door. We can't leave Pete and the injured professor like this."
The boys clambered up the steps without difficulty. They were deep and shallow, and were cut out of the living rock. At the head of the stairs, however, a disappointment awaited them. Try as they would, they could not discover any means of reopening the stone trap-door in the floor of the hollow altar. Apparently, after dumping them through, it had closed as hermetically as before.
The flickering light of the matches from Jack's store illuminated looks of despair on their faces as they realized that they were trapped.
"Try pounding on it and shouting," suggested Ralph.
Although Jack deemed it of little use, he and Walt followed this suggestion, and together the three boys beat and hammered on the massive stone above them till their hands were raw. There was no response, however. Apparently the stone was too thick for a sound to penetrate to the outer air. Terror, that was almost panic, seized Walt and Ralph, as they realized that they were prisoners in this hermetically sealed dungeon. Worse than prisoners, in fact. Prisoners had food and at least hope. They, unless they could find a way out, were buried alive. Even Jack's stout heart experienced a deadly feeling of depression, as he realized this. He concealed his despair from his companions, however, and, with all the cheerfulness he could muster, addressed them in the darkness. Matches had now grown too precious to squander.
"Well, fellows, we've got to find another way out."
"Oh, it's no good," moaned Ralph despairingly, "we're doomed to die here. We might as well sit down and wait for death to come."
"Say," cut in Jack briskly, "if it was light enough to see, I'd give you a good licking. Doomed to die, indeed! Not much. It's a cinch, isn't it, that if there is an entrance to this place there must be an outlet, too? Very well, then," he hurried on, without waiting for an answer, "let's find that outlet."
The logic of this speech might be questioned, but of its good sense, under the circumstances, there was no doubt.
"You're right, Jack," said Ralph. "I'm ashamed of myself for doing the baby act. Come on, let's set out at once."
"That's the talk," said Walt heartily; "if there's a way out, we'll find it."
"And if not?" asked Ralph, his spirits flagging again.
"We'll discuss that later," declared Jack briskly.
Returning again to the landing—if such it might be called—upon which they had terminated their abrupt descent into the interior of the mesa, some more of the precious matches were lit. As the last flickered out, the boys fancied that some feet from them they could see a black mouth, like the entrance of a tunnel, or rather a continuation of the one into which they had been thrown.
"Come on, boys," exclaimed Jack. "It's the only thing to do. We can't turn back, and, as Pete says, 'there ain't nothing to do but go ahead.'"
Not without some misgivings did the three lads plunge forward in the darkness, feeling their way with outstretched hands as they entered the tunnel. A close, musty smell, as of things long mildewed and moulded, filled the air, and an oppressive silence lay on everything. Unconsciously, since entering this place, their conversation had been all in whispers.
The tunnel they were now traversing was bored on a pretty steep down grade. So steep, in fact, that Jack concluded, after about a quarter of an hour of slow and cautious traveling, that they must be below the level of the desert. For the last few minutes they had been conscious of a peculiar thing. This was that the silence of the tunnel had given place to a deep-throated roaring, not unlike the voice of a blast furnace. Where it came from, or what it was, they had no idea. It was a most peculiar sound, though, steady as a trade-wind, and seeming to fill the whole place with its deep vibrations.
"What can it be?" gasped Walt, as they paused by common consent to listen.
"Maybe the wind roaring by the entrance to this place," suggested Jack hopefully.
This thought gave them new courage, and, on Ralph's suggestion, Jack struck another match from his store. As it flared up, they all three recoiled with expressions of dismay.
At their very feet—so close that the tips of their boots almost projected over it—was a deep chasm. The black profundity of it loomed in front of them gapingly. A few paces more, and they would have been precipitated into the abyss. Jack, suppressing a shudder, leaned forward and held the match as far over the edge as he dared. As the depths of the great crevasse were illuminated by a feeble flame, he shrank back with a sharp intake of his breath.
The place was a charnel house!
No mystery now as to what had become of the human remains of the grisly sacrifices of the ancient mesa dwellers. There, piled in that dark chasm beneath them, were great piles of decaying bones and gleaming skulls. Hundreds of them extended toward the surface in a ghastly pyramid. No wonder the underground place into which they had penetrated smelled musty and unpleasant.
"It is the mesa dwellers' burial ground!" exclaimed Ralph in a quavering voice, as, clinging to Jack's arm, he bent forward.
"Yes," rejoined Walt with a shudder, "and but for Providence, we should have plunged downward into it ourselves."
"Ugh!" exclaimed Jack, in a voice filled with repulsion. "Don't let's think of it. See, the path takes a turn here. Come on, let's go ahead, but follow me closely and keep in to the wall."
"Not likely to take any chances of missing the road, after seeing that," spoke up Walt, as once more the three youths, who had been so strangely plunged into this predicament, began to tread the subterranean regions once more.
As you may imagine, they went with due caution. But no more dangers menaced them, and as they progressed the path began to widen. All the time, however, the strange roaring sound had been growing louder, until now it had attained almost deafening proportions. Still they had come upon no explanation of what it could be. Jack had privately concluded it to be the sound of the wind, forcing its way into some crevice. This theory seemed to be the more tenable as the last match which he had struck had only been kept alight with difficulty, so strong had been the draught that now puffed up toward them.
Far from alarming them, however, this gave them renewed hope. It meant that, in all probability, they were nearing an outlet of the strange underground place. Had it not been for the predicament in which they had left the professor and Coyote Pete, the three lads would have felt a real interest in exploring the cavern, now that they had grown accustomed to their surroundings. So far as they had been able to make out, the tunnel they had been treading was partially the work of human hands and partially the work of Nature. The great rift in which lay the accumulation of human remains was evidently the result of some volcanic upheaval. The path, however, was so graded and formed that there seemed no reason to doubt that it had, at one time, been made by the ancient mesa dwellers.
"Seems to me we ought to find out what that roaring sound means before we go any farther," suggested Ralph suddenly.
"That's a fine Irish bull," laughed Jack. "How are we going to find what it is unless we do go farther?"
"That's so," agreed Ralph, somewhat abashed. "Come on, then."
A few paces more brought them to an abrupt turn in the path, as they could feel by their constant touching of the inner wall.
"Better strike another match," said Walt.
"Yes; here goes," agreed Jack. Both boys shouted, to make themselves heard above the now thunderous roaring of the strange noise.
A shout of surprise that rose even above the mysterious roaring, followed the striking of the match. Beyond the turn the path took a steep drop downward, and beyond that—the boys could hardly believe their eyes as they gazed—was the glint of rushing water.
"The subterranean river!" was the amazed cry that broke from the lips of all three.
A NEW MEXICAN STYX.
"The subterranean river!"
The words echoed back weirdly from the vault-like chamber into which they had now penetrated, and at the bottom of which the stream, upon which the light of the match had glistened, flowed rapidly. Within this spacious place the noise was not nearly so loud as it had been when confined in the narrow tunnel, which, in fact, acted much as a speaking-tube would have done.
"It can't be!" gasped Ralph, unwilling to believe his own eyes.
"But it is," cried Jack, as, all thoughts of their predicament forgotten in this strange discovery, they made lavish use of their matches on gaining the edge of the stream. The river was about twenty feet in width, and they speedily saw that the roaring sound they had heard during their progress through the tunnel was produced by a waterfall some distance above, over which the river plunged into a sort of basin at their feet.
But this was not the most astonishing thing they found in that first brief but comprehensive inspection. Affixed to the rocky wall at one side of the chamber was a large, bronze lamp. An eager overhauling of the utensil showed it to be filled with oil, and apparently it was not so very long since it had been lighted.
Hastily applying a match, Jack soon had the rocky chamber lighted, and they could now survey the place into which they had blundered, at their ease. In size it was about the same dimensions as the Council Hall of the mesa, which lay, they knew not how many feet, above them. The river roared down along one side of it, forming a deep, turbid pool just beneath the waterfall, by which it entered the place.
To their astonishment, the boys now spied in one corner of the chamber several empty boxes piled up. Remains of excelsior and sacking were within them, and they bore the stencilled marks, "Agricultural Machinery, With Care."
Instantly what Pete had related to him concerning the conversation of the men accompanying Black Ramon flashed into Jack's mind. Could it be possible that they had stumbled upon the place utilized by the gun-runners to convey their ammunition across the border? At this instant, there came a shout from Ralph, who had been peering about the place.
"A what?" The incredulous cry burst from both Jack and Walt.
"It is a kind of a boat, anyhow. Come here, and look for yourselves."
Ralph was bending over the rocky marge of the subterranean river at a part of the chamber farthest removed from the waterfall. The water here flowed comparatively slowly, most of its force having been expended in the pool beneath the fall. Sure enough, Ralph had been right. Moored to the bank by two stout ropes attached to iron bars driven into the rock, was a boat—if such a name can be given to the flat-bottomed, floating appliance, upon which the thunderstruck boys gazed.
The boat, or rather float, was about twenty feet in length and some five feet in beam. It was not unlike, in fact, one of those shallow craft used by duck hunters, only it was square at each end. Evidently it would hold a considerable quantity of freight. More excelsior and burlap litter in the bottom of it showed that whatever had been the contents of the boxes, it had apparently been used to transport them.
"Boys, we've tumbled over the discovery of the age!" exclaimed Jack, in what was for him, a strangely excited voice.
The others were not less moved. Their eyes were round and their jaws dropped in incredulous wonderment, as they gazed before them.
"Will somebody please pinch me?"
It was Ralph who spoke, turning a countenance solemn and startled upon his comrades.
"No need to do that, Ralph. You're wide-awake; make no mistake about that."
"But—but I don't understand," began Walt in a puzzled tone. "What is this place, what——"
"What is it?" echoed Jack. "It's the gun-runners' underground railroad. Can't you see it? This river, so the old Indian legend says, emerges across the border. In some way these Mexicans heard of it, and learned the secret of the hollow altar. No wonder the government has not been able to find out how the rebels got their arms across the border."
"Well, what are we going to do, now we've found it?"
Walt, the practical, propounded the query, as they stood there, half-stunned by the rapidity with which unheard-of events had happened within the last half-hour.
"Why, I—upon my word, I don't know," laughed Jack, brought up with a round turn by the hard-headed Walt.
"I do," rejoined Walt.
"Escape to the open air."
"You mean it?" Somehow, in his excitement, Jack had not gone as far as this daring suggestion. And yet it was, after all, the only thing to do. But suddenly another thought occurred to the boy.
"The professor and Coyote Pete, how can we leave them?"
"Well, we can't do them any good by remaining buried here, that's certain," replied Walt, in his sensible way.
Jack and Ralph nodded agreement.
"On the other hand, if this river really leads out into Mexico, we can take the subway to freedom and then, when we emerge, find out the best thing to do. Maybe we can fall in with some government troops or authorities of some kind."
"But suppose the insurrectos are in power wherever this river comes out?"
The question came from Ralph.
"We'll have to take chances on that, I suppose."
"Hark!" came suddenly from Jack.
Far back somewhere in the tunnels they had threaded they could hear loud shouts and cries. The sound of the pursuit boomed out even above the noise of the waterfall.
"They're after us!" exclaimed Jack.
"Shall we take the boat?" Walt's usually calm voice shook a little as he asked the question.
"It's our only chance. Come on, in with you, Ralph."
Ralph hesitated no longer, but jumped into the little contrivance. A sort of oar lay in the bottom. He thrust it over the side.
"The water's only about three feet deep," he announced.
"So much the less chance of our being drowned," rejoined Jack.
The lad had his knife out—a heavy-bladed hunting weapon. As soon as all was ready he would cut the ropes and set the boat free on the turbulent current.
"All right!" cried Walt, as he clambered in and took his place by Ralph.
Jack gave a hasty look around, and the next instant made a flying leap into the little craft. So fast had Black Ramon and his followers taken up the trail after they had discovered that the boys had found the secret of the hollow altar, that they were already entering the chamber.
Ramon was in the lead. The glare of the lamp fell full on his parchment-like features, as with a roar of recognition, he sighted the boys.
Something whizzed past Jack's ear, and, chipping the rock above, showered the occupants of the boat with fragments. The sharp report of the Mexican's revolver filled the place. With a quick movement, Jack slashed the rope nearest him. If he had not been in such a hurry, he would have seen that the other should have been severed first. As it was, he had cut the one that held the boat's bow to the stream. Instantly the flat-bottomed craft swung dizzily around, and still held by her stern mooring, dashed against the bank.
For a minute the boys feared she was stove in, but there was no time to waste on an examination.
One stroke of the knife severed the remaining rope, already drawn as taut as a piano wire. But, as Jack's knife fell, the place became filled with shouts and confusion.
Ramon had been a little in advance of his men, and now they were all in the place. A second's glance showed them what had happened. Not only were the boys about to escape, but if they did not stop them the secret of their underground route across the border would be discovered, and its usefulness at an end.
No wonder they strained every nerve to reach the boys. Ramon himself had bounded to the side of the subterranean river as the boat swung round. As her gunwale had struck the bank, he had leaped aboard. But before he could use his revolver, Walt's powerful arm knocked the weapon out of his hand, and it fell on the bottom of the boat. With a snarl of rage, Ramon flashed round on the boy. But whatever the Mexican might have been able to do with knife or pistol, he was no match for the muscles of the American lad.
Walt fairly picked the lithe form of the gun-runner from the floor of the boat as Jack's knife fell across the remaining rope. With a splash and a loud cry, Ramon pitched overside into the stream. As he fell, though, he managed to clutch the side of the craft and he hung on, desperately endeavoring to draw himself up into the boat.
His followers, seeing what had happened, rushed down on them. A tempest of bullets rattled about the boys' heads as they felt the rope part. It was no moment for sentimental hesitation. Walt raised his foot, and the next instant brought his heavy boot down with crushing force on Ramon's clinging fingers.
With a yelp of pain, the fellow let go and was rolled over and over in the river, while half a dozen of his men waded in to rescue him.
"Yip-ee-ee-ee! We're off!" yelled Jack, with a true cowboy yell. The lad was carried away by the excitement and thrill of the adventure.
With a lurch and a bump, the frail craft carrying our three young friends shot forward. The lamp-lit panorama as Ramon, dripping and cursing, was hauled out of the water by his band, flashed before their eyes for a brief moment. The next instant dense darkness fell about them.
At what seemed to be a mile-a-minute pace they were hurried forward into the unknown.
THE CAMP OF THE GUN-RUNNER
Jounced against the rough, rock walls, bumped over shoal places, and at times whirled almost broadside on by the swift current, the queer, flat-bottomed boat containing our three young friends was hurried through the darkness. It was the maddest ride any of them had ever taken, and, as we know, they had been through some thrilling experiences since they had first stood on the railroad station platform at Maguez. Had they known it, they could have controlled the boat more or less with the rough oar—the one with which Ralph had sounded the depth of the river—but, of course, they were inexpert in the management of such a craft. They could do nothing but keep still and trust to luck to bring them safely out of their extraordinary predicament.
After some ten minutes of this, the current seemed to slacken a little and the walls narrowed. Jack stretched out a hand and, to his astonishment, his fingers were swept along a rope stretched down the side of the tunnel. This solved a problem he had been revolving in his mind—namely, how did the Mexicans get their boat back after it had delivered its cargo of arms? The explanation was now a simple one. Evidently they hauled it back by the use of this rope. "It must have been hard work, though," thought Jack.
Conversation was impossible in the confines of the tunnel which, in places, was a mere tube in the rocks; the roar of the water was almost deafening. It was so black, too, that they could not see one another's faces. Of real alarm Jack did not feel much, and for an excellent reason. It was apparent that the Mexicans had used this underground route across the border many times, and, if they could make the passage—terrifying as it seemed—in safety, there was every reason to suppose that the boys could make it with the same security.
What worried Jack most about their situation proceeded from a far different cause. There was little reason to doubt that at the other end of the tunnel, wherever that might be, Black Ramon or his superiors, arming the insurrectionists, had guards posted to receive the smuggled guns. If no opportunity of escaping from the boat presented itself before they were hastened out of the exit of the tunnel, their situation would be just as bad as ever. Ramon would, of course, lose no time in following them up, either by a spare boat, which he might have had concealed in the vaulted chamber, or else on his fast, coal-black horse which he might ride across the rocky range, far above the subterranean stream.
In the event of their falling once more into the hands of Ramon, Jack could not repress a shudder as he thought of what the probable fate would be. Ugly stories had from time to time floated across the border concerning the manner in which Ramon, in his cattle-rustling days, dealt with his prisoners,—stories of torture and suffering that made one shudder even to listen to. If the apparent leader of the insurrectionist gun-runners had cause for animosity against the boys before, it was surely redoubled now. Not only had they accidentally penetrated the secret of the Haunted Mesa, but they had toppled the former leader of the cattle-rustlers ignominiously into the water, an insult which Jack knew the man's nature too well to suppose he would easily either forgive or forget.
In such gloomy reflections was he occupied when a sudden shout from the others roused him from his reverie, and, looking up, he saw that the tunnel through which the river flowed was growing higher, broader, and lighter. The darkness had now been exchanged for a sort of semi-gloom, in which the almost black rock gleamed wetly where the hurrying current of the stream had washed its base.
"We're near the end!" shouted Walt to the others.
Jack nodded. Suddenly his eye fell on Ramon's revolver, which lay at the bottom of the boat as it had fallen when he toppled overboard. One cartridge had been discharged, leaving but four good shells in the chamber, but in an emergency those four, the lad knew, would be better than no weapons at all. He regarded this as distinctly a piece of good luck—this finding of the pistol. He examined it and found that it was a heavy weapon of forty-four caliber.
Hardly had he had time to observe all this before the boat, without the slightest warning, shot out into daylight, very much as a railroad train emerges from a tunnel. A swift glance at their surroundings showed Jack that they had floated into a sort of natural basin amid some wild, bare-looking hills. The banks of this basin were clothed with a sort of wild oat and interspersed with a small blue wild flower. Here and there were clumps of chapparal. But what pleased the lad most was the fact that, although not far from them a rude hut stood upon the bank, there was so far no sign of human occupancy of the place.
Seizing the steering oar, Jack ran the boat up alongside a spot where the bank shelved gently down to the water's edge, and ran her, nose up, on the sand.
"Hoo——" began Ralph jubilantly, his spirits carrying him away, but Jack's hand was over his mouth in a second.
"The less noise we make the better," he breathed, stepping out of the boat on tiptoe and signing to the others to do the same. With scarcely a sound, they landed and stood at length on the grassy carpet sloping down to the sandy beach.
So far not a sound had proceeded from the hut Jack turned to his companions with a cautious gesture.
"Wait here while I investigate," he whispered, "and be ready to jump back into the boat and shove off at a minute's notice."
They nodded and turned to obey, as Jack, as silently as he could, crept on toward the hut, his revolver clasped ready for use at the slightest alarm. The Border Boy did not mean to be caught napping. In this manner he reached the wall of the hut nearest to the river, in which there was a small, unglazed window. Cautiously raising himself on tiptoe, Jack peered within.
In a rough chair, by a table covered with the untidy remains of a meal, was seated an elderly Mexican, as shriveled and brown as a dried bean. The regularity with which he was "sawing wood" showed that he was as sound asleep as it is possible for a man to be. Still Jack knew that there are men who sleep with one eye open, so he did not relax an iota of his vigilance as he crept around the corner of the house. On the opposite side he found a doorway, and, noiselessly gliding in, he had the pistol to the Mexican's ear before whatever dreams the man might have been having were even disturbed.
"Caramba, sanctissima! Santa Maria!" yelled the man, springing to his feet as if propelled by springs. But the uncomfortable sensation of the little circle of steel pressed to the nape of his neck brought him back again into the chair in a second, trembling like a leaf, and gazing in terror at the determined young figure standing over him.
"Keep quiet and I'll not hurt you," said Jack, adding as an afterthought: "Do you speak English?"
"Me spiggoty 'Merican," sputtered the trembling old Mexican.
"All right, Jose, then listen: Are there any horses here?"
The old man's eyes held a gleam of intelligence.
"Cavallo, senor. One, two, t'ree horse over heel."
"Oh, over the hill, are they?" said Jack to himself, then aloud: "You come and show them to me."
"Mocho easy to find," protested the Mexican.
Jack smiled to himself. He had been right, then. The old man was trying to trick him. Assuming a sterner air, he thundered out,
"Tell me where these horses are or I'll kill you!"
The threat proved effectual, as Jack had hoped it would. Dropping all his attempts at subterfuge, the Mexican told the boy that the horses were in a gully not a hundred feet from the house. On the Mexican being escorted there, still with the pistol held close to his head, his words were found to be true.
Three horses, ready saddled and bridled, stood in the gulch, apparently reserved for the use of any one about the camp who should need them in a hurry.
This much ascertained, Jack marched the Mexican back to the hut, where, with a rope, he leisurely proceeded to bind him. Then, amid the fellow's tears and supplications—for he evidently thought he was about to be killed—the boy marched him to the river bank. Walt and Ralph were naturally bubbling over with questions, but they said nothing as Jack sternly ordered the aged Mexican to board the boat.
There were more prayers and tears, but finally the shriveled old chap got on board, and the boys shoved him off. The current rapidly bore him off down the stream and presently he vanished between the two points of land through which the river made its way out of the basin.
"Well, he's off for a good, long ride," said Jack, as with howls and yells from its passenger the boat vanished from view.
"Why didn't you just bind him and leave him in the hut?" asked Ralph.
"Because Ramon may be along at any moment, and the old fellow might give him some information concerning us we wouldn't like to have published," was the rejoinder. "In that boat he is in no danger and will simply take a long and pleasant ride, and won't be in a position to do us any mischief when he is finally rescued."
The boys were full of admiration for Jack's strategy, and openly expressed their congratulations on the skillful way he had carried things through, but the lad waved them aside impatiently. Rapidly he told them that their best course was to get on horseback as soon as possible, and head away from the valley.
Some five minutes later three youthful figures mounted on a trio of splendid specimens of horse flesh, loped easily up a trail leading from the natural basin in the hills. In Jack's pocket, too, reposed a certain paper found on the table in the hut and signed with Ramon de Barros' name. With a vague idea that it might prove useful to him, the boy had appropriated it, and shoved it hastily in his pocket.
The summit of the basin reached, the boys found themselves not far from a broad, white road. The compass, which Jack still had on his wrist, showed the direction to be about due east and west. Crossing a stretch of grass, which separated them from the thoroughfare, the three young horsemen were soon standing on the ribbonlike stretch of white which wound its way through a country pleasantly green and fresh-looking after their sojourn in the desert.
"Looks like the promised land," cried Walt.
"I'll bet we're the first bunch to find the promised land via the underground railway," laughed Ralph, as they gazed about them, undecided in which direction to proceed.
MADERO'S FLYING COLUMN.
As they stood there, still undecided as to which direction to take, Jack's keen eyes detected, above a clump of trees some distance down the road to the west, a cloud of yellow dust rising. Evidently somebody was coming their way. The question was, who was it?
It might be some one of whom they could inquire the direction to the Esmeralda mine—for Jack had determined to seek out his father, knowing the mine could not be very far distant. Again it might be a band of insurrectos, in which case they would have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire with a vengeance.
"Shall we ride forward?" asked Walt, as Jack's lips tightened in deep thought.
The other boy pushed back his sombrero. Jack Merrill was only a lad, after all, and he found himself suddenly called upon to answer a question which might have stumped a grown man. The question, however, was decided for him, and by a means so utterly unexpected that it came near jolting the Border Boys out of their composure; for Jack, as they had ridden up from the river, had admonished his companions to keep cool minds and wits and stiff upper lips whatever happened. They were going into a country in which, from what they had been able to gather, the insurrectos were numerically and strategically strong. Their only safety, the lad argued with a wisdom beyond his years, was in facing emergencies as they came, without betraying by outward signs whatever of inward perturbation they might feel.
"I think we had better ride eastward, till we come to some village or town," Jack was beginning, in response to Walt's question, when a voice from behind suddenly hailed them in unmistakably American accents.
"Ah, here you are, gentlemen. We've been expecting you."
The boys wheeled to find that a horseman stood beside them. He had ridden almost noiselessly over the soft grass, which accounted for their not having heard his approach. Jack took in the new arrival's figure in a quick, comprehensive glance.
The man who now faced them was a stalwart-looking chap of about thirty. His face was bronzed and his eyes keen. The face of one who has lived much out of doors. His manner seemed frank and open—even hearty—but any one skilled in reading faces would have noted in the rather receding chin and the eyes set close together that, in spite of his apparent heartiness, the newcomer was a man of limited reliability. The sort of chap, in short, who, while fearless up to a certain point and adventurous to a degree, would yet in an extremity look out for "Number One."
As for his dress, it was much the same as the boys'. Sombrero, leather chaps well worn, blue shirt, and red neck handkerchief. Jack's keen eyes noted, too, that the pommel of his saddle bore some recent bullet scars, and that in two bearskin holsters reposed the formidable-looking butts of two heavy-caliber revolvers. The war-like note was further enhanced by the fact that across his saddle horn the new arrival carried a Remington rifle.
The boys' position was now an extraordinary one. Advancing toward them down the road, was, what they could now perceive to be, a considerable body of horsemen. As if this were not enough to raise a question of whether it was better to fly or remain where they were, here was this total stranger, perhaps an American, too, hailing them as if he knew them, or, at least, had expected to meet them there. Jack's mind was made up in a flash, but, even in the brief instant he hesitated, the stranger's keen, close-set eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"I'm not mistaken, am I? You expected to meet me here?"
"Yes, yes, of course," responded Jack quickly, and in as easy a tone as he could command; "I hope we're not late?"
"No; there comes Madero's flying column now. You couldn't have kept the appointment better if you had arranged to meet us at some spot in New York."
"I'm glad we're on time," said Jack, not knowing exactly what else to say.
The lad was thunderstruck, as well he might be, by the turn events were taking. He wished fervently, however, that they knew whom they were expected to be and why their coming had been awaited with such eagerness.
"I say, you know," rattled on the other, who seemed to be a pleasant natured enough chap, "that trip of yours through that hole in the ground has mussed you up a bit."
"It certainly has," agreed Jack, more and more mystified; "it's a pretty rough voyage."
"That's what, and going through that blamed trap in the Mesa, like a comedian in an extravaganza, isn't the least unpleasant part of it. It was a pretty slick trick of Ramon's to find that out, although, I guess, some old Indian gave him the tip."
"It's a great scheme," put in Walt Phelps, finding his tongue at last.
"You chaps are a good deal younger than I expected to find you," rattled on the stranger, "but I suppose you've seen lots of service."
"Yes, lots of it," put in Ralph, throwing some fervor into his tone. He felt that they had indeed, in the last few hours, seen service enough for a lifetime. Jack inwardly rejoiced as the others found their tongues. He had dreaded that the suddenness of the emergency might have proved too much for them. Both lads were rising to it gallantly, however. Now, if only he could find out who on earth they were supposed to be, they might yet escape from the predicament into which they had fallen.
"Now let's introduce ourselves," went on their new acquaintance, evidently not the least bit suspicious now. "My name's Bob Harding. Which of you chaps is Con Divver?"
"Right here," said Jack, motioning to Walt.
"And Jim Hickey and Ted Rafter?"
"I'm Jim and here is Ted," responded Jack, his heart beating like a trip hammer. It was a daring game they were playing.
"That's good. Now we all know each other. I think that Americans enlisted in this sort of service should be on good terms, don't you?"
"I certainly do," rejoined Jack warmly.
"Fine! I'll bet we'll make good messmates. And now here comes Madero himself. If you fellows will come with me, I'll introduce you in form. Do you 'spiggoty'?"
"Do we what?" asked Jack wonderingly.
"Spiggoty. Talk this greaser lingo?"
"Not very well, I'm afraid. Does the general talk English?"
"Well. He's a good fellow, too. You'll find out."
Thus rattling on, Bob Harding escorted the lads toward the van of the advancing horsemen. There were about a hundred in the troop, which Harding had referred to as a "Flying Column," and, although the horsemen were all apparently well armed, their appearance was ragged and wild in the extreme. They had evidently seen some hard fighting. Here and there could be seen men with bandaged heads or limbs, while their high conical-crowned hats were in some cases drilled, like beehives, with bullet holes. In color, the insurrecto leader's followers ranged from a delicate cream to a dark, reddish-brown, almost the coppery hue of a red Indian. In all, they formed as ferocious and formidable-looking a troop of horsemen as the Border Boys had ever set eyes on.
Madero himself, a rather sad-faced man of past middle age, rode in advance, surrounded by several officers, the latter having red flannel chevrons attached to their buckskin coats by safety pins. The famous insurrecto leader raised his hat with Mexican courtesy as the newcomers approached. Bob Harding drew himself up in his saddle and gave a military salute which the general stiffly returned. The boys, taking their cue from their new acquaintance, followed his example.
"I am afraid that your first experience with the insurrectos was a rough one, senores," said the general, with one of his sad smiles, using very fair English.
"No rougher than we must expect," rejoined Jack crisply. The lad by now had begun to have an inkling of the situation. Evidently Bob Harding was a soldier of fortune fighting with the insurrectos against the troops of Diaz, while they themselves were supposed to be more of the same brand. Evidently they had been expected by Ramon's subterranean river, and in taking the boat they must have forestalled the real Con Divver, Jim Hickey, and Ted Rafter. Jack caught himself wondering how long it would take the latter to ride over the mountains and discover the imposture.
"We are on our way to our bivouac farther on, gentlemen," said the general, with a wave of his hand, as if to dismiss them. "Captain Harding will introduce you to your brother officers and later on I will assign you to duty."
The boys saluted once more, as did Bob Harding, and, still following the young soldier of fortune, they rode toward the rear of the column. The brown-skinned soldiers cast many glances out of their wild eyes at them as they loped back, evidently wondering at the youth of Madero's new recruits from across the border.
The boys found no opportunity to exchange conversation as they rode along. Bob Harding was far too busy introducing them to brother officers to permit of this. From remarks addressed to them, which they answered carefully in a general way, the boys soon learned that the three soldiers of fortune they were impersonating had been redoubtable warriors in several revolutionary battles in South America. Thus it came about that Jack and his chums were speedily far more prominent personalities than they cared about becoming. The officers of Madero's command they found to be mostly small planters and ranch owners, inflamed with bitterness at the freedom with which great grants of land had been made to Americans by Diaz.
Bob Harding was not backward in telling them his history, as they rode along. He had been expelled from West Point for a hazing prank, and since that time had "knocked about the world a bit," as he expressed it. He was frank in confessing that he was with Madero's command for the "fun there was in it."
"I don't see much fun in injuring American interests and practically warring on your own people," burst out Jack, before he knew what he was saying.
Harding whipped around in his saddle like a flash.
"Say, Jim Hickey," he snapped, "those are funny sentiments coming from you. You didn't feel that way during your famous campaign in Venezuela, did you?"
"Well, it wasn't so near home, you see," rather lamely explained Jack, wishing that he had bitten his tongue out before he had made such a break.
But Bob Harding fortunately was not of an analytical disposition, and he was soon rattling on again, relating to the boys, with great glee, the manner in which the insurrectos were getting all the arms they wanted by Black Ramon's underground route.
IN THE CAMP OF THE INSURRECTOS.
Camp was made that night not far from the outskirts of what must have been a small town or village. Through the trees surrounding the camp the boys could catch the glint of distant lights as the sun set and darkness rushed up with the suddenness characteristic of the southern latitudes. Rumor about the camp was that there was a fair or carnival in the village. To Jack's huge delight, he found that a tent was to be provided for them, and that, if all went well, they would be able, after the camp was wrapped in sleep, to have a consultation.
But before this occurred something else happened which bore so directly on the boys' fortunes that it must be related here. Supper in the camp was over, sentries posted, and the routine of what had evidently been a long campaign taken up, when the three lads, who had been chatting with Bob Harding and trying to draw out all he knew without betraying themselves, were summoned by a ragged orderly to present themselves in General Madero's tent.
At first a dreadful fear that their deception had been discovered rushed into Jack's mind, as they arose from the ground outside Bob Harding's tent and made their way to the general's quarters. This fear, which his comrades shared with him, was speedily relieved, however. General Madero greeted them with the same grave courtesy he had shown them earlier in the day, and, after a few words, bade them be seated. Each visitor having been accommodated with a camp stool, the general turned to a written paper which he had before him on the folding camp table, and which he had apparently been poring over intently when they entered.
"I sent for you, gentlemen," he said, "in the first place, because I am sure, from what Senor Ramon told me, our new recruits are anxious to distinguish themselves, and also because I have some duty to outline to you which is peculiarly adapted for Americans to undertake.
"You know, doubtless, that the funds of the insurrectos are not as plentiful as they might be. Most of us are poor men. I myself have disposed of my estate to make the revolution against the tyrant Diaz successful." He paused and frowned at the mention of the hated name, and then continued in the same grave, even voice:
"It becomes necessary, therefore, for us to raise funds as best we may. Of course, we might live upon the country, but this I am unwilling to do. The people are friendly to us. They give us their moral support. Let us then not repay good with evil by plundering them. Rather let us pay for what we get as we go along."
Harding nodded, as did the boys. It was best to give the general the impression that they were deeply interested.
"Very well, then. But we must raise funds—and how? How better than by helping ourselves to the product of which our country has been robbed by favorites of Diaz. I refer, I need hardly say, to the American mining men who have enriched themselves at my poor countrymen's expense."
Jack could hardly repress an angry start as he saw whither this line of reasoning must lead. The gross injustice of the idea made him flush hotly, but he was far too wise to expose his hand to the wily old insurrecto leader, who was watching them with an eager look on his withered, yellow face.
"There is near here," continued the general, "a mine I have had my eyes on for a long time. It belongs to a Senor Merrill, a rancher——"
The general broke off abruptly. Jack had started so suddenly that the lamp on the table was jarred.
"Senor Hickey knows Senor Merrill?" he asked, bending his searching black eyes on the lad.
"I—no—that is, yes—I met Senor Merrill some time ago," stammered Jack. "Hearing his name again startled me. I was not aware he was in this part of the country."
Apparently the explanation satisfied the old leader, for he continued with a satisfied nod.
"This Senor Merrill is rich, I hear. But all his wealth has not prevented his miners leaving him to answer the call of the insurrecto cause. His mine, The Esmeralda, is not more than twelve miles from here. In the treasure room is stored much gold. Since we blew up the railroad, he has not been able to ship it. We must have that gold."
He paused and looked at the Americans inquiringly. Of the four, Bob Harding alone looked enthusiastic.
"It should be easy, general," he said; "if the Mexican miners have quit, all we have to do is to march in and help ourselves."
"Yes, but Senor Merrill is not unsurrounded by friends," went on the general, while Jack's heart gave a bound of gladness; "he has a German superintendent and several mine bosses. They have arms and ammunition, and it will be a difficult matter to dislodge them. Also, there are telephone wires by which he can summon aid from the regular troops."
"Well, what do you want us to do, sir?" asked Jack, with what was really, under the circumstances, a creditable simulation of disinterest.
"To undertake some scout duty. Find out just what his force is and the best quarter from which to attack the mine. And, above all, sever his communication with the outside world."
"Cut the wires?" asked Bob Harding eagerly.
"That's it. Make it impossible for us to fail."
"But, general, do not the regulars already know of your presence in this part of the country?" asked Jack.
General Madero smiled.
"The heads of bone which command them know little beyond dancing and how to flirt correctly," he said. "My flying column has, in the past two days, passed from one end of the province to the other without their being aware of it. The main part of my army is in eastern Chihuahua, blowing up bridges and otherwise diverting their attention, while I have come into, what you Americans call, Tom Tiddler's ground, where I mean to pick up all the gold and silver I can. Why not?" he demanded, with a sudden access of fury. "Is it not ours? What right have these interlopers of Americanos here? Mexico for the Mexicans and death to the robber foreigners!"
He brought his lean, shriveled hand down on the table with a thump that made the lamp shake. His Latin temperament had, for the moment, carried him away; for a flash the blaze of fanaticism shone in his eyes, only to die out as swiftly as he regained command of himself.
"When shall we depart on this duty, sir?" asked Bob Harding, after a brief pause.
"To-morrow. The hour I will inform you of later. Not a word of this in the camp, remember. I can trust to you absolutely?"
"Absolutely," rejoined Bob Harding, with, apparently, not a single qualm of conscience.
The general's eyes were bent upon the boys who had not rejoined to his question.
"Absolutely," declared Jack, saving his conscience by adding a mental "Not."
Bob Harding, who was sharp enough in some things, was quick to detect a change in the manner of the three supposed soldiers of fortune as they left the general's tent.
"Don't much like the idea of going up against your own countrymen, eh?" he asked easily.
"No," rejoined Jack frankly, "we don't."
"Now look here, Hickey, isn't that drawing it pretty fine? Merrill and chaps like that have practically buncoed old Diaz into granting them all sorts of concessions, and——"
"I'm pretty sure Merrill never did, whatever the rest may have done," was the quiet reply.
"Eh-oh! Well, of course, it's all right to stick up for one's friends and that sort of thing, but I guess that you chaps, like myself, are down here to, line your pockets, aren't you?"
"Perhaps," was the noncommittal reply.
"Well, to be frank with you, I am. I'm down here just for what there is in it, and if I can see a chance to line my pockets by a quiet visit to the gold room of a mine, why, that's the mine owner's lookout, isn't it? I run my risk and ought to have some reward for it."
"That's queer reasoning, Harding."
"Say, Hickey, you're a rum sort of chap. So are your chums here, too. Not a bit what I expected you to be like. I thought you were rip-roaring sort of fellows, and you act more like a bunch of prize Sunday-school scholars."
There was a taunting note in the words that Jack was not slow to catch. Particularly was the last part of Harding's speech brought out with an insulting inflection. Jack's temper blazed up.
"See here, Harding," he snapped out, "do you know anything about dynamite?"
"Eh? What? Yes, of course. But, good gracious, what's that got to do with——"
"Everything. Dynamite doesn't say or do much till it goes off, does it?"
"What are you driving at, my dear fellow, I——"
"Just this;" Jack's eyes fairly snapped in the starlight, as he looked straight into Harding's weak, good-natured countenance; "don't monkey with high explosives. Savvy?"
Harding's eyes fell. He mumbled something. For a minute he was abashed, but he soon regained his spirits.
"Forgive me, Hickey," he exclaimed, "and you, too, Rafter and Divver. I thought you were just a bunch of kids, but now I see you are the real thing. Blown in the bottle, this side up, and all that.
"Say, do you know," he went on, lowering his voice cautiously and bending forward as if afraid the coffee-colored sentry pacing near by might overhear, "for a while I even thought you were imposters."
"No!" exclaimed Jack, starting back in well-assumed amazement.
"Fact, I assure you. Funny, wasn't it?"
"Not very funny for us had your suspicions been correct," put in Walt Phelps.
"My dear Con, I should think not. Putting your eyes out with red-hot irons would be one of the least things that old Madero would do to you. Fatherly old chap, isn't he? But, as you said, Hickey: Don't fool with dynamite!"
A few paces more brought the boys to their tent.
"Well, good night, or buenas noches, as they say in this benighted land," said Harding, as they reached it. "Better turn in and have a good sleep. And then to-morrow it's Ho! for Tom Tiddler's ground, a pickin' up gold and silver."
"And maybe bullets," came from Walt.
"Oh, my dear fellow, that's all in the life. Buenas noches!"
And Bob Harding passed on, humming gayly to himself.
The boys entered their tent and lit the lamp. It was silent as the grave outside, except for the steady tramp, tramp of the sentries. At long intervals the weird cry of some night bird came from the woods, on the edge of which they were camped, but that was all.
Jack sat down on the edge of his cot and gazed across the tent at the others.
"Well?" he said.
"Well?" came back from his two chums in danger.
Thus began a conversation which, with intervals of silence, when the sentries' heavy footsteps passed, continued into early dawn. Then, with a consciousness that the future alone could bring about a solution of their dilemma, the three tired lads tumbled into their cots to sleep the slumber of vigorous, exhausted youth.
"DEATH TO THE GRINGOES!"
It was broad daylight when the lads awoke. About them the life of the camp had been astir for some time, in fact. Bugles rang out cheerily and ragged troopers hastened hither and thither, with fodder or buckets of water for their mounts, for in Madero's flying squadron each man looked after his own animal, with the exception of a small force detailed to commissariat duty. From the village below, curious-eyed Mexicans began pouring into camp with the earliest dawn, and by the time the three involuntary imposters were out of their tent and had doused each other with cold water, the place presented a scene of lively activity and bustle.
"Sitting on the edge of a volcano seems to agree with us," remarked Jack, as the three sauntered off to join Bob Harding, who was standing outside his tent door, smoking a cigarette, a bad habit he had picked up from the Mexicans.
Indeed, three more manly, rugged lads would have been hard to find. Under their tanned skins the bright blood sparkled, and there was a surety in their long, swinging stride and the confident set of their shoulders that made one feel a certainty that there was a trio that would be able to take care of itself in any ordinary emergency.
Refreshed, even by the few hours slumber, and with sharp-set appetites, the boys felt altogether different persons from the three bedraggled youths who had been jounced through the tunnel, and later thrown into such a perplexing combination of circumstances.
"I feel fit for anything," Ralph confided to Jack.
"Good boy," rejoined his companion, throwing his arm about the Eastern lad's neck; "we'll come out all right. I'm confident of it."
"Unless the real Con Divver, Jim Hickey and Ted Rafter happen to show up," put in the practical Walt, with a half-grin.
"Botheration take you, Walt," exclaimed Ralph, in comic petulance; "you're the original laddie with a bucket of cold water. As we figured it out last night, we shall be far away from here on our way to the Esmeralda mine before Ramon and the real soldiers of fortune whose fame we have appropriated are anywhere near here."
"I hope so, for our sakes," muttered Walt, half to himself. Practical minded as Walt was by nature, he saw only too clearly the imminent peril in which they were moving. "Sitting on the edge of a volcano," was the way Jack had put it. He had not stated the case a bit too strongly. At any moment, for all they knew, Ramon or one of his men might arrive with the true story, and then, where would they be?
At the conference in the tent the night before, the three lads had agreed on a definite course of action. This was to get as close to the Esmeralda as they could, and then make a bold dash for Mr. Merrill and their friends. If Bob Harding chose to join them, well and good. If he did not—well, they could not force him. Somehow, both Jack and Walt had reached the conclusion that Bob, for all his vivacity and good humor and apparent courage, would prove a "rotten reed" in a moment of stress. How accurately they had gauged his character, we shall see. This plan, as our readers will agree, was a sensible one, and, moreover, had the merit of being the only way out of their dilemma. But it all hinged on one thing, namely, on their departing before Ramon or any of his followers arrived and denounced them.
Breakfast in the insurrecto camp was a peculiar meal. The officers messed together, and, of course, the boys joined them. Once or twice, Jack, looking up from his peppery stew, noticed one or another of the insurrecto officers eyeing either himself or his companions curiously.
"They think you're awful youthful looking to have done all the things credited to you," whispered Bob Harding.
After the meal was despatched, the boys expected some sort of orders to emanate from the general's tent, but apparently he was in no hurry to move forward till the errand upon which he had announced he meant to send the Americans, had been accomplished. The morning was spent by the three lads in strolling about the camp, striving their utmost to appear at their ease, but starting nervously every time an out-rider came into camp. Every hoof-beat upon the road was eloquent with signification for them. Ramon could not be far off now. In this wearing manner passed the morning hours. For some time they had seen nothing of Bob Harding, when suddenly, loud voices, in which that of their friend predominated, reached them. The sounds came from behind a thick clump of manzanita bushes, where several of the officers had been whiling away the hours at a native gambling game. Among them, we regret to say, had been Bob Harding.
As the boys, attracted by the disturbance, came up, they saw the young American on his feet in the midst of a group of native officers, who were clustered about him, angrily demanding something. From a handful of gold which the young soldier of fortune clutched, it was evident that he had been a winner, but that some dispute had arisen over his success.
Suddenly, and without the slightest warning, the young Mexican who had been the most insistent of the apparent objectors, drew his sword and rushed upon Harding, who was unarmed. He threw up his arm as the thrust came, and succeeded in deflecting it at the cost of a slash on the back of his hand.
At the same instant he ducked nimbly, and, rushing in under the swordsman's guard, he planted a blow upon the Mexican's jaw that sent him reeling backward, waving his arms round and round, like a windmill. With a howl of fury, the man's companions made a rush for Harding.
"They're going to rush him!" whispered Jack to the others.
"So I see," rejoined Walt, grimly clenching his fists.
As the charge descended on Bob Harding, he suddenly found three of his countrymen at his side.
"Thank goodness you're here," he breathed, and that was all he had time to say before the mob was upon them.
Jack had just time to deflect a sword blade, when he saw a terrific blow aimed at him with the butt of a rifle. He dodged just in time, and, as the stock went whizzing by his ear, he knocked the dealer of the blow flat on his back. In the meantime, Walt and Ralph had been giving good accounts of themselves, and Bob Harding had succeeded in disarming one of his opponents.
But they were by no means in possession of the victory yet. With howls of fury, the companions of the sprawling Mexicans charged once more, and suddenly Jack, after dealing one of them a staggering blow, saw a sword fall jangling at his feet.
Instantly he seized the weapon, and prepared to receive all comers. Now, fencing had been one of the fads at Stonefell during the past term, and Jack, under the tutelage of Mons Dupre, the French instructor, had become an expert swordsman. With the weapon in his hand, he felt equal to facing any of the excited little yellow-faced Mexican officers. As for them, they showed an equal disposition to annihilate the Americanos.
Hardly had Jack gauged the balance of his new-found weapon, before one of his opponents, a lithe, sinewy chap, with fiercely twirled moustache, came charging in, handling his sword like a duelist. Jack parried his furious onslaught easily. The fellow checked abruptly, when he found that, instead of a green boy, he had an expert swordsman to deal with. Steadying himself, he began a systematic play for Jack's heart. This was no play duel or mock fencing match with buttoned foils. It was the real thing, and Jack knew it.
But the lad kept his head admirably. The Mexican, on the contrary, as lunge after lunge was parried, became furious.
"Carramba!" he hissed. "You dog of an Americano, I keel you!"
"If I let you," rejoined Jack, falling back a pace. The fierce thrust of his opponent fell upon thin air. The next instant Jack recovered, as if by magic, and his blade flashed and writhed thrice like a writhing serpent.
Suddenly the Mexican found his sword abruptly jerked clean out of his hand by Jack's weapon, and sent ringing over the heads of the other combatants.
"Senor, I am at your mercy!" exclaimed the Mexican, dramatically throwing his arms open for the death-thrust, which it is likely he himself would have given, had the circumstances been reversed.
"Bring me your sword," ordered Jack.
The other fetched it and handed it, hilt first, to his conqueror. Jack took it, and, placing it across his knee, snapped it clean in two.
"Save the pieces," he said, handing them to the Mexican.
"Diablo!" cried the fellow, mad at the deliberate insult, "for that you die!"
Holding a snapped section of the sword by the hilt, he drove in at Jack full tilt, only to be met by a healthy American fistic uppercut, planted with such accuracy that the Mexican's wiry form was actually lifted off its feet. He whirled round twice in the air, as if performing some sort of grotesque dance, and then fell in a heap.
"You won't bother us for a time," muttered Jack, turning to aid his companions.
While he had been engaged with his officer, the others had had their hands full.
Like a snarling pack of wolves, the Mexicans had withdrawn and suddenly made a swoop on them all at once. Defending themselves as best they could, Walt, Ralph and Bob Harding were, nevertheless, driven back against the bushes. So far as Walt and Ralph were concerned, it was a real fight, but with Bob Harding it was different. His face was a sickly yellow, and in his eyes was a light that Jack had seen before—the expression of a coward at bay.
"Keep 'em off, fellows—I'm coming!" yelled Jack, as he charged into the thick of the fray. "The reinforcement was totally unexpected by the Mexicans, and they fell back for an instant—but 'for an instant only.
"Bah, it is only another of those boys!" cried the one who seemed to be their leader, a fat, pudgy little fellow, with a thick, drooping, black moustache.
"Death to the Gringoes!" yelled his followers, their deep-lying hatred of Americans now stripped of its veneer of politeness, and lying exposed in all its ugliness.
The fat, pudgy little officer made a rush at Jack, who, instead of meeting it, ducked and caught the other by his wrist. The fellow's sword went flying, and, at the same instant, Jack made a quick turn. As he did so, the pudgy man's rotund little body was seen to rise from the ground and describe an aerial semi-circle. He came crashing to the ground with a thud, his thick neck almost driven into his shoulders by the force of the concussion.
"Now for the others!" yelled Walt; but even as he uttered the cry, there came another shout from beyond the bushes in which the battle was being waged:
"Ramon! Ramon the Black!"
A RACE FOR LIFE.
The electric thrill that passed through the lads at the words, and temporarily rendered them powerless to move, would have speedily made them an easy prey for the aggrieved Mexican officers, but that the latter were equally excited by the announcement. The mention of Ramon's name, in fact, seemed to cause a galvanic wave of activity throughout the bivouac. Men could be heard running hither and thither, and above all sounded the heavy trample of the new arrivals' horses.
In less than two minutes the last of the wounded Mexicans had picked himself up from the ground, and, clapping a hand over a rapidly swelling "goose egg," was hurrying from the scene of the sudden battle. The last to get up was the pudgy little officer whom Jack had overthrown. This fellow painfully scrambled to his feet, and, breathing the most terrible threats in his native tongue, limped off.
The boys stood alone on the card-strewn, coin-littered battle-ground. Dismay was pictured on their countenances. The crucial moment had come, and they were fairly caught in a trap from which there seemed to be no possible means of extricating themselves.
"Come on, boys," cried Bob Harding, who had quite recovered his equanimity, "here's your friend Ramon, now."
He hastened off, not even looking to see if the supposed adventurers were following him. Suddenly, while the three lads stood regarding one another, there came a high-pitched voice ringing clearly above the confusion and shouts:
"You consarned yaller coyote, you take yer leathery lunch-hooks off me, or I'll fill yer so full uv holes your ma can use you for a collander!"
"Coyote Pete!" exclaimed Jack. "Oh, boys, he's all right!"
"Oh, Jack! What are we going to do?" gasped Ralph, pale under his coat of tan, and looking about him nervously.
"We must act quickly, whatever it is," exclaimed Jack. "Thank goodness, Coyote Pete is safe. The professor must be all right, too, then. Look, there are the Mexican's horses off yonder. Let's make a dash for them, and try to sneak out while they are still looking for us."
"Do you think we can do it?" Ralph's voice was full of hesitancy.
"If we don't, we'll all be lined up with a firing squad in front of us within the next ten minutes!" exclaimed Jack. "Hark!"
They could hear shouts and angry cries, above which Ramon's voice sounded, as if he were narrating something.
"He's telling them about us," cried Jack. "Come on; there's not a fraction of a second to lose."
Headed by Jack, the three Border Boys started on the run for the grove in which the horses had been picketed. Some of the animals were saddled and bridled, and for these they made a dash. They were not to escape without some difficulty, however, for, as they placed their feet in the stirrups, preparatory to swinging into the high-peaked saddles, a dozing trooper sprang up from a litter of opened hay-bales. He shouted something in Spanish, and made a spring for the head of the animal Jack bestrode. It was no time for half measures. The heavy quirt, with its loaded handle, hung from the horn of the saddle. With a quick movement, Jack secured it, and brought the loaded end down on the fellow's skull. He fell like a log, without uttering a sound.
"Now, forward boys!" cried Jack in a low tone, "it's a ride for life."
The others needed no urging. As rapidly as they could, consistent with making as little noise as possible, the three young horsemen rode out of the patch of woods in which the camp had been made, and emerged on the high road without being stopped. Suddenly, however, a sentry with a fixed bayonet, seemed to spring from the ground in front of them. He cried something in Spanish, to which Jack replied by driving his horse full at him. The fellow went down, and rolled over and over, as the horse's hoofs struck him. Before he recovered his feet, the Border Boys were upon the road and galloping for dear life. There was no use in caution, now. Everything depended, in fact, on putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the camp before their absence was discovered.
Fortunately, their horses were fresh, powerful animals, with long, swinging gaits. They got over the ground at a wonderful rate, and Jack's heart began to beat exultingly. Not far distant lay some hilly ground, broken with deep gullies and thickly grown with wooded patches. Could they gain it, they would have a chance of concealing themselves.
"Hullo! They've discovered we've gone!" exclaimed Jack suddenly, as behind them they could hear shots and bugle calls. "Don't spare the horses, boys; we've got to make that rough country."
The quirts fell unmercifully on the big, powerful horses, and they plunged snorting forward.
"We're kicking up dust enough to be seen ten miles," grumbled Walt.
"Can't be helped," flung back Jack, "speed is what counts now."
Before many minutes had passed, such good progress had they made that the edge of a clump of woods was reached, and they plunged rapidly into the friendly shelter.
"Where to now?" gasped Ralph.
"Right on! Right on!" shot out Jack. "Keep going till the horses drop, or they overtake us. It's our only chance."
On and on into the wood, the hunted boys rode. Their wiry horses were flagging now, but still seemed capable of more effort. Over the rough ground, though, the pace at which they urged them was a killing one. Still, as Jack had said, it was "their only chance."
All at once, from their rear, they heard shouts and bugle calls. Jack turned a shade paler. The demonstration was much too close to be pleasant. He had hardly believed that it was possible for the Mexicans to have gained upon them so rapidly.
"Guess we're up against it," muttered Walt Phelps, in his usual laconic manner.
"Not yet, by a good sight," pluckily retorted Jack. "Come on—into this gulch. It takes a turn above here, and we may find some means of getting out of their sight altogether."
Almost on their haunches, the horses were urged down the steep bank of the gully to which Jack had referred. It was about twenty feet in depth, with steep sides at the point at which they entered it, and bare. Farther on, though, it took a turn, and was covered almost to the bottom with chaparral and brush.
As Jack had said, if they could gain this portion of it, it ought to afford them an ideal hiding-place.
Rapidly they pressed forward along the rough bottom of the gulch, which was evidently a roaring water-course in times of heavy rain, but which was now as dry as a bone. It was stiflingly hot, too, but none of them noticed that. Other things far more overwhelming in importance, were upon their minds just then.
Evidently, such skilled trackers as the Mexicans, had not been at fault in locating the woods into which the boys had vanished. The yells and cries, which Jack had heard, were rapidly drawing nearer in the woods above them. But, if they could only gain the shelter of the overgrown part of the gulch, they might still be safe.
It was in this extremity that Jack bethought himself of an old trick he had heard the cow-punchers talk of at his father's ranch. They had used it in old frontier days, when the Indians were thick and hostile. The deception was a simple one. It consisted in the hunted person slipping from his horse at a suitable hiding-place and then letting the animal wander on.
The pursuers would naturally be guided by the sound of the horses' hoofs, and would follow them up, leaving the concealed victim of the chase at liberty, either to double back upon his trail, or remain where he was. His intention of putting this trick into execution Jack rapidly confided to his two companions. They rode forward through the thick brush, which they had now gained, gazing eagerly at the walls of the gulch for some cave, or other suitable place of concealment.
Suddenly Walt spied the very place which they were in search of, apparently. It was a small opening in the rocky wall of the gully, which appeared from below to penetrate quite some distance back into the earth. Its mouth was sheltered with brush and creepers, and but for the fact that a bird flew out from it as they passed, and thus attracted their attention, they might have passed it unnoticed.
A brief inspection showed that it was a small cave, about twenty feet in depth, and, as has been said, well screened from below.
"We're not likely to find a better place," announced Jack, after a hasty inspection.
"Turn the horses loose," he cried in a low, but penetrating voice, down to Walt, who had remained below with the stock.
The red-headed ranch boy slipped off the back of his steed and alighted on a rock, so as to make no tracks. He then gave the three horses, that had borne them so bravely, their liberty. At first the animals would not move, but began cropping the green stuff about them.
"Here, that won't do," breathed Jack, as the three lads crouched at the cave mouth. "Throw some rocks at them, Walt."
The boys picked up some small stones, which lay littered in front of the cave, and commenced a fusillade. It had such good results, that a few seconds later, the three horses were plunging off along the bottom of the gully as if Old Nick himself had been after them.
As their hoof-beats grew faint, Jack held up his hand to enjoin silence, although the boys had been discussing their situation in such low tones that their voices could not have traveled ten feet from the cave mouth.
"Hark!" he said.
From farther down the gully came shouts and yells, and then the distinct rattling sound of loose shale, as several horsemen descended the steep bank into the gulch.
"They've picked up the trail," commented Walt grimly.
WHAT HAPPENED TO COYOTE PETE.
Let us now retrace our steps to the Haunted Mesa, and ascertain how it fared with Coyote Pete and the professor, after the boys' astonishing disappearance through the balanced trap-door in the base of the hollow altar. As we know, the lads' elders were crouched at the opposite end of the former sacrificial structure, when, before their eyes, the lads were swallowed up.
For an instant—as well they might have been—the two onlookers were fairly paralyzed with amazement. The occurrence seemed to be without natural explanation. But an investigation by Pete, crawling on his hands and knees while he made it, soon revealed the nature of the device which, as we know, was nothing more nor less than a balanced trap-door of stone. An unusual weight placed upon one end of it instantly tilted it and projected whatever was on it upon the staircase below.
The professor, who recalled having read of such devices in other dwelling-places of ancient communities, was at first for following the boys into the unknown interior of the mesa, but before any move could be made in that direction, one of the newly-arrived party shoved his face over the top of the hollow altar in a spirit of investigation. He fell back with a yell, crying out that there were spirits within it, as his eyes encountered the crouching forms of its two occupants.
"What's the matter, you fool?" demanded Ramon himself, who happened to be close at hand.
"Oh, the spirits! The spirits of the hollow altar!" howled the Mexican in abject terror, his knees knocking together and his face taking on a sickly pallor.
"Hey! What's that the crazy galoot's after saying?"
The question came from a thickset man, of about middle age, upon whose upper lip bristled a fringe of reddish hair. His eyes were blue, narrow and evil, and his face was scarred in half a dozen places.
"Why, Hickey, my amigo, he says that the place is haunted," laughed Ramon.
The man addressed as Hickey turned to his two companions, one of whom was a tall, lanky chap, with straggly black hair, and bristly, unshaven chin. The other was a short, fat, rather good-natured looking little man, whose truculent chin, however, gave the lie to his incessant smile. Somehow, you felt, after a lengthy inspection of this latter, that he was by no means the amiable personage his fixed smile seemed to indicate. Small wonder, considering that his smile was fixed upon his face by reason of an old knife wound, which, in severing some facial muscles, had drawn up the corners of his mouth into a perpetual grin.
"Hullo! Here's Rafter and Con Divver!" exclaimed the bristly-moustached one. "Well, fellows, what d'ye think of this here country?"
"All right, as fur as we've gone," grunted the lanky man, "but I'm itching to git across the border and git my paws on some of that gold."
"Ye're right, Rafter," agreed the man with the perpetual smile, "that's what we're after. I ain't made a good haul since we cleaned out the safe of that asphalt company in Venezuela."
"Well, gentlemen," smiled Ramon, in his most ingratiating manner, "you will have ample opportunity shortly. I happen to know that one of the first things that General Madero intends to do is to move upon the mines of the robber Americanos, and get some of their gringo gold."
"Hooray! That's the talk," grunted Jim Hickey, who, like his mates, styled himself "soldier of fortune." But, alas! that high-sounding title in his case, as in many others, was simply a polite way of disguising his true calling, to-wit, that of an unscrupulous adventurer, whose object was to line his own pockets. A fashion has arisen of late of writing about soldiers of fortune as if they were noble, Quixotic persons. Those with whom the author has come in contact, however, have, without exception, been mercenary and cold-blooded men, to whom the name highway robber could be applied with far more justice than the higher sounding term. Such men were Jim Hickey and his two companions, who had flocked like buzzards to the border at the first word of trouble.
"Waal, thar's that greaser of yours still cuttin' up didoes," drawled Divver. "What's ther matter with ther coyote, anyhow? Say, Ramon, ain't that the main station of yer subway, yonder in ther rock pile?"
He pointed to the hollow altar, in which crouched Pete and the professor. They had heard every word of this conversation, of course, and its effect upon them may be imagined.
"That, senors, is indeed the entrance to our convenient little underground river. Ha! ha! an excellent joke on the worthy Colonel Briggs. He is guarding every point of the border but this one. Of course, he concluded, in his wise way, that nobody could cross those barren hills yonder, but, as you know, gentlemen, we go under, and not over them."
"Trust you greasers?" grinned Rafter, who was a New Englander; "ye're as slick ez paint, and thet's a fact. But, let's see what in ther name of juniper scairt thet feller o' yourn. Seems like he's teetotel abstinence on thet altar."
"Yes, there is a superstition that the mesa is haunted," rejoined Ramon. "That is the reason why I could never get a man to ascend it without myself. If you gentlemen noticed the tracks upon the pathway, you would have seen they went only to the top of the path. Beyond that my men would in no manner go on the night we came here to reconnoiter."
"That was before you sent the order through fer the arms?" inquired Hickey.
"Si, senor. But now, as you see, everything bids fair to go well, and——"
"By hemlock!" broke in Rafter's sharp voice, as he drew his pistol, "thar's two cusses hidin' in ther altar."
The New Englander had separated from the others, and taken a peek over the edge of the ancient sacrificial device, to ascertain what had caused the sudden alarm of the Mexican. What he had seen had caused his amazed exclamation.
"What's that?" came the bull-throated roar of Hickey, "two men in that brick pile?"
"That's whatsoever. One on 'em is a big, long, rangy cuss, like a yearlin' colt, by gosh, and ther other's the dead spit of the school teacher at ther Four Corners, back er hum."
"We must see into this."
It was Ramon who spoke. As he did so, he advanced in his agile, cat-like way upon the altar. In his hand he held his revolver. But, as he reached the edge of the pit and raised himself to peep over, something—which something was Coyote Pete's fist—caught him full between the eyes, and sent him toppling backward into the arms of Rafter. Together the lanky New Englander and the Mexican crashed to the ground, while Pete set up a defiant yell.
"Come on!" he cried. "Any of your outfit thet's jes' pinin' fer a facial massage, hed better step this way, an' be accommodated."
Ill-advised as Pete's hasty action was, it at least created a brief spell in which he had time to leap over the edge of the altar, and, before Ramon or any of the rest could recover from their astonishment, the cow-puncher had seized the Mexican's pistol and was standing at bay, his back against the altar.
"Now, then, any gent desirous uv heving his system ventilated free of charge, will kin'ly step this way," he mocked. "Ah——" as Hickey's hand slid to his waist, "don't touch thet gun, mister, or yer friends will be sendin' you flowers."
"Waal, by Juniper!" drawled Rafter, as he gathered his spidery form together and scrambled to his feet. "You seem ter hev ther drop on us, stranger."
"Thet's what," retorted the cow-puncher, "and I mean to keep it till we can come to terms. That Mexican gent yonder knows me of old—don't you, Ramon?—and he knows thet what I say I'll do, I'll do."
"So you are spying upon me again, are you?" grated out Ramon viciously. "Not content with driving me out of the Hachetas, you must even interfere with my political activities."
"Waal, if yer gitting perlitically active with machine guns and shootin' irons, I reckon Mister Diaz ull interfere with yer 'bout as much as I will," grunted Pete, keeping the men before him covered with the Mexican's pistol. The part of this speech referring to the machine guns was a mere guess of the shrewd cow-puncher. But, as the reader knows, he had struck the nail on the head. "But see here, Ramon," he went on, dropping his tone, "we ain't here to molest you. We come out here with a scientific gent, to measure the mesa. We was going back home ter-night, an' was takin' a last look around when you come along. I'll give you my word—and you know it's good—that we don't want ter meddle with your affairs so long as they don't affect us. Run all the guns you want—for I know that's your little game—but we've got some kids with us, and it's up to me to get 'em back home safe. Let us git out of here peaceable, and no more will be said."
"Hum!" grunted the Mexican. "You forget that I owe you a little debt for some things that happened across the border some time ago. Black Ramon does not forget, nor does he forgive. I can guess who those boys are you have with you, and here is my proposal: You leave that cub, Jack Merrill, with me, and the rest of you can go, and——"
Before Coyote Pete realized it, a raw-hide lariat circled through the air from behind, and settled about his neck. The next instant he was jerked from his feet, as Con Divver, who had crept unobserved around the altar, drew the rope tight. Ramon had seen the other creeping up, and had been talking against time till the crucial moment arrived.
Now, with a howl of triumph, he rushed at the cow-puncher, and was about to aim a terrific kick at his prostrate body, when a lanky form suddenly appeared over the edge of the altar, and fixing ten bony fingers in Ramon's inky locks, tugged till the Mexican yelled with pain.
"Well may you cry aloud for mercy, sir!" exclaimed the professor, for he it was who had suddenly come to the rescue, forgetting even the pain of his ankle in the crisis. "Even in Homer you may find it written, 'Never kick a man when he's down.'"
"Phew!" whistled Hickey, his smile puckering up his whole face in an evil grimace. "This is growing interesting."
"Sanctissima Santos! Take him off! Make him let go!" yelled Ramon, dancing in agony. But the professor's long digits were entwined in his locks, and the man of science showed no disposition to let go.
"Sa-ay, yo-ou animated hop-toad, I reckin you'd better let go uv ther Mexican gent's draperies, er I'll be compelled ter drill yer, by hemlock."
It was Rafter who drawled out the words, and, as he spoke, he held a revolver leveled at the professor's head.
"Better drop the varmint, perfuss," directed Pete, from the ground, "they've got us hog-tied and ready fer the brand."
"By ginger! I cal-kerlate ther ain't no de-oubt uv thet," drawled Rafter, as the professor dropped his hold on Ramon's locks, and began flourishing a small geological hammer.
It would be wearisome to relate in detail all that took place at the mesa after this, but suffice it to say that Ramon's rage on the discovery that the lads had accidentally found the underground passageway was what it might have been imagined to be. As we know, a fruitless pursuit of them followed.
This over, the rascals were faced with a dilemma. The boat in which it had been arranged that Hickey, Divver and Rafter were to take passage had been appropriated by the boys.
"A thousand evils light upon them," raged Ramon, as he stood dripping on the bank of the stream. "It is a hundred to one that they also seize the three horses I had reserved for your use, gentlemen."
"Waal, I calkerlate thet sooner er later we'll cotch up ter these young catermounts, and then, by chowder, we'll mek it quite interesting fer them, whatsoever," promised Rafter significantly.
"Looks like we'll hev ter trek across ther mountains, after all," commented Hickey, no more moved by what had occurred than he ever was by anything.
But in this he reckoned without Ramon's resourcefulness. The Mexican was as clever as he was unscrupulous. Necessity being the mother of invention, he soon devised a plan to avoid the long and perilous excursion across the barren hills.
Under his direction, the wagon-bed was taken off the running-gear, and the tarpaulin cover so adjusted as to make it water-tight. Rafter was a skillful carpenter, having once done honest work in a Maine shipyard, so that the improvised boat was soon ready for transportation. Working all night, in shifts, it was ready for its voyage down the river the next morning, and just about the time our lads were eating breakfast, the desperadoes, with the professor and Pete lying tightly bound in the bottom of the clumsy craft, made a start.