The stock, including that of the ranch party, which Hickey's sharp eyes had discovered, was left in charge of some of Ramon's mestizos at the mesa. As ill-luck would have it, almost the first thing that greeted their eyes when they emerged from the tunnel was the sight of the old Mexican whom Jack had bound and set adrift. He had been rescued from his predicament by a rancher about ten miles down the stream, and had made the best of his way back at once. His prayers, apologies and explanations for the loss of the horses may be imagined as he faced Ramon's wrath. In fact, but for the intervention of Hickey, it is likely the old mestizo would have been flung into the water by his enraged employer.
A halt occurred on the river bank, while some peons were despatched for fresh horses to a ranchero known to be friendly to the insurrectos. Then began the ride to Madero's camp, which ended as we know.
BOB HARDING DOES "THE DECENT THING."
"Back into the cave, fellows!"
It was Jack who spoke, in a tone as low and cautious as they had adopted since the beginning of their flight.
"Say, Jack, if they ever do locate us, we're in a regular mouse-trap," exclaimed Ralph, gazing back into the cave, which had no outlet except at the front.
"Can't be helped. Needs must when a certain person drives," responded the rancher's son. "Listen, they're coming closer."
The trampling of their pursuer's horses could, in fact, now be heard quite distinctly in the gulch below. Suddenly all sound ceased.
"They've stopped to listen," whispered Jack. "I only hope they hear our horses up ahead."
Apparently the searchers did hear, for, after a brief pause, on they came again. As nearly as the boys could judge, there seemed to be several of them. They made a formidable noise, as they came crashing along below. Hardly daring to breathe, the boys crouched back into their retreat. Their nerves were strung as taut as vibrating electric wires, their hearts pounded till they shook their frames. The crucial moment was at hand.
If the insurrectos passed the cave-mouth without glancing upward and noticing it, the boys were out of the most imminent part of their peril. If, on the other hand—but none of the party concealed in the cave dared to think of that.
On came the trampling, and now it was quite near. A few moments would decide it all. Voices could be distinguished now. Among them the boys recognized the quiet tones of Madero himself.
"You say, Senor Harding," he said, using English, "that those boys came this way?"
"I am almost certain of it, general," returned the voice of the traitor. "I saw their tracks, and, as you know, called your attention to them."
"If you find them, Harding, you shall have the reward I promised. I would not have them slip through my fingers now for anything in the world. Merrill's son, you said, was one of them, Senor Ramon?"
"Yes," rejoined another of the horsemen, "and the young brat is as slippery as an eel. He and this Coyote Pete, as they call him, escaped me once before in the Grizzly Pass. I have a debt to even up with both of them."
Ramon did not mention the hidden treasure of the mission. Perhaps he had reason to fear that to do so would be to bring the anger of General Madero upon him, for he was now apparently posing as a patriot and an active insurrecto agent.
"We must have him," declared Madero, in a voice that fairly made Jack's blood run cold. Its smoothness and velvety calmness veiled a merciless ferocity.
"We will get them, never fear, general," Bob Harding's voice could be heard assuring the insurrecto leader; "if they escape now, it will mean the ruination of all our plans."
"You are right, Senor Harding," came Madero's voice; "and now, would you oblige me by seeing if that is not a cave up there on the bank of the gulch."
Important as absolute silence was, a gasp of dismay forced itself to the lads' lips. From the conversation they had overheard, it was evident Bob Harding was trying hard to cultivate favor with General Madero. In that case, he was not likely to conceal the fact that it was actually a cave Madero's sharp eyes had spied, or that the cavern held the very three youths the Mexicans were in search of.
"Let's rush out and end it all," whispered Ralph, upon whom the tension was telling cruelly.
"If you attempt any such thing, I'll knock you down," Walt assured him. The ranch boy had taken the right way to brace Ralph up. The Eastern lad bit his trembling lip, but said no more. Do not think from this that Ralph Stetson was a coward in any sense of the word. There are some natures, however, that can endure pain, or rush barehanded upon a line of guns, which yet prove unequal to the strain of awaiting a threatened calamity in silence and fortitude.
"Here, hold my horse," they heard Harding say to one of his companions, "I'll soon see if that is a cave or not."
"Bah! It is nothing but a hole in the ground," scoffed Ramon, "we are wasting time, my general."
"Not so," retorted Madero. "I mean to have those boys, if we have to turn over every stone in the valley for them."
"Ye-ew bate," drawled Rafter, who was one of the searching party, with his two companions, "I've got a word ter say, by silo, ter ther boy who used my name."
"I guess that goes for all of us," rumbled Divver's throaty bass.
Harding's footsteps could now be heard clambering up the bank. From below his companions shouted encouragement to him.
"Ef they be in thar, yew let me take fust crack at 'em, by chowder," admonished Rafter's voice from below.
"You'll all get a turn," came from Harding, in his lightest, most flippant tones.
"How can men be such ruffians?" wondered Jack to himself, as he heard. He knew now why he had instinctively mistrusted Harding from the first. Yet they had saved his life that very morning. Was Harding going to return evil for good, by betraying them to their merciless enemies? It looked so.
The former West Pointer's feet were close to the cave mouth now. Crouching back in the dark, the lads awaited what the seconds would bring forth. Jack's active brain, in the brief time he had had for revolving plans to avert the catastrophe that seemed impending, had been unable to hit upon one hitherto. Suddenly, however, he gave a sharp exclamation, and muttered to himself:
"I'll do it. It can do no harm, anyway."
"Well, is it a cave?"
The question came up from below, in Ramon's voice. The ruffian's accents fairly trembled with eagerness.
"Don't know yet—this confounded brush. What!"
Harding, who had crawled in among the chapparal, started back, as Jack's voice addressed him, coming in low, tense accents from the interior of the cave:
"Remember, Harding, we saved your life this morning—are you going to betray us now?"
"Is that you, Merrill? You see I know your name. That was a shabby trick you worked on us."
"Shabby trick! Our lives were at stake," retorted Jack.
"Hurry up thar, young feller," came from below in Rafter's voice; "by hemlock, I thought I hearn horses up ther canyon apiece."
"All right; I'll be there—just investigating," flung back Harding. "What do you want me to do, Merrill?"
"What your own conscience suggests," was the reply.
"But, if they ever found out, it would cost me my life," almost whimpered Harding, all his craven nature showing now.
"But they never will. Don't let them know we are here, and ride on. We will escape, if possible, and if we are caught, your secret is safe with us."
"You—you'll promise it?"
"On my honor."
"I'll—I'll do it, then, Merrill; but for Heaven's sake, don't betray me."
"You need not fear that," rejoined Jack, with a touch of scorn in his voice. "I have given my word."
"Say, young feller, hev yer found a gold mine up thar?" shouted Rafter.
"What is detaining you, Senor Harding," came Madero's voice.
"Nothing, sir," rejoined Harding, diving out of the bushes once more, and standing erect on the hillside; "that cave was quite deep, and it took me some time to make sure it was empty."
"Empty! By chowder, them wuz horses, I hearn up ther canyon, then," ejaculated the lanky Rafter.
"You found no traces of those lads there, senor?"
It was Ramon who spoke now, all his sinister character showing in his face.
"Not a trace of them," rejoined Harding, scrambling down the hill, grasping at bushes, as he half slid on his way, to steady himself.
"Well, gentlemen, they cannot be far off. We will have them ere long," General Madero assured his followers, as Bob Harding mounted once more, and they rode off, pressing forward hotly in the direction of the tramplings Rafter had heard, and which came, as my readers have guessed, from the horses the boys had turned loose.
"Say," whispered Walt, as still a-tremble with excitement the lads listened to the departing trampling of the insurrectos' horses, "that was a decent thing for Harding to do."
"The first decent thing, I imagine, that he ever did in his life," rejoined Jack.
THE TABLES TURNED.
How the hours after that dragged themselves on, the boys never could recollect exactly. The great danger through which they had just passed had thrown them into a sort of coma. Ralph actually slept a part of the time. An uneasy, troubled slumber, it was, frequently interrupted by outcries of alarm. Walt Phelps sat doggedly at Ralph's side, and, between them, the two came to the conclusion that, come what might, they would have to abandon the cave before long.
In the first place, the Mexicans might take it into their heads to make a second search, in view of the fact that they could not discover the boys anywhere else. In the second, there was no water or food near at hand, and if they did not take the trail pretty soon, there was grave danger of their being too exhausted to do so.
It was almost dusk when the three lads emerged from their retreat. Jack had previously made a careful reconnoiter, without, however, seeing anything to cause alarm. As quietly as they could, considering the nature of the ground, they descended the steep side of the gulch and gained the bottom without mishap.
So far, not a sign had they been able to detect of the insurrectos, and their spirits rose accordingly. Gauging their direction by the sinking sun, the fugitives struck out for the east. That, they had concluded, would be the best general direction. Toward the east, they knew, lay the railroad and the more cultivated part of the province. Westward were nothing but sterile, arid plains, without water or inhabitants, supporting no vegetation but thorny bushes and the melancholy, odorous mesquite bush.
Halting frequently, to make sure that they were not being followed or spied upon, the lads pushed steadily forward, climbing the opposite slope of the gulch, and finally emerging into a close-growing tangle of pinon and spiny brush of various kinds. Through this tangle—at sad cost to their clothes, they pushed their way—disregarding the scratches and cuts it dealt them, in their anxiety to get within striking distance of their friends, or, at any rate, of the Mexican army. From camp gossip, they knew that the regulars were devoting most of their attention to guarding the railroad line, inasmuch as the insurrectos had hitherto concentrated most of their attacks on the bridges, tracks and telegraph lines.
For half an hour or more they shoved steadily forward without exchanging more than an occasional word. It was rapidly growing dark now, and the light in the woodland was becoming gray and hazy. Suddenly, Jack, who was slightly in advance, halted abruptly, and placed his finger to his lips.
It needed no interpreter to read the sign aright.
Tiptoeing cautiously forward behind their leader, the other two lads perceived that they had blundered upon a spot in which several horses had been left unguarded by the search parties, while they pushed their way on foot through the impenetrable brush. But it was not this fact so much that caused them to catch their breaths with gasps of amazement, as something else which suddenly became visible.
To the boys' utter dumfounding, they beheld, seated on the ground, bound hand and foot with raw-hide—the professor and Coyote Pete! Both looked dismal enough, as they sat helplessly there, while three soldiers, who had been left to guard the halting-place, rolled dice on a horse-blanket.
So intent were these men on their game, that they had laid aside their arms, and their rifles lay temptingly almost within hands' reach of the three lads crouching in the brush. To make any sudden move, however, would be to attract attention, and this was the last thing they desired to do, naturally.
Suddenly, and before Jack could withdraw his eager, gazing face from its frame of brush. Coyote Pete looked up. His eyes met Jack's in a startled, incredulous stare. But the old plainsman was far too seasoned a veteran to allow his amazement to betray him into an exclamation. Nor did he apprise the professor by even so much as a look of what he had seen. The man of science was staring abstractedly before him, at the gamblers, perhaps, as he watched the rolling dice, working out a calculus or other abstruse problem. Such a mental condition, at any rate, might have been assumed, from the far-away expression of his benevolent countenance.
Without making a move, Pete rolled his eyes toward the rifles. To Jack, this motion read as plain as print:
This, of course, was just what the lad desired to do, but how to accomplish it without arousing the gamblers, who, despite their absorption in their game, every now and then cast a glance around, was a problem.
Suddenly Pete threw himself to the ground. Apparently, he had been seized by some terrible pain. Groaning, in what appeared to be agony, his bound figure rolled about on the earth, while his legs, which below his knees were free, kicked vigorously.
"Oh—oh—oh!" groaned Pete.
"What's the matter?" cried the gamblers, springing up in consternation at this sudden seizure.
"Oh, oh! mucho malo estomago!" howled Pete.
So well was all this simulated, that even the professor came out of his reverie and looked concerned, while the gamblers, laying down their dice for an instant, hastened to the struggling, writhing cow-puncher's side.
It was the moment to act.
Silently, almost as so many serpents, Jack and his comrades wriggled out of the brush, and, in a flash, the coveted rifles were in their possession. As Ralph seized his, however, the boy, in his eagerness, tripped and fell with a crash against some tin cooking pots.
Like a flash, the soldiers, who had been bending over Pete, wheeled about. But it was to look into the muzzles of their own rifles they did so.
Too dumfounded at the sudden turn events had taken to move, the insurrectos stood there quaking. Evidently the mestizos expected nothing better than instant death.
"Ralph, take your knife, and cut loose Pete and the professor, quick!"
Jack gave the order without averting his eyes from the three scared insurrectos.
While he and Walt kept the fellows covered, Ralph hastened to Pete's side, and in a few seconds the cow-puncher and the professor were free, although almost too stiff to move. The professor was, moreover, lame. With a groan, he sank back on a rock, unable, for the time being, to move.
Pete, however, gave himself a vigorous shake, and instantly made a dart for the saddle of one of the horses. He returned in a jiffy with two lariats, with which he proceeded to "hog-tie" the Mexicans with neatness and despatch, as he himself would have expressed it.
This done, he turned to Jack.
"Thank the Lord, you're safe, boy," he breathed, and for a minute Jack saw something bright glisten in the rugged fellow's eyes. But the next instant he was the same old Pete.
"Waal," he said, looking about him, "I reckon the next move is to stop these gents frum any vocal exercise, and then we skedaddle."
"That's the program, Pete," assented Jack, hastening to the professor's side. The old man was almost overcome.
"My boys! My boys!" he kept repeating. "I never thought to see you again."
"Nor we you, for a while, professor," said Jack hastily, while Pete, not over-gently, stuffed the Mexicans' mouths full of gags made from their own shirts.
"But, my boy, you will have to leave me again," went on the man of science dejectedly, "my ankle pains me so that I cannot move."
"But you can ride, can't you, sir?" asked Ralph.
"Yes! yes! I can do that. But where are your horses?"
"Right thar," said Pete, coming up. He waved his hand in an eloquent gesture at the animals standing at the edge of the little clearing, "take yer pick, gents. Thet little sorrel jes' about suits me."
So saying, the cow-puncher picked out a wiry, active looking little beast, and selected four others for his companions. The professor was aided into the saddle somehow, and, once up, sat clinging to the horn desperately.
"They'll never take me alive, boys," he assured them.
"That's the stuff, sir," cried Pete lustily; "you'll make a broncho-busting plainsman yet. Now, then, are we all ready?"
"All ready here," sung out Jack, who, like the others, was already in his borrowed saddle.
"All right, then. We're off, as the fellow says."
Pete dug his heels into his active little mount's sides, and the cayuse sprang forward in a way that showed Pete he was bestride of a good animal for their purposes.
Followed by the others, he plunged forward into the darkling woods, while behind them in the clearing three of the most astonished Mexicans across the border stood raging inwardly with seething fires, but outwardly voiceless and helpless as kittens. Thus, by an astonishing train of circumstances, were our adventurers once more together.
"But how in thunderation——?" began Pete, as they rode forward.
"We'll tell you some other time," broke in Jack. "The main thing now is to get away from here, for I've a notion that in no very short time it's going to be mighty unhealthy for gringoes."
"Guess you're right, lad. How're yer makin' out, perfusser?"
"Except for a pain in my ankle, I am getting along very well, thank you," was the reply.
"Say, he's all wool and a yard wide, even if he does look like a softy," declared Pete, to himself.
Threading their way through the wood, the fugitives emerged, after some hard riding, upon the bare hillside. Below them, and some distance ahead, could be seen the twinkling lights of the village Jack had noticed the night before, while on their right hands gleamed the firefly-like lights of the insurrecto camp.
"That must be ther road down thar," said Pete, pointing. "What d'ye say, ef we cut inter it below ther camp?"
"And ride into the village?" asked Ralph.
"Not to any vast extent, lad," rejoined the cow-puncher. "I'll bet Ramon and Muddy-hairo, or whatever his name is, hev thet greaser community purty well tagged with our descriptions by now. No, we'll hit ther road below the camp, and then swing off afore we hit ther village. It will beat wanderin' about on these hills, and, besides, we've got ter hev water an' food purty soon. I'm most tuckered out."
This reminded the others that they, too, were almost exhausted, and it was agreed by all that Pete's plan was a good one. By keeping to the road, they might find a hacienda or native hut where they could obtain refreshments without being asked embarrassing questions.
As they rode along, talking thus in low tones, Coyote Pete suddenly drew rein. On the dark hillside he loomed for an instant, as fixed and motionless as an equestrian statue.
"What's the trouble?" asked Ralph.
"Hush, lad. Do you hear something?"
Faintly, very faintly, out of the west came a sound full of sinister significance.
Clickety-clack! Clickety-clack! Clickety-clack!
"They're after us!" exclaimed Jack, reading the night-borne sounds aright.
BUCK BRADLEY'S AUTOMOBILE.
How their escape had been discovered so soon, was, had there been time for it, a matter of speculation. There was little doubt, though, that some of the searchers, returning unexpectedly, had come across the bound mestizos, and had at once given the alarm.
Coyote Pete glanced about him, as if looking for some means of escape. The turn of the road that they hoped to make was still some distance ahead, but the road itself lay stretched, like a white, dusty ribbon, just before them. In the darkness, it showed clearly, and, as his eyes fell upon it, Coyote Pete's mind was made up.
"Take to the road," he cried, "there's a gulch just a little way up ahead of us."
In fact, the plainsman's watchful eye had detected, a short distance ahead, a black void in the surface of the hillside, which he guessed to be a deep arroyo.
Their horses' hoofs clattered in an unpleasantly loud manner, as they reached the hard highway, and began to hammer down it, still bearing due east. Behind them now they could hear distinctly the yells and shouts of the pursuers. They were still some distance off, however.
"Let 'em howl," remarked Coyote Pete. "The lung exercise is all they'll git. With this start, we ought to beat them out easy."
"Look! Look!" cried Ralph, suddenly pointing ahead. "What's that?"
They all saw it at the same moment—two big lights, like eyes. Seemingly, the astonishing apparition was coming toward them at a good speed. The shafts of light cast forward cut the darkness like fiery swords.
The fugitives paused, bewildered. What did this new circumstance betoken?
"What do you make her out to be, Pete?" asked Jack.
"Why, boy, if it warn't thet we're down in such a benighted part of ther country, I should say that yonder was a gasoline gig."
"An automobile!" exclaimed Walt. "It does look like one, for a fact."
"And, to my way of thinking, a naughtymobile is jes' about the ticket fer us, right now," grunted Pete. "Hark!"
There was no doubt now that the two shimmering bright lights ahead were the head lanterns of an auto. They could hear the sharp cough of her engines, as she took the hill.
"She's a powerful one, too," commented Ralph, listening. The Eastern lad knew a good deal about motor cars. His face bore an interested expression.
"I don't know who'd own one of them things down here but an American," went on Pete, as if he had been in a reverie all this time, "and if it is a Yankee, it means that maybe we are out of our difficulties."
"Well, what shall we do?" demanded Jack. "Meet it, or take to the woods?"
As he spoke, from far behind them came the sound of shots and shouts. That settled it.
"We'll take a chance, and meet them," declared Pete, riding forward.
Followed by the others, he deployed across the road, and an instant later the bright glare of the car's headlights enveloped them. From the vehicle, there came a sharp hail as the driver ground down the brakes.
"Say, you fellows, can you direct us to the camp?"
"They're nothing but a bunch of greasers," came another voice from behind the lights; "drive ahead, Jim."
"Hold on thar, Buck," hailed Coyote Pete. "I'd like ter hev a word with you."
"Say, are you chaps Americans?" demanded an astonished voice.
"Reckon so," hailed back Pete dryly, "that's what my ma said. Who air you, anyhow?"
"I am Big Buck Bradley, manager, owner and sole proprietor of Buck Bradley's Unparalleled Monst-er-ous and Unsurpassed Wild West Show and Congress of Cowboys," came back the answer. "Who are you?"
"Well, I reckon jes' at present we're in danger of being made a Wild West Show of, ourselves," drawled Pete. "But are you really Buck Bradley himself?"
"I was, at dinner-time," was the response.
"Hoorah!" yelled Pete. "It ain't possible, is it, Buck, thet you've forgot Mister Peter de Peyster?"
"What, Coyote Pete?"
"Waal, you thundering old coyote, what air you doin' here?"
"Gittin' chased by a bunch of the toughest insurrectos you ever clapped eyes on, and it's up ter you ter help us out," responded Pete. He looked back, and motioned to the others, who had listened in astonishment to this dialogue. "Come on, boys, and git interduced; there ain't much time fer ettiquette."
"Yee-ow-w-w-w-w!" came a yell behind them.
"What's that?" exclaimed Buck, who, as the boys could now see, was a big, red-faced chap, clad in a linen auto-duster, combined with which his sombrero, with its beaded band, looked odd.
"Why, that's an invitation ter us ter stop," rejoined Pete.
Rapidly he explained the case, and Buck began to roar and bellow angrily, as was his wont.
"Waal, what d'yer think uv that? The derned greasers! And I was on my way ter give 'em some free tickets. We show down in the village to-night. Help you out? Surest thing you know. Turn them broncs loose, and you and yer friends pile in. Tell me ther rest as we go along."
The party of adventurers, as may be imagined, lost no time in accepting the Wild West Show man's hearty invitation, the professor being helped into the tonneau by Coyote Pete, who lifted the bony scientist as if he were nothing but a featherweight.
"Back her up, and turn around, bo," Buck ordered his chauffeur. "I'm out in my guess if we've got much time to lose."
Rapidly the car was turned, and was soon speeding in the direction they wished to go. The stolen insurrecto horses galloped off into the hills, snorting with terror, as the car began to move.
"Say, Pete, what-cher bin doin'?" began Buck, as the vehicle gathered way, "shootin' up ther town?"
"No, siree! I'm a law-abidin' citizen now," came from Pete, "and actin' as chaperony to this yer party."
"You seem ter hev chaperoned them inter a heap of trouble," observed Buck dryly, as the car gathered way.
"'Tain't all my fault. Listen," rejoined Pete, and straightaway launched into a detailed account of their adventures.
"Waal," observed Buck, at the conclusion, "you sure are the number one chop feller fer gettin' inter trouble, but you bet yer life I ain't a-goin' ter fergit ther time yer stood up with me and held off a bunch of crazy cattle-thieves, down on the Rio Grande. So, gents, give yer orders, and Buck Bradley 'ull carry 'em out."
But, alas! as the redoubtable owner of Buck Bradley's Unparalleled, etc., Wild West uttered these words, there came a sudden loud report.
"Christopher! They're firing from ambush!" yelled Pete, jumping two feet up from his seat in the tonneau.
"Worse than that, consarn the luck!" growled Bradley, "thet rear tire's busted agin."
"Can't you run on a flat wheel?" asked Ralph anxiously.
"Not over these roads, son. We wouldn't last ten minutes. Hey you, chaffer! Get out an' fix it, willyer?"
"I'll try, sir," said the man, bringing the bumping, jolting car to a stop.
"Try, sir?" echoed Buck indignantly. "Didn't you tell me, when I hired you, thet you was a first-class, A number one chaffer?"
"Sure I did," was the indignant reply, as the driver knelt in the dust and began examining the tire carefully. "But you can't fix a puncture in a jiffy."
"This one is a-goin' ter be fixed in a jiffy," rejoined Buck ominously, "or there'll be a punctured chaffer 'round here."
As he spoke, the proprietor of the Wild West Show moved his great bulk in the forward seat, and produced a heavy-calibred revolver, that glistened in the starlight.
"Get busy!" he ordered.
"Y-y-y-y-yes, sir," stuttered the chauffeur, who had been hired in San Antonio, before the show crossed the border, and found itself in the country of the insurrectos.
"Maybe I can give him a hand—I know something about cars," volunteered Ralph.
"Then help him out, will yer son?" puffed the red-faced Buck Bradley. "It's my private opinion," he went on, in a voice intended to be confidential, but which was merely a subdued bellow, "that that chaffer of mine couldn't chaff a chafing dish."
Ralph took one of the oil headlights out of its socket, and, taking it to the back of the car, found the chauffeur scratching his head over the tire.
"What's the trouble?" asked Ralph.
"Why, you see, sir," stammered the chauffeur, "I don't just exactly know. I think it's a puncture, but——"
"Say, aren't you supposed to be a chauffeur?" inquired Ralph disgustedly.
"Waal, I run a taxicab onct," was the reply, in a low tone, however, "but that's all the chauffering I ever done. You see, I went broke in San Antone, and——"
"All right; all right," snapped Ralph impatiently. "Say, you people, you'd better get out of the car, while I tinker this up."
"Is it a bad bust-up?" puffed Buck Bradley, clambering out. "I only bought ther car a week ago, and I've spent more time under it than in it, ever since."
"It's not very bad—just a little blow-out," announced Ralph, who had been examining the wheel. "Got a jack and an emergency kit?"
"Sure!" snorted Buck Bradley. "Here, you excuse for a chaffer, git ther hospital outfit, and hurry up."
"Please, sir, I—I forgot the emergency kit," stuttered the new chauffeur.
"You forgot! Great Moses!" howled Buck. "Have you got the jack, then?"
"Get it, please," said Ralph, pulling off one of his gloves. The boy rapidly slashed it with his pocket-knife, while the others watched him interestedly. In the meantime, the chauffeur had tremblingly "jacked up" the car.
Binding his handkerchief about the puncture, and placing the leather from his glove about that, Ralph rapidly wound some strips of raw-hide from Pete's pockets about the bandage. This done he proceeded to blow up the tire. To his great joy the extemporized "plug" held. The tire swelled and grew hard.
"It won't last long, but it may hold long enough for us," said Ralph, as he let the car down again and handed the jack to the "chaffer."
As the man took and replaced it at the back of the car, Buck Bradley regarded him with extreme disfavor. Then he turned to Ralph.
"Say, sonny," he said, "did you say you could run a car?"
"I think so."
Bradley turned to his "chaffer."
"Here, you!" he bellowed, "it's about two miles into town. Hoof it in thar an' when yer git ter camp tell Sam Stow to run ther show ter-night. I'm off on important business, tell him."
As the "chaffer" shuffled off, Buck Bradley began to hum:
"I knew at dawn, when de rooster crowed, Dere wuz gwine ter be trouble on de Gran' Trunk Ro-ad!"
"It's a good thing you got that done in jig-time, young feller," spoke Buck, as the job and his song were finished, and they scrambled back into the car, "fer here they come."
He pointed back up the starlit road.
Not more than a few hundred yards off, several mounted figures came into view. At the same moment that the occupants of the car sighted them, the pursuing insurrectos made out the automobile.
Yelling at the top of their voices, they swept down upon it.
"Let 'er out, and don't bother ter hit nuthin' but ther high places," Buck admonished Ralph, who now held the wheel.
AT THE ESMERALDA MINE.
"If only I was certain that my boy and his friends were safe, Geisler, I wouldn't feel so much anxiety."
Mr. Merrill, an anxious look on his face, paced up and down the floor of the office of the Esmeralda Mine. It was the morning of the day following the dash for safety in Buck Bradley's car, and the mine owner and his superintendent had been in anxious consultation since breakfast. In truth, they had enough to worry them. In the specie room of the mine was stored more than $20,000 worth of dust, the product of the big stamp mill.
From what they had been able to ascertain, the insurrectos were unusually active in the neighborhood. Open warning had been sent to the American mine owners, including Mr. Merrill, to be prepared to yield up generously and freely, or have their property destroyed. In addition to this worry, the mine owner and his superintendent, together with the three young "level bosses," had been practically cut off from communication with the outside world for the past twenty-four hours.
A branch of the Chihuahua Northern tapped the mine, but no train had puffed its way up the steep grade for more than three days, and it was useless to try to use the wires, as they had been put out of commission almost at the beginning of the trouble in the province.
"If I had ever dreamed the trouble would assume such serious proportions, the last thing I would have done would have been to allow the professor or his young charges to journey to the Haunted Mesa," continued the mine owner.
Geisler, a rotund German, with a wealth of flaxen hair and moustache, puffed at his china-bowled pipe before replying.
"Dese Megxicans is der teufel ven dey get started, ain'd idt?" he remarked. "For a veek, now, dere has not been a tap of vork done py der mine, und nodt a sign uv der rabblescallions uv loafers vot vos employed deere."
"That is a lesson to me in employing Mexican labor," declared Mr. Merrill emphatically. "If it isn't a saint's day carousal, it's a revolution, and if it isn't a revolution, it's a bad attack of aversion to work. I tell you, Geisler, the folks who are sympathizing with these insurrectos don't know the people or the country."
"Dot is righd," rejoined Geisler, expelling a cloud of blue smoke. "De country iss all righd, but der peoples—ach!"
He spread his hands, as if in despair. As he did so, the door of the wooden building opened, giving a glimpse of the empty, idle shaft-mouth beyond, and a young man of about twenty-two or so entered.
He was a mining student, employed as a level boss by Mr. Merrill. His employer looked up as he entered.
"Well, Markley, any news?"
"Why, sir, that arrant rascal, Pedro, just rode by. I asked him if he couldn't get the men back to work on Number Two, and he wouldn't hear of it. He says that the insurrectos are going to wipe out all the American mines, and drive the gringoes out of the country."
"Oh, they are, are they?" questioned Mr. Merrill, a grim look overspreading his face. "Just let them try it on the Esmeralda, that's all."
"You mean that you would oppose them, sir?"
"Oppose them! Holy smoke, man, you don't think I'd sit here with my hands folded and let a lot of rascally mestizos wreck my property, do you?"
"I should remarg idt not," puffed Herr Geisler.
"But, sir, there are only five of us here. How long do you suppose we could stick it out?"
"Till der lastd oldt cat be dead, py chiminy!" exploded the German. "Herr Merrill, you are all righd. Young man, are you afraidt?"
"No," protested young Markley indignantly, "but——"
"Budt what, eh? Answer me dot, blease. Budt vot?"
The belligerent German advanced till his pudgy forefinger was shaking under Markley's aristocratic nose.
"Well, they say, you know, that Madero isn't very gentle to his prisoners, especially when they happen to be gringoes."
"There, there, Markley," said Mr. Merrill, with a tinge of impatience, "don't repeat all the old gossips' tales about Madero. Why, if one believed half of them, he would be endowed with hoofs and horns, not to mention a tail with a spike on the end. If either you or Redman or Jennings wishes to leave the mine, you may. I'll write you a check for the amount I owe you now."
"Well, you see, sir," began Markley, but Geisler interrupted him furiously.
"Ach Himmel! Vot are you, a man or a Strassbourg pie? Donnervetter! Go! Raus! gedt oudt! Vamoose!"
"Sir," began Markley, turning to Mr. Merrill from this furious storm of abuse.
But his employer had taken out his check-book and fountain pen, and seemed intent upon making out the pink slips. Markley, baffled, turned with a red face toward Geisler.
"It's all right for you to talk," he said in an aggrieved tone, "but we are all young fellows. We have our careers in front of us. We want to make something of ourselves——"
"Ach!" broke out the German explosively, waving his pipe about angrily, "make deaders of yourselfs. Dot is vot you shouldt do. Go on. Dere are your pay checks. Take dem, und gedt oudt."
Glad enough to escape, Markley hastily thanked his employer, and, snatching up the pink slips, made for the door. Outside, Redman and Jennings were waiting.
"Come on," said Jennings, as Markley waved the checks, "let's get out of here. Old Madero may be along at any minute, and they say he hangs you up by the thumbs, and——"
Their voices died out, as they hurried off to pack their belongings, after which they made off for the nearest town, some ten miles away to the southeast.
"Veil," began the explosive Teuton, as their voices died away, "dere iss dree vine specimens—nodt by no means."
"You can hardly blame them for looking out for their own interests," rejoined Mr. Merrill. "It isn't everybody who, like you, would stick by his employer at the risk of his neck."
"You is more dan my employer, py chiminy, you voss mein friendt," exclaimed Geisler. "I aindt forgot it dot time dat no vun vouldt gif me a chob pecos dey dink I been vun pig vool. Vot didt you do, den? You proved yourself anudder fooll py gifing me a chob. Dink you, den, I run from dis, my dearie-o? Oh, not by a Vestphalia ham! Here I am, und here I shtay shtuck, py chiminy!"
The mine owner gave his faithful super a grateful look, and then snatched up his soft hat with a brisk movement.
"Come, Geisler," he said, "let us take a look around. Possibly, in the event of an attack, there may be one or two places that will need strengthening."
"Ach, Himmel! vot a mans," muttered the German to himself, as he followed his employer out. "I vork for him, und, py chiminy grickets, I vight for him too, alretty."
The stamp mill and main buildings of the mine, including the boiler and engine room, were surrounded by a stout fence of one-inch planking, perhaps ten feet in height. Frequent strikes and minor outbreaks among the Mexican miners had persuaded Mr. Merrill to follow the example of most of his fellow American mine owners in Mexico, and be prepared for emergencies. Facing toward the west, was a large gate in this "stockade," as it might almost be called. Surmounting this, was the bell, idle now, with which the miners were summoned to work. From the gate, which was swung open as Markley and his cronies had left it in their retreat, could be seen a huddle of small adobe houses—the homes of the laborers—and beyond these, and deeper in the valley, lay the red-tiled roofs and green gardens of Santa Marta, the nearest town.
Men could be seen moving about the laborers' huts—in fact, there was an air almost of expectant bustle about the place. Shielding his eyes, Mr. Merrill gazed down toward the little town. His keen vision had caught the glint of a firearm of some sort between the legs of a man seated outside one of the huts.
"These chaps must have advance information of some sort," he remarked to Geisler. "That fellow yonder is cleaning up a rifle."
"Looks like it voss business alretty," remarked Geisler. "Himmel, I vould gif vun dollar und ninety-eight cents, alretty, to see a troop of regulars coming up der railroad tracks."
But the tracks lay empty and shining before them, without even a freight car backed upon a siding to suggest the activity that, at this time of the week, usually reigned about the mine.
"There isn't a regiment nearer than Rosario, at last reports," rejoined Mr. Merrill, "and no way of reaching them, now that the wires are cut. If only I dared leave the place, I'd ride to Rosario, but the instant we vacated it, those yellow jackals down yonder would come swarming in."
"Dot is right," agreed Geisler, with a frown, "dey know, vorse luck, aboudt der amount of goldt vot is stored in der strong room. I bet you your life, dey iss yust votching for a chance to make idt a addack py der mine."
"That's my idea, too, Geisler, and—— Hullo, who's this coming?"
AN ACT OF TREACHERY.
He pointed inquiringly down the hillside at a young figure on horseback that was wearily climbing the declivity.
"He voss come a goot long vay, alretty," commented Geisler, taking in the dust-covered appearance of horse and rider. The gray powder, which covered both, was visible even at that distance.
"He's an American," went on Mr. Merrill, "a young man, too. I don't recollect ever having seen him before round here. Wonder what he wants?"
While he spoke, the rider came rapidly forward, and presently drew rein beside the miner and his super. He was a young man, tall, well muscled, and with a well-poised head, but his eyes were set rather too close, and there was something about that clean-shaven chin that rather made you distrust him.
"I've beaten those kids to it," he muttered to himself, as his eyes first took in the two solitary figures standing at the gate. "The rest will be easy."
Bob Harding, for it was the exiled West Pointer, could hardly help smiling, in fact, as he comprehended the simplicity of his task.
"Good morning," he said in a pleasant voice, as he rode up. "Is this the Esmeralda Mine?"
"It is," rejoined Mr. Merrill, "and I am its owner. Come in and rest yourself, won't you? You look fagged."
It was the hearty, cordial greeting of one American in a strange land to a fellow countryman. Bob Harding accepted with alacrity. He slipped from his saddle as if he were weary to death, and, indeed, his travel-stained clothes supported that idea. If the two men facing him, though, could have seen him scattering dust in liberal proportions over himself and his horse a short time before, they might not have fallen into his trap so easily. With quirt and spur, he had worked his horse into a sweat. At such tricks, Bob Harding was an adept.
But of all this, of course, neither Mr. Merrill nor his super had any idea. To their unsuspecting minds, Bob Harding was a fellow-countryman in difficulty, and they treated him accordingly.
"Phew!" remarked Harding, slipping his reins over his arm, and following Mr. Merrill within the stockade, "I had a tough time getting away from those insurrectos."
The remark had just the effect he intended it should have. Mr. Merrill regarded him with astonishment. Geisler muttered gutturally.
"The insurrectos!" exclaimed Mr. Merrill. "Are they near at hand?"
"They were," rejoined Bob Harding, secretly rejoicing to see how well his plan was working, "but they are now in retreat. The government troops met them near San Angelo, and drove them back to the west."
"I had no idea there were any government troops closer than Rosario."
"Nor had Madero's flying column, as he called it. But he found out a few hours ago. In the confusion I escaped and rode on here. I have a message for you from your son."
"My son! Good Heavens! Is Jack in the hands——"
"He was a prisoner of Madero, but he has escaped, and is now lying wounded at a spot I will guide you to."
"Himmel! Yack Merrill a prisoner, alretty!" gasped Herr Geisler.
"Not only Master Merrill, but two boy friends of his, an old gentleman, whom I should imagine was their instructor, and a cowboy."
"Yes, it must be them!" exclaimed Mr. Merrill. "But how, in the name of all that's wonderful, did they come across the border? I thought they were at the Haunted Mesa, in New Mexico."
"It is too long a story to relate to you now, senors," rejoined Bob Harding, "I may tell you, though, that they are safe at the hacienda of a friend. But your boy is seriously wounded, and must see you at once."
"Good Heavens, Geisler! This is terrible news, Mr.—Mr.——"
"Mr. Allen, of New York," put in Harding glibly.
"Terrible news that Mr. Allen of New York brings us. You were with them, Mr. Allen?"
"I was, sir. In my capacity as war correspondent for the Planet, I was with Madero's column. But, in the moment of defeat at the hands of the regulars, the miserable greasers turned on me as a gringo. I was compelled to flee for my life. First, however, I cut the bonds of our young friends and their comrades, and under cover of night we escaped."
Bob Harding was certainly warming to his subject as he went along. Mr. Merrill regarded him with gratitude.
"I've a horse in the stables, Mr. Allen," he said. "I'll saddle up, right away, and accompany you. How can I ever thank you for all you have done for my boy and his friends?"
"Don't mention it," said Allen glibly; "we Americans must do little things for one another, you know. But hurry, sir. Your boy was calling for you when I left."
"Poor lad!" exclaimed the deluded mine owner, hastening toward the stable. "Geisler, you must stay and look after the place. How far is it, Mr. Allen?"
"Not more than ten miles, sir," was the rejoinder.
"I can ride there and back before dark, then," declared Mr. Merrill. "If the lad is strong enough to be moved, I'll bring him with me."
All this time Geisler had been examining "Mr. Allen's" horse with a singular expression. As the miner owner vanished in the direction of the stable, he spoke:
"Dot poor horse of yours vos aboudt tuckered in, aindt it?" he inquired.
"Yes, poor brute," rejoined Bob Harding, "I rode at a furious pace."
"Und got all der dust on his chest, und none on his hind quvarters," commented the German suspiciously.
But Harding returned his gaze frankly, and wiped his brow with a great appearance of weariness.
"Is that so?" he said. "I didn't notice it. But then, I rode so hard, and——"
"Are you ready, Mr. Allen?"
It was Mr. Merrill's voice. He rode up, as he spoke, on a big chestnut, which he had saddled and bridled faster than he had ever equipped a horse before.
"All ready, sir," was the response, as Bob Harding swung himself into his saddle again.
Geisler had run into the office. Now he reappeared, holding something under his coat. He approached Mr. Merrill's side, and, while Bob Harding was leaning over examining his saddle-girth, the German slipped the object he held to his employer.
"Idt's a gun," he whispered. "Keep idt handy. Py chiminy, I dink maype you need him pefore you get through."
"With the insurrectos in retreat?" laughed Mr. Merrill. "Geisler, you are getting nervous in your old age. Come, Mr. Allen, let's be getting forward, I can hardly wait till I see my boy."
The horses plunged forward and clattered down the hillside.
Geisler watched them till a bend in the road below hid them from view. Then he turned slowly to reenter the stockade.
"Py chiminy," he muttered, emitting huge clouds of blue smoke, "I dink me dere vos a vood-pile in dot nigger, py cracious."
AT ROSARIO STATION.
The dull gray of the dawn was illuminating the east, and the breath of the morning astir in the tree-tops, when Bill Whiting, station agent at Rosario, began to bestir himself. The station agent was not about so early on account of passengers that might be expected by an early train—for the excellent reason that there was no morning train. Since fighting had begun in Chihuahua, schedules had, to quote Bill, "gone to pot." On a sidetrack lay a locomotive, smokeless and inert, just as her crew had abandoned her. Some loaded freight cars, their contents untouched, likewise stood on the spur. That Bill Whiting, however, meant to guard the railroad's property, was evidenced by the fact that strapped to his waist was a portly revolver, while a rifle lay handy in the ticket office, in which, since the outbreak of trouble, he had watched and slept and cooked.
Bill's first task, after tumbling out of his blankets and washing his face in a tin basin standing in one corner of the office, was to tap the telegraph key. The instrument gave out a lifeless "tick-tick."
"No juice—blazes!" grunted Bill, and, being a philosophical young man, he bothered himself no more about the matter, and went about getting his breakfast.
In the midst of his preparations, however, he suddenly straightened up and listened intently. To hear better, he even shoved aside the sizzling frying-pan from its position over one burner of his kerosene stove. What had attracted his attention was a distant sound—faint at first, but momentarily growing nearer.
"Blazes!" muttered Bill, scratching his head, and making for a rear window, which commanded a view of the long, white road. "What's that, I wonder? Sounds like a sick cow."
He gazed out of the window earnestly, and then suddenly recoiled with a startled exclamation.
"Blazes! It ain't no cow. It's an automobubble. Yes, sir, as sure as you live, it's a bubble. Whose can it be? Maybe it's old man Stetson's himself."
Chugging in a spasmodic sort of way, the car drew nearer, and the station agent now saw that there were several people in it.
"Looks like that car is spavined, or something," commented Bill. "Why, it's regularly limping; yes, sir—blazes!—it's limping, fer a fact."
Buck Bradley's auto was, in fact, at almost its "last gasp." Ralph's temporary repair had not lasted any longer than he had expected. Fortunately, at the time it gave out, the insurrectos had apparently given up the chase, and the party was not far from the hacienda of a friend of the genial Buck. At his suggestion, therefore, they diverted from their road to the mine, and swung off to this house. Here a hasty meal and a warm welcome were enjoyed, and Ralph set the car in order as best he could. Buck's friend, however, had news for them. He had heard that there was an encampment of regulars at Rosario, from which it was only a short run by rail to the branch on which the Esmeralda was located.
This information caused the party to change their plans. With the car in the condition in which it was, they doubted whether it would be possible to travel over the rough roads intervening between themselves and the mine. On the other hand, Rosario was not far off, and on a smooth, hard highway. If the information of Buck Bradley's friend was correct, and there was no reason to doubt it, the regulars were camped at Rosario guarding the line. What more easy than to explain their case to the leader of the Mexican regulars, and steal a march on the insurrectos by reaching the Esmeralda first by rail, and wiping out the band of Madero?
But, alas for human plans! The party in the auto was doomed to bitter disappointment. As they approached, and no camp was to be seen, they began to realize that their information had been inaccurate. Bill Whiting speedily clinched all doubt in the matter.
"Say, my friend," hailed Buck Bradley, as the agent emerged from his shack, "where are the soldiers?"
"You mean the greaser regulars?" was the rejoinder. "Blazes, they went off yesterday. Had a tip where Madero was, and they are after him, hot-foot, I reckon."
The boys exchanged despondent glances. Here was a fine end to their high hopes. The Esmeralda was now farther off than ever, and the auto was hopelessly crippled. One tire was worn almost to ribbons, a rim had been sprung, and two spark plugs had cracked. Every one of the party realized, as the car stopped with a sigh, that it couldn't move again until a tall lot of overhauling had been done.
"Anything I can do to help yer?" volunteered Bill, noting the woebegone faces of his countrymen.
"Nothing, son, unless you've got a wire working," sputtered Buck, who, as he did with everything, had gone into this matter, heart and soul.
"Wire!" echoed the station agent, "why, blazes, I couldn't put through a tap fer Diaz himself. The wire went dead two days ago, and I've been on my own hook since."
"What was the last word you had?" asked Jack, thinking, perhaps, that they might have some information in regard to affairs at the mine.
The agent dived into his pocket and fished out a yellow paper.
"Here it is," he exclaimed, "and it's signed by 'King Pin' Stetson himself: 'Keep freight moving at all hazards.'"
"It's signed by Mr. Stetson, you say?" exclaimed Ralph eagerly.
"Sure. He's the main boss on this road, you know, and——"
"I know, I know!" cried Ralph eagerly, "but is he here across the border?"
"Huh? Not he. He's in the best hotel in El Paso, consulting and smoking two-bit seegars. But my job's here, and here I stick."
But Ralph and Jack had not heard this speech. A light shone in the Eastern boy's eyes, the light of a great idea.
"There's a locomotive yonder, Jack," he whispered. "I can run one. I learned one summer when pop took me over the Squantock and Port Gloster line. You said there was a branch connecting with the Esmeralda. Why can't we go by rail?"
"By ginger, Ralph! Have you got the nerve?"
"Look at me."
Jack regarded his comrade an instant. There wasn't a flicker of an eyelash to show that Ralph was the least bit nervous. The experiences of the last few days had taught him much.
While Bill Whiting regarded them curiously, Jack hastily told the others of what Ralph had proposed.
"That appeals ter me as a ring-tailed roarer of a good idee," announced Buck Bradley, when he had finished.
"Waal, I'm more used ter doin' my fightin' ahorseback than from a loco, but I guess it goes here," chimed in Pete.
"An eminently sensible suggestion," was the professor's contribution. The maimed ankle of the man of science was now almost well, and, as he put it, he was "restored to his customary salubriosity."
"Then, all we've got to do, is to get permission to take the locomotive," declared Jack. He turned to Bill Whiting, who had been eyeing them curiously.
"We've got to get through to the Esmeralda mine," he said. "Our auto is broken down, and yet the fate of the mine, and perhaps the lives of its defenders, hang upon our arrival there as soon as possible. Have we your authority to run the locomotive through?"
"Say, son," drawled Bill Whiting, "put on your brakes. That's a compound, and even supposing I could let you take her, how would you run her?"
"There's a boy here who can run her all right," cried Jack impatiently. "All we need to have is your authority."
Bill Whiting shook his head.
"Sorry," he said. "I don't know you, and that loco's railroad property. I'm responsible fer it. Suppose you'd ditch her? No—blazes!—it wouldn't do at all."
"I'll give yer a hundred dollars gold fer two hours use uv that ingine," cried Buck Bradley.
"No good," declared Bill, shaking his head; "it's railroad property. I've got my job to look after, even if Chihuahua is turned inside out."
"But this is a matter of the utmost urgency," argued Jack. "Listen."
He rapidly detailed the outlines of their situation to the agent. The man was obdurate, however.
"Couldn't nobody touch that ingine but old man Stetson himself."
"How about his son?" Ralph's voice rang out clearly above the excited tones of the others.
"Waal, I reckon he could, but he ain't here."
"He isn't, eh?" demanded Ralph, hopping out of the tonneau, "well, my name happens to be Ralph Stetson."
"Oh, quit joking. You're Americans, like myself, and I'd like ter help you out, but I can't do it."
"Will you give me a chance to prove to you I'm Ralph Stetson?" asked Ralph eagerly.
"Sure; a dozen, if yer want 'em," grinned the agent, gazing at the ragged, tattered figure before him.
Ralph dived into his pocket and pulled out a bundle of letters and papers. Motioning the agent to sit beside him at the edge of the platform, he skimmed through them for the other's benefit. The group in the auto watched anxiously. A whole lot depended on Ralph's proving his identity.
"Say, blazes!" burst out the agent suddenly, "you are Ralph Stetson, ain't you?"
"I think those letters and papers prove it," answered the boy. "Now, do we get that loco?"
"I reckon so, if you say so. But, will you sign a paper, releasing me of responsibility?"
With what speed that paper was signed, may be imagined. In the meantime, Buck Bradley, who knew a thing or two about railroading himself, had his coat off, and was hard at work waking up the banked fires. Presently the forced draught began to roar, and black smoke to roll from the smoke-stack. By the time the auto had been wheeled in under a shed, and Bill Whiting asked to communicate with the government troops as soon as possible, all was ready for the start.
The engine was trembling under a good head of steam, white jets gushing from her safety valves.
"All ab-o-a-r-d!" yelled Pete, in the manner of a conductor, and Buck Bradley, who had stepped off after his labors to cool up a bit, began to climb back again.
"Why, are you going with us, Mr. Bradley?" demanded Jack amazedly. "What about your show?"
"Oh, Sam Stow kin look after that," was the easy rejoinder. "It won't be the first time. I've worked long enough; now I'm off for a little play."
"Won't be much play about it, I'm thinking," grunted Pete.
The engine bell clanged, a hoarse shriek came from her whistle, and the wheels began to revolve. Ralph was at the throttle, while Bill Whiting was up ahead to throw the switch.
"Good luck!" he cried, waving his hand as the locomotive swept by and rolled out upon the main line.
"Good-by!" cried the crowd of adventurers in the cab, waving their hands back at him.
Buck threw the furnace door open, and sent a big shovelful of coal skittering into the glaring interior. The cumbrous machine gave a leap forward, like a scared greyhound, as Ralph jerked the throttle open.
The Border Boys were off on what was to prove one of the most adventurous incidents of their lives.
JACK MERRILL'S "SPECIAL."
The landscape swam by, the telegraph poles flashed past, as the flying locomotive gained headway. The ponderous compound jolted and swung along over the rough tracks like a ship in a stormy sea. But the thrill of adventure, the buoyant sense of facing a big enterprise, rendered the lads oblivious to everything but the track ahead.
From time to time, Buck Bradley stopped his shoveling, and, holding by a hand-rail, leaned far out from the footplate, scanning the metals that stretched out in two parallel lines ahead.
"Be like them varmints to hev blown up a bridge, or spiked a track," he muttered.
All eyes were now on the alert for the first sight of the red-brick station—the only one on the line—which Bill Whiting had told them marked the Esmeralda switch. As yet it had not come into view, but they judged it must be around a curve which lay ahead, the far side of which was hidden from them by a clump of woods. Suddenly, from this clump emerged a figure, waving a red flag. He stopped in the middle of the track, waving his flag frantically.
"Shut down!" yelled Buck. "There's danger ahead!"
"Looks more like a trick, to me," growled the wary Coyote Pete.
"Can't afford to take chances," rejoined Buck. "How do we know what's the tother side of that curve?"
"That's so," agreed Pete; "them critters might hev planted a ton of dynamite there, fer all we know."
The brakes ground down, and the panting locomotive came to a stop within a few feet of the man with the red flag. It could now be seen that he was a small, dark Mexican, wearing a high-crowned hat.
"Why, I know that fellow, he——" began Ralph. But his recognition of the fellow, whom he had seen in Madero's camp, came too late.
From the woods ahead of them, a perfect hailstorm of bullets began to spit about the engine. Fortunately, none of the occupants of her cab were struck, although the windows were splintered and the woodwork honeycombed.
"Go ahead!" roared Buck.
"What if they've torn up the track?" gasped Ralph.
"Not likely. If they had, they wouldn't be bothering to shoot at us. Let her out. Ouch!"
A bullet whizzed past the burly showman's ear, and just nicked the tip of it.
With a roar of rage, like the bellowings of an angry bull, he leaned his huge form out of the window and began pumping lead from his revolver into the woods. It is doubtful if his fire had any effect, but at that minute Ralph started the engine up again. A yell came from the Mexicans within the wood, as he did so. A hundred or more poured out, firing as they came.
"Duck, everybody!" yelled Coyote Pete, as the storm broke.
A tempest of lead rattled about the engine, but, thanks to the protection of the steel cab, not one of the crouching occupants was hurt. Almost before they realized it, they had swung around the curve, and were safe. As Buck Bradley had surmised, no attempt had been made to wreck the track beyond, the insurrectos having counted, seemingly, on stopping the dash for the Esmeralda by their ambush in the wood.
"Consarn their yellow hides," grunted Pete, "that shows they kep' closer tabs on us then we knew. I reckon they was scared to follow us to Rosario, thinking, like we did, that the regulars was there. Waal, that was a neat little surprise party, but it didn't work."
Round the curve they tore, at a hair-raising gait, but the engine stuck to the metals. Ten minutes later a cheer went up, as the red-brick station, which they knew must mark the Esmeralda switch, came in sight.
"I got the switch key from Whiting," cried Buck, as they reached the switch, "I'll throw it."
He swung himself down from the cab, and ran rapidly ahead, down the track, to the switch lever. As he bent over it, from a clump of bushes near by, there leaped a score or more of men.
"Buck! Buck!" yelled Coyote Pete.
The big fellow looked up just in time. The foremost of his attackers was upon him as he threw the switch over. Buck picked him up, and fairly pitched the little Mexican over his head. The man fell in a heap at one side of the track.
"Come ahead!" bawled Buck, while the others hesitated and held back.
Ralph started the engine up, and it rolled toward the switch points. This seemed to wake the hesitating Mexicans to life. With a yell, they made a concerted rush for Buck, but, as they did so, Ralph pulled the whistlecord, and the locomotive emitted an ear-splitting screech. The Mexicans hastily jumped aside, to avoid being run down, while Buck made a leap to exactly the opposite side of the track. As the engine puffed by, he swung on. As he did so, however, one of the yellow men made a spring for the switch. It was his evident intention to throw it, while the engine was passing over it, and ditch them.
But, before he could carry out his intention, Jack, who had seen what was about to happen, had snatched up a hunk of coal. With all his force, he aimed it at the fellow, and struck him fair and square on the head. The would-be train-wrecker toppled backward with a groan, just escaping the wheels of the engine. Before he gathered himself up and realized what had hit him, the engine was roaring and puffing its way up the grade to the Esmeralda.
"That shows us what we may expect at the mine," commented Jack. "I hope they are still all right."
"Don't worry about that, boy," comforted Buck, noting his troubled face. "The fact that Madero had his men along the line shows that he anticipated our game—like the shrewd ruffian he is. It stands to reason he couldn't have his precious squadron, or column, or whatever he calls it, in two places at once, so I guess we'll be in time yet."
"I hope so, I'm sure," breathed Jack. "If we failed now, it would be the bitterest moment of my life."
But, as they came in sight of the tall stockade and the smokeless chimneys of the Esmeralda, they saw that their apprehensions were groundless. No sign of life appeared about the mine buildings. But presently, in answer to a long blast on the whistle, a strange figure came toddling out of the gate. It was that of Geisler. As he saw the engine, with its load of friendly faces, he broke into a cheer, and ran toward the track side.
"Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!" he yelled, waving his china-bowled pipe about his head. "Diss iss der bestest thing I've seen since I had idt der Cherman measles, alretty yet."
As the brakes ground down, and with a mighty exhalation of steam and a sigh from the air-brakes, the locomotive came to a stop, Jack leaped from the cab and ran toward the German. To his astonishment, Geisler almost recoiled as he drew near, and uttered a shout.
"Donner blitzen! I voss righdt den, idt vos a trap dot dose rascals laid."
"What do you mean, Mr. Geisler? Where is my father?" gasped Jack, all in one breath.
"Himmel!" sputtered the German. "Oh, diss is an onloocky day, py chiminy. A young feller rode it to der mine, early to-day, undt told your fader dot you vos wounded, and——"
"My father went with this fellow?" demanded the boy, his eyes blazing with eagerness and anxiety.
"Ches. He thought dot idt vos all righdt, und——"
"It's a trick of Madero's to rush the mine!" exclaimed Buck, who, with the others, came up as the German was ejaculating the last words.
"Dot is vot I dink idt. Listen."
Forthwith the German launched into a detailed report of what had occurred, not omitting a full description of Harding, which was instantly recognized by the boys.
"Harding, the scoundrel!" exclaimed Jack.
"I'd like to get my hands on him for just five minutes," breathed Walt viciously.
Buck and the others, who were, of course, familiar with what had occurred to the boys with Madero's column, were also incensed.
"Such men should be hanged!" exclaimed the professor, with what was for him, a remarkable display of emotion.
"Budt come," urged the German, as he concluded his narrative, "vee hadt better be getting inside der stockade."
He pointed down toward the miners' village, where men could be seen hastening about, as if preparing to take action of some sort. What that action was, they guessed too well. Acting in concert with Madero, they meant to storm the mine, and break open the specie room.
Ralph ran the locomotive upon a switch and locked the throwing lever. Then he followed the others through the gate of the stockade. As it closed behind them, Geisler let fall a stout wooden bar into sockets prepared for it.
"I guess dot holdt dem for a viles," he said, as the bar clattered into position.
But Jack's thoughts were distracted, and his manner absorbed. His mind was fixed upon Harding's rascality, and the probable dilemma in which his father now was. Buck Bradley noticed the boy's despondent air, and sought to cheer him up.
"Brace up, Jack," he roared in his hearty way, "your pop is all right. According to my way of thinking, those greasers just lured him away from here, so that they could have easy access to the specie room. They knew that if he was on the ground, he'd blow up the whole shooting-match before he'd let them get at the gold."
"Then you don't think they have harmed him, Mr. Bradley?"
"Not they, my lad," was the reassuring rejoinder, "they wouldn't dare to injure a prominent American like your dad. Why, our troops are all massed at San Antone—for manoeuvers, the department says—but as surely as my name is Buck Bradley, the troops are there to see that the greasers don't get too fresh. You see, Jack, Uncle Sam don't want to mix in other folks' troubles. He believes in playing in his own back yard, but when any one treads on your Uncle's toes, or injures one of his citizens—then, look out for high voltage shocks."
"You have relieved my mind a whole lot, Mr. Bradley," said Jack gratefully. "I guess it's as you say. Madero and his crowd wouldn't want to run the risk of an American invasion."
"You can bet a stack of yaller chips on that, boy. But now, let's follow this Dutchman around and see what the lay of the ground is. If we've got to put up a scrap—and I guess we have—it's a long move in the right direction to have your surroundings sized up accurate. By the way, is this fellow Geisler all right?"
"My father thinks he is the most faithful and capable mining super in the country," answered Jack warmly. "I guess he is, too. I only met him once before on a former visit to the mine, but he sort of inspires me with confidence."
"Same here, Jack. I tell you the Dutch kin raise some Cain when they get going, and that fellow looks to me like one of the right brand."
Thus talking, they came up with the others. Geisler was explaining volubly his plan of defense. Buck Bradley interrupted him.
"What's the matter with boring some holes all around the stockade?" he asked. "We can fire from behind them if it's necessary, without exposing ourselves."
"Buck, that's a great idea," declared Pete, whose eyes were shining at the thought of what he termed "some action." "Got a brace and bit, Geisler?"
"Sure. Ve-e haf a whole barrel of braces and bitters," was the response, as the corpulent Teuton hastened off to get the tools.
At the part of the stockade at which they now were standing a ladder, used in some repairing job, still leaned against the high, wooden fence. Coyote Pete, struck by a sudden idea, clambered up it, and gazed over the top of the defensive barricade. As his head topped the summit, he gave a shout and rapidly ducked. At the same instant a sound, like the hum of an angry bee, buzzed above their heads.
"A bullet!" gasped Buck Bradley.
"That's wot, pod'ner," rejoined Pete, "and it's the first of a whole flock of such like. The country off to the southwest is jest alive with insurrectos!"
THE ATTACK ON THE MINE.
Flinging his legs over each side of the ladder, Coyote Pete slid to the ground like a boy sliding down a cellar door.
"I could catch the glint of sunlight on their rifles," he explained. "The beggars were trying to approach unseen, though, I guess, for they were sneaking round a neck of woods so as to take advantage of that arroyo that runs almost up to the mine. Better get busy with that borer."
And "get busy" they did. Holes were rapidly bored in the stockade, the apertures being of sufficient size to accommodate comfortably the muzzle of a rifle. Above each such hole another was bored, to enable the defenders to see the position of their foes. Although this work took more than an hour, there was still no sign of the enemy. But they evidently had a close watch kept on the mine, for a hat elevated on a long stick above the top of the stockade was promptly riddled with bullets.
"Jingo!" gasped Jack. "Those fellows mean business."
"What do you suppose they are going to do?" Walt asked Buck Bradley. The stout showman looked grave.
"This hanging back looks bad," he rejoined. "I guess they are waiting till dusk so as to try and catch us unprepared. Evidently they figger they've got us where they want us, and there is no use being in a rush about finishing us up."
Buck's words were grim, but his expression was grimmer yet. The former ranch boss had been in many a tough place in his day, but revolving the situation in his mind he could not call to recollection any more dangerous circumstances than those in which he now found himself.
"Bottled and corked," was the way he expressed it to Coyote Pete, who fully shared his apprehensions.
Fortunately, behind the office of the mine, there was a small room well stocked with rifles and ammunition. This was wise precaution of Mr. Merrill's, who, knowing the Mexican character to a T, had insisted on this room being provided in case of strikes or other difficulties.
The store of arms was drawn upon freely, and each of the defenders had a spare rifle at his side. The weapons were piled by their respective holes while the besieged awaited the attack. But a hasty dinner was prepared on the coal-oil stove Of the office, and eaten and digested before there came any move on the part of Madero's men.
Through the peep-holes a casual inspection showed nothing outside but the hillside sloping away from the mine, with here and there a clump of bushes or small, scrubby trees. But every once in a while the grass would stir, or a clump of bushes would be agitated strangely, as some concealed form crept up yet closer to the stockade. Evidently, as Buck had said, the intention of Madero was to "rush" the place.
The mining village now seemed deserted, except for a few forms of women and children which could be seen flitting about. Evidently most of the men had joined the insurrectos, hoping to have a share in the loot when the time came.
"Say, Geisler!" exclaimed Buck Bradley suddenly, "got any steam in the boiler?"
"Ches. Aboudt forty or fifty pounds. Der fires vos banked. Pud vy?"
"Oh, nothing. I've just got a little plan in my head. Now, Jack, suppose you and I take a little run to the boiler room and look about us a bit."
The boy was glad of anything to do to relieve the tension of waiting for the attack that didn't come. He gladly accompanied the self-reliant Westerner to the boiler house. They found, as Geisler had said, that in one of the boilers steam was still up.
"Now let's take a look around here, sonny," said Buck, glancing about the walls as if in search of something. "Ah! Here we are, that will do."
He pounced on a big reel of fire hose attached to the wall, as he spoke.
"Fine! Couldn't be better," he continued, as he rapidly unwound it. "Why, there must be fifty feet or more here. Now let's see. Where is the blow-off valve of this boiler?"
"This is it, isn't it?" asked Jack, indicating a valve, with wheel-controlled outlet near the base of the boiler.
"That's it. Now then for a monkey wrench and then we are all ready to give those greasers the surprise of their lives in case they try an attack upon this side of the stockade."
"What are you going——"
That was as far as Jack got in his question. As the words left his lips, there came from without the sharp sound of a shot.
"Phew!" whistled Buck. "That's the overture. The performance is about ter begin."
In the meantime, the members of the party left at the peep-holes by Buck Bradley and Jack, had been trying their level best to obtain some inkling of which side the insurrectos meant to storm first. But, for all the sign the long, waving grass gave, or the bushes imparted, they might as well have gazed at the sky. Had they not known that the insurrectos were out there somewhere, they would have deemed the hillside barren of life.
Suddenly, however, as Coyote Pete's keen eye was sweeping the open space before the stockade, the grass quite near at hand parted, and a wiry little Mexican stepped out.
It was a good evidence of the control that Madero exercised over his men that this fellow, although he must have known he was placing his life in deadly peril, advanced to within a few feet of the stockade without a tremor.
Apparently, judging from his expression, he was astonished that no hostile demonstration came from within. But the defenders had no wish to sacrifice life needlessly, and refrained from firing upon him. Suddenly he halted, and raising his voice, cried out in Spanish:
"Will you foolish gringoes surrender and give up the gold peaceably, or must we attack the mine?"
"Did Madero tell you to ask that?" shouted Pete through his peep-hole.
"Yes; the general demanded that I should offer you this chance for your lives."
"Then tell the general, with our compliments, that if he thinks he'll get Mr. Merrill's gold without a fight, he's up against the toughest proposition he ever tackled."
"As you will, senors. Adios!"
With a wave of his hat, the Mexican ran speedily back down the hillside, and dived into some bushes. The watchers of the stockade were of the opinion that the wave of the hat was merely a bit of Latin extravagance. They soon found out, however, that it had the significance of a signal. For, as the fellow dropped into cover, the grass became alive with human forms. Coyote Pete's finger, which had been trembling upon the trigger, pressed it.
It was the first shot of the desperate battle for the defense of the mine, and the sound that had reached the two in the boiler house.
The report was followed by a series of appalling yells from without the stockade. Mexicans seemed to spring from every clump of grass and bit of brush. It was amazing how they could have crept so close without being detected.
"We can't last five minutes!" gasped Walt, as he gazed out. The lad fired grimly into the advancing rush, however, and the others stood to their guns like veterans. Their cheeks were blanched under the tan, though, and the corners of their mouths tightened. Each one of those defenders realized the practical hopelessness of their positions.
Suddenly, amid the besiegers' onrushing forms, appeared a figure mounted upon a superb black horse. The animal curvetted and plunged as the reports of the rifles of both sides rattled away furiously, but his rider had him in perfect control.
"There's Ramon, the scoundrel!" roared Pete, gazing at the defiant figure. "I'll give him a shot for luck."
But for once the plainsman's aim was at fault. The bullet evidently did not even ruffle the former cattle rustler.
"Ledt me try!" puffed the German ferociously.
He fared no better.
"Bah! Und I thought I vos a goodt shot!" he exploded.
"It ain't that," rejoined Pete superstitiously. "The Mexicans say that Ramon bears a charmed life, and that only a silver bullet will ever lay him low."
Before the professor could make any comment Ramon was heard issuing commands in a sharp voice. He seemed to have the direction of the attack. Of Madero there was no sign, unless a small figure on a shaggy pony, far to the rear, was that of the insurrecto leader.
The result of Ramon's command was soon evident. The attackers had not been prepared for so sharp a defense, and, anxious to lose as few men as possible, Ramon had ordered them to drop once more into the grass.
This was good strategy, as it was apparently only a matter of time before the mine defenders would have to surrender, and it was little use to sacrifice lives in a mad rush against their rifles.
The attack had splintered the stockade in a score of places, but, thanks to the toughness of the seasoned wood, the bullets that had penetrated had lost most of their strength. Beyond a few scratches from flying splinters, none of the defenders were injured.
"What can they be up to?" wondered Pete, as half an hour passed and no further sign came from the besiegers.
Ramon's figure had now vanished. Perhaps he realized that the fangs of their enemies were by no means drawn, and deemed it more prudent not to take chances on the strength of his "charmed life."
And so the time passed. The sun was well on his march toward the western horizon before there came a move on the part of the enemy, and when it did come it was a startling one. Taking advantage of every bit of cover, the astute mestizos had crept around the stockade till they were in a position exactly behind the defenders. So that, in fact, for the last half hour, the alert rifles of Coyote Pete and his companions had been covering emptiness.
A yell as the attackers charged from the direction into which they had covertly worked themselves apprised the besieged of what had happened. Bitterly blaming his stupidity in not foreseeing such a move, Pete, followed by the others, darted across the stockade. As they were halfway across, however, a dozen or more heads appeared upon the undefended top.
The insurrectos had determined on a bold rush, and unmolested they had succeeded in scaling the walls on each other's shoulders.
"Good Lord!" groaned Pete, as he saw.
Despair was in the countenances of the others, but, even as they halted in dismay at what seemed certain annihilation, a strange thing happened.
With a screaming, earsplitting roar, a white cloud swept from the direction of the boiler house at the clustering forms on the top of the stockade.
It was a column of live steam that swept them from their perches, like dried leaves before a wind.
Buck Bradley's plan had worked with terrible effectiveness. Before the rush of white-vapor the insurrectos melted away in a screaming, scalded flurry. In less than two minutes after Jack had turned the steam on, not a sign of them was to be seen.
"Hooray!" yelled the boys, carried away by the sudden relief of the strain when it had seemed that all was over. "Hooray! We win!"
"Don't be premature!" admonished Buck gravely, as the column of steam was shut off. "We ain't out of ther woods yet by a long shot. How about it, Pete?"
The old plainsman tugged his sun-bleached moustache viciously.
"Why, boys," he declared emphatically, "them reptiles ain't begun ter fight yet."
THE LAST STAND.—CONCLUSION.
As the cow-puncher spoke, there came a sound from the direction of the gate which was filled with sinister significance.
It echoed hollowly within the stockade. Buck Bradley was quick to read its meaning.
"They've got a big log or suthin, and are busting in the gate!" he cried.
A shout of dismay went up from them all. As it so happened, there had been no time to bore any holes near the gate, and the only way to delay the work of battering it down would be to clamber to the fence top and fire down into the insurrectos handling the battering ram.
But it needed no second thought to show that this would be madness. At the first appearance of a head above the stockade, they knew that half a hundred rifles from without would pour a volley at it. It would not take more than ten minutes to wipe out the whole garrison in this way.
"Nope. We'll have to think of some other plan," decided Buck. It is worthy of remark here that not one of the defenders of the mine had ever even hinted at a surrender. This was not due so much to the fact, as they knew, that it would only mean exchanging one form of death for another, as it was to their grim determination to defend the mine at whatever cost to themselves. It was the dogged American spirit that prevailed at the Alamo.
"Aha! I haf idt!" burst out Geisler suddenly, after a few minutes of deep thought. "Dere is no hope uv safing dot gate?"
"Not the least," Buck assured him. "They'll have it through in a few minutes now."
He pointed to the timbers which were already showing jagged cracks up and down their entire length.
"Veil," said the German, "der office uv der mine is made strong—oh very strong, for behindt idt is der specie room. Ve can gedt by der inside in dere and fire through der vindows. And as a last resort vee can——"
"We can what?" demanded Jack.
"Nefer mindt. I dell you later. Now is dot agreed upon?"
"It's about all we can do, I guess," grunted Pete, "unless we stay here to be shot down."
"Den come mit me."
The German rapidly led the way across the yard to the office building. As he closed and barred the door, they noted that it was lined inside with steel, strongly riveted to the oak. The windows also had steel shutters, cleverly concealed, in cases into which they slid, from casual view. In the windows, as well as in the door, were small apertures for firing through.
"Why, it's a regular fort!" exclaimed Ralph, as the shutters clanged to with a harsh, grating sound.
"You bet my life idt's a fort," agreed Herr Geisler, "undt ledt me tell you dot you needt a fort ven you have a specie room by dis country."
"Then the specie room is near us?"
The German pointed over his shoulder at a door in the rear of the office.
"Idt is steel walled, undt dere is a combination lock on der door. Even if dey should kill us all, dey still have a tough nut to crack."
The German spoke calmly, and his blond features were absolutely unruffled. No emotion appeared either on the weathered countenances of Coyote Pete or Buck Bradley. The professor's face, though, was ashen, but he uttered never a word. As for the boys, who shall blame them if it is said that their hearts were beating wildly, their mouths felt dry, and their brains throbbed.
It was the last stand, and they all realized it.
Unless help should come from an unforeseen source, they were bound to perish miserably at the hands of the insurrectos.
Suddenly, there was a great crashing, rending sound from without. Instantly a chorus of wild yells arose on the air, and shots were fired as if in exultation.
"They've busted the gate!" exclaimed Buck.
Peering through the apertures in the door and windows, they could see the hoard come pouring into the yard of the mine. At first they came cautiously. They evidently recollected the steam, and feared another ambush. In a few minutes, however, their confidence returned. The watchers could see a little man dart out from among the crowd and point toward the specie room and the office structure.
"The gold is within, my brothers!" he shouted in Spanish.
"Bodderation tage dot feller," sputtered Geisler, "a veek ago he vos der best vorkman ve hadt by der mine, undt now look at him."
With a howl, the insurrectos charged on the hut. The lust of gold was in their veins, and they minded the volley poured into them by the defenders no more than if it had been so much rain. Several of them fell, but it seemed to make no difference to the others. They charged right up to the very doors of the place. Some of them even tore at the walls as if they imagined they could demolish them and get at the gringo gold.
"Dot is vot goldt does for mens," philosophically remarked the German, as he gazed at the onrush, firing methodically at the same time.
Jack, Ralph, and Walt were at one of the windows, while the professor and Coyote Pete defended the other. During the mad rush for the office, they all did considerable execution, without, of course, any cost to themselves. The Mexicans, to be sure, returned the fire furiously, but their bullets "pinged" harmlessly against the steel shutters, or buried themselves in the thick, wooden walls.
Suddenly there came an angry shout from some one evidently in authority among the insurrectos. Instantly the attack melted away, the retreating men dragging their wounded with them. It was Jack's first sight of real warfare, and it made his blood, as well as that of the others, run cold.
"Now what are they up to?" wondered Buck, as this sudden cessation of activities came.
"Search me," rejoined Coyote Pete, "but it's some deviltry, you can bet on that—that voice was Ramon's. He's got a plan in his head to get us out of here."
"Well, he'll have a man's-sized job on his hands," rejoined Buck, calmly reloading the magazine of his rifle and running a cleaning rod through the foul barrel.
The others employed their time in the same manner. Thus they waited for what seemed an interminable age. Still there was no sign of the Mexicans. The yard without was empty of life.
"If they don't show up in a few minutes, what say if we open the door and make a rush for it?" asked Jack.
"As good an idea as any," rejoined Buck, "but what I would like to know right now is what they can be doing."
"Queer, ain't it?" said Pete.
They all agreed that it was, but not one could hit upon an explanation that seemed plausible.
Suddenly, Buck, who had been sniffing suspiciously for a few seconds, gave a sharp exclamation.
"Do you fellows smell anything?"
"No——" began Jack, and then:
"Good heavens, yes! Something's on fire!"
"That's right," agreed Pete, without a quaver in his voice. "The varmints hev set fire to the building from the rear."
"That's what!" rejoined Buck, "and we can't get within a mile of them. I don't suppose there are any rifle holes in the specie room are there, Mr. Geisler?"
"Nodt a vun," rejoined the German, in a peculiar voice, and then they noticed, in the gloomy light of the closed-up place, that his face was ashen white.
It was clear that the German was badly frightened. His knees seemed to be knocking together, in fact. Small wonder, too. The sharp, acrid smell of blazing wood was in the air now. They could hear the crackle of the flames as they devoured the wooden outer walls of the specie room.
"Come, cheer up, my man," Buck admonished the quaking German. "Why you've stood it all through like a major, and——"
"Idt ain't dot. Idt ain't dose mis-er-able creasers dot I'm afraid of," rejoined the German in a quavering voice.