"You stay in the train," he said, "and we'll keep you posted as to what is going on outside. If there is any real danger we will give the alarm."
He picked up his overcoat and pretended to be fixing a pillow. Adrian did the same. Then, while the guard's back was turned, he dropped out of the window.
Billie was beside him when he rose to his feet.
"This way, Don," he whispered. "Let's get out into the dark and hold a council of war."
They glided out into darkness, but where they could keep their eyes on the engine.
"Now tell me about it," said Don.
Billie told him what he had discovered.
"It does look strange," Donald admitted. "Have you any plan?"
"I haven't an idea above an oyster," was the characteristic reply.
Donald scratched his ear reflectively.
"How would it do," he finally asked, "to sneak over by the soldiers and see if we can't pick up some scrap of conversation that may give us a clue as to what is going on?"
"Fine. We must keep together, though. We might never find each other in the dark if we should become separated."
Silently they crawled toward the spot where Billie had seen the soldiers. When they did not hear any sign of them after several minutes' crawling they stopped to listen.
"There surely was a squad here a few minutes ago," declared Billie. "They must have moved."
They remained silently thoughtful for several minutes, but all was as silent as a graveyard.
"That's mighty funny," said Billie. "I know I was not mistaken. Let's go back by the train."
They turned for that purpose and could see a group of figures at the platform of each coach.
"That's the answer," exclaimed Billie. "They have surrounded the train. Now let's see what will happen."
They had not long to wait as an officer shortly boarded each car and a minute later there was a commotion among the passengers.
Drawing a little nearer, the boys could hear the officer in the car nearest them explaining that the passengers would be obliged to alight and change trains.
"The track has been torn up ahead of us," he said, "and we shall have to walk nearly a mile to where the train is that came up from Vera Cruz."
This had been quite the customary thing in Mexico for some months and the passengers prepared to obey.
"I don't believe it is true," said Billie to Donald.
"We can soon find out," declared Donald. "Let's walk down the track a piece. We can easily keep ahead of the crowd."
Avoiding the glare of the locomotive's headlight, the boys hurried down the track and when far enough away from the train to feel secure, they took the middle of the track.
"This is far enough ahead," said Donald, "to keep out of sight and the track is all right so far. I don't believe it is torn up at all."
"Then what is up?"
"That is what I've been trying to decide for nearly an hour," replied Billie. "It looks as though they intended to make all the Americans prisoners."
"But what for?"
"Why, for hostages, to be sure. Don't you remember how Caesar took a lot of the Helvetians for hostages?"
"By George!" from Donald. "I believe you are right. Do you suppose it is Huerta's orders?"
"I expect so. He hates Americans."
While the boys had been talking the passengers had been taken from the train and were now coming toward them.
"Let's keep just far enough ahead to see what will happen," said Donald. "We must get in touch with Adrian somehow."
They started ahead, but it speedily developed that the others were not following. Instead they had been halted a short distance from the locomotive, back from the track, and surrounded by soldiers.
"There seems to be a hitch somewhere," Don finally remarked. "They don't seem to know just what they do want to do."
"Come on back and find out," said Billie. "It's up to us to do something."
Cautiously they crept back to where they could hear the conversation among the passengers and the questions they asked the guard. Some were laughing and more were expressing indignation. A few of the women were crying, but above all they could hear the voice of the florid-faced man telling what he would do as soon as he could get into touch with Admiral Fletcher.
"Which won't be very soon, unless I'm mistaken," laughed Donald.
Presently some one began to whistle a popular air, but in such a way that the boys recognized the well-known whistle of Adrian.
"Do you hear that?" asked Billie. "Ad wants to know what we are doing."
"He'll have to want for the present," said Don, "but there go a couple of officers back to the train. Let's follow them."
The boys darted into the shadow of the coaches and crept back only a few steps behind what proved to be the captain in charge of the company and his second lieutenant.
"If I only had my automatic, I'd soon settle this whole matter," declared Billie.
"You wouldn't hurt anybody, would you?"
"I'd capture the officer and make him take us to Vera Cruz."
"Of course," from Donald. "Why didn't I think of it before? Let's do it."
"But we have no weapons."
"Then we must get some."
"Keep your eyes open. There must be some way."
The officers kept on their way until they reached the first Pullman, where they stopped for a minute.
"Are the orders in here?" asked the captain.
"No; the conductor has them. He wouldn't stop the train without I gave them to him."
"Carramba! Why didn't you tell me so before? Go and take them from him and bring them here at once."
"Bueno, Capitan! Will you wait here?"
"Yes, I'll go inside. Hurry."
The lieutenant turned and hurried back. The boys only saved themselves from being detected by throwing themselves flat on the ground.
For a moment the captain remained looking after his companion and then turned and entered the car.
"We must have that order," said Donald.
"We must!" echoed Billie.
"Then we'll get it," they exclaimed as one.
So alike were the thoughts that passed through their minds that they did not even feel obliged to speak the plan aloud.
"Which one of us will stop him?" asked Donald.
"You'd better. I'm heavier and I can handle him easier."
They walked back some ten feet, where Donald stopped, while Billie went about ten feet farther and drew off into the darkness.
A couple of minutes later they heard the lieutenant coming. He passed Billie without seeing him.
Then Donald advanced and met him as by chance.
"Who comes there?" asked the lieutenant in a sharp tone, drawing his revolver.
"Why, hello, lieutenant," said Donald as he came close to him. "What's happened?"
The lieutenant eyed him suspiciously.
"Where did you come from?" he asked.
"From the rear sleeper. I woke up and found myself all alone."
"Humph!" grunted the lieutenant. "You must have been overlooked. Come with me."
He started to replace his revolver in its holster when a slight noise behind him caused him to turn his head. As he did so, Billie's fist caught him under the chin and he fell in a heap without making a sound.
"Good work!" muttered Donald as he picked up the revolver which the lieutenant had let fall. "Now to business."
Lifting the unconscious man in their arms, they bore him into the darkness away from the train, where he was soon deprived of his coat, hat, and weapons. Then he was gagged and securely tied with his own sabretasche.
Donald, being nearest the lieutenant's size, donned his uniform, buckled on his sword, and with the order in his hand hastily entered the car, closely followed by Billie, with the ready revolver in his hand.
The captain had thrown aside his hat and was smoking a cigarette in one of the easy seats as the boys entered. He gave them only a hasty glance as he blew a cloud of smoke into the air, and the next minute he was covered by Billie's weapon.
"Up with your hands!" was the stern order.
The captain hesitated, but a sharp prick from Donald's sword sent the hands into the air.
In another minute the captain was disarmed.
"Now," said Donald sternly, "we'll see what all this trouble is about."
He opened the telegram he held in his hand and read:
"American Admiral has given an ultimatum. Hold train and passengers until further orders. Maas."
"Who is Maas?" asked Donald sternly.
The captain shrugged his shoulders, but said nothing.
"You'll answer in just one minute, or you'll never have a chance to answer another question," said Donald, as he stood with drawn sword, while Billie covered the captain with his revolver.
"Would you murder an unarmed man?" asked the captain.
"I wouldn't consider it murder. Answer."
The look in Donald's eyes was not to be mistaken.
"Gen. Maas is in command of Vera Cruz," the captain said.
"Good. I think I see it all. If it is decided not to accede to the ultimatum, it is proposed to hold the train load as hostages."
The captain smiled.
"Now listen!" and Donald spoke very slowly so that every word might find lodgment. "You have one chance for your life. Can you guess what it is?"
The captain shook his head.
"To do just exactly as I bid. Just one little attempt to do differently, and you are a dead man."
The captain scowled, but made no reply.
"Put on your hat and come with me. Order the passengers back on to the train and give your engineer instructions to cover just as much of the distance between here and Vera Cruz by daylight as he knows how!"
The captain shrugged his shoulders as he arose from his seat.
"I see you think it will be easy to escape. Just put any such idea out of your mind. There is no possible chance."
Donald turned to Billie.
"This is what must be done. We shall walk directly back to where the passengers are. The captain will give his order without any hesitation. Otherwise I shall shoot him through my pocket. You will keep right behind us. If I fire, you fire also. One of us will be sure to kill him."
Donald led the way from the car and Billie brought up the rear.
Through the dark they marched, each with a hand on the captain, so they might feel his slightest tremor.
Arriving at the engine the captain summoned the sergeant.
"Order the passengers to board the train," was the brief command.
The sergeant hastened to obey.
"Bueno!" said Donald, as the passengers rushed back.
Then under his breath to Billie: "Call Adrian."
Billie did so.
"Where are you?" Adrian called back.
"Down near the engine."
A moment later Adrian appeared coming through the crowd of hurrying passengers.
"Where's Don?" he asked as soon as he caught sight of Billie.
"Not far. Stay here. We may need you."
Adrian's face showed some surprise, but he said nothing.
"Now, captain," said Don quietly, "your orders to the engineer," and under cover of the darkness he pushed the point of his revolver into the captain's side, while Billie touched him significantly in the back.
The captain gave the order as he had been instructed.
"Now for the conductor," ordered Donald.
The order was given, but the conductor refused to obey.
"I must have a written order," he said.
"Why?" asked Donald, in his role of lieutenant.
"To countermand the order of Gen. Maas."
"Captain," was Donald's quiet hint, "don't you think it would be well to place the conductor under arrest?" and again he poked his revolver into the captain's side.
The order for the conductor's arrest was quickly given.
"Now, then, vamose," called Adrian. Then to the engineer, "I will act as conductor."
The guards and extra soldiers who had been detailed for this special service, sprang aboard; the engineer pulled open the throttle and the train began to move.
"Aren't you going, too?" asked Adrian.
"Yes," whispered Billie to Donald, "hurry aboard with your prisoner."
The captain was evidently of the same mind, for he started to board the already moving train.
"No you don't," exclaimed Donald, pulling him back. "You're going to stay here with us!"
"Do you mean it, Don?" asked Billie in surprise.
"Sure! What do you think he'd do to us as soon as it was light?"
By this time the train was under headway; a second later the last coach passed them and in another minute the tail lights were disappearing in the darkness.
"It looks to me," remarked Adrian with a long breath, "as though we were in the consomme."
"Perhaps," was Donald's laconic reply, "but those women and children will be safe in Vera Cruz under the guns of Admiral Fletcher's fleet by daylight, or I'm greatly mistaken."
"And what are we going to do with our friend the captain?" queried Billie.
"He'll have to accept our hospitality under the stars until morning and then we'll see."
In telling about his experiences later Billie said it was the longest and the shortest night he ever knew. It seemed a long time for daylight, but it seemed a short time for the train which was bearing his countrymen to safety.
When day finally began to break, the first thing that became visible was the snow-tipped peak of Mt. Orizaba, against which the sun threw his brilliant rays long before he could be seen above the horizon. It was a beautiful sight and the boys voiced their admiration with many exclamations of delight. Then they turned their attention to the more serious thoughts for the day.
The first thing they did was to release the lieutenant from his unpleasant predicament and restore to him his uniform.
"We should like to return you your arms also," said Donald, "but your government took ours from us and I think we shall have to keep yours in their place."
Neither of the officers made any reply, but their dark looks boded no good for the boys.
"You might just as well look pleasant," laughed Billie. "All is fair in love and war."
"We'll make you sing a different song when we get you in Vera Cruz," said the captain.
"And when do you think that will be, Captain?" queried Adrian.
"As soon as the next train comes along."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said Donald. "That being the case, I guess we will not wait for another train. By the way, how far is it to Vera Cruz?"
"About a hundred kilometers."
"That's about eighty-four miles, isn't it, Ad?"
"And it's down hill pretty much all the way, isn't it?"
"I should say so by looking down the valley."
"A right nice little walk, Captain. Let's be going. We ought to make it easily in four days."
At this cordial invitation the captain lost his temper.
"Carramba!" he exclaimed. "Am I a boy to be made sport of? I will not go. If you wish me to go you will have to carry me," and he deliberately laid himself down on the ground.
In spite of themselves the boys were obliged to laugh.
"We carried the lieutenant last night, but we don't desire your company badly enough to carry you," laughed Billie. "If you don't want to go, I for one vote to leave you. We have to forage for something to eat and the fewer there are, the easier it will be. And speaking of eats, it seems to me I smell something cooking right now."
At Billie's words the others sniffed up their noses.
"It's a fact as sure as you're born," declared Donald.
"And I'm going to find out where the odor comes from," said Billie. "There must be a house around here somewhere."
Again he sniffed the air and smiled jubilantly.
"The wind's in the east," he laughed. "It must be somewhere in this direction. Come on, Captain."
The captain refused to move, but Billie led the way, followed by the two boys. They had not gone many rods when through an opening in the trees they beheld a good-sized adobe house. Pushing hastily toward it, they soon reached a cleared space, and there, gathered about a bunch of some forty or fifty horses, were a dozen men, while through the open door of the house many more were to be seen seated at a table—eating.
"Come on!" exclaimed Billie. "I'm going to have something to eat; I don't care who they are."
"We might as well make the best of it," declared Donald. "We are discovered any way and the best thing we can do is to put on a bold front."
Without further words the three boys walked boldly toward the house.
A TIMELY RESCUE.
The minute the boys' presence became known, there was a commotion in the house and in the clearing surrounding it. Those in the yard sprang toward their guns and those in the house jumped from the table.
"Don't move," called out Billie. "We are friends."
But the men were not sure and at once surrounded the boys.
They appeared to be soldiers, but their uniforms were of a great variety and many hues. Only the officer in command had anything the appearance of a real soldier.
"Who are you?" he demanded as he came forward.
"Friends! Americanos!" replied Donald.
"Yes; and hungry ones," added Billie with a gesture that brought a smile to the officer's face.
"Where did you come from?" was the next inquiry.
Donald explained that they had been left by a train that had stopped nearby. He did not think it necessary to enlighten the officer as to the circumstances.
"If you don't believe us," broke in Billie, "you can ask the officers we left back there by the track."
Donald made a gesture of impatience, which Billie failed to understand, but which the officer was quick to interpret.
"Officers? Of which army?" he quickly asked.
"Carramba!" exclaimed the officer in command. "Go quick, corporal, and bring them to me."
Then to Billie: "If you are telling me the truth you have done me a great favor."
The boys looked surprised.
"How is that?" asked Donald.
"Do you not know that we are of the army of Gen. Carranza?" was the interrogative reply.
"Why, no!" exclaimed the boys in unison.
"It is true," said the officer. "I am Captain Lopez. Now tell me, who are you?"
Briefly Donald told of their acquaintance with Gen. Sanchez and of their adventures of the night before, at which the captain laughed heartily.
"You are smart boys," he declared.
"And hungry ones," again added Billie.
"You must be. Here, Juan," calling a soldier to him. "Take these muchachos to the house and feed them. I'll have a look at these rebels."
"Rebels," said Adrian to Donald under his breath as they walked toward the house. "Now what do you think of that?"
"That's his viewpoint," replied Don. "He thinks of the men who overthrew President Madero as rebels."
By this time they were near enough the house for Billie to smell the aroma of the coffee and he quickened his pace.
"I'll talk politics after I've sampled the breakfast," he declared. "If the breakfast is good, I'll join the band."
It was nearly half an hour later that the boys stood before the captain. With a good breakfast under their belts they felt fit for anything that might offer.
"I'm afraid you boys are in a bad fix," said Captain Lopez. "I suppose you want to get to Vera Cruz and on to some ship that will take you to the United States; but I don't know how you are going to make it."
"Why, can't we get another train somewhere down the line?" asked Adrian.
"There may not be any more trains for some time."
"We are here to stop them."
"Does that mean you are going out to tear up the track?"
"Not right here, but a little nearer Vera Cruz. There is a much larger body of troops about five miles below."
Billie uttered a prolonged whistle.
"That does look bad, sure enough," he declared. Then, after a pause: "What's the matter with walking?"
"It's a long ways and the mountains are full of our men."
"Can't you give us a safe passage? You say we have done you a favor by turning these two officers over to you," suggested Donald, indicating with a nod of his head the captain and lieutenant of the train guard who were now held prisoners.
"I'll do the best I can," was the reply, "but you will have to remain with me to-day. We are on scout duty and shall not return to the main body until to-night."
"That'll suit me all right," laughed Billie, "and if you don't mind I think I'll go into the house somewhere and take a nap."
"Bueno," laughed the captain. "You might as well all take a nap. If we have occasion to leave the neighborhood we will call you."
Ten minutes later the three were fast asleep on a pile of Mexican blankets in the best room in the house.
Three hours later they were awakened by a fusillade of shots.
They sprang to their feet and looked around. For just a moment they could not remember where they were. Then they recalled their situation and became on the alert.
"Trouble outside," was Don's laconic statement.
He and Billie drew the revolvers they had captured the night before.
"Put 'em up," advised Adrian. "We're not here to fight."
"We might have to," from Billie.
"Not at all. If one side wins, we are safe. If the other side wins, we are prisoners and the attackers will be our rescuers."
"Great head, Ad," was Billie's comment. "But I'd like to know what is going on," as another fusillade was heard.
"Better stay where we are till the shooting stops," said Don.
It was good advice and the boys waited as quietly as they could.
A few minutes later there was a volley and a shout, followed by the sound of rushing feet. Then there was quiet as the shots were heard receding.
When none of their friends returned after a few minutes, the boys ventured to the door. There was no one in sight.
"I wonder where they have all gone?" ventured Billie.
"I expect that our friends have run away and some of Huerta's soldiers are chasing them."
"If they do, they will run into an ambush," said Adrian.
Which is exactly what happened.
"That won't do us any good," said Don. "Now that we are alone, I vote that we get back to the railroad track. We won't get lost if we follow that and a train may come along."
The advice seemed good and they started to go.
"Hold on," exclaimed Billie. "Let's see if we can't find some grub to take with us."
"Great head!" laughed Adrian.
"Great stomach, you mean," from Donald. "It never lets him forget."
The boys plundered through the house. The owners must have been scared away, for nothing had been disturbed. In the kitchen they found a big plate of tortillas, half a baked kid, and some wheat bread. This they appropriated.
"We might as well have a blanket apiece," said Donald. "It is only another case of a fair exchange. The Mexicans have our suit cases."
Each took a blanket and Adrian was so fortunate after searching all over the house as to find a shotgun and a belt full of loaded shells that went with it.
"If those shells were loaded with buckshot you'd be all right," said Billie. "They're the——"
His speech was interrupted by a cry that fairly made their blood run cold.
"What's that?" and the three stopped as though they had been paralysed.
Again came the cry, and with a single bound the boys were out in the open, each with his weapon ready for instant use.
They could see no one, but there was the sound of something crashing through the brush which hid the railroad from the house.
"Sounded like a wild cat," declared Donald.
"Or a coyote," said Billie.
"I'm sure it was a human voice," remarked Adrian. "Do you remember the Zunis?" referring to another adventure told in the story of the "Broncho Rider Boys Along the Border."
Even as he spoke there emerged from the brush the figure of a woman carrying in her arms a small child. Winged by fear, she was bounding along like an antelope.
A moment later, and not two rods behind her, came forth a figure which the boys instantly recognized as a mountain lion.
How the woman had succeeded in escaping it even for a moment was a mystery.
In a second the three weapons spoke. The report was followed by a scream from the beast and a cry from the woman, both of whom fell lifeless to the earth—the beast dead and the woman in a swoon.
"Take care of the woman, you two," said Adrian. "I'll examine the beast."
No one stopped to question the order.
Billie picked up the child which the woman had let fall, while Donald stooped down and felt the woman's pulse. Then he darted into the house and was back in a minute with a bucket half filled with water. With it he bathed the woman's temples and poured a little down her throat.
In a couple of minutes she revived and looked around.
"Mi nina!" she gasped.
"She's asking for her child," said Donald.
Billie carried the little one over and stood it beside her.
With a glad cry she snatched it in her arms and burst into tears.
"She's all right," laughed Donald. "Now let's have a look at that animal."
They walked over to where Adrian was watching the inanimate carcass.
"Where did we hit him?" asked Billie.
"I can see three places and one is big enough to throw a baseball through it."
"That's from the shotgun," said Donald. "It's what did the business. Must have been buckshot and we were so close it didn't have a chance to scatter."
"I'd sure like that hide," said Adrian.
"We'll be in luck if we save our own," remarked Billie. "Unless we can do something for the woman, we'd better be jogging along."
By this time the woman had risen to her feet and the boys could see that she was not a peon as they had supposed, but of the better class.
"Where could she have come from?" queried Donald under his breath.
"Suppose you ask her," laughed Adrian.
Donald did so. At first she was too dazed to answer, but after Donald spoke a few words quietly and in his very best Spanish, she was able to answer his questions.
"Is this your house?" he asked.
"No, Senor; my house is down the mountain."
"What are you doing here alone?"
She gave him a startled glance and then hugged the child closer to her breast.
"You need not fear us," were the reassuring words.
"The soldiers came," she said slowly. "They had already killed the others. They would have killed me."
"Yes. They were looking for my husband. They said he was hidden in the house; but he was not. He is with Gen. Carranza."
"When was this?"
"Yesterday. I have been in the mountains all night. There was a fight a few minutes ago and I saw them pass. Then I came here, when the awful beast sprang out," and again she drew the child to her.
"Are you hungry?"
It was the child that answered.
In an instant Billie's hand was in his pack and he held out the tortillas, which both mother and child took and ate ravenously.
After their hunger had been appeased, they questioned the woman further, telling her they were going to Vera Cruz.
"If you will come with me down the mountain, you can hide in my house," she said.
"We don't want to hide," laughed Billie. "We want to get to Vera Cruz. However, we'll see you home, if you don't mind."
Without more words the woman led the way, Billie insisting upon carrying the little girl.
After a walk of more than two hours, the woman stopped in a little clearing from which a view of the mountainside for miles could be gained.
"There is my house," she said, pointing to the roof of a really noble mansion constructed of stone. "But what is that flag I see on top of it?"
The boys took one good look at it and then they let out a wild yell.
"Hurrah!" they cried. "It's the Stars and Stripes."
"I don't know what it means away out here," said Donald, "but wherever it is it means something. Come on!" and he dashed down the mountainside, followed by the others.
FRIENDS IN DISTRESS.
Half an hour later the boys stopped beside a ruined wall in which was a still more ruined gate.
It was the home of Gen. Luiz Blanco, whose wife and child it was that the boys had saved from the mountain lion.
Above the house, on a lofty turret, waved the American flag—a fact which caused the boys to enter the gate and approach the house without hesitation.
But when they reached the great front door leading into the patio, they found it shut and barred.
Here they knocked loudly.
For some minutes there was no reply, despite repeated knocks, but finally a voice called out in English:
"American boys in trouble."
"What?" was the surprised reply. "Say it again, till I see if it is true."
"It's true all right, all right," said Billie. "If you don't believe it we'll sing the 'Star Spangled Banner,' or 'Hail Columbia'."
They could hear some one removing the bars and a moment later the gate swung open, and a huge, bewhiskered man in ragged garments and a Winchester rifle in his hand stood before them.
"Come in quick," he commanded, "and let's get this gate barred. There is no knowing when that band of robbers will be back."
"Robbers?" queried Billie, as he set the little girl on the ground and extended his hand to the man. "What robbers?"
"They call themselves soldiers," and the man seized Billie's hand and gave it a mighty grip, which made even Broncho Billie wince, "but what do we care for them? With four Americans we can defy a hundred of them." Then, as Donald and Adrian finished barring the gate: "It's certainly good for sore eyes to see such faces," and he grasped each boy in turn.
"Well, we're mighty glad to see you," replied Donald. "We expected to find the place deserted."
"How did you know anything about the place?"
"This lady told us it is her home."
"What?" from the man. "Do you mean to tell me this is the Senora Blanco?"
"Even so, Senor," replied the lady. "No one would recognize me in these rags and grief. Oh, Senor, had it not been for these brave Americans I should have been devoured by a lion."
"You don't tell me. But I'd know they were the real thing. Their faces show it. But come, let's go into the house. You'll excuse me, Senora, for taking possession of your castle."
"It is yours, Senor. Do with it as you will. But will you not do me the favor of your name?"
"I beg your pardon, Senora. I had forgotten. I am Ebenezer Black, who owns the ranch across the valley. My daughter and I were out on a hunt for some lost cattle when we were waylaid by this so-called company of soldiers. I drove them off but my daughter was wounded and I made for this place. Finding no one at home, I took possession."
"I am so glad, Senor. And where is your daughter now?"
"Sitting in a big armchair, nursing a wounded arm."
"Oh, let us hasten," cried the senora. "I may be of some assistance."
They hurried into the house and into the great library, now all in disorder and strewn with bits of cigars and cigarettes. In one of the big leather chairs sat a girl of some sixteen or seventeen, with her left arm in a sling, but in her right hand she held a glistening revolver. She was very slight, but dressed in a riding costume of unique design, and with a wealth of soft brown hair hanging just to her collar. With just a touch of pallor due to the wound, the boys thought her the most beautiful girl they had ever seen, not excepting Pedro's sister Guadalupe.
That the girl was surprised at the addition to the party goes without saying. She looked first at her father, then at the newcomers and then back to her father, as much as to ask: "Who are they?"
"This," said Mr. Black as the senora came forward, "is the lady of the house and her daughter. These are American boys, as you can see, although you haven't had a chance to know many American boys. I don't know their names, but names don't count. I'll vouch for them."
"We are very highly complimented," laughed Donald, "but I shall be pleased to introduce us. I am Donald Mackay. Now that you know me, I will introduce my friends, Adrian Sherwood, ranch owner and good fellow, and William Stonewall Jackson Winkle, better known as 'Broncho Billie.' We are known as the Broncho Rider Boys."
"Oh, Father," exclaimed the girl, "I've read about them. I have a book some one sent me from the United States telling about their adventures at the Keystone ranch."
"You don't say so," from her father. "I didn't know they were such celebrities. Such being the case, young gentlemen, allow me to introduce my daughter, Josephine, commonly called Josie. Now then, how did you all come here?"
As briefly as possible Adrian related their adventures since they left the City of Mexico the previous morning; told about the information contained in the telegram from Gen. Maas, and wound up by saying: "We may be at war with Mexico right now for all we know."
"Well, now what do you think of that?" exclaimed Mr. Black. "I just knew I had a reason when I hoisted that flag. It's one Josie always carries in her saddle bags. It makes her feel safer, she says."
"And I hope she is safer," exclaimed Billie, "with it waving over her to-day, than she would be without it."
"At any rate she has more protection than she had a few hours ago," ventured the senora. "I shall never forget how I was protected."
"I'd feel a whole lot better," said Donald, "if I had some other weapon. A Colt does very well in a tight place; but I certainly miss my Marlin."
"We formerly had quite a supply of arms," was the explanation offered by the senora, "but when Gen. Blanco went to join Gen. Carranza he armed all his men and it took about everything we had. However, there are a few weapons left—unless," she added as an afterthought, "the Huerta soldiers have discovered their hiding place."
She led the way to the cellar and pointed to a spot at one side.
"If you will brush away the dirt that covers the floor about there," she said, "you will find a large slab. This can be raised, and underneath there should still be several good rifles."
Donald and Billie, who had accompanied her, while Adrian remained up stairs with the others, quickly followed her instructions. The edges of the slab were exposed to view and after some effort the opening was revealed. In it were four rifles and an old-fashioned cannon. The rifles were not of the latest make, but two were magazine rifles and were a decided improvement over revolvers in case it came to defending the house.
"I suppose that old cannon might be mounted on the roof somehow and made effective," said Donald after he and Billie had inspected the other arms. Then to the senora: "Is there any ammunition?"
"There was powder in that wine cask," she replied, "but I don't know whether there is any left. The balls for the cannon are on the roof."
The boys examined the cask and found it contained quite a quantity of powder. Then they all returned to the library and made their report.
"Not a very heavy armament to withstand a siege, is it?" was Mr. Black's comment. "Half a dozen rifles with about a hundred cartridges, an old cannon that might explode any minute, and four revolvers. It won't do."
"What else can we do?" asked Billie.
"Why, now that there are four of us, we'll cross the valley to my house. It is just as well located to withstand a siege as this and it is thoroughly armed and provisioned."
"Suppose we have to fight?"
"Then we'll fight."
"But you forget your daughter and the senora and her child."
"I didn't forget Josie," was the reply, "and, wounded as she is, she can take care of herself; but I don't know about the others. They would be a handicap. Have you anything better to offer?"
Billie scratched his head.
"Not for the moment."
"Well, I have," exclaimed Adrian.
"I thought it was about time Ad woke up," laughed Donald. "Let's have it."
"Captain Lopez told us that there was a large body of Carranza's troops down the railroad a short distance. If he meant by a short distance six or eight miles they can not be more than a couple of miles from where we now are. I feel sure that the skirmish we passed through has proved disastrous to the Huerta forces and I am willing to go out and find Captain Lopez and bring relief."
"And I'll go with you," said Billie.
"I can do just as well alone. If I am not captured by the other side I shall make it easily, and," he added, "I am sure I shall not be captured, for I can lick any squad of peons that I'm likely to meet."
"You are a brave boy," said Josie, a bit of praise which brought the color to Adrian's cheeks and was an added incentive for bravery.
"But why shouldn't I go?" insisted Billie.
"You may be needed here. This house is a marked place and if a small band of the Huerta forces has escaped, this will be one of the places where they will rally."
"Your friend is right," agreed Mr. Black. "I admire the pluck of all of you, but his plan is best. The sooner he goes the better and we will make the house as impregnable as we can. Let us hope he is successful."
"You can bet on me," was Adrian's reply as he shouldered his rifle, looked to the fastening of his belt, and descended to the gate, where Mr. Black let him out.
After Adrian had gone the others inspected the house and its approaches for the purpose of determining where they might mount the cannon. They finally decided upon a spot in an angle of the roof, where a chimney offered some protection and from which it commanded the main approach to the house.
"I'm not sure we will be able to get the cannon up there," laughed Billie as they passed through the library on their way to the cellar, "but we'll do the best we can."
"Don't worry," was Josie's reply. "You don't know how strong Dad is."
The boys thought they could guess, but when they saw Mr. Black pick up the cannon as though it had been a log of cord wood and carry it upstairs they concluded that Josie was right.
"When I was a young man," was Mr. Black's only comment, "I was considered the strongest man in our county. I reckon if it came to a pinch I'd be a pretty hard man to handle even yet."
The boys had no doubt of it.
By the time the cannon was mounted and loaded the sun was nearing the top of the mountains behind them and a few minutes later it sank from sight.
"It won't be long now until we shall have to depend upon our ears instead of our eyes for our protection," said Donald. "Where is the best place to watch?"
"I'll tell you what I think," said Billie. "Let one watch from the roof and the other down by the gate. The one on the roof can hear noises from a distance. The one by the gate can hear any one who may be sneaking around."
"I'll watch on the roof," said the senora. "I know the chirp of every bird that belongs here. I shall know in a minute if anything happens that is unusual."
"And I'll watch by the gate," declared Donald.
"Only till midnight," said Billie, "when I'll relieve you."
"And I'll relieve the senora," said Josie.
"Where do I come in?" queried Mr. Black.
"You are the general, Dad. You can be everywhere."
Sentry duty is always nerve-racking business. If you have ever been obliged to sit alone in the dark and watch with your ears, you will understand this and you will understand how Donald felt sitting alone by the barred gate in the dark, 3,000 miles from home and in the midst of a war-stricken country.
Even the north star looked unfamiliar, so close was it to the northern horizon. Once in a while he fancied he could hear the senora weeping, but for at least three hours this was all he heard.
Then he heard a distinct "S-s-s-s," which was the signal agreed upon between him and the senora if she heard anything unusual.
In an instant he was on the alert. Yes, he was sure he heard footsteps near the gate, without. Then there were some minutes of silence, then the hiss of a fuse and a moment later an explosion which blew the gate from its hinges.
A NIGHT ATTACK.
Realizing in an instant that the hiss of the fuse, like the rattle of the snake, betokened danger, Donald drew hastily back into the patio in time to be out of reach of the explosion which splintered the gate and tore it from its hinges.
Then, with finger on trigger, he awaited the coming of the foe.
It was a tense moment and the boy's heart beat fast. He had been in many trying situations, but never in one where the safety of so many others seemed to depend upon him.
He heard the sound of oncoming feet and intuitively threw himself upon the ground behind a little stone paling which surrounded a dismantled fountain.
The act undoubtedly saved his life, for an instant later there was a scattering volley and he could hear the bullets hit against the stone wall of the house behind him.
In an instant he pressed the trigger and a yell which followed gave evidence that the bullet found a mark.
He fired again, but evidently without effect, and a minute later a light at one side of the patio told him that the enemy, or a part of them at least, were inside the gate.
As the light flared up Donald fired again, but again without avail; but a moment later the cannon on the roof spoke.
"So," he thought, "Billie and Mr. Black are at last awake."
At the report of the cannon the light went out and there was the rush of scurrying feet, followed by a shout.
The shout indicated that those within the patio had withdrawn to the other side of the gate.
Feeling sure that the patio was now free of the enemy for a time at least, Donald retreated in the dark to the house and was soon inside. At the first landing he encountered Josie, sitting on a step with a ready revolver. He was able to see her by the dim light of an oil lamp which hung from the ceiling.
"Where are the others?" he asked.
"On the roof. They are trying to locate the enemy."
Donald ascended to the roof.
"I have a plan," he said, "which will enable us to get in another shot. Load with shrapnel and I will see if I can't make some sort of a light outside the gate. Be ready on the instant."
He ran downstairs and again crept out into the dark patio. He had noticed in the afternoon that there were several bundles of straw in the stable.
Taking one of these under his arm, he approached the angle in the wall near the outer gate. He lighted a match and as the flame caught the straw he flung the bundle over the wall, at the same time darting inside the stable.
He had hardly found a safe position when the cannon spoke again and evidently with telling effect.
But before those inside the walls had time to think, the enemy rushed in, determined to capture the place.
In the dark they rushed to the house, but once under the gallery which extended all around the inside of the patio, they produced a light which enabled them to find the doors.
The light also enabled Donald to see those at the door and he fired from the stable.
For a moment the fire in the rear disconcerted the enemy and several fled, but others took possession of the doorway and forced their way in.
The first one who entered fell by a bullet from Josie's revolver; but realizing her weakness she jumped and fled to the floor above, where she met her father coming down.
"They have gained possession of the house," Mr. Black told Billie as he and the senora also descended from the roof. "We must now guard the stairway. We should be able to hold it indefinitely."
This prediction seemed correct, as the first four or five men who attempted to reach the second story never got more than their heads above the floor.
After several trials of this sort, they withdrew and held a council of war. The result was that a few minutes later a voice called out from below:
"If you will surrender, your lives will be spared."
In reply Mr. Black shouted: "If you do not withdraw and leave us in peace you will meet a fearful punishment."
His reply was greeted with jeers.
"I wonder how many of them there are?" queried Billie.
"Quite a bunch from the sound." Then, a moment later, "They seem to be going out."
"Maybe they think we will come down," said Josie.
"But we must not," exclaimed the senora. "They would kill us. Surely our friend must bring us aid soon."
"Let us hope so," was Mr. Black's reply.
And hope was the best they could do.
There was no further attack, although they could hear the sound of voices in the patio below.
After a long period of quiet Mr. Black ventured the assertion that they were waiting for daylight, and his surmise proved correct.
No attempt was made to force an entrance until the first faint light of day began to appear. Then there was renewed activity below and a few minutes later the sound of a single shot.
"I wonder what that was," exclaimed Billie.
No one could answer, but had Billie been where he could see, he would have known that it was Donald who fired.
As the light came, Donald, peering through a crack in the stable, had seen a man climbing up the side of the house toward the roof. Without a moment's hesitation he fired and the man dropped, shot through the right hand.
But the shot was Donald's undoing. The flash of his gun was detected and half a dozen men rushed his hiding place and took him prisoner.
He was at once taken before the captain of the band and questioned as to the number of defenders and as to the whereabouts of Gen. Blanco.
To all the questions Donald gave an evasive answer.
"If you will tell me where Gen. Blanco is," said the captain, "I will give you your freedom."
"That's easy," was Donald's reply. "He is with Gen. Carranza."
"I don't believe it."
"Well, I can't help that, nor does what you believe make any difference. It is the truth and what you may believe has nothing whatever to do with it."
The captain scowled.
"Who is it then, that is defending the house?"
"Americans. You had better let us go, or it will be the worse for you. We had a safe conduct from Gen. Huerta, but we were betrayed."
"If I had my way," said the captain, "I'd shoot every American in the whole of Mexico."
"I don't see why," from Donald. "We have nothing against you."
"Take him away," ordered the captain, "and see that he does not escape. Now let us capture the others."
There was a rush for the house as Donald was led back to the stable.
Billie and Mr. Black heard them coming.
"Go to the roof," commanded Mr. Black, speaking to the two females, "and keep yourselves and the little girl out of sight. We will hold them back here as long as we can and then we will also come to the roof."
The command had hardly been obeyed than the Mexicans began to crowd up the stairs. They were met with shot after shot, but at last all the weapons were empty.
"Run for the roof," said Mr. Black as he arose to his feet and with his heavy boot kicked a head which was just coming up the stairs.
Billie obeyed and a minute later the fugitives had gathered upon the last place of safety left.
"If we only had some ammunition," moaned Billie. "Can't we do something?"
Then, as in answer to his own query, he picked up a twelve-pound cannon ball that lay on the roof and, raising it above his head with both hands, hurled it through the opening upon those below.
This unexpected attack caused the besiegers to draw back, but only for a moment. Then they came on again. In his desperation, Mr. Black, with almost superhuman strength, picked up the cannon itself, just as Billie had picked up the ball, and hurled it down the stairs.
Half a dozen men fell beneath its weight, while the others, frightened at such an exhibition of strength, fell back in dismay.
A shout from the captain urged them forward, but ere they could gather their courage for another rush there came the sound of a volley in the patio below and a minute later Adrian rushed up the stairs, followed by Captain Lopez and a squad of his soldiers.
Taken in the rear and entirely by surprise, the Huerta forces threw down their arms and cried for mercy, and in less than five minutes after the arrival of Captain Lopez and his men, the entire force, or as many as remained, were prisoners.
A NARROW ESCAPE.
Two days later the three boys sat on the verandah of Mr. Black's commodious house awaiting the call to breakfast. Under escort of Captain Lopez' men they had crossed the valley between Mr. Black's and Gen. Blanco's the day after the night attack and had spent the time since in getting a much needed rest.
"It's less than four days since we left the City of Mexico," remarked Donald, "but it seems like a month. I wonder how matters stand at Vera Cruz?"
"From that telegram from Gen. Maas, that we took from the lieutenant, Admiral Fletcher may have taken the city," said Billie.
"I hope not," from Adrian.
"Why?" asked both the others.
"'Cause I'd like to be there when it happens."
"Yes, so would I," echoed Billie.
"If he has taken it," ventured Donald, "we may have difficulty getting through the Mexican lines."
"Well, the best thing we can do," asserted Adrian, "is to get somewhere and find out what is going on just as soon as we can."
The call to breakfast interrupted their conversation, but as soon as they were seated at the table, they broached the matter to Mr. Black.
"I expect you are right," he said, "but I'd like to have you stay with me a while. It's mighty lonesome here for Josie and me."
"If we are at war with the Mexicans," remarked Billie, "this will be an unhealthy place for an American, I imagine. I should think you would want to take your daughter away from here."
"Oh, Josie and I are not afraid, are we, Josie?"
"No indeed, Dad. We are a match for a regiment of Mexicans when we are on our own ground."
But in spite of the assertion made by Mr. Black he admitted to the boys after breakfast when Josie was not present that he wished his daughter was safe in Vera Cruz.
"Why don't you go with us?" asked Adrian. "We should be pleased to act as an escort."
"Yes," echoed Billie. "We'll see you through."
"I'll tell you what I had thought of doing," said Mr. Black. "It's only a good day's ride a-horseback to Moreno. We have many friends there with whom I could leave her. If you boys would act as an escort that far you would be no farther from Vera Cruz than you are now and I believe you would have a better chance in reaching the port over the Tierra Blanca division than on the main line."
"Whether we would or not," replied Adrian, "we should be glad to act as your escort."
"There is another thing in favor of that route," continued Mr. Black. "The farther we keep from the main line of railroad, the less likely we are to fall in with the Huerta forces. The southern territory as far as Santa Lucrecia is practically in the hands of Carranza."
"From what you say," was Donald's comment, "it is greatly to our advantage to do as you wish. Let's consider the matter settled and start at once."
"It's too late in the day to start now," was Mr. Black's reply. "We shall wait until to-morrow morning and be on our way by daylight. I don't want to be riding through the mountains after dark. There are wild animals that are worse than the soldiers."
"As the Senora Blanco can testify," laughed Billie. "Every time I think of what a close shave she had, it gives me a chill."
That afternoon Mr. Black brought out half a dozen horses for the inspection of his guests.
"A day's ride on a strange horse isn't always an easy task," he explained, "and I thought you might amuse yourself trying these. You can each pick out the one that suits him best."
It was a task which suited the boys better than any they had undertaken in days, and as they had not only Mr. Black, but Josie and the General's wife for spectators, they were more than pleased to show their dexterity after true cowboy fashion.
The remainder of the afternoon was therefore spent in riding, throwing the lariat and in shooting, much to the gratification of Mr. Black, who declared he had never seen a better exhibition of its kind.
As a result of their experience, the boys picked out three medium-sized horses, which Mr. Black emphatically stated showed their good judgment of horse flesh, as completely as their riding had proved their horsemanship.
They were all in the saddle early the following morning, Josie's wound having healed sufficiently to permit her to ride without danger.
Early morning in the tropics is the pleasantest time of the day, and although the road from Mr. Black's hacienda to Moreno would take them from an altitude of over four thousand feet down to about two thousand feet above sea level, they would be sufficiently up in the mountains to make riding fairly comfortable.
The route chosen took the little party first to the headquarters of the Carranza force operating in that section. They were warmly greeted by General Dorantes, the commanding officer, who furnished them with a guard of four men and passes through the lines, "if," he added as he bade them good luck, "you should find it necessary to pass our lines. If my reports are correct, we are in possession of all the territory to the south."
For hours the cavalcade rode on without incident, stopping only long enough to partake of a mid-day meal at the hacienda of Don Alvaro Flores, a friend of Mr. Black's. Late in the afternoon, however, when about six miles from their destination, there came to their ears the sound of heavy firing—of field pieces mingled with the occasional roll of a machine gun.
They stopped and listened intently.
"Which direction do you make the firing to be?" asked Mr. Black of the corporal in command of the escort.
"In the direction of Tierra Blanca, sir. It sounds as though our forces might have been attacked."
"How will that affect our journey?"
"Hard to tell, sir. If we win, as we shall, the enemy may fall back toward Santa Lucrecia, or they may retreat toward Moreno. If you will take my advice, you will halt here until the action is over."
The advice seemed most excellent and the cavalcade came to a halt and the riders dismounted to give themselves a much-needed rest.
The firing lasted something like twenty minutes, then suddenly ceased, with the exception of an occasional "Boom!"
"It sounds as though we had beaten them off," said the corporal.
"Is there any way that we can tell in which direction they have retreated?"
"Only by a reconnoiter."
"Which is our long suit," declared Billie. "You just stay here with the guard, Mr. Black, and we three will soon have a report."
Looking to their arms, with which they had been well supplied by their host before leaving the hacienda, the boys rode forward toward an elevation something like a mile distant. From this they hoped to get a view of the country.
There was a fairly level road and they dashed along at a good rate despite their long ride. The horses were as hard as iron and the boys did not know the meaning of the word tired.
Reaching the top of the hill, they found a space, from which they could see clear across the valley through which ran the railroad from Santa Lucrecia to Vera Cruz. To the right, some miles away, they could see a good-sized little city which their common sense told them must be Tierra Blanca. To the left, but nearer, was the smaller town of Moreno, for which they were headed.
Between the two towns, and coming directly toward them, was a band of galloping horsemen, probably one hundred or more in number.
"Great Scott!" was Billie's ejaculation as he caught sight of the horsemen, "they're coming right at us."
"I believe you are right," from Donald. "They seem to be on this very road."
"What would you take them to be?" was Billie's next question.
"Give it up," replied Donald.
"I'll bet I can make a good guess," said Adrian. "They are a flying column of Huerta cavalry, sent out to test the Carranza lines. They have paid their respects to Tierra Blanca and now they are headed for Cordoba."
"They'll never get there," said Billie. "They'll run into General Dorante's men."
"But if it's a surprise, they'll cut their way through."
"It's up to us to see that it is not a surprise!" cried Donald. "Come on!" and he turned and dashed back the road they had come.
In less than five minutes they were where they had left their companions. In another two minutes they had told their story and in another minute the corporal and his men were on their way back toward General Dorante's headquarters.
"It's only a question of whose horses are the best," said Mr. Black. "And now let us to cover."
Leaving the highway, the Americans turned sharply to the left and dashed for the shelter of a piece of woodland something like a half a mile away. Pell-mell they went over rocks and shrubs, regardless of themselves or their horses, and succeeded in reaching the friendly cover just about three minutes before the cavalry came into sight over the hill.
"We're all right now," said Mr. Black, "if the troopers will stick to the road, but if they should take it into their heads to scatter, we might have trouble."
With eager eyes the boys watched the oncoming horsemen, prepared to flee for their lives if they should be discovered, as they realized how useless would be any resistance.
Nearer and nearer they came until the leaders were at the very spot they had just left, and then with a rush they passed by, turning neither to the right nor to the left.
Every one in the party heaved a deep sigh of relief.
"It's a wonder some of them didn't stop," said Billie.
"Oh, I don't know," laughed Adrian. "Look yonder," and he pointed to the brow of the hill, where another, but much smaller body of horsemen had appeared. "They evidently didn't intend to have their mission interfered with by fighting a rear-guard skirmish."
"I think the best thing we can do," said Mr. Black, "is to surrender ourselves to the pursuers. They are evidently Carranzistas and our passes will protect us."
Breaking off a piece of bamboo, Mr. Black tied a handkerchief to it and raising it above his head the little party rode out of the woods. They were sighted at once and a party of horsemen dashed toward them, and surrounded them.
It was as they had expected and Gen. Dorantes' passes were immediately recognized by the officer in command. He was much pleased at the information given him concerning the corporal and thanked the boys in the name of Gen. Carranza for their good offices. He furthermore detached an escort of a dozen men to see that they reached Moreno in safety and commended them to the care of the jefe politico, with the verbal instruction that the boys be allowed to proceed on their way to Vera Cruz at their will.
"Boys," said Mr. Black the following morning as they were preparing to pay a visit to the jefe politico, "I want you to do me a favor."
The boys looked at him in surprise.
"Well, what is it?" asked Donald, when Mr. Black did not immediately continue.
"I want you to accept, as a mark of my appreciation of your bravery and good services, the horses upon which you are mounted and the accoutrements."
The look of surprise on the faces of the boys deepened.
"I am sure, sir," replied Donald, speaking for the others, "we should be pleased to accept them if we were expecting to remain in the country. We hope, however, to leave Vera Cruz in a very few days."
"Boys," and Mr. Black's face was most serious, "there is no knowing when you will reach Vera Cruz; much less leave it."
"What do you mean?" from Billie.
"I had a long talk with my friend, Don Ramon, last night after you were in bed and he tells me that the railroad between here and Vera Cruz is in the hands of Gen. Maas, the other side of Guayabo, and there is almost no chance of your being allowed to pass through the lines."
"Why not?" from Adrian.
"Well, you see, since we have heard anything, relations between the two countries have become more and more strained and the United States has practically declared a blockade on Vera Cruz. The entire Atlantic fleet is assembled outside and there is liable to be a clash at any time."
"Then we'll accept the horses, Mr. Black," spoke up Donald, "and we'll ride to Vera Cruz. It can't be more than fifty miles."
"Forty-six by rail," said Mr. Black. "I kind of thought you might like to try and make it, is why I want to give you the horses," and the speaker smiled knowingly.
"The sooner we start the better, I expect," said Adrian.
"Yes; after you pay your respects to the mayor."
The foregoing conversation explains how it happened that on the morning of April 21, 1914, the Broncho Rider Boys looked down from a little hill, the top of which was covered by tropical foliage, upon the harbor of Vera Cruz, with the American fleet in the offing.
By a circuitous route and by two nights of riding, hiding in the day, the boys had reached this spot about an hour after sunrise.
"Whew!" was Billie's exclamation as he looked out across the harbor at the men-of-war flying the American flag. "There's a bunch of them, isn't there?"
"Sure is," from Adrian, "and they look peaceable, too."
"You never can tell by the looks of a toad how far it will jump," laughed Donald. "But peaceable or warlike, I'd like mighty well to be on board one of them."
"Here, too," from Billie. "I wonder how we're going to make it."
"How would it do for one of us to try and get into town and find the American consul?" queried Adrian.
"Fine," from Donald, "if he succeeded; but bad if he did not."
"Then what had we better do?"
"Give it up. Suppose we wait here a while and something may turn up."
"I'd like to know what can turn up?" asked Billie.
"I don't know; but I was thinking that one of the ships might happen to send a boat ashore for something. If we saw it coming, we could ride quickly into town."
Adrian laughed. "I reckon it would be just as hard to get through the Mexican lines then as now. No! I'm going out to reconnoiter."
It was an hour later when he returned.
"I've found a way," he said as he threw himself on the ground and fanned himself vigorously with his hat. "It's down by the water works. There are several Americans down there."
"Good," said Billie. "Let's go. I'm getting mighty hungry."
"Now don't be in a rush," cautioned Adrian. "There's a picket between here and there. We'll have to ride easy. You put the saddles on the horses. I'm pretty well tired. I want to tell you it's hot."
Billie was busy with the horses when Don suddenly pointed out toward the American men-of-war.
"Look!" he exclaimed. "There's something doing."
And sure enough there was.
Out from behind two of the largest vessels there suddenly darted a number of launches loaded with blue-jackets and marines.
In another instant they had headed for the shore, while out behind them trailed the American flag.
The boys sprang to their feet and watched the approaching boats with the utmost interest.
"There must be a thousand of them!" exclaimed Billie.
"More than that," said Donald, as his eyes ran over the oncoming boats. "There's nearer fifteen hundred."
"And look there," cried Adrian. "See those two smaller ships moving in toward shore."
"What do you suppose they are going to do?" asked Billie, all in a tremor of excitement.
"Looks to me," replied Donald, "like they were going to capture the town."
"Why, that's war!" from Adrian.
"Well, isn't that what we've been expecting? I wish I knew what it all means."
As some of the readers may not know what was the cause of the action it may be explained that a German steamship had arrived the night before loaded with arms for Huerta's army. Admiral Fletcher had no right to seize the German ship, so he determined to seize the port of Vera Cruz. Then if the arms were landed they would be in the hands of the Americans.
"Well," declared Adrian, "whatever else it means, it means business."
"Do you suppose the Mexicans will try to prevent the landing?" asked Billie.
"We'll know in a minute, for they are most ashore," said Donald.
Donald was right and in another minute a shot rang out followed by a rattle of musketry.
"Flash! Flash! Bang! Bang!" spoke the howitzers in the foremost of the launches.
Boom! Boom! Boom! came the sound of three guns from the ship nearest the city, which proved to be the Prairie.
The crash of the six-inch shells as they struck in the city could be heard above the rattle of the rifle fire which had now become continuous.
"It's a sure enough battle," cried Billie. "Come on! Let's go down!" and he flung himself onto his horse.
"What would you do?" cried Donald, seizing Billie's horse by the bridle. "You'd be killed by the fire from our own guns. This is the best place we could be in while the firing is going on. As soon as our men have driven the Mexicans out of town, then we can go in."
"But I want to take a hand in the fun," said Billie.
"It's no fun, as you'll find after it's all over. No knowing how many of our boys are being lost, to say nothing of the Mexicans."
"Look!" cried Adrian, who had not taken his eyes from the scene in the harbor. "There are a couple of other ships going into action."
Billie turned at sound of Adrian's words. Sure enough, there came flashes from more guns, as the Chester and San Francisco moved up into striking distance, although at that time the boys did not know the vessels' names.
"What show will the Mexicans have against those guns!" exclaimed Donald. "They'll be driven out of town in short order."
Once more Donald was right and after some minutes of firing, the boys realized that the rifle fire was becoming less.
"If they retreat, which way do you suppose they will go?" queried Adrian.
"I was just thinking about that," was Donald's reply. "What do you think, Billie?"
"I should think along the main line of railroad."
"And I imagine they'll retreat in every direction," said Adrian.
"In which case," advised Donald, "we'd better be prepared to make a dash through."
"Look here," from Billie. "Can't you see that the shots are all aimed at one particular place? I'm sure if we come around by the south, we can get in behind our men some way. It's a good deal better chance than to stay here to be shot down by the retreating Mexicans."
The others were forced to admit the wisdom of Billie's advice and they proceeded to follow it.
Mounting their horses, they rapidly retraced their steps for a couple of hundred yards and then headed for the harbor.
They had not gone more than half a mile when they caught a glimpse of foot soldiers forming in line on what appeared to be a parade ground.
"This is no place for us," exclaimed Donald. "Back to the woods."
"I'm afraid it's too late," from Adrian.
"I hate to run for it," was Billie's comment, "but it's the best we can do. I have no mind to fall into Mexican hands right now."
He put spurs to his horse and dashed through a little clump of trees which grew by the way, closely followed by the other two.
They seemed to have done just the right thing and were congratulating themselves upon their lucky escape, when they heard horses coming from the other way.
Billie drew his horse up with a sudden turn.
"It looks as though we'd have to fight for it, boys! If we do let's give a good account of ourselves."
They drew their Winchesters for instant use.
The sound of hoofbeats drew nearer and then there burst into sight from around a turn in the road a sight which caused the boys nearly to fall from their horses with laughter.
Riding on a mule and followed by several peons on burros was the florid-faced gentleman whom they had met on the train the day they left the City of Mexico. He was bare-headed and his coat tails streamed out in the breeze. He had no saddle and was clinging onto the mule by grasping him around the neck.
"Help! Help!" he cried as he caught sight of the boys. "I surrender. I surrender."
Seeing the boys' horses directly in his path, the mule came to a sudden stop, with both feet stuck out before him. The result was that the florid-faced gentleman, who wished to head a company of marines to drive the Mexicans off the earth, shot forward over the mule's head and landed in a cactus bush.
Now a cactus is not a pleasant thing to sit upon, even when the greatest care is used; but to be shot into it as from a catapult is more than any one can bear.
With a yell that might have been heard half a mile, had it not been for the noise of the guns, the man scrambled to his feet and darted away down the hill, while the peons stopped at the unexpected sight of the boys.
"Americanos!" they cried, and, tumbling off their burros, fell on their knees in abject terror, as though expecting that their end had come.
THE INSULT AVENGED.
Perceiving that the advantage was on their side, the boys did not hesitate to profit by it.
"Do as we bid," ordered Donald sternly, "and your lives will be saved. Disobey and we will not answer for the consequences."
The kneeling peons uttered never a word, but raised their eyes with a look of surprise.
"Get up," was the next command.
The peons obeyed.
"Now conduct us to the water front by a route where there are no Mexican soldiers."
"Do you think you can trust them?" asked Billie.
"At any sign of treachery, our first shot will be for them." Then to the peons: "Now march."
Without a word the peons, five in number, started back over the route by which they had come but a minute before.
"Where did the other American come from?" asked Billie of the peon nearest him as they rode along.
"Quien sabe, senor," was the hesitating response. "We saw him riding by and we followed him."
"That's the way with loud talkers," remarked Adrian. "When the test comes they usually weaken."
The firing, which had somewhat subsided for a few minutes, suddenly began again with renewed vigor, especially on the part of the ships.
"Our boys are getting ready for another advance," said Billie, and his manner became greatly excited. "Let's get there in time to take part."
"I'm willing," declared Adrian. "Come on!"
The two boys dug their spurs into their horses and dashed forward, upsetting a couple of the peons in their flight.
"Hold on!" called out Donald. "You'll get into trouble."
Billie and Adrian paid no attention to his cry, whereupon he also put spurs to his horse, leaving the peons gaping with astonishment in the middle of the road.
And now the boys came into sight of the water front where the fighting was going on. It was at the instant that the order had been given to clear the space around the custom house, and the boys saw the marines advance on the double quick.
The Mexicans gave way, but volley after volley was poured down upon the advancing Americans from the roofs of houses and from nearby church towers.
There were several shots in rapid succession from the Chester, which had drawn in more closely, every one of which struck a tower where a large force of Mexicans had gathered.
The tower toppled and fell, carrying many with it.
"Hurrah!" cried Billie. "Give it to them!" and, firing his rifle as he went, he rode right down into the main street.
"He'll be killed by our own men!" cried Donald.
But he was not. Instead he dashed into the open space in front of the custom house, just as the marines swept by, his hat off and his rifle cracking as fast as he could fire.
Seeing that the danger from the marines was past, Donald and Adrian fell in behind Billie, just as an officer came around the corner at the head of another company.
Espying the boys, he halted his command.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"We just came to town," replied Billie, "and we're trying to help avenge the insult to the flag."
"Good!" was the emphatic reply. "Fall in behind us. You may be of service."
The boys obeyed and followed the company as it swept up the street. Presently they came to a barricade, behind which the marines had taken a stand. The boys expected the command to halt, but instead they passed the barricade and pushed onward toward the outskirts of the city.
All the time there was a continuous fire upon them by men secreted on the roofs of houses.
"I'd clean out those snipers if I were in command," said Donald to his companions.
The words were hardly out of his mouth ere another company of marines made its appearance and the men dashed into the houses on either side of the street.
"Somebody has the same idea, Don," was Billie's comment as they rode along.
Two blocks farther came the order to halt and entrench. A minute later the officer called the boys toward him.
"Would you rather lend us your horses, or act as orderlies?" he asked.
"If it's all the same to you," was the reply, "we'll serve as orderlies."
"Very well. Will you," turning to Adrian, "go back to the custom house and tell Captain Rush that we have reached our position. You," to Billie, "ride with all speed to the landing and say that the enemy has retreated toward the water works. They should not be allowed to stop long enough to do any damage."
The two boys were off like the wind to carry the orders.
"Anything for me?" asked Donald.
"Not for the present. Better dismount and get behind something."
Two minutes later Adrian pulled up in front of the Custom House and delivered his message, while Billie kept on to the water's edge.
"Do you know where the water works are?" asked the officer to whom Billie gave his order.
"Then lead us to it."
Without a word Billie obeyed and the Jackies followed on the run.
The information was evidently received none too soon, for they encountered quite a force of Mexicans, guarding the works.
A volley from the bluejackets was returned by a scattering fire and the Mexicans turned and fled.
But the volley had been sufficient to lose Billie his mount, as his horse came to his knees with a bullet in his shoulder.
Without waiting to see the cause of Billie's fall any more than to ask if he was hit, the Jackies pushed on toward the water works, leaving Billie to look out for himself as best he could until the work in hand was completed.
"This is sure enough tough luck," was Billie's comment as he helped the horse to his feet and examined the wound. "It will lay him up for a week."
He took the horse by the bridle and led him slowly back toward the Custom House, where he reported to an officer and hunted up Adrian.
"What had we better do now?" he asked. "I'd like to find a place to tend to my horse."
"The fighting seems about over," was Adrian's reply, "and I reckon the horse will be given attention by some one."
"Oh, I don't want to make any trouble, Ad! If nobody objects, suppose we go hunt a stable."
They were about to leave when a sergeant stopped them.
"You're to follow me to the Captain," he said. "Here," to a marine who stood by, "take charge of these horses and see that the lame one is cared for."
"I wonder if they will take our horses away from us?" muttered Adrian as they followed the sergeant.
"Give it up. I wonder what he wants of us?"
It did not take them long to find out.
"Are you the boys that brought the messages from Lieutenant Blunt?" asked Captain Rush.
"Will you undertake another mission?"
"With pleasure," replied Adrian.
"Same here, sir," from Billie, "but my horse has been wounded."
"That's bad. However, I guess we can find another."
"Sure, sir. I can borrow Don's."
"Who is Don?"
"He's the other one of us, sir. He is still out with Lieutenant Blunt."
"Well," said the Captain, "either two of you will do. What I want is to find out to just what point the Mexican army is falling back. Do you think you can find out?"
"Very well. My compliments to Lieutenant Blunt and give him this order. He will pass two of you through the lines. The other can remain with him. Sergeant, their horses."
Five minutes later, both astride Adrian's horse and leading the other, they appeared at the outpost and delivered the order.
"Which two shall it be?" laughed the lieutenant as he looked the boys over.
"I guess it will have to be Adrian and Don," replied Billie ruefully. "I've had glory enough for one day. The insult to the flag has been avenged and the Stars and Stripes are floating over Vera Cruz."
"I think it's only fair that Don, as you call him, should share in the adventure," said the lieutenant, "and the sooner you go the better. It is almost sundown now."
Then as Donald and Adrian started on their mission:
"Success to you and report here when you return."
"Is there any place near here where I can care for my horse?" asked Billie as soon as the others had passed out of sight.
"Why, yes. There are stables in almost any of these houses. Here, try this one," and the lieutenant indicated the one before which they were standing.
Billie knocked on the big door, but there was no reply.
"Knock louder," laughed the lieutenant. "Use your boot."
Billie used his foot and with such vigor that the gate flew open.
When no one appeared to answer his summons, he stuck his head inside the patio and called lustily.
"Must be deserted," he finally remarked. "Such being the case, lieutenant, I reckon I might as well take possession."
"Sure. Go ahead. If every one has gone, I may join you later."
Billie led his horse within and looked around. It was a large house and the patio was the most elaborate Billie had ever seen. He had thought that Pedro's home in Mexico City was fine, but this was much finer.
"They must be swells," was the lad's comment. "I reckon they became frightened and have run away with General Maas."
He started to lead the horse to the stable and then stopped.
"I might as well shut this big gate," he thought. "I'll leave the little gate open so the lieutenant can come in."
He pushed the big gate together and dropped the bolt in its place.
"Now to do something for the horse," and he turned to the animal which stood patiently by.
Then he stopped and stood in mute astonishment at what his eyes beheld.
In the center of the patio, with rifle in hand, aimed squarely at his head, stood a figure he had last seen on the banks of the Rio Grande more than a year before—the figure of a man whom he had known only as Santiago.
The recognition was mutual, but instead of the friendliness which had always before marked the attitude of the strange man, there was now upon his face a look of the most bitter hatred.
SHADOWING AN ARMY.
When Donald and Adrian left the city they rode slowly along for some distance without any sign of the retreating Mexicans, except the occasional sight of some camp utensil which had been thrown aside as too heavy to carry. Occasionally they met peons or women, who looked at them curiously, but all of whom were more than willing to tell of the army that had so recently passed.
"How many men do you suppose General Maas has?" queried Adrian.
"The lieutenant said it was supposed he had about seven thousand. It may be more, and it may be less."
"Well, they're certainly light-footed," laughed Adrian. "Don't you think we ought to get closer?"
"If we can without being seen."
They put spurs to their horses and for a mile or more galloped along at a fair speed.
Then from a little eminence they saw the rear guard of the retreating army.
"This is near enough," cautioned Donald.
They halted and watched the marching men.
"How far would you say we are from town, Don?"
"At least seven or eight miles."
"Do you know what towns are in this direction?"
"Not the slightest idea. That's the next thing we must find out."
The enemy having by this time passed out of sight, they again spurred forward, but holding their distance.
Darkness had now fallen and the boys were obliged to pick their way more carefully.
For half an hour they rode silently and then Donald spoke:
"They certainly will not march all night. They must have some place in mind."
"So I think," from Adrian. "But there seems no sign of a halt."
Ten minutes later, however, they caught sight of a fire light.
"That looks like it might be a camp," suggested Adrian.
They rode cautiously forward.
"It surely is," affirmed Donald a couple of minutes later. "We'd better dismount and do a little reconnoitering on foot."
The suggestion was immediately put into effect.
Leaving their horses tethered beneath a giant palm, which would serve as a landmark, the boys crept stealthily forward. In a few minutes they were near enough to see figures about the fire.
"They are evidently getting ready to pass the night," said Donald.
"Yes," from Adrian, "and there is another fire off yonder," and he pointed to the right.
"They are getting ready to post their pickets," explained Donald.
"Then we'd better get busy, Don. There must be some way of finding out where the army is going to stop."
As with one accord they drew still nearer the camp, they could smell the coffee and their appetites began to assert themselves.
"Wish I had some," whispered Adrian.
"You'll get to be as bad as Billie first thing you know," was the retort. "But, hush! There comes some one."
They lay flat on the ground and listened.
Whoever it might be was coming directly toward them.
Not a move did the boys make, hoping that they might not be discovered, but ready to act if they were.
When within ten feet of them the footsteps halted and they heard a voice say:
"This will be far enough. You are the end man on the line."
"Keep a close watch," cautioned the corporal. "You never know what these Americans may do."
"Si, Senor. How far are we from Vera Cruz?"
"About four leagues" (twelve miles). "General Maas will make a stand at Tejeria, about a league further on."
Then as he moved away. "Remember now, no sleeping. This is a real war."
"Bueno, mi caporal. I understand."
The corporal departed and the sentry, shouldering his rifle, began pacing his station.
A minute later Donald gave Adrian a dig with his elbow as a signal, and they slowly crawled away.
"That's the information we are after," whispered Donald when they were out of earshot. "Now to get back to Vera Cruz as quickly as possible."
They rose to their feet and ran swiftly but silently toward the palm tree, where their horses were tethered.
Suddenly Adrian stopped and grabbed Donald by the arm.
"What is it, Ad?" asked Donald.
"Can't you see! There is some one there with the horses."
They both peered through the darkness and Donald quickly perceived that Adrian was right.
Then as by one impulse they drew a few steps nearer.
In the dim starlight they were able to make out the figures of several men.
"Do you think they are soldiers?" whispered Don.
Adrian shook his head.
"Camp followers. Thieves," he whispered.
Donald nodded his head in acquiescence.
The boys lay down upon the ground and put their heads together.
"It wouldn't be any trick at all," whispered Donald, "if it were not for the pickets. But any noise will bring down upon us a couple of hundred men. Maybe more. We have simply got to dispose of that outfit without noise. But how?"
"Bad job," was Adrian's only reply.
"If the horses were only our Wyoming cow ponies, they'd come at our call."
"But they're not," replied Adrian.
For several minutes neither spoke, but lay silently watching the movements of the men about the horses.
"How many can you make out, Ad?"
"I don't see but four."
Adrian pointed to the left, about ten or twelve feet, to one who stood alone.
"What's he doing there?"
"Give it up." Then a moment later: "I have it!"
"Well, what is it?"
"He's watching for us to return. That's what they're all waiting for. They think we'll be a great catch."
"That's just it," from Donald. "Let's fool them!"
"Well, first, let's capture the one yonder. We'll show them a Wyoming Indian trick."
Slowly and silently the boys wiggled their way to where the lone robber stood. Then as silently as a ghost Donald arose, while Adrian bent on his knees.
There was a swift movement and Donald's arm was around the Mexican's neck, shutting off his wind, while Adrian pulled his feet from beneath him. In another minute he was bound by his own sash and gagged with a handful of grass.
"That's one!" exclaimed Donald, as he sat upon his prisoner's chest. "Now, how about the others?"
"Not so easy, Don."
"But it has to be done," declared Donald. "Scratch your head."
Adrian did so, but to no avail.
Time was passing and they did not know how long ere something would turn up, when Donald gave Adrian a kick.
"Look! They're getting uneasy."
This was undoubtedly true, as the men were moving about and one of them even had the temerity to light a cigarette.
Then of a sudden Adrian spoke.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed under his breath. "Help drag this chap farther away."
They picked him up bodily and carried him fifteen or twenty feet.
"Now, listen," said Adrian, "both of you. You, Don, sneak as near the horses as you dare. I'll give you just five minutes by my watch. Then I am going to give this man one chance for his life. I am going to take the gag from his mouth and let him give one call for help. If he makes another sound, it will be his last."
"Those fellows have waited so long that they are tired. They will all rush to where they expect to find him. Then you will rush in and cut the tethers. By the time they find this man I will be with you. Sabe?"
"Good!" from Donald. "I'm off."
In exactly five minutes by his watch Adrian gave the prisoner a rough shake.
"You know what I said?"
The man nodded his head.
"Well, I am now going to take out your gag. If you make more than one cry, or utter more than one word, your own knife will finish you."
He held the knife before the man's eyes. Then with the knife in one hand, Adrian pulled the wad of grass from between the prisoner's teeth.
No sooner had the man drawn one long breath than he let out a yell that might have been heard half a mile and which he was about to repeat with variations, when with a swift movement, Adrian forced the grass back into his mouth and the yell died in a dismal gurgle.
"I ought to use the knife," said Adrian, "but I guess this will do."
With a bound he sprang to his feet and dashed to where Donald was already performing his part of the work.
The plan had worked exactly as Adrian had figured, and in another moment the boys were astride the horses and away toward Vera Cruz.
But one thing they had not taken into consideration. That single yell of their erstwhile prisoner had aroused the Mexican pickets and from half a dozen directions came the sound of rifle shots and then the sound of a bugle calling to arms.
Even while Adrian was running toward the horses, the excitement had begun, and as the boys started on their homeward ride, a volley from the encamped forces sent the bullets whistling by their ears.
"This is no place for us!" cried Donald. "Don't be afraid to use the spur. It is our only chance."
And now as they rode furiously forward, came the sound of firing on their left and some distance ahead.
"What does it mean?" called out Adrian as they rode neck and neck through the darkness.
"Search me, Ad; but our only chance is in our horses," and Donald again plied the spur.
Outlined against the sky at the top of a small knoll, they could see a small body of horsemen.
"Keep away to the right," said Donald. "Keep in the valley and in the shadow," and he drew off the beaten highway, with Adrian close behind.
On the soft earth their horses' hoofs made no sound and in a couple of minutes more they descended into a little valley and the noise of the alarm passed out of hearing.
"It was a mighty close shave," declared Adrian a few minutes later, when they pulled their horses down to a walk to allow them to catch their breath.
"Sure was," from Donald, "but we got the information we went after."
Half an hour later they were challenged by the American pickets, which had been thrown even further forward than where the boys had passed through the lines. They stated their mission and were at once sent under guard to the officer of the day.