"Oh, it's you!" was the lieutenant's salutation as he saw who it was. "Did you get what you went after?"
"Yes, sir," from Donald. "The enemy has halted at Tejeria, fifteen miles away."
"Well done. I'll send an orderly to carry the report to headquarters. You boys are entitled to a rest."
"Where's Billie?" asked Adrian, looking around after the orderly had departed.
"Billie. Our chum."
"Oh, yes," replied the lieutenant. "He's disappeared."
"Yes. He went into this house here," pointing to the building before which he had stationed himself, "and when I went in later to see how he was coming on with his wounded horse, I found the horse standing in the middle of the patio, but your chum had disappeared."
"And then what?" queried Donald.
"Nothing. I made up my mind he had gone after something to put on his horse and I haven't thought much about him since."
"Then it's up to us to find him. Can we go inside?"
"Sure," laughed the lieutenant. "Go as far as you like, only keep inside the lines."
Without more words the boys entered the patio.
BILLIE GETS A SURPRISE.
When Billie found himself looking into the muzzle of a rifle in the hands of Santiago, his first impulse was to call out; but the expression on Santiago's face caused him to remain silent.
While the strange man owed his life to the lad, as is related in the story of the "Broncho Rider Boys with the Texas Rangers," there was that in the man's face which told that he was under a severe mental strain, and Billie did not think it wise to presume upon his former friendship.
Therefore, he remained quiet, waiting for Santiago to speak.
If he recognized Billie, he gave no intimation of the fact; but in a harsh voice commanded: "Up with your hands!"
"Turn to the left and march. In there," he continued a moment later as Billie approached an open door in the rear of the patio.
Into the house Billie went—into a large room, but dimly lighted. Santiago followed, closing the door behind him with a kick.
"Why shouldn't I shoot you down like a dog?" asked Santiago as soon as the door was closed.
"I can't see any reason," was the reply, "except that it might cause you a lot of trouble when it was found out. I imagine that Admiral Fletcher is going to be pretty severe upon snipers and others who shoot Americans."
"Bah!" exclaimed Santiago angrily. "I spit upon Americans! Bah!"
"That's all right," Billie agreed, "if it's the way you feel about it."
"Just because you Americans have driven away a few soldiers with the guns of your great fleet, you don't think you can conquer Mexico, do you?"
"I hadn't thought much about it."
"Then it's time you did, as you may never have another chance."
"Well, then," explained Billie, "I'll tell you how it looks to me. You might a great deal better be governed by the United States than by a man like Huerta."
"Huerta! Huerta!" fairly screamed Santiago. "He is not the governor of Mexico."
"No," from Billie. "He calls himself the provisional president. In reality he is a dictator."
"He is a murderer!" shouted the thoroughly excited man.
"Then what are you worrying about? All that the Americans want is to get rid of Huerta. They don't want Mexico. Didn't you know that, Santiago?"
"What? Who calls me Santiago? I am Ixtazhl, Prince of the Aztecs and guardian of the treasures of Montezuma. Who calls me Santiago?"
In his excitement he rested the stock of his rifle upon the floor and bent upon Billie a gaze so fierce as greatly to disconcert him for the moment.
But Billie was not a lad to be easily unnerved and after a moment he replied calmly:
"I call you by the only name I know. It was the one you used on the Rio Grande when you sent me on a mission to Pancho Villa."
"Villa! Villa!" repeated Santiago, as though trying to recall something that had passed from his memory. "Villa! Where have I heard that name before?"
"On the Rio Grande is all I can tell you. Do you remember Don Rafael?"
At mention of the name the expression on Santiago's face changed again, this time to one of fiercest rage.
"Don Rafael!" he cried. "Don Rafael! Now I know you! You are Don Rafael. That is why I should kill you!"
"Great Scott, no, I am not Don Rafael!" shouted Billie as Santiago again raised his rifle and the lad perceived that he had to do with a crazy man. "I'm the boy that saved your life when Don Rafael tried to kill you. Don't you remember?"
Again Santiago lowered his weapon, and again there came upon his face that puzzled expression.
"Tell me, Santiago—I mean Prince Iztazil, or whatever you call it, what are you doing here?"
Santiago eyed him suspiciously, but finally laid his rifle across a table in the center of the room and approached nearer the lad.
"Listen!" he said in a whisper. "I am the guardian of the treasure of Montezuma. It is to be used to free Mexico from the Spaniard. He must be driven out. The land belongs to the Aztec."
"But where is the Aztec?" queried Billie. "I know him not."
"I am he. The peons are my people. The Spaniard—bah! He owns the houses and he owns the lands; but he must be driven out."
"Isn't that what Villa says?"
"Villa? Villa?" again repeated Santiago, and again he lapsed into silence.
For some minutes he remained motionless ere he stepped back, picked up his rifle and started for a door leading to a stairway.
"Come!" he commanded. "I will show you."
"Hadn't we better take care of the horse first?" asked Billie, not at all anxious to be wandering around with an armed lunatic. "He may die."
"What is a horse when the future of Mexico is at stake, my son? Come with me and you shall hear a strange tale."
"I have heard one already," was Billie's mental comment, but realizing by the term son which Santiago had applied to him that he was in no immediate danger and trusting to his wits to finally overcome the strange man should it become necessary, he followed.
At the head of the stairs was another door, which Santiago opened and entered. It was a sort of ante-room, much like the entrance into a lodge room. Around the walls was a motley collection of firearms, swords, spears and smaller weapons.
Stopping in front of one of the racks, Santiago placed his rifle in it, and then from another took a couple of small swords, one of which he handed to Billie.
"This is a bug house sure enough," muttered the boy as he took the sword and examined it curiously. "I wonder what next?"
He had not long to wait, for opening a closet, Santiago took therefrom two beautifully embroidered robes, one of which he threw over his own shoulders and the other of which he put on Billie.
"It doesn't hardly match my hat," laughed Billie.
Without a word, Santiago removed Billie's sombrero and hung it on a peg in the closet, which he closed.
Then he opened another door and led Billie into a large, brilliantly lighted room, hung with the richest tapestries.
"Looks like we had strayed into some Turkish bath house," thought Billie, "but I might as well see the thing through."
"Sit here beside me, my son," Santiago finally said. "You shall become my heir. I will introduce you to the court."
Santiago clapped his hands, as though bidding a servant to attend; but there was no response.
He turned his head from one side to the other as though in amazement and again clapped his hands, this time with vigor.
After a moment's delay, there was a movement behind one of the draperies and presently the curtain was drawn back and a man's face appeared.
"Come hither," commanded Santiago.
The man obeyed.
"Where are the others?" demanded Santiago.
"Oh, senor," cried the man, "the others have hidden themselves in the cellar!"
"Slaves! Cowards!" exclaimed Santiago. "What do they fear?"
"The great guns, senor. We might all be killed."
"You will certainly be killed if you do not mind what I say," was the reply as Santiago drew his sword. "Now summon the court that I may introduce my son."
The man bowed and left the room, and in a few minutes returned accompanied by two more men and several women, all arrayed in fantastic costumes.
All bowed as they entered, and Santiago waved his hand.
"This is my son and heir," he said. "Come and kiss his hand."
They all came forward and kissed Billie's hand, which he held out in order to facilitate the job.
"Now," said Santiago, "we——"
"Now," interrupted Billie, "if it is all the same to you, Prince, we'll have supper. I haven't had a mouthful to eat since daylight. I'm 'most starved to death."
"It is well," agreed Santiago. "It is well that my heir should not die of hunger. Let the table be placed."
The order seemed to meet with general approval, and in the course of half an hour there was spread what would have proved a feast at any time, but which was beyond description to a hungry boy; and the way he waded into the food was a caution.
During all this time Santiago had uttered never a word, nor would he eat but the smallest portion of food—a taste of every dish which he set before his guest.
"My son tells the truth," Santiago finally remarked as Billie pushed back his chair with the single word "Bastante," meaning enough.
"I always try to," was the smiling rejoinder, for Billie was now in the very best humor. Eating was his strong point and he had gone the limit.
"Clear away the feast and then reassemble," was Santiago's next order.
This order was carried into effect, and the servants also must have enjoyed a square meal, for it was more than an hour ere they again assembled, during which time Billie sank back in his chair and slumbered peacefully.
He was finally awakened by a hand laid upon his arm.
"Awake, my son," were the words he heard. "It is now time that I reveal to you the secret of my life. It is now time that I should tell you the secret of the treasure of Montezuma."
"That's right, Prince," said Billie sleepily. "Let her go."
Santiago regarded him interrogatively.
"What said my son?"
"Oh, yes, Prince. I forgot you only understood good English. Let her go, means proceed with the secret."
"Let her go. Let her go," Santiago repeated a couple of times. "Yes," he continued, "I had forgotten about her."
He clapped his hands and the same servant who had first appeared approached his chair.
Santiago gave an order in a language which Billie did not understand, but which he imagined was Indian, and the servant withdrew, only to reappear a few minutes later with a young woman who greatly resembled Santiago and who was also arrayed in a gorgeous costume.
She had evidently not expected to meet a stranger, for she drew back upon seeing Billie and the color rushed to her face.
"Come hither, daughter," was Santiago's command.
The young woman obeyed.
"Lucia," said Santiago, "this is the honorable young man whom I have chosen for my heir. Henceforth consider him your betrothed. The marriage shall take place one new moon from to-day."
"Oh, Father," cried the girl, her face becoming even more scarlet than before, "I cannot——"
"No!" interrupted Billie, springing to his feet, "neither can I. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Santiago——"
"What!" cried Santiago, springing to his feet and again drawing his sword. "Who calls me Santiago? I am Prince Ixtazhl of the great Aztec nation and guardian of the treasure of Montezuma!"
He raised his sword and would have stricken Billie down ere the boy could have prevented had not the young woman thrown herself between them and seized his arm.
At the same instant the door from the ante-room opened and Donald and Adrian entered.
A MISSION FOR FUNSTON.
"Santiago!" exclaimed Donald.
"By all that's great!" from Adrian.
"Help!" cried Lucia. "He will do something desperate!"
Donald and Adrian sprang forward, but their assistance was not needed. Billie had by this time gathered his wits and in a twinkling the mad-man was disarmed.
"Shall we bind him?" asked Adrian as they came forward.
"No, indeed," replied Billie as the now helpless man sank down upon the chair. "He isn't dangerous."
"What's it all about?" queried Donald.
"Oh, nothing much! He simply wanted to make me his heir and marry me to his daughter."
Donald and Adrian cast an admiring gaze upon Lucia, who was now kneeling at her father's side.
"Well," said Adrian in an aside, "I don't see why you should object to that."
"Who said I objected?" demanded Billie. "It is the young woman who objects."
"But whoever supposed he had a daughter?" said Donald.
"Not I," from Billie. "But this is certainly a queer mess."
Then to Lucia: "How long has he been in this way, Senorita?"
"Only a few days. Since this trouble with the Americanos."
"But how could that affect him?"
"It is a long story, senor. For years he has been trying to overthrow the government. When Madero was made president, he was happy. Then came that awful tragedy, by which Madero was killed. Since that time he has not been himself. But when it became evident that the United States would interfere he became as you have seen him to-day."
"When I told him that all the United States wanted was to get rid of Huerta, he was much pleased," explained Billie. "That was when he proposed to make me his heir."
Lucia's cheeks grew red, as she asked: "And did you accept his proposal?"
"I neither accepted nor rejected. I just followed him in to see what would happen next."
"But would you accept?" insisted Lucia.
"That depends," replied Billie, with a touch of color in his own face. "But what had we better do now? You and I will discuss the other question later."
"The best thing we can do," interposed Donald, "is to report to Lieutenant Blunt. Isn't there some place, Senorita, where your father can be placed for safe-keeping?"
"He will be perfectly safe here with me, senors, if the servants are allowed to remain."
"They certainly will be," declared Billie. "I will personally vouch for that. We have done Captain Rush a good turn to-day and I know he will be glad to do that much for us. And besides, the Americans will harm no one."
Lucia gave Billie a grateful look as she replied:
"Ah, senor, I shall trust it all to you. I can see that you are a friend of my father and I know you are telling the truth."
"You bet you can trust me," was Billie's emphatic reply. "Come on, fellows, let's go look after my horse."
In the door Billie turned:
"I'll leave my robe in the cupboard, Senorita; and, if you don't mind, I'll ask Lieutenant Blunt to make himself at home in the patio."
"The house is yours, senor. Do as you think best."
"By George!" exclaimed Adrian as they descended the stairs to the patio, "this is getting serious."
"What?" queried Donald.
"Why this affair of Billie and the young lady we have just left."
"Nonsense!" from Billie. "It isn't half as serious as what I saw at Moreno."
"No!" laughed Donald. "I saw that myself; but Josie is an American. Hey, Ad?"
"I don't think it's very nice to be making remarks about young ladies in their absence," retorted Adrian, bristling up.
"Oh, come now, Adrian!" laughed Billie. "You started it. But what do you make out of Santiago?"
"He's evidently a rich old chap with a bug. That's all."
"Well," commented Billie, with a nod of his head, "strange things do happen when you travel. Who'd have thought we'd ever see the old chap again, and at a time like this?" and he went back to where Adrian and Donald had stabled the horses, to see if there was anything he could do for the wounded animal.
When Lieutenant Blunt was made acquainted with the conditions prevailing in the house, he immediately took possession of the lower floor and from that time on until the arrival of General Funston with the Fifth Brigade, it was made one of the official residences.
The week following the occupation of Vera Cruz by the American forces was a busy one for our boys. Because of their intimate knowledge with the Spanish language, they were continually in demand. There was never a verbal message from the American Admiral to some Mexican official but what they were called upon, and they very soon made friends of every Jackie and marine in the city.
Ten days later the boys stood upon the wharf awaiting the arrival of the first boatload of General Funston's regulars from the big transports which had anchored in the harbor the night before. Because of the shallowness of the water, everything in Vera Cruz harbor has to be brought ashore in small boats, known as lighters. As the boys watched the first of these to approach there was something in the face and bearing of the officer in command which attracted their attention.
"By George!" exclaimed Donald, "I seem to know that face. Don't you, Billie?"
"Does look kind o' familiar. Where have we seen him?"
"I'll tell you!" cried Adrian. "It's the lieutenant who was in charge of the patrol on the Rio Grande."
"Lieutenant Grant!" exclaimed Billie. "Sure as you're born. Well this is luck!"
"Luck? What do you mean?"
"Why, maybe he'll be able to tell me whatever became of those drafts for ten thousand pounds that I took from old Don Pablo."
His companions laughed.
"Still thinking about that, are you?" said Donald. "Why of course you'll never hear of them again. The bank is simply in that much."
"Maybe so," admitted Billie, "but I'll get something official."
And he did.
It was several days later, though, after the regulars had taken possession of the city and the navy forces had withdrawn to their ships. The boys were sitting in Lieutenant Grant's quarters, to whom they had offered their services as soon after his landing as they were able, and were laughing over their adventures on the border.
"It was certainly a close call you boys had," the lieutenant was saying. "I'm not sure but our neutrality was mighty near a breaking point. What do you think, Billie?"
"Possibly so; Americans will be Americans. But say, Lieutenant, whatever was done about those drafts I took from Don Pablo? I've never been called upon to tell my story, nor have they ever come back to me."
"That's because you were out of the United States," replied Lieutenant Grant. "It was less than a month ago that I was asked if I knew your whereabouts. Uncle Sam has decided that he has no claim to the drafts and they were returned to me. I have them in my army chest. If they are any good to you, I shall be pleased to hand them over."
"I guess they are not much use to any one," sighed Billie mournfully. "My father says no bank would cash them without Don Pablo's signature, and no one can get that."
"I'm glad you take it so philosophically," laughed the lieutenant. "I hope you'll have better luck next time."
The boys arose to leave.
"Which way?" asked the lieutenant.
"No place in particular. We thought we'd go home."
"You mean to the United States?"
"Not to-night," laughed Adrian. "Just to the house where we are living. It belongs to old Santiago."
"Who is he?"
Briefly the boys narrated what they knew about him on the Rio Grande, how they had met him here, and why they were staying at his house.
"Has he no other name?"
"Why, yes, I suppose so," replied Billie. "We always call him Prince to his face, and his daughter as the Princess Lucia. Of course, it is all make-believe, but it is one way of keeping him quiet."
He called to one of Santiago's servants, whom Lucia had lent them to look after their horses.
"Oh, Chomo!" he said. "Do you know what Santiago's surname is?"
"Si, senor. It is Ojeda."
"What?" cried all the boys at once. "Ojeda? Why, that was old Don Pablo's name."
The boys stood and eyed each other in speechless wonder. The same thought was in all their minds.
"Do you think it is possible?" asked Billie at last.
"Do I think what is possible?" asked Lieutenant Grant.
"Why, that Santiago could have given those drafts to the stranger so as not to be known in the matter."
"Possibly. He seems a man of mystery."
"Well," declared Billie, "I am going to find out."
"How, I should like to know," asked Donald. "He's too crazy to remember anything, even if he wanted to tell you."
"You forget Lucia," said Billie.
"Oh, no, I haven't," laughed Donald, "and I have no doubt she would tell you all about it if she knew; but I do not believe she does. Santiago is too deep to have entrusted his secrets to a girl not yet out of her teens."
"You never can tell," remarked the lieutenant. "Men with a hobby do strange things. You'd better ride along with me to headquarters. I'd like to introduce you to General Funston. He's a man after your own hearts. You know how he went out and captured Aguinaldo when he was in the Philippines."
"I've read about it," replied Adrian. "It was a bold deed."
"Sure was," said Donald. "We'll be mighty glad to meet him."
It may also be said that General Funston was glad to meet the Broncho Rider Boys, especially after Lieutenant Grant told him in a few words of the good work they had done on the border and on the day that Vera Cruz was taken.
"And when do you expect to return to the United States?" asked the general.
"Just as soon as we can obtain passage," replied Donald.
"I think we can arrange that for you in a few days," replied the general. "In the meantime come in occasionally."
The boys thanked him and started to leave, when the telephone in the general's quarters rang. He looked for some one to answer, but no one being at hand, he picked up the 'phone himself.
"What's that?" he asked after a brief moment. "The water works. You think they are attempting to cut you off. All right, I'll rush help."
He set down the 'phone and turned to Lieutenant Grant.
"The enemy has gathered in force about the water works," he said sharply. "They evidently intend cutting off the water supply. Tell Colonel Bright to send them reinforcements at once. Do you boys know the way there?"
"Yes, sir," from all three.
"Then show the men the nearest way! Now go! The safety of the city may depend upon you!"
AN UNUSUAL RIDING PARTY.
Flinging themselves into the saddle, the boys rode rapidly after Lieutenant Grant and were at Colonel Bright's quarters by the time the bugle had called to boots and saddle. In another minute, at the head of a squadron of cavalry, they dashed over the road they had come to know so well.
What happened during the next twenty minutes is history.
Guided by the boys, the reinforcements arrived opportunely to stop the advance of a large body of Mexicans who would have destroyed the water works and have left the inhabitants and the American troops entirely without water.
A few minutes later two batteries with rapid-fire guns put in an appearance, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the Mexicans turned and fled.
It was not General Funston's mission in Vera Cruz to overrun any more Mexican territory, so the Mexicans were allowed to retreat without pursuit; but the lines were strengthened so that from that time on there was never any danger from Huerta's forces, although there were numerous alarms and plenty of scout duty.
During the few minutes of fighting, the boys were in the midst of it and all came through it without a scratch. But it was exciting work and when it was over they were publicly thanked by Colonel Bright for their good work.
"Well," laughed Billie as the three rode slowly back to their home, "that's glory enough for one day. I don't care to be a soldier."
"Nor I!" agreed Donald. "I prefer a quiet life on the ranch."
"Which we are in a fair way to see in a few weeks," commented Adrian. "I have no doubt that General Funston will do as he agreed and find us passage."
"I for one shall be glad to return to the States," said Donald.
"So shall I after I have found out about Santiago's connection with that ten thousand pounds."
"That's right," was the laughing rejoinder. "Stick to it, Billie, and who knows what may happen?"
"Do you know," remarked Adrian slowly, "I'm beginning to be considerably worried for the Americans scattered throughout Mexico."
"Why should you be?" from Donald.
"I remember Pedro's words that, if the United States did anything, Carranza would unite with Huerta."
"I don't believe he would."
"Maybe not. But the Zapata brothers will think this a good time to make the Americans trouble. I was thinking of Mr. Black and Josie."
"I'll bet you were," laughed Billie. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were thinking about you. Hey, Don?"
"Well, they might do worse," said Donald. "There are worse fellows than Adrian."
"That's right," retorted Adrian good-humoredly. "I can stand it. But, just the same, I wish I knew they were safe."
"Well, what's the matter with our paying them a visit?" queried Billie.
"Nix," from Donald. "We'll stay inside the lines. I've had enough of this bush fighting."
They approached Santiago's residence, where they had decided to remain until they sailed, when they perceived a peon on a pony standing by the gate. As they drew near they recognized him as one of the peons who had served as Mr. Black's mozo.
"Why, hello, Jose!" exclaimed Donald. "What brings you here?"
The mozo drew a letter from beneath his poncho and handed it to Donald.
"For me?" asked Donald. "I thought it must be for Adrian. I didn't think the——"
"It is from the jefe," interrupted the mozo.
"Oh, it's from Mr. Black!" with an accent on the Mr. "That's different."
Donald opened the letter and read it hastily.
"Well, by George!" he exclaimed, "what do you think of that?"
"I can tell you better when I know what that is," replied Billie.
"Why, Mr. Black is becoming alarmed over the activities of the Carranza forces and wants us to ask General Funston if he won't send out enough cavalry to escort him and his daughter to Vera Cruz in safety."
"Of course we'll ask him!" exclaimed Adrian. "Let's do it at once."
"Now wait a minute," said Donald. "Let's see about it."
"What is there to see?"
"There's a good deal to see. You remember our experiences on the Rio Grande?"
"But this is different! We are at war with Mexico now."
"No, we are not. We have simply seized one port as a reprisal. To send a cavalry force out into the country might bring on more trouble."
"Well, I don't care!" exclaimed Adrian hotly. "I'll go and ask him alone if you are afraid to go with me. I'm not going to leave Jos—I mean Mr. Black and his daughter out there at the mercies of these greasers. You hear me!"
"Oh, we'll go with you, all right!" said Billie. "But don't be surprised if you don't get what you ask."
Accordingly the trio started for General Funston's headquarters. After some delay they were admitted to his presence and Donald showed him Mr. Black's letter.
The general perused it carefully and then remained silently thoughtful for some moments.
"I wish I could do what our countryman asks," he finally said, "but I do not see how I can. To send a force out nearly fifty miles, even for such a service, would be overstepping the purpose for which I am here. I——"
"But you wouldn't leave them out there to be mistreated and perhaps killed, would you?" interrupted Adrian.
The general smiled.
"Such is not my intention; but we must plan some other way. We must use a little strategy."
"That's right!" exclaimed Billie, "and I'll bet the man who went out and rounded up Aguinaldo will know how to do it!"
Again the general smiled broadly, evidently well pleased at the implied compliment.
"I'll do the best I can," he said quietly, "but I am not very familiar with the lay of the land. You boys have had some experience. Perhaps you can suggest something."
Adrian said nothing, and Donald scratched his head. It was Billie who spoke.
"I was just wondering, General," he said, "if some of the men wouldn't like to take a little horseback ride and see something of the country."
"Well, now, perhaps they might," assented the general.
"We could show them some mighty fine scenery, sir."
"By the moonlight, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir. By the moonlight and early sunrise."
"And about how many would you like to take on this picnic?"
"Well," replied Billie, squinting up one eye, "I was thinking that Adrian and I might take out about ten to-night. Then about the same time to-morrow night Don could take another ten. We would probably meet somewhere in the mountains and watch the sun rise."
"A very nice plan," said the general, "and one of which I approve. You may ask Lieutenant Grant to make enquiries among the men in his company and see if there are any who would like to be given two or three days' leave for such a purpose."
"Thank you, sir!" and Billie touched his hat in true military style.
"And you might say to the lieutenant," was General Funston's parting words, "that I should be glad to hear later how the men enjoyed their ride. I think, now that the boys are down here, they should be given a chance to see the country."
"Billie, you have the making of a great general," was Donald's comment as they left the general's quarters. "How did you think of it?"
"I remembered my experience when I wanted men to help me get you and Ad out of trouble in Presidio. Lieutenant Grant will know all about it."
And so he did. In less than half an hour ten regulars, some of them but very little older than Billie and Adrian, were ready for the ride which Billie had proposed and which in his mind would be as far as Moreno.
"You are sure ten will be enough?" asked Lieutenant Grant.
"Sure! Twelve Americans are enough to lick fifty Mexicans if it comes to that; and besides we shall have Mr. Black and Josie. He's as good as four."
"And don't forget the reinforcements, if they are needed," laughed Donald. "We will be right on the spot where we saw the sun rise the first morning after we left Moreno."
"It looks all right," was Lieutenant Grant's comment, "but it is always well to have a big enough force. Success to you!"
"You'll make all the necessary explanations to the crowd you bring out, Don," was Billie's parting words. "Adrian and I will explain the nature of the trip to our fellows as we ride along."
This they did, and gave the soldier boys a little history of their own troubles in reaching Vera Cruz.
"No explanations are necessary," remarked a young chap by the name of Brooks, a corporal. "We saw you out at the water works and we know you are made of the right stuff. You lead! We'll follow, won't we, boys?"
"You bet!" replied the others in one voice.
ADRIAN FOILS A TRAITOR.
It was nine o'clock of the second night that Adrian and Billie, accompanied by Mr. Black's mozo, Jose, and the ten troopers, reached the outskirts of Moreno.
They had made good headway the first night, had slept in the hills during the day and had come this far without molestation.
"If everything goes to the end as it has this far," remarked Corporal Brooks to Billie as they neared the little town, "it will be nothing but a pleasant outing, sure enough."
Arriving at the edge of the town, the boys sent Jose forward to see how the land lay and to bring them word.
"Do you think you can trust him?" asked the corporal.
"We'll have to," replied Adrian. "I believe he is loyal, and Mr. Black seems to have complete confidence in him."
"Let's hope so, anyway," said Billie. "It seems to be the best we can do to get word to Mr. Black of our presence."
"Hurry back, Jose," urged Adrian as the mozo departed.
"Si, senor," was the brief reply. "You may depend on me."
"It ought not to take him more than half an hour," explained Billie. "It isn't more than a mile."
But a half hour passed and then another and still no Jose.
"Something must have happened to him," said Adrian.
"That's the charitable way to look at it," laughed the corporal. "It's more likely, however, that he's making arrangements to have something happen to us."
"I hardly think so," was Billie's comment, "but, if he is, we'll fool him."
"But he may come back."
"We'll leave one man here on guard. The rest of us will go around to the other side of town."
"Good!" from the corporal. "You are a strategist."
The plan was at once carried into effect.
"Now then," said Billie, "I'm going in to town myself."
"Not much," declared Adrian. "I'm going."
"I'd offer to go myself," laughed the corporal, "but I don't know the place."
"We'll toss for it," said Billie.
"All right," and Adrian produced a coin. "Heads I win. Tails you lose."
"No funny business," said Billie. "Choose heads if you want."
Adrian flipped the coin. It came down heads up.
"All right," agreed Billie. "Now for some set of signals."
"Our old Broncho Rider whistle if I need help," said Adrian. "If everything is O. K., I'll give the whip-poor-will."
Adrian slid from his horse.
"What are you doing?" asked Billie.
"I'm going afoot. I didn't spend my boyhood among the Indians for nothing. Good-bye!" and a moment later he disappeared in the fading moonlight.
"Whatever the conditions," said Billie, "we'll soon know," as he settled back in his saddle.
Running swiftly along, Adrian made straight for the barracks in which he knew would be found whatever soldiers might be in the city.
"If I find everything quiet at the barracks," was his thought, "I can go straight to where Mr. Black is stopping without fear. If I find there is any disturbance, I'll be more careful."
Ten minutes of running brought him to the barracks. All was as quiet as the hour demanded. He stood under the shadow of the back wall long enough to hear the sentry's call and then he turned in the direction of the house where the two Americans were stopping.
It was only a few blocks away and he reached it without incident.
"Kind o' funny," he mused, "that I haven't seen or heard a soul on the street. I wonder what's become of Jose?"
He stopped a minute to ponder.
"Things are going almost too smooth. I'll just stop a bit."
He stole past the house and a moment later threw himself into the gutter, where he lay as one dead.
The wisdom of his action soon became apparent.
He hadn't been lying there two minutes until a solitary figure passed him and stopped in front of the house, evidently listening to hear what might be going on inside.
A moment later he was joined by another figure. Adrian could just make them out in the darkness.
"Have they come?" was the whispered question.
"I can't tell," was the whispered reply.
Adrian heard both the question and the answer distinctly.
"It's Jose," he said to himself. "He knew that it was the plan for Billie and I both to come to the house. The traitor! I have a notion to shoot him in his tracks."
Only the fear of creating a disturbance kept the lad from carrying out his notion.
"Why don't you knock and tell the Gringo you are here?" was the next question.
"They might be in there."
"Well, what of that? You can tell them you were stopped by the guard and have just been released. That'll seem reasonable."
Jose stepped to the door and knocked.
There was no response and he knocked again.
"Who is there?" asked a voice.
"Jose. I just come from Vera Cruz. Let me in."
There was a movement within and presently the door opened and Jose entered, closing the door behind him.
Adrian slowly arose to a kneeling posture.
"I wonder what the other will do now?" he wondered.
He did not have long to wait, for the other knocked on the pavement with his gun and presently several more figures appeared. Adrian had just time to throw himself to the ground and escape detection.
The men in front of the house exchanged whispered confidences and then all but one started to leave.
"If any one attempts to leave the house," was the command, "fire! If any one attempts to enter, allow them to do so and then give the customary call."
"Bueno!" was the response, and all but the one withdrew.
A minute later Adrian again arose to a crouching posture and as the sentry cautiously approached the door, he crept up behind him. An instant more and he was upon the man and had him by the throat.
The man was a wiry Mexican and evidently in training, for he squirmed and kicked vigorously; but Adrian's grip was too firm upon him and in a couple of minutes he sank down limp upon the ground.
The noise of the scuffle must have been heard inside, for the door cautiously opened and a head peered out.
Without a question Adrian sprang within, dragging the lifeless form of the sentry with him.
"Quick, bar the gate!" he commanded.
The command was obeyed.
"Now where is Mr. Black?" he asked.
"Upstairs talking with Jose."
"All right. Bind this man while I go up. Don't let him escape or he is liable to cut your throat."
"No temer V, senor" was the response, meaning "Have no fear."
Adrian ran lightly up the stairs, revolver in hand. He heard voices talking and had no doubt that Jose was narrating some trumped-up story.
"Yes, senor," he heard the mozo say, "they are expecting you. It is necessary that you go at once."
Adrian flung open the door and covered Jose with his revolver.
"Put up your hands," he commanded. Then to Mr. Black, to whom Jose was talking: "Take his weapons away from him, Mr. Black."
Realizing at once that something was wrong, Mr. Black obeyed.
"Now tie him."
This was also quickly done, Mr. Black asking at the same time what had happened.
"I can't tell you exactly, Mr. Black, but this man has betrayed us and we are now watched by a squad of soldiers."
Mr. Black's face turned as black as his name.
"Is that true?" he demanded, seizing Jose by the shoulder with such a powerful grip that the man cried out with pain.
"Oh, senor," he cried, "don't kill me! I will tell you all."
"See that you do," was the command. "One lie and I will wring your neck as I would a chicken. You know me."
"I'll tell the truth. I told the captain at the barracks. He is going to capture all the Americanos and hold them for ransom and I am to have half."
"That is evidently the truth," declared Adrian, and he proceeded to tell Mr. Black what was being done to get him and his daughter to Vera Cruz, and how Jose had played them false.
For a moment it looked as though Mr. Black might wreak his vengeance on Jose, but after a minute he thought better of it.
"You ought to die this minute," he declared, "but I'll wait till I have more time." Then to Adrian: "What had we better do now?"
Before Adrian could reply the clear note of a bugle rang out upon the night air.
ADRIAN HAS AN ACCIDENT.
"What do you suppose that means?" asked Adrian.
Mr. Black made no reply and a moment later the bugle call was repeated.
"It sounds to me," said Mr. Black, "as though some fresh troops were coming in."
"That's bad," was Adrian's comment.
"Perhaps not, my lad, if we act quickly."
"The new arrivals may take up the attention of the gang of bandits outside and we may get away ere they return."
"Good," was Adrian's comment. "Where is Miss Josie?"
"Waiting in the next room with the family of my host."
Mr. Black stepped to the door and called to those within. In a few words he explained the situation and in less than three minutes he and the girl were mounted and ready to ride.
"Where is your horse?" he asked Adrian.
"I left it with the boys at the cocoanut grove."
"But we can't go and leave you here."
"Of course not. I shall run alongside of your horse, holding to its mane, Indian fashion. Now then, are we ready?"
The great gate was opened noiselessly and, bidding a subdued good-bye to the family, the three passed out into the night.
"I should have throttled Jose ere I left," declared Mr. Black as they passed down the street.
"I wish we were as safe as he is," laughed Adrian.
For three blocks they wended their way as silently as possible and just as they came out into the open there came another bugle call.
"That's for us," said Adrian. "There is no mistaking that command. Now to run for it."
The two riders put spurs to their horses and Adrian bounded along at their side, running as lightly as an antelope. They were rapidly nearing the spot where the Americans were in waiting, when Adrian stepped into a hole and pitched forward onto his face.
"Don't stop for me!" he called. "I'll be there as quick as you are!"
He picked himself up and started to run, but his ankle gave him such a pain that he almost fainted.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed, "I've sprained my ankle."
He sat down and rubbed the maimed member for a couple of minutes and then attempted to hobble on. It was more than he could bear and he sat down again.
"By George," he groaned, "this is tough! I'll have to call for help."
He gave the well-known whistle, but there was no response.
He gave it again; but still no answer.
"Worse and more of it," he muttered. "Something has happened to Billie."
What it might be Adrian could not imagine, but he was sure that his chum was not at the appointed spot, as he was near enough to have heard the whistle and would surely have answered.
"Well, I can't stay here. The greasers will be coming pretty soon. I must get along some way."
He got up and walked a few steps and again sat down. There was no sound of a pursuit and the hoofbeats of Mr. Black's horses had ceased.
"They have reached the grove," Adrian muttered. "I must get there some way."
Once more he arose to his feet and took several steps and then sank down in a faint, so great was the pain.
When he came to himself he was lying upon a matting of some kind and to his ears came the faint sound of a guitar, followed a few moments later by sounds of girlish laughter.
He sat up and looked around, but could see nothing, except a ray of light coming in through a little crack between a couple of blankets that formed a curtain in a doorway.
"Where in the name of common sense am I?" he muttered.
He attempted to get to his feet, but the pain in his ankle brought him quickly to himself.
"Now I remember!" he exclaimed. "I fell and sprained my ankle. But how did I get here?"
He started to call, but at that moment the music ceased and a minute later he heard voices saying good night. Then a door was closed and immediately the curtains were thrown open and a peon woman stood in the door.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, upon seeing Adrian sitting up and looking at her. "Then you are not dead?"
"I should say not. Did you think I was?"
"I was afraid so."
"Because your death might be laid at my door."
"Evidently she hasn't discovered I am an American," thought Adrian. "Well, I'll not tell her until I have to."
The woman turned around and called to some one in the other room and another figure appeared in the door—that of a girl some fifteen years of age.
"Look, Peppita," and the elder woman pointed at Adrian.
The girl gave a little scream.
"Madre mia!" she exclaimed. "Who is it?"
"I know not, my child. I found him unconscious at our back door and dragged him inside."
"I beg your pardon," said Adrian. "I didn't know I was near any house."
"It is a very poor one, senor. I and my daughter are all alone since my poor Leocadio was killed."
"Who killed him?" asked Adrian, becoming interested.
"The Huertistas. He was a soldier under Gen. Dorantes."
"Is that so?" exclaimed Adrian. "I know Gen. Dorantes well. He is a fine man. But you will soon be avenged, for Huerta's days are short."
The woman's eyes snapped.
"Es verdad?" meaning, "Is it true?"
"It certainly is. Since the Americans have taken Vera Cruz, Gen. Huerta will have to go. It is only a question of a few days."
"Bienissimo! The Americans are brave men! My Leocadio was fond of the Americans."
"I am glad of that, senora, for I am an American."
The woman and girl both started back as in fear and then came forward again.
"How did you come here, senor?"
"I fell from a horse and sprained my ankle. I tried to walk and must have fainted."
"Have you friends in Moreno?"
"I did have, but they have gone and I want to get to Vera Cruz."
"Vera Cruz is a long way, senor. I never expect to go that far from home—me and my little Peppa."
"I expect it does look like a long ways to you, senora; but it is not far. Do you think I can stay here with you until my ankle is well enough to walk? I have a little money. I will pay you something."
"Oh, Mother!" exclaimed the girl, who now spoke for the first time. "You will let him stay, won't you?"
"The wife of Leocadio would not turn a lame dog out, much less a lame boy."
"Mil gracias, senora!" exclaimed Adrian, with much gratitude. "Yes, more than a thousand thanks. You will never regret it."
"The wife of Leocadio is not learned," was the reply, "but she knows an honest youth when she sees one. Come, Peppita, let the young man go to sleep. We will make our bed out here."
She drew the curtains together and Adrian was left alone to his own reflections.
"By George!" he exclaimed under his breath, "if I ever get out of this measly country, I'll be glad. I wonder what has become of Billie? Of course he'll look for me, and old Don, too; but it looks as though it might be weeks before I could walk. Well, I don't care. If Mr. Black and Josie got away, that's glory enough for one day."
He settled himself down and tried to go to sleep, but his leg hurt him so that he could not. In fact, the pain was so great that every once in a while he groaned.
After a few of these groans the woman appeared in the door with an earthen vessel filled with hot water.
"If the senor will bind this on his ankle, it will do it much good," she said.
"I'll do anything to get rid of this pain," said Adrian.
He took the jar and, dipping his handkerchief in it, bathed his ankle freely and finally bound the cloth around the swollen part.
"There," he muttered as he at last succeeded in finding a comfortable position, "now I think I can get a little sleep."
How long thereafter it was before he came to himself he did not know, but when he opened his eyes the first streak of daylight was creeping in through a little window.
A minute later there was the rattle of musketry, followed by a hearty American cheer. He raised up to look out of the window, when the side of the room came in with a crash.
A RESCUE AND A SURPRISE.
It would be hard to describe Adrian's surprise at the unexpected event which closed the preceding chapter. His first thought was that a cannon ball had struck the house, but a second thought convinced him that such was not the case. Before he had time to think further he heard a big voice call out:
"Here he is!"
A moment later Mr. Black burst in through the opening in the wall and, picking Adrian up in his arms as though he had been a baby, started on a run with him for the nearest horse.
"There you are!" he exclaimed as he set the boy on the horse. "Now to run for it!"
Adrian needed no second bidding, but digging his heels into the horse's side he dashed away toward the cocoanut grove, his flight being protected by the Americans with Billie at their head.
A couple of minutes after, the entire band had rallied in the shelter of the trees, where they stopped to plan for the next move.
"How did you ever find me?" asked Adrian as he and Billie peered out toward the town.
"Mr. Black knew about where he lost you and we tracked you by your trail. Whoever dragged you into the house, left a trail as wide as your body."
"It was a woman," explained Adrian, "and she was hiding me. But where were you when I whistled for help?"
"That's a long story," was the reply, "which I will tell you when we have time; but briefly we were on the other side of the town, where we left the man on guard. It appears that our friend Jose was a first-class traitor."
"As I discovered," said Adrian.
"Yes," continued Billie, "he sent a bunch of soldiers to capture us. The sentry heard them coming and gave the alarm. We went to his aid and succeeded in rescuing him, but that is what got us into this trouble."
"And now what?"
"Now we have to get away just as soon as we can."
"Right," said Mr. Black. "There is no enemy in sight at this moment and the best thing we can do is to run for it. If we can cross the valley safely, we shall have little trouble."
"I'd like to stay and give them a few shots," said the corporal, "but it would probably be unwise."
"I'll tell you what, Brooks," suggested Billie, "suppose you and I remain behind until we see the others well across the valley. If there is any pursuit, we can hold them back for a few minutes. They will not know how many we are and it will give the others a chance to escort Mr. Black and his daughter to a place of safety. You know that is what we really came for."
"Fine!" was the corporal's reply.
Mr. Black and Adrian protested, but they were overruled.
"It's a good idea," said the oldest of the troopers, "and now to run for it."
It was fully five minutes after the others had left that Billie and Brooks saw the Mexican infantry, some fifty in number, emerge from the town and come slowly toward them.
Looking across the valley, they could perceive that the little band under the direction of Mr. Black was nearing the protection of the forest that covered the next hillside.
"Two minutes more and they will be safe," said Billie.
"Then we'll give them the two minutes," replied the corporal. "Cut loose at the bunch as soon as it is near enough."
A moment later two rifles spoke out and then they turned loose their automatics, to give the impression of a much larger force.
Two men fell and a minute later two more, as the boys' Winchesters again spoke.
"Now for the horses!" cried Billie as the Mexicans threw themselves upon the ground.
They sprang to their horses and dashed away down the valley.
They were not discovered until they had cleared the shelter of the trees and then a volley was fired after them. The bullets sang all around them, but they escaped unhurt, and before another volley they were out of range.
"It's a good thing for us that they have no cavalry," said Brooks as they sped along.
"Sure is," was the response, "and I hope they don't succeed in getting word ahead of us."
"We'll fix that," said Brooks. "We cross the railroad just at the foot of the hill and I'll climb up and cut the telegraph wires."
"They may have sent word already."
"Hardly. They may have tried to, but it's dollars to doughnuts that there was nobody at Joachin or Rio Blanco to receive it. The nearest night operator, I imagine, is at Piedras Negras."
"They may send a force from there to head us off," suggested Billie.
"That's so; but I'm not sure whether Piedras Negras is held by the Carranza or the Huerta forces."
"It's a terrible mix-up, isn't it?" laughed Billie. "But I guess either side would be glad to get us."
They had reached the tracks by this time and a couple of minutes later Brooks was up a pole and with the aid of his bayonet broke the wires.
"If it isn't too late, that'll hold 'em for a while," he remarked as he descended from the pole and mounted his horse.
When they joined the main company, Billie told Mr. Black what they had done and repeated to him what Brooks had said.
"I think he is right," said Mr. Black, "and my advice is that we should give Piedras Negras a wide berth."
"We can't get too far away from the railroad," explained Billie, "or we shall miss Don and his company. They are coming out for just such an emergency."
They rode rapidly forward for a couple of hours and then, turning sharply off the highway, took to the woods which now grew dense all along the mountain sides.
About ten o'clock they stopped for breakfast and then all took a nap until the sun drew near the western horizon.
"We should reach our rendezvous with Don about dark," explained Billie, "and that would get us into Vera Cruz about daylight."
As they approached the appointed spot, Billie and Adrian, ever on the alert, noticed almost as one that the place had a changed appearance and mentioned it to the others.
"What do you mean?" asked the corporal.
"I can't exactly explain," was Adrian's reply, "but my prairie training always warns me to go slow when I sense danger."
"A mighty good idea," muttered one of the troopers, an old campaigner who had seen service with Funston in the Philippines. "These are slippery chaps."
"If I could walk," was Adrian's comment, "I'd soon find out what is wrong; but you can't scout on horseback."
The cavalcade came to a halt and the men examined their weapons to be sure they were in order.
"What do you think we'd better do, Ad?" queried Billie.
"I don't know. How far are we from the rendezvous?"
"Not more than half a mile."
"If it were not for the possibility of making matters worse," suggested Adrian, "I'd fire a few shots; but of course what we want is to get into Vera Cruz without a fight. What do you think, Mr. Black?"
"This is new business to me, boys," was the reply. "I'll have to leave it to you."
"What's the matter with my going on a scout?" asked Billie.
"Nothing the matter with your going," laughed Adrian, "but there might be with your coming back. No, I shall have to go, ankle or no ankle."
He slid from his horse, and almost before any one realized what he was doing he had slipped away on his hands and knees.
"He is certainly a brave boy," was Josie's remark, "and I hate to think of his taking all this risk on my account."
"Not so much risk for him as for us, I'm thinking," muttered the old trooper. "They are looking for mounted men—if they're looking at all—and not for crawling boys."
The old trooper was right, and ten minutes later Adrian returned to say that there was a small body of horsemen at the next turn of the road.
"Did you see anything of Don?" queried Billie.
"Not a sign."
"That's mighty funny. Where do you suppose he can be?"
"He may be hiding back in the woods, just as we are."
"Well," said the corporal, "now that we know where the greasers are, what's the matter of going forward?"
"No matter at all," replied Adrian. "We can easily bear away to the left and give them the shake, but I don't know what to do about the others."
"The others will have to look out for themselves," replied Brooks. "They are able to do it."
The words had hardly left his lips ere there came the sound of a single shot away to the left.
"There they are!" cried Billie. "Come on!"
The little cavalcade started forward, but ere they had gone a dozen rods they could hear the sound of approaching horsemen, crashing through the woods to their right.
"The Mexicans!" said Adrian.
"To cover, every man!" cried the corporal.
A minute later every horse lay flat on the ground with his rider concealed behind him.
A DINNER AND ITS RESULT.
With a shout the Mexicans broke into the clearing which the Americans had just left. They were a motley crowd, not much like the cavalry that forms such a great part of Uncle Sam's army.
"It seems a shame to hurt them," muttered the corporal. "They look as though they would run if you said boo!"
Seeing no one, the Mexicans, some twenty or twenty-five in number, came to a halt and their leaders held a council of war.
The Americans, a couple of rods back in the woods, partly concealed by the trees and partly by the deepening twilight, watched them silently.
After a couple of minutes' confab, the captain of the band gave an order which the boys could not hear and a couple of Mexicans dismounted and began carefully to examine the ground. They were looking for the prints of horses' hoofs.
"Aqui'sta!" exclaimed one of the men on foot, pointing to the ground.
The captain drew near and leaned over from his horse to see more clearly.
He was evidently satisfied, for he straightened up and gave another command and the two horsemen sprang to their saddles.
Another command and every man's sabre flashed in the air.
Raising his own sabre aloft, the captain was about to give another command, when there was the sound of a single shot from the rear and the captain's sabre went flying from his hand, struck by a rifle ball.
"Carramba!" he cried. "Emboscado!" meaning "an ambush," and putting spurs to his horse he turned and fled in the direction from which he had come, followed by the entire band, while the Americans fired a volley into the air.
"They'll never stop running," laughed the corporal, "until they reach home—wherever that is."
"And in the meantime we'll get out of here," said Mr. Black.
The men sprang to their feet and to their horses. At the same moment there came from the woods to the left the well-known whistle of the Broncho Rider Boys.
"It's Don!" cried Billie, as he gave the answering call, and an instant later Donald came into view through the trees, closely followed by half a score of Uncle Sam's troopers.
"Just too late," said Adrian.
"Too late for what?" queried Donald.
"To see a masterly retreat," and in a few words he told Donald what had occurred.
"Well," was the rejoinder, "I am glad no blood was shed. But who fired the shot from the rear?"
"I," came a voice, and out of the shadows appeared a figure which had a most familiar appearance. "If you don't recognize me," he continued, "you may recognize Ambrosio."
"By George!" exclaimed Billie, "if it isn't our old friend Strong. Where on earth did you come from?"
"I suppose I might ask you the same thing," was the laughing reply. "Briefly, I am on my way to Vera Cruz. I heard there was a band of American brigands out in the mountains and I thought I might fall in with them."
"So that's what they call us, is it?" said Billie. "I never expected to be called a brigand."
"Strange things happen to men who travel," declared Strong facetiously; "but you'd better be going. There are some good troops in this section and they are on the lookout."
"Good advice," muttered the old trooper. "This ain't no pleasure excursion."
"Sorry we haven't a horse for you," said Adrian to Strong, "but I guess you are used to walking."
"A good deal more so than riding. But, if one of you don't mind giving Ambrosio a lift, it will help some."
Several expressed their willingness to take the ape on behind, but he would go to no one but Billie.
"All right, old man," laughed the boy; "but no funny business," and he broke off a twig and shook it at Ambrosio. "You see this."
Now that the two companies had united, they broke away from the railroad and made a bee line toward Vera Cruz, arriving in sight of the city at daybreak.
"Here's where we part company with the troopers," explained Donald. "We six and Ambrosio will ride into town together and the boys will come in as they wish. There must be no suggestion of a military expedition."
"I see," said Mr. Black, "and I want to thank you all for your kindness to my daughter and to me. That is about all I can do now. Perhaps some day I can do more."
"That's enough," muttered the old trooper, "unless you can get us all sent back home. I can't see any use of keeping us here."
"That's all right, old man," laughed the corporal. "You know you would not go home if you could."
"Better not give me a chance," was the grumbling reply, as the trooper bit off a big piece of tobacco and tucked it away in his cheek.
Reveille was just sounding when the boys, accompanied by their three friends and Ambrosio, perched upon Billie's horse, drew up in front of Lieut. Grant's quarters. They had been recognized and passed through the lines, and as the men caught sight of them they were given a hearty cheer.
"You seem to have made friends," laughed the lieutenant as he greeted them, "and there is every reason why you should. The general will be glad to see you and hear your report. I have no doubt you have a good story to tell, and he likes a good story."
When the boys reached home they found the gate still locked, although it was now considerably past the time when the household was astir. Their knock was answered by the portero, who, in response to a question by Billie, said that Santiago was seriously ill and had been for thirty-six hours.
"What is the matter?" asked Donald.
"I am not surprised," declared Adrian. "The strange thoughts he has been thinking so many days were bound to result in something serious."
"Perhaps it is not convenient for us to remain here," said Mr. Black. "We can, I am sure, find some other place."
But at this moment Lucia appeared at the head of the stairs. When made acquainted with Mr. Black's words she would not hear of his taking Josie to any other house and gave orders for making her perfectly at home. The only one who did not remain was Strong.
"I'll come back this evening," he said. "I have a strange story to tell you boys and I may need your help in locating a man I am most anxious to find."
But he did not come back that evening, and when he did come the next night the boys were not there, having been invited to dine with Gen. Funston. Had things not happened thus, a part of this story could never have been written, for it was while dining with the general that the boys were given a duty to perform, which was the most arduous of all their adventures in the land of the Montezumas.
And this was the manner of it.
They were just finishing dinner and Billie was congratulating himself that he had had his fill of good American cooking, when an aide announced that a Mexican gentleman, Don Esteban Mendoza, craved an immediate audience with Gen. Funston.
"I am sure you young gentlemen will excuse me a few minutes," said the general, "as Don Esteban is one of the prominent bankers of the city and I know his business must be of importance."
The boys were glad to accept the proffered excuse and the general withdrew, leaving them in the company of several members of his staff, to whom they briefly related their recent adventure. When they told of the "ambush" there was much amusement.
In the midst of their conversation the general returned accompanied by Don Esteban.
"These are the young gentlemen to whom I referred," explained the general, introducing the boys. "They are typical Americans and, being civilians and speaking Spanish fluently, will be just the ones to help you in your trouble."
Then to the boys: "Don Esteban has a very delicate mission for which he asks the assistance of Americans. He wished me to detail three young officers for the work, but this I do not feel I can do, as it is strictly a private mission. If you feel that you can undertake it, he will be glad to explain it to you."
"Anything that you recommend, General, we shall be glad to undertake," replied Donald, acting as spokesman for the trio.
"Then I shall turn you over to Don Esteban, and as his business is pressing, I will excuse you if you wish to accompany him home."
"A thousand thanks, General," said Don Esteban effusively. Then to the boys: "My automobile is at the door. If you will take seats in it, we shall be speedily at my house. You will pardon me if I speak nothing but Spanish, as I know very little English, although"—with an expressive glance at Gen. Funston—"I hope to know it better."
Following Don Esteban, they were soon speeding through the streets and five minutes later entered a handsome patio.
"This is my house," said Don Esteban. "Be pleased to consider it your own. Now, if you will follow me to the library, I will explain the mission I wish you to undertake."
The boys followed without a word, but as they passed up the stairs Billie muttered under his breath:
"Did you notice, boys, that this house backs right up against Santiago's?"
DON ESTEBAN'S STRANGE LOSS.
"Before I explain to you the mission I wish you to undertake," said Don Esteban, "I must narrate briefly a story that has been handed down from the days of Montezuma. It is to the effect that when the Spanish conqueror, Cortez, was about to capture the City of Mexico, most of the treasure of the Aztecs was sunk in the lake, which at that time covered a portion of the Mexican plateau.
"A part of this treasure is said to have been recovered, but the mine from which the gold of Montezuma was taken has never been discovered, although search has been made for upward of five hundred years. Some have supposed that the mine was adjacent to the City of Mexico and that it was flooded at the time the treasure was sunk in the lake. Others have thought it was located in the state of Michoacan, while still others have believed it located in the vicinity of Mt. Orizaba.
"My reason for telling you this is that some years ago a strange appearing man came to our bank and made a large deposit of money, all in gold. He did not deposit it all at once, but brought it in a few thousand dollars at a time until it amounted to more than a million dollars. Then he disappeared and we have never seen him since."
"And has he never called for any of the money?" asked Billie.
"Not in person, although he has drawn upon it at frequent intervals. The name under which it was deposited is James Moon."
"An American?" asked Donald.
"I could not say whether he was an American or an Englishman. We took him for the latter. But now I am coming to the real part of the story.
"In addition to the money which he deposited, he also left with us a small brass-bound box, in which he said there were valuable papers. He gave orders that it should be delivered to no one but himself in person, or until the expiration of ten years. The ten years will be up in a few days and this afternoon I bethought me of the box. But when I went into the vault in which it has been kept for so many years, the place upon an upper shelf, where it has always stood, was vacant. The box was gone!"
"Gone?" exclaimed all the boys in unison. "Do you mean stolen?"
"So it would appear."
"How could it have been done?" asked Adrian.
"I cannot say; but the strange thing about the whole matter is that in place of the box, there lay upon the shelf an envelope—yellow with age, upon which was written in ink that had scarcely faded the words: 'Montezuma's Mine.'"
"Well, what do you think of that?" queried Billie, looking at the others in amazement.
"I don't think," laughed Adrian. "It's up to you to do the thinking."
"Is there no clue whatever?" asked Donald.
"Not that could be really called a clue. The only suspicious thing that has happened to-day at all, was that a mountebank came into our bank——"
"A mountebank!" from all.
"Did he have an ape with him?"
"No! He was quite alone. He did not come in to make merry, but to get a bill changed. While he was there he was observed to scrutinize the place very closely."
"But he did not go into your vault?"
"No! He took his change and went peaceably out."
"Then, why should you suspect him?" insisted Donald, casting a knowing glance at the other boys.
"Because, an hour later, he came in again and said that one of the bills we gave him as change was a counterfeit."
"No, it was not, although it was an old issue. The teller who waited upon him had no recollection of ever having seen the bill before, but rather than have a scene, we gave him another bill for it."
"How large a bill was it?" asked Adrian.
"Only a peso"—that is a dollar—"and it seemed hardly worth talking about; but you'd have thought it was a hundred."
"Perhaps it seemed a large amount to him," ventured Billie.
"Perhaps," admitted Don Esteban. "But be that as it may, I should like to see the man again, and especially would I like to know where he got that old dollar."
"Because it may have come out of that box."
"Well, yes," said Donald, with a shake of his head, "it might have; but how could the mountebank have gotten the box?"
"That is the mystery," was Don Esteban's reply.
"And how do you wish us to help you?" asked Adrian.
"Why," explained the banker, "I asked Gen. Funston to find the mountebank for me. He said you boys would do better than any one else."
"But why us? Why not a Mexican policeman?"
"Because the mountebank was an American. He may even have been a soldier and have hidden himself among your men."
"Oh, he was an American, was he?" laughed Donald. "Then I believe we can put our finger on him with ease. But the man we have in mind always carried with him an ape."
"Then it may not be the same," replied Don Esteban, "for this one had no ape with him either time."
"It certainly does look like a mystery," was Adrian's comment. "Where is the vault from which the box was taken?"
"On the other side of the patio."
"May we examine it?"
"Certainly. I'll show it to you now."
Don Esteban led the way downstairs and across the patio. Opening the rear door of the bank, he escorted them within and closed the door.
Passing behind the counter, he opened the iron door of the vault, disclosing within a good-sized chamber, in the rear of which was set the great steel safe, locked with a time lock.
"There," explained Don Esteban, pointing to an upper shelf, "is where the box stood."
"Oh, it was not a large box, then!" said Adrian.
"Oh, no! Not more than eight or nine inches cube."
The boy examined the vault carefully by the light of a gas jet.
"There seems no way that any one could have entered except by the door," said Donald.
"You are sure there is no opening in the ceiling?"
Don Esteban led the boys out and locked the door of the vault.
"Well," declared Donald as they came out into the patio after finishing their inspection, not only of the vault but of the rest of the office, "I guess we had better go home and study over the matter a little. I should not be surprised if we could put our hands upon the mountebank with very little trouble; but I feel sure he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the box."
"I wish I could feel that way," said Adrian after they were out of hearing of Don Esteban. "I have never quite trusted Strong. There is something strange about him."
"Yes, he is a bit queer; but how on earth could he have stolen the box if he did not even go behind the counter?"
"He couldn't; but still I mistrust him."
"I wonder where Ambrosio was all this time?" mused Billie.
"Tied up at home, most likely. An American among Americans would hardly feel like traveling around with a hand organ and a monkey," was Don's emphatic reply.
Upon arriving at Santiago's residence they were told that Strong had been there earlier in the evening and seemed much disappointed at not finding them at home.
"Did he leave any word?" asked Billie of the portero.
"None, senor; but Donna Lucia would like to see you in the library."
"What is the matter? Is Santiago worse?"
"No, senor. He is sleeping quietly. I could not say what she wants, but she seemed considerably disturbed."
"Better go up alone, Billie," said Donald. "If we are needed, you can call us. We'll wait here in the patio for a few minutes before we turn in."
Billie ran up the stairs and tapped at the library door. He was immediately admitted by Lucia and the door was closed behind him.
"It is getting to be a good deal of a family affair," laughed Adrian.
"Yes," replied Donald, with a grin. "I wonder where Josie and Mr. Black are?"
"I don't know why you should have thought of them!"
"Oh," replied Donald nonchalantly, "speaking of family affairs naturally reminded me that you——"
"Oh, Don!" came Billie's voice, breaking in upon the conversation.
"Yes. What is it?"
"Come up here, the both of you! Quick!"
The boys ran up the stairs two steps at a time.
"In here," and Billie held the library door open. "I've something I want to show you."
He led the way to the table, and there, under the glow of the lamp, stood a brass-bound box about eight or nine inches cube.
DONALD IS KIDNAPED.
"Great Scott!" was the spontaneous exclamation of both the newcomers. "Where did it come from?"
"You tell," replied Billie. "Lucia says it was not here an hour ago. Neither has any one been in the room so far as she knows."
"Has she been here all the time?" asked Adrian.
"No, she was with Josie in her room for a time; but the door into the patio was locked."
"Some one might have come in through the window."
"A fat chance, isn't there!" laughed Billie, pointing to the only window in the room which was protected with long and heavy iron bars, set so closely together that a child would have had trouble in squeezing through—much less a man.
"Does look a little difficult," replied Adrian.
"Worse than difficult. Impossible," was Donald's comment.
"Did you hear any noise?" asked Billie of Lucia.
"And you have never seen the box before?"
Lucia wrinkled her brows and thought deeply.
"Do you know," she finally said, "I have a sort of a dim recollection that, away back in my childhood somewhere, I have seen it or one just like it."
"Away back in your childhood," laughed Donald, "couldn't have been so very far, Senorita."
Lucia made a little grimace.
"I'm nearly seventeen," she said.
"Botheration!" said Billie. "We are not here to discuss ages, but to find out how this box came here. I have no doubt that Lucia has seen many similar boxes in her time."
"Well," asked Donald, somewhat nettled, "what do you propose to do?"
"In the first place, I want to search the house."
"That's a good idea," declared Adrian. "Donna Lucia, will you lead the way?"
"Certainly. Right this way; but don't go into father's room. I know there is no one in there. One of the servants has been with him every minute of the time."
Headed by Lucia, the boys explored the house from top to bottom, but not a sign of any one could they find. So far as they could determine, the box must have come in of its own self.
"I'll tell you one thing we can and must do," said Billie, after they had returned to the library. "We must keep a watch in this room to-night. Whoever put the box here may return."
"Right!" from Don. "You do have occasional lucid intervals, Billie."
Billie grinned, but made no reply.
"I think we may all stay here for a few hours," suggested Lucia. "Father is so much better that I think we may have a little music. I will play some accompaniments on the guitar and Josie can sing."
"That will seem a good deal like being back in the States," declared Adrian. "With the Stars and Stripes flying over my head, a brigade of American troops on guard and an American girl singing, I can almost forget I am on Mexican soil."
"How about the accompanist?" queried Billie.
"Oh!" laughed Adrian, "we're quite willing to adopt her. Hey, Donald?"
"Don't ask me, Ad. Ask Billie."
"I am sure we could do no better," was Billie's gallant reply.
Lucia's suggestion was carried out and for a couple of hours there was a merry little party under Santiago's hospitable roof. Even the mysterious box was forgotten and the young people were giving themselves up to a jolly good time, when suddenly there came a scream which caused every one to turn their eyes toward the room in which the sick man was supposed to be lying.
But there in the doorway he stood, his long night robe reaching nearly to the floor and his thin black hair standing almost on end.
"Father!" cried Lucia, rushing toward him "What is it?"
He waved her off, but made no reply, while with his long bony finger he pointed at the brass-bound box.
"Where did it come from?" he asked in a shrill, querulous tone. "Who brought back my secret casket?"
"Yours?" came from every one in the room.
"Yes! Mine! Mine!!" he almost screamed.
"He's raving!" cried Josie. "Can't some one do something for him?"
"No," he replied, and his voice became more calm, "I am not raving. I know whereof I speak. Quick! Let me look within it to see that all is safe."
"It is locked, Father," said Lucia, coming to his side, "and we have no key."
"I can unlock it," he cried. "I can unlock it. Give it to me. Give it to me."
He staggered forward and seized the box in his hands. For several seconds he fumbled with it, turning it first upon one side and then upon another, and at last raised the lid. He thrust in his hand and then stopped as one stupefied.
"Empty! Empty!" he gasped in an almost audible whisper. "The plan of Montezuma's mine is gone! Gone!!"
A moment he stood and gazed around upon the faces of those in the room and then collapsed upon the floor.
Quickly the boys picked him up and carried him to his bed and the attending physician was summoned.
Billie picked up the box and examined it curiously.
"I wonder how he opened it?" he mused. "There must be some sort of a spring somewhere."
He felt the box all over, but could find nothing. Then he closed it and set it upon the table. A moment later Donald picked it up and tried to open it, but it was locked fast.
"Nothing but mysteries," he said. "I'm getting tired of them. But before anything else happens, I'm going around and notify Don Esteban that the box is here."
"I'll go with you," said Adrian.
"No, you'd better stay here. I'll take a mozo with me."
He ran hastily down the stairs and a minute later the boys heard the gate close behind him.
"I guess this is the quickest way," thought Donald as he gained the sidewalk. "I'll not bother with a mozo. With American soldiers on guard and my automatic in my pocket, I have nothing to fear."
A couple of minutes later he was ringing the bell at Don Esteban's house. He was hastily admitted and at once conducted to that gentleman's presence, where he narrated hastily what had occurred at the other house.
"Who is this old man?" Don Esteban asked of Donald.
Donald explained as best he could.
"Which is mighty little," he declared when he had finished. "He is the greatest mystery we have ever encountered. There is no doubt that he is an Indian, but he speaks English like an Englishman."
"I must go and see him at once," declared Don Esteban, rising.
"I don't think you can, sir, to-night. I don't think the physician would permit it."
"Well, then, the first thing in the morning. I thank you, young sir. Won't you have a glass of wine before you go?"
"No, I think not," replied Donald. "I've never acquired that Mexican habit yet. Good night, sir."
He left the house feeling greatly relieved that he had reported the finding of the box and walked slowly along whistling merrily. As he turned off the street upon which Don Esteban lived he heard soft footsteps behind him and turned hastily.
But he was too late.
Before he could see who it was, or ere he could cry out, a cloak was thrown over his head and he was picked up and carried away bodily.
Donald was not the boy to give in without a struggle, but kick and squirm as he might, he could not free himself. Presently those who were carrying him stopped and laid him on the sidewalk. Then he heard a knock and a gate opened. Then he was lifted up again and, almost before he knew it, he was thrust into a little room—a closet it seemed—and the door closed upon him.
It was a hot night and the little place was stifling.
"I'll smother if I don't get out of this," he muttered.
Slowly he unwrapped the cloak from about his head and at last freed himself completely from its folds; but he secured little relief from the heat.
The room could not have been more than six feet square and it did not take Donald long to run his hand clear around the wall.
There was only one door, that through which he had been thrust, and it was locked. He pounded upon it, but to no avail. Then he sat down to think.
"There is certainly no use to sweat myself to death," he told himself. "I'd better be as quiet as I can. There is air enough coming under the door so I won't suffocate, so I might just as well wait and see what will turn up."
He ran his hand all over his automatic and found it in good shape. Then he leaned back against the wall opposite the door and waited. Ten minutes later the door was suddenly yanked open, another figure was bundled into the closet and the door slammed shut, almost before Donald could think.
A PLOT AGAINST FUNSTON.
A muttered imprecation was the only intimation that the figure which had been so unceremoniously bundled into the closet was alive.
"Who are you?" asked Donald in Spanish.
"Let me out of this," was the unsatisfactory response in English.
"Oh!" from Donald. "You are an American. Well, keep still and I'll help you to get rid of the blanket."
He grabbed hold of the covering and the newcomer was soon uncovered.
"Now, then, who are you?" asked Donald again.
"I'll show you who I am if I get hold of you," was the uncivil answer, and an arm shot out.
"Now look here," said Donald, "if you don't stop that I'll let daylight through you. We are in a bad box and the only thing to do is to make the best of it."
"We?" exclaimed the newcomer. "Why do you say we?"
"Because I am a prisoner the same as you are. Now, who are you?"
"I'm Lieutenant Grimes of the general's staff. Who are you?"
"I am Donald Mackay, on a special mission for Gen. Funston."
"How did they get you?"
"Kidnaped me on the street. How did they get you?"
"Same way. I had just left the general's quarters."
"I can see that some one might want to capture you, lieutenant, but I cannot see what they want of me."
"How long have you been here?" asked the lieutenant.
"About half an hour. By the way, are you armed?"
"No; they took away my weapons. How about you?"
"I have my automatic. I'd have used it when you came in, only you were dumped in so suddenly."
"What do you suppose the game is?"
"I don't know; but we'll find out. I've been in tighter places than this—but no hotter," after a pause.
"Have you tried to get out?"
"Yes; but it was too hot work. The door seemed pretty strong."
"Perhaps the two of us might force it," suggested Grimes. "I'm a pretty husky chap."
"We might try," replied Donald. "The place is so narrow we can get a good brace."
They put their feet against the opposite wall and pushed against the door.
"We'll never make it that way," said the lieutenant. "We'll have to throw ourselves at it."
"Not much room for that, Lieutenant, but you give the word and we'll have a try."
Getting their bearings as well as they could in the dark, they drew themselves back and then literally threw themselves at the door. It gave way with a snap and both fell to their feet on the outside.
Quick as a flash they were on their feet, Donald with his weapon ready for instant action.
But there was no one in sight.
"That's mighty funny!" exclaimed the lieutenant. "Lock two strong men up in a place like that and not guard it."
"It's a mighty good thing for us they didn't," laughed Donald. "I wonder where we are?"
He glanced about the room which was dimly lighted by a couple of lamps, fastened to the wall by brackets. It was well—yes, elegantly furnished. At one side of the room was the closet out of which they had just emerged, while at the opposite side were three doors. On a third side were two windows and the fourth side was a plain wall.
"Not a bad-looking place," observed the lieutenant.
"Not at all," echoed Donald, "and there seem plenty of means of exit."
"Sure, my boy; and if it's all the same to you, we'll go. The sooner I get back the quicker I'll be able to start something in this direction. Come on!"
They crossed over to the doors and tried the first one. It was locked. They tried the second and it opened into another closet.
"Three times and out," laughed Donald as he took hold of the knob of the last door.
It yielded to his touch and he opened it gently. Then he quickly and quietly closed it.
"What's up?" asked the lieutenant.
Donald put his fingers to his lips.
"How many?" queried Lieut. Grimes.
"Three," was the whispered response. "Let's hear what they have to say."
He opened the door a crack, through which they could see three men seated at a table. One wore the uniform of a Mexican officer, the other was dressed in Mexican costume, while the third was unquestionably an American, although they could only see his back.
"I have carried out my part of the agreement," the American was saying, "and now I want my money."
"How do we know you have?" asked the officer.
"Haven't I put Gen. Funston into your hands?"
"We are not sure it is Funston," said the other.
"Then bring him out and look at him. You know the general when you see him, don't you?"
"I think so, although I've never seen him but once."
"Well, that is he, all right," declared the American.
Donald turned and looked at his companion. Then he chuckled.
The lieutenant said nothing, but stroked his whiskers which he wore in exact imitation of his chief.
"Lucky for the general," he whispered, and Donald nodded his head that he understood.
The two Mexicans exchanged a few words under their breath which Donald could not hear and then the officer took from his breast pocket a large wallet, from which he counted out ten bank notes. They were yellow backs and Donald was not at all surprised when the officer said:
"Here are ten one-thousand-dollar bills in American money. We believe you are telling us the truth, as your words are corroborated by the men who brought him here. But if you are playing us false, we shall know how to reach you."