J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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CHAPTER I
THE HOLD-UP

"Hands up! Quick!"

Now, in wild countries, such a command is never disobeyed, except by a fool or a would-be suicide. As Dick Trent was neither, his hands went up at once. And as he looked into the wicked muzzles of two bulldog revolvers, he inwardly cursed the carelessness that had led him so far afield, unarmed.

For that he had been careless there was not the shadow of a doubt. All that morning, as his train wound its way through Central Mexico, there had been unmistakable evidence on every side of the disturbed state of the nation. From the car windows he had seen a fertile country turned into a desert. The railroad line itself had been fairly well guarded by strong detachments of Federal forces; but outside the direct zone of travel there were abundant witnesses of strife and desolation. Smoke was rising from the remains of burned villages, the fields were bare of cattle driven off by marauding bands, harvests remained ungathered because the tillers of the soil had either fled for safety to the larger towns or been forced to take up arms with one of the contending factions. There were at least four important leaders, backed by considerable forces, who claimed to represent the people of Mexico, while countless bands of guerillas hung on the flanks of the regular armies. These last were murderers, pure and simple. It mattered nothing to them which side won. They robbed and slaughtered impartially, wherever booty or victims awaited them, and their ranks were recruited from the very scum of the earth.

Only that morning a brisk action had taken place at a small town on the line, and although the guerillas had been driven off they had managed to inflict considerable damage. A desperate attempt to destroy a bridge had been foiled, but one of the trestles had been so weakened that the heavy train did not dare to cross until repairs were made. This caused a delay of an hour or two, and, in the meantime, most of the passengers left the train and strolled about, watching the progress of the work.

Among these had been Bert Wilson and Tom Henderson, Dick's inseparable friends and companions. A strong bond of friendship united the three and this had been cemented by many experiences shared in common. They were so thoroughly congenial, had "summered and wintered" each other so long that each almost knew what the others were thinking. Together they had faced dangers: together they had come to hand grips with death and narrowly escaped. Each knew that the others would back him to the limit and would die rather than desert him in an emergency. By dint of strength and natural capacity Bert was the leader, but the others followed close behind. All were tall and muscular, and as they stood beside the train they formed a striking trio – the choicest type of young American manhood.

They were on their way to Panama to witness the opening of the Panama Canal.

That stupendous triumph of engineering skill had appealed to them strongly while in course of construction, and now that it was to be thrown open to the vessels of the world, their enthusiasm had reached fever heat. All of them had chosen their life work along engineering and scientific lines, and this of course added to the interest they felt simply as patriotic Americans. They had devoured with eagerness every scrap of news as the colossal work went on, but had scarcely dared to hope that they might see it in person. A lucky combination of circumstances had made it possible at the last moment to take the trip together; and from the time that trip became a certainty they thought and talked of little else than the great canal.

"How shall we go?" asked Tom, when they began to plan for the journey.

"Oh, by boat or train, I suppose," said Dick flippantly. "It's a little too far to walk."

"Yes, Socrates," retorted Tom, "I had imagined as much. But bring your soaring intellect down to earth and get busy with common things. Which shall it be?"

"I'd leave it to the toss of a coin," was the answer. "I don't care either way."

"I vote for the train," broke in Bert. "We've had a good deal of sea travel in our trip to the Olympic Games and that last voyage to China. Besides, I'd like to see Mexico and Central America. It's the land of flowers and romance, of guitars and senoritas, of Cortes and the Aztecs – "

"Yes," interrupted Dick grimly, "and of bandits and beggars and greasers and guerillas. Perhaps you'll see a good deal more of Mexico than you want. Still, I'm game, and if Tom – "

"Count me in," said Tom promptly. "A spice of danger will make it all the more exciting. If the Chinese pirates didn't get us, I guess the Mexicans won't."

So Mexico it was, and up to the time they stopped at the broken bridge no personal danger had threatened, although it was evident that the country was a seething volcano. How near they were to that volcano's rim they little dreamed as they sauntered lazily down to the bridge and watched the men at work.

The damage proved greater than at first thought, and it was evident that some time must elapse before it could be thoroughly repaired. Bert and Tom climbed down the ravine a little way to get a better view of the trestle. Dick chatted a while with the engineer as he stood, oil can in hand, near the tender. Then the impulse seized him to walk a little way up the road that ran beside the track and get some of the kinks out of his six feet of bone and muscle.

It was a perfect day. The sun shone hotly, but there was a cooling breeze that tempered the heat and made it bearable. Great trees beside the road afforded a grateful shade and beneath them Dick walked on. Everything was so different from what he had been accustomed to that at each moment he saw something new. Strange, gaily-plumaged birds fluttered in the branches overhead. Slender feathery palms rose a hundred feet in the air. Here a scorpion ran through the chapparal; there a tarantula scurried away beneath the dusty leaves of a cactus plant. Up in the transparent blue a vulture soared, and made Dick think of the abundant feasts that were spread for these carrion birds all over Mexico. And just then as he rounded a curve in the road, his heart leaped into his throat and his hands went up in response to a quick, sharp word of command.

"Fool, fool," he groaned to himself. Then he rose to the emergency. He took a grip on himself. And his cool gray eyes gave no sign of his inward tumult as he looked steadily at his captor and returned gaze for gaze. And as he gazed, the conviction grew that his life was not worth a moment's purchase.

Before him, surrounded by his followers, stood a man of medium height, but evidently possessed of great muscular strength. He wore a nondescript costume of buckskin, studded with silver buttons and surmounted by a serape that had once been red, but now was sadly faded by wind and weather. A murderous machete was thrust into a flaunting sash that served as a belt and a black sombrero overshadowed his face.

That face! Dick had never seen one so hideous except in nightmare. A sword cut had slashed the right cheek from the temple to the chin. The mouth from which several teeth were missing was like a gash. His eyes, narrowed beneath drooping lids, were glinting with ferocity. They were the eyes of a demon and the soul that looked through them was scarred and seamed by every evil passion. So the old pirates might have looked as they forced their victims to walk the plank. So an Apache Indian might have gloated over a captive at the stake. Dick's soul turned sick within him, but outwardly he was as cold as ice and hard as steel, as he stared unflinchingly into the cruel eyes before him.

Perhaps that level gaze saved his life. The bandit's hand was trembling on the trigger. One dead man more or less made no difference to him and he could rob as easily after shooting as before. Something told Dick that, had he weakened for a moment, a bullet would have found lodgment in his heart. He braced himself for the strange duel and as he looked, he saw the savage eyes change into a half-resentful admiration. It had been a case of touch and go, but Dick, by sheer nerve had won a brief reprieve. Without lowering the revolvers, the bandit called to one of the scoundrels, of whom twenty stood near by with carbines ready:

"Search him, Pedro," he commanded.

The fellow come forward quickly. Every movement showed the awe and fear in which the chief was held. He went through every pocket with a skill born of long experience. Dick's watch and money were taken from him, and, at a sign from the leader, his coat and shoes were also added to the loot.

"Now tie him and put him on one of the horses," said the captain, "and we'll be off. There may be some more of these accursed Americanos near by."

In a twinkling a lariat was dragged from the saddlehorn of the broncho, and Dick's arms were roughly tied behind his back. The rope cut cruelly into his flesh, but, with such an undaunted prisoner, they were determined to take no chances. Then he was lifted to the saddle and his feet tied beneath the horse. A bandit leaped up behind him and grasped the reins with one hand, while he held Dick with the other. Not till he was thus securely trussed and unable to move hand or foot, did the chief lower the revolvers with which he had kept the prisoner covered. A sharp command, a quick vaulting into the saddles, and the guerilla band was off to its eyrie in the mountains.

Events had passed so rapidly that Dick's brain was in a whirl. It seemed as though he were in a frightful dream from which he must presently awake. Scarcely ten minutes had wrought this fearful change in his fortunes. A quarter of an hour ago he was free, serene, apparently master of himself and his fate. Now he was a captive, stripped of money and goods, tied hand and foot, in the power of a desperate scoundrel, while every step was carrying him further away from happiness and friends and life.

For he did not disguise to himself that death probably yawned for him at the journey's end. Whatever the whim that had saved his life so far, it was unlikely to continue. He tried to figure out why the revolver had not barked when it had him so surely at its mercy. It was absurd to think that this human tiger had been deterred by any scruple. He was of the type that revelled in blood, who like a wild beast lusted for the kill. Perhaps he had not wanted to leave the evidence of his crime so close to the victim's friends, whose fury might prompt to bloody revenge. The noise of the shooting might have brought them like hornets about his ears. Or did some idea of ransom, if it could be managed, appeal to his avarice? Or, possibly, he might be held as a hostage to be exchanged for some precious rascal now held by the enemy. In these last suppositions there were some glimmerings of hope and Dick drew from them such comfort as he might; but underneath them all was the grim probability that would not down that he was probably bound on his last journey.

His tortured thoughts turned back to Bert and Tom. He could see them now in his mind's eye, chatting and laughing on the edge of the ravine, while the men shored up the tottering trestle. Presently they would turn back and idly wonder what had become of Dick. A little longer and their wonder would change into a certain uneasiness. Still they would not permit themselves to think for a moment that anything could have happened to him. They would guess that he might be in the smoker or the buffet and would saunter leisurely through the various cars. Only then when they failed to find him would they become seriously alarmed. And he could see the look of fierce determination and deadly resolution that would leap to their eyes when they realized that he must have met with disaster.

For they would come after him. He had no doubt of that. Some time, some way, they would come upon him, dead or alive, unless their own lives were lost in the effort. He knew that they would stick to the trail like bloodhounds and never falter for an instant. They had faced too many perils together to quail at this supreme test when his life was at stake. Dear old Bert! Good old Tom! His heart warmed at the thought of them and a mist came over his eyes.

But what chance did they have of finding him? They were in a strange land where even the language was unknown to them, and where the natives looked with suspicion on everything American. The country through which they were passing was of the wildest kind, and the hard sunbaked trail left little trace. The woods were thick and at times his captors had to use their machetes to cut a way through the dense under growth. In places where streams were met, they walked their horses through the water to confuse the trail still further. They were evidently familiar with every foot of ground, and no doubt their camp had been located in some place where it would be practically impossible for pursuers ta come upon them without abundant warning. The chances of success were so remote as to be well nigh hopeless. There was no use in deluding himself, and Dick pulled himself together and resolutely faced the probability of death.

He did not want to die. Every fibre in him flamed out in fierce revolt against the thought. Why, he had scarcely begun to live. He stood at the very threshold of life. Some lines he had read only a few days before, curiously enough came back to him:

 
"'Tis life, of which our nerves are scant,
O life, not death, for which we pant,
More life and fuller that we want."
 

Yes, that was it. He wanted life, wanted it eagerly, wanted it thirstily, wanted it desperately. Never before had it seemed so sweet. An hour earlier it had stretched before him, full of promise. The blood ran warm and riotous through every vein. He had everything to live for – health, strength, home and friends. And now the ending of all his dreams and hopes and plans was – what?

A shadow fell across him. He looked up. It was the vulture, circling lower now, as though its instinct told it of a coming feast. Dick shuddered. The air seemed suddenly to have grown deadly chill.

CHAPTER II
THE PURSUIT

Down at the ravine, stretched out at full length beneath the shade of a great tree, Bert and Tom were watching the progress of the work, as it slowly neared completion. There was more to do than was at first thought, but after making allowance for this, it seemed to drag on endlessly.

"Not much genius in that crowd, I imagine," said Bert.

"What do you mean?" asked Tom, looking up in surprise.

"Why," returned Bert, "I forget what philosopher it was – Carlyle, I think – who says in one of his books that 'genius is only an infinite capacity for hard work.' You don't see much of it straying around loose here, do you?"

"Well no," laughed Tom, "not so that you would notice it. I've just been looking at that fellow over there with a hammer. I'll bet I could take a nap in the time it takes him to drive a nail."

"They ought to have as foreman one of those husky, bull-necked fellows I've seen in some of the section gangs laying out a railroad in the Northwest," went on Bert. "Those fellows are 'steam engines in breeches.' There isn't much loafing or lying down on the job when they're around. When they speak, the men jump as though they were shot."

"Yes," answered Tom, "or perhaps a mate on a Mississippi steamboat would fill the bill. Those colored roustabouts certainly get a move on when they feel his gimlet eye boring through them."

"After all, I suppose the climate is a good deal to blame," mused Bert. "It's hard to show much ginger when you feel as though you were working in a Turkish bath."

"Right you are," responded Tom. "We fellows born and bred in a cold climate don't realize how lucky we are. It's the fight with old mother nature that brings out all that's strong and tough in a man. I guess if the old Pilgrim Fathers had landed at Vera Cruz instead of on the 'stern and rock-bound coast' of New England they'd have become lotus eaters too."

"Well, that's what we're getting to be already," said Bert with a yawn, "and if I lie here much longer I'll strike my roots into the bank."

"Sure enough," assented Tom, "here we are talking about the laziness of these fellows, but I don't see that we're wearing any medals for energy."

"Energy," drawled Bert. "Where have I heard that word before. It sounds familiar, but I wouldn't recognize it if I saw it. I don't believe there is any such thing south of the Rio Grande."

"Come, wake up," retorted Tom. "Get out of your trance. I'll tell you what I'll do. Do you see that tree up there? I'll race you to it. That is, if you give me a handicap."

"Done," said Bert, who could never resist a challenge. "How much do you want?"

"How about a hundred feet? That oughtn't to be too much for a Marathon winner to give a dub like me."

"You don't want much, do you?" laughed Bert. "Your nerve hasn't suffered from the heat. But get your lead and I'll start from scratch."

Tom, quick as a cat, was not to be despised. On more than one occasion he had circled the bases in fifteen seconds. But he was no match for the fellow who at the Olympic games had won the Marathon race from the greatest runners of the world. For a little he seemed to hold his own, but when Bert once got into his stride – that space-devouring lope that fairly burned up the ground – it was "all over but the shouting." He collared Tom fifty feet from the tree and cantered in an easy winner.

Tom had "bellows to mend" and was perspiring profusely, but to Bert it had simply been an "exercise gallop" and he had never turned a hair.

"Well, you got me all right," admitted Tom disgustedly. "I've got no license to run with you under any conditions. But at any rate the run has waked me up. I've lost some of my wind, but I've got back my self-respect. But now let's go and hunt Dick up. I wonder where he is anyway."

"Probably stretched out on a couple of seats and taking a snooze," guessed Bert. "I'll bet he's lazier even than we are, and that's saying a good deal."

"Well, let's rout him out," said Tom. "Come along."

But when they reached their section of the car, Dick was nowhere to be seen.

"Taking a snack in the buffet, perhaps," suggested Bert. "There's something uncanny about that appetite of his. I'd hate to have him as a steady boarder."

But here their search was equally unavailing. The attendant at the buffet did not remember having seen any one of his description lately.

"Great Scott," ejaculated Tom. "Where is the old rascal anyway?"

Bert bent his brows in a puzzled frown. It certainly did seem a little queer.

"He must be close by somewhere," he said slowly. "He can't have vanished into the thin air. Perhaps the porters or the train men have seen something of him."

With a growing sense of uneasiness they went from car to car, but the mystery remained unsolved until they reached the engineer.

"Sure," replied that worthy, "I know who you mean. He was talking to me alongside the engine here."

"How long ago?" asked Bert, anxiously.

"O, it must be all of two hours," was the reply. "I remember it was just a little while after the train stopped. When he left me he started up that road," pointing to the path beside the track. "Said he was going to stretch his legs a little."

"Two hours ago!" exclaimed Bert.

"And not back yet!" cried Tom.

The boys looked at each other and in their eyes a great fear was dawning.

"O, I guess he's all right," said the engineer, "though he certainly was taking chances if he went very far. Things are rather risky around here just now, and it's good dope not to get too far away from the train unless you're pretty well 'heeled' and have got some friends along."

But his last words fell upon unheeding ears. With a bound, Bert was back in the car, closely followed by Tom. They rummaged hastily in their bags until they found their Colt revolvers – the good old .45s that had done them such good service in their fight with the pirates off the Chinese coast. Not a word was spoken. There was no time for talk and each knew what was passing in the mind of the other. Dick was gone – dear old Dick – and at this very moment was perhaps in deadly peril. There were only two things to be done. If he were alive, they would find him. If he were dead, they would avenge him.

That they were taking their own lives in their hands in the effort to aid their comrade did not even occur to them. It seemed the simplest thing in the world. It was not even a problem. Not for a moment did they weigh the cost. Were they hucksters to split hairs, to measure chances, when their comrade's life hung in the balance? As for the risks – well, let them come. They had faced death before and won out. Perhaps they would again. If not – there were worse things than death. At least they could die like men.

They thrust their weapons in their belt, threw a handful of cartridges in either pocket, leaped from the car and started on a run up the road.



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