J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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As they ran, they gathered speed. The road fell away like a white ribbon behind them. The wind whistled in their ears. The canter they had already indulged in had put them in form and their anxiety gave wings to their feet. No time to spare themselves when every minute was precious – fraught with the chances of life or death. More than once they had run for glory – now perhaps they were running for a life. And at the thought they quickened their pace until they were fairly flying.

Their keen eyes scanned each side of the path for some sign of Dick's presence, but not until they came to the turn in the road was their search rewarded. Then they stopped abruptly.

Something had happened here. There were no signs of a struggle, but the ground was torn up as though by the pawing of horses. The upturned earth was fresh at the edges and the prints of hoofs could be clearly seen. A bit of cloth fluttered on a tree and a broken strap lay on the ground. An ace of spades near by made it look as though a card game had been suddenly interrupted and this impression gathered force from the presence of an empty bottle that still smelled strongly of mescal, the villainous whisky of the Mexicans.

Like hounds on the scent the boys circled round the spot, trying to get the meaning of the signs. Their experience in camping had made them the keenest kind of woodmen and they could read the forest like an open book. Bert's sharp eyes caught sight of the bark of a sapling freshly gnawed. By its height from the ground he knew at once that this had been made by the teeth of a broncho. The mark of a strap a little lower down showed that the beast had been tethered there. All around the clearing he went, until he had satisfied himself that at least twenty horses had been standing there a little while before.

Tom in the meantime had been studying the hoofprints. One of them especially arrested his attention. He followed the trail some hundred feet and came running back to Bert.

"One of those horses has carried double," he panted. "See how much deeper and sharper his prints are than the others. And though he started off among the first he soon came back to the rear. The others with a lighter load got on faster."

Bert hastily confirmed this conclusion. There was no longer any room for doubt. They saw the whole scene now as clearly as though they had been on the spot when it happened. Dick had come unexpectedly and unarmed upon this band of guerillas. They had at least been twenty to one, and he had had not the ghost of a chance. They had carried him off into the mountains. For what purpose? God only knew.

But at least they had spared his life. There was still a chance. While there was life there was hope. And they would never leave the trail until that last spark of hope had gone out in utter darkness.

Now that they had fully settled in their own minds just what had happened, the next thing in order was to plan the rescue.

And this promised to be a tremendous task. The chances were all against them. They had no delusions on that score. The odds of twenty to two were enormous. Mere courage was not enough to settle the problem. With a heart of a lion they must have the cunning of a fox.

The boys sat down on the grassy bank and cudgeled their brains. The fierce excitement of the last few minutes had gone down, to be replaced by a steady flame of resolution. Bert's mental processes were quick as lightning. He could not only do, but plan. It was this instant perception and clear insight, as well as his pluck and muscle, that had made him a natural leader and won him the unquestioned position he held among his friends and comrades. Like a flash he reviewed in his mind the various plans that occurred to him, dismissing this, amending that, until out of the turmoil of his thoughts he had reached a definite conclusion.

He lifted his head from his hands and in short crisp sentences sketched out his purpose.

"Now, Tom," he said, "we've got to work harder and quicker than we ever did before. Here's the game. Make tracks for the train. It must be pretty nearly ready to move now. Go through Dick's bag and get his revolver. It may come in handy later on. Grab another big bunch of cartridges. Get the pocket compass out of my valise. Go into the buffet and cram your pockets full of bread and meat. We might shoot small game enough to keep us alive, but shooting makes a noise.

"Do these things first of all, and then hunt up Melton. You know whom I mean – that cattleman from Montana that we were talking to yesterday. He's a good fellow and a game sport. He told me he was going to Montillo on business connected with his ranch. That's the first station on the other side of the bridge. The train will be there in an hour. Tell Melton the fix we're in. He's chased outlaws himself and he'll understand. Ask him to go to the American Consul the minute he gets to Montillo and put it up to him that American citizens need help and need it quick. It's an important town and we'll probably have a consul there. If not, ask Melton to put the facts before the Mexican authorities. They don't love Americans very much, but they're a little afraid that the Washington people may mix in here, and they may not want to get in bad with them. Besides they hate the guerillas just about as much as we do. Anyway we'll have to take the chance."

"How about following the trail?" suggested Tom. "There are plenty of bloodhounds around. They use them to chase the peons and Yaquis. Shall I ask Melton to send some along if he can?"

"No," replied Bert. "I thought of that, but their baying might give us away. If they suspect pursuit, they might kill Dick and scatter before we could get to them. You and I are woodmen enough to follow a trail made by twenty horses. If there were only one they might get away with it, but not when there are so many. Now get a move on, old man. I'll wait for you here studying the signs, and we'll start as soon as you get back. If reinforcements catch up to us, all right. If we can get Dick without them so much the better. If not, they'll help us later on."

Without another word Tom leaped to his feet and was off down the road like the flight of an arrow.

CHAPTER III
A GALLANT COMRADE

As he flew on, he heard the shrill whistle of the engine and the ringing of its bell. The train was getting ready to move. Groups of workmen, tools in hand, were coming from the ravine, and the passengers, glad that the wearisome wait was over, were getting on the platform, ready to climb into the cars. He let out a link and reached the train just as the engineer was getting into his cab. Tom blurted out the facts of Dick's capture, and the conductor, coming up just then, willingly consented to hold the train a few minutes longer.

To carry out Bert's instructions was with Tom the work of a moment, and then, with pockets crammed to bursting, he sought out Melton, the cattleman.

That individual, a grizzled weather beaten veteran of the plains, listened with the liveliest sympathy and indignation. His eyes, beneath his shaggy brows fairly blazed as Tom panted out the story.

"The dogs! The whelps!" he cried, as he brought down his gnarled fist with a tremendous thump. "If I were only twenty years younger or a hundred pounds lighter, I'd come with you myself. But I'd only hold you back if I went on foot. But you'll see me yet," he went on savagely; "I'll fix up things at Montillo as you ask, and then I'll get a horse and come after you. I thought my fighting days were over, but I've still got one good fight under my belt. Go ahead, my boy. You're the real stuff and I wish I had a son like you. You make me proud of being an American. I'll do my best to be in at the death, and God help those greasers if I get them under my guns."

His warmth and eagerness proved that Bert had made no mistake in enlisting him as their ally at this time of deadly need. With a fervent word of thanks and a crushing hand grip, Tom leaped from the train and sped back to the comrade who was impatiently awaiting him. A hurried report of his mission and they were off on the trail.

What was at the end of that trail? Dick, alive or dead? Rescue or defeat? A joyful reunion or graves for three? All they knew was that, whatever awaited them, it was not disgrace. And they grimly pulled their belts tighter and pressed forward.

As they climbed upward they came to an open space from which they had a wide view of the surrounding country. As they looked back to the south, they heard the faint whistle of the departing train and saw the thin veil of smoke that it left behind. Not until that moment did they realize how utterly alone they were. It was the snapping of the last link that bound them to civilization. With the swiftness of a kaleidoscope their whole life had changed. That morning, without the slightest idea of what fate had in store for them, they had been together, exchanging jest and banter; now one of their comrades was a captive in the power of desperate brigands and they were on their way to save him or die with him. It was a forlorn hope; but forlorn hopes have a way of winning out in this world, where grit is at a premium, and although they were sobered at the awful odds against them, they were not dismayed.

If they should be too late! This was the terrible fear that haunted them. Already the afternoon had advanced and their shadows were growing longer behind them. Bert consulted his watch. Night comes on suddenly in those latitudes and there were only a few hours of the precious daylight left. Whatever they did that day would have to be done before darkness set in. It was difficult enough to follow the trail by daylight, but at night it would be utterly impossible. Since they had not killed Dick at once the probability was that his life would be safe during the flight. But at night they would be resting, with nothing to do but drink and gamble and indulge in every vice of their depraved natures. What deviltry might come to the surface, what thirst for blood and death that could only be slaked in the torture of their captive! Nine-tenths of the world's crime is committed under cover of the night, and it is not without reason that Satan has been called the "Prince of Darkness."

Such thoughts as these gave an added quickness to their steps. The way led steadily uphill. The path was rough and they tripped often over the tangled undergrowth. Long creepers reached down like snakes to grasp them from the branches overhead. Once they narrowly escaped a treacherous bog that got a firm grip on Tom's feet, and from which Bert only pulled him out by the utmost exertion of his strength. At times they lost the trail altogether, and fumed for nearly an hour before they took up the thread again. At the brook through which Dick's captors had walked their horses, they had almost begun to despair, when an exclamation of Tom's showed that he had found the spot where they had left the water. But through all these vexations, they stuck to the work with dogged tenacity. Then suddenly, almost without warning, night came down on them like a blanket. There was nothing of the long dusk and waning light common to northern climes. Five minutes earlier there was light enough for them to read by. Five minutes later and they could not see their hand before their face.

"Well, Tom, old scout," said Bert, "it's no go for to-day. We've got to go into camp."

"Yes," agreed Tom, bitterly, "we've done our best, but our best isn't good enough. Poor Dick – "

"Brace up, old fellow," replied Bert, feigning a cheerfulness he did not feel, "we'll get there yet. To-morrow's a new day. And remember that this same darkness is holding up the guerillas too. They've got to go into camp and they're not getting any further ahead of us. Likely enough they'll feel pretty secure now and they won't be stirring so early to-morrow, while we'll be afoot at the first streak of daylight. What we've got to do now is to figure out the best and safest way to spend the night."

Near the spot where they were when darkness had overtaken them, was a grassy knoll, at the edge of which uprose a giant rock. At the foot of this they drew together enough of branches and shrubs to make a rude bed, and prepared to settle down and spend as best they could the hours before the coming of the dawn. They did not dare to make a fire, lest some prying eyes might discover their location. They had nothing to cook anyway, but the fire would have served to keep up their spirits and the smoke would have kept off the mosquitoes that hovered over them in swarms. It would have helped also to drive the chill from their bones, brought on by the heavy mists that rose from the lush vegetation and set their teeth to chattering. They drew close together for the companionship, and munched their bread and meat in silence. They were feeling the reaction that follows sustained effort and great excitement, and their hearts were too sick and sore for speech.

Then suddenly while they brooded – as suddenly as the sun had set – the moon arose and flooded the world with glory.

It put new life into the boys. They took heart of hope. Their mental barometer began to climb.

"I say, Bert," exclaimed Tom, eagerly voicing the thought that struck them both at once, "couldn't we follow the trail by moonlight?"

"I don't know," answered Bert, quite as excitedly. "Perhaps we can.

Let's make a try at it."

They started to their feet and hurried to the spot where they had left the trail. Bathed in that soft luminous splendor, it certainly seemed as though they should have no difficulty in following it as easily as by day. But they soon found their mistake. It was an unreal light, a fairy light that fled from details and concealed rather than revealed them. It lay on the ground like a shimmering, silken mesh, but through its tremulous beauty they could not detect the signs they sought. They needed the merciless, penetrating light of day. Their hopes were dashed, but they had to yield to the inevitable. They were turning back dejectedly to their improvised camp, when Bert stopped short in his tracks.

"What was that?" he whispered, as he grasped Tom's arm.

"I don't hear anything," returned Tom.

"I did. Listen."

They stood like stones, scarcely venturing to breathe. Then Tom, too, caught the sound. It was the faint, far-off tramp of horses. Bert threw himself down with his ear to the ground. A moment later he jumped to his feet.

"Three horses at least," he said quickly. "Get in the shadow of the rock and have your gun ready."

They crouched down where it was blackest and strained their eyes along the road up which they had come. Nearer and nearer came the cautious tread, and their fingers fidgeted on the trigger. Then a faint blur appeared on the moonlit path. Another moment and it resolved itself into a burly figure riding a wiry broncho and leading two others. The moonlight fell full on his rugged face and the boys gave a simultaneous gasp.

"Melton!" they cried, as they rushed toward him.

At the first sound, the newcomer had grasped a carbine that lay across his saddle, and in a flash the boys were covered. Then, as he recognized them, he lowered the weapon and grinned delightedly. In another second he was on the ground and his hands were almost wrung off in frantic welcome.

"Guessed it right the first time," he chuckled. "Melton sure enough. You didn't think I was bluffing, did you, when I said I'd come? If I'd left you two young fellows to make this fight alone, I could never have looked a white man in the face again. We Americans have got to stick together in this God-forsaken country. It's a long time since I've ridden the range and taken pot-shots at the greasers, but I guess I haven't forgotten how. But now let me get these bronchos hobbled and then we'll have a gabfest."

With the deftness of an' old frontiersman, he staked out the horses where the grazing was good, and then the three sought the shelter of the rock. The boys were jubilant at this notable addition to their forces. His skill and courage and long experience made him invaluable. And their hearts warmed toward this comparative stranger who had made their quarrel his, because they were his countrymen and because he saw in them a spirit kindred to his own. Not one in a thousand would have left his business and risked his life with such a fine disregard of the odds against him. Up to this time they had had only a fighting chance; now they were beginning to feel that it might be a winning chance.

The old cattleman settled his huge bulk on the pile of boughs and drew his pipe from his pocket. Not until it was filled and lighted and drawing well, would he "unlimber his jaw," to use his own phrase, and tell of the day's experience.

"I figured it all out on the trail," he began, as he leaned back comfortably against the rock, "and the minute we got to Montillo, I made a bee line to the American Consul. A fellow in brass buttons at the door wanted my card and told me I would have to wait in the anteroom. But I'm a rough and ready sort of fellow – always believe in taking the bull by the horns and cutting out the red tape – and I pushed him out of the way and streaked right into the consul's private office. I guessed the old man was kind o' shocked by my manners – or my lack of them – but he's a good sort all right, and when I gave him straight talk and told him I wanted him to mix war medicine right away, pronto, he got busy on the jump. He sent out one of his men to get me three of the best horses that could be had and then he scurried round with me to the big Mogul of the town – sort of mayor and chief of police rolled into one. I ain't much on the lingo, but I could see that the old boy was handing out a pretty stiff line of talk, and that the mayor was balky and backing up in the shafts. Not ugly, you know – anything but that. He was a slick proposition – that mayor. Smooth as oil and spreading on the salve a foot thick. Shrugging his shoulders and fairly wringing his hands. So sorry that anything had happened to these good Americanos whom he loved as though they were his brothers. He was desolated, broken-hearted – but what could he do? And every other word was manana – meaning tomorrow. That word is the curse of this country. Everything is manana – and then when to-morrow comes, it's manana again."

"Well, the old man stood this for a while, and then a sort of steely look came into his eyes that meant trouble and he sailed into him. Say, it did my heart good. Told him there wasn't going to be any manana in this. If there was, Mexico City would hear of it and Washington would hear of it, and before he knew it he'd be wishing he were dead. Those boys had to be helped mighty quick. He must call out his guards, get a troop of cavalry and send them off on the run. I backed up his play by looking fierce and rolling my eyes and resting my hand kind o' careless like on my hip pocket. I guess the mayor had visions of sudden death at the hands of a wild and woolly Westerner – one of those 'dear Americanos whom he loved as a brother – and he came down like Davy Crockett's coon. He started ringing all sorts of bells on his desk and sending this one here and the other one there, and promised by all the saints that he'd have them on the trail within an hour or two. To make it surer I asked the consul as a special favor to say that if they didn't come, I'd be back in a day or two – drop in kind o' casual as it were – to know the reason why."

He chuckled, as he refilled his pipe and went on:

"Of course, I couldn't wait around there on any such chance as that. We went straight back to the consul's office and these three horses were waiting for me. They ain't much to brag of and I've got some on my ranch that could lay all over them. But they're gritty little beasts and the best that could be got on such short notice. The consul lent me his rifle which seems to be a pretty good one, and I've got the pair of revolvers that I always carry with me.

"Then I struck the spurs pretty sharply into the broncho and lighted out. I knew there wasn't much daylight left and we certainly did some traveling. I wanted to get up to you before dark if I could, but you had too big a start. I had no trouble in following the trail – I've tracked Sioux Indians before now, and these Mexicans are babies compared to them, when it comes to covering up – and when the dark came on I knew I wasn't very far behind. Then as the horses were still full of go, I just dropped the reins on their neck and let them meander along. So many horses have passed this way that I felt sure they would get the scent and keep on in the right direction. And as you see I wasn't very far out.

"Well," he ruminated, "I guess that's about all."

"All!" exclaimed Bert, warmly. "As if that wasn't enough. I never knew a finer or more generous thing. You've put us in your debt for life."

"Yes," broke in Tom, "for sheer pluck and goodness of heart – "



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