J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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"Come, come," laughed Melton, "that's nothing at all. It's I who owe you a lot for the chance to get into such a lively scrap as this promises to be. I was getting rusty and beginning to feel that I was out of it. But now I feel as though twenty years had dropped away since this morning, and I'm just aching to hear the bark of a gun. It takes me back to the wild old days, when a man's life depended upon his quickness with the trigger. My blood is shooting through my veins once more, and, by thunder, I'm just as young at this moment as either of you fellows."

"Did you get any idea at Montillo who this guerilla chief might be?" asked Bert.

"Why, yes," replied Melton, slowly and almost reluctantly. "Of course they're only guessing, and they may not have the right dope. But while the consul was spelling with that mayor fellow, I caught every once in a while the word 'El Tigre.' That means 'the Tiger' in our language, and on our way back to the office he told me enough to show how well the name fits him. Some of the stories – but there," he broke off, checking himself abruptly, "it's getting late, and we've got to be stirring at the first streak of daylight. Now you fellows turn in and I'll sit here and figure things out a little."

Bert and Tom vigorously protested that they would take turns in watching, but he waved them off with a good humor that still had in it a touch of finality.

"Not a bit of it," he said. "More than once I've gone days and nights together without a wink of sleep, and felt none the worse for it. I'm a tough old knot, but you young fellows have got to have your sleep. Besides, I've got a lot of things I want to think out before morning."

Under his kindly but forceful persistence, there was nothing else to be done without offending him, and he had done too much for them not to have his way in this. So, under protest, they stretched their weary bodies on the rude couch they had prepared. At first their minds were so full of anxious thoughts about Dick that it seemed as though they couldn't sleep. But old nature had her way with them and before long they were lost in the sleep of utter exhaustion.

"Mighty lucky I stopped that fool tongue of mine in time," mused Melton, as he looked at their tired faces, "or there would have been no sleep for them this night."

For it was a gruesome story that the consul had told him that afternoon. A fearful reckoning would be demanded of the "Tiger" at the day of judgment. A more villainous character could not be found in the length and breadth of Mexico. Awful tales were told of him and others more horrible could not be told. That he was a robber and murderer went without saying. Every bandit chief was that. Those were mere everyday incidents of the "profession." But the evil preeminence of the Tiger lay in his love of torture for its own sake. He reveled in blood and tears. He was a master of devilish ingenuity. The shrieks of the victims were his sweetest music.

He was, morally, a cross between an Apache Indian and a Chinese executioner. There were whispers of babies roasted in ovens, of children tortured before the eyes of bound and helpless parents until the latter became raving maniacs, of eyes gouged out and noses cut off and faces carved until they were only a frightful caricature of humanity. His band was composed of scoundrels almost as hardened as himself and with them he held all the nearby country in terror. Rewards were out for his capture dead or alive, but he laughed at pursuers and so far had thwarted all the plans of the Government troops.

And this was the man into whose hands Dick had fallen. The boys had wondered why the bandit, if he meant to kill Dick at all had not done so at once. Melton shook with rage as he thought that perhaps he knew the reason. Perhaps at this very moment —

But such thoughts unmanned one, and, hoping that Providence would prove kinder than his fears, he resolutely turned his mind in other channels.

And there was plenty to think about. He had been engaged in many dare-devil adventures in his varied life, but, as he admitted to himself with a smile half grave, half whimsical, there were few that he remembered so desperate as this. He did not underrate the enemy. Like most Western men, he had a contempt for "greasers," but he knew that it was not safe to carry that contempt too far. An American, to be sure, might tackle two or three Mexicans and have a fair chance of coming out winner, but when the odds were greater than that his chances were poor. But in this case the odds would probably be ten to one or more. Then, too, these were men whose lives were forfeit to the law – double-dyed murderers who could look for nothing but a "short shrift and a long rope" if they were captured. They would fight with the fierceness of cornered rats. Moreover, they would be on the defensive and in a country where they knew every foot of ground and could seize every advantage. Altogether the outlook was grave, and it speaks volumes for the character of the man that his spirits rose with danger and he would have been bitterly disappointed if he were cheated of the promised fight.

Absorbed in his thoughts, the night passed quickly, and as the first ray of light shot across the eastern sky, he roused the boys from slumber.

"Time to get a move on," he announced cheerily. "A bite of grub and we'll be off. The horses can make better time in the cool of the morning, and if we have any luck we may strike those fellows before they've had time to get the sleep out of their eyes."

His energy found an echo in that of the boys, and in a few minutes their meagre breakfast had been despatched, the horses saddled and they had hit the trail.

The path wound steadily upward. It was too narrow for them to ride abreast, and Melton rode in advance, scanning the road with the eye of a hawk. Three hours passed, and just as they were nearing the top of the plateau, the leader suddenly stopped. With uplifted hand to enjoin silence, he turned into the dense forest at the side of the path and dismounted. Bert and Tom followed suit.

"I smell smoke," Melton whispered. "There's a campfire not far off."

And as a vagrant breeze strayed toward them, the boys, too, sniffed the unmistakable odor of smoke.

"Of course," went on Melton in a low tone, "it's no sure thing that this comes from the camp of the fellows we're after. But all the chances lie that way. We'll tie our horses here and go ahead on foot. See that your guns are handy and don't step on any loose twigs."

A moment later and the bronchos were securely tied, and, silent as ghosts, they crept up the woodland path.

CHAPTER IV
THE CAPTURED SENTRY

They had wormed their way through the thick undergrowth for perhaps three hundred feet, when Melton, who was in the van, paused abruptly and gave a sign of caution. Then he beckoned the boys to come nearer.

"They've got a sentry posted here," he whispered, "I'd hoped they'd be too careless or too drunk to do it. Look over there a little to the right."

They peered through the bushes and saw, sitting on a tree stump, a Mexican, carrying a carbine, slung in the hollow of his arm. His back was toward them at the moment, but even while they gazed, he lazily rose and turned around, so that they caught a full view of his face. It was a rascally face that left no doubt in their minds that he was one of the bandit crew. A long knife was thrust in his belt, and he looked like an ugly customer to tackle in a fight. His small, piglike eyes looked listlessly about, and then, seeing no sign of danger, he reseated himself, and taking a flask from his pocket, applied it to his lips.

At a glance from Melton, they retreated as noiselessly as they had advanced, and not until they had gotten beyond earshot, did they stop for consultation as to their next move.

Bert and Tom felt their hearts beating high with excitement, but Melton was as cool and impassive as though he were seated on the veranda of his ranch.

While they waited for him to speak, he drew from its sheath a long double-edged bowie knife and fingered it thoughtfully.

"It's a long time since I've done it," he mused. "I wonder if I can do it now. I'll try it out first."

Rising, he went over to a tree about fifty feet away. At a height of six feet from the ground, he cut out a circle of bark, about the size of a saucer. The white patch stood out in strong contrast to the rest of the tree. Returning to the boys, who had looked on puzzled at his action, he planted himself solidly and took the bowie by the blade. A moment he stood thus, measuring the distance. Then he raised the weapon and hurled it at the bark. It whizzed through the air in a gleam of light, and struck two inches inside the circle, where it hung quivering. It was a marvelous bit of knife play, and Bert and Tom could hardly repress an exclamation.

"That's all I wanted to know," muttered Melton, as he came back, after pulling the knife from the tree and restoring it to its sheath. "It's a little trick that has saved my life once or twice before on the plains, and I wanted to make sure that I hadn't forgotten. I guess if I could hit that circle, I could do for the Mexican.

"For as you boys may imagine," he went on, "I wasn't doing this thing for pastime. We've got to get that sentinel out of the way. Of course, it would be an easy thing to wing him with a bullet. But that makes a noise and probably the camp is not far off. Our only chance lies in taking them by surprise. If they once get wind of our coming we'll have as much chance as a celluloid dog chasing an asbestos cat through Hades. I'd rather take this fellow alive if we could, for we might be able to get some valuable information from him. But I'm afraid he'd let out a yell or shoot off his gun before we could get to him. I guess we'll have to depend on this little persuader," he concluded, as he put his hand on the shaft of the knife.

Bert had been thinking rapidly.

"Couldn't we save that as a last resort?" he ventured. "I think that perhaps I might creep up on that fellow without his seeing me."

"But how?" asked Melton in surprise. "You'd have to be as quick as a coyote and as light as a cat to do it. What's your idea?"

"Why," replied Bert, "I figure that we might go back to the place where we first saw him. You can see from the listless way he looked around that he isn't really on the alert. Then too, he's drinking. If we find that he's facing our way, I'll make a circuit and get back of him. Then at the right second I'll make my dash. He probably won't hear me until I get close to him, and then he'll be so paralyzed, what with the surprise and the drink, that I'll have my hands on his throat before he can make a sound. In the meantime, you keep him covered with your knife, and if he sees me too soon you can let fly."

Melton, a man used to quick decisions, spent only a moment weighing the pros and cons, looking keenly at Bert the while. What he saw seemed to satisfy him.

"It's a plucky stunt," he said, "but you're the lad to do it if any one can. I'd sure like to make that fellow talk before he goes over the great divide. Come along."

Noiselessly, they reached their former point of observation. The sentinel still sat there facing their way. The flask was in his hand and they could see from the way he tilted it that it was nearly empty. His carbine stood with its butt on the ground and the muzzle resting against the stump. Crouching low in the thicket, Melton drew his knife from its sheath, his eye gauging the distance. Bert, who had shed his coat and shoes, with a parting pat from Tom, made a wide circuit to the left, creeping along with his body close to the ground and scarcely daring to breathe. Once a twig cracked beneath his hand and his heart seemed to stop beating. But no sound came from the unsuspecting sentry, and after a moment's pause he went on. Soon he reached a point about a hundred feet in the rear of the Mexican, and behind the shelter of a huge tree rose slowly to his feet.

For forty feet the undergrowth was thick enough to conceal him. But then came the little clearing where for sixty feet no concealment was possible. He did not dare to tiptoe over it, because, if he were seen he could not get under way fast enough to reach his quarry. It must be a lightning dash. Once he had run a hundred yards – three hundred feet – in ten seconds flat. That would give him three seconds or less to cross the clearing. But a bullet could travel faster still. He drew a long breath and then, as lightly and swiftly as a panther, he leaped over the intervening space.

He had covered half the distance when the sentry heard him and sprang to his feet. For the fraction of a second he stood, petrified with surprise and fright. Then he reached for his carbine, but as though realizing that he could not level it in time, he abandoned that idea and snatched at his knife. And just then Bert launched himself on him like a thunderbolt.

Down they went fighting like wildcats. They rolled over and over. Bert's hands were on the rascal's throat and he could not utter a cry. But his knife was out and upraised to strike, when Tom, who with Melton had rushed from the bushes the moment the clash had come, grasped the uplifted hand and wrenched it until the knife fell to the ground. Another instant, and the scoundrel, bound with his own belt and gagged with a portion of the serape torn from his shoulders, was sitting huddled up on the ground, with his back against the stump, while baffled rage and hate glowed from his wicked eyes.

"Good work, my boy, good work," said Melton, as he grasped Bert's hand warmly. "You tackled that fellow like a ton of brick. I never saw a prettier rough house than that was for a minute. Now get your breath back while I try to get this fellow to listen to reason. I know this breed of cattle pretty well and I have a hunch that it won't be long before we understand each other."

He drew out his bowie knife and felt its edge, while the prisoner looked on with a growing terror in his eyes.

Melton reached down and grabbing the fellow by the collar jerked him to his feet.

"Now, listen," he said, in the mongrel blending of English and Mexican that is understood on both sides of the border. "You're going to be a dead man in one minute if you don't tell me the truth. Sabe?"

Melton's eyes were like two lambent flames, and as the fellow looked into them, he wilted like a rag. He nodded his head eagerly as a sign that he would tell all he knew.

"I guessed as much," said Melton, grimly, as he turned to the boys. "These dogs would betray their own brother to save their miserable carcass. Untie that gag, and I'll turn him inside out until I get from him all he knows."

He placed the point of his bowie at the brigand's throat, and held it there while the boys removed the gag.

"One yip from you, and this knife goes in up to the hilt," said Melton.

"Now tell me how far away your camp is from here."

"About a mile," replied the man, sullenly.

"What is the name of your captain?"

"El Tigre," was the answer, and the fellow shivered as he mentioned that redoubtable flame.

"How many men has he with him?" was the next question.

The bandit did not know exactly. There had been fifty or more, but a dozen or so had been sent on an expedition late last night. Maybe there were thirty or forty there now. He could not tell for sure.

The knife pricked sharply, and the fellow went down on his knees in an agony of terror, and swore by all his saints that he was telling all he knew. Why should he lie to the senor? The senor might kill him, but what he was saying was the truth.

"Get up," said Melton, disgustedly, for the cowardice of the cringing creature sickened him. "Now tell me what captives were in the camp and what your chief intends to do with them."

There were two captives there just now. One of them was a Chinaman, who had been taken in a raid on a hacienda, down in the valley. The other was an Americano, who had been surprised yesterday, when he came upon the band, just as they were getting ready to go away into the mountains. Three days ago there had been seven prisoners, but now – . The rascal made an expressive gesture that told only too clearly what had become of the miserable seven, and Melton had need of all his self-control not to end his prisoner's worthless life then and there, while Bert and Tom grew pale as they thought of Dick.

By an effort they restrained themselves, and the questioning went on. The bandit did not know what his chief intended to do. He rather thought that very morning the Chinaman would be put out of the way. But the young Americano, so cool, so brave – he did not know. El Tigre had seemed to be puzzled about him. The chief had been drinking hard and was very ugly. Yes, that was all he knew, and if the senor were to kill him, he swore on the head of his father that he had told nothing but the truth.

At a sign from Melton, the boys replaced the gag. They had drained him dry of information, and now they knew the work that was cut out for them. They dragged him into the thick underbrush and tied him to a tree. Then with a parting prick from the bowie, and a threat of instant death, if he sought to release himself before their return, they braced themselves for the task before them.

"It's up to us, my lads," said Melton, as he carefully examined his weapons to see that they were in prime condition, while Bert and Tom followed his example. "The next half hour will probably tell the story. We're in for a lovely scrap, and we'll have that friend of yours with us when we come back, or we'll never come back at all."

A keen sense of elation thrilled Bert and Tom, as they fell in behind the old frontiersman, and followed him in Indian file up the path. The sickening suspense was over. The storm was about to break. Waiting was to be replaced by action. A few minutes more and they were to be battling for Dick's life and their own. The primeval man had broken through the veneer of civilization, and their nerves were tingling with longing for the fight.

For ten minutes they went on at a rapid pace. Then the sounds of the camp fell upon their ears, and they crept on with caution. They could hear oaths, interspersed with drunken laughter, and the stamping of horses. Abandoning the path, they vanished into, the thick undergrowth, and now on hands and knees drew near the clearing. Reaching its edge, they peered through the bushes, and saw a sight that froze the blood in their veins.

CHAPTER V
A FIENDISH TORTURE

It was long after dark on the day of Dick's capture, when the guerillas reached their camp. Familiar as they were with every inch of the way, they had gone on as rapidly after sunset as before, and only drew rein when they had reached the clearing. Dick was lifted from the broncho, and the bonds removed from his hands and feet. He suffered torments as the blood rushed back into his cramped members, but at least he was comparatively free to move about, and before long he had recovered from the physical effects of his long and exhausting ride.

His mind also had regained its serenity and poise. He was cool and calm to a degree that surprised even himself. The first shock was over. He had already tasted of the bitterness of death. In those long hours, he had fought the battle in his own heart and conquered. Now he was ready for whatever might befall. From this time on, no chance either of life or death could disturb him. He was prepared for either. But his keen eyes and trained senses were on the alert to take advantage of any slip on the part of his captors, and he was determined to sell his life dearly. If they took it, they should at least pay for it.

Pedro, who seemed to be the captain's righthand man, led the way to a ragged tent, of which there were perhaps a dozen in the clearing. Inside was a rude bed of boughs covered by an old saddle blanket. A wooden bench was the only other item of furniture, while a smoky pine torch, thrust into the cleft of a stump, gave a dismal light. Three of the bandits were stationed as a guard at the door of the tent, while two others were placed at the back. It was evident that the chief was taking no chances. They left his hands unbound, while he ate the meal of frijoles and tortillas that was presently brought to him, but when he had finished, his hands were again tied, though not so tightly as before, while his feet were secured to a stake, driven into the ground at the foot of the bed. Thus fastened, he could sit or lie on the bed, but could not move about. This done, they left him for a while to his reflections.

Outside, the camp was given up to boisterous hilarity. The bandits had ridden hard and far that day, and they were enjoying the sense of rest and relaxation that comes after a day in the saddle. Their horses were picketed in rows on the edge of the clearing, while their masters sat around a huge fire and sought diversion after the manner of their kind. Games of cards and dice were in progress, and bottles of mescal passed from hand to hand. The growing drunkenness led rapidly to quarrels, and, in one of the groups, a stabbing affray was only averted by the coming of El Tigre on the scene. The noise ceased like magic and the knives were replaced in their sheaths, while the revelers tried to slink out of the sight of their dreaded master. He glared at the brawlers for a moment, but his mind was on something else just then, and, lifting the flap of Dick's tent, he stepped inside.



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