J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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He had expected to find an anxious, excited, agonized prisoner. He stopped, nonplussed. Stretched out on his bed, Dick was sleeping as peacefully as a baby. Not a trace of fear or worry was visible on the strong, handsome face. It was a novel experience – this sort of disdainful defiance – to the monster whose name was a Synonym of terror over all that district.

"These cursed Americanos," he muttered. "Where do they get their courage? And those eyes – the first that ever looked into mine without falling. I swore to myself this morning that I'd pluck them out of his head. But I've thought of something better since," he mused, while a devilish grin spread over his face, "and I'll let him keep them until he sees what I'll have ready for him in the morning."

He was about to rouse the sleeper with a vicious kick, but thought better of it.

"No," he growled, "let him sleep. He'll be in better condition in the morning, and it will make his dying harder and longer." And with a last venomous look, he left the tent and its sleeping occupant, and went to his own quarters.

The camp wore a festal air the next morning. There was a general atmosphere of eager expectation. It was evident that something unusual was afoot. The fellow that brought in Dick's breakfast looked at him with a covert interest, as though he were to be an important actor in a drama for which the stage was being set. Had Dick known as much as Melton had learned of the hideous fame of his captor, he might have divined sooner the nature of these preparations. He had slept soundly, and the freshness and brightness of the morning had given him new hopes. The food served him was very good and abundant, and he did not know why, just as he was finishing it, the thought came to him of the especially good breakfast served to condemned men on the morning of their execution. He brushed the thought away from him, and just then Pedro appeared at the door of the ten, accompanied by a half dozen of his mates.

He untied the prisoner's feet, and Dick arose and stretched himself.

"Come," growled Pedro, and they went out into the open space between the tents.

The fresh air fanned his forehead gratefully and he breathed it in in great draughts. On a morning like this, it was good just to be alive.

He cast a glance around, and saw at once that something out of the ordinary was about to take place. The entire population of the camp was on the scene. Instead of sprawling in haphazard fashion on the ground, the bandits were in an attitude of alert attention. The dreaded leader sat in the center of the clearing, his eyes alight with an unholy flame. He rose, as Dick approached, with a guard holding his arm on either side, and made him a sweeping bow of mock politeness.

"It is good of the senor to honor us with his presence, this morning," he said in fairly good English – in his early years he had been a cattle rustler in Arizona – "but I fear we can offer little for his amusement.

In fact, we shall have to depend on the senor himself to entertain us. Is the senor, by any chance, a snake charmer?"

"Look here," said Dick, fiercely, "what's your game, anyway? You've got my money and watch and clothes. Now, what more do you want?"

"What more?" echoed El Tigre, softly. "Why, only a very little thing. I want your life."

The last words were fairly hissed. All the mock courtesy dropped away, and he stood revealed in his true character as a gloating fiend, his hideous features working with hate.

That face maddened Dick. With a sudden movement, he threw off the guard on either side, took one leap forward, and his fist shot out like a catapult. It caught the sneering face square between the eyes, and the chief went down with a crash. In an instant, Dick's sinewy hands were on his throat and choking out his life.

But now the bandit crew, roused from their stupefaction, rushed forward, and overpowered him by sheer force of numbers. They dragged him from the prostrate form of the guerilla, and tied him to a tree close to the bushes, on the very edge of the clearing. The Tiger's face was bleeding from the smashing blow, when his followers raised him to his feet, and his rage was fearful to behold. He drew his knife and was about to rush on Dick, when the sight of two of his men, coming into the clearing with a bag between them, reminded him of his original purpose. By a mighty effort he restrained himself, but the ferocity of his face was appalling.

Dick, too, looked at the bag, as the men laid it on the ground. It was moving. Moving not sharply or briskly, as it might, had it held fowls or rabbits, but with a horrid, crawling, sinuous motion. A cold sweat broke out all over him. Now he knew what the Tiger had meant, when he asked him if he were by any chance a snake charmer.

A word from the chief, and two men came forward, holding forked sticks. A third slit the bag with his knife from top to bottom. From the gaping rent, two monster rattlesnakes rolled out. But before they could coil to strike, each was pinned to the ground by the forked stick, pressed down close behind the head. They writhed and twisted frantically, but to no purpose. Then another man bent down and drove his knife through the tail of each, just above the rattles. Through the wound he passed a thong of buckskin and looped it on the under side. Then, in each case, the other end of the thong was fastened securely to a stake, driven into the ground. When the work was done, a distance of ten yards separated the two stakes, and before each was a twisting reptile, wild with rage and pain. A man stood in front at a safe distance and held out a stick, teasingly. The snake flung itself to its full length, and the distance it could reach was carefully measured. Then, some inches beyond this furthest point, other stakes were drawn in rude outline of the form of a man. Near the buckskin thongs, men were stationed, with gourds full of water.

And now the stage was fully set for the tragedy. The audience was waiting. It was time for the actors to appear and the play begin.

El Tigre looked curiously at Dick. The latter's heart was beating tumultuously, but he met the scoundrel's gaze with calm defiance. He even smiled scornfully, as he stared at the battered lace, bleeding yet from his blow of a few minutes before. The significance of that smile lashed the bandit's soul into fury.

"I'll break him yet," he swore to himself. "He shall beg for mercy before he dies."

Then he said, aloud: "I was going to let the senor go first, but I have changed my mind. He is smiling now, and he shall have a longer time to enjoy himself."

He turned and spoke to some of his followers, and they went to a nearby tent, from which they emerged a moment later, bringing with them a Chinaman, whose yellow face was ghastly with fear. As the poor wretch looked around at the awful preparations, and realized that he was doomed, he threw himself down before the chief and tried to embrace his knees. El Tigre spurned him with his foot.

"Tie him down," he commanded, briefly.

They bore the unhappy man to the stakes, threw him down and bound him so tightly to them that he could not move. He was fastened in such a way that his face lay on one side, looking toward the snake a few feet away. The reptile coiled and sprang for the face, missing it by a few inches. Several times this was repeated. The horror of that wicked head and those dripping fangs darting towards one's face was insupportable, and shriek followed shriek from the tortured victim. Still, the snake could not actually reach him, and if the thong held – But now the man with the gourd poured a little water on the thong.

And the thong began to stretch.

The whole hideous deviltry of it struck Dick like a blow. Already he could see that the snake's head went a trifle nearer with every spring. And still the water kept dripping. In a few minutes more, the fangs would meet in the victim's face.

And it was his turn next. He, too, must face that grisly horror. Death in its most loathsome form was beckoning. His brain reeled, but, by a tremendous effort, he steeled himself to meet his fate. He would —

"Dick!"

What was that?

"Dick!"

Was that Bert's voice, or was he going insane? "Don't move, old man," came a whisper from behind the tree. "It's Bert. I've cut the rope that holds you until it hangs by a thread. The least movement will snap it. Let your hand hang down, and I'll slip you a revolver. Jump, when you get the word. We're going to rush the camp."

The reaction from despair to hope was so violent, that Dick could scarcely hold the weapon that was thrust into his hand. But as he felt the cold steel, his grip tightened on the stock, and he was himself again. Now at least he had a chance to fight for his life.

The snake was getting nearer to its victim's face. The last spring had all but grazed it. All eyes were fixed upon it, as it coiled again. Its waving head stood high above its folds, as it prepared to launch itself. And just then a bowie knife whizzed through the air and sliced its head from its body. The next instant, a rain of bullets swept the clearing, and Melton, Bert, and Tom burst from the woods, firing as they came.

CHAPTER VI
THE EXECUTION OF EL TIGRE

With a quick jerk, Dick snapped the rope that held him and rushed toward his comrades. He ranged himself alongside, and his revolver barked in unison with theirs.

The surprise had been complete. At the first shot, the bandits had leaped to their feet, and with wild yells scattered in every direction. Most of them had left their arms in their tents, and had nothing but their knives to defend them from attack. And these were wholly insufficient weapons, with which to meet the little band that flung themselves so recklessly upon them. For all they knew, they might be the vanguard of a force many times stronger, and they fled in wild confusion.

The guerilla chief was the only one who kept his head. He drew a revolver from his belt and returned shot for shot. He backed up slowly in the direction of his hut. With his eyes on the enemy in front, he had forgotten that the second snake was right behind him. He slipped on the slimy folds, and, the next instant, the enraged reptile struck at one of his hands as he attempted to rise. A burning pain shot through his index finger. He shook off the clinging snake, and, jumping upon it, stamped its head into pulp. Then he drew his knife and slashed his finger to the bone. The next instant he had reached his hut and slammed the door behind him.

The whole thing had happened in the twinkling of an eye. A dozen of the guerillas lay dead or wounded on the ground. The odds had been reduced with a vengeance, but they were still heavy. The attackers had played their trump card – that of the surprise. It had taken a trick, but the game was not yet over. No one knew this better than the old frontiersman. They had emptied their revolvers.

"Back to the woods," he shouted, "and reload."

Waiting only to recover his bowie and slash the bonds of the Chinaman, who lay there more dead than alive, he led the way. Soon they were under cover, and not till then did Dick throw his arms around Bert and Tom, in a hug that almost made their bones crack. Then he shook hands with Melton, with a fervor that made that hardy hero wince.

"I can never tell you," began Dick, and then he choked.

"You don't have to," returned Melton, gruffly, to conceal his own deep feeling, while Bert and Tom, in the grip of strong emotion, could only pat Dick's arms, without speaking; "It's nothing that any white man wouldn't do for another. Besides, we're not yet out of the woods. Those fellows will get their nerve back in a minute or two, and then look out for trouble. They've probably guessed by this time how few we are, and they'll be wild to get back at us. That leader of theirs is a beast all right, but he's no coward. The way he cut that poison out of his flesh shows that. Load your guns quick, and each get behind a big tree. Have your knives ready too, if it comes to close quarters."

"But you're wounded," cried Dick, as he saw a little trickle of blood from Melton's left shoulder.

"Only a scratch," laughed Melton; "the chief winged me there with his last shot. That's one I owe him and I always pay my debts. Just twist your handkerchief about it, and then we'll forget it."

It proved to be, as he said, only a graze, and they returned to their attitude of strained attention.

In the meantime, the Chinaman had come hobbling out to them, and in his hollow eyes there was a speechless gratitude that made them know that he was their slave for life. He was of no value as a reinforcement, and after having settled him in the shelter of a huge tree, they peered from behind their cover for some sign of the expected foe.

Five – ten – twenty minutes passed, and nothing happened. The waiting was more nerve racking than the actual combat. The only sound that broke the stillness was the groans of the wounded, as they crawled into and behind their tents. It would have been an easy thing to finish the work, but none of them could fire on a helpless man, even though a murderer and an outlaw. They had put them out of the running, and that was enough.

Then suddenly, just as they began to think that after all the bandits had decamped, came a volley of bullets that pattered among the leaves and thudded into the trees.

"I was sure of it," muttered Melton. "Keep close under cover," he commanded, "and make every shot tell."

Even as he spoke, his rifle cracked, and a crouching figure rose with a yell, and lurched heavily forward on his face.

"One less," he grunted, "but there's still a mighty lot of them left."

The shots that had been more or less scattered now grew into a fusillade. It was evident that the fighting was being intelligently directed, and that the bandits were regaining confidence. Melton and the boys shot coolly and carefully whenever they saw a head or an arm exposed, and the yells that followed the shot told that the bullet had found its mark. But there seemed no let up in the enemy's volleys, and what made Melton more uneasy than anything else was that the zone of fire was steadily widening. His long experience told him unerringly that the foe was trying to surround them. If his little band had to face four ways at once, it would go hard with them.

Suddenly he felt a touch on his arm. He looked up and saw the Chinaman.

The latter pointed down the road.

"Men coming," he said. "Blig lots of men. Horses too."

Melton sprang to his feet. Sure enough, there were horsemen coming up the road. Was it a detachment of the guerilla band returning? Were they to be taken by fresh forces in the rear? He grabbed Bert by the shoulder.

"Here," he said, "face around with me. You other fellows stay as you are."

They crouched low with their eyes on the road. The tramp of hoofs became louder and the jingle of spurs and accoutrements fell upon their ears. Then their hearts leaped, as round the curve, riding hard, swept a squad of Mexican cavalry, fully a hundred in number, their brilliant uniforms glittering in the sunlight. With a wild hurrah and waving their hands, they rushed forward to meet them.

There was a hasty movement among the front ranks, as though to repel an assault, but as they saw how few they were and realized the absence of hostile intentions, their carbines were lowered and the captain in command swung himself to the ground.

He was a young, well set up, soldierly looking man, and it took only a

moment for him to grasp the situation, as it was rapidly sketched out by

Melton. He had been educated in the Mexican military school and spoke

English fluently.

"How large a force have you?" he asked.

"Here they are," replied Melton, with a wave of his hand.

"What!" the officer gasped in amazement. "You don't mean to say that with only four men, you attacked El Tigre and his band. It was suicide."

"Well," laughed Melton, "it hasn't come to that yet, but I'm not denying that things are getting too warm for comfort. The rascals would have had us surrounded in a little while, and I'm mighty glad you've come."

"You've done wonders," rejoined the captain, "but now you can rest on your arms, while I clear out this nest of hornets."

"Not a bit of it," replied Melton. "We're going to be in at the death."

"You stubborn Americanos," laughed the captain. "So be it then. You've certainly earned the right to have your way in this."

His dispositions were quickly taken. At the word of command, his troopers dismounted and tethered their horses. Then they deployed in a long line across the woods. A bugle blew the charge, and with a rousing cheer they rushed up the slope and across the clearing. A volley of bullets met them and several of them went down, but the rest kept on without a pause. Their carbines cracked without cessation, and one outlaw after the other fell, until not more than fifteen were left. These last were gathered in a corner of the camp, where under the leadership of El Tigre, who fought with a fury worthy of his name, they made their last despairing stand.

But their hour had come. The blood of their victims was at last to be avenged. One final charge, and the troops swept over them. The guerilla chief, seeing that all was lost, lifted his revolver with the last bullet left, and put it to his head to blow out his brains. He had always boasted that he would never be taken alive. But just as his finger was on the trigger, Dick, who, with his friends, had been in the forefront of the fight, knocked his hand aside and bore him to the ground. In another second, he was tightly bound and the fight was over. With four of his band, the only survivors, he was put under guard, and left to await the pleasure of his captors.

Then at last, they drew breath. The work was done and well done. Dick was with them, safe and sound, and none the worse for his terrible experience. The band which had been the scourge of that distracted country had been practically wiped out, and the leader, who for so long had defied God and man, was a prisoner, awaiting his fate. What that fate would be no one could doubt, who knew how richly he merited death.

"I suppose," said Dick, as they sat a little apart from the others taking lunch with the captain of the troop, at his invitation, "that he'll be taken to Montillo for trial."

"Guess again," chuckled Melton, who knew something of the methods of the

Mexican Government in dealing with guerillas.

"My orders were to take no prisoners," smiled the captain, and there was a meaning in his smile that boded ill for the remnant of the bandit crew.

"And, of course, I must obey my orders," he added drily. "The more readily," he went on, as his face grew dark, "because there is a private score that I have to settle with this scoundrel. The blood of my younger brother is on his hands. You can guess then, senors, whether I was glad, when I was trusted on this mission."

"Are they to be shot, then?" ventured Bert.

"All but the leader," answered the captain. "He must hang. And yet he shall not die by hanging."

Before they could ask an explanation, he rose and excused himself, as he had to give some orders to the soldiers, and they were left to ponder in vain for his meaning.

The next two hours were spent in clearing up the camp and burying the dead. The bodies of the guerillas were thrown hastily into a narrow trench, but those of the soldiers received full military honors, the bugler playing taps, and a salvo of musketry being fired over the graves. In the meantime the boys had wandered over the camp, now shorn of the terror that had so long been connected with it. On the upper end, it terminated at the very brink of a precipice. All of Mexico seemed to be stretched out before them. The abyss fell sheer down for a thousand feet to the rocks below. They shuddered as they stood on the edge and looked through the empty space. On the brink stood a mighty oak tree, with one of its limbs overhanging the chasm.

A sudden recollection struck Melton.

"This must be the place the consul told me about, in one of his stories," he ejaculated. "He told me that one of the Tiger's favorite amusements was to bring a prisoner here and prod him with bayonets over the brink. I guess," he scowled, "we don't need to waste much sympathy on that fellow, no matter what the captain does to him."

And the boys, with a lively recollection of the snake and the buckskin thong, agreed with him.

But now the bugle blew and they hurried back to the clearing. The troop stood at attention. Routine work connected with the raid had been despatched, and the time had come for the military execution. Martial law is brief and stern, and, under his instructions, the captain had the power of life or death without appeal. His face was set and solemn, as befitted one on whom weighed so heavy a responsibility, but there was no relenting in his voice, as he bade a sergeant to bring out the prisoners.

The four came out, sullen and apathetic. He looked them over for a moment, and then gave a sign. A trench was hastily dug and the prisoners placed with their backs to it. Their eyes were bandaged. A firing squad of a dozen men advanced to within ten feet and leveled their rifles. A moment's pause, then a sharp word of command, and death leaped from the guns. When the smoke cleared away, four motionless forms lay in the trench, and justice had been done.



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