J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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"Don't bury them yet," commanded the captain. "Bring out El Tigre."

There was a stir among the soldiers, as the dreaded chief, whose evil fame was known all over Mexico, was brought before the captain. He was harmless enough now. All his power had been stripped away, and all that remained to him was his one redeeming quality of courage. He had heard the firing, and, as he came from the tent, he passed close by the bodies of his former followers. Doubtless the same fate awaited him, but he did not waver, and his hideous face expressed only the bitterest venom and malignity. If hate could kill, it would have blasted Dick, as for a moment the bandit caught sight of him, in passing. Then he faced his judge, who was also to be his executioner.

"Do you know me, El Tigre?" asked the Captain.

The outlaw glared at him.

"No," he snarled.

"Do you remember the boy you captured on that raid in the San Joaquin valley, three months ago?"

"What of him?"

"He was my brother."

The guerilla shot a swift glance at him.

"Carramba," he muttered. Then after an instant's silence. "Yes, I remember. He was great sport. He died hard. It was very amusing. Yes, he died hard."

If his object was to provoke instant death, he almost succeeded. The captain's eyes flamed and he snatched a revolver from his belt. But he saw the stratagem in time and by a great effort held himself in check. The flush faded from his face, to be succeeded by a deadly pallor.

"El Tigre," he said slowly, "the earth is weary of you and the devil is waiting for you. I shall not keep him waiting long. Take him up to the oak," he commanded, pointing to the great tree on the edge of the precipice.

The soldiers fell into line and the procession started.

When they halted under its branches, the hands and feet of the outlaw were securely tied. Then a soldier climbed into the tree, and far out on the branch that overhung the chasm. At a distance of twenty feet, he fastened a stout rope. Then he crept back, and, making a noose in the other end, took his stand beside the prisoner and waited for orders.

The ghastly preparations were telling on the nerve of the guerilla, and he broke into a string of the wildest blasphemies. Without paying any attention to his ravings, the soldier at a signal, slipped the noose over his head. But instead of tightening it about the neck, as most of the lookers on, as well as the prisoner himself, expected, he adroitly drew it down to the waist, and thence up under the outlaw's arms. Then he pulled it tight. Four men took hold of El Tigre's arms and legs, bore him to the edge of the precipice, and pushed him off into space.

Like a giant pendulum, he swung out in a great arc, and then, returning, almost reached the brink. Gradually the arc grew shorter, until he swayed perpendicularly from the branch. Below, he could see the rocks at the foot of the cliff. The bones of many of his victims already reposed there.

How long before he would join them? Was he to be left hanging there as a feast for the carrion birds? Wherever he looked was torture. Below, the rocks. Above, the vultures. In front, the enemies whom he hated with all the passion of his soul.

Ah! A firing squad was coming forward. They were going to shoot him then, after all. Good! Death would be welcome. He heard the roar of the guns, and still he was alive. Could they have missed him? Then another volley rang out. Still he lived. He could not understand. His glance went aloft. The rope was sagging. He could feel it give. A broken strand brushed against his face. And then he understood.

They were firing at the rope!

A panic terror seized him. He had reached the limit of human endurance. Again the shots, and a trembling that told him that the rope was hit. He tried to struggle upward. If he could only ease his weight. He stretched his bound hands aloft in a hopeless effort to climb up to the branch. He no longer dared to look below. Another volley and a sound of tearing. He drew in a long breath as though it would buoy him up. His feet felt about for something to rest on and relieve the strain. And still he could hear the crackling and feel the yielding and once more the guns rang out and the rope broke. With curses on his lips and delirium in his heart, he fell. Once he turned over in his awful flight. Then, a mere atom in that immensity of space, he shot like a plummet to the rocks below.

CHAPTER VII
OFF FOR PANAMA

It had been a day of tremendous strain from start to finish, and there was a general sigh of relief, as they gathered up their traps and prepared to leave the camp. Not since their fight with the pirates, had the boys had a closer "shave." It had been a case of touch and go, and they had barely escaped with their lives. But they had won out, after all, and, as Tom said, "a miss was as good as a mile." And their hearts warmed at the sense of comradeship, that had once again been tested to the limit and proved equal to the emergency. They had risked their lives for each other, and the "fortune that favors the brave" had not deserted them.

For Melton, their feeling was too deep for words. His was a heart of gold. Without the slightest personal end to be served, and prompted solely by his great, big, generous soul, he had come to their aid in the moment of deepest need, and fought shoulder to shoulder, in their effort to save their friend. Again and again they sought to voice their thanks, but the hardy old frontiersman would have none of it.

"Cut it out, boys," he laughed. "I didn't do a thing that you wouldn't have done for me, if you knew that an American was in trouble. Some day perhaps, you can pay me back, if you insist on considering it a debt. I only hope, if I ever do get in a scrape, I'll have some young fellows of your brand behind me."

As none of them could read the future, they did not know that there was a touch of prophecy in his words, and that the time was coming, when, in his own native Rockies, the boys would pay the debt with interest.

From the loot found in the hut of the bandit chief, Dick had recovered his watch and money and clothes, and declared that he felt like a human being again for the first time since he had been trapped by the guerilla band on the morning before.

They shuddered, as, on their way through the camp, they passed the bodies of the snakes, still tethered to the posts. They lay, quiet enough now, like the human fiend whose venom had been as dangerous as their own.

"The snakes and the Tiger," mused Bert. "They both lost out."

But now the cavalry were mounted and ready for the start. The horses of the guerillas had been released from their hobbles, and were led by ropes behind a number of the soldiers. One was assigned to Dick, while Melton and the boys mounted three, that they were to use temporarily, until they had recovered their own that had been left further down the trail.

As they were gathering up the reins, Bert felt a touch on his leg. He looked down and saw the Chinaman, who in the hurry of preparation had been overlooked.

"Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "The Chink! We forgot all about him."

The poor fellow's eyes were full of dread at the thought of being left alone in the wilderness.

"Of course we'll take you along, John," Bert continued, "though I don't know what on earth we'll do with you. But we'll settle that later on."

Dismounting, he gave the Chinaman a leg up on one of the led horses. The Oriental had never been on a horse in his life, and he made a comical figure, as he bobbed up and down. After threatening to fall off at any moment, he finally abandoned all effort to sit upright, and, leaning forward, threw he arms around the horse's neck and held on for his life.

"It's rather hard lines," laughed Dick. "But when he thinks of what he's getting away from, I guess he won't worry much about getting shaken up a little."

Soon they reached their own horses, and were proceeding to make the exchange, when they remembered the sentry who had been captured on that spot. They looked at each other with a little touch of perplexity.

"We can't leave him there to starve," said Tom. "On the other hand, if we remind the captain, he'll simply send one of his troopers to put a bullet in him."

"He's our captive," said Bert, "and I guess we'd better tend to this on our own account. We didn't actually promise him his life, and no doubt he's deserved death many times over. We got some valuable information out of him, though, even if it was at the point of a bowie, and I think we ought to untie him and let him go."

As there was no dissent from this, they went to the tree where they had left the sentry. They found him nearly dead from terror. He had heard the sounds of the fight and the cheers of the soldiers, and knew pretty well how the struggle had ended. Now, as the boys approached, he tried to read their purpose in their eyes. He knew how he would have acted, had the case been reversed, and he did not dare to hope for mercy. But, to his astonishment, they took the gag from his mouth, untied his hands and told him he was free. He shook himself and then staggered away in the underbrush, trying to get out of sight before his deliverers should change their minds. They watched him till he vanished, and then retraced their steps to where Melton was waiting.

"You did right, boys," he said. "Although," he added, "a good many might think it was a case of misplaced sympathy. While I was waiting, I was reminded of the story of the little girl, looking at a picture of the early Christians attacked by lions in the arena. Her mother saw that she was crying, and was pleased to see that she was so tender-hearted. 'It is sad, isn't it?' she asked. 'Yes,' sobbed the child, 'look at this poor thin little lion, that hasn't any Christian.'"

The boys laughed, as they sprang into the saddle.

"Of course," concluded Melton, "it's rough on any lion to compare him to a fellow like this. Perhaps we'd better say a hyena, and let it go at that."

With hearts light as air, they cantered down the trail. Once more, life was smiling. They passed in quick succession the various land marks they had such good reason to remember. Here was the place where they had passed the night, and where Melton had come upon them, bringing cheer and hope. There was the stream, in which the outlaws had walked their horses. Most memorable of all was the curve in the road, where Dick had come upon the guerillas. Nothing in nature had changed since yesterday. But what a gulf lay between their tortured sensations of the day before and the joyous elation of the present!

It was long after dark, when they rode into Montillo – too late to see the consul and the mayor that night. They bade a cordial good night to the captain, and, with a gay wave of the hand to the troopers, went to the leading hotel of the place. Here they found their baggage, which, thanks again to the thoughtfulness of Melton, had been taken from the train and sent there to await their coming – that coming which had been so doubtful a little while before. They saw to it that the Chinaman had food and drink and a place to sleep. Then a good supper, a hot bath, and they piled between sheets, to await the coming of the morrow.

It was long after sunrise the next morning, when they awoke. They had slept soundly, and, if any haunting recollection of their experience had taken form in a dream, there was no trace of anything but jubilation, as they dressed and breakfasted to an accompaniment of jest and laughter. Melton, who had risen earlier and was smoking on the veranda, rose and threw away his cigar, and after a hearty handshake, went with them to the office of the consul.

"Thank God, you're back," he cried fervently, as he shook hands with Melton. "And these, I suppose," he went on, as he turned toward the boys and greeted them warmly, "are the young rascals who have given me so many anxious moments lately. By Jove, I can't tell you how glad I am to know that you got out of that scrape all right. There aren't many who have fallen into the hands of El Tigre that ever came back to tell the story. Sit down now and tell me all about it."

He was a fine example of Uncle Sam's representatives abroad, keen, strong, determined, and the boys warmed toward him at once. He listened intently, while Melton told all that had happened, and his eyes lighted up, as he learned how they had rushed the camp.

"It was splendid," he exclaimed. "It's almost a miracle and I wonder that you pulled through alive."

"It was a narrow squeak," admitted Melton, "and, at that, I'm afraid we wouldn't have got away with it, if the troopers hadn't come up just when they did. The bandits had got over their surprise and were surrounding us. I tell you, that squad of soldiers looked mighty good to me."

"So I imagine," rejoined the consul. "And that reminds me that we ought to go round and see the mayor. You can thank your friend here," he went on, turning to the boys, "that the mayor got busy at all in this matter. It was that 'hand on the hip pocket' idea that did the trick. It scared him stiff. He thinks a good deal of that precious skin of his, and he didn't like the idea of having it shot full of holes. I don't believe he ever hustled so much before in his life. No doubt by this time he has had a report of the affair from the captain of the squad, and he'll be strutting around like a turkey-cock."

The consul's prediction was confirmed, when, a few minutes later, they were ushered into the mayor's office. He was fairly bursting with self importance. He greeted them with ineffable politeness, strongly dashed with condescension.

He was delighted beyond measure to see his dear Americano friends again. But there – it was a foregone conclusion. Nothing could withstand his soldiers. He had already telegraphed to Mexico City, of the rescue, and of the complete destruction of the band of El Tigre. What no other mayor had been able to accomplish, he had done in one fell swoop. It would probably mean – ahem – a decoration, possibly – ahem – political promotion. He trusted that his good Americano friends would report the matter at Washington. It would show how sternly the Mexican government protected the lives of foreigners in its borders.

And so he went on, in a steady stream of self laudation, that so strongly stirred the risibles of the boys that they did not dare to look at each other, for fear that they would laugh outright. But they were, after all, deeply indebted to him, no matter what his motives, and they maintained their gravity and thanked him heartily for the aid he had rendered. Only after they had reached the street, did their features relax.

"Hates himself, doesn't he?" laughed Tom.

"He sure does," responded Bert. "He ought to be nothing less than president, if you should ask him."

"He's certainly throwing himself away to stay here as mayor," added Dick. "But, considering all that's happened, I don't mind if he does pat himself on the back. But here comes the man to whom we owe an awful lot, too. I like him clear down to the ground."

It was the young captain who approached, and they greeted him heartily. He also had reason for elation, both in having avenged his brother and in having accomplished a military feat that would surely add to his reputation. But he was modest, and stoutly disclaimed that the boys owed him anything. He had simply done his duty and it was all in the day's work.

"He's the right stuff," said Tom, as they separated, after mutual expressions of esteem. "He ought to be an American." Which from patriotic, if somewhat prejudiced Tom, was the highest praise.

And now, after warmest farewells had been taken of the consul, there was nothing to keep them in Montillo. Yes, there was one thing, as Dick suddenly remembered.

"The Chink," he said. "What about him?"

"Oh, give him a little money and let him stay here," suggested Tom. "He can easily get something to do."

The matter thus disposed of, they sauntered on, but as they neared the hotel, they saw the Celestial evidently waiting for them.

"Hello, John," said Bert, pleasantly.

"Hello, slelf," was the smiling answer. Then he went on calmly: "Me glo with you."

"What's that?" cried Bert, startled. "But we're going to Panama."

"Me glo too. Me glot flends, Panama."

"But have you got any money to take you there?"

"No. You glot money. Me play back," and he beamed on them blandly.

The boys looked helplessly at each other.

"How nice," murmured Tom.

"Well, of all the nerve," exclaimed Dick.

"Me glo with you," reiterated the Chinaman, kindly but firmly; and the benevolence of his smile was beautiful to see.

The bewilderment in Bert's face was too much for the others, and they burst into a roar of laughter.

"No use, Bert," said Dick, as soon as he could speak. "He's got the

Indian sign on us, and we might as well give in."

"No," echoed Tom, "there's no getting away from that smile. If I had it,

I could borrow money from the Bank of England."

"I throw up my hands," responded Bert. "He's adopted us, and that's all there is about it. We'll take him along as handy man, till he gets to his 'flends in Panama.'"

They put him to work at once, getting ready the baggage, and when this was completed, they sought out Melton to say good-bye. They wrung his hand until he laughingly protested that they wanted to cripple him.

"We'll never forget you, never," they declared with fervent sincerity.

"Same here," he replied with equal warmth, "and some day I hope to see you on my ranch. I'd like to show you what is meant by a Western welcome."

"Will we? You bet. Just watch us," came in chorus, and then they reluctantly tore themselves away from the great hearted specimen of Nature's noblemen, whose place in their hearts was secure for all time.

"Panama, after all," exulted Dick, as they stood on the station platform.

"Yes," chimed in Tom, "they couldn't cheat us out of it."

"The quickest route to the coast for us," added Bert, "and then the rest of the way by boat. I'm wild to set my feet once more beneath the Stars and Stripes."

CHAPTER VIII
THE GREAT CANAL

On a glorious afternoon, a few days later, the boys sat on the upper deck of the liner, as it drew near the city of Colon, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama. With the quick rebound of youth, they had wholly recovered from the strain of the preceding days, and were looking forward with the keenest zest, to the opening of the great canal, now only two weeks distant. They gazed with interest at the Toro lighthouse, as the steamer left the gleaming waters of the Caribbean Sea, and threaded its way up the Bay of Limon to Cristobal, the port of Colon.

"And to think," Dick was saying, "that it's four hundred years almost to a day, since the isthmus was discovered, and in all that time they never cut it through. To cover that distance of forty-nine miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific, ships have sailed ten thousand, five hundred miles. It almost seems like a reflection on the intelligence of the world, doesn't it?"

"It surely does," asserted Bert, "and yet it wasn't altogether a matter of intelligence, but of ways and means. In every century since then, lots of people have seen the advantages of a canal, but they've been staggered, when they came to count the cost. It's easy enough to talk of cutting through mountains and building giant dams and changing the course of rivers. But it's a long jump from theory to performance, and they've all wilted until your Uncle Samuel took up the job. Even France, the most scientific nation in Europe, gave it up after she'd spent two hundred million dollars."

"It's a big feather in our cap," said Tom – "the very biggest thing that has happened in the way of engineering, since this old earth began. It's the eighth wonder of the world. The building of the pyramids was child's play, compared to the problems our people have had to meet. But we've met them – health problems, labor problems, political problems, mechanical problems – met and solved them all. The American Eagle has certainly got a right to scream."

And their enthusiasm for the American Eagle grew with every hour that passed, after they drew up to the docks and went ashore. Everywhere there were evidences of thrift and progress and law and order, to be seen nowhere else in Central or South America. After the slovenly towns and cities of Mexico, it was refreshing to note the contrast. For five miles on either side of the canal – the Canal Zone – it was United States Territory. From being the abode of fever and pestilence, it had been transformed into one of the healthiest places in the world. Mosquitoes had been exterminated and the dreaded scourge of "Yellow Jack" wiped out completely. It was a cosmopolitan district, where all the nations of the world met together and all classes were to be found, from the highest to the lowest. But over this mixed and often turbulent population, the civil and military arms of the United States, ruled with such strength and wisdom, as to make it a model for the world's imitation. The city was bright, clean, animated, abounding in amusements and diversions; but lawlessness and disorder were unsparingly repressed. The boys were delighted at the novelty of what they saw and heard, and it was late when they went to their rooms, with an eager anticipation of all that awaited them on their trip across the isthmus.



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