J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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The leaves in many places met overhead, and caused a perpetual twilight in the forest aisles. As the boys penetrated deeper and deeper toward the heart of the woods the underbrush and vines grew continually thicker, and in many places they found their progress stopped by some tangled growth and were forced to cut it away before they could proceed. It grew hotter and hotter, too, with a damp, clammy heat that at last became almost unbearable.

"Great Scott!" burst out Dick, at last, while they were cutting through a particularly tough growth of vines and creepers. "I think this is about the hardest work I ever did in my life. What you need to make a path in this blooming jungle is a carload of dynamite – not merely a few little toad-stickers like these we're using."

"Well, as we haven't the dynamite handy, I suppose we'll have to make the best of the 'toadstickers,'" laughed Bert, amused by his companion's rueful countenance. "You didn't expect to find a macadamized road running through this little strip of woodland, did you?"

"No, but I didn't expect to find vines made of cast iron, either," replied Dick.

"Never mind, old scout," said Bert, "this can't last long. We're certain to hit on a game trail sooner or later, and then we'll be in clover. And the harder we work now, the sooner we'll find it."

"Oh, well, here goes," responded Dick, and fell to with renewed vigor.

Before very long it turned out as Bert had predicted. After cutting through a particularly dense thicket, they had not gone far when they stumbled on a narrow but clearly defined trail that ran in a southeasterly direction.

"Eureka!" exclaimed Tom, as this welcome sight met their eyes, "it will be plain sailing from now on, and we ought to be able to get somewhere."

"We don't know where we're going, but we're on the way," sang Bert. "Forward, march, fellows. Christopher Columbus had nothing on us as discoverers."

"Righto," agreed his companions, and they set forth along the narrow path at a brisk pace.

There were traces of game in plenty, but they were unable to catch a glimpse of anything that might give them a chance to exercise their marksmanship. Of course, the trees were full of monkeys and parrots, but they had no wish to kill merely for the sake of killing, and were resolved to shoot nothing that they could not use as food.

No game made its appearance, and the boys were looking around for a site on which they could pitch camp, when they were suddenly startled by a distant shout.

"Help, help!" came the cry, evidently at some distance from them. In spite of this, the three adventurers had no difficulty in recognizing the note of terror in it, and after one look at each other started off at a dead run in the direction of the cries. Running, tripping, stumbling, picking themselves up and racing on again harder than ever, it was not long before the shouts for help were appreciably nearer, and Bert, with what breath was left him, shouted back.

Tom and Dick followed suit, and it became evident the person in distress, whoever it might be, had heard them, for his shouts ceased.

Suddenly Bert, who was a little in advance of the others, pulled himself up abruptly, and glanced down at the ground. "Easy there, fellows," he cautioned, between gasps for breath. "It looks as though we'd struck the edge of a bog, and now we'd better make haste slowly."

"You're right," exclaimed Dick, after they had taken a few cautious steps forward. "It keeps getting softer and softer, and I think we'd better look around for some path. We'll be bogged in another hundred feet."

"Well, we might as well let whoever it is we're going after know we're still on the job," said Tom, and forthwith he gave vent to a whoop that sent a cloud of wild birds soaring up from the reeds by which they were now surrounded.

His shout was answered by another from the unknown, and Tom yelled, "Don't give up, we'll get to you as soon as we can. What's the matter, are you stuck in the swamp?"

"Yes," called the other, "and I'm getting deeper every minute. Follow the edge of the swamp a few hundred yards toward the west, and you'll find the path that I wandered from. But hurry up, or I'm a goner."

"All right," sang out Bert, and the three hurriedly skirted the bog in the direction which its unfortunate victim had indicated. Sure enough, in a few minutes they reached a spot where the reeds thinned out considerably, and they could see the stranger. He was almost up to his shoulders in the soft, sticky mud, but when he caught sight of his would-be rescuers, he waved a hand to them feebly.

"Step lively, boys," he implored, "I'm almost done for. I won't be able to last long. The further I sink the faster, and this muck will soon be over my head."

The three comrades held a hurried consultation as to the best means they could employ to effect the man's release.

"Let's buckle our belts together," suggested Bert, hastily divesting himself of his. "Maybe we can pull him out that way."

This was no sooner said than done, and in a twinkling the three stout belts were fastened together. Then, following the captive's direction, they ventured gingerly out on the narrow path, composed of quaking tufts of soft earth that led into and presumably across the swamp. Soon they were within ten feet or so of the unfortunate, who proved to be a well built man of middle age. They threw him the end of the improvised rope, which he grasped desperately. Then they bent their united efforts to pulling him out of the clinging mire. Pull as they might, however, they were hardly able to move him, as they could get no purchase on the soft ground, and only began to sink in themselves. It was with difficulty that, after giving over this attempt as hopeless, they managed to scramble back to solid ground.

"Don't give up, boys," pleaded the unhappy man. "You're not going to let me die here, are you?"

"Don't worry about our deserting you," said Bert. "We're going to get you out of this, but we've got to figure out how. Can you think of anything?"

"You might run back to where the underbrush starts and bring back a lot of it," suggested he. "I might be able to support myself that way while you went for help."

"That's a good idea," exclaimed Bert, and in accordance with the suggestion they raced back to the jungle and soon returned, each bearing a large bundle of underbrush. This they threw into the swamp in such a way that the man could rest his arms on it. Then they waited expectantly to see if this would "turn the trick."

At first it seemed that the plan would prove successful, but before long it became apparent that the man was still sinking, although more slowly than before. The brush only served to defer his fate.

"Hang it all!" exclaimed Bert, as he realized this fact, "there's nothing we can do here alone. What we need is planks, and ropes, and tools. The only thing I can see is for us to hustle back to camp and get help."

"The sooner the better, I guess," agreed Dick, soberly, and accordingly they explained their intentions to the man in the bog.

"How far have you got to go?" inquired the latter, and when they told him he groaned.

"You'll never get back in time," he said, "but I guess it's the only thing left to do. Only, one of you please stay here with me. If I've got to die, I'd rather not die alone."

"Oh, quit that talk about dying," exclaimed Bert, although in his heart he had little hope. But the three comrades were resolved to employ every means, however desperate, for the stranger's release.

They held a brief consultation.

"You and Tom had better go, Dick," said Bert. "I'll stay here and do all I can to keep this poor fellow alive, but it's a long trip and I'm afraid there's not much chance for him."

So Tom and Dick set off at a brisk trot, and Bert began to talk with the unfortunate man with the idea of getting his mind as much as possible off his predicament. It developed that he was an engineer connected with the Canal, who had gone for a day's hunting in the jungle. He had lost his way, and had been forced to make camp over night. Early the next morning he had set out, and when he had reached the swamp had attempted to cross it by way of a path that a native guide had pointed out to him as being a short cut, on a previous trip. He had taken two or three steps off the path before he realized it, and then, when he had attempted to return, had found himself held fast in the treacherous mire. All his efforts to escape had only resulted in his sinking deeper and deeper, and finally he had ceased struggling. Then he began to shout at intervals, in the faint hope of someone being within earshot, and, as we have seen, brought the three boys to his aid.

While the man had been talking, Bert's mind had been busy with a hundred plans for helping him, which, however, he was forced to abandon one after the other. It wrung his heart to see the poor wretch slowly sinking in the filthy mud, and to feel his own absolute inability to help him. By this time, the stranger was in the mire up to his chin, the underbrush which the boys had cut for him having gradually been pulled under.

Almost imperceptibly, but none the less surely, he sank, and Bert tore his hair and paced wildly up and down the bank, wrung by pity for the doomed man. At last the latter smiled weakly, and said, "Well, good-bye, my boy. You and your pals did your best, but I'm done for now. Hartley's my name, and tell the boys back at the camp that I died game, anyway. Tell them – "

But at this point Bert dashed madly away, pulling his sharp hunting knife from its sheath as he ran. He plunged into a thick clump of reeds on the edge of the swamp, and hastily cut an unusually long and tough one. He put it to his lips and blew through it, assuring himself that it was hollow. Then he rushed madly back to the place where the engineer was immersed. Nor was he a minute too soon.

The man had sunk until the mud was at his very lips, and in another few moments it would inevitably close over his mouth and nostrils. Bert dashed out on the quaking path, careless of his own danger, and in a few words explained his plan to the engineer. The latter's eyes lighted up with hope, and expressed the thanks he had no time to utter.

Bert got as near him as he could, and thrust one end of the reed into

Hartley's mouth. His teeth and lips closed tightly about it.

"There you are." exclaimed Bert, exultantly. "Now you can breathe through that reed until help comes from camp, and then we'll get you out if we have to drain the swamp to do it. I'll stay right here till they come, and the reed will mark your position. Keep up hope and you'll be all right yet."

His eloquent eyes told Bert that he understood, and now there was nothing to do but sit down and wait for the expected help to arrive from camp. He knew that this would not be for some time yet, and his only hope was that the man in the swamp would not sink deeper than the length of the reed.

He sank very slowly now, but none the less surely, and gradually the mud covered his mouth – his nostrils – his eyes – and at length his head sank beneath the surface. The smooth mire closed over the place where he had been, and the slender reed was all that remained to connect him with the living, pulsing world about.

At the thought of the horrible death the engineer would now have suffered without the aid of that frail thing Bert shuddered, and thanked Heaven for the inspiration.

The seething tropic life went on without interruption, as Bert sat on the edge of the swamp with his eyes fastened on the reed. From the jungle back of him came the myriad cries of the wild things: the chatter of monkeys, the screams of the gaily colored parrots, and, once, the distant yell of a mountain lion.

The tropic sun beat down with ever-increasing intensity as it neared the zenith, and Bert felt an awful oppression stealing over him. After the first flush of triumph over cheating the bog, at least temporarily, of its victim, a rush of doubts and fears came over him. Could the engineer retain consciousness, immersed as he was in the vile, sticky mud? Would he not give up, and release his hold on the precious reed? These and a thousand other misgivings tortured Bert as he watched the reed and waited for the expected reinforcements. The minutes seemed hours, and when he looked at his watch he was astonished to find it was not yet noon.

At length his weary vigil was broken by a distant shout, which he recognized as Tom's. All his fears vanished at the prospect of immediate action, and he raised a great shout in return. In a few moments he could hear the noise occasioned by the passage of a considerable body of men, and soon the rescuing party hove in sight. This consisted of several of the camp engineers and foremen, together with eight or ten husky laborers. Everybody, including Tom and Dick, carried shovels and ropes, and some of the laborers bore long, wide planks on their shoulders.

Dick and Tom rushed forward, followed by the others, but stopped short when they looked at the treacherous swamp and saw no sign of the engineer. Their faces paled, and Dick exclaimed, "Too late, are we? We did our best, but we've got here too late."

Grief was written on every face, but this was soon dispelled when Bert exclaimed, briskly, "Too late nothing. He's under the swamp, to be sure, but he's breathing through the reed you see sticking up there," and he pointed out to them this slender barrier between life and death.

"Well, I'll be hanged," muttered one of the rescuing party, "how in the world did he ever come to think of that, I wonder?"

"Never mind how I came to think of it!" exclaimed Bert, "the thing is now to get him out. I've been watching that reed, and I don't believe he's more than ten inches or a foot below the surface. I feared he'd be a good deal deeper by this time."

Accordingly the rescuing party fell to with feverish haste, and began constructing a sort of boxed-in raft about eight feet square. This would support several people on the shaky surface of the bog, and it would give them a place to work on while attempting to extract Hartley.

In the meantime, what had been the sensations of the unfortunate engineer? As the thick mud slowly closed over his head he held the reed tightly between his lips, and had little difficulty in breathing through it. The mud was warm, and strange to say, he had a feeling almost of comfort as he sank beneath it. Soon he felt an almost overpowering desire to sleep. He knew, however, that if he yielded to this he would lose his hold on the reed, and so fought off the perilous drowsiness.

Before very long he felt something hard under his feet, and was conscious that he was no longer sinking. At first he was at a loss to know what had stopped his downward progress, but at last decided he must have come to rest on a sunken stump. This theory was confirmed when he felt around, first with one foot and then with the other, and found that on all sides of him there was only soft mud. But the stump beneath him renewed his hope.

Above ground the rescuing party was plying its saws and hammers to good effect, and in an incredibly short time had finished the rough raft. This done they spread the remaining planks along the so-called path leading into the swamp, and prepared to launch their "mud boat," as Tom styled it.

The rude affair was hoisted up on the brawny shoulders of the laborers, and they carried it into the swamp, treading very gingerly on the narrow, quaking pathway. They "launched" it at a spot as near as possible to the reed, and it was evident that it would give them an ample base from which to conduct their operations.

Stout ropes were then brought, and one of the engineers reached down into the soft mud directly under the spot where the reed disappeared. Quickly drawing his hand up, he exclaimed, "I touched him easily that time! Give me the rope, and I think I can reach down far enough to get it under his arms."

The rope was given him, and, reaching far over the side of the raft, he plunged his arms into the mud up to his shoulders. He manipulated the rope deftly, and soon jumped to his feet, waving his muddy arms.

"I've got it tied, all right," he exclaimed. "Now, men, we'll see if we can't pull the poor fellow out."

Three of the laborers took hold of the rope, and exerted all their strength on it. Slowly, very slowly, inch by inch, they pulled it up, until at last, amid a roar of cheers from them all, Hartley's head appeared above the surface of the swamp, the reed still held between his lips. The men leaned over and grasped his arms, and at last succeeded in pulling him into the boat.

He was a strange figure, and would hardly have been recognized as being a man. The thick mud clung to him, and made his features unrecognizable.

"Here," exclaimed Bert, "let's get the mud off him," and accordingly the contents of several water bottles was dashed over his face. At last he was able to open his eyes and to speak.

"There's no use my trying to thank you," he said, addressing the little group. "Nothing I can say can express my thankfulness to everybody here, and especially these three lads, who have certainly done wonders for me."

"Oh, that's all right," said Bert, "maybe you'll have a chance to do something for us one day, and then we'll be quits."

"Well, that doesn't alter matters at present," replied Hartley, "and you and your friends certainly did everything that could be done. I had just about given up hope when you happened along."

"It's a lucky thing for you they did, Hartley," broke in one of the engineers, who had accompanied the rescuing party. "Why, when these two lads dashed into camp and told us of your fix, we gave you up for lost. That reed business was certainly a great stunt."

"No doubt about it," agreed another, and the three boys were deluged with a flood of like congratulations. Then the party started back. Hartley pluckily declared that he could walk, but they overruled him, and took turns in carrying him on a rude litter that they had hastily knocked together.

"That fellow certainly has got wonderful nerve," said Tom to Bert and

Dick, and they heartily agreed with him.

CHAPTER X
A PERILOUS ADVENTURE

The party reached the camp without further adventure, and Mr. Hartley was put under the care of the camp physician. The latter pronounced him all right with the exception of the shock, and the only prescription he gave was "two or three days of thorough rest."

"Well, that's easy medicine to take," said Hartley, with a faint smile, when he heard this verdict, "but I hope you lads will come and visit me and help me kill time. I'm used to a pretty strenuous life, and time will hang awfully heavy on my hands if you don't. Besides, I want to have a chance to express my appreciation of your brave conduct better than I have been able to so far."

"Well, we'll come to see you, all right, with pleasure," said Bert, "only first we want to make one condition."

"And what is that?" inquired the engineer.

"Why, that you'll cut out saying anything about our 'brave conduct,'" said Bert. "We're naturally modest, you see," he added jokingly, "and anything like that bothers us."

"Well, all right. I suppose in that case I'll have to agree to your condition," assented the other, reluctantly, "but you can't keep me from thinking it, anyway."

"All right, then, that's agreed, and we'll let it go at that," said Bert, with a smile, "we'll be up to see you as soon as the doctor will let us, won't we, fellows?" turning to Dick and Tom.

Of course they were willing, so it was agreed that they should visit the engineer's tent, the next day but one. This matter settled, the three comrades took a cordial leave of Mr. Hartley, and made their way back to their own quarters. Until now they had not realized how tired they were, but before they had gotten to their room they all felt as though they could scarcely keep awake.

They managed to defer their sleep long enough to eat a hearty supper, however, but then "made a dash for the hay," as Tom expressed it.

It did not take them long to get to sleep that night, and they were too tired even to discuss the exciting happenings of this eventful day.

With the characteristic recuperative power of youth, however, they were up bright and early the next day, and all three expressed themselves as feeling "as fit as a fiddle."

"But just the same," remarked Dick, "I feel like loafing around to-day and taking things easy. Let's go up to the stone crushing works and watch them. That's my idea of the most restful thing in the world – to watch somebody else working."

"It certainly is," agreed Bert, with a laugh, "but I'm afraid the 'somebody else' might not appreciate your philosophy."

"Oh, that's all right," said Dick. "Some time when I'm working, the other fellow is welcome to watch me, and then he'll be getting his rest."

"Huh," remarked Tom. "I'd hate to have to wait for my rest until you started laboring. I'm afraid I'd surely die from overwork before that happened."



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