The blow that had been dealt the boy came from one of the timbers of the raft, which had been torn to pieces as it was swept over the falls. How long Jack remained insensible he did not know; but when he recovered his senses he found himself struggling in a seething pool of water at the foot of the falls. Luckily he was able to catch hold of one of the logs of the raft as it was swept by him, and clinging to this he began to strike out with his legs, hoping to make his way to the edge of the pool.
Many times during that desperate struggle for existence Jack felt certain that death would intervene before he could accomplish his purpose. Once another log, that was being swept round like a straw in that boiling vortex of foaming waters, was dashed against the one to which he clung. The shock almost forced the lad to relinquish his hold. But he hung on like grim death.
Blinded by foam and half choked, the boy, with bull–dog grit, stuck to his purpose, and at last was rewarded by feeling ground under his feet. A moment later, bruised, breathless and drenched to the skin, he flung himself panting on the sandy shore of the pool, too exhausted to move further.
He lay there, actually feeling more dead than alive, for a long time before he felt capable of moving. But at last he found strength to drag himself further up the bank. Fumbling in his pocket, he found that his water–tight match box was in its proper place, and in the darkness he set about making preparations to build a fire. Luckily, on the brink of the pool there was any quantity of dry wood cast up by the maelstrom of waters, and the boy soon had a roaring blaze kindled. Stripping to his underclothing he hung his other garments on sticks in front of the blaze while he basked in its cheery rays.
By the glow he could see a part of the pool, and as he gazed at its troublous surface and foaming fury he marveled that he had been able to escape with his life. The firelight also showed him that he was in a sort of rock–walled bowl, with steeply sloping sides scantily clad in places with stunted bushes. He was still sitting by this fire, trying to think of some way out of his dilemma, when exhausted nature asserted herself and he sank into a deep slumber beside the warm blaze.
When he awoke the sun was shining down on his face. The daylight showed him that he had blundered into an astonishing place indeed. As he had guessed, by what he could see of the place by firelight, he was at the bottom of a rocky bowl into which the falls over which he had tumbled roared and thundered unceasingly as they had been doing for uncounted centuries.
Jack estimated the height of the falls as being fully sixty feet. The boiling pool appeared to be about an acre or so in extent, and was furiously agitated by the constant pouring of the mighty falls. And now Jack became aware of a curious thing.
All about the edges of the pool, where the circular motion of the water had evidently cast them up, were myriads of bones.
All at once, while he was still exploring the strange place into which he had fallen, he came across a bleached skull lying amid a pile of bones and d?bris. The ghastly relic gave him a rude shock as he gazed at it.
“Gracious!” the boy exclaimed, with a shudder, “this place might well be called a Pool of Death. How fortunate I am to be alive; although how I am going to get out of this scrape I don’t know. One thing is certain, I cannot remount by the falls. I must see what lies in the other direction.”
Up to that moment, so agitated had the castaway boy been that he had almost entirely forgotten the Mexican with whom he had had the battle on the raft. The thought of the man now suddenly recurred to him. Jack sighed as he realized that the Mexican could hardly have been so fortunate as he had been. In all probability he had forfeited his life to the Pool of Death.
With such melancholy thoughts in his mind Jack set about exploring the rocky basin for some means of exit. Although he was determined not to give way to despair, the boy could not but own that his situation was well–nigh desperate. He was many miles from his friends, and probably in an uninhabited part of the country. He had no food; nor even if there had been any game had he the means of shooting it.
His hunger was now beginning to make itself painfully manifest. On some bushes that clung to the walls of the Pool of Death were some bright–colored berries, but Jack dreaded to try them. For all he knew they might be deadly poison.
Searching for an exit, Jack was not long in finding one. The pool was drained by a narrow crevice in the rocky walls, forming a passage. On the brink of the water was a strip of beach, not much wider than a man’s hand. Beside this pathway the water roared and screamed in its narrow bounds, but Jack knew that if he was to get out of this place at all he must dare the rocky passage.
Stifling his fears as well as he could, the famished, bedraggled lad struck pluckily out. Sometimes the passage grew so narrow that he could have bestridden the stream. At other points it widened out and, looking up, Jack could see the blue sky far overhead. In reality the passage was not more than half a mile in length but, so carefully did Jack have to proceed, it appeared to be four times that length at least.
The passage ended with almost startling abruptness. Jack could hardly repress an exclamation of amazement as he saw upon what a strange scene it opened. Beyond its mouth lay a broad valley, carpeted with vivid green grass and dotted here and there, like a park, with groups of trees. Viewed in the sparkling sunlight it was indeed a scene of rare beauty and Jack’s heart gave a throb of delight as he beheld it.
“Surely,” he thought, “some rancher must live hereabouts who will give me food and lend me a horse to ride back to San Mercedes.”
For the first few minutes following his discovery of the valley the boy did not doubt but that he should find an easy and speedy means of escaping from his difficulties. But it gradually began to dawn upon him that the place upon which he had so oddly blundered was not inhabited at all. At least, he could see no sign of a human habitation.
Then, too, somewhat to his dismay, he noticed another feature of the valley which had at first escaped his attention altogether.
The place was completely enclosed by steep, lofty cliffs, and appeared as if, at some early period of the world’s growth, it had been dropped below the level of the surrounding country by some mighty convulsion of nature.
For the rest the valley appeared to be about a mile in length and half a mile wide at its broadest part. Through the center of it the stream that issued from the passage beyond the Pool of Death meandered leisurely along.
“Well,” exclaimed Jack, to himself, gazing somewhat disconsolately about him, “this is a beautiful spot into which I have wandered; but somehow it doesn’t appear to solve my difficulties. In the first place, I don’t believe it is frequented by human beings, and in the second, so far as I can see, there is no way out of it. I wonder where on earth I can be? Certainly not on the Rio Grande itself. I begin to suspect that that current hurled the raft off into some side stream which terminated in the falls.”
It may be said here that Jack’s theory was correct. The valley in which he found himself had been caused by a convulsion of nature similar to that which effected the wonderful Yosemite Valley in California. It was, in fact, a miniature reproduction of that famous scenic marvel. As the boy likewise suspected, the raft had indeed been hurried by the stream from the main current of the Rio Grande and drawn into a side fork of the river.
Although Jack did not know it at the time, he was on Mexican soil and far removed from his friends, as he paced the strange secret valley.
“I guess my best plan is to follow that stream,” mused Jack, after a period of thought; “if I’m not mistaken there must be some way out of the valley at the spot where it emerges. At any rate I’ll try it.”
He had walked some distance from the bank of the stream in his explorations, and he now began to re–thread his footsteps. He directed his course toward a big rock that towered up by the bank of the stream, apparently dislodged at some remote time from the summit of the lofty cliffs that hedged the place all about.
When Jack was within a few feet of the rock he was brought to a sudden halt by a startling occurrence.
From behind the monster boulder a human figure emerged, and the next instant Jack was being hailed by the sudden apparition.
Had he beheld the emergence of a supposedly dead man from his tomb, the boy could not have been much more startled. As it was the two cases would have had much in common, for the figure that now advanced toward him was that of a man he had given up for dead – namely, the Mexican who had shared that wild voyage on the raft.
For an instant Jack instinctively threw himself into an attitude of defense. But the next moment he saw that he had nothing to fear from the newcomer. In fact, a more woebegone figure than the Mexican presented it would be hard to imagine. There was a big gash over one of his eyes, his clothing was torn to ribbons and he limped painfully as he advanced toward Jack.
“How did you come here?” asked Jack in Spanish.
“Ah, se?or, surely by a miracle of the saints,” was the reply, as the man raised his eyes to heaven. “I recollect your blow and then nothing more till I found myself cast up on the bank of yonder stream. Call it what you will, I believe that it was a true miracle of Providence that my life was saved.”
“We must both thank a higher power for our deliverance,” said Jack reverently. “I never thought that I should see you alive again.”
“But who are you?” demanded the Mexican. “How came you on our raft before it went adrift?”
Jack thought for a moment before replying, and then he decided that it could do no possible harm, under the circumstances, to tell who he was.
“I am the son of an Arizona rancher,” he said. “My name is Jack Merrill. With two companions I was accompanying the Texas Rangers on a scouting trip for the sake of the experience. While on guard duty I saw your raft land and thought it my duty to try to find out what you were doing on the American side of the river.”
To Jack’s surprise the other showed no trace of anger. Instead he appeared grief stricken.
“Alas, se?or,” he said, “you may have been the cause of the death of my two companions, for if the Texas Rangers captured them they will assuredly shoot them.”
“I’m sure they would do no such thing,” rejoined Jack indignantly; “they are not inhuman wretches. If your companions can show that they were doing no harm on our side of the Border they will be released with a warning not to spy upon Americans again.”
“Ah, then, you knew that we were spying, se?or?”
“Yes, I overheard your conversation at the river’s edge. But it is important now that we should get out of this valley as soon as possible. Have you any idea where we are?”
The Mexican shrugged his shoulders dubiously.
“Alas, se?or, I am not certain, but I am inclined to think that we are in what is called the Lost Valley.”
“Lost Valley!” echoed Jack, struck by the dismal suggestion of the name. “Is there no way out?”
His companion shook his head.
“The legend says that they who blunder into the valley never escape,” he declared.
Jack could not repress a shudder as he thought of the skull by the pool; but the next instant he regained his nerve, for he knew that the stream must emerge from the valley somewhere.
“But surely this river has to find a way out of the valley?” he asked.
“Si, se?or,” was the reply, “but the stream, so they say, burrows its way through a tunnel by which no human being could hope to pass.”
“Then you mean that we are prisoners here?”
“Unless somebody discovers us – yes.”
“Are there many people dwelling in this part of the country?” inquired Jack, with a sinking heart, for, despite his effort to keep up his cheerfulness, his hope was fast ebbing.
“No, it is a wild section devoted to cattle raising, and only a few wandering vaqueros ever come this way. It is from them that the news of the Lost Valley, which this may be, reached the outer world.”
“But we must escape,” cried Jack wildly, “we can’t remain here. We have no food, no means of getting any, and – ”
“I have my revolver,” interrupted the Mexican, “also plenty of cartridges. Perhaps we can find some game.”
This at least was a spark of cheering news. Both Jack and the Mexican were almost famished and decided to set out at once to see if they could bring down anything to serve as food. A revolver is not much of a weapon to use in hunting; but the Mexican declared that he was highly proficient with it. Jack hadn’t much confidence in his own ability as a revolver shot, so it was agreed that his dark–skinned companion should do the shooting.
They ranged the valley for some time without seeing a sign of life, when suddenly, from a clump of trees, there sprang three deer – two does and a buck.
Bang! went the revolver, and the buck slackened speed and staggered. A crimson stream from his shoulder showed that he had been badly wounded. But it took two more shots to bring him down. He was then dispatched with Jack’s knife. No time was lost in cutting off some steaks from the dead buck, a fire was speedily kindled and an appetizing aroma of broiling venison came from it. The meat was cooked by being held over the glowing wood coals on sticks of hard wood. Jack could hardly wait till his was cooked to eat it.
Fresh deer meat is not the delicacy that some of my readers may suppose. It is coarse, stringy and rather tasteless; but neither Jack nor his companion were in a mood to be particular. They devoured the meat ravenously, although they had no salt, bread or any other relish. But the meat strengthened Jack wonderfully, and as soon as it had been eaten he proposed that they should explore the valley thoroughly in an attempt to find a way out.
The Mexican was nothing loath; but he was dubious about there being any avenue of escape. However, with the stoical fatalism of his race he appeared to accept the situation philosophically.
Before setting out on their expedition the deer meat was hung in one of the trees as a protection in case any wild animals should get scent of it. This done, the Border Boy and his oddly contrasted companion set off, trudging around the valley in a determined effort to effect their escape in some way.
Several ca?ons that opened off into the rocky walls were examined, but they all proved to be “blind” and impassable. In exploring one of these Jack had a thrilling adventure.
His foot slipped on a rock and he plunged into a deep hole among some boulders. He was about to scramble out again, when from one of the rock crevices a hideous flat head darted. At the same time a curious dry, rattling sound was heard on every side of him. The boy recognized the noise with a sharp thrill of alarm.
The sound was the vibration of the horny tails of dozens of diamond–backed “rattlers,” into a den of which he had fallen. On every side flat heads with evil–looking, leaden eyes were darting in and out of the rocks. The boy was paralyzed with fear. He dared not move a hand or foot lest he precipitate an attack by the loathsome creatures. As soon as he recovered his wits he set up a shout for his Mexican friend, who had told him that his name was Manuel Alvarez.
Alvarez was quickly on the spot. He took in the situation at a glance, and cautioning Jack not to move, he fired his revolver down into the den of noisome reptiles. The bullet passed so close to Jack’s head that he could feel it fan the air. But, as the report of the pistol volleyed and crashed among the rocks, every rattler vanished.
“Now come out quickly!” ordered Alvarez, reaching down a hand to Jack, who took it and scrambled out of the pit of snakes.
As he thanked the Mexican for his promptness in acting, the boy could not help thinking in what an extraordinary situation he was involved.
Lost in a hidden valley with, for companion, a man who, not more than a few hours ago, had been bent on killing him, now it was to that man that he owed his life.
“This is surely one of the strangest adventures in which I have ever taken part,” mused the Border Boy, as the two castaways resumed their dreary search for a passage to the outer world.
But despite the most painstaking investigation of the valley, a task which occupied them till almost sundown, the two oddly assorted prisoners were unable to find anything that promised a means of escape. They reached the spot where they had left the deer and flung themselves wearily down upon the ground, too disheartened and tired even to voice their disappointment.
“Gracious! Men imprisoned in a jail could not be more effectually shut in,” said Jack, at length; “I feel almost like dashing myself against these rock walls.”
His companion was compelled to admit that their situation did indeed seem a hard one. For some time they sat buried in thought. Jack’s mind was back in the camp of the Rangers. He wondered how his friends felt over his disappearance, and what steps were being taken to find him. How bitterly his heart ached to see his boy chums again he did not say for fear of breaking down.
“We must get out of this horrible place,” he cried, at length, “to–morrow as soon as it is light I mean to examine the cliffs and, if possible, to scale them.”
“You could not find a place that would afford a foothold,” objected his companion.
“I’ll try, at any rate. I’d rather almost be dashed to death than drag out a lingering existence in this valley,” burst out the boy.
“Well, let us have supper,” said Alvarez presently, “there is nothing to be gained by railing at our fate. If the saints do not will that we shall escape, depend upon it we will not.”
So saying he rose to his feet, shrugging his shoulders resignedly.
“What a contrast between the indifference of such a race and the rugged determination of an American,” thought Jack, as he set to work to rekindle the embers of the fire that had cooked their mid–day meal.
He was blowing them into flame when Alvarez called to him from among the trees. He had found a species of oak which was burdened with acorns. These, the Mexican declared, could be made into a kind of bread if crushed and mixed with water. As this would be a welcome addition to ungarnished deer meat, Jack was proportionately pleased at the discovery. The Mexican set to work and ground the acorns between two flat stones, after which he heated one of the latter till it was almost red–hot. This done, the acorn paste was spread out on it, and before long there was produced a rather “doughy” sort of flap–jack or pan–cake. When one side was done Alvarez turned it till it was nicely browned. By this time Jack had some broiled venison ready, and they sat down to their second meal in the Lost Valley with good appetites.
The acorn flap–jack proved to be not at all unpalatable. It was rather sweet and had a peculiar flavor; at any rate it afforded some variety to the plain deer meat.
“Well, we shan’t starve here, at least,” commented the Mexican, as they ate; “there seem to be plenty of deer and small game and an unlimited supply of acorns for bread.”
“No, I suppose if it came down to that, we could live here for a century, like two Robinson Crusoes,” agreed Jack, rather bitterly, “but that’s not my plan. I mean to escape.”
“The young are always hopeful,” rejoined Alvarez, with one of his all–expressive shrugs; “I suppose you think you can carry out your plan.”
“I mean to make a mighty hard try at it, anyhow,” said Jack, setting his lips in a determined line.
That evening as they sat by their camp fire, Alvarez told Jack that he and his two companions on the raft had been leaders of the northern wing of the revolutionary army. They had chosen the raft as a medium to spy from, he explained, because it was possible in that way to ascertain what the border patrol was doing, without so much risk of being discovered as would have been the case had they used horses.
“I guess you wish you’d never seen the raft by this time,” commented Jack, throwing some fresh wood on the fire.
“I do, indeed,” agreed the other fervently.
Soon after this they composed themselves to sleep, but it was long before Jack closed his eyes.
He was just dozing off when the sound of a furtive footfall made him sit up, broad awake in an instant. From the darkness two green points were blazing at him.
“The eyes of some wild beast that has decided to pay us a visit,” said Jack to himself.
He was just about to arouse Alvarez and get the revolver when the creature that was prowling about the camp gave a sudden leap. Jack saw a lithe body launched at him just in time to roll to one side.