If the question was sharp and to the point, as was Captain Atkinson’s wont, so was Baldy’s answer. Rangers are not men who are in the habit of wasting words.
“I mean what I say, boss. The kid’s vamoosed, gone, skidooed.”
“No nonsense, Baldy. Explain yourself.”
“There ain’t much to explain, boss.”
“If Jack Merrill has gone, I should say that there was a good deal to explain on your part.”
Baldy shifted uneasily.
“It warn’t no fault of mine, boss,” he protested.
“I’ll be the judge of that. What’s your story?”
“Just this. The kid went on watch with me. As you told me, I kept him close alongside. He didn’t hev no shootin’ iron, so I rode back to camp to git one. When I got back to the Rio he was gone.”
“Have you looked for him?”
“Beat the brush frum San Antone to breakfus’, but ther ain’t no sign uv hair nor hide uv him.”
“You saw the other men?”
“Did they know nothing?”
“Not a thing. But the kid couldn’t hev passed in either direction without goin’ up in an air ship.”
“None of your jokes. This is serious. Answer my questions. You left him where?”
“Not far from the foot of the trail to the waterin’ place.”
“You told him to stay there?”
“Sure thing. You see I lef’ him ter git him a shootin’ iron. I didn’t think it was right that he shouldn’t be heeled. The greasers – ”
“All right, never mind that part of it. Well, you got the gun?”
“Yes; and when I took it back fer him ther kid had gone.”
“How long did all this take?”
“Waal, I’ve bin huntin’ fer ther dern little pinto ever since. But I should say that I rode to camp and back in about half an hour. You see, I hurried.”
“Humph! You found no sign of trouble when you got back?”
“Nary a bit. All wuz quiet as a Chink’s funeral in Tombstone.”
“Had the others heard nothing while you were away?”
“Not a sound so fur as they told me.”
“It’s not possible to ford the river at that point?”
“Boss, a cayuse couldn’t swim it, the current’s that swift.”
“That’s so, too, I thought for a moment that the boy might have foolishly tried to cross into Mexican territory.”
“Ef he did, it’s flowers fer his’n ef we ever find him,” declared Baldy piously.
“Let us hope it is not as bad as that. But it is most mysterious.”
“Very consterious,” agreed Baldy. “You see, there were men to the east and west of where the kid was, and they didn’t hear nor see nothing.”
“And yet the boy has vanished.”
“Waal, he ain’t ter be found,” admitted Baldy, ignoring the long word.
Captain Atkinson sat up in his blankets lost in thought. At length Baldy ventured to break in on the silence.
“What yer goin’ ter do, boss? Ther young maverick may be needin’ help right now and needin’ it bad, too.”
“That’s correct, Baldy.
“No; ther young pinto had some hoss sense,” admitted Baldy, flicking his chaps with his quirt.
“That being the case, how are we to account for his disappearance? If he had been attacked by greasers there would have been some noise, some disturbance.”
“Maybe he jes’ fell in ther Rio and was drown–ded,” suggested Baldy.
“I don’t think that. Jack Merrill is an athletic lad, and among other things, I am told, a first–class swimmer. No, we have to figure on some other line.”
“Waal, I’m free to admit that I’m up a tree, boss,” grunted Baldy.
By this time Captain Atkinson was out of his blankets and hastily drawing on his chaps and pulling his blue cowboy shirt over his head. When his boots had been drawn on and spurs adjusted he ordered Baldy to saddle his pony and bring it over. As soon as this was done the Captain of the Rangers and Baldy rode out of the camp as silently as possible and made their way to the river. But all Captain Atkinson’s questioning failed to elicit any more facts than he had been able to glean from Baldy. There was nothing left to do but to wait for daybreak to make an examination for tracks that might throw some light on the mystery.
In the meantime Ralph and Walt were informed of Jack’s mysterious disappearance. To Captain Atkinson’s astonishment, they did not appear nearly so much alarmed as he had feared. Instead, they accepted the news with almost stoical faces.
“You think that Jack is safe, then?” asked the captain of the Rangers. “At any rate, you don’t seem much worried about him.”
“It’s not our way to worry till we know we have good cause to, Captain,” rejoined Ralph. “If Jack has vanished, I’m willing to swear that he is off on some sort of duty connected with the Rangers. Possibly he had not time to report back before leaving. Depend upon it, Jack will come out all right.”
“That’s my idea, too,” declared Walt stoutly.
“Well, I admire the confidence you boys have in your leader,” declared Captain Atkinson warmly, “but just the same as soon as it’s daylight I mean to start a thorough investigation, and if harm has come to him it will go hard with those that caused it.”
But a close scrutiny of the river banks by daylight failed to reveal anything more definite than a maze of trampled footmarks and broken brush at the spot where Jack had encountered his combat with the three Mexican spies. Captain Atkinson, one of the most expert of men in the plainsman’s art of reading signs from seemingly insignificant features, confessed that he was baffled.
“It is plain enough that Jack was involved in some sort of a fight,” he said, “but beyond that I cannot say. The most puzzling thing about his disappearance, in fact, lies in the absence of pony tracks. I can’t imagine how whoever it was attacked him reached this vicinity without being heard by the sentries east and west of the trail.”
“Can it not be possible that in some manner he fell into the river and was swept away by the swift current?” inquired Ralph.
The captain shook his head.
“Of course, it is possible, but it hardly lies within the range of probabilities,” he declared.
They were still discussing the extraordinary situation when Baldy uttered an exclamation. He had been examining the river bank and now he held up a bit of rope that he had discovered on the verge of the stream.
“Look here, cap,” he cried, “I’m a long–horned maverick if this ain’t queer.”
“A bit of rope, eh, Baldy?” rejoined the captain. “Well, that would seem to indicate that something had been tied there. Clearly it was not a horse or we should see the tracks. It must then have been – ”
“A boat!” burst in Walt, unable to control himself.
“How could a boat ever get along in this shallow, swirling stream?” cried Ralph.
“No; but some contrivance of logs that would float, such as a raft, might have navigated the river,” suggested Captain Atkinson, little guessing how close he was to the truth.
The captain now had the rope in his hands and was examining the frayed end.
“This rope has been recently severed,” he decided.
“Cut?” questioned Ralph.
“No, broken,” was the rejoinder.
“Then ther kid must have gone down the river,” said Baldy.
“Undoubtedly,” rejoined the captain.
“In that case we must follow the stream in search of him,” cried Walt.
“Yes. We will start as soon as possible, too. Baldy, see that everything is made ready for us at once.”
“Ain’t I going along, cap?” pleaded Baldy.
“No; I shall leave you in command of the camp till I return. In the meantime the boys and I will ride back with you to camp and prepare for our expedition.”
The boys’ faces were flushed with excitement as the return ride was begun. Eagerly they discussed between themselves the probabilities of recovering Jack, while the captain rode with bowed head as if buried in thought. The mystery of Jack’s fate worried him deeply, and he was beginning to think that there were more complications to it than he had at first imagined.
It was an hour after that the search party set forth. They carried blankets, emergency kits, food, firearms and hatchets. Also each had a stout rawhide lariat, each “rope” being about forty feet in length. Thus equipped they started out on what was to prove a most eventful journey, and one in which they were destined to encounter more surprises than they dreamed.
By sunset the first day of their search they found themselves in a wild canyon through which the river flowed swiftly. Camp was made at a spot near which a clear spring of water gushed from a wall of the place. It was slightly alkaline, but they did not mind that, as it was preferable even as it was to the muddy, discolored waters of the Rio Grande. The ponies were picketed, a fire was lighted, supper cooked and things put in order for the night.
It was not a cheerful party that gathered about the camp fire. All of them were pretty well exhausted and disheartened by their absolute failure to find any trace of Jack. Captain Atkinson alone would not admit discouragement. He did all he could to keep up the flagging spirits of the two lads, and after supper had been despatched he inquired if they would care to hear some of his experiences on the Border.
“Gladly,” declared Ralph, relieved to hear something that might, for a time at least, take his mind off the possible predicament of his chum.
Captain Atkinson paused to cram his old black pipe with strong tobacco, light it with a glowing coal, and then plunged into his story. As he talked the murmuring voice of the river and the sighing of the night wind in the scanty trees of the canyon formed a fitting accompaniment to his narrative.
“Some years ago,” he began, “I was foreman of a small ranch in the neighborhood of Las Animos, in the eastern part of the state. It was at a time when cattle and horse thieves, ‘rustlers’ as we call them, had been particularly active. Hardly a rancher in the vicinity but had suffered from their depredations, and feeling ran pretty high against them, I can tell you.
“Well, our ranch, which was known as the Flying U, had managed somehow to escape unscathed, although all round us the rustlers had been operating boldly and openly. Their method was to raid a ranch, drive the cattle or horses across the Border and then sell them to Mexican dealers, who drove them to the coast and there disposed of them as best they could. Many were shipped to European ports, so I heard.
But it was impossible that our ranch should long remain untouched in the midst of the general robberies and rascality going on. Although we guarded against it in every possible way, one night our ‘Far Pasture’ as it was called, was raided and a fine bunch of young steers carried off. It was known that the leader of the band was a man named Alvarez; but beyond this fact and the further one that he had been a leader in several of the frequent revolutions in his country, we knew little about him. He was, however, without doubt the most successful and daring rustler that the Border was ever harassed with.
“In fact, so bold was he, and so impossible of capture did he appear, that some of the more superstitious men in the district began to hint that he was of supernatural origin. Those were wild, uncultured days, and the belief began to spread. Every fresh raid added strength to the rumor, until at the time of the robbery of the Flying U I was unable to persuade anyone to accompany me in pursuit of Alvarez; for I was determined to take after the rascal even if the chase led me across the Border.
“It may have been a foolish resolve, but I was younger then and hot–blooded. Well, when I found that I would have to go alone or lose valuable time getting some men to accompany me, I delayed no longer. I oiled up my revolver and rifle and loaded some provisions on my saddle, together with a roll of blankets. Then, with a tough little pinto pony that was good for his fifty miles a day, I took the trail.
“I soon found that I had entered on a chase that was to prove more than I had bargained for. Not that I had any difficulty in picking up the trail of the stolen cattle – that part was easy enough. I followed it all day, and at night found myself not far from the river, in a country creased and criss–crossed by dry gulches and arroyos. It was a gloomy, desolate–looking place enough, but, as it was growing dark, I had no choice but to camp there.
“At the bottom of one of the arroyos I found a muddy, ill–smelling pool of seepage water. It did not taste good, so I fell back on what I had in my canteen and let the pinto drink it. The sun sank in a red ball of fire and there was a peculiar sulphury sort of smell in the air. But I was thinking of other things than the weather and sat up late under the stars figuring out the situation.
“The result of my mental activities was that I decided to rest till midnight, when the moon was high, and then plug on again. I knew the moon would be full, and figured that I could follow the trail all right by its light. I’ve always been pretty well broken in to the habit of waking up at the time I want to, and so it was within a few minutes of twelve o’clock when I was ready to start off once more.
“With my pony saddled, I mounted and was off on the path of adventure again. All that night I followed the trail, and by morning found myself over the Border and in Mexico. It was here that I decided to execute a bit of strategy. In my kit I had, in accordance with a half–formed scheme which had come into my mind before I set out, placed some Mexican–looking garments. As I spoke the language well and was dark enough to be taken for a Mexican anyhow, I didn’t think I’d have much difficulty in making myself out a native of the country in which I then was.
“You can readily see why I adopted this precaution. Mexicans always have, and always will, hate the Gringoes. They can’t help it any more than they can help their skins being dark. It’s bred in them, I suppose. So ‘into the enemy’s country’ as it were, I proceeded, feeling much more secure in my disguise.
“I soon had a chance to learn how nearly I approached to the character I had assumed. About noon that same day, after crossing a rather barren stretch of country covered with giant yuccas and stunted trees, I came in sight of a clump of willows, amidst which smoke was rising. At first my heart gave a bound. I knew I was still on Alvarez’s trail and for an instant I thought that he and his band were right ahead of me.
“But I was speedily undeceived. As I drew closer I saw that there was an adobe hut amidst the willows, and leaning on a gate in a tumble–down barb wire fence was a wild, unkempt figure, evidently that of the proprietor of the small, lonely ranch. Beards are rare among Mexicans, therefore I was somewhat surprised to see that the man I was approaching had one that almost reached his waist.
“On his face it reached his eyes, forming a little mask of hair, from amid which a pair of cunning, deep–set eyes scrutinized me closely. I bid the fellow good–day in Mexican and asked if I could rest and eat there, as well as obtain hay and water for my pony. He appeared to hesitate an instant, but then came to a sudden resolution. He swung the gate open with surly hospitality, and with a wave of his hand invited me to come in.
“I was not slow to accept the invitation. While he led the pony to an adobe barn in the rear of the place I entered the house. It was just like any other Mexican residence. Dark, cool and bare, except for chairs and a rough table. On the porch, roofed with willow boughs, was the inevitable water–cooler, or ‘olla,’ of porous earthenware. My host soon returned from his task of stabling the horse and informed me that he was keeping bachelor’s hall. His wife, he said, was away visiting friends in another part of the province.
“It was on the tip of my tongue to ask him if he had seen anything of Alvarez, but I refrained, urged to that decision by some mysterious instinct. While the man prepared a meal of corn paste, dried beef and frijoles, I caught him eying me curiously once or twice. I had told him I was a native of another province, on my way to Santa Rosalia, a town about twenty miles distant. I flattered myself that my disguise was so good that the fellow had not penetrated it. But in this, as you will hear, I was grievously wrong.
“The rough meal being cooked, we sat down and ate together. The man seemed a taciturn, ugly sort of chap, and replied to my questions in a sullen manner. Moreover, I didn’t half like the way he kept sizing me up, as it were. But I determined not to meet trouble half way, and made a good meal with as stout a heart as I could.
“The food despatched, I decided to push on, and informed the man of my intention. He said he would get my pony for me and left the place. I was helping myself to a drink from the olla in a gourd cup when my host reappeared. He looked much distressed, and, on my inquiring what was the matter, he informed me that my pony was ‘mucho malo’ meaning that the animal was sick.
“I wasted no words, but hastened to the stable. There, sure enough, was my poor pinto in a sad state of distress. His eyes were glassy, his coat wet with sweat, and he was shaking in every limb. One look at the animal was enough. I saw in a flash that he had been poisoned.
“With what motive it was easy enough to guess. The fellow had only too clearly seen through my disguise, and, being in sympathy with Alvarez, had determined to prevent me from following him further.
“My position was about as bad as it could well be. I was several miles from the Border and in a part of the country entirely strange to me. My first impulse was to attack the bearded man and seize one of his ponies in exchange for the one he had poisoned. But on second thoughts I decided to move more slowly in the matter. I guess I was aided in this determination by the fact that while I was examining the pony the bearded man had come stealthily into the stable, and, looking round suddenly, I caught him eying me intently.
“’What’s the matter with the pony?’ I asked in as easy a tone as I could assume.
“’Quien sabe?’ rejoined the man with a shrug of his shoulders. He went on to say that he thought the beast was locoed, meaning that he had eaten ‘loco’ weed, which possesses the peculiarity of driving horses crazy if it doesn’t kill them.
“It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I knew a great deal better, but I held myself in check and appeared to agree with him.
“’Well,’ said I, ‘since the pony is not fit to use, perhaps I can borrow one from you to continue my journey?’
“But, not much to my surprise, he shook his head. All his ponies, he said, were in a distant pasture, and till his wife returned he would not have one. He had hardly said this when there came a shrill whinny from some nearby point. Had the animal that uttered it meant to give the lie to his words, it could not have done so more effectually.
“As it was useless to affect not to have heard the whinny, I asked him how it was that the noise could have been heard so plainly from a distant pasture. He eyed me narrowly as he rejoined that the wind must have carried the sound.
“I kept my composure and merely nodded.
“’How far is it to the pasture?’ I asked.
“’Oh, quite some distance; too far to walk,’ he said.
“’Nevertheless, I’ll try to walk it,’ rejoined I, ‘for I must have a pony to continue my journey with.’
“At this he seemed to have arrived at a bold determination to cast all disguise aside.
“’Your journey stops here, beast of a Gringo!’ he shouted, and sprang at me like a tiger.
“Now I am of a pretty husky build, but what with the suddenness of the attack and the really remarkable strength of the man, I was completely taken off my guard. The fellow had me by the throat and was shaking the life out of me before I knew what had happened. What defense I could make I did. Whether I could have bested him or not I do not know, for in the height of our struggling I was thrown against the heels of my pony and the little brute lashed out viciously. One of its hoofs struck me, and I felt my senses go out under the blow.
“When I came to, I was lying in pitch darkness. As you can imagine, it was some little time before I could recollect just what had happened. When remembrance rushed back I pulled myself together and took stock. I found that I had received a blow on the side of the head, which, although painful, did not appear to be so bad as might have been expected.
“My next step was naturally to ascertain where I was. Groping about, I found that I was in a room, and there was little doubt in my mind that the room was in the house of the Mexican. As I had not been bound, the inference was plain that he had not thought it worth while to do so because there was no way of escape from the room.
“Fumbling in my pockets, I was rather surprised to find their contents intact. My knife, matches and money all were there. Perhaps the bearded man had intended to rifle me at his leisure, or perhaps he had not thought it worth while. However that may be, I was rejoiced beyond measure to find that at least I had the means of making a light.