“I struck a match and as its yellow light flickered up I saw that my prison place was a bare room with whitewashed walls, one small window high up, and a heavy door with formidable–looking iron hinges and lock. I was approaching the door with the intention of trying if it was possible to effect an escape that way when a key grated in the keyhole.
“At the same instant the match burned my fingers and went out.”
“The next moment the door was flung open and a flood of light rushed into the room. The latter came from a lantern carried by the bearded man, who was the individual that had unlocked the door. In a flash it came to me to employ the fellow’s own tactics on himself. Before he had recovered from his evident astonishment at seeing me on my feet, I flung myself at him like a thunderbolt.
“With the lantern he could not raise his hands in time to defend himself, and he went down under my onslaught like a log. And then a startling and astonishing thing occurred. My fingers had become entangled in that monstrous beard, and in pulling them away the mass of black hair came with them. It was as if a mask had been pulled off and revealed the face underneath.
“The countenance I then beheld was the last on earth I expected to see just then.
“It was that of Alvarez himself. He snarled like a vicious dog when he saw what I had done. But I had him down and he could do nothing. I forgot to mention that when he entered the room he had with him a coil of hair rope, no doubt intending to bind me before I should recover consciousness. I now used this on Alvarez while he bit and literally foamed at the mouth. It was turning the tables with a vengeance.
“’Now then, you hound,’ I said, when I had finished, ‘tell me where those cattle are and where your ponies are, or I’ll kill you here and now instead of taking you back across the Border.’
“Of course, I had no intention of carrying out such a threat; but I put on such a ferocious look as I spoke that the fellow changed from a defiant, snapping wolf to a timid, cowering cur in an instant. He begged me to save his life and he would tell me the whole truth.
“’See that you do,’ I said sternly.
“He told me that the lonely house was used as headquarters for his gang, all of whom were now absent on a drive in another part of the province.
“I was glad enough to hear this, for I by no means fancied having a big fight on my hands, which would have been the case had the rascal’s companions reappeared. My next questions, of course, dealt with the whereabouts of the stolen cattle. He told me they were all rounded up in a gulch not far from the house. I told him that at daybreak we would go and get them and that he should help me drive them back across the Border.
“To this he readily consented and side by side we waited for daylight. As soon as it broke we made a hasty meal, I having to feed my prisoner, for I dared not release his hands.
“I tied Alvarez’s feet together under his pony’s body and made him ride in front of me all the way to a range of low hills, in which he said lay the place were the stolen cattle were ‘cached’ before being driven to the coast. It was a wild and desolate–looking spot, but after traversing the foothills of the dreary range we came to a valley in which there was a stream and a plentiful crop of wild oats and bunch grass. Feeding placidly amongst these was a bunch of cattle which I instantly recognized as those I was in search of.
“I made Alvarez help me round them up and then began a drive the like of which I never participated in before. We stopped at the ranch house on the return journey for the pinto, who was, by this time, strong enough to be led behind one of the other ponies. What a drive that was! Besides watching the cattle, I had to keep a constant eye on Alvarez, whom I had determined to bring back a captive to the States.
“But in spite of all my vigilance the tricky fellow escaped me. Rightly judging that I valued the cattle more than his worthless hide, he waited till we reached the vicinity of the Border. Then, taking his opportunity when the cattle were restless, he struck spurs to his horse and, tied as he was, dashed off. I fired after him, but that did not stop him. The last I saw of him was a cloud of dust. It would have been useless to pursue him, so I devoted myself to the cattle, and the next night brought them home again safe and sound.
“Soon after that I became a Ranger, and have remained one ever since. I’d like to tell you lads other tales of the Border, but it is late and we must make an early start, so now – good–night.”
“Good–night,” echoed the boys, who had listened with the deepest interest to the grizzled Ranger’s story, “we shall dream of that lone ranch house.”
“I often do, I can assure you,” rejoined Captain Atkinson, with a laugh. “I wonder if Alvarez does. I’ve never heard of him from that day to this, except that I did hear some place that he had become a revolutionary leader in Mexico.”
At the moment Captain Atkinson little imagined how close he was to a second meeting with the notorious Alvarez, revolutionist and cattle rustler.
Jack flung himself face downward on the turf at the crest of the precipice he had so miraculously conquered. His senses were swimming, his lungs felt as if they would burst, his heart beat wildly, shaking his frame. In truth the boy had come perilously close to the limit of endurance. The feat he had accomplished would have been a test to a hardened Border man, let alone a youth.
For the first few minutes Jack felt a deep conviction that he was going to die – and he didn’t much care. But as life came back he struggled to his feet and began to look about him. First he peered down into the valley he had left to see if he could signal Alvarez and give him to understand that he was bringing help if possible. But deep purple shadows now obscured the valley floor, and he could see nothing of the drama that was taking place below him.
It will be recalled, of course, that we left Alvarez thunderstruck at the approach of three figures along the valley from the direction of the Pool of Death. This was just after he had watched Jack’s speck–like form vanish over the cliff top. For the sake of clearness we will now relate what took place in the valley following Alvarez’s discovery of the approach of the newcomers, and then go on to tell what befell Jack after his recovery from exhaustion.
Alvarez kept his eyes fixed in wonderment on the trio as they came down the valley. All at once he recognized one, slightly in advance, with a cry of astonishment. At the same instant Captain Atkinson, for it was he, recognized Alvarez. For an instant neither spoke, and the two lads accompanying the captain, who, as the reader will have guessed, were Ralph Stetson and Walt Phelps, also came to a halt.
“What’s the matter, captain?” inquired Ralph, regarding the Mexican with some astonishment, for his perturbation was only too evident.
“Why, boys, of all the adventures that have befallen us since we set out to look for Jack this is the most surprising.”
“How is that?” inquired Ralph.
“Simply that this man before us is the very Alvarez about whom I told you the other night.”
But the reader must be wondering how the captain of the Rangers and the two lads came to be in the inaccessible valley. To explain this we must, at the risk of being tedious, go back a few hours.
The morning following Captain Atkinson’s narration of his experience with Alvarez the trail had once more been taken up. Before many hours had passed the searchers came to the fork in the Rio, and stopped almost nonplussed. They had no means of judging whether the boat or raft which they believed had carried off Jack had gone down the Rio or had been swept down the branch stream.
The question was decided in an ingenious manner by Captain Atkinson. Some distance above the fork in the stream lay a big log near the water’s edge. Doubtless it had been carried down in some freshet. At any rate, to the Ranger’s shrewd mind it suggested a way of solving the problem. Under his direction the boys rolled it into the stream, wading out with it as far as they dared.
Then they watched it as the river swept it along. At the fork a current caught the log and whirled it off down the branch stream.
“That decides it,” declared Captain Atkinson, “we will follow the fork of the Rio. If Jack was on anything that floated it would have been swept from the main stream in the same way as that log.”
They then proceeded to find a way to cross the main stream so as to get on the bank of the branch current. They soon found a ford about a mile up the river. After some cautious reconnoitering Captain Atkinson decided to cross the stream at that point. But he warned the boys that they might have to swim with their horses before they reached the other side.
“It is impossible to tell if there aren’t deep holes in the middle of the stream,” he said. “In case we do flounder into any of them just fling yourself from the saddle, keeping hold of the pommel. Then let the ponies do the rest and they will land you safe and sound.”
For the first few yards all went well. The water came up to the ponies’ withers, but it did not appear to get deeper. Ralph was just congratulating himself that they would get across with ease and safety if things continued that way when his pony suddenly floundered into a deep hole. Instantly it lost its footing and went clear under.
Ralph had not time to extricate his feet from the stirrups, and was carried with it. As he vanished from view under the turbid current an alarmed cry broke from both Captain Atkinson and Walt Phelps.
“He’s drowning!” cried Walt in alarmed tones.
“It is just as I feared,” cried Captain Atkinson, “the pony struck a water hole and – ”
“Look, there’s the pony now!” cried Walt as the little animal reappeared and began swimming for the bank.
“But where is Ralph?”
Without waiting to make any reply to Captain Atkinson, Walt suddenly wheeled his pony. Down the stream he had seen an arm extended above the muddy current. He knew that it was Ralph’s.
There was no hesitation in the boy’s manner as he turned his pony, and, plunging the spurs in deep, drove him through the water. All at once Walt and his pony floundered into the same hole that had been Ralph’s undoing. At the same instant a sudden swirl of the current caught Ralph, who, though half drowned, was making a brave struggle. The momentary halt was the chance that Captain Atkinson had been looking for.
He had followed close on Walt’s heels and now, while the latter was struggling to maintain a hold on his swimming pony, the captain of the Rangers uncoiled his lariat.
Swish! It shot out in a long rolling coil and fell fairly about the shoulders of the struggling Ralph Stetson. Although half choked into insensibility with the water he had swallowed, Ralph still maintained enough sense to grasp the rawhide while Captain Atkinson drew it tight.
When the coil was fast the captain backed his pony upstream until Ralph had been dragged to shallow water. Then he pulled him out and laid him on the bank, gasping and almost drowned. In the meantime Walt Phelps had succeeded in extricating himself from his perilous position, and he and his pony, drenched through and dripping, arrived on the bank almost at the same time as Ralph was dragged ashore.
Captain Atkinson had some simple remedies in his kit and he applied these to Ralph, who was soon able, as he put it, “to sit up and take notice.” As he did so the stumbling pony, which had been the cause of all the trouble, came up and sniffed at his master curiously.
“Well, Spot–nose,” said Ralph, using the name he had given the little beast, “you almost caused me to find a watery grave.”
The pony whinnied as if to show that he was sorry and was willing to apologize. This view of the circumstance made them all laugh. By this time Captain Atkinson had a roaring fire going, by the side of which they dried themselves, and there was soon a decidedly more cheerful tone to the party.
“It makes me shiver, though, when I think of that narrow escape,” said Ralph as they prepared to continue their journey.
“That is just an incident of life here on the Border,” declared Captain Atkinson. “It’s such things as those that make a man or a boy know that there is a divine Providence watching over us. No man who has lived on the desert or at sea doubts that there is a watchful eye upon us, saving by seeming miracles from disaster and death.”
“That is so,” agreed Walt soberly, “I’ve often heard my father say that the best cure for religious doubts is to have a man come out here on the Borderland. He says that heaven and earth are closer here than in the cities or in the more civilized portions of the country.”
They rode on, following the branch of the Rio, tracing, although they did not at the time know it, the course of the runaway raft on which Jack had made his wild trip.
It was late that afternoon that they came to the falls that thundered down into the Pool of Death.
Awe–struck by the wild and gloomy majesty of the scene, not one of the party spoke for a time. It was Walt who broke the silence, shouting above the mighty roaring of the falls.
“Can Jack have gone over this cataract and lived?” he said.
Captain Atkinson shook his head gloomily.
“It looks bad,” he said. “If the boy was plunged over such a place only one of those miracles of which we spoke awhile back can have saved his life.”
“How can we reach the foot of the falls?” asked Ralph in a quavery tone.
The sublimity of the scene and its suggestion of ruthless power and pitiless force had overawed him.
“We must look about for a way,” declared Captain Atkinson, “at any rate we won’t turn back till we know, or at least are reasonably certain, of Jack’s fate.”
For some time they searched about the summit of the steep cliffs surrounding the Pool of Death without coming on any path or series of ledges by which they could hope to gain the foot of the falls. But at last Captain Atkinson halted by a rock that towered up like a pinnacle or obelisk. It stood at the edge of the cliffs, at a spot where they did not appear more than a hundred feet or so high.
“We might be able to get down from here,” he decided.
The boys peered over the edge of the cliff. It was perpendicular and steep as a wall. It was hard to imagine even a fly maintaining a hold on it.
But they knew that Captain Atkinson was not the man to speak without reason, and so they respectfully waited for him to continue.
“I estimate the height of this cliff at a trifle under one hundred feet,” he said, “therefore we have a means of getting to the bottom.”
“I don’t see how,” rejoined Ralph.
“My boy, you will never make a Ranger if you can’t make the best of a situation,” said Captain Atkinson in a tone of mild reproof. “We have the three lariats. Their united length is one hundred and twenty feet. That will allow us a chance to knot some sticks into the united ropes and thus make a sort of rope ladder. We can secure it ’round this spindle–shaped rock and so reach the foot of the falls without much difficulty.”
The boys hailed the idea with enthusiasm, Ralph saying:
“Well, I am a chucklehead. Why on earth didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you’re not a full–fledged Texas Ranger,” laughed Walt. “I guess there’s more to being a Ranger than we thought.”
“I guess there is,” agreed Ralph contritely.
The three ropes were fetched from the saddles and one long one made out of them. Then stout sticks were knotted in at long intervals so as to form a rough kind of ladder.
“Now, then,” said Captain Atkinson, when he had fastened the rope about the obelisk–shaped rock, “I will go first and test it.”
“Would it not be better if one of us, who are lighter, took your place?” asked Ralph, unwilling to see the daring Texas Ranger risk his life.
“No. It is my duty to go first. If it will bear me, it will bear you.”
So saying, Captain Atkinson began that thrilling descent. The boys, lying flat, with their heads extended over the rim of the Pool of Death, watched him till he reached the ground. They could not restrain a cheer when they saw that the feat had been accomplished in safety. In response Captain Atkinson waved his hand up to them.
“Now, boys, it is your turn,” he cried encouragingly.
After a moment’s argument, for each wished the other to have the honor of going first, Ralph was persuaded to make the descent. He reached the ground safely, and was soon standing beside Captain Atkinson. Then came Walt’s turn, after which the three adventurers were united.
“What an awful place!” shuddered Ralph, glancing about him nervously.
“Yes, let us be pushing on. It is high time we – Great heavens, look here!”
The captain had stopped abruptly at the rock on which Jack had dried out his dripping garments. What he had seen had been the ashes of the fire the lad had kindled.
“Some one has lit a fire here,” cried Ralph as he, too, saw the embers.
“Yes, and not long ago, either.”
Captain Atkinson bent over and picked up a handful of the blackened embers, examining them carefully.
“This fire is not over forty–eight hours old,” he exclaimed in a voice that fairly shook with suppressed excitement.
“And that means that Jack has – ”
“In some miraculous way been swept over those falls and survived. Let us press on at once. Before dark we may have him with us again.”
At these words new life seemed to course through the veins of the two exhausted young Rangers. They plucked up energy and courage from the captain’s manner.
“Forward,” cried their leader, plunging into the narrow passage which we have seen Jack traverse.
Entering the valley, they had hardly gotten over the first shock of their surprise at its extent and formation when the keen eyes of Captain Atkinson discovered the figure of the Mexican.
“What can this mean?” he exclaimed. “Yonder is a man watching us. Let us go up to him at once and find out what this means; perhaps Jack has found friends; perhaps the valley is inhabited.”
It was a moment later that the scene of recognition which we have described took place.
“How came you here, se?ors?” demanded the Mexican, who, seemingly, was the first to recover his self–possession.
For reply Captain Atkinson whipped out his revolver with incredible swiftness and leveled it at the fellow’s head.
“Speak the truth, Alvarez,” he snapped, “or it will be the worse for you. Where is Jack Merrill?”
“If you mean the boy who was dashed over the falls with me,” was the reply, “he has gone.”
“Answer me quick, Alvarez.”
The brow of Captain Atkinson puckered angrily, his countenance grew dark.
“It is as I say, se?or. What object would I have in lying to you? The boy climbed yonder cliff but this minute and has vanished.”
Although they would have liked to disbelieve the fellow’s story, and incredible as it seemed that a human being could have climbed that cliff, there was an unmistakable ring of sincerity in the man’s tone; it was impossible to make light of his tale.
“Boys, we have run against a blank wall,” spoke Captain Atkinson at length, with heavy anxiety in his tone.
“Do you think Jack is safe?” breathed Ralph.
“Heaven, in whose power he is, alone knows,” was the earnest rejoinder.
Jack’s first thought when he rose to his feet had been, as we know, to signal the Mexican whom he had left behind him, and try to assure him by sign language that he would do all in his power to bring rescuers to the valley. Not that the boy had any particular affection for the swarthy Alvarez; but naturally, with his warm, forgiving temperament, he hated the idea of leaving a fellow being behind without hope of succor.
But the dark shadows of evening hid the valley from him, and the boy was forced to set forward without having had a chance to signal the Mexican, or to witness a scene that would have interested him in an extraordinary degree, namely, the arrival of his chums and Captain Atkinson.
Naturally enough, the first thing that Jack did when he found himself at the top of the dread precipice was to look about him and see what kind of country it was into which he had fallen, or rather, climbed. While it was rapidly growing dark in the valley below, the sun still shone brightly on the heights above, although the luminary of day was not far from the horizon.