So far as Jack could see, the country round about was not dissimilar in the main from that across the Border. It was a rolling country, grown with bunch grass and here and there a ghostly–looking yucca stretching its gaunt arms out against the sky. As far as the eye could reach this sort of country extended, except that in the distance was a purplish mass of what might have been either mountains or low–lying clouds.
But to the boy’s dismay there was not a sign of a human dwelling, nor of anything to indicate that life existed in that dreary plain.
“Gracious,” thought Jack, “this is really serious. I feel weak for want of food and I’m thirsty enough to drink a well dry. Surely, there must be some human beings in the vicinity. At least I’ll not give up hope.”
With a great sigh the boy struck out toward the east. He chose this direction because he thought it was as good as any other, and not for any particular reason. He trudged pluckily on across arid, rocky plains till the sun sank in a blaze of copper and gold behind his back.
It was then, and not till then, that Jack gave way. He flung himself down despairingly on the hot ground under the cheerless arms of a huge yucca.
“What is to become of me?” he cried in a dismayed tone. “What shall I do? Evidently this part of the country is good for neither ranching or mining, and is uninhabited. I might tramp on for days without finding a soul to help me. Am I doomed to end my life in this dreary place?”
These and a hundred other gloomy thoughts flitted through the boy’s mind as, utterly exhausted and unnerved, he lay on the ground beneath the yucca. What were his chums doing? he wondered. No doubt by this time a search party had been organized to seek for him, but Jack owned, with a sinking of the heart, that it was beyond the range of possibilities, almost, that they should ever find the Pool of Death and the secret valley.
“No,” he owned with bitter resignation, “my bones will bleach in this God–forgotten place, and none will ever know my fate.”
Then he thought of his home and his father, the stalwart ranchman, and tears welled up in his eyes and a great lump rose in his throat.
“Oh, it’s hard to have to die like this,” he moaned, “and yet there is nothing to be done. True, I may live for a day or two yet. I can start out again to–morrow morning and go on stumbling along till I drop exhausted.”
It was at this bitter moment that a sudden recollection of a favorite saying of his father’s came into the boy’s mind: “Never give up while you’ve a kick left in you.”
Jack thought of the bluff ranchman as the saying came back to him with poignant force.
“Never give up while you’ve a kick left in you.”
“For shame, Jack Merrill,” he said half aloud, “for shame, to be giving up this way. You’ve a kick left in you, many of them perhaps. What would your dad say if he saw you sitting down like a girl or a baby and giving in before you had to? Don’t you dare to do it again.”
Having thus scolded himself, Jack felt somewhat better, though there was still the great dread of a death in the desert upon him.
With this determination in his mind, the boy tried to compose himself for sleep. He knew that a good spell of slumber would refresh him almost as much as food or drink. Thus he unconsciously echoed the sentiments of the philosopher who declared that “He who sleeps, dines.”
At any rate, the practical Jack Merrill wished to be at his best when he started off once more on his wanderings, so he laid down and composed himself as comfortably as he could. Strange as it may seem that he could sleep under such conditions, slumber he did, although all sorts of wild dreams beset his rest. At one moment he was toiling over a burning desert under a pitiless sun, calling aloud for water. Then again he was in the shade of a delightful group of trees while bright crystal springs flashed and rippled. He was dreaming that he felt the delightful cooling sensation of a cold plunge into one of these rivulets when he awoke with a start.
Above him the stars glittered coldly. The yuccas, like grim sentinels, outstretched their gaunt, semaphore–like arms against the night sky. A breeze that seemed chilly after the heat of the day swept the dismal plain. The sensation of coming from that dream of cool green places to that dry, desolate, stony waste gave Jack a fresh shock; but, true to his determination to act as he knew his father would wish him to do, he shook off his gloomy depression and struck out once more toward the east, taking his direction from the North Star, which he sighted by means of the “pointers” in the Dipper.
As he strode forward the poor boy whistled “Marching Thro’ Georgia” to keep up his spirits. But the tune soon wavered and died out. His lips were too dry and cracked to make whistling anything but a painful process. Thereafter he trudged along in silence. Soon a rosy flush appeared in the east, and before long the sun rushed up and it was a new day.
But to Jack the coming of the sun meant fresh disappointment. He had hoped that with daylight he might perceive some house, however rough, or at least a road he could follow. But none appeared. He mounted to the highest bit of rocky land he could find in the vicinity in the hope that the elevation might aid him in surveying the country.
It did give him a wider outlook, it is true, but the extended range of vision brought no glad tidings of civilization to the boy. Nothing but that same dreary expanse of brush, yuccas, sand and rocks met his eye.
Jack set his teeth grimly. He faced the truth now squarely and without flinching. Unless by some miracle a human being came that way he was doomed. There was no evading the fact. Already his thirst had passed the uncomfortable stage and had become a mad craving for water.
He tried cutting the yucca stalks and extracting some moisture from them. But though they yielded some acrid juice, it did little to assuage his pangs. It was about a mile from the spot where he had mounted the little hill that Jack’s collapse came. For some time before he had been certain that his mind was acting strangely. He was distinctly conscious of another self, a second Jack Merrill walking by his side. He talked wildly to this visionary being. His talk was like the ravings of a boy in a high fever.
So weak had he become that the last mile had taken more than an hour to traverse. Hardly conscious of what he was doing, the boy had toiled doggedly on. But as the sun grew higher his strength grew less. At last his knees fairly buckled under him and he sank down in that stony, sun–bitten place, utterly incapable of further locomotion.
“It is the end,” he muttered, through scorched and blackened lips, as he sank, “oh, great heavens, it is the end!”
The sun beat pitilessly down on his form as it lay there in that shadeless expanse. Tiny lizards darted in and out among the scanty, dusty brush and glanced speculatively at him with their tiny bright eyes.
High in the burning blue vault of the sky a buzzard paused in its ceaseless wheelings, and, gazing down, saw that motionless form. By the magic that summons these birds of prey the sky above Jack’s still form was soon filled with them.
For a time they swung round and round; but gradually the boldest, from mere dots high in the air, became great black–winged birds with foul looking heads of bare red flesh and hideous curved beaks. First one and then another dropped to the ground a short distance from the boy’s form.
They hopped in a curious flopping fashion about him.
“Was the boy dead?” That was the question that they asked themselves as they eyed his still form with greedy, deep–set eyes.
The news that all their trouble had gone for naught, and that Jack had himself placed his rescue beyond their hands, struck the three newcomers to the valley dumb for an instant. But at last Captain Atkinson spoke:
“Of course, you have not forgotten me, Alvarez?”
“That is hardly likely, se?or capitan,” rejoined Alvarez, a slight smile playing across his swarthy features; “one does not forget such encounters as our last one.”
“So I perceive. But this time you will not escape so easily. You are to consider yourself my prisoner.”
The Mexican shrugged his shoulders.
“I am not in a position to attempt to escape,” he said resignedly.
“How did you come to be in this valley with Jack Merrill?” was the next question.
Alvarez, who doubtless saw that his best course was to tell the truth, launched into a fairly accurate account of the adventures on the raft, and the thrilling descent into the Pool of Death. Ralph Stetson shuddered as he listened. Walt looked almost incredulous. It seemed hard to believe that any human being could have “shot” that awful cataract and lived.
By this time it was dark, and, as it would have been too dangerous to attempt using the improvised rope ladder at night, Captain Atkinson decided to camp where they were. Alvarez was not bound, as his captors deemed it impossible for him to escape. Instead, he sat around the fire with them, and to anyone not knowing the circumstances he appeared more like a friend or a member of the party than an alien prisoner.
But they had not counted on the wily ways of the ex–cattle rustler. Even Captain Atkinson, old plainsman as he was, was completely taken in by the seeming resignation of Alvarez to his fate. For this reason no guard was placed on the man that night. This Captain Atkinson was to regret bitterly some hours later, for, when day dawned, there was no sign of Alvarez.
The Ranger guessed the truth at once. Alvarez had overheard their talk about the rope ladder and the ponies which had been left tethered in the grass at the falls. There was not the slightest doubt that he had made use of the ladder in the night, and helped himself to one of the ponies. If he had not taken all three they would be lucky, thought the captain.
The boys were anxious to set off in pursuit of the escaped prisoner at once, but Captain Atkinson made them prepare and eat a scanty breakfast first.
“Alvarez must be miles away by this time,” he said, “that is, provided he made the climb in safety.”
After breakfast no time was lost in striking out for the falls. The ladder was just as they had left it, except that one of the cross sticks had snapped, showing that someone must have climbed it in the darkness and missed his footing.
“We are at least fortunate that he left the ladder,” said Captain Atkinson. “I had a half–formed fear that he would have destroyed it.”
“Surely he would not have done such a dastardly thing as that!” exclaimed Walt.
“All is fair in love and war, you know,” rejoined the Captain with a smile, “and Alvarez is at war with us.”
“I’m not bothering so much about him,” said Ralph with a sigh, “in fact, I think it was good riddance of bad rubbish to lose him. It’s poor Jack I’m worrying about.”
“Let us hope that he has found his way to a settlement and that by this time he is on his way back to camp,” said Captain Atkinson cheerfully. “Why, it’s even possible that he may get there ahead of us.”
The cheery tones of their leader greatly heartened both the lads and the climb up the ladder was made in good spirits. As soon as they reached the surface they hurried to where the ponies had been tethered. Walt and Jack’s animals were both there, but the captain’s had gone. Pinned to one of the saddles was a hastily scribbled note on a bit of paper seemingly torn from an old account book.
Captain Atkinson unfolded this missive and read it aloud. It was in Spanish, but he translated as he went along.
“Dear Se?or Capitan:
“Thank you very much for your consideration in leaving me a pony and allowing me a chance to get out of that odious valley. Adios; possibly we may meet again; till which time I am your devoted servant and humble admirer.“Alvarez.”
“Well,” laughed the captain, “that’s a characteristic bit of Mexican writing. A man steals your horse and breaks his parole and then signs himself ‘your devoted servant.’”
“What’s to be done now?” asked Walt.
“We shall have to take turns riding the remaining ponies double. It will make our progress slow, but it is the only thing to be done. Let us lose no more time but saddle up and get started at once.”
This was done; and half an hour later the three travelers had left beyond ear–shot the sound of the falls that thundered unceasingly into the Pool of Death.
The boldest of the unclean birds that surrounded Jack’s unconscious form were quite close to him when in the air above, where some others were still wheeling about before descending, there came a sudden disturbance and flapping of wings. High above the highest of the circling buzzards was what at first appeared to be merely a larger bird of prey. But a second glance would have shown that besides size, this new winged creature possessed many other points of difference from the bird creation. Behind it streaked out a long trail of blue smoke, and it could be seen that seated in it, between the wings, were the figures of two men. It was, in fact, an aeroplane of the biplane type, powerfully engined and commissioned by the Mexican government for use as a scout ship to spy out the haunts of the rebels.
Its two occupants were Lieut. Jos? Sancho and Lieut. Manuel Diaz of the Mexican army. They had been flying since daybreak, scouting the country thoroughly in search of information of the rebels’ whereabouts. The great flock of buzzards had attracted their attention, and Lieut. Sancho, who was at the wheel, while his comrade scanned the country through field glasses, had steered the airship in the direction of the great birds.
“Can you see anything?” he asked Lieut. Diaz as the airship drove in among the birds, scaring them off with hoarse cries.
“Yes. There is something on the ground.”
“It must be some dead animal. No human being could have found his way into this miserable desert.”
Lieut. Sancho was about to put the airship on its course once more when his brother officer gave a startled exclamation.
“By the saints!” he exclaimed, “this is strange.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why, what attracted those buzzards was no dead steer or horse.”
“What then was it?”
“The figure of a boy or a man lying face downward.”
“Is he dead, do you think?”
“It is impossible to tell.”
“Shall we descend and see?”
“We might as well, although, to speak the truth, I can’t conceive that anyone could have wandered into this desert and lived.”
“Nor I. Still it is our duty to find out.”
“Undoubtedly. Let us land on that little hillock yonder and then we can make an examination.”
Down swooped the great airship, landing without a jar on the bare little hill Lieut. Diaz had mentioned.
As soon as the craft touched the ground the two Mexican officers were out of it, and, after attending to the motor, hastened over the sandy soil to Jack’s side.
“Santa Maria! It is but a boy,” exclaimed Lieut. Sancho as he turned the inanimate form over.
“Todos los Santos, so it is. A fine–looking fellow, too. But is there any trace of life in him?”
For answer Lieut. Sancho shook his head mournfully.
“I fear we have come too late,” he said, bending over Jack to try to catch the least flicker of life.
His companion produced a tiny mirror, part of a pocket toilet set he carried. Lieut. Sancho took it and held it over Jack’s lips.
“Praise the saints, there is still life in him. See!”
He held up the mirror for his companion’s inspection. It was blurred faintly, showing that the boy was still breathing.
“Get the emergency outfit,” was the next order of the young Mexican officer, and his companion soon produced the required kit from a box under the seat of the military biplane.
The kit was the same as used by the armies of most civilized nations. It contained, besides bandages and antiseptics for wounds, stimulants and other drugs. Forcing Jack’s lips open, the lieutenant gave him some stimulant, and was rewarded before long by a faint stirring on the part of the boy.
He redoubled his efforts to revive him, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing the boy’s eyes open and stare wildly about him. Not more than ten minutes later Jack was sipping a cup of water and explaining, between gulps, how he came to be in such a predicament. The officers listened with interest and nodded appreciatively as the boy told his story.
“This Alvarez is one of the most dangerous of the revolutionaries,” declared Lieut. Sancho. “Since President Madero’s accession he has kept things in the province stirred up in constant turmoil.”
“His presence in this part of the country shows that the rebel troops cannot be far off,” struck in Lieut. Diaz, “so that we have to thank our young friend here for some valuable information.”
“And I have to thank you for my life,” exclaimed Jack warmly. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“By consenting, if you feel strong enough, to take a ride with us in our aeroplane. What you told us about Alvarez makes me anxious to be off as soon as possible. If he is still in that valley we can capture him, and that will be a crushing blow to the revolutionaries.”
Jack had seen aeroplanes before, but never at as close range as this military one. It was painted a dark olive, with wings of a dull gray color, the object being to make it as inconspicuous as possible. It had a powerful six–cylinder motor and was driven by twin propellers. It was built to carry two, but there was room on a folding seat for a third passenger. Jack was told to occupy this extra seat and then Lieut. Sancho and his comrade climbed on board.
“Hold tight!” cried Lieut. Sancho as he started his engine.
Steady as Jack’s nerves usually were, he felt rather alarmed at the uproar that ensued. From the exhaust pipes of the motor smoke and flame shot viciously. The slender fabric of the aeroplane shook tremulously as the pulsations of the mighty engine racked its frame.
But suddenly another sound broke in – a sound that Jack had heard too often before not to recognize it instantly.
It was the song of a bullet – the long drawn ze–e–e–ee of a rifle projectile.
The two officers were as swift to hear the sound as Jack. Glancing up, the three beheld simultaneously a body of horsemen sweeping down on them from a range of barren–looking hills in the distance. As they rode they fired till a perfect fusilade of bullets was whistling around the aeroplane.
They were a wild–looking body of men. Most of them wore the sugar loaf or cone–peaked hat of the Mestizo, and their serapes streamed out in the breeze behind them. Dust and sweat covered their ponies, and a great cloud of gray dust enveloped them.
“Viva Alvarez!” they cried as they swept on.
Lieut. Sancho saw that to resist them would be hopeless. Instead he devoted all his efforts to starting his motor. At last, just as the foremost of the horsemen were upon them, the aeroplane gave a jump forward and scudded off like a live thing over the crowd.
This sudden motion of the great winged man–made bird so terrified the ponies of the rebels, for a detachment of the revolutionists they were, that the little creatures became uncontrollable and dashed off in every direction. All the shouts and curses of their owners failed to rally them, and after running a few hundred feet the aeroplane soared aloft, unharmed except for a few bullet holes in her planes.
The sensation was a delightful one. As the bumping motion caused by the run over the ground ceased, it felt to Jack as if he was riding on billows of the softest cloud fabric. He had not the slightest fear and watched Lieut. Sancho with interest while he manipulated the various levers and wheels. As they flew the officer showed Jack just how the air craft worked. He even let him take the wheel for an instant, and declared that the boy acquitted himself like a born airman. The aeroplane being fitted with stability devices of automatic construction, it was, of course, possible to do this, where in another sort of air machine it might have been dangerous to allow a novice to handle the control wheel.
As they rose higher Jack cast a look back. The country was stretched out like a panorama beneath him. On the plain he could see the detachment of revolutionaries galloping about trying in vain to reform their disorganized ranks.
“See if you can point out this wonderful valley of yours,” said Lieut. Diaz presently.
Before long Jack sighted the hidden valley which had been the scene of his thrilling climb. He recognized it by the tumbling cascade of water that thundered whitely into the Pool of Death.
“There! There it is yonder!” he cried.
“It is indeed a wonderful place,” commented Lieut. Sancho as they hovered like a huge eagle above the cliff–walled valley. “If one did not know of it, it would be impossible to discover it.”
“Except by airship or by the Pool of Death,” said Jack.
Lieut. Sancho finally spied a good place to land and the aeroplane was dropped rapidly into the valley. It settled with hardly a jar or a quiver, much to Jack’s astonishment, who had feared it would collide with the ground with considerable force.