Infomotions, Inc.The Border Boys Across the Frontier / Goldfrap, John Henry, 1879-1917



Author: Goldfrap, John Henry, 1879-1917
Title: The Border Boys Across the Frontier
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): pete; jack; coyote pete; mesa; ralph; walt; coyote; buck bradley; buck; ralph stetson; walt phelps; bob harding; haunted mesa; black ramon; professor; rejoined pete
Contributor(s): Kerr, James, 1847-1905 [Contributor]
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Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 50,409 words (really short) Grade range: 7-10 (grade school) Readability score: 68 (easy)
Identifier: etext19083
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Title: The Border Boys Across the Frontier


Author: Fremont B. Deering



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THE BORDER BOYS ACROSS THE FRONTIER

by

FREMONT B. DEERING

Author of
  "The Border Boys on the Trail,"
  "The Border Boys with the Mexican Rangers,"
  "The Border Boys with the Texan Rangers,"
  "The Border Boys in the Canadian Rockies,"
  "The Border Boys Along the St. Lawrence."







[Frontispiece: "Right off there!  Look!  Look!"  The lanky cow puncher
pointed out beyond the shadow of the solitary mesa.]




A. L. Burt Company
Publishers ---------- New York
Copyright, 1911, by
Hurst & Company




CONTENTS


CHAPTER

     I.  THE TRAIL OF THE HAUNTED MESA
    II.  THE SAND STORM
   III.  A NIGHT ALARM
    IV.  SOME QUEER TRACKS
     V.  THE HOLLOW ALTAR
    VI.  THE LEGEND OF A FORGOTTEN RACE
   VII.  WHAT CAME ACROSS THE DESERT
  VIII.  THE DARK FACE OF DANGER
    IX.  IN THE MESA DWELLERS' BURIAL GROUND
     X.  A NEW MEXICAN STYX
    XI.  THE CAMP OF THE GUN-RUNNERS
   XII.  MADERO'S FLYING COLUMN
  XIII.  IN THE CAMP OF THE INSURRECTOS
   XIV.  "DEATH TO THE GRINGOES!"
    XV.  A RACE FOR LIFE
   XVI.  WHAT HAPPENED TO COYOTE PETE
  XVII.  BOB HARDING DOES "THE DECENT THING"
 XVIII.  THE TABLES TURNED
   XIX.  BUCK BRADLEY'S AUTOMOBILE
    XX.  AT THE ESMERALDA MINE
   XXI.  AN ACT OF TREACHERY
  XXII.  AT ROSARIO STATION
 XXIII.  JACK MERRILL'S "SPECIAL"
  XXIV.  THE ATTACK ON THE MINE
   XXV.  THE LAST STAND.--CONCLUSION




ILLUSTRATIONS


"Right off there!  Look!  Look!"  The lanky cow puncher pointed out
beyond the shadow of the solitary mesa . . . . . . _Frontispiece_

As it flared up, all three recoiled with expressions of dismay.  At
their very feet was a deep chasm.

A tempest of lead rattled about the engine.  Almost before they
realized it, they had swung around the curve.




The Border Boys Across the Frontier.


CHAPTER I.

THE TRAIL OF THE HAUNTED MESA.

"Can you make out any sign of the mesa yet, Pete?"

The speaker, a sun-bronzed lad of about seventeen, mounted on a bright
bay pony with a white-starred forehead, drew rein as he spoke.  Shoving
back his sombrero, he shielded his eyes from the shimmering desert
glare with one hand and gazed intently off into the southwest.

"Nope; nary a speck, so fur.  Queer, too; we ought to be seein' it by
now."

Coyote Pete, as angular, rangy and sinewy as ever, gazed as intently in
the same direction as the lad, Jack Merrill, himself.  The pause
allowed the remainder of the party to ride up.  There was Ralph
Stetson, a good deal browner and sturdier-looking than when we
encountered him last in "The Border Boys on the Trail"; Walt Phelps,
the ranch boy, whose blazing hair outrivaled the glowing sun; and the
bony, grotesque form of Professor Wintergreen, preceptor of Latin and
the kindred tongues at Stonefell College, and amateur archaeologist.
Lest they might feel slighted, let us introduce also, One Spot, Two
Spot and Three Spot, the pack burros.

"I always had an idea that the Haunted Mesa formed quite a prominent
object in the landscape," put in Professor Wintergreen, referring to a
small leather-bound book, which he had just taken from one of his
saddle-bags.

"And I always had an idea," laughed Ralph Stetson, "that a landscape
meant something with brooks and green trees and cows and--and things,
in it."

The young son of "King Pin" Stetson, the Eastern Railroad King, looked
about him at the gray desert, above which the sun blazed mercilessly
down with all the intensity of a burning glass.  Here and there were
isolated clumps of rank-odored mesquite, the dreariest looking
gray-green bush imaginable.  The scanty specimens of this variety of
the vegetable life of the desert were interspersed here and there by
groups of scraggly, prickly cacti.  Across such country as this, the
party had been making its way for the past day and a half,--ever since,
in fact, they had left behind them the foothills of the Hachetas,
where, as we know, was located the ranch of Jack Merrill's father, and
had entered the dry, almost untravelled solitudes of the Playas.

Jack Merrill consulted a compass that was strapped to his wrist.

"Well, we're keeping steadily in the right direction," he said.
"Nothing for it but to keep on going; eh, Pete?"

"When yer cain't turn back, 'keep on goin's' a good word," assented the
philosophical cow-puncher of the Agua Caliente, stroking his
sun-bleached yellow moustache and untangling a knot in his pony's mane.

"It's up to us to get somewhere where there is water pretty quick," put
in Walt Phelps; "the last time I hit the little drinking canteen I
noticed that there wasn't an awful lot left in the others."

"No, and the stock's feelin' it, too," grunted Pete, digging his big,
blunt-roweled spurs into his buckskin cayuse.

Followed by Jack on his Firewater, the professor on his queer, bony
steed as angular as himself, Ralph on Petticoats--of exciting
memory,--and Walt Phelps on his big gray, they pushed on.

The heat was blistering.  In fact, to any one less accustomed to the
arduous intensity of the sun's rays in this part of the country, it
would have proved almost insupportable.  But our party was pretty well
seasoned by this time.

All of them wore the broad, leather-banded sombreros of the plainsmen
except Professor Wintergreen, who had invested himself in a gigantic
pith sun-helmet, from beneath which his spectacled countenance peered
out, as Ralph said, "Like a toad peeking out from a mushroom."  For the
rest, the boys wore leather "chaps," blue shirts open at the neck, with
loosely knotted red handkerchiefs about their throats.  The latter were
both to keep the sun off the back of their necks and to serve as
protection for their mouths and nostrils against the dust in case of
necessity,--as for example, when they struck a patch of burning, biting
alkali.  Of this pungent stuff, they had already encountered one or two
stretches, and had been glad to muffle up the lower part of their faces
as they rode through it.

As for Coyote Pete, those who have followed his earlier experiences are
pretty familiar with that redoubtable cow-puncher's appearance; suffice
it to say, therefore, that, as usual, he wore his battered leather
"chaps," faded blue shirt, and his big sombrero with the silver stars
affixed to the stamped leather band.  In a holster he carried a rifle,
as did the rest of the party, as well as his well-worn revolver.  The
others had provided themselves with similar weapons, although theirs
glittered in blatant newness beside Pete's battered, but well-cleaned
and oiled, "shootin' iron."

While they are pressing onward, with the Hachetas lying like a dim,
blue cloud far behind them, let us tell the reader something about the
quest that brings our party into the midst of this inhospitable place.
As readers of "The Border Boys on the Trail" know, Professor
Wintergreen had accompanied Jack Merrill and Ralph Stetson from
Stonefell College, some weeks before, to spend a vacation on the Agua
Caliente Ranch, belonging to Jack's father.  The professor, as well as
being on a vacation, was in a sense on a mission, for he bore with him
the commission of a well-known institute of science in the East to
investigate some of the mesas of this part of the world, and also to
procure relics and trophies of the vanished race that once inhabited
them, and accurate measurements of the strange formations.

Since their arrival at the ranch, some weeks before, events had so
shaped themselves as to render the immediate undertaking of his mission
impossible.  The descent of Black Ramon de Barros on the ranch, as we
have related, and the subsequent abduction of the boys to the old
Mission across the border, had so fully occupied their attention, that
all thought of the professor's errand had been lost sight of.

With Black Ramon, thanks to the boys, forever banished from his
cattle-rustling raids, and the subsequent tranquility of routine life,
had come a recollection of the professor's quest.  Coyote Pete, a few
days before this story opens, had volunteered to act as guide to the
professor and his party to a mesa seldom visited except by wandering
Indians and occasional cow-punchers.  This was the Haunted Mesa, the
location of which was so difficult to reach that previous relic-hunting
expeditions had not included it in their travels.

Mr. Merrill was the more willing to allow the boys to go along, as he
had been suddenly summoned into Chihuahua province, in Mexico, by
reports of trouble at a mine--The Esmeralda--he owned there.  Rumors of
an insurrection had reached him--an insurrection which meant great
peril to American interests.  He had, therefore, lost no time in
setting out to ascertain the true state of affairs at his mine, which,
while a small one, was still likely to develop in time into an
extremely valuable property.

Leaving the ranch in charge of Bud Wilson, he had started for the
Mexican country without waiting for the departure of the professor's
expedition.  A short time later, "Professor Wintergreen's Haunted
Mesans," as the boys insisted on calling themselves, had likewise
started on their quest.  With them, at Jack Merrill's invitation, went
Walter Phelps, the son of a ranching neighbor of Mr. Merrill.  Walt, it
will be recalled, had shared the perils and adventures of the boys
across the border, as related in the previous volume, and had been the
instrument of piloting them out of the mysterious valley in which Black
Ramon kept his plundered herds.

Mr. Merrill's last words had been ones of caution.

"Remember, boys, that if this trouble in Mexico attains real
proportions, life and property along the border may be in great danger.
In such a case, it will be your immediate duty to turn back."

"But, Dad," Jack had said, "you don't expect that plundering
insurrectos would have the audacity to come northward into the Playas?"

Mr. Merrill laughed.

"I didn't say there was any danger even here, my boy.  Least of all,
out in that barren country.  If there is an insurrection, it will
doubtless be put down without any trouble, but it is always well to be
prepared."

Like his brother ranchers along the border, Mr. Merrill at that time
had no idea of the seriousness or extent of the insurrection.  Had he
had, he would, of course, have prohibited the party leaving the ranch.
As it was, he, in common with his neighbors, deemed the insurrection
simply one of those little outbreaks that occur every now and again in
Mexico, and which hitherto had been promptly squashed by Diaz's army.
And so, with no real misgivings, the party had bidden the bluff,
good-natured rancher good-by, little dreaming under what circumstances
they were to meet again.

But all this time we have been allowing our party to travel on without
bestowing any attention upon them.  As the afternoon wore on, Coyote
Pete began to feel real apprehension about reaching their destination
that evening.  Walt Phelps' fear about the water had been verified.
The supply was getting low.  Provided they could "pick up" the mesa
they were in search of before sundown, however, this was not so serious
a matter as might have been supposed.  Coyote Peter knew that there was
a well at the mesa, the handiwork of the ancient desert-dwellers.

The really serious thing was, that although they had apparently been
traveling in the right direction, they had not yet sighted it.  The
cow-puncher knew, though he did not tell his young companions so, that
they should long since have spied its outlines.  Of the real
seriousness which their position might shortly assume, the boys had as
yet, little idea.  Coyote Pete was not the one to alarm them unless he
was convinced it was really necessary.

Suddenly, Jack, who had been riding a little in advance of the rest,
gave an exclamation and pointed upward at the sun.

"Say, what's the matter with the sun?" he exclaimed.

"Sun spots, I suppose," put in Ralph Stetson jokingly.

"I see what you mean," spoke up the professor; "it has turned quite
red, and there seems to be a haze overcasting the sky."

"It's getting oppressive, too," put in Walt Phelps.  "What's up, Pete?"

The cow-puncher had, indeed, for some time been noticing the same
phenomenon which had just attracted their notice, but he had hesitated
to draw their attention to it.  Now, however, he spoke, and his voice
sounded grave for one of Pete's usually lively temperament.

"It means that ole Mar'm Desert is gettin' inter a tantrum," he
grunted, "and that we're in an almighty fix," he added to himself.

"Is it going to rain?" inquired Ralph Stetson, as it grew rapidly
darker.

"Rain?" grunted Pete.  "Son, it don't rain here enough to cover the
back uv a dime, even if you collect all the water that fell in a year.
No, siree, what's comin' is a heap worse than rain."

"An electric storm?" queried the professor.

"No, sir--a sand storm," rejoined the cow-puncher bluntly.




CHAPTER II.

THE SAND STORM.

As he spoke, a queer, moaning sort of sound, something like the low,
distant bellow of a steer in pain, could be heard.  The air seemed
filled with it.  Coming from no definite direction, it yet impregnated
the atmosphere.  The air, too, began noticeably to thicken, until the
sun, from a pallid disc--a mere ghost of its former blazing self--was
blotted out altogether.  A hot wind sprang up and swept witheringly
about the travelers.

"Ouch!" exclaimed Ralph Stetson suddenly.  "Something stung me!"

"That's the sand, son," said Coyote Pete.  "The wind's commencin' ter
drive it."

"Is it going to get any worse?" inquired the professor anxiously.

"A whole lot, afore it gits any better," was the disconcerting reply.

"What'll we do, Pete?" asked Jack, turning to the cow-puncher.

It had now grown so dark that he could hardly see Pete's face.  It was
hot, too, with a heavy, suffocating sort of heat.  The wind that drove
the myriads upon myriads of tiny sand grains now darkening the air, was
ardent as the blast from an opened oven-door.

"Get your saddles off, quick!  Lie down, and put your heads under 'em,"
ordered the cow-puncher, briskly swinging himself out of his saddle as
he spoke.

The others hastened to follow his example.  It was not a minute too
soon.  Already their mouths were full of gritty particles, and their
eyes smarted as if they had been seared with hot irons.  The ponies
could hardly be induced to stand up while the process of unsaddling was
gone through.  As for the burros, those intelligent beasts had thrown
themselves down as soon as the halt was made.  With their heads laid as
low as possible, and their hind quarters turned to the direction of the
hot blast, they were as well prepared to weather the sand storm as they
could be.

The instant the saddles were off the ponies, down they flopped, too, in
the same positions as their long-eared cousins.  The bipeds of the
party made haste to follow their animals' example, only, in their case,
their heads were sheltered as snugly as if under a tent, by the big,
high-peaked, broad-flapped Mexican saddles.

It was well they had made haste, for, as Pete had said, the sand storm
was evidently going to get "a whole lot worse before it got better."
The air grew almost as black as night, and the wind fairly screamed as
it swept over them.  Jack could feel little piles of sand drifting up
about them, just as driven snow forms in drifts when it strikes an
obstruction.  How hot it was under the saddles!  The boys' mouths felt
as if they would crack, so dry and feverish had they become.

"Oh, for a drink of water!" thought Jack, trying in vain to moisten his
mouth by moving his tongue about within it.

All at once, above the screaming of the wind, the lad caught another
sound--the galloping of hoofs coming toward them at a rapid rate.  For
an instant the thought flashed across him that it was their own stock
that had stampeded.  He stuck his head out to see, braving the furious
sweep of the stinging sand.

He withdrew it like a tortoise beneath its cover, with a cry that was
only half of pain.  Through the driving sand he had distinctly seen
three enormous forms sweep by, seen like dim shadows in the gloom
around.  What could they have been?  In vain Jack cudgeled his brains
for a solution to the mystery.

The forms he had seen drift by had been larger than any horse.  So
vague had their outlines been in the semi-darkness, however, that
beyond an impression of their great size, he had no more definite idea
of the apparitions.  That they were travelling at a tremendous pace was
doubtless, for hardly had he sighted them before they vanished, and he
could not have had his head out of its shelter for more than a second
or so.

While the lad lay in the semi-suffocation of the saddle, his mind
revolved the problem, but no explanation that he could think of would
fit the case.  "Might they not have been wild horses?" he thought.

But no,--these were three times the size of any horse he had ever seen.
Besides, their blotty-looking outlines bore no semblance to the form of
a horse.

But presently something happened which put the thought of the
mysterious shadows out of his mind.  The wind began to abate.  To be
sure, at first it hardly seemed to have diminished its force, but in
the course of half an hour or so the party could once more emerge, like
so many ostriches, from their sand-piles, and gaze about them.

Very little sand was in the air now, but it was everywhere else.  In
their eyes, mouths, ears, while, if they shook their heads, a perfect
little shower of it fell all about them.  The animals, too, struggling
to their feet out of the little mounds that had formed around them,
were covered with a thick coat of grayish dust.  It was a sorry-looking
party.  With red-rimmed eyes, cracked, parched lips and swollen
tongues, they looked as if they had been dragged through a blast
furnace.

The sky above them now shone with its brilliant, metallic blue once
more, while ahead, the sun was sinking lower.  In a short time it would
have set, and, as Ralph Stetson, in a choked voice, called for "Water,"
the same thought flashed across the minds of all of them simultaneously.

If they didn't get water pretty soon, their predicament promised to be
a serious one.

An examination of the canteens showed that not much more than a gallon
remained.  If only they could yet "pick up" the mesa before dark, this
would not be so serious a matter, but, situated as they were, it was
about as bad as bad could be.

"Waal," said Pete, at length, stroking the last grains of sand out of
his bleached moustache, "waal, I reckon we might as well hang fer a
sheep as er lamb, anyhow.  Ef we don't hit water purty soon, we'll be
thirstier yet, so we might as well fill up now."

"Illogical, but sensible," pronounced the professor, leading an eager
rush for the water canteens, which were carried on the pack burros.

"Here, hold on; that's enough!" cried Jack, as Ralph Stetson bent over
backward with the canteen still at his lips.

"Why, I haven't begun to drink yet," protested Ralph.

"Chaw on a bullet, son," advised Pete.  "Thet's highly recommended for
the thirst."

"Water suits me better," grumbled Ralph, nevertheless yielding the
canteen to Jack.  The lad drank sparingly, as did Pete and the others.
Ralph, alone, of all the party, appeared not to realize how very
precious even the little water that remained might become before long.

Refreshed even by the small quantity they had swallowed of the tepid
stuff, they remounted, and Pete clambered up upon his saddle.  While
his pony stood motionless beneath him, he stood erect upon the leather
seat.  From this elevation, he scanned the horizon on every side.  Far
off to the southwest was sweeping a dun-colored curtain--the departing
sand-storm, but that was all.  Otherwise, the desert was unchanged from
its previous aspect.

"Let me hev a look at thet thar compass," said Pete, resuming a sitting
posture once more.

Jack extended his wrist.

"The compass is all right, I know," he said confidently.

"And I know that we've bin hitting the right trail," declared Pete.
"Last time I come this way was with an old prospector who knew this
part of the country well enough to 'pick up' a clump of cactus.  If
that compass is right, we're headed straight."

"Yes--if," put in the professor.  "But are you quite sure it is?"

This was putting the matter in a new light.  Not one of the party was
so ignorant as not to know that, in the many miles they had traveled,
the deflection of the needle, by even the smallest degree, might have
meant a disastrous error.

"Why, I--I--how can it help being right?" asked Jack, a little
uncertainly.

"Which side have you been carrying your revolver on?" asked the
professor.

"Why, you know--on the left side," rejoined Jack, with some surprise.

"And the compass on the left wrist?"

"Yes.  Why?  Isn't it----"

"No, it ain't!" roared Pete.  "I see it all now, perfusser; that thar
shootin' iron has bin deflectin' ther needle."

"I fear so," rejoined the professor.

Under his direction, Jack moved the compass into various positions, and
at the end of a quarter of an hour they arrived at the startling
conclusion that they had travelled perhaps many miles out of their way.
The metal of the weapons Jack carried having, as they saw only too
clearly now, deflected the needle.

"What an idiot I was not to think of such a possibility!" exclaimed
Jack bitterly.

"Not at all, my boy," comforted the professor.  "The same thing has
happened to experienced sea-captains, and they have navigated many
miles off their course before they discovered their error."

"All of which, not bein' at' sea, don't help us any," grunted Pete.
"Suppose now, perfusser, that you jes' figger out as well as you kin,
how far wrong we hev gone."

"It will be a difficult task, I fear," said the professor.

"It'll be a heap difficulter task, ef we don't hit water purty soon,"
retorted the cow-puncher.

Thus admonished, Professor Wintergreen divested himself of his weapons,
and, taking out a small notebook, began, with the compass before him,
to make some calculations.  At the end of ten minutes or so, he raised
his head.

"Well?" asked Jack eagerly.

"Well," rejoined the professor, "it's not as bad as it might be.  We
are, according to my reckoning, about twenty-five miles farther to the
south than we should be."

He consulted his notebook once more.

"The bearings of the mesa require us to travel in that direction."  He
indicated a point to the northward of where they were halted.

"And it's twenty-five miles, you say?" asked Pete.

"About that.  It may be more, and again it may be less."

"Waal, the less it is, ther better it'll suit yours truly.  This stock
is jes' about tuckered."

With the professor now bearing the compass, they set out once more,
this time taking the direction indicated by the man of science.

"Suppose the professor is wrong?" Ralph whispered to Jack, as they
urged their almost exhausted cayuses onward.

Jack shrugged his shoulders.

"What's the use of supposing?" he said.

It was sun-down, and a welcome coolness had begun to be noticeable in
the air, when Jack gave a shout and pointed directly ahead of them.

"Look, look!" he cried.  "What's that?"

"That" was only a small purplish speck on the far horizon, but it broke
the monotony of the sky-line sharply.  Coyote Pete scrutinized it with
keen eyes for a moment, narrowing his optics till they were mere slits.
Then--

"Give me the glasses, perfusser," he requested.  Every one in the party
knew that their lives, or deaths probably, hung on the verdict of the
next few seconds, but Pete's slow drawl was more pronounced and
unperturbed than ever.  He put the glasses to his eyes as unconcernedly
as if he were searching for a bunch of estrays.  Presently he lowered
them.

"Is--is it----?" began Jack, while the others all bent forward in their
saddles, hanging on the rejoinder.

"It is," declared Pete, and he might have said more, but the rest of
his words were drowned in a ringing cheer.




CHAPTER III.

A NIGHT ALARM.

"How far distant do you imagine it is?" inquired the professor, as they
rode forward with their drooping spirits considerably revived.

"Not more than fifteen miles--if it is that, 'cording ter my
calcerlations," decided Pete.

"Then we should arrive there by ten o'clock to-night."

"About that time--yep.  That is, if none of ther stock give out
beforehand."

"Why do they call it the Haunted Mesa?" inquired Jack.

"Some fool old Injun notion 'bout ghosts er spirits hauntin' it,"
rejoined Pete.

"Just as well for us they have that idea," said Walt.  "They'll give it
a wide berth."

It flashed across Jack's mind at that moment to tell about the vague,
gigantic shapes he had seen flit by in the gloom of the sand-storm.
But, viewed in the present light, it seemed so absurd that the boy
hesitated to do so.

"Maybe I was mistaken after all," he thought to himself.  "There was so
much sand blowing at the time that I might very well have had a blurred
vision."

The next minute he was doubly glad that he had refrained from telling
of his weird experience, for the professor, in a scornful voice, spoke
up.

"Such foolish superstitions did exist in the ancient days, when every
bush held a spirit and every rock was supposed to be endowed with
sentient life.  Happily, nowadays, none but the very ignorant credit
such things.  By educated people they are laughed at."

Pete, who was jogging steadily on ahead of the rest of them, made no
rejoinder.  Ralph, however, spoke up.

"What would you do, if you were to see a spirit, professor?" he
inquired, with an expression of great innocence in his round, plump
face.

"I'd take after it with a good thick stick," was the ready reply.
"That is, always supposing that one _could_ see such a thing."

Darkness fell rapidly.  Night, in fact, rushed down on them as soon
almost as the sun sank behind the western rim of the desert.  To the
south some jagged sierras grew purple and then black in the fading
light.  Fortunately there was a moon, though the luminary of night was
in her last quarter.  However, the silvery light added to the
brilliance of the desert stars, gave them all the radiance they needed
to pursue their way.

The travelers could now perceive the outlines of the Haunted Mesa more
clearly.  It reared itself strangely out of the surrounding solitudes,
almost as if it were the work of human hands, instead of the result of
long-spent geological forces.

"Wish we were there now," breathed Ralph, patting his pony's sweating
forequarters, "poor old Petticoats is about 'all in.'"

"It's purty hard to kill a cayuse," rejoined Pete.  "I've seen 'em
flourish on cottonwood leaves and alkali water--yep, and git fat on it,
too.  Be like a cayuse, my son, and adapt yourself to carcumstances."

"Very good advice," said the professor approvingly, as the desert
philosopher concluded.

As Pete had conjectured, the ponies were far from being as tuckered out
as they appeared, despite their sunken flanks and distended nostrils.
As the cool night drew on, and they approached more nearly to the
upraised form of the mesa, the little animals even began to prick their
ears and whinny softly.  The pack animals, too, seemed to pluck up
spirits amazingly.

"They smell grass and water," commented Pete, as he observed these
signs.

Shortly after ten, as had been surmised, they were among the
bunch-grass surrounding the mesa.  Striking such a spot after their
long wanderings on the hot desert, was delightful, indeed.  Presently,
too, came to their ears the tinkling sound of flowing water.

"It's the overflow from them old-timers' well at the base of the mesa,"
pronounced Pete, listening.

"Yes, and here it is," cried Jack, who had been riding a short distance
in advance, and had suddenly come across a small stream.

The water was but a tiny thread, but it looked as welcome just then as
a whole lake.  Cautioning the boys to keep their ponies back, Pete took
a long-handled shovel from one of the packs, and soon excavated quite a
little basin.  While he had been doing this, the boys had had to
restrain their thirst, for the ponies were almost crazy with impatience
to get at the water.  It required all the boys' management, in fact, to
keep them from breaking away and getting at the water.  In the heated
condition of the little animals, this might have meant a case of
foundering.  At last Pete let the thirsty creatures take a little
water, and afterward they were tethered to a clump of brush, while the
boys themselves assuaged their pangs.  After their first ravenous
thirst was quenched--which was not soon--they took turns in dashing
water over each other's heads, removing the last traces of the
sand-storm.  This done, they all declared that they felt like new
men,--or boys,--and a unanimous cry for supper arose.

"Let me see, now," mused Pete, gazing up at the purplish, black heights
of the mesa above them, "as I recollect it, there's only one path up
thar.  The good book says, foller the strait and narrer path, but it
don't say nothing about doing it in the dark, so I reckon that the best
thing we can do will be to camp right under that bluff thar, whar the
water comes out, till it gets to be daylight."

This was agreed to be an excellent plan, and, accordingly, the stock
having been tethered out amidst the bunch-grass, the packs were
unloaded, and the work of getting a camp in shape proceeded apace.  In
that part of New Mexico, although it is warm enough by day, nightfall
brings with it a sharp chill.  It was decided, therefore, to rig up the
tents and sleep under their protection.  The three canvas shelters of
the bell type were soon erected, and then, with mesquite roots, Coyote
Pete kindled a fire and put the kettle on.  Supper consisted of corned
beef, canned corn and canned tomatoes, with coffee, hard biscuit and
cheese.

"I'll bet we're the first folks that have eaten a meal here for many a
long day," said Jack, looking about him, after his hunger had been
satisfied.

"It is, in all probability, fifteen hundred years or more since the
first inhabitants of this mesa dwelt here," announced the professor.

"My!  My!  You could boil an egg in that time," commented Pete, drawing
out his old black briar and lighting it.  He lay on one elbow and began
to smoke contemplatively.

The others did not speak for a few moments, so engrossed were they with
the ideas that the professor had summoned up.  Once, perhaps, this
dead, black, empty mesa above them had held busy, bustling life.  Now
it stood silently brooding amid the desolation stretched about it, as
solitary as the Sphinx itself.

The spot at which they were camped was the sheer, or cliff side of the
mesa.  At the other side they knew, from Coyote Pete's description,
were numerous openings and a zig-zag pathway leading up to the very
summit.  It was on this summit, which according to the most accurate
information obtainable had once been used for the sacrificial rites of
sun worship, that the professor expected to find the relics for which
he was searching.

For an hour or two the lads discussed the dead-and-gone mesa dwellers,
with an occasional word from the professor, who was deeply read on the
subject.  This was all so much Greek to Pete, who solemnly smoked away,
every now and then putting in a word or two, but for the most part
lying in silence, looking out beyond the black shadow of the mesa
across the moonlit desert toward the rocky hills to the south.

Suddenly, the lanky cowboy leaped to his feet with a yell that
punctured the silence like a pistol-shot.  In two flying leaps, he had
bounded clear over the professor's head, and was in among the tents,
searching for his pistol.  Before one of the amazed group about the
fire could collect his senses at the sudden galvanizing of Coyote Pete,
he was back among them again.

"Wow!" he yelled into the night, "come on, there, you, whoever you are!
Come on, I say!  I'll give you a fight!  Yep, big as you are, I ain't
skeered of you."

"Pete!  Pete!  Whatever is the matter?" gasped Jack, who, with the
others, was by this time on his feet.

"Matter?" howled Pete.  "Matter enough.  I do begin to think this place
shore is haunted, or suthin'.  As I lay there, I felt suthin' tiptoeing
about behind me, and when I whipped suddenly round ter see if one of
the critters hadn't broken loose, what did I see but a great, big,
enormous thing, as big as a house, looking down at me.  Afore I could
say a word, it was gone."

"Gone!" echoed the others.  "What was it?"

"Wish you'd tell me," sputtered the cow-puncher, looking about him, and
still gripping his gun, "I never saw the like in all my born days."

"Well, what did it look like?"

"Hard to tell you," rejoined Pete.  "It was as big as that." He pointed
right up at the moon.

"As tall as the moon?  Oh, come, Pete, you had dropped off and were
dreaming," laughed Ralph.

"Who said it was as tall as the moon?" demanded the excited cow-puncher
angrily.  "I only meant to convey to your benighted senses some idee uv
what it luked like."

"Well, how high was it?" asked Jack, in whose tones was a curious note
of interest, for a reason we can guess.

"About twenty feet, as near's I could judge.  It had red eyes, that
glared like the tail-lamps of a train, and it spat fire, and it----"

"Whoa!   Whoa!" laughed Walt Phelps.  "Now we know it was a nightmare,
Pete.  The dream of a rarebit fiend.  You ate too much crackers and
cheese at supper."

"How was it we didn't see it?" asked Ralph, who had not spoken up till
now.

"Why, you were lying with your back toward the direction it came from,"
explained Pete.

"An interesting optical delusion," declared the professor.  "I must
make a note of it, and----"

"Wow!  There it goes ag'in."

"Where?  Where?" chorused the boys.

"Right off there!  Look!  Look!"

The lanky cow-puncher, fairly dancing about with excitement, pointed
out beyond the shadow of the solitary mesa.  Sure enough, there were
three or four enormous, black, shadowy shapes, traveling across the
sands at a seemingly great speed.

"Get your rifles, boys!" yelled Jack.

The weapons lay handy, and in a jiffy four beads had been drawn on the
immense, vague shapes.

But even as their fingers pressed the triggers, and the four reports
rang out as one, the indefinite forms vanished as mysteriously as they
had appeared.




CHAPTER IV.

SOME QUEER TRACKS.

The hour, the surroundings, and the utter mystery of the whole affair
combined to make the sudden appearance and vanishment of the great
shadowy shapes the more inexplicable, not to say alarming.  Small
wonder was it that the inquiring faces that turned toward each other
were a trifle whiter than usual.

"What do you make of it, Pete?" asked Jack.

"Stumped, by the big horn spoon!" was the expressive response.

"No doubt, some natural phenomena, with a simple explanation," came
from the professor.  It was noted, though, that his angular form seemed
to be somewhat shivery as he spoke, and that his teeth chattered like
dice rattling in a box.

"Natural phe-nothings!" burst out Pete.  "The things, whatever they
was, were as solid as you or me."

"How was it they didn't make any noise, then?" inquired Ralph,
practically.

"Waal, son, you jes' take a run on the bunchgrass, and you'll see that
you won't make no racket, nuther."

Ralph did as he was directed, and it was really wonderful how silently
he sped over the springy vegetation.

"Maybe it was somebody putting up a scare on us," suggested Walt,
rather lamely.

"They couldn't rig up anything as big as that," said Jack decisively,
"besides, there's another thing--I didn't tell you because I thought I
might have been mistaken, but I saw those same things this afternoon."

"What?" went up in a perfect roar of incredulity.

"Say, is this some kind of a josh?" asked Coyote Pete suspiciously.

"Never more serious in my life," Jack assured him, and then went on to
relate the strange experience that had befallen him when he had poked
his head out from under the saddle in the sand-storm.

"If they weren't so enormous, I should say they was horses," said Pete;
"but the biggest horses that ever growed never even approached them
critters--spooks, er whatever they are."

"There are giants among men," suggested Walt, "why shouldn't there be
giants among spooks, too?"

"You get to Halifax with that spook talk," said Coyote Pete scornfully.
"I'll bet my Sunday sombrero that whatever them things is, there's some
sore of human mischief back uv it.  But what is it?  Who put it up?"

"Yes, and what for, and why?" laughed Jack.  "I tell you, fellows," he
went on, "it's no use of our racking our brains to-night over this.
The best thing we can do is to set a watch.  Then, if they come again,
we can try a shot at them.  If not, why then in the morning we'll make
an investigation; eh?"

"Durn good advice," grunted Coyote Pete.  "Now, I'd suggest that ther
perfusser takes ther fust watch, and----"

"No, no, my dear sir; really, I--I have a cold already.  A-hem--ach-oo!"

The man of science, it seemed, had really developed serious bronchial
trouble in record time.

"Why, professor," said Jack mischievously, "haven't I heard you say
that you'd like a chance to investigate such a phenomenon as this?"

"Hum, yes--yes, my young friend.  I may have said so, yes.  And any
other time I should be only too pleased to--Good Land! what's that?"

With the agility of a grasshopper, the professor had jumped fully three
feet, as one of the pack-burros, nosing about behind him, accidentally
butted him in the small of his back.  The others burst into a roar of
laughter, which they could not check.  The professor, however, adjusted
his spectacles solemnly and looked about him with much dignity.

"I thought I saw a book I had dropped, almost in the fire," he
explained glibly, "so I jumped to get it before a hot ember fell on it."

"I had no idea you could jump like that, professor," laughed Jack.
"You should have gone in for athletics at Stonefell."

It was finally decided that Walt and Ralph should stand the first
watch, and Coyote Pete and Jack the last part of the night.  The
professor, after carefully drawing tight the curtain of his tent, "to
keep the cold out," as he explained, retired.  Soon after, Jack and the
cow-puncher also went to bed till the watch should summon them to go on
duty in their turn.

But the night passed without any reappearance of the strange shapes
which had so upset the tranquility of the little camp, and, viewed in
the fresh light of a new and glorious day, somehow the affair did not
seem nearly so ominous and awe-inspiring as it had the night before.
Breakfast, as you may imagine, was speedily disposed of, and, having
seen to the stock, the party started out to explore the mesa itself.

As has been said, the side upon which they had camped the night before
was nothing but a sheer cliff.  Under the guidance of Coyote Pete, they
now set out to encircle the strange precipitous formation.  Their
hearts beat high, and their eyes shone with an aroused sense of
adventure as they strode along.

The professor carried with him a small volume containing a partial
translation of the symbols and sign language of the ancient tribe whose
domains they were about to invade.  Jack had a coil of stout, half-inch
manila rope, about two hundred feet in length.  Walt Phelps' burden was
a shovel, while Ralph Stetson carried an axe.  All bore with them their
revolvers, and Coyote Pete carried, in addition, a rifle.

"Are you afraid of anything?" the professor had asked him, as he
noticed the sun-bronzed plainsman pick up this latter weapon.

"Waal," Pete had rejoined, with a portentous wink at the boys, "you
never kin tell in this wale of tears what you're a-goin' up
aginst--queer shapes, fer instance."

As they strode along, naturally the subject of the shadowy forms which
had alarmed them the night before arose.  Jack would have liked to
investigate them right then and there, but, after all, he decided with
the rest of the party, that an exploration of the mesa was the first
thing of importance to be accomplished.  And an interesting sight the
great abandoned aboriginal beehive, was, as they rounded the
inaccessible side and emerged upon the portion which faced toward the
northwest.

Pete's recollection had not played him false.  There was a rough
pathway constructed up its face upon this side, and at the top were
three tiers of holes bored in the rock face.  These were evidently
intended for windows, as a larger aperture was just as evidently meant
for a door.  The path, which zig-zagged up the face of the mesa was
about eight inches in width, not more, at its base, and varied--so far
as they could see from below--from that breadth to a foot, as it grew
higher.

From the base to the summit the mesa was probably about one hundred and
fifty feet in height, the windows not commencing till within twenty
feet of the top.  Its length at the base was, roughly, three hundred
feet, and its thickness varied from three hundred feet or more at the
center, to a few feet at each end.  Roughly, then, its basic outline
was that of an irregular parallelogram, while its profile was that of a
flat-topped cone.  For some moments the little group stood in silence
as they gazed up at the yellowish-gray walls of the once-active mound.

Finally, recovering from their reverie, they set out after Coyote Pete
to scale the narrow pathway leading to the summit.  But, as the
cow-puncher set his feet on the lowermost part of the path, he gave an
exclamation of astonishment and pointed downward.

There in the dust was a footprint,--several of them, in fact.

It was a startling discovery in that isolated part of the desert to
come upon the traces of human occupancy.  Robinson Crusoe on his desert
island could not have looked any more astonished at the imprint of the
savage's sole, than did Coyote Pete.  He stood looking down
speechlessly at his discovery, while the others crowded about him,
asking a dozen questions at once.

"If the sand-storm had hit this section, we'd been able to form some
idee of how long ago them hoofs was planted there," said Pete; "but as
it is, ther feller who wondered how ther apple got in ther dumpling
didn't hev a harder problem than the nut we've got to crack."

"There must have been several of them," said Jack, who had been gazing
in the dust, which lay thick on the pathway to the summit of the mesa.

"A dozen at least," nodded Pete.  He tipped back his sombrero and
scratched his ruffled hair, fairly at a standstill to account for what
they had encountered.

"Mightn't it have been prospectors?" asked Ralph.

"Might hev bin, yes," agreed Pete; "but, fer one thing, my son,
prospectors don't usually travel in dozens."

"Hum--that's so," assented Jack, who at first had greeted Ralph's
suggestion eagerly.

"Look here!" cried Ralph suddenly, holding up a glittering object which
he had just discerned in the bunch-grass at the base of the mesa.

"What is it, my boy?" inquired the professor.

Ralph extended the object for their inspection.

"A strange coin," cried Walt.

"Not so blamed strange, either," said Pete, picking it off the boy's
palm and examining it.  "It's a Mexican peso."

"Then the men who were here were Mexicans?" cried Jack.

"Not so fast, my boy," admonished Pete.  "Might as well say that every
feller who finds a Canadian dime in his pocket is a Kanuck.  Say," he
suggested suddenly, "suppose you boys jes' see if you can find any
tracks around the base of the mesa."

They scattered and looked carefully about them, but the bunch-grass
grew in quite a broad belt all about, and no footmarks could be
discerned.  Nor did a careful examination of the grass show any broken
or trampled blades, as would have been the case had ponies been there
recently.

"That decides it," announced Pete, after this last fact had been
ascertained, "whoever made those foot-marks wasn't here recent, that's
a fact.  But who could they have been, and what brought them here?"

"Maybe Indians," suggested Ralph sagely.

"Yep, if Indians wore boots, which they don't," grinned Pete, while
poor Ralph colored to the roots of his hair over the general laugh that
arose at his expense.

"I think," announced the professor finally, "that it would be our best
plan to go ahead exploring the mesa.  After all, there is nothing here
that can hurt us.  Those ruffians of Black Ramon's have been driven out
of the country, and, anyway, they would not be likely to come here.  As
for Indians, their reservation is many miles to the north-east.
Whoever was here, was either on a scientific quest, like ourselves, or
else unfortunately lost in the desert."

"Jes' ther same," grunted Pete, in a low voice that nobody overheard,
"I'd like ter know what all this means: Big, shadowy shapes flitting
around in ther night, and footsteps here in ther mornin'.  It don't
look right."

He took a swift glance all about him.  In every direction lay the
desert--glittering, far-reaching, lonely as the open sea.  The only
break in the monotony came to the south--on the border--where stretched
the rocky, desolate ridge.

"No one wouldn't come here without an object," reasoned Pete to
himself, as they began the ascent of the narrow, tortuous trail, "now,
what in thunder could that objec' hev bin?"




CHAPTER V.

THE HOLLOW ALTAR.

"Magnificent indeed!"

The words, falling from the professor's lips, echoed hollowly against
the walls of the lofty, vaulted chamber in which the adventurers found
themselves, after traversing a narrow passage leading inward from the
causeway.

The walls of this chamber, which must have been fully thirty feet in
height at its greatest altitude, were formed of the soft rock, out of
which it had been excavated apparently uncounted ages before.  They
were daubed with grotesque figures in faded, but still discernible,
colors.  Most of these figures had to do with scenes of violence, and
in almost all of them the figure of what appeared to be an enormous
rattlesnake, with human head and arms, predominated.

Among the mural decorations were some that puzzled the professor
considerably.  They were crude drawings of men in what appeared to be
intended for boats.  The professor found these inexplicable.  The very
idea of boats in that arid spot seemed absurdly out of place.  Why,
then, should the mesa-dwellers have depicted them?

Light was furnished to the chamber by an irregularly shaped hole in the
roof above.  Although there was plenty of illumination, it had yet been
some moments before the adventurers, coming out of the brilliant
sunlight outside, grew used enough to the gloom to make out their
surroundings.  When they did so, the first words uttered were those of
the professor recorded above.

Like some queer, long-legged bird, the man of science, with a giant
magnifying glass held up to his eye, sped hither and thither on his
long, angular limbs, inspecting minutely the drawings and crude
attempts at decoration.  Already he had out his tape-measure and
sketch-book, making observations and recording measurements.
Presently, however, he recalled himself from the first heat of his
enthusiasm.

"After all," he said, "we shall have plenty of time in which to explore
this chamber, which seems to have been used as a council hall.  Let us
examine the remainder of this remarkable place."

"You may well call it that, perfusser," grunted Pete.  "It's remarkable
fer the dust thet's in it, if nothing else.  But what I'd like to
know," he added to himself, "is jes' whar the owners of them footsteps
vanished themselves to."

Which brings us to a remarkable discovery, made a few moments before
our party had entered the "Council Hall," as the professor called it.

As you may imagine, they had traced the footsteps with some care,
hoping to come upon a solution of the mystery of their origin.  Picture
their astonishment, then, when you are told that the footsteps abruptly
vanished at the summit of the zig-zag trail.  Although dust lay thick
on the chambers within the mesa, not a solitary foot-mark marred its
soft gray surface.  With the exception of the numerous footsteps on the
trail to the summit, there was no other sign of human visitors.

Like most old plainsmen and all wild animals, Pete was suspicious of
anything he couldn't understand, and it certainly did seem inexplicable
that a party of men should have visited the mesa and contented
themselves with running or walking up and down the causeway outside, or
promenading the summit.  Such, however, appeared to be the only
explanation, and as such they were forced to accept it.

But such speculations as these were far from monopolizing the minds of
the professor and the boys.  They eagerly traversed chamber after
chamber, finding these latter to be small "apartments," so to speak,
giving upon a common passage just beyond the "Council Hall."  The
professor told them that each of these small chambers was formerly the
home of an aboriginal family.  In the floor of the passage he pointed
to numerous bowl-like holes, which, according to him, had been used for
the sharpening of spears and arrow heads.

In some of the small chambers specimens of rude pottery were found, all
ornamented with the same figure of the human-headed rattlesnake.
Evidently the form represented must have been a deity of the tribe.
Each of the small chambers was lighted by one of the holes cut in the
face of the cliff, which they had noticed from below.  The boys darted
in and out of the various rock chambers, like ferrets in a rabbit
warren, followed at a more leisurely pace by the professor and Coyote
Pete.

"Maybe we'll find some treasure," suggested Ralph Stetson, as, with
flushed faces, plentifully begrimed with dust, they paused in the last
of the rocky chambers.

"Say, you've got treasure on the brain, ever since we found that chest
of Jim Hicks' in the passage-way under the old mission, and started our
bank accounts," laughed Jack.  "You must be forgetting that this mesa
has been visited frequently by cattlemen and wandering prospectors."

"Well, I should hardly call it frequently, Jack," put in Professor
Wintergreen, who was now standing with Coyote Pete at his elbow, in the
narrow entrance to the rocky chamber.

"Nope," added Coyote Pete; "you can bet your boots we didn't come here
except when we had to.  In the past, though, it made a mighty good
watering-place for the cattlemen driving from one section of this
country to another.  Sence they cut up that land over to the westward
inter farms, though, the big cattle drives have stopped, and I don't
suppose any one's bin around here for a long time, 'cepting those
varmints whose feet-marks we seen."

"How do you know they are varmints?" laughed Walt Phelps.

"Don't see what business they'd hev here otherwise, and----" began
Pete, but a perfect tempest of laughter at his expense drowned the rest
of his speech.

"Well, now that we seem to have pretty well explored the habitation
part of the mesa, let us make our way to the summit," suggested the
professor.

With a whoop and yell, the excited boys followed the suggestion at
once, and a dash up the narrow causeway followed at imminent risk of
one of another losing his footing.

"Hey, hold on thar!" yelled Pete, as they dashed upward, "we don't want
no funerals here, an' it's er drop of more'n a hundred feet to ther
ground."

This rather checked the boys' enthusiasm, and they went more slowly
thereafter.

The summit of the mesa was found to consist of a small plateau, about a
quarter of an acre in extent, perfectly bare, and shaped like a saucer.
Near the center was the hole which gave illumination to the council
hall below them, while in a spot almost exactly in the middle of the
queer elevation, was a rough, square erection of sun-baked brick.  This
was about twelve feet in length, five feet in height, and six feet or
so through.  Apparently it had once been a kind of an altar.  The
professor thought this assumption tenable, as it was known that the
aborigines who had once inhabited the mesa had been sun-worshipers.

"Ugh!" shuddered Jack, as he gazed at the altar.  "And they used to
offer human sacrifices here."

"I think it altogether likely," said the professor calmly; "probably
that altar has witnessed the immolation of more than a hundred victims
at a single tribal ceremony."

Ralph Stetson was clambering up on the altar as the professor spoke,
but at hearing these words he hastily descended again.

"I guess I'll defer examining it till some other time," he said
decidedly.

From the summit of the mesa a wonderful view could be obtained.  At
that altitude the rocky, desolate range of sierras to the south could
be seen clearly, although a mile or so distant.

"Thar's the border yonder," said Pete, pointing.

"And over across there is father, I guess," said Jack.  "I hope he
found everything at the Esmeralda all right."

"Sure he did," said Pete confidently.  "I tell you, these greaser
uprisings don't amount to a busted gourd.  Mister Diaz's tin soldiers
come along, and 'pop-bang!  Adios!'  It's all over."

"But I have heard that in this case the insurrectionists of Northern
Chihuahua are exceptionally well provided with arms and ammunition,"
objected the professor.  "The American government can't make out from
whence they are supplied with guns and munitions of war."

"Huh, where'd they git 'em from, I'd like to know?" snorted Pete.  "The
border is well guarded at any point where they would be likely to ship
'em across, and----"

"How about the _unlikely_ points?" inquired the professor amiably.

"Um--ah--well," began Pete, somewhat stumped by this last, "I don't see
what that's got to do with it."

"But I do.  Mexicans, my friend, are, as you should know, a cunning
race.  Moreover, those of them who dwell along it know the border far
better than any white could ever hope to.  By the admission of our own
secret agents, it has hitherto been impossible to find how the arms,
which the Chihuahua rebels are receiving, can reach them.  It is
obvious, however, that there must be some way in which they do,
hence----"

"Waal, perfusser, hev it your own way," grunted Pete, rather red and
angry.  The professor's logic did indeed seem unassailable.  The rebels
of Northern Chihuahua were getting arms--but how?  The cow-puncher and
the boys recalled now a visit made to Mr. Merrill's ranch some weeks
before by a party of United States secret agents.

The men were puzzled and angry over their failure to locate the "leak."
Somehow arms were being shipped across the border into Chihuahua from
American soil, but just how had hitherto baffled all the efforts of
their ingenuity to discover.

"There, there, don't be so easily offended," counseled the professor,
perceiving Pete's palpable irritation.  "After all, the matter has
nothing to do with us.  We are here to measure the mesa for scientific
purposes, not to get into arguments over how a band of insurrectos are
getting their arms.  Come, boys, to work.  Let us begin at the top, by
measuring the altar.  Suppose, Jack, you lay the tape on it, while I
make a rough field sketch of the structure."

The boys, now over their first repulsion to having anything to do with
the altar, about which such grisly memories clustered, eagerly began to
carry out these orders, while Coyote Pete seated himself on the side of
the summit overlooking the travelers' camp below, and amused himself by
throwing small bits of detached rock down at the unoffending One Spot,
Two Spot and Three Spot.

The base of the altar being duly measured and recorded, Jack, tape in
hand, followed by the others, clambered up its rough sides, which
afforded an easy foothold, for the purpose of ascertaining the
dimensions of the top.  To the lad's astonishment, however, there was
no summit.  That is to say, the altar was hollow.

The professor exhibited considerable scientific excitement on hearing
this.  The man of science had been greatly puzzled over the total
absence of any traces of the human sacrifices he knew must have taken
place there.  He now hailed Jack eagerly.

"Are there not some bones or traces of sacrifices inside it, my boy?"
he inquired excitedly.

"Nary a bone," shouted Walter cheerfully.

"Hold on, though," cried Jack.  "There are some queer-looking things
down in one corner."

Lowering himself inside the altar, he made for one corner of the
erection, in which he had spied a heap of fragile-looking bones of some
kind.

"Skeletons of snakes!" he cried, holding up one of these for the
inspection of the professor, who had by this time hoisted his bony
frame over the top of the altar and now stood beside them.

"That's right, my boy; they are serpents' skeletons.  Doubtless in
their sacrificial ceremonies these people also offered up rattlesnakes,
which seem to have been a sort of sacred reptile among them; much as,
in a sense, the cat was sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and the python
is worshiped in certain parts of India."

"But, professor," protested Jack, "if, as you say, numerous human
sacrifices were offered here in the past, why do we not find any human
remains here?"

"Who can say, my boy?  Many of the habits of these pre-historic peoples
are veiled in mystery.  We can only surmise and reconstruct.  They may
have burned them or disposed of them in some other way."

"Say!" exclaimed Ralph suddenly.  "This floor sounds to me as if it was
hollow; maybe there's a chamber or something underneath."

The boy, who had been stamping about with a vague sense of making some
such discovery, hailed them with excited looks.

"Hollow, you say?" asked the professor, with every appearance of deep
interest.

"Yes, listen!"

Again Ralph stamped about.  There was no question about it--the
stone-paving, of which the floor of the altar was formed, gave out an
unmistakably hollow sound.

The professor was down on his hands and knees instantly, searching
about, like a hound on the scent.  In the meantime the others stamped
about in other parts of the interior, but only where Ralph's feet had
given out the hollow sound did the floor appear anything but solid.

"Queer!" exclaimed the professor, as, after a considerable search, he
rose to his feet covered with dust and streaming with perspiration,
"there should be some sort of trap-door here, to judge by the sounds,
but so far as I can see, the joints between the pavement are perfectly
tight, and I can find no ring or lever which might open such an
aperture."

"Perhaps----" began Ralph, but he was interrupted by a sudden wild yell
from Pete.

"Wow!  Yee-ow!  Come here quick, everybody!"




CHAPTER VI.

THE LEGEND OF A FORGOTTEN RACE.

Leaping and scrambling over the top of the hollow altar to the best of
their abilities, the four explorers found their cow-puncher friend
dancing wildly about on the edge of the mesa, in imminent peril of
tumbling over altogether.  He was wildly excited, and, as they emerged,
he pointed down over the cliff edge.

"Whatever is the matter?" exclaimed Jack, regarding the antics of the
usually staid cow-puncher with amazement.

"The stock!  Look at the stock!" yelled Pete.

Peering over the edge at the bunch-grass belt in which their ponies
were tethered, the adventurers saw a spectacle which might well have
been calculated to excite the cow-puncher.  One Spot, Two Spot and
Three Spot were tearing round and round at the end of their tethers, in
the wildest alarm, evidently, while the cayuses were stamping and
snorting, with distended nostrils and wild, frightened eyes.

"What's the matter with them?" gasped Walt, astonished at the sight, as
well he might be.  The desert was as empty as ever, and there was no
sign of anything in the rocky hills to the south that might have
excited their alarms.

"Thet's jes' it," said Pete.  "What is the matter with 'em?  They ain't
actin' up thet er way fer nuthin', you kin bet."

"Something must have scared them," said Jack.  "Maybe it was those
rocks you were throwing down."

"No, it warn't that, son.  Ole One Spot he looked up here a minute ago,
and giv' his eye a knowin' wink, as much as ter say: 'Go ahead; I know
you won't hurt us.'  No, siree; it's suthin' they've smelled out, er
seen, that's given 'em the scare of their young lives."

"Maybe it was something on the other side of the mesa.  Let's go and
look," cried Jack.

Followed by the others, he ran across the flat summit, but an earnest
inspection of the surroundings on that side failed to reveal any
explanation for the animals' sudden terror.  For all the strange
objects that lay about them, they might have been in the middle of a
desolate ocean.

"No wonder they call this the Haunted Mesa," snorted Pete.  "I tell
you, perfusser, ther sooner you git them thar measurements a-measured,
and we're hiking out of this neck of the woods, the better I'll be
pleased.  'Tain't natural, all these queer goings on."

"Maybe a coyote or something scared them," suggested Ralph.

"And them used ter seeing 'em every day," scoffed Pete.  "Guess again,
son.  It takes something with hoofs, horns and red fire about it to
scare a burro, and you kin bet your Sunday sombrero on that."

"Well, I propose that we adjourn the meeting till after dinner,"
laughed Jack; "all in favor, will signify by saying 'aye.'"

The chorus that answered him left no doubt of "the sense of the
meeting," and a rapid descent of the mysterious mesa was begun.  A good
meal was not long in being prepared, thanks to Coyote Pete's skill as a
camp cook.  Seated over their dinner, the main topic of conversation
was naturally the unaccountable occurrence of the morning.  But
although a score of explanations were advanced, nobody could hit on one
that seemed to fit the case.

"This water is singularly pure and sparkling,"' said the professor
finally, by way of changing the subject, and holding up his full tin
cup.

"Yep; I remember hearing old cowmen say that there's no water in New
Mexico any better than this from the Haunted Mesa," said Pete,
stretching himself out, and lighting his inevitable after-meal-time
pipe.  "Though that ain't sayin' a heap," he admitted.

"Wonder how those old what-you-may-call-ums ever managed to dig such a
well?" questioned Ralph.

"Comes to my mind now," said Pete, "that it ain't exactly a well.  An
old Injun that used ter hang around with the Flying Z outfit tole us
oncet that thar was a subterranean river flowed under here, and that
once upon a time afore all the country dried up, considerable more
water came to the surface here than there does now."

"A subterranean river?" asked the professor, at once interested.

"Yes, sir," rejoined Pete, "and not the only one in the West, either.
There's one in Californy that flows underground fer purty near fifty
miles, as I've heard tell."

"This is most remarkable," said the professor.  "I, too, have heard of
subterranean rivers in this part of the world, but I have never had the
opportunity to explore one.  Did this Indian you speak of ever tell you
where this river emerges?"

"He said it come out some place across the frontier in Chihuahua; I
don't jest rightly recollect where," said Pete carelessly, as if the
subject did not interest him much, as indeed it did not.

"I don't see what use a subterranean river is to anybody, anyhow," he
went on.  "If it was on top, now, it might be some use."

"But this is most interesting," protested the professor, while the boys
lay about with their chins propped in their hands in intent attitudes.
"Then, too, if this river exists, perhaps it is even navigable."

"Why, professor!" exclaimed Jack.  "Is it not possible that it was to
this river that those drawings of boats that interested and puzzled you
so much had reference?"

"Quite possible, my boy," agreed the man of science.

"I wish we could find some way of getting down into it," said Ralph
wistfully, poking at the ground, as if he thought he might force an
entrance that way.

"Thar you go," laughed Pete.  "Giv' you boys a cayuse, an' you'll ride
him to death.  I jes' mentioned that a lying, whisky-drinking old Injun
had sprung a pipe-dream about a lost river, and thar you go navagatin'
it in a Coney Island steamboat."

The boys could not help bursting into a laugh at the cow-puncher's
whimsical way of talking.  The professor joined in, too, for none
realized better than he did that for a moment he, too, had been quite
carried away by the idea.

"I expect that it is as you say, Pete," he agreed.  "These Indians are
most unreliable people.  If anybody was to believe all the weird
legends an Indian tells him, he would spend the best part of his life
on wild-goose chases.  Why, the Indians of the Mojave desert in
California can even tell a circumstantial story about a buried city of
Mojave.  According to their contention, a great flood, occurring long
ago, wiped it out and buried it in the sands of the desert."

"Has any one ever tried to find it?" asked Jack.

"Many expeditions have been fitted out for the purpose, my boy," was
the rejoinder, "but so far no trace has ever been found of it, and it
is, no doubt, like the lost river of which Pete was telling us, a mere
myth."

"I didn't say it was a miff," protested Pete.  "I jes' said I didn't
believe it."

The remainder of that afternoon was spent in making more measurements
and sketches of the interesting mesa, and the boys, on their own
account, conducted a search for a possible entrance to the lost river.
But, as may be supposed, they found none.

"I guess as romance-seekers we are not a success," said Jack, as at
sun-down they prepared to quit.  "Just think, what a proud bunch we'd
have been if we could say we--The Border Boys--discovered the lost
river of the mesa dwellers."

"We might be a sorry bunch, too," amended the practical Walt.  "I tell
you, Jack, I don't want anything to do with lost rivers, especially
when they are underground."

"Walt, the spirit of adventure is lacking in you," laughed Jack.
"You'd never make a Don Quixote----"

"A donkey who?" asked Walt innocently.

"Oh, you're the limit," chuckled Ralph, going off into a roar of
laughter at the ranch boy's expense.

That evening the animals' pasture was changed to the opposite side of
the mesa, where they could find fresh grass.  The camp, however, was
left as it was.  After supper watches were assigned, as usual, the
latter part of the night guardianship falling to Coyote Pete and Jack
once more.  When, soon after midnight, Walt and Ralph Stetson aroused
them, there was nothing much to report except that One Spot had engaged
in a spirited kicking match with his brethren.  Outside of that, all
had been, to quote Walt:

"Quiet along the Mesomac."

"We'll patrol round the whole mesa," said Coyote Pete, as he and Jack
shouldered their rifles, "meeting by the stock on the other side."

After a few words more, the two sentries strode off into the darkness
in different directions, meeting, as arranged, by the stock.  Neither
had anything to report, and in this way they kept up the night watch
for an hour or more.  They had met for the sixth time by the tents
containing their sleeping comrades, when from the opposite side of the
mesa came a shrill neigh of terror, followed by sounds of wild
galloping and snorting.

"Something's up!" shouted Pete, as, with his rifle in readiness and
followed closely by Jack, he tore around the mesa to ascertain the
cause of the trouble.

As the two sentries emerged into view of the spot in which the stock
had been tethered, they came upon a spectacle which, for a moment,
caused them to recoil as abruptly as if a deep canyon had suddenly
opened up before them.




CHAPTER VII.

WHAT CAME ACROSS THE DESERT.

That which brought the two--the plainsman and the lad--to such an
amazed halt was nothing more nor less than the sight of the huge forms
which had appeared to Jack in the sand-storm and which had given them
such an alarm the night before, and which doubtless, as they now viewed
it in a flash of intuition, had almost stampeded the stock while their
owners were exploring the top of the mesa.  But Coyote Pete was not the
man to remain long rooted in astonishment.

With one quick jerk, he raised his rifle, and a vivid spatter of fire
followed.  As the report died out, one of the great forms sank to the
ground with a scream that sounded almost human.  The others glided off
in the same direction as they had the night before, and vanished in the
same mysterious way, before the thunderstruck Jack could get a shot at
them.

"They're real, at any rate," exclaimed Coyote Pete, showing in his tone
of relief, that until the great shadowy mass had sunk before his
bullet, he had had some doubts of that fact.

"W-w-w-w-what is it?" came a frightened voice at their elbows, and,
looking around, they saw the professor, in pajamas striped like a
barber's pole, gazing apprehensively about him.  Close behind him came
Ralph Stetson and Walt, their weapons clasped determinedly, and
evidently ready to face whatever emergency the sudden shot had
betokened.

"Yes, what is it--Indians or bears?" demanded Ralph, entirely forgetful
of the fact that bears are not wont, as a rule, to roam the barren
desert.

"Dunno, but we'll see in a minute," said the cow-puncher, in answer to
the excited questions.  Followed by the rest, he made his way forward
to where the great bulk that he had shot lay still and motionless on
the ground.  Even Jack owned to a slight feeling of apprehension as
they neared the great form,--harmless as, whatever it might be, it had
now become.

As for the stock, they were still plunging wildly about and snorting in
a terrified fashion, and, had it not been for their stout raw-hide
tethers, they would undoubtedly have stampeded.

Drawing a match, Pete held it high as he neared the stricken bulk
outstretched before them.  The next minute he gave an astonished cry:

"A camel!"

"A _what_!" gasped the entire group in unison.

"Jes' what I said, a backterian camel," reiterated Pete, striking
another match.

They could all see then that he spoke the truth, astounding as it
seemed.  The creature that lay still before them, a bullet through its
brain, was a veritable, undoubted specimen of the Bactrian species.

"But--but--great heavens!" cried Jack, hardly able to believe his eyes,
"how,--what----"

"What on earth is a camel doing out here on the New Mexican desert?"
the professor finished for him.

"Going eight days without a drink," suggested Ralph in an undertone;
but none of the party was in a mood for humor just then.

It was Pete who solved the mystery.

"I've got it," he exclaimed, "and I'm a plum-busted idjut not to have
thought uv it afore; I've hearn about 'em often enough.  This here
backterian camel must be one of that bunch of Circus Jesse's."

"Circus Jesse!  Who was he, or she?" asked Jack.

"Why, he was a feller what owned a big eastern circus, but owned a
ranch out here as well.  It struck him one time that if camels was good
for transportation purposes over the Sahara desert they ought ter be
just as good here.  So, what does he do but start a camel express from
Maguez ter Amadillo over the border, with some of the backterians frum
his circus."

"And didn't it work?" asked Ralph.

"No.  That is, it did fer a while, till ther novelty wore off, and then
folks went back ter ther old reliable mule or burro.  Circus Jesse, he
got so blamed sore, that one fine day he turned the whole shootin'
match of his backterians loose, and packin' his trunk, let the country,
and resolved in futur' ter stick ter his circus."

"Was that long ago?" asked Jack.  "I shouldn't have thought the
creatures would have lived long without being recaptured."

"It's about five years since Jesse got out, I reckon," rejoined Pete,
"an' fer a while camel-hunting was a popular sport.  By an' by,
however, they got so wary no one could get near 'em, and, except fer a
scare they'd throw inter a prospector now and ag'in, we never heard no
more of 'em.  I'd clean fergotten all about 'em, till I made this one
inter cold backterian meat."

"I suppose they found food and water here and regarded the Mesa as
their own property," declared Jack.

"That's about it.  This is a place that's seldom visited, and I guess
they just figgered out that they'd found a happy home."

"But what became of the rest of them?" asked Ralph, who had been
apprised by Jack of the strange vanishment of the dead creature's mates.

"Must uv gone down that draw I noticed frum ther top uv ther mesa
to-day," explained Pete.  "Yer see, frum here, it would look as if they
vanished inter the solid earth when they entered it, bein' as how you
can't see there's any kind of a gully there till you get up high."

The next morning this was found to be the true explanation.  Tracks on
the bottom of the gully showed plainly how the strange desert wanderers
had effected their disappearance in such a startling manner.  But it
was some time before Pete could sit down to a meal without being
reminded of his "fire-spouting spook," which had cast such alarm into
the camp the first night.  The boys spent a week more at the mesa,
during which time Professor Wintergreen obtained voluminous notes on
one of the most interesting specimens of its kind in the south-west.

The days passed tranquilly, and, with the exception of the duty of
removing the carcass of the dead camel, nothing to interrupt the
routine of survey work occurred.  The mates of the dead beast had
evidently decided not to revisit their pasture grounds, for they did
not put in a reappearance.

"Well, boys," said the professor one morning when they were all
gathered at the summit of the mesa, "I guess that to-morrow morning we
can say good-by to the scene of our rather tame adventures.  My work is
complete."

"How about the subterranean river?" asked Ralph, but a howl of derision
from the others silenced him.

"Subterranean fiddlestick," burst out Jack, but the professor silenced
him.

"The existence of such a stream is not so improbable as you seem to
think," he said, "and Master Ralph is to be commended for his
enterprising desire to locate it, but I think that our investigations
have shown that if such a river ever did exist and the mesa dwellers
had access to it, that the entrance, wherever it might have been, has
vanished long ages ago."

Pete had taken no part in this conversation, but had wandered about the
top of the mesa rather aimlessly, from time to time looking sharply at
the surroundings beneath him in the alert manner of one whose life has
been passed in the open places.

Suddenly he gave a quick exclamation and pointed off into the
north-west.

"Look!  Look there!" he exclaimed, riveting his eyes on something his
keen vision had sighted, but which remained as yet invisible to the
boys.

"What's coming--another storm?" asked Ralph.

"I don't know what it is yet," rejoined the other in a strangely uneasy
tone, "it looks like--like----"

"A pillar of dust," exclaimed Jack, who had by this time sighted it,
too, and had come to the aid of the unimaginative plainsman.

"So it does," cried the others, who now, with the exception of the
short-sighted professor, could also see the approaching dust-cloud.

"What can it be?" wondered Walt, peering eagerly in its direction.

"Somebody riding.  Several of 'em, I should say, by the dust they're
raising," rejoined Pete bluntly.

The boys exchanged quick glances.  Somebody riding across that arid
waste?  Their destination could only be the mesa, then, but who could
it possibly be?

Had they been able to solve the riddle at that instant, they would have
scattered pell-mell for their ponies, and made the best of their way
from the Haunted Mesa, but, not being endowed with anything more than
ordinary sensibilities, it was, of course, impossible for them to
realize the deadly peril that was bearing down upon them in that
dust-cloud.

"I can see things more clearly now," cried Jack, as for an instant a
vagrant desert air blew aside the dust-cloud and revealed several
riders, surrounding some cumbersome, moving object in their midst.

"There's a wagon!" he cried, "a big one, too, and surrounded by
horsemen.  What can it mean?"

"That we'd better be skedaddling as quick as possible," shot out Pete,
brusquely.

The professor, who had wandered away from the group and was down inside
the hollow altar, was hastily summoned and apprised of the strange
approach of the mysterious cavalcade.

"Why, bless me, boys, what can it mean?" he cried, nimbly attempting a
flying leap over the edge of the altar in his haste to ascertain for
himself the nature of the approaching party.

Suddenly, however, as his feet touched the top, and he was scrambling
over, he gave a sharp cry and fell back within the altar with a gasp of
pain.

"Are you hurt?" asked Jack, running to the side of the ancient place of
sacrifice.

The professor lay prostrate within.  His face was white and set and
beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.

"My--my ankle," he groaned.  "I broke it some time ago, and in hurrying
to clamber over the top of the altar I fear I have snapped it again.
Oh!"

He gave a heartrending groan of pain.  The boys stood stricken with
consternation.  It was going to be a long and difficult task to get the
professor out of his present predicament, and there seemed need for
haste.

"Here, put this under your head," said Jack, stripping off his jacket
hastily, and throwing it within, "I'll tell Coyote Pete about your
accident, and we can get remedies from the packs."

But when Jack turned, only Ralph and Walt stood beside him.  The sturdy
cow-puncher had vanished.

"He's gone to get the glasses," explained Walt.

Presently Coyote Pete, very much out of breath from his dash down the
path and up again, stood beside them.  He had the glasses in his hand,
and lost no time in applying them to his eyes.  He had not had them
there two minutes when he gave a quick exclamation and turned hastily
to the boys.

"Lie down; lie down, every one of you," he ordered sharply.

They lost no time in obeying, as they knew that the old plainsman must
have an excellent reason for such a command.  The next instant Pete
himself followed their example.  Crouching low, he once more peered
through the glasses above the edge of the cup-like depression.

"Who are they?" asked Jack in a low voice, wriggling his way to Pete's
side.

"I'm not sure yet, but they are all armed.  I caught the flash of
sunlight on their rifles.  If they are Mexican insurrectos, we are in a
bad fix."

"Mexicans!  What would they be doing this side of the border?"

"That remains to be seen.  But I don't like the looks of it."

"Suppose they are Mexicans, Pete, would they do us any harm?"

"That depends a whole lot on whether they are on lawful business or
not."

"You mean----"

"That I don't like the looks of it.  If there's an insurrection in
Mexico, those fellows are after no good on this side of the border.
They may be some band of cut-throats, who are taking advantage of the
disturbances to raise Cain."

"Good gracious," exclaimed Jack, "and the professor's just injured
himself so that we can't move him for some time anyhow."

Coyote Pete turned sharply on the boy.

"What's he done?"

"Broken his ankle, or, at any rate, seriously sprained it."

Pete's rejoinder to this was a long whistle of dismay.  He said
nothing, however, but once more applied the glasses to his eyes.  Jack
saw him gnaw his moustache, as he gazed out over the desert.  The
dust-cloud was quite close now--not more than a mile away.  The boys,
with their naked eyes, could easily catch the moving glint of metal.

"Well, Pete, what do you think?" inquired Jack eagerly, as the
cowpuncher at length set down the glasses.

"That we're in Dutch," was the expressive rejoinder.




CHAPTER VIII.

THE DARK FACE OF DANGER.

"Are we in actual danger?"

It was Ralph who put the question.  The Eastern lad looked rather white
under his tan.  Walt, however, seemed as imperturbable as ever, and
gazed out at the approaching horsemen with no more sign of emotion than
a tightening of the lips.

Coyote Pete's reply was a curious one.  He handed the boy the glasses,
and said curtly:

"Take a squint fer yourself."

Ralph gazed long and earnestly.  Pete talked the while in low undertone.

"Do you recognize him--that fellow on the big black horse?  I'd know
that horse ten miles away, even if I didn't know the man.  He's----"

"Black Ramon de Barros!" burst from the Eastern lad's astounded lips,
while the others gave a sharp gasp of surprise.

"That's the rooster.  Here, Jack; take a look."

The boy, as you may suppose, lost no time in applying the glasses to
his own eyes.  Viewed through the magnifying medium, a startling
moving-picture swung into focus.

Surrounding a big, covered wagon, of the prairie-schooner type, were
from ten to a dozen wild-looking Mexicans, their straggling elf-locks
crowned by high-peaked sombreros, and their serapes streaming out
wildly about them, whipped into loose folds by the pace at which they
rode.  As Coyote Pete had said, there was little difficulty for any one
who had seen him once, in recognizing Black Ramon de Barros.  His
magnificent black horse--the same on which he had escaped from the old
mission--made him a marked man among a thousand.  The wagon was drawn
by six mules, and driven by a short, stocky, little Mexican.  The
horsemen seemed to act as escort for it.  Evidently they had no fear of
being observed by hostile eyes, for, as they advanced, they waved their
rifles about their heads and yelled exultingly.

Fortunately for the party on the summit of the mesa, their stock was
tethered on the opposite side of the formation to that on which the
cavalcade was approaching.  Thus, Black Ramon and his men could not see
that the mesa was occupied.  Jack caught himself wondering, though, how
long it would be before, and what would happen when, they did.

"Have you got any plan in your head?" he asked, turning to Pete, as he
laid the glasses down.  But for once, to his dismay, the old plainsman
seemed fairly stumped.  The danger had come upon them so suddenly, so
utterly unexpectedly, that it had caught them absolutely unprepared.
They had not even a rifle with them on the mesa summit, and it was now
too late to risk exposing themselves by descending for weapons.  There
was nothing to do, it seemed, but powerlessly to await what destiny
would bring forth.

"You boys get back to the altar.  You can act as company fer the
profusser, and it will be a snug hiding-place in case of trouble,"
whispered Pete.  "I wish to goodness we'd brought the stock up inside
the mesa, and then those fellows might never have discovered we were
here.  I don't see how they can help it, as things are, though."

"They'll be bound to see our footmarks in the assembly hall," said Jack.

"Not bound to, lad," rejoined Pete.  "You see, they may be only going
to make this a watering-place fer their stock, and then press right on."

"Press right on across that rocky range yonder?"

"Hum," resumed Pete, "that's so.  They couldn't very well get that
wagin across that, could they?"

"Whatever do you suppose they've got a wagon for, at all?" asked Jack.

"I've got my own ideas, lad, and I'll find out afore long if I'm right.
Now, you and the other boys get back in that altar.  If it gets too hot
here, I'll jump in and join you.  If the worst comes to the worst, we
ought to be able to lay hid in there fer a while."

"In the meantime what are you going to do?"

"Keep my eyes and ears open.  There's something mighty strange about
this whole thing."

The boys knew that obedience to Pete's commands was about the best
thing they could do at the moment, so they hastened to conceal
themselves within the altar, which afforded a comfortable hiding-place,
even if it was a trifle hot.  The poor professor was in great pain from
his ankle, but Jack, after as able an examination as he could give the
injured member, was unable to find that it was anything more than a
severe sprain.

It did not take the professor long to become acquainted with what had
happened within the last fifteen minutes, and, in his anxiety over the
outcome of their situation, his pain was almost forgotten.

"If we only had the rifles," he breathed in such a savage voice that
had the circumstances been different the boys could have smiled at the
odd contrast between his mild, spectacled countenance and his
bloodthirsty words.

It seemed hours, although in reality not more than half an hour
elapsed, before Coyote Pete returned.  His reappearance was not an
orderly one.  Instead, he landed in the interior of the altar in one
bound.  His face was streaming with sweat, and he looked anxious and
worried.

"What news?" asked Jack.

"The worst," was the rejoinder.

"Have they found our camp?"

"Not yet, but that's only a question of a few minutes now.  At present
they are unhitching and cooking a meal.  Luckily the shade at this time
of day lies to the north-west of the mesa, so that they may not explore
the other side for some time."

"Let us hope not.  But what have you found out about them?  What are
they doing here?"

"Just what I suspicioned.  They are a part of a gang of gun-runners."

"Gun-runners?"

"Yes.  From listening to their conversation, I have found out that this
insurrection's a heap worse than we ever supposed.  Half of Chihuahua
is up in arms ag'in the government, and they are plotting to blow up
railroad bridges, cut wires, and paralyze the country generally.  Then
they are goin' ter raid all the American mines and get the gold."

"Why, dad's mine's in Chihuahua, close to the border," gasped Jack.

"I know it.  I heard that greaser ragamuffin, Black Ramon, mention his
name.  Your dad's the first one they're goin' after----"

"The scoundrels."

"They owe him a grudge, you know, and now's their chance to get even."

"Do they know that dad is in Mexico now?"

"I didn't hear that.  All I found out was what I told you, and that, as
I said, they are running guns across the border.  That wagon's loaded
up with machine-guns in heavy cases.  They are labeled as agricultural
machinery, and were taken off the train by white accomplices seventy
miles or more from here.  They chose this part of the border, I guess,
as even Uncle Sam would never suspect any one of trying ter get guns
over them hills yonder."

"Well, they can't take a wagon over those rocky, desolate places.  How
are they going to get them across, do you suppose?" asked the
professor, his pain almost forgotten in the tense interest of the
moment.

"That's just the funny part uv it," said Pete; "they never mentioned
the mountains.  You don't suppose there's any other way they could get
'em over the border, do you?"

"Maybe they have an airship," suggested Walt Phelps.

"Maybe," said Pete quite gravely, "I wouldn't put nothin' past a
greaser."

"Hush!" exclaimed Ralph suddenly, "somebody's coming."

With beating hearts they sank into absolute silence.  The three boys
crouched at one end of the hollow altar, the professor and Coyote Pete
bundled together into as small a space as possible at the other.

Voices, conversing in Spanish, could now be heard, and, from the
inflection, the boys judged that whoever was talking was very much
astonished over something.

"I recognize that voice," said Jack suddenly, in a low whisper, "it's
Ramon de Barros."

The other two boys nodded.  Ralph Stetson's heart beat so hard and fast
that it fairly shook his frame.  Truly the predicament of the party was
a terrible one.  Discovery by as wolf-hearted a band of ruffians--if
they were all like their leader--as ever infested the border, was
inevitable within the next few minutes.  Taking into consideration
their connection with Black Ramon in the past, it was unlikely in the
extreme that any mercy would be shown them.  Never had any of them
looked so closely into the dark face of danger.

Suddenly the listeners, crouching in their hiding-place, heard a shout
of astonishment from the Mexicans.

"They've seen our camp over the edge of the mesa!" exclaimed Pete in a
low, tense voice; "in another minute they'll start looking for us."

As he spoke, the voice which Jack had recognized as Black Ramon's,
uttered a crisp, curt command of some sort.  The lads could hear
footsteps hurrying hither and thither.  Without doubt, the order that
meant their probable doom had just been given.

"I can't stand this a minute longer," cried Ralph suddenly.  The boy's
eyes were blazing wildly.  Clenching his fist, he sprang to his feet.

"Come back here, you blockhead," snapped Jack, tugging his friend down.
Ralph came backward sprawling, and landed in a heap in Jack's lap,
knocking Walt Phelps with him.  Together the three boys were tangled in
a struggling heap.

"Get up," whispered Jack.  "They'll hear us.  You----"

He stopped short.  All at once an astonishing--an incredible thing--had
happened.  The floor beneath them,--the solid floor, as it had
seemed,--began to tremble.

Before any of the amazed lads could utter a word, the foundation upon
which they rested tipped, and, with a loud, ringing cry of terror from
Ralph, they were plunged out of the sunlight into blackness as
impenetrable as the pocket of Erebus.




CHAPTER IX.

IN THE MESA DWELLERS' BURIAL GROUND.

Down, down, they plunged, bumping and scraping painfully in the
darkness.  Terror had deprived them of speech or the power of uttering
a sound, or they would have shouted.  As it was, however, when they
finally landed in a heap on some hard surface at the foot of the steep
declivity down which they had fallen, it was some seconds before any of
them breathed a word.  Then it was Jack who spoke.

"Fellows!"

"Yes, Jack."  The rejoinder came out of the darkness in Walt Phelps'
voice.

"Ralph, are you there?"

"No; I'm dead.  That is, I feel as if every bone in my body had been
broken.  What in the name of Old Nick has happened?"

"Thank goodness there are no bones broken," breathed Jack thankfully,
as Ralph spoke, "as to what happened, you can take your own guess on
it.  My idea is that there was some sort of hinged trap-door at the
bottom of that altar, and that when our combined weight came upon it at
the time I pulled Ralph down, the blamed old thing tipped and dumped us
down in here."

"That's my idea, too," chimed in Walt.  "Can't account for it in any
other way.  But what is 'here'?  Where are we?"

"You can answer that as well as I can," was the rejoinder.  "Anybody
got a match?  Oh, here; all right, I've got some, plenty in fact--a
whole pocketful."

Jack struck a lucifer, and as its yellow glare lit up their
surroundings, they could not repress a cry of astonishment.  They had
landed at the foot of a steep flight of stairs, at the summit of which
they correctly surmised was the trap-door through which they had been
so startlingly dumped.

"Good gracious, did we fall down all those?" murmured Ralph, rubbing
his elbow painfully.

"Guess so.  I know I feel as if I'd been monkeying with a buzz-saw,"
same [Transcriber's note: came?] from Walt Phelps.

"Well, fellows," said Jack, as the light died out, "the question now
before us is, what are we going to do?"

"Try to get out again," said the practical Walt Phelps.

"All right, Walt.  Then we'd better remount those steps--slower than we
came down them--and try to reopen that trap-door.  We can't leave Pete
and the injured professor like this."

The boys clambered up the steps without difficulty.  They were deep and
shallow, and were cut out of the living rock.  At the head of the
stairs, however, a disappointment awaited them.  Try as they would,
they could not discover any means of reopening the stone trap-door in
the floor of the hollow altar.  Apparently, after dumping them through,
it had closed as hermetically as before.

The flickering light of the matches from Jack's store illuminated looks
of despair on their faces as they realized that they were trapped.

"Try pounding on it and shouting," suggested Ralph.

Although Jack deemed it of little use, he and Walt followed this
suggestion, and together the three boys beat and hammered on the
massive stone above them till their hands were raw.  There was no
response, however.  Apparently the stone was too thick for a sound to
penetrate to the outer air.  Terror, that was almost panic, seized Walt
and Ralph, as they realized that they were prisoners in this
hermetically sealed dungeon.  Worse than prisoners, in fact.  Prisoners
had food and at least hope.  They, unless they could find a way out,
were buried alive.  Even Jack's stout heart experienced a deadly
feeling of depression, as he realized this.  He concealed his despair
from his companions, however, and, with all the cheerfulness he could
muster, addressed them in the darkness.  Matches had now grown too
precious to squander.

"Well, fellows, we've got to find another way out."

"Oh, it's no good," moaned Ralph despairingly, "we're doomed to die
here.  We might as well sit down and wait for death to come."

"Say," cut in Jack briskly, "if it was light enough to see, I'd give
you a good licking.  Doomed to die, indeed!  Not much.  It's a cinch,
isn't it, that if there is an entrance to this place there must be an
outlet, too?  Very well, then," he hurried on, without waiting for an
answer, "let's find that outlet."

The logic of this speech might be questioned, but of its good sense,
under the circumstances, there was no doubt.

"You're right, Jack," said Ralph.   "I'm ashamed of myself for doing
the baby act.  Come on, let's set out at once."

"That's the talk," said Walt heartily; "if there's a way out, we'll
find it."

"And if not?" asked Ralph, his spirits flagging again.

"We'll discuss that later," declared Jack briskly.

Returning again to the landing--if such it might be called--upon which
they had terminated their abrupt descent into the interior of the mesa,
some more of the precious matches were lit.  As the last flickered out,
the boys fancied that some feet from them they could see a black mouth,
like the entrance of a tunnel, or rather a continuation of the one into
which they had been thrown.

"Come on, boys," exclaimed Jack.  "It's the only thing to do.  We can't
turn back, and, as Pete says, 'there ain't nothing to do but go ahead.'"

Not without some misgivings did the three lads plunge forward in the
darkness, feeling their way with outstretched hands as they entered the
tunnel.  A close, musty smell, as of things long mildewed and moulded,
filled the air, and an oppressive silence lay on everything.
Unconsciously, since entering this place, their conversation had been
all in whispers.

The tunnel they were now traversing was bored on a pretty steep down
grade.  So steep, in fact, that Jack concluded, after about a quarter
of an hour of slow and cautious traveling, that they must be below the
level of the desert.  For the last few minutes they had been conscious
of a peculiar thing.  This was that the silence of the tunnel had given
place to a deep-throated roaring, not unlike the voice of a blast
furnace.  Where it came from, or what it was, they had no idea.  It was
a most peculiar sound, though, steady as a trade-wind, and seeming to
fill the whole place with its deep vibrations.

"What can it be?" gasped Walt, as they paused by common consent to
listen.

"Maybe the wind roaring by the entrance to this place," suggested Jack
hopefully.

This thought gave them new courage, and, on Ralph's suggestion, Jack
struck another match from his store.  As it flared up, they all three
recoiled with expressions of dismay.

At their very feet--so close that the tips of their boots almost
projected over it--was a deep chasm.  The black profundity of it loomed
in front of them gapingly.  A few paces more, and they would have been
precipitated into the abyss.  Jack, suppressing a shudder, leaned
forward and held the match as far over the edge as he dared.  As the
depths of the great crevasse were illuminated by a feeble flame, he
shrank back with a sharp intake of his breath.

[Illustration: As it flared up, they all three recoiled with
expressions of dismay.  At their very feet was a deep chasm.]

The place was a charnel house!

No mystery now as to what had become of the human remains of the grisly
sacrifices of the ancient mesa dwellers.  There, piled in that dark
chasm beneath them, were great piles of decaying bones and gleaming
skulls.  Hundreds of them extended toward the surface in a ghastly
pyramid.  No wonder the underground place into which they had
penetrated smelled musty and unpleasant.

"It is the mesa dwellers' burial ground!" exclaimed Ralph in a
quavering voice, as, clinging to Jack's arm, he bent forward.

"Yes," rejoined Walt with a shudder, "and but for Providence, we should
have plunged downward into it ourselves."

"Ugh!" exclaimed Jack, in a voice filled with repulsion.  "Don't let's
think of it.  See, the path takes a turn here.  Come on, let's go
ahead, but follow me closely and keep in to the wall."

"Not likely to take any chances of missing the road, after seeing
that," spoke up Walt, as once more the three youths, who had been so
strangely plunged into this predicament, began to tread the
subterranean regions once more.

As you may imagine, they went with due caution.  But no more dangers
menaced them, and as they progressed the path began to widen.  All the
time, however, the strange roaring sound had been growing louder, until
now it had attained almost deafening proportions.  Still they had come
upon no explanation of what it could be.  Jack had privately concluded
it to be the sound of the wind, forcing its way into some crevice.
This theory seemed to be the more tenable as the last match which he
had struck had only been kept alight with difficulty, so strong had
been the draught that now puffed up toward them.

Far from alarming them, however, this gave them renewed hope.  It meant
that, in all probability, they were nearing an outlet of the strange
underground place.  Had it not been for the predicament in which they
had left the professor and Coyote Pete, the three lads would have felt
a real interest in exploring the cavern, now that they had grown
accustomed to their surroundings.  So far as they had been able to make
out, the tunnel they had been treading was partially the work of human
hands and partially the work of Nature.  The great rift in which lay
the accumulation of human remains was evidently the result of some
volcanic upheaval.  The path, however, was so graded and formed that
there seemed no reason to doubt that it had, at one time, been made by
the ancient mesa dwellers.

"Seems to me we ought to find out what that roaring sound means before
we go any farther," suggested Ralph suddenly.

"That's a fine Irish bull," laughed Jack.  "How are we going to find
what it is unless we do go farther?"

"That's so," agreed Ralph, somewhat abashed.  "Come on, then."

A few paces more brought them to an abrupt turn in the path, as they
could feel by their constant touching of the inner wall.

"Better strike another match," said Walt.

"Yes; here goes," agreed Jack.  Both boys shouted, to make themselves
heard above the now thunderous roaring of the strange noise.

A shout of surprise that rose even above the mysterious roaring,
followed the striking of the match.  Beyond the turn the path took a
steep drop downward, and beyond that--the boys could hardly believe
their eyes as they gazed--was the glint of rushing water.

"The subterranean river!" was the amazed cry that broke from the lips
of all three.




CHAPTER X.

A NEW MEXICAN STYX.

"The subterranean river!"

The words echoed back weirdly from the vault-like chamber into which
they had now penetrated, and at the bottom of which the stream, upon
which the light of the match had glistened, flowed rapidly.  Within
this spacious place the noise was not nearly so loud as it had been
when confined in the narrow tunnel, which, in fact, acted much as a
speaking-tube would have done.

"It can't be!" gasped Ralph, unwilling to believe his own eyes.

"But it is," cried Jack, as, all thoughts of their predicament
forgotten in this strange discovery, they made lavish use of their
matches on gaining the edge of the stream.  The river was about twenty
feet in width, and they speedily saw that the roaring sound they had
heard during their progress through the tunnel was produced by a
waterfall some distance above, over which the river plunged into a sort
of basin at their feet.

But this was not the most astonishing thing they found in that first
brief but comprehensive inspection.  Affixed to the rocky wall at one
side of the chamber was a large, bronze lamp.  An eager overhauling of
the utensil showed it to be filled with oil, and apparently it was not
so very long since it had been lighted.

Hastily applying a match, Jack soon had the rocky chamber lighted, and
they could now survey the place into which they had blundered, at their
ease.  In size it was about the same dimensions as the Council Hall of
the mesa, which lay, they knew not how many feet, above them.  The
river roared down along one side of it, forming a deep, turbid pool
just beneath the waterfall, by which it entered the place.

To their astonishment, the boys now spied in one corner of the chamber
several empty boxes piled up.  Remains of excelsior and sacking were
within them, and they bore the stencilled marks, "Agricultural
Machinery, With Care."

Instantly what Pete had related to him concerning the conversation of
the men accompanying Black Ramon flashed into Jack's mind.  Could it be
possible that they had stumbled upon the place utilized by the
gun-runners to convey their ammunition across the border?  At this
instant, there came a shout from Ralph, who had been peering about the
place.

"A boat!"

"A what?"  The incredulous cry burst from both Jack and Walt.

"It is a kind of a boat, anyhow.  Come here, and look for yourselves."

Ralph was bending over the rocky marge of the subterranean river at a
part of the chamber farthest removed from the waterfall.  The water
here flowed comparatively slowly, most of its force having been
expended in the pool beneath the fall.  Sure enough, Ralph had been
right.  Moored to the bank by two stout ropes attached to iron bars
driven into the rock, was a boat--if such a name can be given to the
flat-bottomed, floating appliance, upon which the thunderstruck boys
gazed.

The boat, or rather float, was about twenty feet in length and some
five feet in beam.  It was not unlike, in fact, one of those shallow
craft used by duck hunters, only it was square at each end.  Evidently
it would hold a considerable quantity of freight.  More excelsior and
burlap litter in the bottom of it showed that whatever had been the
contents of the boxes, it had apparently been used to transport them.

"Boys, we've tumbled over the discovery of the age!" exclaimed Jack, in
what was for him, a strangely excited voice.

The others were not less moved.  Their eyes were round and their jaws
dropped in incredulous wonderment, as they gazed before them.

"Will somebody please pinch me?"

It was Ralph who spoke, turning a countenance solemn and startled upon
his comrades.

"No need to do that, Ralph.   You're wide-awake; make no mistake about
that."

"But--but I don't understand," began Walt in a puzzled tone.  "What is
this place, what----"

"What is it?" echoed Jack.  "It's the gun-runners' underground
railroad.  Can't you see it?  This river, so the old Indian legend
says, emerges across the border.  In some way these Mexicans heard of
it, and learned the secret of the hollow altar.  No wonder the
government has not been able to find out how the rebels got their arms
across the border."

"Well, what are we going to do, now we've found it?"

Walt, the practical, propounded the query, as they stood there,
half-stunned by the rapidity with which unheard-of events had happened
within the last half-hour.

"Why, I--upon my word, I don't know," laughed Jack, brought up with a
round turn by the hard-headed Walt.

"I do," rejoined Walt.

"What then?"

"Escape to the open air."

"You mean it?"  Somehow, in his excitement, Jack had not gone as far as
this daring suggestion.  And yet it was, after all, the only thing to
do.  But suddenly another thought occurred to the boy.

"The professor and Coyote Pete, how can we leave them?"

"Well, we can't do them any good by remaining buried here, that's
certain," replied Walt, in his sensible way.

Jack and Ralph nodded agreement.

"On the other hand, if this river really leads out into Mexico, we can
take the subway to freedom and then, when we emerge, find out the best
thing to do.  Maybe we can fall in with some government troops or
authorities of some kind."

"But suppose the insurrectos are in power wherever this river comes
out?"

The question came from Ralph.

"We'll have to take chances on that, I suppose."

"Hark!" came suddenly from Jack.

Far back somewhere in the tunnels they had threaded they could hear
loud shouts and cries.  The sound of the pursuit boomed out even above
the noise of the waterfall.

"They're after us!" exclaimed Jack.

"Shall we take the boat?"  Walt's usually calm voice shook a little as
he asked the question.

"It's our only chance.  Come on, in with you, Ralph."

Ralph hesitated no longer, but jumped into the little contrivance.  A
sort of oar lay in the bottom.  He thrust it over the side.

"The water's only about three feet deep," he announced.

"So much the less chance of our being drowned," rejoined Jack.

The lad had his knife out--a heavy-bladed hunting weapon.  As soon as
all was ready he would cut the ropes and set the boat free on the
turbulent current.

"All right!" cried Walt, as he clambered in and took his place by Ralph.

Jack gave a hasty look around, and the next instant made a flying leap
into the little craft.  So fast had Black Ramon and his followers taken
up the trail after they had discovered that the boys had found the
secret of the hollow altar, that they were already entering the chamber.

Ramon was in the lead.  The glare of the lamp fell full on his
parchment-like features, as with a roar of recognition, he sighted the
boys.

Ping!

Something whizzed past Jack's ear, and, chipping the rock above,
showered the occupants of the boat with fragments.  The sharp report of
the Mexican's revolver filled the place.  With a quick movement, Jack
slashed the rope nearest him.  If he had not been in such a hurry, he
would have seen that the other should have been severed first.  As it
was, he had cut the one that held the boat's bow to the stream.
Instantly the flat-bottomed craft swung dizzily around, and still held
by her stern mooring, dashed against the bank.

For a minute the boys feared she was stove in, but there was no time to
waste on an examination.

Slash!

One stroke of the knife severed the remaining rope, already drawn as
taut as a piano wire.  But, as Jack's knife fell, the place became
filled with shouts and confusion.

Ramon had been a little in advance of his men, and now they were all in
the place.  A second's glance showed them what had happened.  Not only
were the boys about to escape, but if they did not stop them the secret
of their underground route across the border would be discovered, and
its usefulness at an end.

No wonder they strained every nerve to reach the boys.  Ramon himself
had bounded to the side of the subterranean river as the boat swung
round.  As her gunwale had struck the bank, he had leaped aboard.  But
before he could use his revolver, Walt's powerful arm knocked the
weapon out of his hand, and it fell on the bottom of the boat.  With a
snarl of rage, Ramon flashed round on the boy.  But whatever the
Mexican might have been able to do with knife or pistol, he was no
match for the muscles of the American lad.

Walt fairly picked the lithe form of the gun-runner from the floor of
the boat as Jack's knife fell across the remaining rope.  With a splash
and a loud cry, Ramon pitched overside into the stream.  As he fell,
though, he managed to clutch the side of the craft and he hung on,
desperately endeavoring to draw himself up into the boat.

His followers, seeing what had happened, rushed down on them.  A
tempest of bullets rattled about the boys' heads as they felt the rope
part.  It was no moment for sentimental hesitation.  Walt raised his
foot, and the next instant brought his heavy boot down with crushing
force on Ramon's clinging fingers.

With a yelp of pain, the fellow let go and was rolled over and over in
the river, while half a dozen of his men waded in to rescue him.

"Yip-ee-ee-ee!  We're off!" yelled Jack, with a true cowboy yell.  The
lad was carried away by the excitement and thrill of the adventure.

With a lurch and a bump, the frail craft carrying our three young
friends shot forward.  The lamp-lit panorama as Ramon, dripping and
cursing, was hauled out of the water by his band, flashed before their
eyes for a brief moment.  The next instant dense darkness fell about
them.

At what seemed to be a mile-a-minute pace they were hurried forward
into the unknown.




CHAPTER XI.

THE CAMP OF THE GUN-RUNNER

Jounced against the rough, rock walls, bumped over shoal places, and at
times whirled almost broadside on by the swift current, the queer,
flat-bottomed boat containing our three young friends was hurried
through the darkness.  It was the maddest ride any of them had ever
taken, and, as we know, they had been through some thrilling
experiences since they had first stood on the railroad station platform
at Maguez.  Had they known it, they could have controlled the boat more
or less with the rough oar--the one with which Ralph had sounded the
depth of the river--but, of course, they were inexpert in the
management of such a craft.  They could do nothing but keep still and
trust to luck to bring them safely out of their extraordinary
predicament.

After some ten minutes of this, the current seemed to slacken a little
and the walls narrowed.  Jack stretched out a hand and, to his
astonishment, his fingers were swept along a rope stretched down the
side of the tunnel.  This solved a problem he had been revolving in his
mind--namely, how did the Mexicans get their boat back after it had
delivered its cargo of arms?  The explanation was now a simple one.
Evidently they hauled it back by the use of this rope.  "It must have
been hard work, though," thought Jack.

Conversation was impossible in the confines of the tunnel which, in
places, was a mere tube in the rocks; the roar of the water was almost
deafening.  It was so black, too, that they could not see one another's
faces.  Of real alarm Jack did not feel much, and for an excellent
reason.  It was apparent that the Mexicans had used this underground
route across the border many times, and, if they could make the
passage--terrifying as it seemed--in safety, there was every reason to
suppose that the boys could make it with the same security.

What worried Jack most about their situation proceeded from a far
different cause.  There was little reason to doubt that at the other
end of the tunnel, wherever that might be, Black Ramon or his
superiors, arming the insurrectionists, had guards posted to receive
the smuggled guns.  If no opportunity of escaping from the boat
presented itself before they were hastened out of the exit of the
tunnel, their situation would be just as bad as ever.  Ramon would, of
course, lose no time in following them up, either by a spare boat,
which he might have had concealed in the vaulted chamber, or else on
his fast, coal-black horse which he might ride across the rocky range,
far above the subterranean stream.

In the event of their falling once more into the hands of Ramon, Jack
could not repress a shudder as he thought of what the probable fate
would be.  Ugly stories had from time to time floated across the border
concerning the manner in which Ramon, in his cattle-rustling days,
dealt with his prisoners,--stories of torture and suffering that made
one shudder even to listen to.  If the apparent leader of the
insurrectionist gun-runners had cause for animosity against the boys
before, it was surely redoubled now.  Not only had they accidentally
penetrated the secret of the Haunted Mesa, but they had toppled the
former leader of the cattle-rustlers ignominiously into the water, an
insult which Jack knew the man's nature too well to suppose he would
easily either forgive or forget.

In such gloomy reflections was he occupied when a sudden shout from the
others roused him from his reverie, and, looking up, he saw that the
tunnel through which the river flowed was growing higher, broader, and
lighter.  The darkness had now been exchanged for a sort of semi-gloom,
in which the almost black rock gleamed wetly where the hurrying current
of the stream had washed its base.

"We're near the end!" shouted Walt to the others.

Jack nodded.  Suddenly his eye fell on Ramon's revolver, which lay at
the bottom of the boat as it had fallen when he toppled overboard.  One
cartridge had been discharged, leaving but four good shells in the
chamber, but in an emergency those four, the lad knew, would be better
than no weapons at all.  He regarded this as distinctly a piece of good
luck--this finding of the pistol.  He examined it and found that it was
a heavy weapon of forty-four caliber.

Hardly had he had time to observe all this before the boat, without the
slightest warning, shot out into daylight, very much as a railroad
train emerges from a tunnel.  A swift glance at their surroundings
showed Jack that they had floated into a sort of natural basin amid
some wild, bare-looking hills.  The banks of this basin were clothed
with a sort of wild oat and interspersed with a small blue wild flower.
Here and there were clumps of chapparal.  But what pleased the lad most
was the fact that, although not far from them a rude hut stood upon the
bank, there was so far no sign of human occupancy of the place.

Seizing the steering oar, Jack ran the boat up alongside a spot where
the bank shelved gently down to the water's edge, and ran her, nose up,
on the sand.

"Hoo----" began Ralph jubilantly, his spirits carrying him away, but
Jack's hand was over his mouth in a second.

"The less noise we make the better," he breathed, stepping out of the
boat on tiptoe and signing to the others to do the same.  With scarcely
a sound, they landed and stood at length on the grassy carpet sloping
down to the sandy beach.

So far not a sound had proceeded from the hut Jack turned to his
companions with a cautious gesture.

"Wait here while I investigate," he whispered, "and be ready to jump
back into the boat and shove off at a minute's notice."

They nodded and turned to obey, as Jack, as silently as he could, crept
on toward the hut, his revolver clasped ready for use at the slightest
alarm.  The Border Boy did not mean to be caught napping.  In this
manner he reached the wall of the hut nearest to the river, in which
there was a small, unglazed window.  Cautiously raising himself on
tiptoe, Jack peered within.

In a rough chair, by a table covered with the untidy remains of a meal,
was seated an elderly Mexican, as shriveled and brown as a dried bean.
The regularity with which he was "sawing wood" showed that he was as
sound asleep as it is possible for a man to be.  Still Jack knew that
there are men who sleep with one eye open, so he did not relax an iota
of his vigilance as he crept around the corner of the house.  On the
opposite side he found a doorway, and, noiselessly gliding in, he had
the pistol to the Mexican's ear before whatever dreams the man might
have been having were even disturbed.

"Caramba, sanctissima!  Santa Maria!" yelled the man, springing to his
feet as if propelled by springs.  But the uncomfortable sensation of
the little circle of steel pressed to the nape of his neck brought him
back again into the chair in a second, trembling like a leaf, and
gazing in terror at the determined young figure standing over him.

"Keep quiet and I'll not hurt you," said Jack, adding as an
afterthought: "Do you speak English?"

"Me spiggoty 'Merican," sputtered the trembling old Mexican.

"All right, Jose, then listen: Are there any horses here?"

The old man's eyes held a gleam of intelligence.

"Cavallo, senor.  One, two, t'ree horse over heel."

"Oh, over the hill, are they?" said Jack to himself, then aloud: "You
come and show them to me."

"Mocho easy to find," protested the Mexican.

Jack smiled to himself.  He had been right, then.  The old man was
trying to trick him.  Assuming a sterner air, he thundered out,

"Tell me where these horses are or I'll kill you!"

The threat proved effectual, as Jack had hoped it would.  Dropping all
his attempts at subterfuge, the Mexican told the boy that the horses
were in a gully not a hundred feet from the house.  On the Mexican
being escorted there, still with the pistol held close to his head, his
words were found to be true.

Three horses, ready saddled and bridled, stood in the gulch, apparently
reserved for the use of any one about the camp who should need them in
a hurry.

This much ascertained, Jack marched the Mexican back to the hut, where,
with a rope, he leisurely proceeded to bind him.  Then, amid the
fellow's tears and supplications--for he evidently thought he was about
to be killed--the boy marched him to the river bank.  Walt and Ralph
were naturally bubbling over with questions, but they said nothing as
Jack sternly ordered the aged Mexican to board the boat.

There were more prayers and tears, but finally the shriveled old chap
got on board, and the boys shoved him off.  The current rapidly bore
him off down the stream and presently he vanished between the two
points of land through which the river made its way out of the basin.

"Well, he's off for a good, long ride," said Jack, as with howls and
yells from its passenger the boat vanished from view.

"Why didn't you just bind him and leave him in the hut?" asked Ralph.

"Because Ramon may be along at any moment, and the old fellow might
give him some information concerning us we wouldn't like to have
published," was the rejoinder.  "In that boat he is in no danger and
will simply take a long and pleasant ride, and won't be in a position
to do us any mischief when he is finally rescued."

The boys were full of admiration for Jack's strategy, and openly
expressed their congratulations on the skillful way he had carried
things through, but the lad waved them aside impatiently.  Rapidly he
told them that their best course was to get on horseback as soon as
possible, and head away from the valley.

Some five minutes later three youthful figures mounted on a trio of
splendid specimens of horse flesh, loped easily up a trail leading from
the natural basin in the hills.  In Jack's pocket, too, reposed a
certain paper found on the table in the hut and signed with Ramon de
Barros' name.  With a vague idea that it might prove useful to him, the
boy had appropriated it, and shoved it hastily in his pocket.

The summit of the basin reached, the boys found themselves not far from
a broad, white road.  The compass, which Jack still had on his wrist,
showed the direction to be about due east and west.  Crossing a stretch
of grass, which separated them from the thoroughfare, the three young
horsemen were soon standing on the ribbonlike stretch of white which
wound its way through a country pleasantly green and fresh-looking
after their sojourn in the desert.

"Looks like the promised land," cried Walt.

"I'll bet we're the first bunch to find the promised land via the
underground railway," laughed Ralph, as they gazed about them,
undecided in which direction to proceed.




CHAPTER XII.

MADERO'S FLYING COLUMN.

As they stood there, still undecided as to which direction to take,
Jack's keen eyes detected, above a clump of trees some distance down
the road to the west, a cloud of yellow dust rising.  Evidently
somebody was coming their way.  The question was, who was it?

It might be some one of whom they could inquire the direction to the
Esmeralda mine--for Jack had determined to seek out his father, knowing
the mine could not be very far distant.  Again it might be a band of
insurrectos, in which case they would have jumped out of the frying pan
into the fire with a vengeance.

"Shall we ride forward?" asked Walt, as Jack's lips tightened in deep
thought.

The other boy pushed back his sombrero.  Jack Merrill was only a lad,
after all, and he found himself suddenly called upon to answer a
question which might have stumped a grown man.  The question, however,
was decided for him, and by a means so utterly unexpected that it came
near jolting the Border Boys out of their composure; for Jack, as they
had ridden up from the river, had admonished his companions to keep
cool minds and wits and stiff upper lips whatever happened.  They were
going into a country in which, from what they had been able to gather,
the insurrectos were numerically and strategically strong.  Their only
safety, the lad argued with a wisdom beyond his years, was in facing
emergencies as they came, without betraying by outward signs whatever
of inward perturbation they might feel.

"I think we had better ride eastward, till we come to some village or
town," Jack was beginning, in response to Walt's question, when a voice
from behind suddenly hailed them in unmistakably American accents.

"Ah, here you are, gentlemen.  We've been expecting you."

The boys wheeled to find that a horseman stood beside them.  He had
ridden almost noiselessly over the soft grass, which accounted for
their not having heard his approach.  Jack took in the new arrival's
figure in a quick, comprehensive glance.

The man who now faced them was a stalwart-looking chap of about thirty.
His face was bronzed and his eyes keen.  The face of one who has lived
much out of doors.  His manner seemed frank and open--even hearty--but
any one skilled in reading faces would have noted in the rather
receding chin and the eyes set close together that, in spite of his
apparent heartiness, the newcomer was a man of limited reliability.
The sort of chap, in short, who, while fearless up to a certain point
and adventurous to a degree, would yet in an extremity look out for
"Number One."

As for his dress, it was much the same as the boys'.  Sombrero, leather
chaps well worn, blue shirt, and red neck handkerchief.  Jack's keen
eyes noted, too, that the pommel of his saddle bore some recent bullet
scars, and that in two bearskin holsters reposed the formidable-looking
butts of two heavy-caliber revolvers.  The war-like note was further
enhanced by the fact that across his saddle horn the new arrival
carried a Remington rifle.

The boys' position was now an extraordinary one.  Advancing toward them
down the road, was, what they could now perceive to be, a considerable
body of horsemen.  As if this were not enough to raise a question of
whether it was better to fly or remain where they were, here was this
total stranger, perhaps an American, too, hailing them as if he knew
them, or, at least, had expected to meet them there.  Jack's mind was
made up in a flash, but, even in the brief instant he hesitated, the
stranger's keen, close-set eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"I'm not mistaken, am I?  You expected to meet me here?"

"Yes, yes, of course," responded Jack quickly, and in as easy a tone as
he could command; "I hope we're not late?"

"No; there comes Madero's flying column now.  You couldn't have kept
the appointment better if you had arranged to meet us at some spot in
New York."

"I'm glad we're on time," said Jack, not knowing exactly what else to
say.

The lad was thunderstruck, as well he might be, by the turn events were
taking.  He wished fervently, however, that they knew whom they were
expected to be and why their coming had been awaited with such
eagerness.

"I say, you know," rattled on the other, who seemed to be a pleasant
natured enough chap, "that trip of yours through that hole in the
ground has mussed you up a bit."

"It certainly has," agreed Jack, more and more mystified; "it's a
pretty rough voyage."

"That's what, and going through that blamed trap in the Mesa, like a
comedian in an extravaganza, isn't the least unpleasant part of it.  It
was a pretty slick trick of Ramon's to find that out, although, I
guess, some old Indian gave him the tip."

"It's a great scheme," put in Walt Phelps, finding his tongue at last.

"You chaps are a good deal younger than I expected to find you,"
rattled on the stranger, "but I suppose you've seen lots of service."

"Yes, lots of it," put in Ralph, throwing some fervor into his tone.
He felt that they had indeed, in the last few hours, seen service
enough for a lifetime.  Jack inwardly rejoiced as the others found
their tongues.  He had dreaded that the suddenness of the emergency
might have proved too much for them.  Both lads were rising to it
gallantly, however.  Now, if only he could find out who on earth they
were supposed to be, they might yet escape from the predicament into
which they had fallen.

"Now let's introduce ourselves," went on their new acquaintance,
evidently not the least bit suspicious now.  "My name's Bob Harding.
Which of you chaps is Con Divver?"

"Right here," said Jack, motioning to Walt.

"And Jim Hickey and Ted Rafter?"

"I'm Jim and here is Ted," responded Jack, his heart beating like a
trip hammer.  It was a daring game they were playing.

"That's good.  Now we all know each other.  I think that Americans
enlisted in this sort of service should be on good terms, don't you?"

"I certainly do," rejoined Jack warmly.

"Fine!  I'll bet we'll make good messmates.  And now here comes Madero
himself.  If you fellows will come with me, I'll introduce you in form.
Do you 'spiggoty'?"

"Do we what?" asked Jack wonderingly.

"Spiggoty.  Talk this greaser lingo?"

"Not very well, I'm afraid.  Does the general talk English?"

"Well.  He's a good fellow, too.  You'll find out."

Thus rattling on, Bob Harding escorted the lads toward the van of the
advancing horsemen.  There were about a hundred in the troop, which
Harding had referred to as a "Flying Column," and, although the
horsemen were all apparently well armed, their appearance was ragged
and wild in the extreme.  They had evidently seen some hard fighting.
Here and there could be seen men with bandaged heads or limbs, while
their high conical-crowned hats were in some cases drilled, like
beehives, with bullet holes.  In color, the insurrecto leader's
followers ranged from a delicate cream to a dark, reddish-brown, almost
the coppery hue of a red Indian.  In all, they formed as ferocious and
formidable-looking a troop of horsemen as the Border Boys had ever set
eyes on.

Madero himself, a rather sad-faced man of past middle age, rode in
advance, surrounded by several officers, the latter having red flannel
chevrons attached to their buckskin coats by safety pins.  The famous
insurrecto leader raised his hat with Mexican courtesy as the newcomers
approached.  Bob Harding drew himself up in his saddle and gave a
military salute which the general stiffly returned.  The boys, taking
their cue from their new acquaintance, followed his example.

"I am afraid that your first experience with the insurrectos was a
rough one, senores," said the general, with one of his sad smiles,
using very fair English.

"No rougher than we must expect," rejoined Jack crisply.  The lad by
now had begun to have an inkling of the situation.  Evidently Bob
Harding was a soldier of fortune fighting with the insurrectos against
the troops of Diaz, while they themselves were supposed to be more of
the same brand.  Evidently they had been expected by Ramon's
subterranean river, and in taking the boat they must have forestalled
the real Con Divver, Jim Hickey, and Ted Rafter.  Jack caught himself
wondering how long it would take the latter to ride over the mountains
and discover the imposture.

"We are on our way to our bivouac farther on, gentlemen," said the
general, with a wave of his hand, as if to dismiss them.  "Captain
Harding will introduce you to your brother officers and later on I will
assign you to duty."

The boys saluted once more, as did Bob Harding, and, still following
the young soldier of fortune, they rode toward the rear of the column.
The brown-skinned soldiers cast many glances out of their wild eyes at
them as they loped back, evidently wondering at the youth of Madero's
new recruits from across the border.

The boys found no opportunity to exchange conversation as they rode
along.  Bob Harding was far too busy introducing them to brother
officers to permit of this.  From remarks addressed to them, which they
answered carefully in a general way, the boys soon learned that the
three soldiers of fortune they were impersonating had been redoubtable
warriors in several revolutionary battles in South America.  Thus it
came about that Jack and his chums were speedily far more prominent
personalities than they cared about becoming.  The officers of Madero's
command they found to be mostly small planters and ranch owners,
inflamed with bitterness at the freedom with which great grants of land
had been made to Americans by Diaz.

Bob Harding was not backward in telling them his history, as they rode
along.  He had been expelled from West Point for a hazing prank, and
since that time had "knocked about the world a bit," as he expressed
it.  He was frank in confessing that he was with Madero's command for
the "fun there was in it."

"I don't see much fun in injuring American interests and practically
warring on your own people," burst out Jack, before he knew what he was
saying.

Harding whipped around in his saddle like a flash.

"Say, Jim Hickey," he snapped, "those are funny sentiments coming from
you.  You didn't feel that way during your famous campaign in
Venezuela, did you?"

"Well, it wasn't so near home, you see," rather lamely explained Jack,
wishing that he had bitten his tongue out before he had made such a
break.

But Bob Harding fortunately was not of an analytical disposition, and
he was soon rattling on again, relating to the boys, with great glee,
the manner in which the insurrectos were getting all the arms they
wanted by Black Ramon's underground route.




CHAPTER XIII.

IN THE CAMP OF THE INSURRECTOS.

Camp was made that night not far from the outskirts of what must have
been a small town or village.  Through the trees surrounding the camp
the boys could catch the glint of distant lights as the sun set and
darkness rushed up with the suddenness characteristic of the southern
latitudes.  Rumor about the camp was that there was a fair or carnival
in the village.  To Jack's huge delight, he found that a tent was to be
provided for them, and that, if all went well, they would be able,
after the camp was wrapped in sleep, to have a consultation.

But before this occurred something else happened which bore so directly
on the boys' fortunes that it must be related here.  Supper in the camp
was over, sentries posted, and the routine of what had evidently been a
long campaign taken up, when the three lads, who had been chatting with
Bob Harding and trying to draw out all he knew without betraying
themselves, were summoned by a ragged orderly to present themselves in
General Madero's tent.

At first a dreadful fear that their deception had been discovered
rushed into Jack's mind, as they arose from the ground outside Bob
Harding's tent and made their way to the general's quarters.  This
fear, which his comrades shared with him, was speedily relieved,
however.  General Madero greeted them with the same grave courtesy he
had shown them earlier in the day, and, after a few words, bade them be
seated.  Each visitor having been accommodated with a camp stool, the
general turned to a written paper which he had before him on the
folding camp table, and which he had apparently been poring over
intently when they entered.

"I sent for you, gentlemen," he said, "in the first place, because I am
sure, from what Senor Ramon told me, our new recruits are anxious to
distinguish themselves, and also because I have some duty to outline to
you which is peculiarly adapted for Americans to undertake.

"You know, doubtless, that the funds of the insurrectos are not as
plentiful as they might be.  Most of us are poor men.  I myself have
disposed of my estate to make the revolution against the tyrant Diaz
successful."  He paused and frowned at the mention of the hated name,
and then continued in the same grave, even voice:

"It becomes necessary, therefore, for us to raise funds as best we may.
Of course, we might live upon the country, but this I am unwilling to
do.  The people are friendly to us.  They give us their moral support.
Let us then not repay good with evil by plundering them.  Rather let us
pay for what we get as we go along."

Harding nodded, as did the boys.  It was best to give the general the
impression that they were deeply interested.

"Very well, then.  But we must raise funds--and how?  How better than
by helping ourselves to the product of which our country has been
robbed by favorites of Diaz.  I refer, I need hardly say, to the
American mining men who have enriched themselves at my poor
countrymen's expense."

Jack could hardly repress an angry start as he saw whither this line of
reasoning must lead.  The gross injustice of the idea made him flush
hotly, but he was far too wise to expose his hand to the wily old
insurrecto leader, who was watching them with an eager look on his
withered, yellow face.

"There is near here," continued the general, "a mine I have had my eyes
on for a long time.  It belongs to a Senor Merrill, a rancher----"

The general broke off abruptly.  Jack had started so suddenly that the
lamp on the table was jarred.

"Senor Hickey knows Senor Merrill?" he asked, bending his searching
black eyes on the lad.

"I--no--that is, yes--I met Senor Merrill some time ago," stammered
Jack.  "Hearing his name again startled me.  I was not aware he was in
this part of the country."

Apparently the explanation satisfied the old leader, for he continued
with a satisfied nod.

"This Senor Merrill is rich, I hear.  But all his wealth has not
prevented his miners leaving him to answer the call of the insurrecto
cause.  His mine, The Esmeralda, is not more than twelve miles from
here.  In the treasure room is stored much gold.  Since we blew up the
railroad, he has not been able to ship it.  We must have that gold."

He paused and looked at the Americans inquiringly.  Of the four, Bob
Harding alone looked enthusiastic.

"It should be easy, general," he said; "if the Mexican miners have
quit, all we have to do is to march in and help ourselves."

"Yes, but Senor Merrill is not unsurrounded by friends," went on the
general, while Jack's heart gave a bound of gladness; "he has a German
superintendent and several mine bosses.  They have arms and ammunition,
and it will be a difficult matter to dislodge them.  Also, there are
telephone wires by which he can summon aid from the regular troops."

"Well, what do you want us to do, sir?" asked Jack, with what was
really, under the circumstances, a creditable simulation of disinterest.

"To undertake some scout duty.  Find out just what his force is and the
best quarter from which to attack the mine.  And, above all, sever his
communication with the outside world."

"Cut the wires?" asked Bob Harding eagerly.

"That's it.  Make it impossible for us to fail."

"But, general, do not the regulars already know of your presence in
this part of the country?" asked Jack.

General Madero smiled.

"The heads of bone which command them know little beyond dancing and
how to flirt correctly," he said.  "My flying column has, in the past
two days, passed from one end of the province to the other without
their being aware of it.  The main part of my army is in eastern
Chihuahua, blowing up bridges and otherwise diverting their attention,
while I have come into, what you Americans call, Tom Tiddler's ground,
where I mean to pick up all the gold and silver I can.  Why not?" he
demanded, with a sudden access of fury.  "Is it not ours?  What right
have these interlopers of Americanos here?  Mexico for the Mexicans and
death to the robber foreigners!"

He brought his lean, shriveled hand down on the table with a thump that
made the lamp shake.  His Latin temperament had, for the moment,
carried him away; for a flash the blaze of fanaticism shone in his
eyes, only to die out as swiftly as he regained command of himself.

"When shall we depart on this duty, sir?" asked Bob Harding, after a
brief pause.

"To-morrow.  The hour I will inform you of later.  Not a word of this
in the camp, remember.  I can trust to you absolutely?"

"Absolutely," rejoined Bob Harding, with, apparently, not a single
qualm of conscience.

The general's eyes were bent upon the boys who had not rejoined to his
question.

"Absolutely," declared Jack, saving his conscience by adding a mental
"Not."

Bob Harding, who was sharp enough in some things, was quick to detect a
change in the manner of the three supposed soldiers of fortune as they
left the general's tent.

"Don't much like the idea of going up against your own countrymen, eh?"
he asked easily.

"No," rejoined Jack frankly, "we don't."

"Now look here, Hickey, isn't that drawing it pretty fine?  Merrill and
chaps like that have practically buncoed old Diaz into granting them
all sorts of concessions, and----"

"I'm pretty sure Merrill never did, whatever the rest may have done,"
was the quiet reply.

"Eh-oh!  Well, of course, it's all right to stick up for one's friends
and that sort of thing, but I guess that you chaps, like myself, are
down here to, line your pockets, aren't you?"

"Perhaps," was the noncommittal reply.

"Well, to be frank with you, I _am_.  I'm down here just for what there
is in it, and if I can see a chance to line my pockets by a quiet visit
to the gold room of a mine, why, that's the mine owner's lookout, isn't
it?  I run my risk and ought to have some reward for it."

"That's queer reasoning, Harding."

"Say, Hickey, you're a rum sort of chap.  So are your chums here, too.
Not a bit what I expected you to be like.  I thought you were
rip-roaring sort of fellows, and you act more like a bunch of prize
Sunday-school scholars."

There was a taunting note in the words that Jack was not slow to catch.
Particularly was the last part of Harding's speech brought out with an
insulting inflection.  Jack's temper blazed up.

"See here, Harding," he snapped out, "do you know anything about
dynamite?"

"Eh?  What?  Yes, of course.  But, good gracious, what's that got to do
with----"

"Everything.  Dynamite doesn't say or do much till it goes off, does
it?"

"What are you driving at, my dear fellow, I----"

"Just this;" Jack's eyes fairly snapped in the starlight, as he looked
straight into Harding's weak, good-natured countenance; "don't monkey
with high explosives.  Savvy?"

Harding's eyes fell.  He mumbled something.  For a minute he was
abashed, but he soon regained his spirits.

"Forgive me, Hickey," he exclaimed, "and you, too, Rafter and Divver.
I thought you were just a bunch of kids, but now I see you are the real
thing.  Blown in the bottle, this side up, and all that.

"Say, do you know," he went on, lowering his voice cautiously and
bending forward as if afraid the coffee-colored sentry pacing near by
might overhear, "for a while I even thought you were imposters."

"No!" exclaimed Jack, starting back in well-assumed amazement.

"Fact, I assure you.  Funny, wasn't it?"

"Not very funny for us had your suspicions been correct," put in Walt
Phelps.

"My dear Con, I should think not.  Putting your eyes out with red-hot
irons would be one of the least things that old Madero would do to you.
Fatherly old chap, isn't he?  But, as you said, Hickey: Don't fool with
dynamite!"

A few paces more brought the boys to their tent.

"Well, good night, or buenas noches, as they say in this benighted
land," said Harding, as they reached it.  "Better turn in and have a
good sleep.  And then to-morrow it's Ho! for Tom Tiddler's ground, a
pickin' up gold and silver."

"And maybe bullets," came from Walt.

"Oh, my dear fellow, that's all in the life.  Buenas noches!"

And Bob Harding passed on, humming gayly to himself.

The boys entered their tent and lit the lamp.  It was silent as the
grave outside, except for the steady tramp, tramp of the sentries.  At
long intervals the weird cry of some night bird came from the woods, on
the edge of which they were camped, but that was all.

Jack sat down on the edge of his cot and gazed across the tent at the
others.

"Well?" he said.

"Well?" came back from his two chums in danger.

Thus began a conversation which, with intervals of silence, when the
sentries' heavy footsteps passed, continued into early dawn.  Then,
with a consciousness that the future alone could bring about a solution
of their dilemma, the three tired lads tumbled into their cots to sleep
the slumber of vigorous, exhausted youth.




CHAPTER XIV.

"DEATH TO THE GRINGOES!"

It was broad daylight when the lads awoke.  About them the life of the
camp had been astir for some time, in fact.  Bugles rang out cheerily
and ragged troopers hastened hither and thither, with fodder or buckets
of water for their mounts, for in Madero's flying squadron each man
looked after his own animal, with the exception of a small force
detailed to commissariat duty.  From the village below, curious-eyed
Mexicans began pouring into camp with the earliest dawn, and by the
time the three involuntary imposters were out of their tent and had
doused each other with cold water, the place presented a scene of
lively activity and bustle.

"Sitting on the edge of a volcano seems to agree with us," remarked
Jack, as the three sauntered off to join Bob Harding, who was standing
outside his tent door, smoking a cigarette, a bad habit he had picked
up from the Mexicans.

Indeed, three more manly, rugged lads would have been hard to find.
Under their tanned skins the bright blood sparkled, and there was a
surety in their long, swinging stride and the confident set of their
shoulders that made one feel a certainty that there was a trio that
would be able to take care of itself in any ordinary emergency.

Refreshed, even by the few hours slumber, and with sharp-set appetites,
the boys felt altogether different persons from the three bedraggled
youths who had been jounced through the tunnel, and later thrown into
such a perplexing combination of circumstances.

"I feel fit for anything," Ralph confided to Jack.

"Good boy," rejoined his companion, throwing his arm about the Eastern
lad's neck; "we'll come out all right.  I'm confident of it."

"Unless the real Con Divver, Jim Hickey and Ted Rafter happen to show
up," put in the practical Walt, with a half-grin.

"Botheration take you, Walt," exclaimed Ralph, in comic petulance;
"you're the original laddie with a bucket of cold water.  As we figured
it out last night, we shall be far away from here on our way to the
Esmeralda mine before Ramon and the real soldiers of fortune whose fame
we have appropriated are anywhere near here."

"I hope so, for our sakes," muttered Walt, half to himself.  Practical
minded as Walt was by nature, he saw only too clearly the imminent
peril in which they were moving.  "Sitting on the edge of a volcano,"
was the way Jack had put it.  He had not stated the case a bit too
strongly.  At any moment, for all they knew, Ramon or one of his men
might arrive with the true story, and then, where would they be?

At the conference in the tent the night before, the three lads had
agreed on a definite course of action.  This was to get as close to the
Esmeralda as they could, and then make a bold dash for Mr. Merrill and
their friends.  If Bob Harding chose to join them, well and good.  If
he did not--well, they could not force him.  Somehow, both Jack and
Walt had reached the conclusion that Bob, for all his vivacity and good
humor and apparent courage, would prove a "rotten reed" in a moment of
stress.  How accurately they had gauged his character, we shall see.
This plan, as our readers will agree, was a sensible one, and,
moreover, had the merit of being the only way out of their dilemma.
But it all hinged on one thing, namely, on their departing before Ramon
or any of his followers arrived and denounced them.

Breakfast in the insurrecto camp was a peculiar meal.  The officers
messed together, and, of course, the boys joined them.  Once or twice,
Jack, looking up from his peppery stew, noticed one or another of the
insurrecto officers eyeing either himself or his companions curiously.

"They think you're awful youthful looking to have done all the things
credited to you," whispered Bob Harding.

After the meal was despatched, the boys expected some sort of orders to
emanate from the general's tent, but apparently he was in no hurry to
move forward till the errand upon which he had announced he meant to
send the Americans, had been accomplished.  The morning was spent by
the three lads in strolling about the camp, striving their utmost to
appear at their ease, but starting nervously every time an out-rider
came into camp.  Every hoof-beat upon the road was eloquent with
signification for them.  Ramon could not be far off now.  In this
wearing manner passed the morning hours.  For some time they had seen
nothing of Bob Harding, when suddenly, loud voices, in which that of
their friend predominated, reached them.  The sounds came from behind a
thick clump of manzanita bushes, where several of the officers had been
whiling away the hours at a native gambling game.  Among them, we
regret to say, had been Bob Harding.

As the boys, attracted by the disturbance, came up, they saw the young
American on his feet in the midst of a group of native officers, who
were clustered about him, angrily demanding something.  From a handful
of gold which the young soldier of fortune clutched, it was evident
that he had been a winner, but that some dispute had arisen over his
success.

Suddenly, and without the slightest warning, the young Mexican who had
been the most insistent of the apparent objectors, drew his sword and
rushed upon Harding, who was unarmed.  He threw up his arm as the
thrust came, and succeeded in deflecting it at the cost of a slash on
the back of his hand.

At the same instant he ducked nimbly, and, rushing in under the
swordsman's guard, he planted a blow upon the Mexican's jaw that sent
him reeling backward, waving his arms round and round, like a windmill.
With a howl of fury, the man's companions made a rush for Harding.

"They're going to rush him!" whispered Jack to the others.

"So I see," rejoined Walt, grimly clenching his fists.

As the charge descended on Bob Harding, he suddenly found three of his
countrymen at his side.

"Thank goodness you're here," he breathed, and that was all he had time
to say before the mob was upon them.

Jack had just time to deflect a sword blade, when he saw a terrific
blow aimed at him with the butt of a rifle.  He dodged just in time,
and, as the stock went whizzing by his ear, he knocked the dealer of
the blow flat on his back.  In the meantime, Walt and Ralph had been
giving good accounts of themselves, and Bob Harding had succeeded in
disarming one of his opponents.

But they were by no means in possession of the victory yet.  With howls
of fury, the companions of the sprawling Mexicans charged once more,
and suddenly Jack, after dealing one of them a staggering blow, saw a
sword fall jangling at his feet.

Instantly he seized the weapon, and prepared to receive all comers.
Now, fencing had been one of the fads at Stonefell during the past
term, and Jack, under the tutelage of Mons Dupre, the French
instructor, had become an expert swordsman.  With the weapon in his
hand, he felt equal to facing any of the excited little yellow-faced
Mexican officers.  As for them, they showed an equal disposition to
annihilate the Americanos.

Hardly had Jack gauged the balance of his new-found weapon, before one
of his opponents, a lithe, sinewy chap, with fiercely twirled
moustache, came charging in, handling his sword like a duelist.  Jack
parried his furious onslaught easily.  The fellow checked abruptly,
when he found that, instead of a green boy, he had an expert swordsman
to deal with.  Steadying himself, he began a systematic play for Jack's
heart.  This was no play duel or mock fencing match with buttoned
foils.  It was the real thing, and Jack knew it.

But the lad kept his head admirably.  The Mexican, on the contrary, as
lunge after lunge was parried, became furious.

"Carramba!" he hissed.  "You dog of an Americano, I keel you!"

"If I let you," rejoined Jack, falling back a pace.  The fierce thrust
of his opponent fell upon thin air.  The next instant Jack recovered,
as if by magic, and his blade flashed and writhed thrice like a
writhing serpent.

Suddenly the Mexican found his sword abruptly jerked clean out of his
hand by Jack's weapon, and sent ringing over the heads of the other
combatants.

"Senor, I am at your mercy!" exclaimed the Mexican, dramatically
throwing his arms open for the death-thrust, which it is likely he
himself would have given, had the circumstances been reversed.

"Bring me your sword," ordered Jack.

The other fetched it and handed it, hilt first, to his conqueror.  Jack
took it, and, placing it across his knee, snapped it clean in two.

"Save the pieces," he said, handing them to the Mexican.

"Diablo!" cried the fellow, mad at the deliberate insult, "for that you
die!"

Holding a snapped section of the sword by the hilt, he drove in at Jack
full tilt, only to be met by a healthy American fistic uppercut,
planted with such accuracy that the Mexican's wiry form was actually
lifted off its feet.  He whirled round twice in the air, as if
performing some sort of grotesque dance, and then fell in a heap.

"You won't bother us for a time," muttered Jack, turning to aid his
companions.

While he had been engaged with his officer, the others had had their
hands full.

Like a snarling pack of wolves, the Mexicans had withdrawn and suddenly
made a swoop on them all at once.  Defending themselves as best they
could, Walt, Ralph and Bob Harding were, nevertheless, driven back
against the bushes.  So far as Walt and Ralph were concerned, it was a
real fight, but with Bob Harding it was different.  His face was a
sickly yellow, and in his eyes was a light that Jack had seen
before--the expression of a coward at bay.

"Keep 'em off, fellows--I'm coming!" yelled Jack, as he charged into
the thick of the fray.  "The reinforcement was totally unexpected by
the Mexicans, and they fell back for an instant--but 'for an instant
only.

"Bah, it is only another of those boys!" cried the one who seemed to be
their leader, a fat, pudgy little fellow, with a thick, drooping, black
moustache.

"Death to the Gringoes!" yelled his followers, their deep-lying hatred
of Americans now stripped of its veneer of politeness, and lying
exposed in all its ugliness.

The fat, pudgy little officer made a rush at Jack, who, instead of
meeting it, ducked and caught the other by his wrist.  The fellow's
sword went flying, and, at the same instant, Jack made a quick turn.
As he did so, the pudgy man's rotund little body was seen to rise from
the ground and describe an aerial semi-circle.  He came crashing to the
ground with a thud, his thick neck almost driven into his shoulders by
the force of the concussion.

"Now for the others!" yelled Walt; but even as he uttered the cry,
there came another shout from beyond the bushes in which the battle was
being waged:

"Ramon!  Ramon the Black!"




CHAPTER XV.

A RACE FOR LIFE.

The electric thrill that passed through the lads at the words, and
temporarily rendered them powerless to move, would have speedily made
them an easy prey for the aggrieved Mexican officers, but that the
latter were equally excited by the announcement.  The mention of
Ramon's name, in fact, seemed to cause a galvanic wave of activity
throughout the bivouac.  Men could be heard running hither and thither,
and above all sounded the heavy trample of the new arrivals' horses.

In less than two minutes the last of the wounded Mexicans had picked
himself up from the ground, and, clapping a hand over a rapidly
swelling "goose egg," was hurrying from the scene of the sudden battle.
The last to get up was the pudgy little officer whom Jack had
overthrown.  This fellow painfully scrambled to his feet, and,
breathing the most terrible threats in his native tongue, limped off.

The boys stood alone on the card-strewn, coin-littered battle-ground.
Dismay was pictured on their countenances.  The crucial moment had
come, and they were fairly caught in a trap from which there seemed to
be no possible means of extricating themselves.

"Come on, boys," cried Bob Harding, who had quite recovered his
equanimity, "here's your friend Ramon, now."

He hastened off, not even looking to see if the supposed adventurers
were following him.  Suddenly, while the three lads stood regarding one
another, there came a high-pitched voice ringing clearly above the
confusion and shouts:

"You consarned yaller coyote, you take yer leathery lunch-hooks off me,
or I'll fill yer so full uv holes your ma can use you for a collander!"

"Coyote Pete!" exclaimed Jack.  "Oh, boys, he's all right!"

"Oh, Jack!  What are we going to do?" gasped Ralph, pale under his coat
of tan, and looking about him nervously.

"We must act quickly, whatever it is," exclaimed Jack.  "Thank
goodness, Coyote Pete is safe.  The professor must be all right, too,
then.  Look, there are the Mexican's horses off yonder.  Let's make a
dash for them, and try to sneak out while they are still looking for
us."

"Do you think we can do it?" Ralph's voice was full of hesitancy.

"If we don't, we'll all be lined up with a firing squad in front of us
within the next ten minutes!" exclaimed Jack.  "Hark!"

They could hear shouts and angry cries, above which Ramon's voice
sounded, as if he were narrating something.

"He's telling them about us," cried Jack.  "Come on; there's not a
fraction of a second to lose."

Headed by Jack, the three Border Boys started on the run for the grove
in which the horses had been picketed.  Some of the animals were
saddled and bridled, and for these they made a dash.  They were not to
escape without some difficulty, however, for, as they placed their feet
in the stirrups, preparatory to swinging into the high-peaked saddles,
a dozing trooper sprang up from a litter of opened hay-bales.  He
shouted something in Spanish, and made a spring for the head of the
animal Jack bestrode.  It was no time for half measures.  The heavy
quirt, with its loaded handle, hung from the horn of the saddle.  With
a quick movement, Jack secured it, and brought the loaded end down on
the fellow's skull.  He fell like a log, without uttering a sound.

"Now, forward boys!" cried Jack in a low tone, "it's a ride for life."

The others needed no urging.  As rapidly as they could, consistent with
making as little noise as possible, the three young horsemen rode out
of the patch of woods in which the camp had been made, and emerged on
the high road without being stopped.  Suddenly, however, a sentry with
a fixed bayonet, seemed to spring from the ground in front of them.  He
cried something in Spanish, to which Jack replied by driving his horse
full at him.  The fellow went down, and rolled over and over, as the
horse's hoofs struck him.  Before he recovered his feet, the Border
Boys were upon the road and galloping for dear life.  There was no use
in caution, now.  Everything depended, in fact, on putting as much
distance as possible between themselves and the camp before their
absence was discovered.

Fortunately, their horses were fresh, powerful animals, with long,
swinging gaits.  They got over the ground at a wonderful rate, and
Jack's heart began to beat exultingly.  Not far distant lay some hilly
ground, broken with deep gullies and thickly grown with wooded patches.
Could they gain it, they would have a chance of concealing themselves.

"Hullo!  They've discovered we've gone!" exclaimed Jack suddenly, as
behind them they could hear shots and bugle calls.  "Don't spare the
horses, boys; we've got to make that rough country."

The quirts fell unmercifully on the big, powerful horses, and they
plunged snorting forward.

"We're kicking up dust enough to be seen ten miles," grumbled Walt.

"Can't be helped," flung back Jack, "speed is what counts now."

Before many minutes had passed, such good progress had they made that
the edge of a clump of woods was reached, and they plunged rapidly into
the friendly shelter.

"Where to now?" gasped Ralph.

"Right on!  Right on!" shot out Jack.  "Keep going till the horses
drop, or they overtake us.  It's our only chance."

On and on into the wood, the hunted boys rode.  Their wiry horses were
flagging now, but still seemed capable of more effort.  Over the rough
ground, though, the pace at which they urged them was a killing one.
Still, as Jack had said, it was "their only chance."

All at once, from their rear, they heard shouts and bugle calls.  Jack
turned a shade paler.  The demonstration was much too close to be
pleasant.  He had hardly believed that it was possible for the Mexicans
to have gained upon them so rapidly.

"Guess we're up against it," muttered Walt Phelps, in his usual laconic
manner.

"Not yet, by a good sight," pluckily retorted Jack.  "Come on--into
this gulch.  It takes a turn above here, and we may find some means of
getting out of their sight altogether."

Almost on their haunches, the horses were urged down the steep bank of
the gully to which Jack had referred.  It was about twenty feet in
depth, with steep sides at the point at which they entered it, and
bare.  Farther on, though, it took a turn, and was covered almost to
the bottom with chaparral and brush.

As Jack had said, if they could gain this portion of it, it ought to
afford them an ideal hiding-place.

Rapidly they pressed forward along the rough bottom of the gulch, which
was evidently a roaring water-course in times of heavy rain, but which
was now as dry as a bone.  It was stiflingly hot, too, but none of them
noticed that.  Other things far more overwhelming in importance, were
upon their minds just then.

Evidently, such skilled trackers as the Mexicans, had not been at fault
in locating the woods into which the boys had vanished.  The yells and
cries, which Jack had heard, were rapidly drawing nearer in the woods
above them.  But, if they could only gain the shelter of the overgrown
part of the gulch, they might still be safe.

It was in this extremity that Jack bethought himself of an old trick he
had heard the cow-punchers talk of at his father's ranch.  They had
used it in old frontier days, when the Indians were thick and hostile.
The deception was a simple one.  It consisted in the hunted person
slipping from his horse at a suitable hiding-place and then letting the
animal wander on.

The pursuers would naturally be guided by the sound of the horses'
hoofs, and would follow them up, leaving the concealed victim of the
chase at liberty, either to double back upon his trail, or remain where
he was.  His intention of putting this trick into execution Jack
rapidly confided to his two companions.  They rode forward through the
thick brush, which they had now gained, gazing eagerly at the walls of
the gulch for some cave, or other suitable place of concealment.

Suddenly Walt spied the very place which they were in search of,
apparently.  It was a small opening in the rocky wall of the gully,
which appeared from below to penetrate quite some distance back into
the earth.  Its mouth was sheltered with brush and creepers, and but
for the fact that a bird flew out from it as they passed, and thus
attracted their attention, they might have passed it unnoticed.

A brief inspection showed that it was a small cave, about twenty feet
in depth, and, as has been said, well screened from below.

"We're not likely to find a better place," announced Jack, after a
hasty inspection.

"Turn the horses loose," he cried in a low, but penetrating voice, down
to Walt, who had remained below with the stock.

The red-headed ranch boy slipped off the back of his steed and alighted
on a rock, so as to make no tracks.  He then gave the three horses,
that had borne them so bravely, their liberty.  At first the animals
would not move, but began cropping the green stuff about them.

"Here, that won't do," breathed Jack, as the three lads crouched at the
cave mouth.  "Throw some rocks at them, Walt."

The boys picked up some small stones, which lay littered in front of
the cave, and commenced a fusillade.  It had such good results, that a
few seconds later, the three horses were plunging off along the bottom
of the gully as if Old Nick himself had been after them.

As their hoof-beats grew faint, Jack held up his hand to enjoin
silence, although the boys had been discussing their situation in such
low tones that their voices could not have traveled ten feet from the
cave mouth.

"Hark!" he said.

From farther down the gully came shouts and yells, and then the
distinct rattling sound of loose shale, as several horsemen descended
the steep bank into the gulch.

"They've picked up the trail," commented Walt grimly.




CHAPTER XVI.

WHAT HAPPENED TO COYOTE PETE.

Let us now retrace our steps to the Haunted Mesa, and ascertain how it
fared with Coyote Pete and the professor, after the boys' astonishing
disappearance through the balanced trap-door in the base of the hollow
altar.  As we know, the lads' elders were crouched at the opposite end
of the former sacrificial structure, when, before their eyes, the lads
were swallowed up.

For an instant--as well they might have been--the two onlookers were
fairly paralyzed with amazement.  The occurrence seemed to be without
natural explanation.  But an investigation by Pete, crawling on his
hands and knees while he made it, soon revealed the nature of the
device which, as we know, was nothing more nor less than a balanced
trap-door of stone.  An unusual weight placed upon one end of it
instantly tilted it and projected whatever was on it upon the staircase
below.

The professor, who recalled having read of such devices in other
dwelling-places of ancient communities, was at first for following the
boys into the unknown interior of the mesa, but before any move could
be made in that direction, one of the newly-arrived party shoved his
face over the top of the hollow altar in a spirit of investigation.  He
fell back with a yell, crying out that there were spirits within it, as
his eyes encountered the crouching forms of its two occupants.

"What's the matter, you fool?" demanded Ramon himself, who happened to
be close at hand.

"Oh, the spirits!  The spirits of the hollow altar!" howled the Mexican
in abject terror, his knees knocking together and his face taking on a
sickly pallor.

"Hey!  What's that the crazy galoot's after saying?"

The question came from a thickset man, of about middle age, upon whose
upper lip bristled a fringe of reddish hair.  His eyes were blue,
narrow and evil, and his face was scarred in half a dozen places.

"Why, Hickey, my amigo, he says that the place is haunted," laughed
Ramon.

The man addressed as Hickey turned to his two companions, one of whom
was a tall, lanky chap, with straggly black hair, and bristly, unshaven
chin.  The other was a short, fat, rather good-natured looking little
man, whose truculent chin, however, gave the lie to his incessant
smile.  Somehow, you felt, after a lengthy inspection of this latter,
that he was by no means the amiable personage his fixed smile seemed to
indicate.  Small wonder, considering that his smile was fixed upon his
face by reason of an old knife wound, which, in severing some facial
muscles, had drawn up the corners of his mouth into a perpetual grin.

"Hullo!  Here's Rafter and Con Divver!" exclaimed the
bristly-moustached one.  "Well, fellows, what d'ye think of this here
country?"

"All right, as fur as we've gone," grunted the lanky man, "but I'm
itching to git across the border and git my paws on some of that gold."

"Ye're right, Rafter," agreed the man with the perpetual smile, "that's
what we're after.  I ain't made a good haul since we cleaned out the
safe of that asphalt company in Venezuela."

"Well, gentlemen," smiled Ramon, in his most ingratiating manner, "you
will have ample opportunity shortly.  I happen to know that one of the
first things that General Madero intends to do is to move upon the
mines of the robber Americanos, and get some of their gringo gold."

"Hooray!  That's the talk," grunted Jim Hickey, who, like his mates,
styled himself "soldier of fortune."  But, alas! that high-sounding
title in his case, as in many others, was simply a polite way of
disguising his true calling, to-wit, that of an unscrupulous
adventurer, whose object was to line his own pockets.  A fashion has
arisen of late of writing about soldiers of fortune as if they were
noble, Quixotic persons.  Those with whom the author has come in
contact, however, have, without exception, been mercenary and
cold-blooded men, to whom the name highway robber could be applied with
far more justice than the higher sounding term.  Such men were Jim
Hickey and his two companions, who had flocked like buzzards to the
border at the first word of trouble.

"Waal, thar's that greaser of yours still cuttin' up didoes," drawled
Divver.  "What's ther matter with ther coyote, anyhow?  Say, Ramon,
ain't that the main station of yer subway, yonder in ther rock pile?"

He pointed to the hollow altar, in which crouched Pete and the
professor.  They had heard every word of this conversation, of course,
and its effect upon them may be imagined.

"That, senors, is indeed the entrance to our convenient little
underground river.  Ha! ha! an excellent joke on the worthy Colonel
Briggs.  He is guarding every point of the border but this one.  Of
course, he concluded, in his wise way, that nobody could cross those
barren hills yonder, but, as you know, gentlemen, we go under, and not
over them."

"Trust you greasers?" grinned Rafter, who was a New Englander; "ye're
as slick ez paint, and thet's a fact.  But, let's see what in ther name
of juniper scairt thet feller o' yourn.  Seems like he's teetotel
abstinence on thet altar."

"Yes, there is a superstition that the mesa is haunted," rejoined
Ramon.  "That is the reason why I could never get a man to ascend it
without myself.  If you gentlemen noticed the tracks upon the pathway,
you would have seen they went only to the top of the path.  Beyond that
my men would in no manner go on the night we came here to reconnoiter."

"That was before you sent the order through fer the arms?" inquired
Hickey.

"_Si, senor_.  But now, as you see, everything bids fair to go well,
and----"

"By hemlock!" broke in Rafter's sharp voice, as he drew his pistol,
"thar's two cusses hidin' in ther altar."

The New Englander had separated from the others, and taken a peek over
the edge of the ancient sacrificial device, to ascertain what had
caused the sudden alarm of the Mexican.  What he had seen had caused
his amazed exclamation.

"What's that?" came the bull-throated roar of Hickey, "two men in that
brick pile?"

"That's whatsoever.  One on 'em is a big, long, rangy cuss, like a
yearlin' colt, by gosh, and ther other's the dead spit of the school
teacher at ther Four Corners, back er hum."

"We must see into this."

It was Ramon who spoke.  As he did so, he advanced in his agile,
cat-like way upon the altar.  In his hand he held his revolver.  But,
as he reached the edge of the pit and raised himself to peep over,
something--which something was Coyote Pete's fist--caught him full
between the eyes, and sent him toppling backward into the arms of
Rafter.  Together the lanky New Englander and the Mexican crashed to
the ground, while Pete set up a defiant yell.

"Come on!" he cried.  "Any of your outfit thet's jes' pinin' fer a
facial massage, hed better step this way, an' be accommodated."

Ill-advised as Pete's hasty action was, it at least created a brief
spell in which he had time to leap over the edge of the altar, and,
before Ramon or any of the rest could recover from their astonishment,
the cow-puncher had seized the Mexican's pistol and was standing at
bay, his back against the altar.

"Now, then, any gent desirous uv heving his system ventilated free of
charge, will kin'ly step this way," he mocked.  "Ah----" as Hickey's
hand slid to his waist, "don't touch thet gun, mister, or yer friends
will be sendin' you flowers."

"Waal, by Juniper!" drawled Rafter, as he gathered his spidery form
together and scrambled to his feet.  "You seem ter hev ther drop on us,
stranger."

"Thet's what," retorted the cow-puncher, "and I mean to keep it till we
can come to terms.  That Mexican gent yonder knows me of old--don't
you, Ramon?--and he knows thet what I say I'll do, I'll do."

"So you are spying upon me again, are you?" grated out Ramon viciously.
"Not content with driving me out of the Hachetas, you must even
interfere with my political activities."

"Waal, if yer gitting perlitically active with machine guns and
shootin' irons, I reckon Mister Diaz ull interfere with yer 'bout as
much as I will," grunted Pete, keeping the men before him covered with
the Mexican's pistol.  The part of this speech referring to the machine
guns was a mere guess of the shrewd cow-puncher.  But, as the reader
knows, he had struck the nail on the head.  "But see here, Ramon," he
went on, dropping his tone, "we ain't here to molest you.  We come out
here with a scientific gent, to measure the mesa.  We was going back
home ter-night, an' was takin' a last look around when you come along.
I'll give you my word--and you know it's good--that we don't want ter
meddle with your affairs so long as they don't affect us.  Run all the
guns you want--for I know that's your little game--but we've got some
kids with us, and it's up to me to get 'em back home safe.  Let us git
out of here peaceable, and no more will be said."

"Hum!" grunted the Mexican.  "You forget that I owe you a little debt
for some things that happened across the border some time ago.  Black
Ramon does not forget, nor does he forgive.  I can guess who those boys
are you have with you, and here is my proposal: You leave that cub,
Jack Merrill, with me, and the rest of you can go, and----"

_Swish_!

Before Coyote Pete realized it, a raw-hide lariat circled through the
air from behind, and settled about his neck.  The next instant he was
jerked from his feet, as Con Divver, who had crept unobserved around
the altar, drew the rope tight.  Ramon had seen the other creeping up,
and had been talking against time till the crucial moment arrived.

Now, with a howl of triumph, he rushed at the cow-puncher, and was
about to aim a terrific kick at his prostrate body, when a lanky form
suddenly appeared over the edge of the altar, and fixing ten bony
fingers in Ramon's inky locks, tugged till the Mexican yelled with pain.

"Well may you cry aloud for mercy, sir!" exclaimed the professor, for
he it was who had suddenly come to the rescue, forgetting even the pain
of his ankle in the crisis.  "Even in Homer you may find it written,
'Never kick a man when he's down.'"

"_Phew_!" whistled Hickey, his smile puckering up his whole face in an
evil grimace.  "This is growing interesting."

"Sanctissima Santos!  Take him off!  Make him let go!" yelled Ramon,
dancing in agony.  But the professor's long digits were entwined in his
locks, and the man of science showed no disposition to let go.

"Sa-ay, yo-ou animated hop-toad, I reckin you'd better let go uv ther
Mexican gent's draperies, er I'll be compelled ter drill yer, by
hemlock."

It was Rafter who drawled out the words, and, as he spoke, he held a
revolver leveled at the professor's head.

"Better drop the varmint, perfuss," directed Pete, from the ground,
"they've got us hog-tied and ready fer the brand."

"By ginger!  I cal-kerlate ther ain't no de-oubt uv thet," drawled
Rafter, as the professor dropped his hold on Ramon's locks, and began
flourishing a small geological hammer.

It would be wearisome to relate in detail all that took place at the
mesa after this, but suffice it to say that Ramon's rage on the
discovery that the lads had accidentally found the underground
passageway was what it might have been imagined to be.  As we know, a
fruitless pursuit of them followed.

This over, the rascals were faced with a dilemma.  The boat in which it
had been arranged that Hickey, Divver and Rafter were to take passage
had been appropriated by the boys.

"A thousand evils light upon them," raged Ramon, as he stood dripping
on the bank of the stream.  "It is a hundred to one that they also
seize the three horses I had reserved for your use, gentlemen."

"Waal, I calkerlate thet sooner er later we'll cotch up ter these young
catermounts, and then, by chowder, we'll mek it quite interesting fer
them, whatsoever," promised Rafter significantly.

"Looks like we'll hev ter trek across ther mountains, after all,"
commented Hickey, no more moved by what had occurred than he ever was
by anything.

But in this he reckoned without Ramon's resourcefulness.  The Mexican
was as clever as he was unscrupulous.  Necessity being the mother of
invention, he soon devised a plan to avoid the long and perilous
excursion across the barren hills.

Under his direction, the wagon-bed was taken off the running-gear, and
the tarpaulin cover so adjusted as to make it water-tight.  Rafter was
a skillful carpenter, having once done honest work in a Maine shipyard,
so that the improvised boat was soon ready for transportation.  Working
all night, in shifts, it was ready for its voyage down the river the
next morning, and just about the time our lads were eating breakfast,
the desperadoes, with the professor and Pete lying tightly bound in the
bottom of the clumsy craft, made a start.

The stock, including that of the ranch party, which Hickey's sharp eyes
had discovered, was left in charge of some of Ramon's mestizos at the
mesa.  As ill-luck would have it, almost the first thing that greeted
their eyes when they emerged from the tunnel was the sight of the old
Mexican whom Jack had bound and set adrift.  He had been rescued from
his predicament by a rancher about ten miles down the stream, and had
made the best of his way back at once.  His prayers, apologies and
explanations for the loss of the horses may be imagined as he faced
Ramon's wrath.  In fact, but for the intervention of Hickey, it is
likely the old mestizo would have been flung into the water by his
enraged employer.

A halt occurred on the river bank, while some peons were despatched for
fresh horses to a ranchero known to be friendly to the insurrectos.
Then began the ride to Madero's camp, which ended as we know.




CHAPTER XVII.

BOB HARDING DOES "THE DECENT THING."

"Back into the cave, fellows!"

It was Jack who spoke, in a tone as low and cautious as they had
adopted since the beginning of their flight.

"Say, Jack, if they ever do locate us, we're in a regular mouse-trap,"
exclaimed Ralph, gazing back into the cave, which had no outlet except
at the front.

"Can't be helped.  Needs must when a certain person drives," responded
the rancher's son.  "Listen, they're coming closer."

The trampling of their pursuer's horses could, in fact, now be heard
quite distinctly in the gulch below.  Suddenly all sound ceased.

"They've stopped to listen," whispered Jack.  "I only hope they hear
our horses up ahead."

Apparently the searchers did hear, for, after a brief pause, on they
came again.  As nearly as the boys could judge, there seemed to be
several of them.  They made a formidable noise, as they came crashing
along below.  Hardly daring to breathe, the boys crouched back into
their retreat.  Their nerves were strung as taut as vibrating electric
wires, their hearts pounded till they shook their frames.  The crucial
moment was at hand.

If the insurrectos passed the cave-mouth without glancing upward and
noticing it, the boys were out of the most imminent part of their
peril.  If, on the other hand--but none of the party concealed in the
cave dared to think of that.

On came the trampling, and now it was quite near.  A few moments would
decide it all.  Voices could be distinguished now.  Among them the boys
recognized the quiet tones of Madero himself.

"You say, Senor Harding," he said, using English, "that those boys came
this way?"

"I am almost certain of it, general," returned the voice of the
traitor.  "I saw their tracks, and, as you know, called your attention
to them."

"If you find them, Harding, you shall have the reward I promised.  I
would not have them slip through my fingers now for anything in the
world.  Merrill's son, you said, was one of them, Senor Ramon?"

"Yes," rejoined another of the horsemen, "and the young brat is as
slippery as an eel.  He and this Coyote Pete, as they call him, escaped
me once before in the Grizzly Pass.  I have a debt to even up with both
of them."

Ramon did not mention the hidden treasure of the mission.  Perhaps he
had reason to fear that to do so would be to bring the anger of General
Madero upon him, for he was now apparently posing as a patriot and an
active insurrecto agent.

"We must have him," declared Madero, in a voice that fairly made Jack's
blood run cold.  Its smoothness and velvety calmness veiled a merciless
ferocity.

"We will get them, never fear, general," Bob Harding's voice could be
heard assuring the insurrecto leader; "if they escape now, it will mean
the ruination of all our plans."

"You are right, Senor Harding," came Madero's voice; "and now, would
you oblige me by seeing if that is not a cave up there on the bank of
the gulch."

Important as absolute silence was, a gasp of dismay forced itself to
the lads' lips.  From the conversation they had overheard, it was
evident Bob Harding was trying hard to cultivate favor with General
Madero.  In that case, he was not likely to conceal the fact that it
was actually a cave Madero's sharp eyes had spied, or that the cavern
held the very three youths the Mexicans were in search of.

"Let's rush out and end it all," whispered Ralph, upon whom the tension
was telling cruelly.

"If you attempt any such thing, I'll knock you down," Walt assured him.
The ranch boy had taken the right way to brace Ralph up.  The Eastern
lad bit his trembling lip, but said no more.  Do not think from this
that Ralph Stetson was a coward in any sense of the word.  There are
some natures, however, that can endure pain, or rush barehanded upon a
line of guns, which yet prove unequal to the strain of awaiting a
threatened calamity in silence and fortitude.

"Here, hold my horse," they heard Harding say to one of his companions,
"I'll soon see if that is a cave or not."

"Bah!  It is nothing but a hole in the ground," scoffed Ramon, "we are
wasting time, my general."

"Not so," retorted Madero.  "I mean to have those boys, if we have to
turn over every stone in the valley for them."

"Ye-ew bate," drawled Rafter, who was one of the searching party, with
his two companions, "I've got a word ter say, by silo, ter ther boy who
used my name."

"I guess that goes for all of us," rumbled Divver's throaty bass.

Harding's footsteps could now be heard clambering up the bank.  From
below his companions shouted encouragement to him.

"Ef they be in thar, yew let me take fust crack at 'em, by chowder,"
admonished Rafter's voice from below.

"You'll all get a turn," came from Harding, in his lightest, most
flippant tones.

"How can men be such ruffians?" wondered Jack to himself, as he heard.
He knew now why he had instinctively mistrusted Harding from the first.
Yet they had saved his life that very morning.  Was Harding going to
return evil for good, by betraying them to their merciless enemies?  It
looked so.

The former West Pointer's feet were close to the cave mouth now.
Crouching back in the dark, the lads awaited what the seconds would
bring forth.  Jack's active brain, in the brief time he had had for
revolving plans to avert the catastrophe that seemed impending, had
been unable to hit upon one hitherto.  Suddenly, however, he gave a
sharp exclamation, and muttered to himself:

"I'll do it.  It can do no harm, anyway."

"Well, is it a cave?"

The question came up from below, in Ramon's voice.  The ruffian's
accents fairly trembled with eagerness.

"Don't know yet--this confounded brush.  What!"

Harding, who had crawled in among the chapparal, started back, as
Jack's voice addressed him, coming in low, tense accents from the
interior of the cave:

"Remember, Harding, we saved your life this morning--are you going to
betray us now?"

"Is that you, Merrill?  You see I know your name.  That was a shabby
trick you worked on us."

"Shabby trick!  Our lives were at stake," retorted Jack.

"Hurry up thar, young feller," came from below in Rafter's voice; "by
hemlock, I thought I hearn horses up ther canyon apiece."

"All right; I'll be there--just investigating," flung back Harding.
"What do you want me to do, Merrill?"

"What your own conscience suggests," was the reply.

"But, if they ever found out, it would cost me my life," almost
whimpered Harding, all his craven nature showing now.

"But they never will.  Don't let them know we are here, and ride on.
We will escape, if possible, and if we are caught, your secret is safe
with us."

"You--you'll promise it?"

"On my honor."

"I'll--I'll do it, then, Merrill; but for Heaven's sake, don't betray
me."

"You need not fear that," rejoined Jack, with a touch of scorn in his
voice.  "I have given my word."

"Say, young feller, hev yer found a gold mine up thar?" shouted Rafter.

"What is detaining you, Senor Harding," came Madero's voice.

"Nothing, sir," rejoined Harding, diving out of the bushes once more,
and standing erect on the hillside; "that cave was quite deep, and it
took me some time to make sure it was empty."

"Empty!  By chowder, them _wuz_ horses, I hearn up ther canyon, then,"
ejaculated the lanky Rafter.

"You found no traces of those lads there, senor?"

It was Ramon who spoke now, all his sinister character showing in his
face.

"Not a trace of them," rejoined Harding, scrambling down the hill,
grasping at bushes, as he half slid on his way, to steady himself.

"Well, gentlemen, they cannot be far off.  We will have them ere long,"
General Madero assured his followers, as Bob Harding mounted once more,
and they rode off, pressing forward hotly in the direction of the
tramplings Rafter had heard, and which came, as my readers have
guessed, from the horses the boys had turned loose.

"Say," whispered Walt, as still a-tremble with excitement the lads
listened to the departing trampling of the insurrectos' horses, "that
was a decent thing for Harding to do."

"The first decent thing, I imagine, that he ever did in his life,"
rejoined Jack.




CHAPTER XVIII.

THE TABLES TURNED.

How the hours after that dragged themselves on, the boys never could
recollect exactly.  The great danger through which they had just passed
had thrown them into a sort of coma.  Ralph actually slept a part of
the time.  An uneasy, troubled slumber, it was, frequently interrupted
by outcries of alarm.  Walt Phelps sat doggedly at Ralph's side, and,
between them, the two came to the conclusion that, come what might,
they would have to abandon the cave before long.

In the first place, the Mexicans might take it into their heads to make
a second search, in view of the fact that they could not discover the
boys anywhere else.  In the second, there was no water or food near at
hand, and if they did not take the trail pretty soon, there was grave
danger of their being too exhausted to do so.

It was almost dusk when the three lads emerged from their retreat.
Jack had previously made a careful reconnoiter, without, however,
seeing anything to cause alarm.  As quietly as they could, considering
the nature of the ground, they descended the steep side of the gulch
and gained the bottom without mishap.

So far, not a sign had they been able to detect of the insurrectos, and
their spirits rose accordingly.  Gauging their direction by the sinking
sun, the fugitives struck out for the east.  That, they had concluded,
would be the best general direction.  Toward the east, they knew, lay
the railroad and the more cultivated part of the province.  Westward
were nothing but sterile, arid plains, without water or inhabitants,
supporting no vegetation but thorny bushes and the melancholy, odorous
mesquite bush.

Halting frequently, to make sure that they were not being followed or
spied upon, the lads pushed steadily forward, climbing the opposite
slope of the gulch, and finally emerging into a close-growing tangle of
pinon and spiny brush of various kinds.  Through this tangle--at sad
cost to their clothes, they pushed their way--disregarding the
scratches and cuts it dealt them, in their anxiety to get within
striking distance of their friends, or, at any rate, of the Mexican
army.  From camp gossip, they knew that the regulars were devoting most
of their attention to guarding the railroad line, inasmuch as the
insurrectos had hitherto concentrated most of their attacks on the
bridges, tracks and telegraph lines.

For half an hour or more they shoved steadily forward without
exchanging more than an occasional word.  It was rapidly growing dark
now, and the light in the woodland was becoming gray and hazy.
Suddenly, Jack, who was slightly in advance, halted abruptly, and
placed his finger to his lips.

It needed no interpreter to read the sign aright.

Silence!

Tiptoeing cautiously forward behind their leader, the other two lads
perceived that they had blundered upon a spot in which several horses
had been left unguarded by the search parties, while they pushed their
way on foot through the impenetrable brush.  But it was not this fact
so much that caused them to catch their breaths with gasps of
amazement, as something else which suddenly became visible.

To the boys' utter dumfounding, they beheld, seated on the ground,
bound hand and foot with raw-hide--the professor and Coyote Pete!  Both
looked dismal enough, as they sat helplessly there, while three
soldiers, who had been left to guard the halting-place, rolled dice on
a horse-blanket.

So intent were these men on their game, that they had laid aside their
arms, and their rifles lay temptingly almost within hands' reach of the
three lads crouching in the brush.  To make any sudden move, however,
would be to attract attention, and this was the last thing they desired
to do, naturally.

Suddenly, and before Jack could withdraw his eager, gazing face from
its frame of brush.  Coyote Pete looked up.  His eyes met Jack's in a
startled, incredulous stare.  But the old plainsman was far too
seasoned a veteran to allow his amazement to betray him into an
exclamation.  Nor did he apprise the professor by even so much as a
look of what he had seen.  The man of science was staring abstractedly
before him, at the gamblers, perhaps, as he watched the rolling dice,
working out a calculus or other abstruse problem.  Such a mental
condition, at any rate, might have been assumed, from the far-away
expression of his benevolent countenance.

Without making a move, Pete rolled his eyes toward the rifles.  To
Jack, this motion read as plain as print:

"_Nail them_."

This, of course, was just what the lad desired to do, but how to
accomplish it without arousing the gamblers, who, despite their
absorption in their game, every now and then cast a glance around, was
a problem.

Suddenly Pete threw himself to the ground.  Apparently, he had been
seized by some terrible pain.  Groaning, in what appeared to be agony,
his bound figure rolled about on the earth, while his legs, which below
his knees were free, kicked vigorously.

"Oh--oh--oh!" groaned Pete.

"What's the matter?" cried the gamblers, springing up in consternation
at this sudden seizure.

"Oh, oh! mucho malo estomago!" howled Pete.

So well was all this simulated, that even the professor came out of his
reverie and looked concerned, while the gamblers, laying down their
dice for an instant, hastened to the struggling, writhing cow-puncher's
side.

It was the moment to act.

Silently, almost as so many serpents, Jack and his comrades wriggled
out of the brush, and, in a flash, the coveted rifles were in their
possession.  As Ralph seized his, however, the boy, in his eagerness,
tripped and fell with a crash against some tin cooking pots.

Like a flash, the soldiers, who had been bending over Pete, wheeled
about.  But it was to look into the muzzles of their own rifles they
did so.

Too dumfounded at the sudden turn events had taken to move, the
insurrectos stood there quaking.  Evidently the mestizos expected
nothing better than instant death.

"Ralph, take your knife, and cut loose Pete and the professor, quick!"

Jack gave the order without averting his eyes from the three scared
insurrectos.

While he and Walt kept the fellows covered, Ralph hastened to Pete's
side, and in a few seconds the cow-puncher and the professor were free,
although almost too stiff to move.  The professor was, moreover, lame.
With a groan, he sank back on a rock, unable, for the time being, to
move.

Pete, however, gave himself a vigorous shake, and instantly made a dart
for the saddle of one of the horses.  He returned in a jiffy with two
lariats, with which he proceeded to "hog-tie" the Mexicans with
neatness and despatch, as he himself would have expressed it.

This done, he turned to Jack.

"Thank the Lord, you're safe, boy," he breathed, and for a minute Jack
saw something bright glisten in the rugged fellow's eyes.  But the next
instant he was the same old Pete.

"Waal," he said, looking about him, "I reckon the next move is to stop
these gents frum any vocal exercise, and then we skedaddle."

"That's the program, Pete," assented Jack, hastening to the professor's
side.  The old man was almost overcome.

"My boys!  My boys!" he kept repeating.  "I never thought to see you
again."

"Nor we you, for a while, professor," said Jack hastily, while Pete,
not over-gently, stuffed the Mexicans' mouths full of gags made from
their own shirts.

"But, my boy, you will have to leave me again," went on the man of
science dejectedly, "my ankle pains me so that I cannot move."

"But you can ride, can't you, sir?" asked Ralph.

"Yes! yes!  I can do that.  But where are your horses?"

"Right thar," said Pete, coming up.  He waved his hand in an eloquent
gesture at the animals standing at the edge of the little clearing,
"take yer pick, gents.  Thet little sorrel jes' about suits me."

So saying, the cow-puncher picked out a wiry, active looking little
beast, and selected four others for his companions.  The professor was
aided into the saddle somehow, and, once up, sat clinging to the horn
desperately.

"They'll never take me alive, boys," he assured them.

"That's the stuff, sir," cried Pete lustily; "you'll make a
broncho-busting plainsman yet.  Now, then, are we all ready?"

"All ready here," sung out Jack, who, like the others, was already in
his borrowed saddle.

"All right, then.  We're off, as the fellow says."

Pete dug his heels into his active little mount's sides, and the cayuse
sprang forward in a way that showed Pete he was bestride of a good
animal for their purposes.

Followed by the others, he plunged forward into the darkling woods,
while behind them in the clearing three of the most astonished Mexicans
across the border stood raging inwardly with seething fires, but
outwardly voiceless and helpless as kittens.  Thus, by an astonishing
train of circumstances, were our adventurers once more together.

"But how in thunderation----?" began Pete, as they rode forward.

"We'll tell you some other time," broke in Jack.  "The main thing now
is to get away from here, for I've a notion that in no very short time
it's going to be mighty unhealthy for gringoes."

"Guess you're right, lad.  How're yer makin' out, perfusser?"

"Except for a pain in my ankle, I am getting along very well, thank
you," was the reply.

"Say, he's all wool and a yard wide, even if he does look like a
softy," declared Pete, to himself.

Threading their way through the wood, the fugitives emerged, after some
hard riding, upon the bare hillside.  Below them, and some distance
ahead, could be seen the twinkling lights of the village Jack had
noticed the night before, while on their right hands gleamed the
firefly-like lights of the insurrecto camp.

"That must be ther road down thar," said Pete, pointing.  "What d'ye
say, ef we cut inter it below ther camp?"

"And ride into the village?" asked Ralph.

"Not to any vast extent, lad," rejoined the cow-puncher.  "I'll bet
Ramon and Muddy-hairo, or whatever his name is, hev thet greaser
community purty well tagged with our descriptions by now.  No, we'll
hit ther road below the camp, and then swing off afore we hit ther
village.  It will beat wanderin' about on these hills, and, besides,
we've got ter hev water an' food purty soon.  I'm most tuckered out."

This reminded the others that they, too, were almost exhausted, and it
was agreed by all that Pete's plan was a good one.  By keeping to the
road, they might find a hacienda or native hut where they could obtain
refreshments without being asked embarrassing questions.

As they rode along, talking thus in low tones, Coyote Pete suddenly
drew rein.  On the dark hillside he loomed for an instant, as fixed and
motionless as an equestrian statue.

"What's the trouble?" asked Ralph.

"Hush, lad.  Do you hear something?"

Faintly, very faintly, out of the west came a sound full of sinister
significance.

_Clickety-clack_!  _Clickety-clack_!  _Clickety-clack_!

"They're after us!" exclaimed Jack, reading the night-borne sounds
aright.




CHAPTER XIX.

BUCK BRADLEY'S AUTOMOBILE.

How their escape had been discovered so soon, was, had there been time
for it, a matter of speculation.  There was little doubt, though, that
some of the searchers, returning unexpectedly, had come across the
bound mestizos, and had at once given the alarm.

Coyote Pete glanced about him, as if looking for some means of escape.
The turn of the road that they hoped to make was still some distance
ahead, but the road itself lay stretched, like a white, dusty ribbon,
just before them.  In the darkness, it showed clearly, and, as his eyes
fell upon it, Coyote Pete's mind was made up.

"Take to the road," he cried, "there's a gulch just a little way up
ahead of us."

In fact, the plainsman's watchful eye had detected, a short distance
ahead, a black void in the surface of the hillside, which he guessed to
be a deep arroyo.

Their horses' hoofs clattered in an unpleasantly loud manner, as they
reached the hard highway, and began to hammer down it, still bearing
due east.  Behind them now they could hear distinctly the yells and
shouts of the pursuers.  They were still some distance off, however.

"Let 'em howl," remarked Coyote Pete.  "The lung exercise is all
they'll git.  With this start, we ought to beat them out easy."

"Look!  Look!" cried Ralph, suddenly pointing ahead.  "What's that?"

They all saw it at the same moment--two big lights, like eyes.
Seemingly, the astonishing apparition was coming toward them at a good
speed.  The shafts of light cast forward cut the darkness like fiery
swords.

The fugitives paused, bewildered.  What did this new circumstance
betoken?

"What do you make her out to be, Pete?" asked Jack.

"Why, boy, if it warn't thet we're down in such a benighted part of
ther country, I should say that yonder was a gasoline gig."

"An automobile!" exclaimed Walt.  "It does look like one, for a fact."

"And, to my way of thinking, a naughtymobile is jes' about the ticket
fer us, right now," grunted Pete.  "Hark!"

There was no doubt now that the two shimmering bright lights ahead were
the head lanterns of an auto.  They could hear the sharp cough of her
engines, as she took the hill.

"She's a powerful one, too," commented Ralph, listening.  The Eastern
lad knew a good deal about motor cars.  His face bore an interested
expression.

"I don't know who'd own one of them things down here but an American,"
went on Pete, as if he had been in a reverie all this time, "and if it
is a Yankee, it means that maybe we are out of our difficulties."

"Well, what shall we do?" demanded Jack.  "Meet it, or take to the
woods?"

As he spoke, from far behind them came the sound of shots and shouts.
That settled it.

"We'll take a chance, and meet them," declared Pete, riding forward.

Followed by the others, he deployed across the road, and an instant
later the bright glare of the car's headlights enveloped them.  From
the vehicle, there came a sharp hail as the driver ground down the
brakes.

"Say, you fellows, can you direct us to the camp?"

"They're nothing but a bunch of greasers," came another voice from
behind the lights; "drive ahead, Jim."

"Hold on thar, Buck," hailed Coyote Pete.  "I'd like ter hev a word
with you."

"Say, are you chaps Americans?" demanded an astonished voice.

"Reckon so," hailed back Pete dryly, "that's what my ma said.  Who air
you, anyhow?"

"I am Big Buck Bradley, manager, owner and sole proprietor of Buck
Bradley's Unparalleled Monst-er-ous and Unsurpassed Wild West Show and
Congress of Cowboys," came back the answer.  "Who are you?"

"Well, I reckon jes' at present we're in danger of being made a Wild
West Show of, ourselves," drawled Pete.  "But are you really Buck
Bradley himself?"

"I was, at dinner-time," was the response.

"Hoorah!" yelled Pete.  "It ain't possible, is it, Buck, thet you've
forgot Mister Peter de Peyster?"

"What, Coyote Pete?"

"That's me!"

"Waal, you thundering old coyote, what air you doin' here?"

"Gittin' chased by a bunch of the toughest insurrectos you ever clapped
eyes on, and it's up ter you ter help us out," responded Pete.  He
looked back, and motioned to the others, who had listened in
astonishment to this dialogue.  "Come on, boys, and git interduced;
there ain't much time fer ettiquette."

"Yee-ow-w-w-w-w!" came a yell behind them.

"What's that?" exclaimed Buck, who, as the boys could now see, was a
big, red-faced chap, clad in a linen auto-duster, combined with which
his sombrero, with its beaded band, looked odd.

"Why, that's an invitation ter us ter stop," rejoined Pete.

Rapidly he explained the case, and Buck began to roar and bellow
angrily, as was his wont.

"Waal, what d'yer think uv that?  The derned greasers!  And I was on my
way ter give 'em some free tickets.  We show down in the village
to-night.  Help you out?  Surest thing you know.  Turn them broncs
loose, and you and yer friends pile in.  Tell me ther rest as we go
along."

The party of adventurers, as may be imagined, lost no time in accepting
the Wild West Show man's hearty invitation, the professor being helped
into the tonneau by Coyote Pete, who lifted the bony scientist as if he
were nothing but a featherweight.

"Back her up, and turn around, bo," Buck ordered his chauffeur.  "I'm
out in my guess if we've got much time to lose."

Rapidly the car was turned, and was soon speeding in the direction they
wished to go.  The stolen insurrecto horses galloped off into the
hills, snorting with terror, as the car began to move.

"Say, Pete, what-cher bin doin'?" began Buck, as the vehicle gathered
way, "shootin' up ther town?"

"No, siree!  I'm a law-abidin' citizen now," came from Pete, "and
actin' as chaperony to this yer party."

"You seem ter hev chaperoned them inter a heap of trouble," observed
Buck dryly, as the car gathered way.

"'Tain't all my fault.  Listen," rejoined Pete, and straightaway
launched into a detailed account of their adventures.

"Waal," observed Buck, at the conclusion, "you sure are the number one
chop feller fer gettin' inter trouble, but you bet yer life I ain't
a-goin' ter fergit ther time yer stood up with me and held off a bunch
of crazy cattle-thieves, down on the Rio Grande.  So, gents, give yer
orders, and Buck Bradley 'ull carry 'em out."

But, alas! as the redoubtable owner of Buck Bradley's Unparalleled,
etc., Wild West uttered these words, there came a sudden loud report.

_Bang_!

"Christopher!  They're firing from ambush!" yelled Pete, jumping two
feet up from his seat in the tonneau.

"Worse than that, consarn the luck!" growled Bradley, "thet rear tire's
busted agin."

"Can't you run on a flat wheel?" asked Ralph anxiously.

"Not over these roads, son.  We wouldn't last ten minutes.  Hey you,
chaffer!  Get out an' fix it, willyer?"

"I'll try, sir," said the man, bringing the bumping, jolting car to a
stop.

"Try, sir?" echoed Buck indignantly.  "Didn't you tell me, when I hired
you, thet you was a first-class, A number one chaffer?"

"Sure I did," was the indignant reply, as the driver knelt in the dust
and began examining the tire carefully.  "But you can't fix a puncture
in a jiffy."

"This one is a-goin' ter be fixed in a jiffy," rejoined Buck ominously,
"or there'll be a punctured chaffer 'round here."

As he spoke, the proprietor of the Wild West Show moved his great bulk
in the forward seat, and produced a heavy-calibred revolver, that
glistened in the starlight.

"Get busy!" he ordered.

"Y-y-y-y-yes, sir," stuttered the chauffeur, who had been hired in San
Antonio, before the show crossed the border, and found itself in the
country of the insurrectos.

"Maybe I can give him a hand--I know something about cars," volunteered
Ralph.

"Then help him out, will yer son?" puffed the red-faced Buck Bradley.
"It's my private opinion," he went on, in a voice intended to be
confidential, but which was merely a subdued bellow, "that that chaffer
of mine couldn't chaff a chafing dish."

Ralph took one of the oil headlights out of its socket, and, taking it
to the back of the car, found the chauffeur scratching his head over
the tire.

"What's the trouble?" asked Ralph.

"Why, you see, sir," stammered the chauffeur, "I don't just exactly
know.  I think it's a puncture, but----"

"Say, aren't you supposed to be a chauffeur?" inquired Ralph
disgustedly.

"Waal, I run a taxicab onct," was the reply, in a low tone, however,
"but that's all the chauffering I ever done.  You see, I went broke in
San Antone, and----"

"All right; all right," snapped Ralph impatiently.  "Say, you people,
you'd better get out of the car, while I tinker this up."

"Is it a bad bust-up?" puffed Buck Bradley, clambering out.  "I only
bought ther car a week ago, and I've spent more time under it than in
it, ever since."

"It's not very bad--just a little blow-out," announced Ralph, who had
been examining the wheel.  "Got a jack and an emergency kit?"

"Sure!" snorted Buck Bradley.  "Here, you excuse for a chaffer, git
ther hospital outfit, and hurry up."

"Please, sir, I--I forgot the emergency kit," stuttered the new
chauffeur.

"You forgot!  Great Moses!" howled Buck.  "Have you got the jack, then?"

"Yes, sir."

"Get it, please," said Ralph, pulling off one of his gloves.  The boy
rapidly slashed it with his pocket-knife, while the others watched him
interestedly.  In the meantime, the chauffeur had tremblingly "jacked
up" the car.

Binding his handkerchief about the puncture, and placing the leather
from his glove about that, Ralph rapidly wound some strips of raw-hide
from Pete's pockets about the bandage.  This done he proceeded to blow
up the tire.  To his great joy the extemporized "plug" held.  The tire
swelled and grew hard.

"It won't last long, but it may hold long enough for us," said Ralph,
as he let the car down again and handed the jack to the "chaffer."

As the man took and replaced it at the back of the car, Buck Bradley
regarded him with extreme disfavor.  Then he turned to Ralph.

"Say, sonny," he said, "did you say you could run a car?"

"Yes."

"This one?"

"I think so."

Bradley turned to his "chaffer."

"Here, you!" he bellowed, "it's about two miles into town.  Hoof it in
thar an' when yer git ter camp tell Sam Stow to run ther show
ter-night.  I'm off on important business, tell him."

As the "chaffer" shuffled off, Buck Bradley began to hum:

  "I knew at dawn, when de rooster crowed,
  Dere wuz gwine ter be trouble on de Gran' Trunk Ro-ad!"


"It's a good thing you got that done in jig-time, young feller," spoke
Buck, as the job and his song were finished, and they scrambled back
into the car, "fer here they come."

He pointed back up the starlit road.

Not more than a few hundred yards off, several mounted figures came
into view.  At the same moment that the occupants of the car sighted
them, the pursuing insurrectos made out the automobile.

Yelling at the top of their voices, they swept down upon it.

"Let 'er out, and don't bother ter hit nuthin' but ther high places,"
Buck admonished Ralph, who now held the wheel.




CHAPTER XX.

AT THE ESMERALDA MINE.

"If only I was certain that my boy and his friends were safe, Geisler,
I wouldn't feel so much anxiety."

Mr. Merrill, an anxious look on his face, paced up and down the floor
of the office of the Esmeralda Mine.  It was the morning of the day
following the dash for safety in Buck Bradley's car, and the mine owner
and his superintendent had been in anxious consultation since
breakfast.  In truth, they had enough to worry them.  In the specie
room of the mine was stored more than $20,000 worth of dust, the
product of the big stamp mill.

From what they had been able to ascertain, the insurrectos were
unusually active in the neighborhood.  Open warning had been sent to
the American mine owners, including Mr. Merrill, to be prepared to
yield up generously and freely, or have their property destroyed.  In
addition to this worry, the mine owner and his superintendent, together
with the three young "level bosses," had been practically cut off from
communication with the outside world for the past twenty-four hours.

A branch of the Chihuahua Northern tapped the mine, but no train had
puffed its way up the steep grade for more than three days, and it was
useless to try to use the wires, as they had been put out of commission
almost at the beginning of the trouble in the province.

"If I had ever dreamed the trouble would assume such serious
proportions, the last thing I would have done would have been to allow
the professor or his young charges to journey to the Haunted Mesa,"
continued the mine owner.

Geisler, a rotund German, with a wealth of flaxen hair and moustache,
puffed at his china-bowled pipe before replying.

"Dese Megxicans is der teufel ven dey get started, ain'd idt?" he
remarked.  "For a veek, now, dere has not been a tap of vork done py
der mine, und nodt a sign uv der rabblescallions uv loafers vot vos
employed deere."

"That is a lesson to me in employing Mexican labor," declared Mr.
Merrill emphatically.  "If it isn't a saint's day carousal, it's a
revolution, and if it isn't a revolution, it's a bad attack of aversion
to work.  I tell you, Geisler, the folks who are sympathizing with
these insurrectos don't know the people or the country."

"Dot is righd," rejoined Geisler, expelling a cloud of blue smoke.  "De
country iss all righd, but der peoples--ach!"

He spread his hands, as if in despair.  As he did so, the door of the
wooden building opened, giving a glimpse of the empty, idle shaft-mouth
beyond, and a young man of about twenty-two or so entered.

He was a mining student, employed as a level boss by Mr. Merrill.  His
employer looked up as he entered.

"Well, Markley, any news?"

"Why, sir, that arrant rascal, Pedro, just rode by.  I asked him if he
couldn't get the men back to work on Number Two, and he wouldn't hear
of it.  He says that the insurrectos are going to wipe out all the
American mines, and drive the gringoes out of the country."

"Oh, they are, are they?" questioned Mr. Merrill, a grim look
overspreading his face.  "Just let them try it on the Esmeralda, that's
all."

"You mean that you would oppose them, sir?"

"Oppose them!  Holy smoke, man, you don't think I'd sit here with my
hands folded and let a lot of rascally mestizos wreck my property, do
you?"

"I should remarg idt not," puffed Herr Geisler.

"But, sir, there are only five of us here.  How long do you suppose we
could stick it out?"

"Till der lastd oldt cat be dead, py chiminy!" exploded the German.
"Herr Merrill, you are all righd.  Young man, are you afraidt?"

"No," protested young Markley indignantly, "but----"

"Budt what, eh?  Answer me dot, blease.  Budt vot?"

The belligerent German advanced till his pudgy forefinger was shaking
under Markley's aristocratic nose.

"Well, they say, you know, that Madero isn't very gentle to his
prisoners, especially when they happen to be gringoes."

"There, there, Markley," said Mr. Merrill, with a tinge of impatience,
"don't repeat all the old gossips' tales about Madero.  Why, if one
believed half of them, he would be endowed with hoofs and horns, not to
mention a tail with a spike on the end.  If either you or Redman or
Jennings wishes to leave the mine, you may.  I'll write you a check for
the amount I owe you now."

"Well, you see, sir," began Markley, but Geisler interrupted him
furiously.

"Ach Himmel!  Vot are you, a man or a Strassbourg pie?  Donnervetter!
Go!  Raus! gedt oudt!  Vamoose!"

"Sir," began Markley, turning to Mr. Merrill from this furious storm of
abuse.

But his employer had taken out his check-book and fountain pen, and
seemed intent upon making out the pink slips.  Markley, baffled, turned
with a red face toward Geisler.

"It's all right for you to talk," he said in an aggrieved tone, "but we
are all young fellows.  We have our careers in front of us.  We want to
make something of ourselves----"

"Ach!" broke out the German explosively, waving his pipe about angrily,
"make deaders of yourselfs.  Dot is vot you shouldt do.  Go on.  Dere
are your pay checks.  Take dem, und gedt oudt."

Glad enough to escape, Markley hastily thanked his employer, and,
snatching up the pink slips, made for the door.  Outside, Redman and
Jennings were waiting.

"Come on," said Jennings, as Markley waved the checks, "let's get out
of here.  Old Madero may be along at any minute, and they say he hangs
you up by the thumbs, and----"

Their voices died out, as they hurried off to pack their belongings,
after which they made off for the nearest town, some ten miles away to
the southeast.

"Veil," began the explosive Teuton, as their voices died away, "dere
iss dree vine specimens--nodt by no means."

"You can hardly blame them for looking out for their own interests,"
rejoined Mr. Merrill.  "It isn't everybody who, like you, would stick
by his employer at the risk of his neck."

"You is more dan my employer, py chiminy, you voss mein friendt,"
exclaimed Geisler.  "I aindt forgot it dot time dat no vun vouldt gif
me a chob pecos dey dink I been vun pig vool.  Vot didt you do, den?
You proved yourself anudder fooll py gifing me a chob.  Dink you, den,
I run from dis, my dearie-o?  Oh, not by a Vestphalia ham!  Here I am,
und here I shtay shtuck, py chiminy!"

The mine owner gave his faithful super a grateful look, and then
snatched up his soft hat with a brisk movement.

"Come, Geisler," he said, "let us take a look around.  Possibly, in the
event of an attack, there may be one or two places that will need
strengthening."

"Ach, Himmel! vot a mans," muttered the German to himself, as he
followed his employer out.  "I vork for him, und, py chiminy grickets,
I vight for him too, alretty."

The stamp mill and main buildings of the mine, including the boiler and
engine room, were surrounded by a stout fence of one-inch planking,
perhaps ten feet in height.  Frequent strikes and minor outbreaks among
the Mexican miners had persuaded Mr. Merrill to follow the example of
most of his fellow American mine owners in Mexico, and be prepared for
emergencies.  Facing toward the west, was a large gate in this
"stockade," as it might almost be called.  Surmounting this, was the
bell, idle now, with which the miners were summoned to work.  From the
gate, which was swung open as Markley and his cronies had left it in
their retreat, could be seen a huddle of small adobe houses--the homes
of the laborers--and beyond these, and deeper in the valley, lay the
red-tiled roofs and green gardens of Santa Marta, the nearest town.

Men could be seen moving about the laborers' huts--in fact, there was
an air almost of expectant bustle about the place.  Shielding his eyes,
Mr. Merrill gazed down toward the little town.  His keen vision had
caught the glint of a firearm of some sort between the legs of a man
seated outside one of the huts.

"These chaps must have advance information of some sort," he remarked
to Geisler.  "That fellow yonder is cleaning up a rifle."

"Looks like it voss business alretty," remarked Geisler.  "Himmel, I
vould gif vun dollar und ninety-eight cents, alretty, to see a troop of
regulars coming up der railroad tracks."

But the tracks lay empty and shining before them, without even a
freight car backed upon a siding to suggest the activity that, at this
time of the week, usually reigned about the mine.

"There isn't a regiment nearer than Rosario, at last reports," rejoined
Mr. Merrill, "and no way of reaching them, now that the wires are cut.
If only I dared leave the place, I'd ride to Rosario, but the instant
we vacated it, those yellow jackals down yonder would come swarming in."

"Dot is right," agreed Geisler, with a frown, "dey know, vorse luck,
aboudt der amount of goldt vot is stored in der strong room.  I bet you
your life, dey iss yust votching for a chance to make idt a addack py
der mine."

"That's my idea, too, Geisler, and----  Hullo, who's this coming?"




CHAPTER XXI.

AN ACT OF TREACHERY.

He pointed inquiringly down the hillside at a young figure on horseback
that was wearily climbing the declivity.

"He voss come a goot long vay, alretty," commented Geisler, taking in
the dust-covered appearance of horse and rider.  The gray powder, which
covered both, was visible even at that distance.

"He's an American," went on Mr. Merrill, "a young man, too.  I don't
recollect ever having seen him before round here.  Wonder what he
wants?"

While he spoke, the rider came rapidly forward, and presently drew rein
beside the miner and his super.  He was a young man, tall, well
muscled, and with a well-poised head, but his eyes were set rather too
close, and there was something about that clean-shaven chin that rather
made you distrust him.

"I've beaten those kids to it," he muttered to himself, as his eyes
first took in the two solitary figures standing at the gate.  "The rest
will be easy."

Bob Harding, for it was the exiled West Pointer, could hardly help
smiling, in fact, as he comprehended the simplicity of his task.

"Good morning," he said in a pleasant voice, as he rode up.  "Is this
the Esmeralda Mine?"

"It is," rejoined Mr. Merrill, "and I am its owner.  Come in and rest
yourself, won't you?  You look fagged."

It was the hearty, cordial greeting of one American in a strange land
to a fellow countryman.  Bob Harding accepted with alacrity.  He
slipped from his saddle as if he were weary to death, and, indeed, his
travel-stained clothes supported that idea.  If the two men facing him,
though, could have seen him scattering dust in liberal proportions over
himself and his horse a short time before, they might not have fallen
into his trap so easily.  With quirt and spur, he had worked his horse
into a sweat.  At such tricks, Bob Harding was an adept.

But of all this, of course, neither Mr. Merrill nor his super had any
idea.  To their unsuspecting minds, Bob Harding was a fellow-countryman
in difficulty, and they treated him accordingly.

"Phew!" remarked Harding, slipping his reins over his arm, and
following Mr. Merrill within the stockade, "I had a tough time getting
away from those insurrectos."

The remark had just the effect he intended it should have.  Mr. Merrill
regarded him with astonishment.  Geisler muttered gutturally.

"The insurrectos!" exclaimed Mr. Merrill.  "Are they near at hand?"

"They were," rejoined Bob Harding, secretly rejoicing to see how well
his plan was working, "but they are now in retreat.  The government
troops met them near San Angelo, and drove them back to the west."

"I had no idea there were any government troops closer than Rosario."

"Nor had Madero's flying column, as he called it.  But he found out a
few hours ago.  In the confusion I escaped and rode on here.  I have a
message for you from your son."

"My son!  Good Heavens!  Is Jack in the hands----"

"He was a prisoner of Madero, but he has escaped, and is now lying
wounded at a spot I will guide you to."

"Himmel!  Yack Merrill a prisoner, alretty!" gasped Herr Geisler.

"Not only Master Merrill, but two boy friends of his, an old gentleman,
whom I should imagine was their instructor, and a cowboy."

"Yes, it must be them!" exclaimed Mr. Merrill.  "But how, in the name
of all that's wonderful, did they come across the border?  I thought
they were at the Haunted Mesa, in New Mexico."

"It is too long a story to relate to you now, senors," rejoined Bob
Harding, "I may tell you, though, that they are safe at the hacienda of
a friend.  But your boy is seriously wounded, and must see you at once."

"Good Heavens, Geisler!  This is terrible news, Mr.--Mr.----"

"Mr. Allen, of New York," put in Harding glibly.

"Terrible news that Mr. Allen of New York brings us.  You were with
them, Mr. Allen?"

"I was, sir.  In my capacity as war correspondent for the _Planet_, I
was with Madero's column.  But, in the moment of defeat at the hands of
the regulars, the miserable greasers turned on me as a gringo.  I was
compelled to flee for my life.  First, however, I cut the bonds of our
young friends and their comrades, and under cover of night we escaped."

Bob Harding was certainly warming to his subject as he went along.  Mr.
Merrill regarded him with gratitude.

"I've a horse in the stables, Mr. Allen," he said.  "I'll saddle up,
right away, and accompany you.  How can I ever thank you for all you
have done for my boy and his friends?"

"Don't mention it," said Allen glibly; "we Americans must do little
things for one another, you know.  But hurry, sir.  Your boy was
calling for you when I left."

"Poor lad!" exclaimed the deluded mine owner, hastening toward the
stable.  "Geisler, you must stay and look after the place.  How far is
it, Mr. Allen?"

"Not more than ten miles, sir," was the rejoinder.

"I can ride there and back before dark, then," declared Mr. Merrill.
"If the lad is strong enough to be moved, I'll bring him with me."

All this time Geisler had been examining "Mr. Allen's" horse with a
singular expression.  As the miner owner vanished in the direction of
the stable, he spoke:

"Dot poor horse of yours vos aboudt tuckered in, aindt it?" he inquired.

"Yes, poor brute," rejoined Bob Harding, "I rode at a furious pace."

"Und got all der dust on his chest, und none on his hind quvarters,"
commented the German suspiciously.

But Harding returned his gaze frankly, and wiped his brow with a great
appearance of weariness.

"Is that so?" he said.  "I didn't notice it.  But then, I rode so hard,
and----"

"Are you ready, Mr. Allen?"

It was Mr. Merrill's voice.  He rode up, as he spoke, on a big
chestnut, which he had saddled and bridled faster than he had ever
equipped a horse before.

"All ready, sir," was the response, as Bob Harding swung himself into
his saddle again.

Geisler had run into the office.  Now he reappeared, holding something
under his coat.  He approached Mr. Merrill's side, and, while Bob
Harding was leaning over examining his saddle-girth, the German slipped
the object he held to his employer.

"Idt's a gun," he whispered.  "Keep idt handy.  Py chiminy, I dink
maype you need him pefore you get through."

"With the insurrectos in retreat?" laughed Mr. Merrill.  "Geisler, you
are getting nervous in your old age.  Come, Mr. Allen, let's be getting
forward, I can hardly wait till I see my boy."

The horses plunged forward and clattered down the hillside.

Geisler watched them till a bend in the road below hid them from view.
Then he turned slowly to reenter the stockade.

"Py chiminy," he muttered, emitting huge clouds of blue smoke, "I dink
me dere vos a vood-pile in dot nigger, py cracious."




CHAPTER XXII.

AT ROSARIO STATION.

The dull gray of the dawn was illuminating the east, and the breath of
the morning astir in the tree-tops, when Bill Whiting, station agent at
Rosario, began to bestir himself.  The station agent was not about so
early on account of passengers that might be expected by an early
train--for the excellent reason that there was no morning train.  Since
fighting had begun in Chihuahua, schedules had, to quote Bill, "gone to
pot."  On a sidetrack lay a locomotive, smokeless and inert, just as
her crew had abandoned her.  Some loaded freight cars, their contents
untouched, likewise stood on the spur.  That Bill Whiting, however,
meant to guard the railroad's property, was evidenced by the fact that
strapped to his waist was a portly revolver, while a rifle lay handy in
the ticket office, in which, since the outbreak of trouble, he had
watched and slept and cooked.

Bill's first task, after tumbling out of his blankets and washing his
face in a tin basin standing in one corner of the office, was to tap
the telegraph key.  The instrument gave out a lifeless "tick-tick."

"No juice--blazes!" grunted Bill, and, being a philosophical young man,
he bothered himself no more about the matter, and went about getting
his breakfast.

In the midst of his preparations, however, he suddenly straightened up
and listened intently.  To hear better, he even shoved aside the
sizzling frying-pan from its position over one burner of his kerosene
stove.  What had attracted his attention was a distant sound--faint at
first, but momentarily growing nearer.

"Blazes!" muttered Bill, scratching his head, and making for a rear
window, which commanded a view of the long, white road.  "What's that,
I wonder?  Sounds like a sick cow."

He gazed out of the window earnestly, and then suddenly recoiled with a
startled exclamation.

"Blazes!  It ain't no cow.  It's an automobubble.  Yes, sir, as sure as
you live, it's a bubble.  Whose can it be?  Maybe it's old man
Stetson's himself."

Chugging in a spasmodic sort of way, the car drew nearer, and the
station agent now saw that there were several people in it.

"Looks like that car is spavined, or something," commented Bill.  "Why,
it's regularly limping; yes, sir--blazes!--it's limping, fer a fact."

Buck Bradley's auto was, in fact, at almost its "last gasp."  Ralph's
temporary repair had not lasted any longer than he had expected.
Fortunately, at the time it gave out, the insurrectos had apparently
given up the chase, and the party was not far from the hacienda of a
friend of the genial Buck.  At his suggestion, therefore, they diverted
from their road to the mine, and swung off to this house.  Here a hasty
meal and a warm welcome were enjoyed, and Ralph set the car in order as
best he could.  Buck's friend, however, had news for them.  He had
heard that there was an encampment of regulars at Rosario, from which
it was only a short run by rail to the branch on which the Esmeralda
was located.

This information caused the party to change their plans.  With the car
in the condition in which it was, they doubted whether it would be
possible to travel over the rough roads intervening between themselves
and the mine.  On the other hand, Rosario was not far off, and on a
smooth, hard highway.  If the information of Buck Bradley's friend was
correct, and there was no reason to doubt it, the regulars were camped
at Rosario guarding the line.  What more easy than to explain their
case to the leader of the Mexican regulars, and steal a march on the
insurrectos by reaching the Esmeralda first by rail, and wiping out the
band of Madero?

But, alas for human plans!  The party in the auto was doomed to bitter
disappointment.  As they approached, and no camp was to be seen, they
began to realize that their information had been inaccurate.  Bill
Whiting speedily clinched all doubt in the matter.

"Say, my friend," hailed Buck Bradley, as the agent emerged from his
shack, "where are the soldiers?"

"You mean the greaser regulars?" was the rejoinder.  "Blazes, they went
off yesterday.  Had a tip where Madero was, and they are after him,
hot-foot, I reckon."

The boys exchanged despondent glances.  Here was a fine end to their
high hopes.  The Esmeralda was now farther off than ever, and the auto
was hopelessly crippled.  One tire was worn almost to ribbons, a rim
had been sprung, and two spark plugs had cracked.  Every one of the
party realized, as the car stopped with a sigh, that it couldn't move
again until a tall lot of overhauling had been done.

"Anything I can do to help yer?" volunteered Bill, noting the woebegone
faces of his countrymen.

"Nothing, son, unless you've got a wire working," sputtered Buck, who,
as he did with everything, had gone into this matter, heart and soul.

"Wire!" echoed the station agent, "why, blazes, I couldn't put through
a tap fer Diaz himself.  The wire went dead two days ago, and I've been
on my own hook since."

"What was the last word you had?" asked Jack, thinking, perhaps, that
they might have some information in regard to affairs at the mine.

The agent dived into his pocket and fished out a yellow paper.

"Here it is," he exclaimed, "and it's signed by 'King Pin' Stetson
himself: 'Keep freight moving at all hazards.'"

"It's signed by Mr. Stetson, you say?" exclaimed Ralph eagerly.

"Sure.  He's the main boss on this road, you know, and----"

"I know, I know!" cried Ralph eagerly, "but is he here across the
border?"

"Huh?  Not he.  He's in the best hotel in El Paso, consulting and
smoking two-bit seegars.  But my job's here, and here I stick."

But Ralph and Jack had not heard this speech.  A light shone in the
Eastern boy's eyes, the light of a great idea.

"There's a locomotive yonder, Jack," he whispered.  "I can run one.  I
learned one summer when pop took me over the Squantock and Port Gloster
line.  You said there was a branch connecting with the Esmeralda.  Why
can't we go by rail?"

"By ginger, Ralph!  Have you got the nerve?"

"Look at me."

Jack regarded his comrade an instant.  There wasn't a flicker of an
eyelash to show that Ralph was the least bit nervous.  The experiences
of the last few days had taught him much.

While Bill Whiting regarded them curiously, Jack hastily told the
others of what Ralph had proposed.

"That appeals ter me as a ring-tailed roarer of a good idee," announced
Buck Bradley, when he had finished.

"Waal, I'm more used ter doin' my fightin' ahorseback than from a loco,
but I guess it goes here," chimed in Pete.

"An eminently sensible suggestion," was the professor's contribution.
The maimed ankle of the man of science was now almost well, and, as he
put it, he was "restored to his customary salubriosity."

"Then, all we've got to do, is to get permission to take the
locomotive," declared Jack.  He turned to Bill Whiting, who had been
eyeing them curiously.

"We've got to get through to the Esmeralda mine," he said.  "Our auto
is broken down, and yet the fate of the mine, and perhaps the lives of
its defenders, hang upon our arrival there as soon as possible.  Have
we your authority to run the locomotive through?"

"Say, son," drawled Bill Whiting, "put on your brakes.  That's a
compound, and even supposing I could let you take her, how would you
run her?"

"There's a boy here who can run her all right," cried Jack impatiently.
"All we need to have is your authority."

Bill Whiting shook his head.

"Sorry," he said.  "I don't know you, and that loco's railroad
property.  I'm responsible fer it.  Suppose you'd ditch her?
No--blazes!--it wouldn't do at all."

"I'll give yer a hundred dollars gold fer two hours use uv that
ingine," cried Buck Bradley.

"No good," declared Bill, shaking his head; "it's railroad property.
I've got my job to look after, even if Chihuahua is turned inside out."

"But this is a matter of the utmost urgency," argued Jack.  "Listen."

He rapidly detailed the outlines of their situation to the agent.  The
man was obdurate, however.

"Couldn't nobody touch that ingine but old man Stetson himself."

"How about his son?"  Ralph's voice rang out clearly above the excited
tones of the others.

"Waal, I reckon he could, but he ain't here."

"He isn't, eh?" demanded Ralph, hopping out of the tonneau, "well, my
name happens to be Ralph Stetson."

"Oh, quit joking.  You're Americans, like myself, and I'd like ter help
you out, but I can't do it."

"Will you give me a chance to prove to you I'm Ralph Stetson?" asked
Ralph eagerly.

"Sure; a dozen, if yer want 'em," grinned the agent, gazing at the
ragged, tattered figure before him.

Ralph dived into his pocket and pulled out a bundle of letters and
papers.  Motioning the agent to sit beside him at the edge of the
platform, he skimmed through them for the other's benefit.  The group
in the auto watched anxiously.  A whole lot depended on Ralph's proving
his identity.

"Say, blazes!" burst out the agent suddenly, "_you are_ Ralph Stetson,
ain't you?"

"I think those letters and papers prove it," answered the boy.  "Now,
do we get that loco?"

"I reckon so, if you say so.  But, will you sign a paper, releasing me
of responsibility?"

With what speed that paper was signed, may be imagined.  In the
meantime, Buck Bradley, who knew a thing or two about railroading
himself, had his coat off, and was hard at work waking up the banked
fires.  Presently the forced draught began to roar, and black smoke to
roll from the smoke-stack.  By the time the auto had been wheeled in
under a shed, and Bill Whiting asked to communicate with the government
troops as soon as possible, all was ready for the start.

The engine was trembling under a good head of steam, white jets gushing
from her safety valves.

"All ab-o-a-r-d!" yelled Pete, in the manner of a conductor, and Buck
Bradley, who had stepped off after his labors to cool up a bit, began
to climb back again.

"Why, are you going with us, Mr. Bradley?" demanded Jack amazedly.
"What about your show?"

"Oh, Sam Stow kin look after that," was the easy rejoinder.  "It won't
be the first time.  I've worked long enough; now I'm off for a little
play."

"Won't be much play about it, I'm thinking," grunted Pete.

The engine bell clanged, a hoarse shriek came from her whistle, and the
wheels began to revolve.  Ralph was at the throttle, while Bill Whiting
was up ahead to throw the switch.

"Good luck!" he cried, waving his hand as the locomotive swept by and
rolled out upon the main line.

"Good-by!" cried the crowd of adventurers in the cab, waving their
hands back at him.

Buck threw the furnace door open, and sent a big shovelful of coal
skittering into the glaring interior.  The cumbrous machine gave a leap
forward, like a scared greyhound, as Ralph jerked the throttle open.

The Border Boys were off on what was to prove one of the most
adventurous incidents of their lives.




CHAPTER XXIII.

JACK MERRILL'S "SPECIAL."

The landscape swam by, the telegraph poles flashed past, as the flying
locomotive gained headway.  The ponderous compound jolted and swung
along over the rough tracks like a ship in a stormy sea.  But the
thrill of adventure, the buoyant sense of facing a big enterprise,
rendered the lads oblivious to everything but the track ahead.

From time to time, Buck Bradley stopped his shoveling, and, holding by
a hand-rail, leaned far out from the footplate, scanning the metals
that stretched out in two parallel lines ahead.

"Be like them varmints to hev blown up a bridge, or spiked a track," he
muttered.

All eyes were now on the alert for the first sight of the red-brick
station--the only one on the line--which Bill Whiting had told them
marked the Esmeralda switch.  As yet it had not come into view, but
they judged it must be around a curve which lay ahead, the far side of
which was hidden from them by a clump of woods.  Suddenly, from this
clump emerged a figure, waving a red flag.  He stopped in the middle of
the track, waving his flag frantically.

"Shut down!" yelled Buck.  "There's danger ahead!"

"Looks more like a trick, to me," growled the wary Coyote Pete.

"Can't afford to take chances," rejoined Buck.  "How do we know what's
the tother side of that curve?"

"That's so," agreed Pete; "them critters might hev planted a ton of
dynamite there, fer all we know."

The brakes ground down, and the panting locomotive came to a stop
within a few feet of the man with the red flag.  It could now be seen
that he was a small, dark Mexican, wearing a high-crowned hat.

"Why, I know that fellow, he----" began Ralph.  But his recognition of
the fellow, whom he had seen in Madero's camp, came too late.

From the woods ahead of them, a perfect hailstorm of bullets began to
spit about the engine.  Fortunately, none of the occupants of her cab
were struck, although the windows were splintered and the woodwork
honeycombed.

"Go ahead!" roared Buck.

"What if they've torn up the track?" gasped Ralph.

"Not likely.  If they had, they wouldn't be bothering to shoot at us.
Let her out.  Ouch!"

A bullet whizzed past the burly showman's ear, and just nicked the tip
of it.

With a roar of rage, like the bellowings of an angry bull, he leaned
his huge form out of the window and began pumping lead from his
revolver into the woods.  It is doubtful if his fire had any effect,
but at that minute Ralph started the engine up again.  A yell came from
the Mexicans within the wood, as he did so.  A hundred or more poured
out, firing as they came.

"Duck, everybody!" yelled Coyote Pete, as the storm broke.

A tempest of lead rattled about the engine, but, thanks to the
protection of the steel cab, not one of the crouching occupants was
hurt.  Almost before they realized it, they had swung around the curve,
and were safe.  As Buck Bradley had surmised, no attempt had been made
to wreck the track beyond, the insurrectos having counted, seemingly,
on stopping the dash for the Esmeralda by their ambush in the wood.

[Illustration: A tempest of lead rattled about the engine.  Almost
before they realised it, they had swung around the curve.]

"Consarn their yellow hides," grunted Pete, "that shows they kep'
closer tabs on us then we knew.  I reckon they was scared to follow us
to Rosario, thinking, like we did, that the regulars was there.  Waal,
that was a neat little surprise party, but it didn't work."

Round the curve they tore, at a hair-raising gait, but the engine stuck
to the metals.  Ten minutes later a cheer went up, as the red-brick
station, which they knew must mark the Esmeralda switch, came in sight.

"I got the switch key from Whiting," cried Buck, as they reached the
switch, "I'll throw it."

He swung himself down from the cab, and ran rapidly ahead, down the
track, to the switch lever.  As he bent over it, from a clump of bushes
near by, there leaped a score or more of men.

"Buck!  Buck!" yelled Coyote Pete.

The big fellow looked up just in time.  The foremost of his attackers
was upon him as he threw the switch over.  Buck picked him up, and
fairly pitched the little Mexican over his head.  The man fell in a
heap at one side of the track.

"Come ahead!" bawled Buck, while the others hesitated and held back.

Ralph started the engine up, and it rolled toward the switch points.
This seemed to wake the hesitating Mexicans to life.  With a yell, they
made a concerted rush for Buck, but, as they did so, Ralph pulled the
whistlecord, and the locomotive emitted an ear-splitting screech.  The
Mexicans hastily jumped aside, to avoid being run down, while Buck made
a leap to exactly the opposite side of the track.  As the engine puffed
by, he swung on.  As he did so, however, one of the yellow men made a
spring for the switch.  It was his evident intention to throw it, while
the engine was passing over it, and ditch them.

But, before he could carry out his intention, Jack, who had seen what
was about to happen, had snatched up a hunk of coal.  With all his
force, he aimed it at the fellow, and struck him fair and square on the
head.  The would-be train-wrecker toppled backward with a groan, just
escaping the wheels of the engine.  Before he gathered himself up and
realized what had hit him, the engine was roaring and puffing its way
up the grade to the Esmeralda.

"That shows us what we may expect at the mine," commented Jack.  "I
hope they are still all right."

"Don't worry about that, boy," comforted Buck, noting his troubled
face.  "The fact that Madero had his men along the line shows that he
anticipated our game--like the shrewd ruffian he is.  It stands to
reason he couldn't have his precious squadron, or column, or whatever
he calls it, in two places at once, so I guess we'll be in time yet."

"I hope so, I'm sure," breathed Jack.  "If we failed now, it would be
the bitterest moment of my life."

But, as they came in sight of the tall stockade and the smokeless
chimneys of the Esmeralda, they saw that their apprehensions were
groundless.  No sign of life appeared about the mine buildings.  But
presently, in answer to a long blast on the whistle, a strange figure
came toddling out of the gate.  It was that of Geisler.  As he saw the
engine, with its load of friendly faces, he broke into a cheer, and ran
toward the track side.

"Hoch!  Hoch!  Hoch!" he yelled, waving his china-bowled pipe about his
head.  "Diss iss der bestest thing I've seen since I had idt der
Cherman measles, alretty yet."

As the brakes ground down, and with a mighty exhalation of steam and a
sigh from the air-brakes, the locomotive came to a stop, Jack leaped
from the cab and ran toward the German.  To his astonishment, Geisler
almost recoiled as he drew near, and uttered a shout.

"Donner blitzen!  I voss righdt den, idt vos a trap dot dose rascals
laid."

"What do you mean, Mr. Geisler?  Where is my father?" gasped Jack, all
in one breath.

"Himmel!" sputtered the German.  "Oh, diss is an onloocky day, py
chiminy.  A young feller rode it to der mine, early to-day, undt told
your fader dot you vos wounded, and----"

"My father went with this fellow?" demanded the boy, his eyes blazing
with eagerness and anxiety.

"Ches.  He thought dot idt vos all righdt, und----"

"It's a trick of Madero's to rush the mine!" exclaimed Buck, who, with
the others, came up as the German was ejaculating the last words.

"Dot is vot I dink idt.  Listen."

Forthwith the German launched into a detailed report of what had
occurred, not omitting a full description of Harding, which was
instantly recognized by the boys.

"Harding, the scoundrel!" exclaimed Jack.

"I'd like to get my hands on him for just five minutes," breathed Walt
viciously.

Buck and the others, who were, of course, familiar with what had
occurred to the boys with Madero's column, were also incensed.

"Such men should be hanged!" exclaimed the professor, with what was for
him, a remarkable display of emotion.

"Budt come," urged the German, as he concluded his narrative, "vee hadt
better be getting inside der stockade."

He pointed down toward the miners' village, where men could be seen
hastening about, as if preparing to take action of some sort.  What
that action was, they guessed too well.  Acting in concert with Madero,
they meant to storm the mine, and break open the specie room.

Ralph ran the locomotive upon a switch and locked the throwing lever.
Then he followed the others through the gate of the stockade.  As it
closed behind them, Geisler let fall a stout wooden bar into sockets
prepared for it.

"I guess dot holdt dem for a viles," he said, as the bar clattered into
position.

But Jack's thoughts were distracted, and his manner absorbed.  His mind
was fixed upon Harding's rascality, and the probable dilemma in which
his father now was.  Buck Bradley noticed the boy's despondent air, and
sought to cheer him up.

"Brace up, Jack," he roared in his hearty way, "your pop is all right.
According to my way of thinking, those greasers just lured him away
from here, so that they could have easy access to the specie room.
They knew that if he was on the ground, he'd blow up the whole
shooting-match before he'd let them get at the gold."

"Then you don't think they have harmed him, Mr. Bradley?"

"Not they, my lad," was the reassuring rejoinder, "they wouldn't dare
to injure a prominent American like your dad.  Why, our troops are all
massed at San Antone--for manoeuvers, the department says--but as
surely as my name is Buck Bradley, the troops are there to see that the
greasers don't get too fresh.  You see, Jack, Uncle Sam don't want to
mix in other folks' troubles.  He believes in playing in his own back
yard, but when any one treads on your Uncle's toes, or injures one of
his citizens--then, look out for high voltage shocks."

"You have relieved my mind a whole lot, Mr. Bradley," said Jack
gratefully.  "I guess it's as you say.  Madero and his crowd wouldn't
want to run the risk of an American invasion."

"You can bet a stack of yaller chips on that, boy.  But now, let's
follow this Dutchman around and see what the lay of the ground is.  If
we've got to put up a scrap--and I guess we have--it's a long move in
the right direction to have your surroundings sized up accurate.  By
the way, is this fellow Geisler all right?"

"My father thinks he is the most faithful and capable mining super in
the country," answered Jack warmly.  "I guess he is, too.  I only met
him once before on a former visit to the mine, but he sort of inspires
me with confidence."

"Same here, Jack.  I tell you the Dutch kin raise some Cain when they
get going, and that fellow looks to me like one of the right brand."

Thus talking, they came up with the others.  Geisler was explaining
volubly his plan of defense.  Buck Bradley interrupted him.

"What's the matter with boring some holes all around the stockade?" he
asked.  "We can fire from behind them if it's necessary, without
exposing ourselves."

"Buck, that's a great idea," declared Pete, whose eyes were shining at
the thought of what he termed "some action."  "Got a brace and bit,
Geisler?"

"Sure.  Ve-e haf a whole barrel of braces and bitters," was the
response, as the corpulent Teuton hastened off to get the tools.

At the part of the stockade at which they now were standing a ladder,
used in some repairing job, still leaned against the high, wooden
fence.  Coyote Pete, struck by a sudden idea, clambered up it, and
gazed over the top of the defensive barricade.  As his head topped the
summit, he gave a shout and rapidly ducked.  At the same instant a
sound, like the hum of an angry bee, buzzed above their heads.

"A bullet!" gasped Buck Bradley.

"That's wot, pod'ner," rejoined Pete, "and it's the first of a whole
flock of such like.  The country off to the southwest is jest alive
with insurrectos!"




CHAPTER XXIV.

THE ATTACK ON THE MINE.

Flinging his legs over each side of the ladder, Coyote Pete slid to the
ground like a boy sliding down a cellar door.

"I could catch the glint of sunlight on their rifles," he explained.
"The beggars were trying to approach unseen, though, I guess, for they
were sneaking round a neck of woods so as to take advantage of that
arroyo that runs almost up to the mine.  Better get busy with that
borer."

And "get busy" they did.  Holes were rapidly bored in the stockade, the
apertures being of sufficient size to accommodate comfortably the
muzzle of a rifle.  Above each such hole another was bored, to enable
the defenders to see the position of their foes.  Although this work
took more than an hour, there was still no sign of the enemy.  But they
evidently had a close watch kept on the mine, for a hat elevated on a
long stick above the top of the stockade was promptly riddled with
bullets.

"Jingo!" gasped Jack.  "Those fellows mean business."

"What do you suppose they are going to do?" Walt asked Buck Bradley.
The stout showman looked grave.

"This hanging back looks bad," he rejoined.  "I guess they are waiting
till dusk so as to try and catch us unprepared.  Evidently they figger
they've got us where they want us, and there is no use being in a rush
about finishing us up."

Buck's words were grim, but his expression was grimmer yet.  The former
ranch boss had been in many a tough place in his day, but revolving the
situation in his mind he could not call to recollection any more
dangerous circumstances than those in which he now found himself.

"Bottled and corked," was the way he expressed it to Coyote Pete, who
fully shared his apprehensions.

Fortunately, behind the office of the mine, there was a small room well
stocked with rifles and ammunition.  This was wise precaution of Mr.
Merrill's, who, knowing the Mexican character to a T, had insisted on
this room being provided in case of strikes or other difficulties.

The store of arms was drawn upon freely, and each of the defenders had
a spare rifle at his side.  The weapons were piled by their respective
holes while the besieged awaited the attack.  But a hasty dinner was
prepared on the coal-oil stove Of the office, and eaten and digested
before there came any move on the part of Madero's men.

Through the peep-holes a casual inspection showed nothing outside but
the hillside sloping away from the mine, with here and there a clump of
bushes or small, scrubby trees.  But every once in a while the grass
would stir, or a clump of bushes would be agitated strangely, as some
concealed form crept up yet closer to the stockade.  Evidently, as Buck
had said, the intention of Madero was to "rush" the place.

The mining village now seemed deserted, except for a few forms of women
and children which could be seen flitting about.  Evidently most of the
men had joined the insurrectos, hoping to have a share in the loot when
the time came.

"Say, Geisler!" exclaimed Buck Bradley suddenly, "got any steam in the
boiler?"

"Ches.  Aboudt forty or fifty pounds.  Der fires vos banked.  Pud vy?"

"Oh, nothing.  I've just got a little plan in my head.  Now, Jack,
suppose you and I take a little run to the boiler room and look about
us a bit."

The boy was glad of anything to do to relieve the tension of waiting
for the attack that didn't come.  He gladly accompanied the
self-reliant Westerner to the boiler house.  They found, as Geisler had
said, that in one of the boilers steam was still up.

"Now let's take a look around here, sonny," said Buck, glancing about
the walls as if in search of something.  "Ah!  Here we are, that will
do."

He pounced on a big reel of fire hose attached to the wall, as he spoke.

"Fine!  Couldn't be better," he continued, as he rapidly unwound it.
"Why, there must be fifty feet or more here.  Now let's see.  Where is
the blow-off valve of this boiler?"

"This is it, isn't it?" asked Jack, indicating a valve, with
wheel-controlled outlet near the base of the boiler.

"That's it.  Now then for a monkey wrench and then we are all ready to
give those greasers the surprise of their lives in case they try an
attack upon this side of the stockade."

"What are you going----"

That was as far as Jack got in his question.  As the words left his
lips, there came from without the sharp sound of a shot.

Bang!

"Phew!" whistled Buck.  "That's the overture.  The performance is about
ter begin."

In the meantime, the members of the party left at the peep-holes by
Buck Bradley and Jack, had been trying their level best to obtain some
inkling of which side the insurrectos meant to storm first.  But, for
all the sign the long, waving grass gave, or the bushes imparted, they
might as well have gazed at the sky.  Had they not known that the
insurrectos were out there somewhere, they would have deemed the
hillside barren of life.

Suddenly, however, as Coyote Pete's keen eye was sweeping the open
space before the stockade, the grass quite near at hand parted, and a
wiry little Mexican stepped out.

It was a good evidence of the control that Madero exercised over his
men that this fellow, although he must have known he was placing his
life in deadly peril, advanced to within a few feet of the stockade
without a tremor.

Apparently, judging from his expression, he was astonished that no
hostile demonstration came from within.  But the defenders had no wish
to sacrifice life needlessly, and refrained from firing upon him.
Suddenly he halted, and raising his voice, cried out in Spanish:

"Will you foolish gringoes surrender and give up the gold peaceably, or
must we attack the mine?"

"Did Madero tell you to ask that?" shouted Pete through his peep-hole.

"Yes; the general demanded that I should offer you this chance for your
lives."

"Then tell the general, with our compliments, that if he thinks he'll
get Mr. Merrill's gold without a fight, he's up against the toughest
proposition he ever tackled."

"As you will, senors.  Adios!"

With a wave of his hat, the Mexican ran speedily back down the
hillside, and dived into some bushes.  The watchers of the stockade
were of the opinion that the wave of the hat was merely a bit of Latin
extravagance.  They soon found out, however, that it had the
significance of a signal.  For, as the fellow dropped into cover, the
grass became alive with human forms.  Coyote Pete's finger, which had
been trembling upon the trigger, pressed it.

Bang!

It was the first shot of the desperate battle for the defense of the
mine, and the sound that had reached the two in the boiler house.

The report was followed by a series of appalling yells from without the
stockade.  Mexicans seemed to spring from every clump of grass and bit
of brush.  It was amazing how they could have crept so close without
being detected.

"We can't last five minutes!" gasped Walt, as he gazed out.  The lad
fired grimly into the advancing rush, however, and the others stood to
their guns like veterans.  Their cheeks were blanched under the tan,
though, and the corners of their mouths tightened.  Each one of those
defenders realized the practical hopelessness of their positions.

Suddenly, amid the besiegers' onrushing forms, appeared a figure
mounted upon a superb black horse.  The animal curvetted and plunged as
the reports of the rifles of both sides rattled away furiously, but his
rider had him in perfect control.

"There's Ramon, the scoundrel!" roared Pete, gazing at the defiant
figure.  "I'll give him a shot for luck."

But for once the plainsman's aim was at fault.  The bullet evidently
did not even ruffle the former cattle rustler.

"Ledt me try!" puffed the German ferociously.

He fared no better.

"Bah!  Und I thought I vos a goodt shot!" he exploded.

"It ain't that," rejoined Pete superstitiously.  "The Mexicans say that
Ramon bears a charmed life, and that only a silver bullet will ever lay
him low."

Before the professor could make any comment Ramon was heard issuing
commands in a sharp voice.  He seemed to have the direction of the
attack.  Of Madero there was no sign, unless a small figure on a shaggy
pony, far to the rear, was that of the insurrecto leader.

The result of Ramon's command was soon evident.  The attackers had not
been prepared for so sharp a defense, and, anxious to lose as few men
as possible, Ramon had ordered them to drop once more into the grass.

This was good strategy, as it was apparently only a matter of time
before the mine defenders would have to surrender, and it was little
use to sacrifice lives in a mad rush against their rifles.

The attack had splintered the stockade in a score of places, but,
thanks to the toughness of the seasoned wood, the bullets that had
penetrated had lost most of their strength.  Beyond a few scratches
from flying splinters, none of the defenders were injured.

"What can they be up to?" wondered Pete, as half an hour passed and no
further sign came from the besiegers.

Ramon's figure had now vanished.  Perhaps he realized that the fangs of
their enemies were by no means drawn, and deemed it more prudent not to
take chances on the strength of his "charmed life."

And so the time passed.  The sun was well on his march toward the
western horizon before there came a move on the part of the enemy, and
when it did come it was a startling one.  Taking advantage of every bit
of cover, the astute mestizos had crept around the stockade till they
were in a position exactly behind the defenders.  So that, in fact, for
the last half hour, the alert rifles of Coyote Pete and his companions
had been covering emptiness.

A yell as the attackers charged from the direction into which they had
covertly worked themselves apprised the besieged of what had happened.
Bitterly blaming his stupidity in not foreseeing such a move, Pete,
followed by the others, darted across the stockade.  As they were
halfway across, however, a dozen or more heads appeared upon the
undefended top.

The insurrectos had determined on a bold rush, and unmolested they had
succeeded in scaling the walls on each other's shoulders.

"Good Lord!" groaned Pete, as he saw.

Despair was in the countenances of the others, but, even as they halted
in dismay at what seemed certain annihilation, a strange thing happened.

With a screaming, earsplitting roar, a white cloud swept from the
direction of the boiler house at the clustering forms on the top of the
stockade.

It was a column of live steam that swept them from their perches, like
dried leaves before a wind.

Buck Bradley's plan had worked with terrible effectiveness.  Before the
rush of white-vapor the insurrectos melted away in a screaming, scalded
flurry.  In less than two minutes after Jack had turned the steam on,
not a sign of them was to be seen.

"Hooray!" yelled the boys, carried away by the sudden relief of the
strain when it had seemed that all was over.  "Hooray!  We win!"

"Don't be premature!" admonished Buck gravely, as the column of steam
was shut off.  "We ain't out of ther woods yet by a long shot.  How
about it, Pete?"

The old plainsman tugged his sun-bleached moustache viciously.

"Why, boys," he declared emphatically, "them reptiles ain't begun ter
fight yet."




CHAPTER XXV.

THE LAST STAND.--CONCLUSION.

As the cow-puncher spoke, there came a sound from the direction of the
gate which was filled with sinister significance.

Thud!  Thud!

It echoed hollowly within the stockade.  Buck Bradley was quick to read
its meaning.

"They've got a big log or suthin, and are busting in the gate!" he
cried.

A shout of dismay went up from them all.  As it so happened, there had
been no time to bore any holes near the gate, and the only way to delay
the work of battering it down would be to clamber to the fence top and
fire down into the insurrectos handling the battering ram.

But it needed no second thought to show that this would be madness.  At
the first appearance of a head above the stockade, they knew that half
a hundred rifles from without would pour a volley at it.  It would not
take more than ten minutes to wipe out the whole garrison in this way.

"Nope.  We'll have to think of some other plan," decided Buck.  It is
worthy of remark here that not one of the defenders of the mine had
ever even hinted at a surrender.  This was not due so much to the fact,
as they knew, that it would only mean exchanging one form of death for
another, as it was to their grim determination to defend the mine at
whatever cost to themselves.  It was the dogged American spirit that
prevailed at the Alamo.

"Aha!  I haf idt!" burst out Geisler suddenly, after a few minutes of
deep thought.  "Dere is no hope uv safing dot gate?"

"Not the least," Buck assured him.  "They'll have it through in a few
minutes now."

He pointed to the timbers which were already showing jagged cracks up
and down their entire length.

"Veil," said the German, "der office uv der mine is made strong--oh
very strong, for behindt idt is der specie room.  Ve can gedt by der
inside in dere and fire through der vindows.  And as a last resort vee
can----"

He paused.

"We can what?" demanded Jack.

"Nefer mindt.  I dell you later.  Now is dot agreed upon?"

"It's about all we can do, I guess," grunted Pete, "unless we stay here
to be shot down."

"Den come mit me."

The German rapidly led the way across the yard to the office building.
As he closed and barred the door, they noted that it was lined inside
with steel, strongly riveted to the oak.  The windows also had steel
shutters, cleverly concealed, in cases into which they slid, from
casual view.  In the windows, as well as in the door, were small
apertures for firing through.

"Why, it's a regular fort!" exclaimed Ralph, as the shutters clanged to
with a harsh, grating sound.

"You bet my life idt's a fort," agreed Herr Geisler, "undt ledt me tell
you dot you needt a fort ven you have a specie room by dis country."

"Then the specie room is near us?"

"In there."

The German pointed over his shoulder at a door in the rear of the
office.

"Idt is steel walled, undt dere is a combination lock on der door.
Even if dey should kill us all, dey still have a tough nut to crack."

The German spoke calmly, and his blond features were absolutely
unruffled.  No emotion appeared either on the weathered countenances of
Coyote Pete or Buck Bradley.  The professor's face, though, was ashen,
but he uttered never a word.  As for the boys, who shall blame them if
it is said that their hearts were beating wildly, their mouths felt
dry, and their brains throbbed.

It was the last stand, and they all realized it.

Unless help should come from an unforeseen source, they were bound to
perish miserably at the hands of the insurrectos.

Suddenly, there was a great crashing, rending sound from without.
Instantly a chorus of wild yells arose on the air, and shots were fired
as if in exultation.

"They've busted the gate!" exclaimed Buck.

Peering through the apertures in the door and windows, they could see
the hoard come pouring into the yard of the mine.  At first they came
cautiously.  They evidently recollected the steam, and feared another
ambush.  In a few minutes, however, their confidence returned.  The
watchers could see a little man dart out from among the crowd and point
toward the specie room and the office structure.

"The gold is within, my brothers!" he shouted in Spanish.

"Bodderation tage dot feller," sputtered Geisler, "a veek ago he vos
der best vorkman ve hadt by der mine, undt now look at him."

With a howl, the insurrectos charged on the hut.  The lust of gold was
in their veins, and they minded the volley poured into them by the
defenders no more than if it had been so much rain.  Several of them
fell, but it seemed to make no difference to the others.  They charged
right up to the very doors of the place.  Some of them even tore at the
walls as if they imagined they could demolish them and get at the
gringo gold.

"Dot is vot goldt does for mens," philosophically remarked the German,
as he gazed at the onrush, firing methodically at the same time.

Jack, Ralph, and Walt were at one of the windows, while the professor
and Coyote Pete defended the other.  During the mad rush for the
office, they all did considerable execution, without, of course, any
cost to themselves.  The Mexicans, to be sure, returned the fire
furiously, but their bullets "pinged" harmlessly against the steel
shutters, or buried themselves in the thick, wooden walls.

Suddenly there came an angry shout from some one evidently in authority
among the insurrectos.  Instantly the attack melted away, the
retreating men dragging their wounded with them.  It was Jack's first
sight of real warfare, and it made his blood, as well as that of the
others, run cold.

"Now what are they up to?" wondered Buck, as this sudden cessation of
activities came.

"Search me," rejoined Coyote Pete, "but it's some deviltry, you can bet
on that--that voice was Ramon's.  He's got a plan in his head to get us
out of here."

"Well, he'll have a man's-sized job on his hands," rejoined Buck,
calmly reloading the magazine of his rifle and running a cleaning rod
through the foul barrel.

The others employed their time in the same manner.  Thus they waited
for what seemed an interminable age.  Still there was no sign of the
Mexicans.  The yard without was empty of life.

"If they don't show up in a few minutes, what say if we open the door
and make a rush for it?" asked Jack.

"As good an idea as any," rejoined Buck, "but what I would like to know
right now is what they can be doing."

"Queer, ain't it?" said Pete.

They all agreed that it was, but not one could hit upon an explanation
that seemed plausible.

Suddenly, Buck, who had been sniffing suspiciously for a few seconds,
gave a sharp exclamation.

"Do you fellows smell anything?"

"No----" began Jack, and then:

"Good heavens, yes!  Something's on fire!"

"That's right," agreed Pete, without a quaver in his voice.  "The
varmints hev set fire to the building from the rear."

"That's what!" rejoined Buck, "and we can't get within a mile of them.
I don't suppose there are any rifle holes in the specie room are there,
Mr. Geisler?"

"Nodt a vun," rejoined the German, in a peculiar voice, and then they
noticed, in the gloomy light of the closed-up place, that his face was
ashen white.

It was clear that the German was badly frightened.  His knees seemed to
be knocking together, in fact.  Small wonder, too.  The sharp, acrid
smell of blazing wood was in the air now.  They could hear the crackle
of the flames as they devoured the wooden outer walls of the specie
room.

"Come, cheer up, my man," Buck admonished the quaking German.  "Why
you've stood it all through like a major, and----"

"Idt ain't dot.   Idt ain't dose mis-er-able creasers dot I'm afraid
of," rejoined the German in a quavering voice.

"What then?"

"Dot room behindt us contains, besides der specie, almost a ton of
dynamite!"

"Great jumping wildcats!"

The exclamation dropped from Buck's lips.  The others were too
thunderstruck to utter a word.

"There's only one thing to do," spoke up Pete, his words fairly
tumbling out of his mouth in his haste.  "We must open the door and, at
a signal, make a rush for it.  We may never get through, but it's
better than being blown up as we shall be if we remain here.  The
insurrectos must have left their horses somewhere near at hand.  Maybe
we can find them and escape."

"It's one chance in a thousand!" exclaimed Jack.  "But perhaps this
will be the thousandth time."

"Let us pray so!" exclaimed the professor fervently.

Buck had sprung to the door.  His hand was on the bar.  He knew, as did
they all, that there was not an instant to lose.  Their lives hung by a
hair.  At any moment the flames might reach the dynamite and
then--annihilation, swift and terrible.

"Now!" he cried, dropping the bar.  A strange light, not of fear but of
determination, gleamed in his eyes.

Clang!

The bar fell to the ground, and the besieged party dashed forth, firing
as they emerged.

Suddenly, from without, and just as the insurrectos espied the daring
sortie, there came the shrill notes of a bugle.  At the same instant a
ringing cheer came over the top of the stockade.

What could it all mean?  As if in a dream, the boys saw the insurrectos
picking up their rifles and rushing toward the gate.  But before they
could reach it, a glorious sight greeted them.

A regiment of regular Mexican cavalry, the men with their carbines
unslung, pouring a disastrous hail into the swarming insurrectos,
suddenly swung through the shattered gateway.

Shouts and cries responded everywhere within the stockade.  The
terrified insurrectos dropped their rifles and ran hither and thither
in mad, frenzied panic.  It was every one for himself.  Over the
stockade they clambered, many paying toll with their lives before the
carbines of Diaz's troopers.

But in the midst of the turmoil a clear, boyish voice arose.

"Back!  Get back, for heaven's sake!"

The officer of the Mexican regulars heard, and wheeled his men.  He
recognized the thrill of warning in Jack Merrill's tones.

Stumbling forward, the suddenly relieved party of Americans darted
toward the gate for their lives.  On down the hillside they fled, with
the cavalry surging behind and about them.

"What is it?  What is the matter?" gasped the officer in English, as
Jack stumbled along at his side.

The lad gasped out one word:

"Dynamite!"

Hardly had it fallen from his lips before the ground shook as if
convulsed with an earthquake.  A red flame shot skyward behind them,
and a mighty, reverberating roar went rumbling and echoing over the
countryside.

The flames had reached the explosive.

Almost at the same instant a shower of embers, debris, and odds and
ends of all descriptions came showering about the retreating force.
Several were cut and bruised by the shower, but none seriously.

Fortunately, also, beyond causing several of the cavalry horses to bolt
in mad terror, no damage was done to the troops or our friends.  The
situation was rapidly explained to the wondering officer whose name was
Captain Dominguez, in command of the force detailed to guard the
railroad.

"We learned at Rosario that you had come to the mine," he said, in
explanation of the troops' opportune arrival, "and, knowing that Madero
was in the habit of raiding mines and was in the neighborhood, we made
top speed to the rescue."

"And we're all mighty happy to meet you, you kin bet, captain," chimed
in Buck, "but ef yer hadn't arrived when you did, we would not have had
the pleasure."

"No, I can see that," rejoined the young officer, gazing off down the
hillside.

In every direction could be seen Mexican troopers pursuing rebels,
shooting them down, without mercy when fight was shown, in other cases,
making prisoners.  The rout of the insurrectos was complete and final.

Suddenly a figure on horseback was seen coming at a hard gallop toward
the little group surrounding Captain Dominguez.

"It's Harding!" gasped Jack, as the figure drew closer, and indeed it
was the former West Pointer.  But he was in sad case.  His shirt was
torn almost from his back, his features blackened and seared, and a red
stain showed upon his chest.

"He was in that explosion, the precious scoundrel!" grated out Buck, as
his eye took in these details.  "He was one of the fellers that set
that fire."

Straight for the little party Harding rode.  But before he reached them
two Mexican troopers interposed.  They raised their carbines and the
next moment would have been Harding's last, but for Jack.

"Don't let them fire!" he begged.

The captain shouted an order and the troopers lowered their weapons.
Straight on for the party rode Harding, toppling out of his saddle as
he reached them.  The fellow was badly wounded.  He had been struck by
a flying splinter in the explosion of the dynamite.

"Ah, a countryman of yours," remarked the captain, with a tinge of
sarcasm.  "You should be proud of him, senors."

But Jack was on his knees beside Harding.

"Where is my father, Harding?  Tell me quick!"

"I will," gasped out the wounded man.  "Madero had him tied in that
grove yonder.  He wished him to see the destruction of his mine, he
said, and----"

The man fainted.  Rascal as they knew him to be, the boys were soon
applying such remedies as they could--all but Jack, that is.  The boy,
on Harding's pony, was off at lightning speed for the grove Harding had
indicated.  As he entered it, he spied Mr. Merrill tied, as Harding had
said, to a tree.  Of the meeting between father and son we prefer to
let each reader draw his own mental picture.

"Merrill, forgive me!" breathed Harding, who had recovered from his
swoon a few moments after as Jack and his father came up from the grove.

"I may forgive you, Harding," rejoined Jack, "but I can never forget."

And forgive Jack did, as he showed by interceding for the man and
having him removed to a hospital near Rosario.  Harding ultimately
recovered and of his further movements we have no knowledge.  He fared
better, however, than Hickey, Divver and Rafter, who were captured by
the government forces and sentenced to death by a summary court-martial.

Mr. Merrill rapidly explained that he had ridden ten miles or more from
the mine with Harding before he became suspicious.  He then asked
Harding point blank where his son was, and the fellow's reply had been
to give a peculiar whistle.  Thereupon several insurrectos had leaped
from the bushes and made the mine owner captive.  As Harding had told
Jack, Madero, with fiendish cruelty, had tied him in the grove to
witness the annihilation of his own mine.

After a short pause, during which restoratives were administered to the
almost exhausted Americans from the Mexican officers' field kit, they
headed for the mine to ascertain what damage had been done by the
explosion.  Almost the first object that met their eyes as they neared
the stockade was a jagged break in the structure caused by a large
object that had come crashing down upon it.  On closer view this proved
to be the steel safe in which the gold had been placed.  On opening the
receptacle, everything was found intact, a fact which the makers of the
safe are now using as a testimonial, as you may have noticed as you
passed their Broadway store.  The testimonial is signed by Conrad
Geisler, who is now Mr. Merrill's partner.

Well, there is not much more to tell of this part of the Border Boys'
adventures.  As it may be of interest, however, to relate the further
history of the underground river and the Haunted Mesa, we shall set it
down here.  Ramon escaped from the general disaster to the insurrectos
at the Esmeralda Mine, and apparently rode straight from there to the
mouth of the underground river he had long used to such good advantage.
At any rate, when the boys visited it later, they found that a
cunningly set explosion had completely blocked the passage for
navigation, and the secret route of the forgotten race was forever
closed to man.  As for the Mesa, you can read all about it
scientifically described in Professor Wintergreen's monograph on the
subject.

The ponies and the redoubtable One Spot, Two Spot, and Three Spot were
located at the Mesa, where they had been left in charge of Ramon's men.
All were fat and in good condition, and Firewater was very glad to see
his young master again.

By the way, Bill Whiting is now stationed in charge at the important
railroad center of El Paso.

      *      *      *      *      *      *

"Wall," remarked Pete, as they rode toward the ranch one evening, "I
guess things 'ull be quiet now fer a while."

"Hope so," rejoined Buck Bradley.  "I wired Stow ter bring my show ter
Maguez and you can all have free passes."

Jack thanked the genial showman on behalf of his companions, and then
reminded him that Ramon was still at large, although the insurrectos
were almost subjugated.

"Yes, consarn that pesky critter with the finest horse I ever set eyes
on,--and while he's alive ther'll be no peace along the border."

"That's right," agreed Pete.  "He's a natural born trouble-maker.  But
I guess so far as we are concerned we are through with him."

But Coyote Pete, accurate as were his usual judgments, was wrong in
this.  Black Ramon and his horse will figure again in these stories,
and it will then be seen how the boys finally brought him to book for
his misdeeds.

      *      *      *      *      *      *

The shadows are falling over the plains and the foothills are purpling
in the clear twilight of the southwest.  In the sunset sky the bright
lone star of evening glimmers.  Let us now say good night and good luck
to the Border Boys till we meet them again in a new volume of their
adventures to be called: "THE BORDER BOYS WITH THE MEXICAN RANGERS."



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