Read CHAPTER II - THE PURSUIT of Bert Wilson at Panama, free online book, by J. W. Duffield, on

Down at the ravine, stretched out at full length beneath the shade of a great tree, Bert and Tom were watching the progress of the work, as it slowly neared completion. There was more to do than was at first thought, but after making allowance for this, it seemed to drag on endlessly.

“Not much genius in that crowd, I imagine,” said Bert.

“What do you mean?” asked Tom, looking up in surprise.

“Why,” returned Bert, “I forget what philosopher it was Carlyle, I think who says in one of his books that ’genius is only an infinite capacity for hard work.’ You don’t see much of it straying around loose here, do you?”

“Well no,” laughed Tom, “not so that you would notice it. I’ve just been looking at that fellow over there with a hammer. I’ll bet I could take a nap in the time it takes him to drive a nail.”

“They ought to have as foreman one of those husky, bull-necked fellows I’ve seen in some of the section gangs laying out a railroad in the Northwest,” went on Bert. “Those fellows are ’steam engines in breeches.’ There isn’t much loafing or lying down on the job when they’re around. When they speak, the men jump as though they were shot.”

“Yes,” answered Tom, “or perhaps a mate on a Mississippi steamboat would fill the bill. Those colored roustabouts certainly get a move on when they feel his gimlet eye boring through them.”

“After all, I suppose the climate is a good deal to blame,” mused Bert. “It’s hard to show much ginger when you feel as though you were working in a Turkish bath.”

“Right you are,” responded Tom. “We fellows born and bred in a cold climate don’t realize how lucky we are. It’s the fight with old mother nature that brings out all that’s strong and tough in a man. I guess if the old Pilgrim Fathers had landed at Vera Cruz instead of on the ’stern and rock-bound coast’ of New England they’d have become lotus eaters too.”

“Well, that’s what we’re getting to be already,” said Bert with a yawn, “and if I lie here much longer I’ll strike my roots into the bank.”

“Sure enough,” assented Tom, “here we are talking about the laziness of these fellows, but I don’t see that we’re wearing any medals for energy.”

“Energy,” drawled Bert. “Where have I heard that word before. It sounds familiar, but I wouldn’t recognize it if I saw it. I don’t believe there is any such thing south of the Rio Grande.”

“Come, wake up,” retorted Tom. “Get out of your trance. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Do you see that tree up there? I’ll race you to it. That is, if you give me a handicap.”

“Done,” said Bert, who could never resist a challenge. “How much do you want?”

“How about a hundred feet? That oughtn’t to be too much for a Marathon winner to give a dub like me.”

“You don’t want much, do you?” laughed Bert. “Your nerve hasn’t suffered from the heat. But get your lead and I’ll start from scratch.”

Tom, quick as a cat, was not to be despised. On more than one occasion he had circled the bases in fifteen seconds. But he was no match for the fellow who at the Olympic games had won the Marathon race from the greatest runners of the world. For a little he seemed to hold his own, but when Bert once got into his stride that space-devouring lope that fairly burned up the ground it was “all over but the shouting.” He collared Tom fifty feet from the tree and cantered in an easy winner.

Tom had “bellows to mend” and was perspiring profusely, but to Bert it had simply been an “exercise gallop” and he had never turned a hair.

“Well, you got me all right,” admitted Tom disgustedly. “I’ve got no license to run with you under any conditions. But at any rate the run has waked me up. I’ve lost some of my wind, but I’ve got back my self-respect. But now let’s go and hunt Dick up. I wonder where he is anyway.”

“Probably stretched out on a couple of seats and taking a snooze,” guessed Bert. “I’ll bet he’s lazier even than we are, and that’s saying a good deal.”

“Well, let’s rout him out,” said Tom. “Come along.”

But when they reached their section of the car, Dick was nowhere to be seen.

“Taking a snack in the buffet, perhaps,” suggested Bert. “There’s something uncanny about that appetite of his. I’d hate to have him as a steady boarder.”

But here their search was equally unavailing. The attendant at the buffet did not remember having seen any one of his description lately.

“Great Scott,” ejaculated Tom. “Where is the old rascal anyway?”

Bert bent his brows in a puzzled frown. It certainly did seem a little queer.

“He must be close by somewhere,” he said slowly. “He can’t have vanished into the thin air. Perhaps the porters or the train men have seen something of him.”

With a growing sense of uneasiness they went from car to car, but the mystery remained unsolved until they reached the engineer.

“Sure,” replied that worthy, “I know who you mean. He was talking to me alongside the engine here.”

“How long ago?” asked Bert, anxiously.

“O, it must be all of two hours,” was the reply. “I remember it was just a little while after the train stopped. When he left me he started up that road,” pointing to the path beside the track. “Said he was going to stretch his legs a little.”

“Two hours ago!” exclaimed Bert.

“And not back yet!” cried Tom.

The boys looked at each other and in their eyes a great fear was dawning.

“O, I guess he’s all right,” said the engineer, “though he certainly was taking chances if he went very far. Things are rather risky around here just now, and it’s good dope not to get too far away from the train unless you’re pretty well ‘heeled’ and have got some friends along.”

But his last words fell upon unheeding ears. With a bound, Bert was back in the car, closely followed by Tom. They rummaged hastily in their bags until they found their Colt revolvers the good old .45s that had done them such good service in their fight with the pirates off the Chinese coast. Not a word was spoken. There was no time for talk and each knew what was passing in the mind of the other. Dick was gone dear old Dick and at this very moment was perhaps in deadly peril. There were only two things to be done. If he were alive, they would find him. If he were dead, they would avenge him.

That they were taking their own lives in their hands in the effort to aid their comrade did not even occur to them. It seemed the simplest thing in the world. It was not even a problem. Not for a moment did they weigh the cost. Were they hucksters to split hairs, to measure chances, when their comrade’s life hung in the balance? As for the risks well, let them come. They had faced death before and won out. Perhaps they would again. If not there were worse things than death. At least they could die like men.

They thrust their weapons in their belt, threw a handful of cartridges in either pocket, leaped from the car and started on a run up the road.

As they ran, they gathered speed. The road fell away like a white ribbon behind them. The wind whistled in their ears. The canter they had already indulged in had put them in form and their anxiety gave wings to their feet. No time to spare themselves when every minute was precious fraught with the chances of life or death. More than once they had run for glory now perhaps they were running for a life. And at the thought they quickened their pace until they were fairly flying.

Their keen eyes scanned each side of the path for some sign of Dick’s presence, but not until they came to the turn in the road was their search rewarded. Then they stopped abruptly.

Something had happened here. There were no signs of a struggle, but the ground was torn up as though by the pawing of horses. The upturned earth was fresh at the edges and the prints of hoofs could be clearly seen. A bit of cloth fluttered on a tree and a broken strap lay on the ground. An ace of spades near by made it look as though a card game had been suddenly interrupted and this impression gathered force from the presence of an empty bottle that still smelled strongly of mescal, the villainous whisky of the Mexicans.

Like hounds on the scent the boys circled round the spot, trying to get the meaning of the signs. Their experience in camping had made them the keenest kind of woodmen and they could read the forest like an open book. Bert’s sharp eyes caught sight of the bark of a sapling freshly gnawed. By its height from the ground he knew at once that this had been made by the teeth of a broncho. The mark of a strap a little lower down showed that the beast had been tethered there. All around the clearing he went, until he had satisfied himself that at least twenty horses had been standing there a little while before.

Tom in the meantime had been studying the hoofprints. One of them especially arrested his attention. He followed the trail some hundred feet and came running back to Bert.

“One of those horses has carried double,” he panted. “See how much deeper and sharper his prints are than the others. And though he started off among the first he soon came back to the rear. The others with a lighter load got on faster.”

Bert hastily confirmed this conclusion. There was no longer any room for doubt. They saw the whole scene now as clearly as though they had been on the spot when it happened. Dick had come unexpectedly and unarmed upon this band of guérillas. They had at least been twenty to one, and he had had not the ghost of a chance. They had carried him off into the mountains. For what purpose? God only knew.

But at least they had spared his life. There was still a chance. While there was life there was hope. And they would never leave the trail until that last spark of hope had gone out in utter darkness.

Now that they had fully settled in their own minds just what had happened, the next thing in order was to plan the rescue. And this promised to be a tremendous task. The chances were all against them. They had no delusions on that score. The odds of twenty to two were enormous. Mere courage was not enough to settle the problem. With a heart of a lion they must have the cunning of a fox.

The boys sat down on the grassy bank and cudgeled their brains. The fierce excitement of the last few minutes had gone down, to be replaced by a steady flame of resolution. Bert’s mental processes were quick as lightning. He could not only do, but plan. It was this instant perception and clear insight, as well as his pluck and muscle, that had made him a natural leader and won him the unquestioned position he held among his friends and comrades. Like a flash he reviewed in his mind the various plans that occurred to him, dismissing this, amending that, until out of the turmoil of his thoughts he had reached a definite conclusion.

He lifted his head from his hands and in short crisp sentences sketched out his purpose.

“Now, Tom,” he said, “we’ve got to work harder and quicker than we ever did before. Here’s the game. Make tracks for the train. It must be pretty nearly ready to move now. Go through Dick’s bag and get his revolver. It may come in handy later on. Grab another big bunch of cartridges. Get the pocket compass out of my valise. Go into the buffet and cram your pockets full of bread and meat. We might shoot small game enough to keep us alive, but shooting makes a noise.

“Do these things first of all, and then hunt up Melton. You know whom I mean that cattleman from Montana that we were talking to yesterday. He’s a good fellow and a game sport. He told me he was going to Montillo on business connected with his ranch. That’s the first station on the other side of the bridge. The train will be there in an hour. Tell Melton the fix we’re in. He’s chased outlaws himself and he’ll understand. Ask him to go to the American Consul the minute he gets to Montillo and put it up to him that American citizens need help and need it quick. It’s an important town and we’ll probably have a consul there. If not, ask Melton to put the facts before the Mexican authorities. They don’t love Americans very much, but they’re a little afraid that the Washington people may mix in here, and they may not want to get in bad with them. Besides they hate the guérillas just about as much as we do. Anyway we’ll have to take the chance.”

“How about following the trail?” suggested Tom. “There are plenty of bloodhounds around. They use them to chase the péons and Yaquis. Shall I ask Melton to send some along if he can?”

“No,” replied Bert. “I thought of that, but their baying might give us away. If they suspect pursuit, they might kill Dick and scatter before we could get to them. You and I are woodmen enough to follow a trail made by twenty horses. If there were only one they might get away with it, but not when there are so many. Now get a move on, old man. I’ll wait for you here studying the signs, and we’ll start as soon as you get back. If reinforcements catch up to us, all right. If we can get Dick without them so much the better. If not, they’ll help us later on.”

Without another word Tom leaped to his feet and was off down the road like the flight of an arrow.