Read CHAPTER V - A FIENDISH TORTURE of Bert Wilson at Panama, free online book, by J. W. Duffield, on

It was long after dark on the day of Dick’s capture, when the guérillas reached their camp. Familiar as they were with every inch of the way, they had gone on as rapidly after sunset as before, and only drew rein when they had reached the clearing. Dick was lifted from the broncho, and the bonds removed from his hands and feet. He suffered torments as the blood rushed back into his cramped members, but at least he was comparatively free to move about, and before long he had recovered from the physical effects of his long and exhausting ride.

His mind also had regained its serenity and poise. He was cool and calm to a degree that surprised even himself. The first shock was over. He had already tasted of the bitterness of death. In those long hours, he had fought the battle in his own heart and conquered. Now he was ready for whatever might befall. From this time on, no chance either of life or death could disturb him. He was prepared for either. But his keen eyes and trained senses were on the alert to take advantage of any slip on the part of his captors, and he was determined to sell his life dearly. If they took it, they should at least pay for it.

Pedro, who seemed to be the captain’s righthand man, led the way to a ragged tent, of which there were perhaps a dozen in the clearing. Inside was a rude bed of boughs covered by an old saddle blanket. A wooden bench was the only other item of furniture, while a smoky pine torch, thrust into the cleft of a stump, gave a dismal light. Three of the bandits were stationed as a guard at the door of the tent, while two others were placed at the back. It was evident that the chief was taking no chances. They left his hands unbound, while he ate the meal of frijoles and tortillas that was presently brought to him, but when he had finished, his hands were again tied, though not so tightly as before, while his feet were secured to a stake, driven into the ground at the foot of the bed. Thus fastened, he could sit or lie on the bed, but could not move about. This done, they left him for a while to his reflections.

Outside, the camp was given up to boisterous hilarity. The bandits had ridden hard and far that day, and they were enjoying the sense of rest and relaxation that comes after a day in the saddle. Their horses were picketed in rows on the edge of the clearing, while their masters sat around a huge fire and sought diversion after the manner of their kind. Games of cards and dice were in progress, and bottles of mescal passed from hand to hand. The growing drunkenness led rapidly to quarrels, and, in one of the groups, a stabbing affray was only averted by the coming of El Tigre on the scene. The noise ceased like magic and the knives were replaced in their sheaths, while the revelers tried to slink out of the sight of their dreaded master. He glared at the brawlers for a moment, but his mind was on something else just then, and, lifting the flap of Dick’s tent, he stepped inside.

He had expected to find an anxious, excited, agonized prisoner. He stopped, nonplussed. Stretched out on his bed, Dick was sleeping as peacefully as a baby. Not a trace of fear or worry was visible on the strong, handsome face. It was a novel experience this sort of disdainful defiance to the monster whose name was a Synonym of terror over all that district.

“These cursed Americanos,” he muttered. “Where do they get their courage? And those eyes the first that ever looked into mine without falling. I swore to myself this morning that I’d pluck them out of his head. But I’ve thought of something better since,” he mused, while a devilish grin spread over his face, “and I’ll let him keep them until he sees what I’ll have ready for him in the morning.”

He was about to rouse the sleeper with a vicious kick, but thought better of it.

“No,” he growled, “let him sleep. He’ll be in better condition in the morning, and it will make his dying harder and longer.” And with a last venomous look, he left the tent and its sleeping occupant, and went to his own quarters.

The camp wore a festal air the next morning. There was a general atmosphere of eager expectation. It was evident that something unusual was afoot. The fellow that brought in Dick’s breakfast looked at him with a covert interest, as though he were to be an important actor in a drama for which the stage was being set. Had Dick known as much as Melton had learned of the hideous fame of his captor, he might have divined sooner the nature of these preparations. He had slept soundly, and the freshness and brightness of the morning had given him new hopes. The food served him was very good and abundant, and he did not know why, just as he was finishing it, the thought came to him of the especially good breakfast served to condemned men on the morning of their execution. He brushed the thought away from him, and just then Pedro appeared at the door of the ten, accompanied by a half dozen of his mates.

He untied the prisoner’s feet, and Dick arose and stretched himself.

“Come,” growled Pedro, and they went out into the open space between the tents.

The fresh air fanned his forehead gratefully and he breathed it in in great draughts. On a morning like this, it was good just to be alive.

He cast a glance around, and saw at once that something out of the ordinary was about to take place. The entire population of the camp was on the scene. Instead of sprawling in haphazard fashion on the ground, the bandits were in an attitude of alert attention. The dreaded leader sat in the center of the clearing, his eyes alight with an unholy flame. He rose, as Dick approached, with a guard holding his arm on either side, and made him a sweeping bow of mock politeness.

“It is good of the senor to honor us with his presence, this morning,” he said in fairly good English in his early years he had been a cattle rustler in Arizona “but I fear we can offer little for his amusement. In fact, we shall have to depend on the senor himself to entertain us. Is the senor, by any chance, a snake charmer?”

“Look here, said Dick, fiercely, what’s your game, anyway? You’ve got my money and watch and clothes. Now, what more do you want?”

“What more?” echoed El Tigre, softly. “Why, only a very little thing. I want your life.”

The last words were fairly hissed. All the mock courtesy dropped away, and he stood revealed in his true character as a gloating fiend, his hideous features working with hate.

That face maddened Dick. With a sudden movement, he threw off the guard on either side, took one leap forward, and his fist shot out like a catapult. It caught the sneering face square between the eyes, and the chief went down with a crash. In an instant, Dick’s sinewy hands were on his throat and choking out his life.

But now the bandit crew, roused from their stupefaction, rushed forward, and overpowered him by sheer force of numbers. They dragged him from the prostrate form of the guerilla, and tied him to a tree close to the bushes, on the very edge of the clearing. The Tiger’s face was bleeding from the smashing blow, when his followers raised him to his feet, and his rage was fearful to behold. He drew his knife and was about to rush on Dick, when the sight of two of his men, coming into the clearing with a bag between them, reminded him of his original purpose. By a mighty effort he restrained himself, but the ferocity of his face was appalling.

Dick, too, looked at the bag, as the men laid it on the ground. It was moving. Moving not sharply or briskly, as it might, had it held fowls or rabbits, but with a horrid, crawling, sinuous motion. A cold sweat broke out all over him. Now he knew what the Tiger had meant, when he asked him if he were by any chance a snake charmer.

A word from the chief, and two men came forward, holding forked sticks. A third slit the bag with his knife from top to bottom. From the gaping rent, two monster rattlesnakes rolled out. But before they could coil to strike, each was pinned to the ground by the forked stick, pressed down close behind the head. They writhed and twisted frantically, but to no purpose. Then another man bent down and drove his knife through the tail of each, just above the rattles. Through the wound he passed a thong of buckskin and looped it on the under side. Then, in each case, the other end of the thong was fastened securely to a stake, driven into the ground. When the work was done, a distance of ten yards separated the two stakes, and before each was a twisting reptile, wild with rage and pain. A man stood in front at a safe distance and held out a stick, teasingly. The snake flung itself to its full length, and the distance it could reach was carefully measured. Then, some inches beyond this furthest point, other stakes were drawn in rude outline of the form of a man. Near the buckskin thongs, men were stationed, with gourds full of water.

And now the stage was fully set for the tragedy. The audience was waiting. It was time for the actors to appear and the play begin.

El Tigre looked curiously at Dick. The latter’s heart was beating tumultuously, but he met the scoundrel’s gaze with calm defiance. He even smiled scornfully, as he stared at the battered lace, bleeding yet from his blow of a few minutes before. The significance of that smile lashed the bandit’s soul into fury.

“I’ll break him yet,” he swore to himself. “He shall beg for mercy before he dies.”

Then he said, aloud: “I was going to let the senor go first, but I have changed my mind. He is smiling now, and he shall have a longer time to enjoy himself.”

He turned and spoke to some of his followers, and they went to a nearby tent, from which they emerged a moment later, bringing with them a Chinaman, whose yellow face was ghastly with fear. As the poor wretch looked around at the awful preparations, and realized that he was doomed, he threw himself down before the chief and tried to embrace his knees. El Tigre spurned him with his foot.

“Tie him down,” he commanded, briefly.

They bore the unhappy man to the stakes, threw him down and bound him so tightly to them that he could not move. He was fastened in such a way that his face lay on one side, looking toward the snake a few feet away. The reptile coiled and sprang for the face, missing it by a few inches. Several times this was repeated. The horror of that wicked head and those dripping fangs darting towards one’s face was insupportable, and shriek followed shriek from the tortured victim. Still, the snake could not actually reach him, and if the thong held But now the man with the gourd poured a little water on the thong.

And the thong began to stretch.

The whole hideous deviltry of it struck Dick like a blow. Already he could see that the snake’s head went a trifle nearer with every spring. And still the water kept dripping. In a few minutes more, the fangs would meet in the victim’s face.

And it was his turn next. He, too, must face that grisly horror. Death in its most loathsome form was beckoning. His brain reeled, but, by a tremendous effort, he steeled himself to meet his fate. He would


What was that?


Was that Bert’s voice, or was he going insane? “Don’t move, old man,” came a whisper from behind the tree. “It’s Bert. I’ve cut the rope that holds you until it hangs by a thread. The least movement will snap it. Let your hand hang down, and I’ll slip you a revolver. Jump, when you get the word. We’re going to rush the camp.”

The reaction from despair to hope was so violent, that Dick could scarcely hold the weapon that was thrust into his hand. But as he felt the cold steel, his grip tightened on the stock, and he was himself again. Now at least he had a chance to fight for his life.

The snake was getting nearer to its victim’s face. The last spring had all but grazed it. All eyes were fixed upon it, as it coiled again. Its waving head stood high above its folds, as it prepared to launch itself. And just then a bowie knife whizzed through the air and sliced its head from its body. The next instant, a rain of bullets swept the clearing, and Melton, Bert, and Tom burst from the woods, firing as they came.