The border boys with the.., p.10
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       The Border Boys with the Mexican Rangers, p.10
 

           John Henry Goldfrap
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  CHAPTER X.

  AFTER MIDNIGHT.

  To their astonishment, the man seemed to hesitate. They had judged fromthe poverty-stricken look of his place and belongings that he wouldjump at the chance to make some money easily. But it seemed that thiswas not the case.

  While the fellow still hesitated, glancing covertly at the newcomers,the professor did a foolish thing. He exhibited his money belt andtapping it made it give forth the suggestive jingle of coins. CoyotePete’s expression grew angry for a moment, but he checked his chagrinat the professor’s foolish move.

  But the exhibition of the party’s financial solidity seemed to havedecided the ill-favored Mexican and his wife, for after some moreparley, which somehow appeared to Jack to be merely for form’s sake,they agreed to shelter the party and their stock at two dollars each,Mexican, which is equivalent to one dollar of our money.

  “Cheap enough,” said Jack, as ten minutes later they turned their stockloose in the corral and watched them attack with wholesome appetitesthe hay stack in the center of the enclosure.

  “May be dear enough before we get through,” thought Coyote Pete tohimself.

  He refrained from mentioning his mistrustful feeling to the others,however, as, after all, the Mexicans might be honest enough folks evenif his impressions were otherwise.

  After a wash-up in a small creek which flowed at the back of the place,the adventurers were quite ready to sit down to a smoking meal offrijoles (beans fried with red peppers) and eggs cooked in the Mexicanstyle. Some thin red wine was served with the meal, but as none ofthe party had any use for alcoholic beverages in any form, they werecontent to wash it down with water from the great stone olla,—or watercooler which hung under the broad eaves of the veranda.

  Jack had an uneasy sense that they were being scrutinized as they ate,by some unseen pair of eyes, and once looking up quickly he caught, orthought he did, a glimpse of the woman’s print gown slipping from ashuttered window. Jack was not a boy to make a mountain out of a molehill, though, and concluded that, in all probability, the woman, if shehad been looking at them, had been merely curious at the advent of somany strangers.

  The rest of the afternoon, for it was late when they concluded theirmeal, was passed in chatting and lounging about under the trees. Nobodyfelt inclined for more strenuous occupations. The professor, however,having obtained some old canvas, succeeded in fashioning a rough pairof trousers. They were short and shapeless, and his legs stuck outoddly from them like the drumsticks of a fowl, but they were betterthan nothing, he thought. As for the boys, they had bought some baggygarments of the Mexican type from the lone rancher, which would have tolast them till they reached the nearest town. This, they were informed,was Santa Anita, and was not more than ten miles distant.

  An early start being determined on, they sought their beds soon aftersupper, which consisted of the same fare as the other meal with theaddition of some greasy pancakes. Jack ate some of these, not caringfor a second dose of the peppery beans and a short time after felt, ashe expressed it to himself, “as if a cannon ball were in his midst.”

  Perhaps this accounts for his wakefulness, for he found it impossibleto sleep after they had all turned in, in one large room,—or, rather,garret,—which formed the second floor. The others flung themselveson the straw, which served for beds, with the lassitude of completeexhaustion, but Jack lay awake, with the pancakes on his chest like aleaden weight. At length he fell into an uneasy slumber, from whichhe awakened a short time later with a start and a queer feeling thatsomething in which they were vitally interested was going forward.

  His first vague feelings rapidly crystallized into more definite shapeas, from the yard outside, he could now distinctly hear the tramplingof horses’ hoofs. There seemed to be several of them, to judge by thenoise.

  Moonlight was streaming into the garret through an unglazed opening inthe adobe wall, and holding his watch in the rays, Jack saw that it washalf an hour after midnight.

  “Queer time to receive visitors,” he thought to himself.

  At the same time he was conscious of an overwhelming curiosity toascertain who and what the midnight arrivals could be. The boy hadnoticed a door in the wall of the garret when they first entered itthat evening, and from his previous inspection of the exterior of thehouse he had formed an idea that it opened upon the top landing of anoutside stairway. They had been conducted to the garret, however, by aladder leading from the room below.

  As well as he could judge, the noise came from the opposite side of thehouse to that on which the door was situated, so there did not seemto be much chance of detection in slipping out of the door, down theoutside stairway and, from some point of vantage, seeing what all theracket might portend. There was one possible difficulty in the way, andthat was that the door might be locked. But it proved to be unlatched,and Jack, swinging it open, after he had partially dressed, foundhimself, as he had surmised he would, on a landing or platform at thetop of an outside flight of stairs.

  In his bare feet, for he had not paused to put on shoes, he slippedas noiselessly as possible down the stairway and presently foundhimself in the yard. The moonlight cast black and white patterns of theoverhanging willows on the ground, but a brief inspection convincedJack that there was no human being astir but himself on that side ofthe house.

  As he reached the ground he could distinctly hear the voice of theslatternly woman crying out:—

  “Hush!” to the new arrivals.

  The voices which had been loud at first were instantly lowered, and hecould hear the riders, whoever they were, addressing quieting remarksto their horses.

  “Well, I’m going to see what all this means, if it’s the last thing Ido,” said Jack to himself, and suiting the action to the word he glidedrapidly along in the shadow of the wall till he reached the corner ofthe house. There was a low outbuilding there, which might at one timehave been used as a pigstye. This was just what Jack wanted. He placedboth hands on the top bar of the little enclosure outside the pen-likeerection, and the next instant had vaulted lightly over and was insidethe little shack. The boards of which it was composed were interspersedby wide cracks, and applying his eye to one of these the Border Boycommanded a fine view of the moonlit yard at the end of the house.

  As he had expected, it was full of riders, one of whom was mounted onan animal which somehow seemed familiar to the boy. He with difficultysuppressed a cry of astonishment, as the next instant the rider emergedinto the moonlight, and Jack saw that he was none other than BlackRamon. The others, he now recognized as men he had seen in the camp onthat adventurous morning following the delivery of the warning letter.

  But Jack had not much time to meditate on all this, for he suddenlybecame aware that Ramon was riding behind the cantle of his saddle, andthat lying across the saddle itself was a human figure. A second laterthe boy made out that it was the senseless form of a woman that theoutlaw chief was carrying before him.

  Hardly had he made this discovery before the woman and the man of thelone ranch came forward and lifted the inanimate form from the backof the black horse of the Border scourge. As they did so a mantilla ofelaborate workmanship which covered her face, fell from it, disclosingher marble-like features, as pale as death. Jack then saw that she wasyoung and very beautiful. As the girl was lifted by the lone rancheros,her consciousness returned, and opening her eyes she began to pour outa flood of Spanish. Jack, like most boys bred along the border, hada working knowledge of the language, and it didn’t take him long togather that she was promising rich rewards, estates, anything to hercaptors if they would release her and restore her to her parents.

  But Ramon’s rejoinder was a hoarse laugh. He informed the girl that hemeant to exact a heavy ransom from her father for her freedom, and thatif it were not forthcoming he would make her his own wife.

  An astonishing change came over the girl at these words. From apleading, terror-stricken maiden, she became a fine figure of scorn.Drawing herself up proudly, sh
e exclaimed with blazing eyes:—

  “I would die before such a thing happened. My father will find you outand punish you like the wicked men you are.”

  “Colonel Don Alverado will never find Black Ramon or see his daughteragain if a hundred thousand pesos are not forthcoming before the end ofthe week,” was the rejoinder.

  In speaking these last words Ramon had unconsciously raised his voice,and the rancheros, with faces full of alarm, stepped forward.

  “Hush! for heaven’s sake not so loud!” the woman exclaimed, “there areseveral Gringoes in the house!”

  Ramon’s face grew black.

  “Gringoes!” he snarled, “what do you mean by admitting the Yankee pigswhen I have paid you well for the use of your house?”

  “But they are here only for the night and are sound asleep,” protestedthe male ranchero. “Depend on it, they will not interfere. They arepressing on toward Santa Anita to-morrow at dawn.”

  “And then, too, they have a belt full of money, Senor Ramon,” whinedthe woman, “there is no reason why your excellent self should not haveit. We had that idea in our head when we consented to let them stophere.”

  “Oh, so that’s the reason you suddenly became willing to let us stop,”thought Jack in his hiding place.

  But Ramon was now leaning forward with a sudden expression of keeninterest.

  “These Gringoes, old woman,” he asked, “tell me, are they three boys,a tough-looking, long-legged man with a yellow moustache, and aspectacled old man?”

  “Si, senor,” was the rejoinder.

  “Santa Maria,” exclaimed Ramon, “here is good fortune. It is thoseBorder Boys and their companions delivered into our hands for theplucking. You did well to let them stop here, senora. They are allasleep, you say?”

  “Si. It is but a few minutes ago that my man crept up the ladder andpeered into the garret in which they are sleeping. They are all snoringlike the Yankee pigs they are.”

  “Bueno. We will attend to them shortly,” was the rejoinder; “but now todispose of the girl. Have you a room in which we can confine her?”

  “Yes, in the small room at the other end of the house. It was formerlyused as a wine room and is without windows, except a small one at thetop for ventilation. It has a strong door, too, for when we grew vinesand made wine, thieves used to visit us, ill fortune light upon them.”

  “That’s a queer sort of morality,” thought Jack, “for if I ever saw orheard of a precious band of rascals, these are surely they. That poorsenorita! We must devise some way of aiding her to escape, but whatcan we do? I guess I’ll sneak back now while they are busy elsewhereand wake up the others, for if I’m not mistaken we are going to have atough fight on our hands before very many minutes.”

  As Jack cautiously slipped back by the way he had come, he saw thesenorita being led away into the house, proudly disdaining to parleyfurther with her captors.

  “There’s a girl in a thousand,” thought Jack to himself, “no hystericsor uproar about her. We’ve just got to help her out of the clutches ofthose ruffians.”

 
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