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THE roar of the pampero thundering over the chimneys of the solidly built estancia muffled the crash, yet the sound was loud enough to make Jock and Ned Burney spring from their chairs by the fire and rush out of the room. At the foot of the stairs a great-framed old man lay flat on the floor of beaten clay. Jock reached him first and bent over him.
"He's stunned," he said. "Help me lift him, Ned."
The old man opened his eyes. "You boys can't lift me," he said curtly. "Call Julio."
"He's not in yet, Uncle John," Jock said. "He and Vincent are both out. Are you much hurt?"
John Garnett moved his big body cautiously. "I don't think there's anything broken," he answered, "but my left ankle is damaged. Marvel is I wasn't killed. I was only half-way down when I slipped."
"We can get you on to the couch," Jock said confidently.
Jock was sixteen but tall for his age. A bit slim still but already his muscles were hardening from the six months he had spent at the Tres Tortillas sheep farm in the heart of Patagonia. Ned, his brother, now just fifteen, was a different type, broad and stocky. He was nearly as strong as Jock and promised to develop into a very powerful man.
Between them they got their uncle on to the big leather couch in the sitting-room, then Jock peeled off the left shoe and sock and saw that the ankle was already swelling. He fetched hot water and began to foment it. John Garnett was usually a good-tempered man but now he grew irritable.
"I shall be laid up for a fortnight," he grumbled. "And where are Vincent and Vaz? They ought to have been in long ago, especially in this weather."
As he spoke there came the sound of the front door opening. A gust of wind shrieked into the house; then the door closed again with a bang and two people came into the room. One was a man of thirty, tall, swarthy, with blue-black hair and dark sullen eyes; the other a youth about eighteen years old with fair skin and hair, and pale blue eyes. His good looks were spoiled by a sharp nose, thin lips and a peevish expression. He was Vincent Slade, John Garnett's stepson. Vincent stopped and stared at his stepfather.
"What's up?" he demanded.
"Uncle John has had a fall," Jock answered. "He tumbled downstairs and sprained his ankle."
"Something is sure to happen whenever I leave the house," Vincent snapped. "I suppose one of you slopped water on the stairs?"
Jock looked Vincent straight in the face. "That's a rotten thing to say," he remarked.
Vincent's pale eyes glittered nastily. "Don't you dare talk to me like that," he snarled.
"Shut up, you two," ordered Mr. Garnett. "You're always bickering and I'm sick of it. Go and change and get your supper, Vincent."
Vincent gave Jock another ugly look, but he did not dare disobey his stepfather. He went out and Mr. Garnett turned to the dark-faced man.
"What kept you out so late, Julio?"
"We look for the horses, Señor. Some are gone."
Mr. Garnett made a remark that was not a blessing.
"Horses gone again!" he exclaimed. "Which?"
"The tropilla from the west pasture," Julio answered. He spoke quite good English, though with a queer foreign accent.
Jock cut in. "Our ponies were there. Are they gone, too?"
"I sorrow to say they have gone with the rest," Julio answered. "The wire has been cut. I have the belief that it is the work of the Wild Man.
"Stuff and nonsense!" retorted Mr. Garnett. "Everything that goes wrong is put down to the Wild Man. It is true there was such a man once, but he must be dead years ago. Now see here, Julio, those horses have got to be found."
"But assuredly, Señor. We start again in the morning. With permission I will now retire." His employer nodded. "Yes, get your supper and turn in."
Julio left and Jock went on fomenting the injured ankle.
"That's much better," said his patient presently. "Now I think I can get to sleep. Bring me pillows and blankets and my pyjamas. I shall stay down here until I am better."
Between them the boys made him comfortable, then Jock built up the fire for a pampero, coming out of the south across the plains of Patagonia, is as cold as a north-east gale in England. Before going up to bed Ned made a request.
"May Jock and I go after the horses with Julio, Uncle? If the old madrina is with them I can always catch her; then the rest will follow. Maria will look after you."
The old man nodded. "Yes, you two can go with Julio. But Vincent will stay at home."
Ned thanked him and said good-night, then he and Jock went up to their room.
"Vincent will be sick," remarked Ned as he began to undress.
"We shall be quit of him for a day, that's one mercy," Jock answered. "Ned, one of these times I shall lose my wool and punch the blighter."
"I believe you could lick him," Ned said. "And a licking is what he wants, the very worst kind. Funny how he hates us!"
"Not funny at all. He's jealous. He's afraid that Uncle is going to leave us some of his money."
"I don't want his money," said Ned, "but I would like a bit of land and some horses. It's a rum thing, Jock, but I'm getting fond of this country."
"I don't think it's rum. I like it, myself. It's lonely but it's a good life, and I've never been so fit as since we came here. I wouldn't care to stay here always, for I want to go to a decent university later on, but I'm game to make a home here."
"Good business!" said Ned. "Then we'll go into partnership and make a show of it."
Jock laughed. "It's not so easy as that, Ned. We want quite a bit of money to get started."
"We'll make it somehow," Ned declared as he got into bed. "Now we'd best sleep, for we'll have a hard day to-morrow. Those horses may be twenty miles away by morning."
"Wish I knew who cut that wire," Jock growled.
"Vincent, of course," Ned told him.
"Vincent! You're crazy. What would he do that for?"
"To spite us. Don't you remember, he told Uncle we couldn't break those ponies. He was furious because we got them properly tamed. That's why he's turned 'em out. He probably hopes we shan't find them again. If he and Julio had gone after them they never would have been found."
Jock drew a long breath. "Then that's why you asked if we might go."
"That's why," Ned said quietly.
Jock thought a while, then spoke again. "But Julio's coming," he said. "Do you think he'll try and put us off?"
"I'm jolly sure he will. He and Vincent are thick as thieves. But don't worry. Between us we can handle Julio. Now I'm going to sleep. Bye-bye."
The brothers were up before dawn next morning and were relieved to find that the gale had blown itself out in the night. As they had expected, Vincent was furious because he was not to go after the lost horses. But he did not dare to make a fuss. John Garnett's word was law at Tres Tortillas. The boys, watching Vincent, saw him slip out of the room and exchanged glances. They were quite sure he had gone to have a quiet word with Julio.
The sun was only just up when they started. Since their own ponies were gone the boys had to ride what they could find. Jock was mounted on an ugly bay called Horqueta, which means Slit- eared, and Ned had Overo, a stocky piebald with a queer temper and a nasty habit of cow-bucking. They took two pack-ponies to carry their tent and food.
Most people have the idea that Patagonia is a vast plain covered with grass, where countless sheep graze. This is true of the east coast, but inland it is very different. Here are great stretches which resemble Highland deer forests only, instead of bracken, the ground is covered with thorn bush and poison bush. Here and there are lagoons not unlike Scottish lochs, and almost everywhere the ground is broken by ravines called "canadones," some of them deep and dangerous. But there are no mountains until you reach the Andes far to the west, so that you can see to a tremendous distance. Almost always there is wind and overhead immense clouds sail in a pale blue sky.
Julio was friendly that morning—suspiciously friendly the boys thought. Both were watching him all the time. They suspected that he would try to lead them on a false trail but, if he meant to do so, he had no chance. The ground was moist and the tracks of the horses were plain.
The tropilla which had escaped numbered fourteen horses. In Patagonia each tropilla has a madrina or bell-mare who wears a bell around her neck and is followed by the others. She is so trained that she can be caught easily but is never ridden. The madrina of this troop was a particular friend of Ned who fed her with sugar. She would come at his whistle and he had no doubt that, if he could only sight her, he would soon have the whole lot in tow.
All the morning they followed the tracks. At eleven they stopped and Julio lit a small fire and brewed a pot of maté, South American tea made of the leaf of a sort of holly. The boys had come to like this drink and were glad of the short rest. Both were finding the paces of their half-broken beasts very trying.
The tracks led almost straight across the pampa, and presently Julio spoke.
"The horses are being driven. They have not stopped to graze. It is as I told the Señor. The Wild Man is behind them."
"Who is this Wild Man?" Jock asked.
Julio shook his head. "None knows whence he comes, but it is said that he is a white man who quarrelled with his brother and killed him. He was arrested and condemned to death but escaped and, in revenge, steals horses. Sometimes he kills them, but more often leaves them in some lonely spot."
"I don't believe a word of it," Ned whispered to Jock a little later. "If a mounted man had been driving the horses I'd have spotted his tracks. They'd have been deeper than those of an unsaddled horse. And the horses have stopped to graze. My notion is that we are not very far behind them."
"I hope you're right," Jock answered in an equally low tone, and just then Julio looked round suspiciously so that the boys said no more.
The sun began to sink and still no sign of the missing horses. A rainstorm swept up and Julio suggested camping in the shelter of a canadone where a small spring gushed out. The boys agreed and the horses were unsaddled, hobbled and left to graze. Julio lighted the fire while the boys pitched the tent. Julio put on the pot and made a "puchero," a stew of mutton and vegetables. This, with bread and maté, made their supper. Tired with a long day in the saddle, the boys got out their sleeping-bags and were hardly inside them before they were sound asleep.
Jock was the first to rouse. To his amazement it was broad daylight. He sat up and yawned. He felt curiously drowsy. Ned was still asleep and it took some shaking to wake him. When he did open his eyes he seemed half stupid.
"It's my head," he grumbled. "It aches."
"So does mine," said Jock. "Let's go over to the spring and wash."
They crawled out of the tent and the first thing Jock noticed was that there was no sign of Julio.
"He's gone after the horses," Ned said.
"He's precious late," growled Jock. "The sun's an hour high."
They went to the pool and the ice-cold water cleared their sleepy heads. Jock was the first to get back to the tent.
"Where are the pack-saddles?" he asked sharply.
Ned looked round. There was no sign of the packs or of the cooking-pots. He made a quick circle, examining the soft ground.
"The swine has cleared out," he told Jock. "He has drugged us, taken the horses and everything and marooned us."
"THE man's crazy!" Jock exclaimed. "What's his idea? What do you think Uncle John will say when Julio tells him he's lost us?"
"He doesn't mean to do anything of the sort," Ned answered. "He has five horses and grub for a week. He's going to clear out, and join some pal of his in the west."
"Then the sooner we get back and tell Uncle, the better," Jock said grimly.
Ned shrugged. "Easier said than done. We're at least forty miles from home, and it will take two days to get back afoot. Meantime we haven't a mouthful of grub."
Jock paled a little as the truth of Ned's words came home to him. Forty miles of rough, road-less country to cover and both were wearing high-heeled riding-boots. No food, no firearms, and the sleeping-bags too heavy to carry. He pulled himself together.
"It's a bad fix, Ned. But there's no choice. We'd better start."
Ned did not move.
"What about trying for those horses, Jock? I don't believe they're far. If we can find them we can ride back."
"But Julio will have collared them," Jock answered.
"I don't think so. Five horses are about all he can manage and I don't believe he'll delay to catch the rest. Seems to me it's worth trying."
"If we don't get them we shall be in a worse hole than ever," Jock warned him.
"It's just as you like, Jock," Ned said. "If you think best, we'll go home."
"If you think it's good enough we'll try it, Ned," he agreed. "But I wish to goodness we had something to eat before we start."
"We might get an armadillo," Ned suggested. "Keep your eyes open as you go." He paused. "If we don't see the horses before night we turn back," he added.
The morning was fine but there were clouds about. This was October, spring in the Southern hemisphere, and it was still cold. For the next two hours the brothers followed the trail of the wandering horses. Of one thing they were sure. Julio Vaz was not after the tropilla. There were no signs of his tracks. Then they came to rough stony ground where the trail was hard to follow. The stones were equally hard on their feet, and both boys wished devoutly that they were wearing walking-shoes. But the worst of it was lack of food. With every hour they grew more and more hungry and, although they saw several guanacos (wild llamas), there was no means of killing these swift and wary creatures.
By midday they began to feel desperate and Jock's heart sank as he thought of all the weary miles between them and home.
Ned spoke. "We'll go to the top of the next rise and, if we don't see the horses, we'll turn back. That suit you, Jock?"
"Anything you say," replied Jock wearily. "But how we are going to get home afoot beats me."
They toiled up the next ridge and as they reached the top Ned gave a yell.
"There they are!"
"Yes," said Jock, "but how are we going to reach them?" He pointed to the deep river which ran at the bottom of the valley. The horses had swum across and were feeding on good grass on the far side.
Ned refused to be discouraged. "We can swim, can't we? Come on, Jock."
Jock didn't like the look of that river a bit. True, it was not more than a hundred feet wide, but the current was strong and he well knew how bitterly cold the water was at this time of year. Yet there was no choice and he followed Ned's example and stripped. With their belts they strapped their clothes and boots on their backs, hoping against hope to keep them dry. Ned waded in. As he followed Jock heard his brother gasp. No wonder! The river was liquid ice. In a couple of steps they were out of their depth. Jock swam well but Ned was not so good, and when they neared the middle the strong current began to carry them both down-stream.
"Don't fight it," Jock called out. "Let it take you down. We'll find slacker water presently."
They struggled on. Suddenly both were caught in an eddy, and Jock saw Ned's head disappear. He made a grab and caught hold of something. It was the bundle of clothes strapped on Ned's back. Up came Ned's head, but at the same time the belt gave way. It was impossible for Jock to save it: it took all his strength to hold Ned, for the eddy was dragging them both down.
Jock was breathless, almost exhausted when he at last got out of the whirlpool. A minute later a swirl of the current flung them in towards the bank and he clambered up and dragged Ned to safety. He turned quickly to look for Ned's bundle. There was no sign of it.
"This is my fault, Ned," he said bitterly. Ned, stark naked, blue with cold, managed a laugh.
"You dear old ass. You save my life and then grouse about my togs."
"But you'll die with cold." As he spoke Jock got his own soaked coat from his bundle, wrung it out and flung it over Ned's shoulders. Ned refused to be discouraged. "Let's get the horses first, then we'll light a fire and warm ourselves. After that we'll ride home." He went towards the horses, whistling. Madrina raised her head, then turned and began to walk towards him. Ned held out his hand and the mare came up. She was within a few yards of him when two guanacos came tearing down out of a gorge in the cliff. Madrina snorted, whirled, galloped off and the whole tropilla went thundering away behind her. They went straight up-stream and within three minutes were out of sight.
"That's torn it," Ned said. Jock did not speak. At the moment he simply couldn't. Ned was far the more self-possessed of the two. "They won't go far," he added. "If you'll lend me your boots I'll go after them."
Jock looked at his brother. His skin was blue, his teeth were chattering. "You'll do nothing of the sort. Get under the cliff out of the wind. I'm going to light a fire."
Luckily Jock's matches were safe in a water-tight bottle; luckily, too, there was plenty of driftwood left by past floods. In a few minutes they had a fire going over which they dried Jock's clothes and warmed their frozen bodies. When the clothes were dry Jock shared them out. He made Ned put on his vest and pants, which were of wool, and he kept his shirt and trousers and waistcoat. His coat he forced on Ned.
By this time it was almost dark, so both set to gathering dry grass, of which they made a bed under shelter of a projecting spur. Then they piled up the fire and buried themselves in the pile of hay. They soon grew warm, but then they felt hungrier than ever. It was now twenty-four hours since their last meal and the hard walk followed by the swim had taken it out of them badly. They were too hungry to sleep.
"Those confounded guanacos!" growled Ned. "What made them stampede like that?"
"A lion most likely," Jock answered. He meant of course the puma, which they call the lion in the Argentine, though it is really only a sort of panther. "Try to sleep, Ned. We must save up our strength for chasing those horses in the morning."
"I'll try," said Ned, "but I'm so infernally empty it hurts."
Somehow the night wore through. The boys dozed uneasily, Jock getting up now and then to put fresh wood on the fire. Dawn came at last with a clear sky and a bitter cold air. Jock was scared to find how weak he was, and his heart sank at the thought of another day without food. Even if they found and caught the horses it would take all of ten hours to get back to the estancia.
Ned got up. "I'll have to have your boots, Jock," he said. "Will you wait here while I round up the horses?"
"There doesn't seem to be much choice," Jock replied.
"Buck up, old son," Ned said. "I'll get the horses and we'll be home before dark."
Ned was pulling on the boots when a droning sound made them both look up. A small dark object showed high in the southern sky and the boys stared, unable to believe their eyes.
"An aeroplane!" Jock gasped.
Ned wasted no time in talking. He grabbed up their hay bedding and flung it all on the fire, causing a great cloud of smoke to rise. Then he went scrambling up the bluff like a squirrel.
NED reached the top of the bluff and, standing there, frantically waved both arms.
The drone grew louder. The plane was approaching rapidly, but it was at least two thousand feet up and Jock's heart sank at the thought that its occupants would be unlikely to see him or Ned and that, even if they did, they would not realise their plight.
Now the plane was almost overhead. It was passing on. Of course the pilot would not come down. Why should he? Frantically Jock piled more and more grass on the fire. He heard a yell from Ned and looked up again. The plane was turning, circling. It was coming down. Jock shouted as loudly as Ned, then stood waiting.
As the plane came lower, he sprang away from the fire and waved his arms, beckoning and pointing to the flat pasture by the river. He saw a head over the edge of the fuselage, a head crowned with bright red hair. The man waved, then the plane came gliding down to make a perfect landing not more than a hundred yards from where Jock stood.
Forgetting his bare feet, Jock ran. As he reached the plane the red-haired man jumped out. He was short, broad, with a turned-up nose and little twinkling, bright blue eyes. He stared at Jock.
"Doggone if he ain't white!" he exclaimed.
"What did you think he was, Dan?" came a voice from the plane—"blue?" The speaker was a slim young man of about twenty-seven and, though he wore heavy flying kit, he had a spruce appearance.
"Red, Frank," retorted the man with the flaming head. "Didn't ye say as Injuns lived in these parts?" Just then Ned came up, panting. "And this one's white, too," added Dan, "though he ain't got much more clothes than an Injun."
"He lost his in the river last night," Jock explained. "We have only one suit between us."
Dan's eyes widened. "Gee, ain't you cold enough without going in swimming?"
"We had to swim," Jock explained, "after our horses."
"And you spent the night out in those togs."
"It wasn't the togs that mattered," Ned said. "It was want of grub. My brother and I haven't eaten since the day before yesterday."
Dan gave a horrified exclamation and plunged into the plane. He came out with a bag of biscuits and about a pound of chocolate and thrust them into the boys' hands.
"Ye must be clemmed," he said. "Eat now. After a bit we'll scare up a proper meal."
The pilot, too, turned back into the plane and brought out a fleece-lined coat. "Wrap that round you," he told Ned. "And presently I'd like to hear how you came to be in this fix."
Seated round the fire, the boys munched biscuits and chocolate and between bites told their story. The men from the plane were intensely interested.
"This fellow, Vaz, must be all kinds of a swine," said the pilot. "If I could spare petrol I'd go after him and machine-gun him. Now I'll tell you about ourselves. I'm Frank Falcon and this red-head is Dan Doran. We are employed by the Great Southern Oil Company to look for country where oil may be found. We flew for a place called Santa Inez, where we were told we should find petrol but, when we reached it yesterday, all we could get was twenty gallons. So we started north for Coronel. We shan't make it. We haven't juice for more than another hundred miles. Is there any at this place of yours?"
Jock shook his head. "We don't run to cars, sir. But if you will come to Tres Tortillas my uncle will be glad to have you stay until petrol can be brought."
"That would be fine," Falcon declared. "We'd best get on at once. We can pack you two in at the back."
Ned shook his head. "We have to get those horses, sir."
"For goodness' sake don't call me 'sir.' You make me feel about a hundred. Where are your blessed horses?"
"Not far," Ned assured him. "I can probably get them in an hour."
Falcon considered. "Dan, you ride. Suppose you go with Ned to fetch these beasts. Meantime Jock and I will scare up a hot meal."
Dan got up readily. "Sure, I'll go. Have ye had enough grub to keep your strength up, Ned?"
"I'm fine," said Ned, swallowing the last biscuit.
"Wait a minute," said Falcon. He went across to the plane and fetched a gun. "If you don't see the horses you may see those guanacos. And a steak would be just right for breakfast."
"It won't do to fire if the horses are about," Ned said.
"We will take the gun and chance it," grinned Dan, and with the double-barrel over his shoulder, set out. The river curved to the south about a mile from the camp, and beyond the curve was a plain with a small lagoon surrounded by thick brush.
"Wait a jiff, Dan," Ned said. "I'll climb the bluff and see if the horses are within sight. They might be in that brush." Without waiting for an answer he scrambled up. For a moment he stood at the top gazing at the brush, then came quickly down.
"The horses are more than a mile away, but I spotted something in the brush, two huemul."
"And what will they be when they're at home? Me, I don't savvy the Patagonian language."
"Deer, Dan," Ned answered with a laugh.
"Deer. Why couldn't ye say so instead o' libelling the poor beasts with fancy names? Let's be after them. The notion of a good, juicy steak of venison makes my mouth water." He started, then stopped. "Is it a good shot ye are, Ned?"
"Pretty fair," Ned agreed.
"Then take the gun, for I'm rotten."
Ned took the gun and the two started for the lagoon. Ned knew just where the deer were and the thought of venison appealed to him as much as it did to Dan. As he got near the place where he had seen the animals he bent double and walked with the greatest caution. Dan did the same.
Ned saw an opening in the brush. He stopped.
"Dan," he whispered, "go in and drive them out. Go as quietly as you can. They ought to come out this way and I'll have to be pretty close in order to get them with a charge of shot."
Dan nodded and began to steal forward on tiptoe. He was keen as mustard. Ned moved into cover behind a thick bush and opened the breech of the gun to be sure it was properly loaded.
From the depths of the scrub came a sound, a sound which made Ned's skin pringle. It was a snarl like that of an angry cat only multiplied many times. Quick as a flash Ned sprang into the opening. There stood Dan petrified and beyond him, with its head just emerging from a screen of leaves, a puma. Its wide mouth was open, showing yellow fangs, and its savage eyes glowed green as emeralds.
The puma as a rule is a rather cowardly creature and avoids man, but it is a curious fact that those of Southern Patagonia are much bolder than the pumas found farther north. And this beast had evidently been stalking the huemuls and was furious at being disturbed.
Ned saw that it was on the point of springing upon Dan, but Dan was between him and the puma and it was impossible to fire without the certainty of hitting Dan.
DAN stood stock still. Surprise rather than terror had petrified him. He had certainly never seen a wild puma; he hardly knew of their existence.
Ned did two things at once. He sprang forward and yelled at the top of his voice. The shout startled the puma and for an instant checked its spring. Ned's jump had brought Dan out of the line of fire. He let go both barrels and the two charges of shot struck the puma full in the face, blinding it.
Snarling hideously, it sprang. Its body struck Dan, knocking him down, but the beast passed over him, landing almost at Ned's feet. Ned had no time to reload. Hastily reversing the gun he raised it and smote the puma with the butt across the head.
The force of the blow was so great that the stock broke clean off, leaving only the barrels in Ned's hands, but the puma, stunned, lay sprawled on the grass. In a flash Ned dropped the remains of the gun, whipped out his belt-knife and drove it with all his strength into the beast just behind the shoulder. That did the trick. The long, tawny body quivered, then was still.
"Dan, are you hurt?" Ned asked anxiously, but to his great relief Dan was already scrambling to his feet.
"It's my feelings are hurt," Dan answered. "Gee, but that was a fool trick, standing right between you and the beast! If I'd had any sense I'd have laid down."
"Most people would have run away, but if you'd turned nothing could have saved you," Ned told him.
"Yes, I don't reckon I'd have had much of a show if that gent had got his teeth into me," he said slowly. "Ned, looks like you saved my worthless life."
Ned smiled. "Your turn next time, Dan. Now we'd best think of those horses."
"And we lost our supper," Dan mourned.
"Not a bit of it. Puma isn't bad eating."
Dan looked horrified. "I'd as soon eat a tom-cat."
"All prejudice," Ned said. "A chap told me that python flesh was one of the nicest things he'd ever eaten. But never mind the puma now. We must get those horses."
Luckily the horses had not been near enough to be alarmed by the gunfire and this time old Madrina came up quite quietly, to take the lump of sugar Ned had ready. He roped her, and the rest of the tropilla followed. Reaching the camp, Madrina was hobbled and she and the others began to graze quietly.
The first thing Dan did was to tell how Ned had killed the puma and the story did not lose in the telling.
Ned announced that he was going back to skin the puma and Jock, borrowing Dan's shoes, went with him. They brought back not only the skin but some of the flesh and, although Frank Falcon was as horrified as Dan at the idea of eating puma, set to cooking a joint over the fire. The smell of the roasting meat was so good that Frank was tempted to try it and freely admitted that it was very like veal, but Dan refused to touch it and contented himself with bully beef.
When dusk came they rigged up a comfortable shelter with brushwood cut with an axe from the plane and all enjoyed a thoroughly good night's rest.
It was arranged that the boys should start back early with the horses and that Frank Falcon and Dan should wait until late afternoon before leaving for Tres Tortillas.
"Uncle's laid up," Jock explained, "and it would give him a shock if your plane suddenly swooped down out of the sky."
"There's another reason," remarked Ned grimly as soon as he and Jock were out of earshot of the camp. "I needn't tell you what that is, Jock."
"Vincent," said Jock. "Yes, we don't want him warned of our turning up. It'll be worth something to see his face when we come riding in. But he will have some lie ready," he added curtly.
The day was exceptionally fine and warm and the horses gave little trouble.
They took an hour's rest at midday and ate some food with which Dan had provided them, and reached the ranch just before five. They turned the horses into their pasture, went to the house afoot, and slipped in the back way. Stout Maria, busy in the kitchen, stared at them in amazed delight.
"So you are safe! Ah, but I am glad! It is answer to my prayers."
"We're all right, Maria," Jock told her. "How is Uncle John?"
"I think his head more sore than his foot. He not like to lie up."
"And Vincent—where is he?" Ned asked quickly.
"He stay with your uncle. He very kind to him." Maria was no fool. She knew all about Vincent and liked him as little as did the boys.
"Julio's gone," Ned told Maria. "Stole our horses and everything else and left us marooned."
Maria raised her fat hands. "El maledito!" she exclaimed. "Then how you get home?"
Ned explained quickly and told her that the aeroplane would arrive soon.
The plump cook was all excitement. "Then I make feast," she declared and began bustling about.
At this moment the door of the kitchen opened and in stalked Vincent.
"Hot water, Maria," he ordered loudly; then he saw the boys, his mouth fell open and he goggled at them.
Jock stepped forward. "Surprised to see us, Vincent, aren't you?" he asked.
Vincent pulled himself together. "Why should I be surprised? Did you get the horses?"
"Yes, Vincent, we got the horses," Jock replied with a slight smile on his lips but none in his eyes.
Vincent opened his mouth to speak but checked himself.
"You were going to ask about Julio," said Jock politely.
Vincent grew angry. "Why should I ask about Julio? And what do you mean by looking at me like that?"
"Julio is your friend," said Jock. "I thought you might be anxious about him."
Vincent was certainly anxious, but more about himself than Julio. He tried to bluff it out. "I'm not taking any cheek from a kid like you," he said threateningly and came forward a step or two.
Jock did not budge an inch. "What are you going to do about it?" he asked sweetly.
Vincent looked anything but happy. This was the first time that Jock had openly defied him. He realised that he had to carry it through or take a back seat.
"Give you a good hiding," he said threateningly.
"Come on then," replied Jock.
Vincent came on. He was two years older than Jock, far heavier and stronger, but he had none of Jock's spirit and at this moment he was in a thoroughly worried state of mind.
Jock did not wait. He jumped forward and hit Vincent a crack on the jaw. Taken by surprise, Vincent staggered back and Jock, wading in, got in a second smack full on Vincent's beaky nose.
Nothing hurts worse than a heavy blow on the nose. The pain maddened Vincent. He flung his long arms round Jock, tripped him and the two went to the hard clay floor together. Jock was half stunned by the force of the fall and Vincent caught him by the throat and started to throttle him.
Maria screamed and Ned took a hand. He grasped Vincent by the collar of his coat and dragged him off Jock. And just then the back door opened and in walked Dan, followed by Frank Falcon.
"Looks like Saturday night in the Bowery," remarked Dan. "What seems to be the trouble?"
Vincent struggled to his feet. His nose was streaming, his coat was split, his hair on end. He looked not only a wreck but a fool.
"Who are you?" he demanded hoarsely.
Ned answered. "This is Mr. Falcon, and this is Mr. Doran. They helped us out when your friend, Julio Vaz, marooned us. They know all about you, Vincent, so it's no use telling them lies."
For once Vincent could find nothing to say. He turned and flung out of the kitchen.
"COME and be introduced to Uncle John," Ned said, and led the way to the front room. John Garnett was sitting in a big armchair with his damaged leg on a stool.
"What's all this infernal noise?" he began angrily as Ned came in, then he saw the strangers and pulled up short.
"These are Mr. Falcon and Mr. Doran," Ned said. "They helped us get back the horses after Julio cleared out. Jock and I asked them to stay the night. We thought you would like to see them, Uncle."
John Garnett was the most hospitable of men.
"I am glad to see you, gentlemen," he said. "As the Spaniards say, my house is yours. But I mean it and they don't—always."
"That's a fact, mister." Dan grinned. "Guess I've paid a heap of dollars for houses I was told were mine."
John Garnett chuckled. "Sit down," he said. "And I'm mighty obliged to you for helping the boys. But what was Julio doing?"
"Making tracks due west with the five horses, Uncle," Ned told him.
John Garnett stared. "Are you crazy, Ned, or didn't I hear you right?"
"You heard all right, Uncle," Ned said, and proceeded to explain exactly what had happened.
John Garnett was terribly upset. Julio had been with him for years and he had trusted the man.
"I can't believe it," he muttered.
Frank Falcon took up the story.
"It's true enough, sir," he said. Then he went on to tell how Jock had saved Dan from the puma and this pleased Jock's uncle as much as Julio's treachery had disgusted him.
"If we had had petrol we'd have gone after this horse thief, Mr. Garnett," Frank went on. "The trouble is that we are almost out of spirit and we are wondering where and when we can fill up again."
"I have none," said John Garnett. "Since we have no roads a car is no use to us. I could send a waggon to Santa Cruz, but it would be three weeks or more before it could do the double journey. But we'll talk of this later. Supper will be ready pretty soon and you'll want a wash. Jock, show our friends to their rooms."
Half an hour later the party sat down to a most delicious "puchero," which is a kind of Irish stew, piles of freshly cooked tortillas (a sort of pancake), an apple-tart served with plenty of cream, cheese, home-made biscuits and excellent coffee. Maria helped to serve the meal and smiled all over her fat face at the compliments paid her by Frank and Dan.
"Gee!" said Dan at last. "I ain't ate a meal like this since I left God's country."
Maria looked puzzled. "Does the Señor speak of Heaven?" she asked.
Frank chuckled. "His heaven is the United States, Maria. That's what Americans always call it."
Jock and Ned had been amused to see how nicely Vincent had been behaving at supper. In spite of the fact that his face was a bit lop-sided, the effect of the fight, he had been quite polite to the boys as well as to the visitors. But they noticed also that Frank and Dan, though equally polite, were not specially cordial to their host's stepson.
After supper the boys helped Maria to clear the table. To their surprise Vincent took a hand. In the kitchen he spoke to Jock.
"Sorry I got shirty," he said, "and thanks for not saying anything to Dad about it."
"That's all right, Vincent," he answered, and for the time no more was said.
When they went back into the living-room John Garnett and Frank Falcon were deep in discussion. John Garnett beckoned the boys across.
"Mr. Falcon wants to make a trip to the west, over towards Lake Argentino," he said. "He talks of renting horses from me and making the journey on horseback, while he waits for petrol for his plane. He has asked me to let you boys go with him."
Jock felt like yelling with sheer delight.
"That's jolly good of him," he said, "but can you spare us, Uncle?"
Uncle John chuckled. "Polite, aren't you? You know you and Ned are aching to go."
"Of course we are," said Ned frankly, "and I don't believe you'd have told us anything about it, Uncle, unless you'd made up your mind to let us go."
Again the big man laughed. "You're right, Ned. You and Jock did a good job, getting back those horses, and this is your reward. Now you'd better go to bed right away for you'll have a busy day to-morrow, getting things fixed up for this trip."
The brothers were only too glad to turn in after their gruelling day. They were too tired even to talk and, once in bed, neither moved until Maria roused them at seven next morning. Ned was up first and went to the window to look out.
"Another fine day. What luck!" he exclaimed. Then suddenly he thrust his head out, and looked up at the sky. "They've got the plane out!" he exclaimed. "That's funny. I thought they hadn't any petrol left." Jock joined him and Ned pointed upwards. High above a plane winged across the blue. For a moment or two both boys watched it, then a door opened below and, to their amazement, they saw Frank Falcon standing in the yard. Ned shouted at him.
"Someone's got away with your plane."
Frank looked up sharply. "Our plane. Where? What do you mean?"
"Up there," Ned answered, pointing.
Frank looked up and both boys saw his startled expression.
"But it can't be ours," he replied. "There was hardly an inch of petrol left in the tank." He paused a moment, staring at the plane which was winging rapidly south. His face cleared. "It's not ours at all. It's Max Rister."
"Who's he?" Ned demanded.
"I'll tell you at breakfast. Hurry up."
Hurry they did. In less than ten minutes the two were down. Breakfast was on the table and the rest of the party already seated. Uncle John was with them. His ankle was so much better that he could get about with two sticks.
"It was luck your spotting that plane, Ned," Frank said. "I knew that Rister was on my track but I hadn't the faintest idea where he was."
"Who is he?" Ned asked.
"My hated rival," Frank answered with a laugh. "He's trying to beat me to the oil, if there is any."
"A German?" Ned asked.
"Calls himself American but that, I think, is camouflage."
"Will he have seen your plane?" Jock asked.
"Sure to," said Frank.
"But now he will know where you are."
Frank laughed. "That's just what he won't. Before we leave we are going to hide the plane. Her wings fold and your uncle says we can get her into your big barn. The last thing that Rister will be expecting is that we should go off prospecting on horseback."
"Then Rister will be beat!" exclaimed Ned.
"I hope so. It looks to me as if he would be flying all round Patagonia, looking for a plane instead of searching for an oil- field."
"He won't get any news out of us if he comes here," said John Garnett forcibly. "But tell me, Falcon, do you expect to find a new oil-field?"
"I don't expect, Mr. Garnett, but I have hopes. Oil has already been found in Eastern Patagonia but in no great quantities. There is still plenty of unexplored land in the west. That's where we are going."
"I can't imagine how you find oil," Mr. Garnett said. "You can't carry boring tools in a plane."
Frank Falcon smiled. "You certainly can't. But oil-seekers can learn a lot from the lie of the land and the geological formation. There is coal to the west. There may be oil, too."
"I wish you luck," said the other, "but even if you do find it the land doesn't belong to you."
"That's the rub. We have to get a concession. But the Chilean Government is better to deal with than some other of these South American republics."
Breakfast was soon over and all got to work. They wanted at least a dozen saddle-horses and as many pack-animals. Then stores for the journey had to be made into packs. Luckily there was plenty of food at the ranch for, being so far from a town, John Garnett kept large quantities of such things as flour, sugar, salt and coffee in his storeroom. The plane was put away in the barn and by night everything was ready.
Next morning dawned windy and cloudy. Breakfast was at six and by seven all were ready for the start. Frank Falcon took the boys aside.
"I've got a bit of news you won't like," he told them. "Your uncle has asked me to take Vincent. I couldn't refuse, so he is coming."
"Didn't I know it?" remarked Ned grimly.
"There's no need to worry," Frank said. "I shall keep an eye on him. You may take it from me there won't be any trouble."
"All the same I'll bet there will be," Ned said to his brother as Frank hurried off. "Vincent isn't coming with us because he loves us. He'll upset our apple-cart if he gets half a chance." He stopped short as a yell came from the yard.
"Stop it, you brute. Hold your head up. I didn't ask you to dance."
"It's Dan," said Jock, as he ran, followed by Ned.
As they reached the yard they saw Dan on the back of a big black horse with a white blaze on its face. The brute was bucking savagely and Dan, no rider, but plucky as they make them, was grabbing the saddle-peak with one hand while with the other he tugged at the reins.
"It's Picaso," panted Ned as he ran. "Who let him get up on that brute?"
Ned ran straight for the pitching horse, but it whirled away from him. For an ugly moment it looked as if it would crash straight into the heavy wooden fence, in which case Dan would be badly hurt if not killed. Then Bartolo, one of the gauchos, appeared on the far side with a rope. He spun the loop which fell neatly over Picaso's head. The horse, well aware that this meant a throttling if he resisted, pulled up short and stood quietly while Dan slipped out of the saddle.
"Who told you to get on that beast?" demanded Ned.
Vincent came up.
"I'm so sorry. It was my fault. I told Doran that his horse was ready saddled, and so it is. But Picaso was nearest and he thought it was his."
Ned bit his lip. He knew very well that Vincent was lying, but what could he say?
Dan grinned. "Guess I got kind of mixed," was all he said.
THE horse chosen for Dan was Rosado, a quiet old roan. Jock had Alazan, a chestnut, and Ned his own sturdy pony, Tostado. Picaso was to be ridden by the gaucho, Bartolo, who had been told off by John Garnett to accompany the party. Picaso was what is called a "manero," a spoiled horse, but he was immensely powerful, could go all day and Bartolo could ride anything.
Presently they were all in their saddles and the boys waved good-bye to their uncle as they rode away across the wide pampas. They headed south-west, for Frank wanted to explore the wild country around Lake Argentino. So far as he knew, it had never been prospected.
It was the first time for years that Dan had been in the saddle and Falcon had not ridden much since leaving England, so they made a short day of it and camped early. After making camp the boys went out to look for game, but all they got was an armadillo. It was the first Dan had seen and he was much interested in the queer scaly beast. He was still more interested in helping to eat it, for its flesh was like chicken.
Next day they did thirty miles. The weather was good. Of course it blew, but there was no rain and it was not too cold. Dan, having got over his saddle soreness, began to enjoy it and vowed that this sort of travelling beat flying.
The boys, too, enjoyed the trip, but they would have enjoyed it a great deal more if Vincent had not been with them. Vincent was on his best behaviour. But neither Jock nor Ned had the least idea of the plan that was hatching in the mind of their uncle's stepson.
Bartolo was a very different type from Vaz, a stolid, rather stupid fellow, but a wizard with horses. The boys were not afraid of Vincent getting hold of him, for he was not the sort to take bribes.
During their journey they lived on the country. Frank Falcon, a first-class shot, killed several guanacos and deer, so they had plenty of fresh meat. Twice the boys found nests of the rhea, the South American ostrich, and the eggs made excellent omelettes. Then there were cavies, animals about the size of a hare, not bad eating, and in the vegas (swamps) they found wild duck which made a pleasant change of food.
It took three weeks to reach Lake Argentino, which is one of the wildest places in the world. It covers an area nearly as large as Buckinghamshire, and on all its hundred miles of shore there is not a house or a human being. Dan Doran pulled up on the top of the bare bluff above the lake and gazed at the grey-green water which rolled in long waves under the drive of the ever- lasting wind.
"It must be the last place God made," he said solemnly.
Ned shivered slightly. "It's certainly the loneliest." He pointed to the west where a vast bare slope ran up to a black forest of pines and above rose range upon range of hills, each higher than the last till the tops were crowned with everlasting snow.
"The Andes, Dan," he added.
Frank spoke. "We'd better camp here, Dan, and spend a few days prospecting. But if you ask me, the ground's more likely to hold gold than oil."
A river ran into the lake about a mile away and there was good grass along the banks. They camped under shelter of a high bluff close to this stream and were cooking supper when there came a distant rumbling.
"Il tremblor," muttered Bartolo looking scared.
"Earthquake, he means," Jock explained to Dan. They waited, but the sound passed and the ground did not quiver.
"It wasn't thunder," said Frank. "I wonder what caused it?"
The days were long now and they ate supper by daylight. They had just finished and were clearing up when Dan gave a startled exclamation.
"What's up with the river?" he asked, pointing at the stream. They all stared, amazed, for the river was running down as if the water had been shut off at the source. Rocks which had been hidden were showing their blunted heads above the water and in the shallows the bed was almost bare. Leaving the dishes, they all hurried down to the edge of the stream. It was still falling, and in a few minutes was reduced to a trickle.
"This is a plumb crazy country," Dan growled. He walked on to a bed of wet sand and began stirring it with his fingers.
"Good chance to see if there's any gold," he added. "Fetch me a pan, Ned. I'll wash a bit of this stuff."
Ned brought a pan and Dan filled it with sand and gravel and started spinning it. They were all standing round him when Ned heard a dull roar and looked up.
"Run!" he yelled. "Run for your lives."
A wall of water six feet high was thundering down the gorge, coming at the speed of a galloping horse, and but for Ned's timely warning some of them would have been drowned. They reached camp breathless, and as they watched the flood roll past Frank spoke.
"Glacier," he said. "I ought to have known. That rumble we heard was ice breaking off the end of a glacier high in the hills. It blocked the river until the water pounded up high enough to break the barrier."
"I guess you've got it," said Dan. "But I tell you right now I ain't hunting gold any more in that crazy stream."
They finished tidying up, and when dusk came all turned in.
Usually they all slept right through till dawn, but on this night Ned was roused by a brilliant light flashing in his eyes. He sat up and stared. The light was in the sky. A great ball of fire was rushing silently across the heavens exactly overhead.
His yell roused the others, and all jumped up in a hurry. The light was almost as brilliant as the sun. It completely extinguished the stars and its glare showed up the whole valley of the river. The river itself was a fiery flood.
Suddenly the ball burst into three pieces, which disappeared over the top of the western forest, but for a few seconds the glare still lit the sky with a lurid reflection. While the watchers still stood in silence there came a big shock like an earthquake. The solid rock beneath the camp trembled and small pieces of stone fell from the bluff. Then, some moments later, came a sound like the bursting of a great bomb at a distance. Dan was the first to speak.
"I told you this country was crazy," he muttered.
"Nothing to do with the country," said Frank briskly. "That was an aerolite, a meteor, and by far the biggest I ever saw. What's more, it fell only a few miles away. It dropped in the hills to the west."
"Can we go and look for it?" put in Ned.
"We certainly will," said Frank. "Museums pay well for meteors."
"But won't it be buried ever so deep?" Jock asked.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Frank answered. "All the same it will be worth visiting the scene of the fall. You'll see some funny effects, if I'm not mistaken."
But neither Frank Falcon nor any of the others had the least idea of what that meteor would mean to them.
THE glow in the hills to the west increased and flung a ruddy reflection against the night sky. The snow-peaks in the distance reflected the glare.
"The forest's afire," Ned said.
"Not much wonder," Frank answered. "When that big meteorite fell in Siberia thirty years ago it smashed or burnt out more than a hundred square miles of forest. Lumps of stone hitting our atmosphere at twenty miles a second are liable to get a bit heated by friction before they reach the earth."
"Where do meteors come from?" Ned asked.
Frank shrugged. "The big ones are supposed to be pieces of a planet which went bust. They say Jupiter was the culprit. Ceres and the other asteroids are bits of the broken planet and some of them are 500 miles in diameter."
Ned whistled. "If one of them hit us it would make trouble."
"But they won't. They circle the sun like planets." Frank glanced at the sky again. "There's a proper fire up there. Look at the smoke."
"It's cloud," put in Jock, and just then a vivid flash of lightning blazed across the mountains and was followed by a crashing peal of thunder.
"You're right, Jock," Frank said. "That smash-up has let loose so much heat that it's caused a thunderstorm. We'll get a dowsing pretty soon. Better get everything under cover."
They did so and had hardly finished before the rain came down in a solid sheet. It beat off the ground in foam and made a sound like a great waterfall.
"This'll put the fire out," Ned said to Falcon.
"And a good job for us," agreed the airman. "We might have had to wait a week but for this rain."
The storm lasted for nearly two hours and, when it was over, the river was coming down in thundering flood. But when the sky cleared there was no glow in the hills and no smoke either. The party got about three hours' sleep but all were up at daylight, desperately keen to visit the scene of the great fall.
Bartolo was left to look after the horses and his face showed his relief. The Indians of the pampas will not go near the mountains. They think they are "encantado" (enchanted), and Bartolo had enough Indian blood to share this superstition.
The meteor fall had frightened him badly.
They took food, rope and digging tools and, as the sun rose, all five were tramping up the valley. It was not easy going, for small torrents were still pouring down the cliffs on either side and had cut deep gullies in the wet earth.
Two miles up, the valley narrowed so that there was no space to walk between cliff and river. They had to climb the steep bluff, then found themselves on a great slope covered with coarse grass, leading up to the forest above. It was not until they came to the trees that they saw the first sign of damage. The forest looked as if a cyclone had struck it. Quite half the trees were uprooted and all lay with their tops pointing to the west.
"That was the blast of air from the fall," Frank explained. "I expect we shall have a job when we get nearer."
Ned pulled up. "What's that?" he asked, pointing. Some large animal lay dead in a hollow and as they hurried towards it they saw it was a horse. It had been killed by a large branch falling on its head.
"Rum place to find a horse!" said Jock.
Ned, who was examining the dead animal, looked up sharply. "It's the horse Julio Vaz was riding. I'd know it anywhere. And see, there's our brand on it."
Frank Falcon's eyes widened. "What would Vaz be doing up here?" he asked in surprise.
"That's what I'd like to know," Ned said.
"The horse may have got away from him and strayed up here," Jock suggested.
Ned shook his head "Not likely. Julio's the last man to lose a horse."
"Let's see if there are any signs of the other horses," Jock said. But they found nothing else. The rain had washed away all tracks and, after a thorough search, they gave it up and went on.
It was lucky they had come afoot, for no horses could possibly have got through the fallen forest. Even afoot it was hard and exhausting work; the next mile took them nearly an hour to cover. The farther they got the more trees were down. Then all of a sudden they found themselves on the rim of a deep, bowl-shaped valley and one look was enough to tell that they had reached the scene of the fall.
At the bottom were two enormous pits and on the opposite slope a third. The pits were like bomb-craters, only no bomb that man ever made could have torn such chasms in rocky soil. All around the devastation was complete. Every tree that had grown on the sides of the valley was down. They were piled like matches from an upset box. Where the slopes were steepest great landslides had fallen, leaving acres of bare rock beneath which broken trees lay in fantastic heaps.
For a while no one spoke. The scene fairly scared them. Even Vincent had gone rather pale and was evidently impressed. Dan was the first to speak.
"Looks like one of them craters on the moon must look like," he remarked. "And I guess it's going to be about as hard to get down into."
"We shall have to go very carefully," Frank told them. "There may be gas at the bottom."
"That's a fact," Dan agreed. "Say, Frank, I don't gas very easy. I'll go first at the end of a rope and you can pull me out if I get a lungful."
Without the rope they would never have got down at all and, as it was, the job was about as ugly and dangerous as it could be. The tree-trunks slid and rolled as the party tried to cross them and it was hard to find even a stump firm enough to hold the rope. When they got near the bottom Dan tied the rope round his body and went slowly forward. The rest watched anxiously but he seemed none the worse. When he got to the end he turned.
"No poison here," he told them. "You can come along quite safe."
The nearest crater was about two hundred yards away. It was just like an enormous shell-hole and was surrounded by a regular wall of broken rock flung up from the depths. Much of this was fine powder which the rain had changed to sticky mud. When they looked over the edge they saw a sheet of dark muddy water lying about twenty feet below the rim. Frank shook his head.
"We'd need a motor pump to clear that, Dan," he said.
"And where's the water to go after we've pumped it out?" asked Dan. "I guess it'll be some job to recover those sky stones."
"May as well have a look at the second hole," Frank suggested.
This second hole was nearly a quarter of a mile from the first. As they came near it Ned said to his brother:
"Do you notice anything, Jock?"
"Yes, a queer smell."
Frank and Dan had evidently noticed it, too. They were both hurrying forward. They reached the edge and peered over.
"They've spotted something," Ned said.
Frank overheard and turned. "You're right, Ned. Look down and tell me what you see."
"A worse looking lot of stuff than there was in the first hole," Ned answered. "The water's all covered with black scum."
"And what do you think that scum is?" Frank asked.
Ned looked at him and saw that his eyes were very bright. Light dawned on him.
"Oil?" he gasped.
"Yes; oil," Frank answered. "You can smell it as well as see it."
"You mean that the meteor has struck an oil well?"
"Just that, Ned, but don't get excited. It may be only a small deposit; it may be poor quality. Even if it's good it's in such a place it may not be workable."
"Ah, don't be crabbing it all," Dan said. "Let me down and I'll take a sample."
Frank had brought corked bottles and Dan took several of these and was let down into the pit at the end of the rope. He spent some time collecting samples of the oil which he skimmed from the top of the water.
"What's it like?" Ned asked eagerly after they had hauled him up.
Dan grinned. "That's more than anyone can say till we've tested it."
Ned's face fell. "Do you mean you'll have to take it back to a laboratory before you know what it's like?"
"No farther than the camp," Dan told him. "We have the stuff with us."
"Then let's go back at once," said Ned.
"Don't you want to look at the third hole?" Frank asked.
Ned glanced at the slope opposite where the third fragment of the meteorite had struck.
"It will mean the very dickens of a climb," he said. "Can't we leave it for another day? The meteorite won't run away."
Frank nodded. "No, it won't run away," he said drily. "It would probably take a gang of men a week to reach it and a steam crane to lift it. All right. Let's get back to camp."
Before starting he and Dan packed the bottles and test tubes in cotton wool. The care they used impressed the others, especially Vincent. Jock, watching Vincent, wondered what thoughts were working in his crooked mind.
All were pretty weary when at last they reached camp.
Tired as they were, Frank and Dan set to work at once on their bottles, but they worked in the tent and would not allow any of the others to watch. The boys saw that this annoyed Vincent, but he did not say anything.
Supper was just ready when Frank and Dan came out of the tent. Ned was waiting for them.
"What's the oil like?" he demanded.
"Fair," allowed Frank and that was all he would say. But Ned and Jock both had an idea that he would have said more if Vincent had not been there.
IT was still broad daylight when supper had been eaten. After they had washed up and made all tidy for the night, Frank got up and strolled down to the river. He did not ask the boys to come with him, but both were sure that he meant them to follow. They did so, but Frank did not speak until they had rounded a bend in the valley below the camp and were well out of sight of it. Then he pulled up and looked round carefully.
"It's all right," Ned told him. "Vincent didn't come. All the same I jolly well know he wanted to. He smells a rat."
"And so do you chaps," said Frank with a smile.
"We sort of thought you were pleased about something," Ned told him. "But it was really Dan's face that gave the show away."
"Dan never could keep a straight face," Frank replied. "And what do you think we did find?"
Ned shook his head. "I haven't any real notion, but I believe the oil was better than 'fair.'"
"No," said Frank. "The oil is only fair in quality, and I can't say whether it's worth drilling to see if there's a big supply. All the same we did find something and it's worth a lot more than oil. Can't you guess?"
"Not in a month," Ned answered.
"Nor I," said Jock.
"Did you ever hear of helium?" Frank asked them.
"It's a gas next lightest to hydrogen," Jock replied. "It's used for filling airships."
"Is it very valuable?" Ned asked.
"At the moment," said Frank, "it's one of the most valuable commodities in the world. You see it is what is called an inert gas. It doesn't mix with air and explode like hydrogen. And the Germans are mad for it, to fill their new Zeppelins. The only source of supply at present is from oil-wells in the south- eastern part of the United States. And the States won't sell to Germany because they believe the airships might be used for purposes of war."
"Then we mustn't let a whisper get out."
"It will be just too bad if there is any leak," Frank said. "I'm more than half sorry that you boys know anything about it, for it's putting you both in a dangerous position."
"I think it was jolly nice of you to tell us," Ned said stoutly. "You know we are with you from the word 'Go.'"
"You couldn't well have kept us out," said Jock with a smile. "Ned and I both spotted something was up."
"Yes, and I'm very much afraid that Vincent suspects something," Frank said seriously.
"But he doesn't know anything," returned Ned. "And he probably never heard of helium."
"I hope he hasn't," Frank said. "For good or ill you boys are now partners with Dan and myself, and Dan agrees that you are to have a share in the reward. Money's always useful and a bit of capital might give you chaps a good start in life. Didn't you say you wanted to go to college, Jock? You can't do that without money. And you talk of a sheep farm, Ned. That, too, means capital."
"We have to market that helium first," Ned said slily. "What are you going to do first, Frank?"
"Get back to Tres Tortillas as fast as the horses can take us. The petrol should be there by the time we arrive, and we shall fly straight to Valdivia and get our concession. Once we have that signed and sealed we can snap our fingers at Rister."
"Right!" replied Ned. "Then let's get back to camp."
They found that Vincent had already turned in and was asleep, while Dan was getting ready for bed.
It was a fine night and there was no need to crowd into the stuffy tent. Vincent was sleeping in it, but the rest arranged their sleeping-bags in the open and were soon deeply asleep.
An hour passed. By this time it was quite dark except for the stars. There was a movement in the tent. Vincent peered out. He was fully dressed. For a minute or two he stood quite still, listening to the steady breathing of the others. When he felt sure that they were all sound asleep he crept out and, moving silently as a cat, walked east along the base of the bluff.
He came to a ravine and made his way up it to the slope above. The sky was clear and the stars gave light enough to find his way. He walked some distance up the slope until he came to a clump of brush. Here he groped about until he had collected a couple of armfuls of dead wood. He made the wood into three small piles and lighted them.
There was little wind and three separate flames shot up. Vincent fed them with dry sticks. Time passed and nothing happened. Vincent grew annoyed.
"The fool! I suppose he is asleep," he muttered angrily, and as he spoke a tall shadow loomed above him and Julio Vaz said harshly:
"He is not a fool, Señor, and he is not asleep."
Vincent had the sense to apologise.
"I am sorry, Julio. I have been waiting a long time and I was getting nervous."
"And I had a long way to come," retorted the gaucho.
"You are here. That is the main thing," Vincent answered. "It was luck spotting that dead horse of yours. I knew you would be travelling in this direction, but I hardly hoped to find you. What made you clear out?"
"I had done that for which you paid me. Do you think that I was coming back to the estancia to face the Señor Garnett? I have friends in the mountains," he added significantly.
"So you told me before. Well, you know now that those brats found their way back. They are now in higher favour than ever with my stepfather."
"They are not fools," said Julio briefly. He paused, but Vincent did not speak. "Why have you signalled me?" Julio asked. "What now do you require of me? I do not work without money, Señor Vincent."
"Money," Vincent repeated. "There's more money to be made than you ever saw in your life. Those men found oil yesterday."
Julio frowned. "Oil—petroleum. But where?"
"In the hole made by that stone from the sky. It's a big find. They're very excited about it."
"But it is theirs, not ours," Julio answered. "And it would be difficult to kill them all."
Vincent shivered slightly. He was well aware that this big dark brute would cut any number of throats if he were well enough paid. He spoke quickly.
"There's no question of killing them," he said forcibly. "Listen; They do not own this oil find until they have a concession, a licence from the Government of Chile. At the same time there is another party looking for oil. They are Germans. Their chief is a man named Max Rister. He will give much money for news of this oil-field. Your job is to find him and bargain with him."
Julio frowned again. "But where is he?" he asked.
"At Santa Cruz."
"It is a great distance," Julio said, frowning.
"Barely two hundred miles. You can do it in a week."
"I should require a hundred dollars for such a journey."
"A hundred! He will give you five hundred, if you ask it." A covetous gleam showed in the eyes of Vaz.
"But this Señor Rister, he may not believe what I say."
Vincent took an envelope from his pocket and handed it to the other.
"Give him this letter and there will be no doubt. Now are you satisfied?"
"I will go," Julio answered.
"Good. And when Rister has paid you, you can go by ship up the coast to Buenos Aires. You will enjoy that, Julio. It is a fine city with all kinds of amusements."
Julio's eyes gleamed again. "I will go," he repeated and, turning, strode away into the night.
Vincent hurried back. He had taken the first step to spoke Frank Falcon's wheel, but he was not altogether satisfied. He would much prefer to have gone himself to see Rister, but that, of course, was impossible. He would have to lose any share of the oil, yet after all what did that matter, so long as he got Tres Tortillas? It was a very valuable property, and his stepfather was an old man who would not be likely to live much longer.
He crept back into camp as quietly as he had left and felt certain that none of the others had any idea that he had been away.
Next morning the horses were gathered, the packs made up, and soon after sunrise they were all on the road.
FOR two days they travelled as fast as they could press the horses without overtiring them. Vincent, aching and saddle-sore, never saw the ghost of a chance to hang up the party. He knew he had to be very careful to avoid suspicion in whatever he did, but, as the days went by, he began to feel desperate.
At this rate they would do the whole journey within the week, while he doubted if Julio could reach Santa Cruz in less than eight or nine days; and even if Julio was lucky enough to find Rister in the town, the German could not make straight for Valdivia. He would have to fly first to Lake Argentino to make sure that Julio's information was correct. Meantime Frank and Dan would get a very long start and, once they reached Valdivia and got their concession, it was all up with their rivals.
The first two days they had unusually fine weather, but on the third afternoon it began to blow and rain. Also it was bitterly cold. They were crossing swampy ground and at every step the horses sank over their fetlocks in mud. By night the poor beasts were exhausted, and next morning Bartolo told Frank that it would be better not to start before midday.
The weather cleared at breakfast-time. At least the gale was not so strong and the rain stopped. Vincent, racking his brains for some way of extending the delay, left the tent and walked alone up the bluff under which it had been pitched.
They had left the swampland behind and reached low rolling hills with large patches of thick scrub. As Vincent reached the top a gleam of watery sunshine broke through the clouds and suddenly he saw something move among the bushes on a slope about half a mile away. He dropped flat and watched, and saw a magnificent dun-coloured bull step out into an open space and start grazing.
A hissing breath escaped Vincent's lips. This was luck. It might be just what he had been looking for. Vincent had been years in Patagonia, but only once before had he set eyes on wild cattle. These creatures, descendants of Spanish stock, have been running loose for hundreds of years and are actually as wild and pretty nearly as dangerous as the forest buffalo of South Africa. Vincent knew that Falcon would be mad to get one. In any case the party badly needed fresh meat. Yes, this was a chance and he meant to make the most of it. He slipped away down the slope and hurried to the camp.
Vincent was too cunning to go straight to Frank. Instead he told Bartolo what he had seen and a gleam of excitement showed in the gaucho's dark eyes. Like all his fellows, he loved the excitement of a hunt, but even more the prospect of a joint of roast beef appealed to him. The meat of these wild cattle is better than that of domestic beef and has a flavour of venison.
"I tell the Señor Falcon," Bartolo said. "He is good shot. We have beef for dinner."
Frank looked rather surprised when Bartolo suggested cattle- shooting, but when Jock explained that these creatures were as wild as anything in the world and as difficult to approach he became keen.
"I'd better take Vincent with me," he suggested. "It's only fair since he spotted them."
Vincent politely refused the offer.
"I'm no shot," he said. "Better take Ned. He's good with a gun."
"Won't you come too, Jock?" Frank asked, but Bartolo spoke.
"Two enough, Señor," he said. "These cattle, they are frightened very easy."
"They're scary," Jock said. "Bartolo's right. Take Ned. Two's plenty."
Frank took his rifle and Ned had the double-barrel loaded with buck-shot. By Bartolo's advice they made a round so as to get downwind from the herd.
The two worked up a swampy valley until they were exactly down-wind from the slope where Vincent had spotted the bull, then set to stalk uphill, taking cover behind clumps of prickly bush. They had to crawl on hands and knees, and it took a long time to reach the brow of the little hill. Then Ned, who was leading, dropped flat on his stomach and beckoned to Frank to come alongside.
In front was a small hollow with a bad patch of bog at the bottom and beyond that a fairly steep slope covered with clumps of brushwood. Ned pointed and above one of these clumps Frank saw the head and spreading horns of the big bull. Movements among the bushes behind showed where the rest of the herd were feeding.
Frank thrilled at sight of that wonderful pair of horns, but next moment they had vanished again as the beast lowered its head to graze. There was nothing for it but to wait and hope that the bull would move forward into an open patch a few yards ahead.
Minutes dragged by with maddening slowness. The bull did not show up, and Ned was horribly afraid that he had turned and was grazing away in another direction. At intervals some of the cows became visible, but it was the bull that Frank wanted. Then quite suddenly the huge creature stepped out into the open and stood still. His head was raised and he seemed slightly suspicious.
Frank did not hurry at all. He took the most careful aim, and to Ned ages seemed to pass before at last Frank's finger tightened on the trigger.
With the flat crack of the rifle two things happened. The bull went down as if struck by lightning; the cows went off at the most amazing pace. Even the long-legged guanaco could not have travelled faster.
"Topping shot!" exclaimed Ned in delight. "That head will be worth having." He scrambled to his feet and began to run. Side by side the two crossed the valley, having to go round the bog patch, then they went quickly up the hill to the spot where the bull lay.
The steep slope hid the body from them, then as they reached the crest the first thing they saw was that the bull was no longer there.
"Look out, Frank!" Ned screamed as the bushes parted and the monster came charging at them. His head was down, his eyes gleamed red with fury, he looked as big as an elephant.
Frank sprang aside, and as he did so his left foot caught in a twisted root and down he went flat on the wet ground.
NED flung up his gun. There was no time to aim, for in a second those terrible sharp-pointed horns would be buried in Frank's body. He blazed away both barrels and at so close a range that the heavy buck-shot had a terrible effect. They stopped the mad brute's charge and brought it to its knees.
But the bull was not finished. To his horror Ned saw it scrambling up. There was no time to reload. He did the only thing possible, dropped the gun and ran down the hill.
The bull came after. Ned dared not look round. The ground was very rough and steep and he knew that, if he stumbled, that would be his finish. As he raced down the slope he could hear the monster thundering behind him.
Ned had never been in a tighter place, yet he kept his head. He realised quite clearly that his one hope was the bog patch at the bottom. It might bear his weight, at least for a few steps, but it most certainly would not bear the ponderous bull.
Running as he had never run before, he gained the bottom of the slope and saw the bog only a few yards away. A horrible pond of ink-black slime with a few tussocks of half-withered reeds showing above its quaking surface. With a mad bound he reached the first of these, felt it going and jumped to a second. He had barely reached this before he heard a thick splash behind him, and instantly he was covered with a shower of spattering mud.
He could not look round, for the tussock on which he stood was sinking. With a series of crazy bounds he managed to cross the pool of slime and fall on his face on the far side. He got up in a hurry and turned to see the bull up to his chest in the mire. Then he heard a shout and here came Bartolo running hard. He carried a rope and Jock was with him. Ned waved to them and ran back to where Frank had fallen. He met him limping down the hill.
"Are you hurt, Frank?" he asked anxiously.
"Seems to me it's I should ask that question of you, Ned. How you got away from that mad brute beats me."
Ned grinned. "Didn't you see me in the bog? It bore me but it wouldn't bear the bull."
"So that's what you did. But of course you would, Ned. You didn't lose your head as many twice your age would have done."
Ned got rather red. "Rats, Frank! It was the only thing I could do. And the bull's dead. Bartolo and Jock are hauling it out." He paused. "But you're lame as a tree. Lean on me."
"I've wrenched my knee," Frank said. "Cartilage slipped, I'm afraid."
"I can fix that for you," Ned declared, "but you'd better not walk on it. I'll go fetch the stuff."
"Jolly good of you," said Frank, but Ned was already gone. He came back from the tent with a roll of sticking-plaster and some cotton-wool. He cut two crescent-shaped pads of cotton-wool and put one under Frank's knee and the other on top just below the knee-cap. Then he wound four wide bands of sticking-plaster tightly round the injured joint and fixed them firmly with strips of binding plaster.
"Our hospital nurse at school in England showed me that tip," he said. "Now you can walk if you go carefully." And to Frank's great relief he found he could.
Meantime the others had got the bull out of the bog, skinned it, and cut out the tongue and the best of the meat. That night they feasted. The following morning was fine and they were on the road early.
Whatever Vincent thought about the failure of his plan, he was much too clever to let the rest suspect him.
There was no more rain and the rest of the journey went well, but, when they arrived at Tres Tortillas, it was a shock to find that the petrol had not yet arrived. Arnal, one of the men who had been sent to fetch it, had just turned up to say that the waggon had stuck in a bog and that he needed more horses to help to get it out. Since Frank was still lame, it was arranged that the boys and Dan should go with Arnal to bring in the waggon.
They started the following morning, leaving John Garnett, Frank Falcon and Vincent Slade at the ranch. John Garnett and Frank had much to talk about and Vincent, left to himself, wandered about restlessly. By this time Julio Vaz should have reached Santa Cruz and Vincent would have given a lot to know if he had found Rister and given him the letter.
"That's the worst of this infernal country," he muttered angrily. "No post, no telephone. You never know anything. Why, we haven't even a wireless! Once I get my money I won't stay here five minutes longer than I can help."
On the fourth night after their return he left the house and went for a walk. Suddenly a small red light showed in the distance, then a second and a third. It was the three fire signals arranged between him and Julio Vaz.
Vincent started rapidly in the direction of the blaze. He could not imagine what had brought Julio back all this way from Santa Cruz, but felt sure that the man must have important news.
Sure enough, there was Julio standing in a little hollow near the fires. The shadowy outlines of his horses could be seen as they grazed at a little distance.
"Did you find Rister?" was Vincent's first eager question.
"He was not there," Julio answered sourly. "He had left two days before, and there was no one could say where he had gone."
Vincent bit his lip. "Why didn't you stay and wait for him?" he asked sharply.
"To live at Santa Cruz a man needs money both for his own lodging and for the feed of his horses. You gave me no money."
"How could I?" Vincent retorted. "I had none with me. One doesn't carry money on a trip like that."
"But now you have money," Julio answered. "And I require pay for this long journey that I have taken at your request. You have promised me five hundred dollars."
"I never promised you anything of the sort. I said Rister would pay that much for the news about the oil find."
"But the German señor was not there, therefore it is from you that I require the money."
"Don't be a fool!" said Vincent angrily. "I haven't five hundred dollars in the world."
"How much have you got?" Julio demanded, and there was a tone in his voice that Vincent did not like at all. He realised that he was alone, far from the house, with this powerful ruffian, that he had no weapon and was at the man's mercy. A nasty chill crept down his spine, yet Vincent, to do him justice, was not altogether a coward. He resolved to bluff it out.
"I have nothing except the little pocket-money that my uncle gives me," he answered. "So it's no use asking me for money."
"Then I will ask the Señor, your stepfather," Vaz said.
"That you dare not do for you have stolen his horses. He would have you arrested."
"But I could tell the Señor Falcon. What would he think of your treachery?"
"He could not do anything," Vincent declared desperately.
Julio threw off all pretence at civility.
"You are a fool. He would tell your stepfather, who would throw you out to starve. The Señor Garnett would never forgive you."
Vincent knew it was true. He cursed himself for allowing this brute to get such a hold upon him. He realised that there was nothing for it but to bribe the man.
"I have thirty dollars," he said. "That is all. You can take it or leave it."
"Thirty dollars," repeated Julio with a sneer. "That will not pay for my time. But I will take it and you will find me more later."
"I will do my best," Vincent told him quietly, but secretly he vowed that he would somehow get rid of this blackmailer. "I will fetch the money," he added.
He went back, slipped in quietly, got the money, went out again and handed it over. Julio took it without thanks and disappeared into the night. On his way back a bright idea came to Vincent. He went straight in to his stepfather.
"Dad," he said, "I have toothache and it is driving me crazy. I must have it out. I want to go to Santa Cruz to-morrow." The old man stared at his stepson. He saw his swollen face and realised that he must be in great pain.
"Yes," he said, "there is nothing else for it. But you must not go alone. You can take Felipe with you." Vincent thanked him. He was delighted that he had got leave so easily. Now he, himself, would see Rister and fix up the whole business with him and he, not Julio, would get the money. He went out to the quarters, roused Felipe, who had gone to bed, and told him to have horses ready at sun-up next morning. Felipe, a quiet, inoffensive peon, promised that all should be ready.
Vincent was so pleased with himself that he almost forgot his pain. He was still more pleased when his stepfather gave him fifty dollars for expenses. After an early breakfast he and Felipe rode away. The distance was about a hundred and fifty miles. With six horses, two apiece for riding and two pack- animals, he hoped to do the trip in four days.
Vincent took a trail that led south of the main one. He was not anxious to meet the others returning with the petrol. As a matter of fact, he only just missed them, for they had camped barely twelve miles from the estancia and got in just after ten.
They had the petrol, a good supply, and were all glad in prospect of a rest and meal. They had hardly arrived before Bartolo came up and told Jock that he wished to speak to him privately. Jock slipped away behind an outbuilding and Bartolo joined him. There was such a serious look on Bartolo's brown face that Jock realised at once he had bad news.
"WHAT is it, Bartolo?" he asked, speaking in Spanish, for though Bartolo understood English he did not speak it well.
"It is of the Señor Vincent I have to speak," Bartolo answered, and then it came out. Bartolo, it seemed, had spotted the signal fires on the previous evening. Fires or smoke are commonly used as signals on the pampas and he at once became interested. He went out and presently spotted Vincent and crept up in the darkness near enough to recognise Julio and to hear practically all that the two had said. He gave Jock a pretty clear account of the whole conversation.
"Then," he said, "Julio he go and the Señor Vincent return to the house. I follow. It was in my mind to go straight to the master but, upon thinking it over, it seemed more wise to wait until your return."
"You have done well, Bartolo," Jock said. "Say nothing to the master. I myself will tell the Señor Falcon and he will decide what is best to do." With a nod he left the gaucho and hurried back to the house. He found Frank in his room.
"I have some bad news," Jock said. "I want Dan and Ned to hear. Do you mind calling them in?"
Frank did so at once and Jock told them all what he had heard from Bartolo. Frank was utterly shocked at the tale of Vincent's treachery, but Ned took it as a matter of course and Dan was not so upset as Frank.
"It's exactly what he would do," Ned said, "and I was a fool not to remember that Julio would very likely be hanging round near where we found his horse. However, it might be worse, for Rister doesn't know anything yet. Vincent of course has gone to Santa Cruz to find Rister but he will probably take four days to get there and we have the plane. If Frank gets off at once he will reach Valdivia in good time to get the concession, then he can snap his fingers at Vincent and the German."
"It's not so easy as that, Ned," Frank answered. "The plane needs an overhaul and that will take two days. And even if we get her in good form it's a deuce of a journey to Valdivia. It's all of seven hundred miles and we have to cross the Andes. Neither Dan nor I know anything of the country, and, though we don't mind taking chances on our own lives, this business is too big and too important to risk failure." He paused, frowning, and Dan cut in.
That night Jock was roused by a gust of wind which sounded as if it was going to take the roof off and next morning there was a full gale blowing out of the south. No plane ever built could have taken off in such weather.
There were gloomy faces at breakfast that morning but the boys did their best to be cheerful.
These spring gales often last three days but this one blew itself out in two. Yet the day on which they were at last able to get away was the fourth since Vincent had started, and all the odds were that he had already reached Santa Cruz.
Frank decided to take Jock with him. Dan and Ned were to get everything ready for the ride back to Lake Argentino, for Frank and Dan both felt that the oil-pit must be constantly guarded. If Rister jumped the claim it might be very difficult to dislodge him. But the party were not to start until Frank and Jock had returned from Santa Cruz.
There was still a strong wind when the plane took off for her trip to the coast. The machine was a Metis, a medium sized monoplane which could at a pinch carry four. She was fitted with extra petrol tanks and carried enough fuel for seven to eight hundred miles. A sound machine but not fast.
It was the first time Jock had ever been up and he enjoyed it immensely.
The head wind slowed them a good deal and it was past midday when they sighted Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is a dreary-looking place. But, since it is the only port for many miles on a coast which has hardly any harbours, it is the capital of the province and has good stores and a cable station. As they came closer Jock gave a sudden exclamation.
"A plane, Frank. I can see a plane in a field just behind the town. It must be Rister's. What are we going to do? He's almost sure to spot us."
"Of course he will spot us," Frank answered. "So will everyone in the place. I shall land in the same field. I want to see Rister and talk to him."
Jock looked rather startled, then he grinned.
"A bit of bluff. Is that the idea, Frank?"
"That's the notion," was the answer and, cutting out the engine, Frank started on a long glide towards the field. Since there were no hedges or trees landing was not difficult and Frank put his machine down within a hundred yards of the other. Already people had spotted the plane and several men and boys came running. Among them was the owner of the field who made no difficulty about allowing the plane to remain there. Since the wind was still strong Frank's first care was to anchor the plane securely.
"And you will have to stay with her, Jock," he said. He lowered his voice. "There's a blackjack in the wall-pocket behind you. Don't hesitate to use it if there's any trouble. Not that I think there will be. But I shall be away for some time."
"Don't worry. I'll take good care of her," Jock promised.
Frank distributed a few pesetas among the men who had helped to anchor the plane and was turning to start for the town when a tall man came striding across the field towards him.
"Rister," said Frank in a whisper to Jock, then as the German arrived Jock looked at him with interest. There was nothing of the Prussian about Rister. He was tall, lean, athletic. His sandy hair was cut rather short, his nose was like an eagle's beak and his eyes were pale blue, just the colour of glacier ice, Jock thought to himself.
"I am Max Rister," said the German, speaking perfect English. "You must be Captain Falcon."
"I'm Falcon," said Frank. "I take it we are rivals."
Rister smiled. "And you are the lucky one, I understand."
"Ah," said Frank, and Jock admired his perfectly cool manner. "So you have met Slade."
Rister's lip curled slightly. "I have. I take it, then, that he was telling the truth?"
Frank nodded. "He can at times," he said drily.
Rister took no offence.
"That was a curious find of yours, Falcon."
"A very curious one," Frank agreed.
"Lucky for you, finding a well ready dug, so to speak. Is the oil good?"
"Quite good quality," Frank answered, "but the quantity was small."
"It is interesting to find oil at all upon the west side of Patagonia," Rister said. "I shall have to cross over and see if I can find another hole in the ground."
"I wish you luck," Frank answered courteously, then Rister bowed and walked away.
"A German with a sense of humour!" remarked Frank to Jock as he watched Rister depart. But Jock did not smile.
"That beast, Vincent, has got ahead of us, after all," he said angrily.
"He has," Frank agreed, "but there is one comfort. Vincent knows nothing of the helium. And so long as Rister is equally ignorant I don't think we have much to fear. Rister knows perfectly well that I am here to cable for my concession. He can't get ahead of us."
"He might," said Jock. "If Vincent has described the place Rister may have cabled already for a concession." Frank shook his head.
"Vincent might describe the spot but he could not give Rister the exact location. I mean the latitude and longitude. I took the necessary observations before we left and shall send them in my cable."
"You'd better get on with it," said Jock. "I don't feel a bit happy about the business."
JOCK was snug enough in the cabin. He had some sandwiches and a thermos of hot coffee. He had also brought a book. A few people came and gazed at the plane, but then it began to drizzle and they moved off. The wind dropped and the drizzle changed to fog, which came drifting in from the sea, thicker and thicker. This worried Jock for it was quite certain that they could not fly home in such weather.
Time dragged on and still no sign of Frank. But Jock knew that a long cable in cypher takes time to write, to send and to decode. There would probably be an equally long delay at headquarters so Frank's long absence was only natural. Jock had not had much sleep the previous night; he dropped his book, laid his head back on the cushion of his seat and, before he knew it, had dozed off.
He woke suddenly and for a moment could not remember where he was. Then he realised that some sound had wakened him. Frank must be coming back and he started up. A shout was on the tip of his tongue when again he heard something outside. A slow, stealthy movement which most certainly was not the step of Frank Falcon.
Suspicion flared up in his mind and, turning quietly, he pulled the life preserver from its pocket. This was a short length of cane covered with plaited leather and having a heavily weighted head. Once more Jock heard a sound but by this time the fog was so thick outside that he could see nothing.
Jock did not know what to do. He was convinced that someone was trying to damage the plane and he was desperately inclined to jump out and tackle him. But on the other hand that might be just what the enemy expected him to do. It was on the cards that there were two or three people outside and that they were trying to tempt him out in order to seize him. Once they had him prisoner, they could do as they liked—set it afire for instance, and utterly destroy it.
He listened hard and it seemed to him that someone was cutting the fabric of the wings with a knife. This was too much. Jock reached for the handle of the door. The noise ceased and he decided to wait for another moment or two.
He saw the handle begin to turn from outside. Someone was coming in. Jock dropped back into his seat and closed his eyes. To all appearance he was asleep, but the blackjack was very firmly grasped in his right hand.
Very slowly and softly the handle turned, the door began to open and from under half-closed eyelids Jock saw a head appear. The intruder was a stranger. Jock had never seen him before. He was a pretty tough-looking specimen. He had an ugly-looking knife in his dirty fist.
Jock was quivering inwardly with excitement but managed to pretend to be still asleep. The man moved forward quietly, being careful not to make the slightest sound.
Jock waited till he was actually inside the cabin, then came suddenly alive. The surprise was complete. Before the fellow could raise his knife to strike, the blackjack got him squarely on top of the skull, and down he went flat on the floor without uttering a sound.
Jock waited. He was sure the man was not alone. He was right. Presently came a low voice.
"Carlos! Carlos! Did you get him?"
The words were Spanish but Jock had been in the country long enough to understand what was said. He kept very quiet. The man outside grew impatient. He came climbing into the plane. The fog was so thick it was quite dark inside the cabin. Again Jock waited, again he struck. But this time the man saw Jock's movement and drew back so that the blackjack, instead of striking him on the head, fell on his shoulder.
With a yell of agony the fellow stumbled backwards and fell out of the cabin door. Jock heard his body thud on the wet grass outside and was after him like a shot. The gangster scrambled to his feet and ran like a hare. In a moment he had vanished in the fog and Jock, feeling sure that pursuit was useless, returned to the plane.
Carlos lay like a log. Jock examined his head but found that the greasy black felt hat he was wearing had saved his skull. There was a lump nearly the size of a hen's egg where the blow had fallen but the bone was not cracked, and he was breathing all right. Jock found some cord and tied his prisoner firmly, then, as he was not sweet-scented, lugged him out and dumped him under the plane.
Waiting now became more trying than before. Jock longed for Frank to return. There was the chance that the man who had escaped would bring reinforcements and, if he did so, the fate of the plane was sealed and Jock's too, probably.
Another hour dragged by and nothing happened. There was no sign of Frank or of anybody else. Jock looked at his wrist-watch. It was past five. Frank had been gone for more than four hours. In another couple of hours it would be dark, and the prospect of spending the night alone in the plane filled Jock with horror.
And now he was getting really anxious about Frank. He began to think that something had happened to him. Rister had been polite, but Jock instinctively knew that the man was quite unscrupulous. He must have known perfectly well what had brought Frank to Santa Cruz and it was clear that he would do his best to prevent him from getting that concession.
An idea came into Jock's head. He would question his prisoner. He might get something out of him. Taking his blackjack, he clambered out of the plane. The fog was drifting by in waves of thick, grey vapour and it was impossible to see more than thirty yards. Even Rister's plane was hidden from sight.
Carlos's eyes were open; dark, vicious-looking eyes, but at present full of fear. Jock showed him the blackjack then, mustering up his Spanish, began to ask questions.
"Who sent you to kill me?" he demanded.
"I did not intend to kill you," Carlos answered sullenly.
"You lie," said Jock bluntly. "You had a knife in your hand. I have the knife now and it will be evidence against you when you come to trial."
"Who will bring me to trial?" Carlos sneered.
"I shall do so."
"A boy like you! Who will believe you?"
"They will believe me sooner than you. You are a bad character. You have been in prison." This was a shot in the dark but it went home.
"How know you that?" growled Carlos. "You never saw me before."
"No—thank goodness," Jock answered. "But one look at you is enough. Again I ask who sent you to attack me?"
"That I will not tell," retorted Carlos.
"Then I shall force you to speak," Jock said and raised his weapon. Carlos did not flinch.
"You English do not beat a man when he is down," he stated. Jock bit his lip. He knew that this was true and that his threat was an empty one.
"If I do not beat you Captain Falcon will find ways to make you speak. And he will be here very soon," Jock said. Carlos looked Jock straight in the face.
"The Señor Falcon will not be here," he told him. "By this time he is probably dead."
"DEAD!" Jock's face went so grim that Carlos shrank away. "What do you mean, you brute?" Carlos remained silent and Jock quickly switched his life preserver so that he held the knob in his hand. "Englishman or not, I'll take the skin off you if you do not answer," he said. He backed his threat by a cut across Carlos's legs which made the man wince. Fear showed in his beady eyes.
"Do not hit me," he gasped. "I will tell what I can."
"Be quick about it," Jock snapped. "What do you know?"
"But little, Señor. The Señor Rister has captured the Señor Falcon. I do not know that he has killed him, but it is likely. The Señor Rister does not have mercy on those who stand in his way."
"Where did Rister take him?" Jock demanded.
"That I know not," Carlos answered. "He does not tell his secrets to one like myself."
Jock knew instinctively that Carlos was telling the truth. He tried again.
"Where does Rister live?"
"He lives in the hotel, the Alcazar," was the answer.
Jock bit his lip. This did not help. Rister could not be keeping Falcon prisoner in the hotel. He asked another question.
"How do you know that the Señor Falcon is prisoner?"
"The Señor Rister told me when he ordered Sanchez and me to take you, too."
Jock tried again and again but soon was convinced that Carlos did not know anything more. He was at his wits' end what to do. If he left the plane this man, or Sanchez, or some other of Rister's hirelings might come back and destroy it; on the other hand the idea of leaving Frank at Rister's mercy was out of the question.
There was no time to think it over. The choice was between Frank and the plane and Frank won. Before he left Jock gagged Carlos.
He started away, then stopped, turned back and climbed into the plane again. From the tool locker he took a large wrench and a cold chisel. It occurred to him that, if he found Frank's prison, he might need something to open the door. Later he had cause to bless his foresight.
The fog was still thick as Jock left the field, but the wind was growing stronger and it looked as if it would turn to a gale. He had been in Santa Cruz only once and all he knew of it was the Calle San Sebastian, the main street of the place. He found his way into this, but the weather was so bad there was hardly anyone about. He did not know where to go.
His first idea had been to try the police, but it was doubtful whether there were any in the place and, if there were, they would be the usual hopeless type who do nothing but talk and are afraid to act. Then it occurred to him that his best bet would be the cable station. The people there could not be entirely fools and would at any rate be able to tell him whether Frank had been in the place. He almost bumped into a heavily built man wrapped in a huge poncho and, after apologising in his best Spanish, asked him where the cable station was.
The man lowered the cloak which was wrapped round his face.
"You're English," he said.
"And so are you!" exclaimed Jock.
"No, I am Welsh. My name is Rees."
"Mine is Burney." Jock was delighted to meet a Briton and was on the point of telling him the whole story. But there was no time. If Frank's life was to be saved he must hurry, so all he said was:
"Can you direct me to the cable station?"
"It is down by the waterfront. Go straight down the street. You can't miss it for it has a large sign in front."
"Thanks awfully," said Jock and paused a moment. "Do you live here, Mr. Rees?"
"Not in the town. I have a sheep farm three miles up the river. I call it St. David's. I shall be glad to see you there at any time."
"You're very kind," said Jock gratefully. "Now I must hurry. I have to find a friend." He hurried on and within three minutes had reached the cable station.
There were two men in charge, both Argentines, but one spoke English. Of him Jock enquired about Frank Falcon. He said definitely that no one answering Falcon's description had been in the office. Jock then enquired about Rister. The English-speaking operator knew him by sight but said he had not seen him since the previous day.
Jock went outside and stood in the street, thinking hard what was best to do. He had not the faintest idea where to start his search and the feeling that every minute wasted might be a nail in Frank's coffin drove him nearly frantic. He wished now that he had told Rees his story. He terribly needed help and advice. He did not know where to look for the police station so went back into the cable station to enquire. He was told it was at the other end of the town, and the clerk who spoke English described a short cut.
"But there are only two guardias civiles," he said, "and one is ill, so it is doubtful if there is anyone there."
Jock was near his wits' end when he went out once more into the bitter wind. The streets were deserted. Jock found the short cut and walked quickly up a narrow street which ran parallel with the harbour. The buildings seemed to be mostly warehouses.
He was half-way up this street when he saw a man come out of a door, pause a moment and lock it behind him. There was something familiar about that tall, erect figure and Jock's heart gave a sudden jump as he realised that it was Max Rister himself.
Jock's first impulse was to race after the German and crack him across the head with his life preserver. Second thoughts were wiser. If Rister had locked that door so carefully, he had reason for doing so. Frank was there. It was Frank Falcon's prison.
Instead of following Rister Jock slid into an alley-way between two buildings, and it was lucky for him that he did so, for Rister, after pocketing the key, turned and stared deliberately up and down the street. Seeing no one he went on up the street, walking at a sharp pace.
Jock waited until Rister was out of sight, then came out of his hiding-place and approached the door. Like Rister, he took a look round, but the street was empty. Then he examined the door. His heart sank, for it was a solid door which fitted well into its frame. There was no crack into which he could force his chisel. Nor were there any windows within his reach. Clearly the only hope of entry was from the back, so Jock returned to the alley and found his way round to the back of the building. He was intensely relieved to see that there was a door.
The ground was lower here and a short flight of wooden steps led up to this door, which was not as heavy as the one in front. What was more, it was fastened with a padlock which was so rusty it looked as if it had not been opened for a very long time. Again Jock glanced round, but there was no one within sight, so he forced his chisel into the staple of the padlock, gave one sharp wrench and out it came. He turned the handle but, to his dismay, the door would not open. It must, he thought, be bolted inside.
He forced his chisel in between the jamb and the lock and strained with all his might. Nothing happened. He made another effort, putting into it every ounce of his strength. With a loud crunch the entire lock broke out, coming away so suddenly that Jock almost lost his balance. This left a hole big enough for Jock to put his hand through, but he had to open it out with his wrench before he could reach down and get hold of the lower bolt.
There was no upper bolt and, to Jock's intense relief, the door opened. He went in and closed it behind him. He found himself in a large warehouse so dark and gloomy that he could see little except a part of the dirty floor.
"Frank!" he called softly. There was no answer, but he heard something stir under the far wall and groped his way across. What looked like a bundle lay there on the stone floor, but it was jerking oddly.
"Frank!" gasped Jock, and dropping on his knees pulled out his knife and set to cutting his friend loose.
FRANK had been tied most brutally. The cords were drawn so tight they were cutting into his wrists and arms, while the gag was fastened in such a way that Frank was half suffocated.
"How the mischief did you find me, Jock?" was Frank's first question as the brutal gag was withdrawn from his mouth. "That swine Rister told me you had been taken care of." Jock told him of attacking Carlos and Sanchez and of how Carlos had told him that the Señor Falcon was dead.
"I couldn't stick that, Frank; I had to leave the plane and come after you. Then I saw Rister leaving this place so I went to the back and busted in."
"By Jove, you're a pal worth having," Frank said. As he spoke he was sitting up and rubbing his numbed legs. "We must get out of this place," he went on. "Rister may be back any time, and I'm in no shape to put up a fight. Come on. I'll tell you all about things when we get outside."
"What about the cable?" Jock asked. "I know you haven't sent it. I asked at the office and they said you hadn't been there."
"For a very good reason. Rister caught me before I got there and took the cable from me."
"But he hasn't sent one either," Jock said. "They told me he had not been in the office to-day." Frank gave a short laugh.
"The cable's in cypher. He can't read it. He tried to make me translate it and, when I wouldn't, tied me up. Said I could stay there and starve until I was ready to talk."
"The pig!" growled Jock. His grip tightened on his leaded stick. "If I ever get a chance I'll hit him harder than I hit Carlos. But, Frank, can't you send it now?"
"No." Frank spoke with decision. "The first thing we have to think of is the plane. The odds are that Rister has gone back to the landing field to make sure that his men have done that job. If he gets there ahead of us he will probably put a match to my machine."
"If he does his shall go, too," Jock vowed.
The fog had almost gone when they reached the field.
"The plane's all right," Jock exclaimed in great relief as he saw it standing where he had left it. "I wonder if Carlos is still there."
Frank caught the boy by the arm. "Steady, old man! There's someone there. He's under the plane. It may be Rister. Give me your wrench."
"Whoever he is, he's cutting Carlos loose," Jock whispered. "Let's rush him, Frank."
"Yes, it's our best chance. But if it's Rister look out for his pistol. He will shoot."
Jock nodded and the two ran hard. Their feet made little sound on the wet turf. The man who was bending over Carlos did not hear them until Frank and Jock were almost on him. Then he sprang out to meet them, with an ugly knife in his hand. He was not Rister, but Sanchez.
Frank did not hesitate. With all his force he flung the heavy wrench at the gangster. It caught the man in the chest and knocked him backwards. Before he could recover they were both on him. Frank wrenched the knife away from him and they tied him with his own scarf and braces. Frank stood up.
"The plane's all right, Jock," he said. "I was terribly afraid Rister would have got here first and done it in."
"What about his?" asked Jock eagerly. "Let's put a match to it. A man like that doesn't deserve any mercy."
"I agree," said Frank, "but we won't burn it. For one thing the blaze would bring half the town here, for another I couldn't bring myself to destroy a beautiful machine like that. But give me about three minutes and I'll lay Rister won't fly again very soon." He clambered into his own plane, collected some tools, and he and Jock hurried across to the other machine, which was a powerful biplane. Frank gave Jock a pair of pliers.
"Cut the flying wires," he ordered. He himself jumped into the cabin and got busy. Presently petrol came pouring out. Frank sprang out.
"All finished," he told Jock. "I've ripped out the petrol pipe. It is certain that Rister can't get new stuff here and will have to send to Buenos Aires for a fresh pipe and wires. He won't fly for a month. Now come on. If he turns up and finds what we've been doing he will start shooting." They ran back to their own plane.
Frank climbed in and directed Jock to swing the prop. In a moment she caught. Frank let her run for a few moments, then signed to Jock to get in.
"Quick!" came a shout from Frank. "Someone's coming. I believe it's Rister. Yes, it is." Jock sprang into the cabin, Frank revved up the engine and the machine taxied across the field and drove away into the wind. Above the roar of the exhaust Jock heard a series of sharp pops and a bullet clanged on the fuselage and ricocheted viciously off.
"Told you he'd shoot," shouted Frank, then the plane was in the air and the danger left behind. Jock quickly adjusted the 'phones.
"Where are you going?" he asked Frank. "Straight back to the ranch?"
"No. I haven't sent my cable yet. I'm putting her down in some sheltered spot, if I can find one, then going back afoot. That message has to be sent."
"You'll have a job to find any place where you can put her down safely in this wind," Jock answered. "But if you go up the river three miles there's a farm called St. David's run by Rees, a Welshman, who will put us up for the night. See, there it is." He pointed to a solid-looking building standing in a hollow half a mile back from the broad river.
Frank gave him an astonished glance.
"I can't imagine how you know anything about it, but I'll take your word. Any port in a storm and, if I'm not mistaken, it's going to blow like blazes before night."
It took a first-class pilot to handle the machine in the gusts that were already screaming up from the sea, but Frank Falcon had few superiors in the art of handling a plane and he managed to put his plane down safely under lee of a range of out-buildings which broke the force of the wind.
Even so they dared not leave her until they had anchored her firmly, for which purpose Frank carried the necessary stays and pegs, and they were busy on the job when Rees himself, with two peons, came out.
"Good evening, Mr. Rees," Jock said. "I hope you won't think it cheek, but I've accepted your kind invitation sooner than I expected. This is my friend, Captain Falcon."
"I am glad to see you," said the sturdy Welshman, showing no sign of surprise. "Do not trouble about the plane. My men will see to pegging her down."
"I'll be glad of their help," Frank said, "but I must see the job finished myself. I dare not take chances, for everything depends on my machine, and the weather will be bad to-night."
When the plane was safe Rees led the way into the house. A good fire was burning in the sitting-room and the place was very comfortable. Jock turned to Falcon.
"Frank, I'm going to tell Mr. Rees all about it. Do you mind?"
"Not a bit," said Frank, who had already sized up the Welshman as a dependable person. So the three sat round the fire and Jock told their host the whole story. The only thing he omitted was the mention of helium. He merely said that they had found oil in the meteor crater. Rees listened in a silence which proved how deeply interested he was. When Jock had finished he nodded.
"I have heard of this Rister," he said. "He is a hard man. It was wise indeed of you to come here and I will be glad to help you. So far I think you have done well and it is good news that you have disabled your enemy's plane. But Captain Falcon has not yet sent his cable to Buenos Aires. That I take it was the main object of your visit."
"It is, Mr. Rees," said Frank. "Somehow it must be sent."
"But that is simple," said Rees. "You shall stay here to-night and I will myself send it to-morrow."
"That's uncommonly kind of you," said Frank warmly. "The trouble is that I have to send it in cypher and I am sworn not to allow anyone—even Jock here—to handle this cypher. So you see I have to do it, myself."
Rees frowned. "I do not see how you can possibly go again into Santa Cruz. This Rister has his spies everywhere and he doesn't seem to be troubled with scruples."
Frank chuckled. "Scruples isn't a word Rister has ever heard of, Mr. Rees. I know as well as you the risks I run. But if I waited till after dark and then walked back I think I should be all right. Rister, you see, saw us flying off, and no doubt thinks we're a hundred miles away by this time."
Rees shook his head. "I don't think it. This is no flying weather and it's nearly dark," he said shrewdly. "Besides, Rister knows you haven't yet sent your message."
Frank looked troubled.
"You may be right, but he can't suspect we're here."
"No," said Rees thoughtfully. "My notion is that he will think you have gone down the coast to San Antonio. It's only a village, but you could get shelter there."
"How far is it?" Frank asked.
"A matter of twenty miles," Rees told him.
Frank's face cleared.
"In that case he certainly won't expect me back." He got up. "I'll go along now."
"Then I'll come, too," said Jock.
Frank shook his head. "Jock," he said quietly, "that message has to be sent, and one can move where two can't. If you were with me we should be much more likely to be spotted. You must be reasonable and let me go alone."
Rees cut in. "By the time you get back to the town the office will be closed, Captain Falcon. You do not catch these Spaniards losing their sleep. So you may just as well make up your mind to a quiet night in bed. You look as if you needed it," he added drily.
"When do they open, Mr. Rees?" asked Frank.
"About eight in the morning."
"I shall be there then," Frank said, "but it will be much more risky work in daylight."
REES spoke again in his quiet way.
"There need not be much risk about it, Captain Falcon. Not if you go in disguise."
"Disguise," repeated Frank. "I never thought of that. But it's a sound idea. What sort of disguise would you suggest?"
"The obvious one. Get yourself up as a peon. You are dark, and with a little stain on your face and hands, and wearing the clothes of one of my men, I'm very sure that Rister would not recognise you."
"It's a first-class notion," Jock declared.
"Have you anything in the way of stain, Mr. Rees?"
"As it happens, I have. My son, who is in business in Buenos Aires, is keen on theatricals. Some of his properties are here, and I'm sure there is some walnut stain among them. I could probably fix you up with a wig, too, if you wanted it. We'll see to it after supper. Supper will be ready in a few minutes, so if you'd like to wash first, there's just time."
Supper was an excellent meal, as good as at the Tres Tortillas, and Frank and Jock were hungry enough to enjoy it thoroughly. Afterwards Rees got the stain and the other properties from his son's room, and before he went to bed Frank's face, hands and arms, were as dark as those of any Spaniard. Rees found him a complete suit of gaucho clothing and Frank tried it on. With a poncho over it, the big cloak which all the gauchos wear, Frank looked exactly like one of the hands on the place. Jock was delighted.
"Now I don't mind you going alone," he said. "If I'd met you in that rig in Santa Cruz, even I wouldn't have recognised you."
The two turned in early, slept like the dead and woke to another wet and windy day. But the worst of the gale had blown itself out in the night.
Frank had been intending to walk to the town, but Rees would have none of it. He said a gaucho never walked, so had a horse ready. What was more, he told Frank where he could stable the horse in safety and where he could get a meal at midday without going near the hotel.
It was just after half-past seven when Frank rode off and Jock, watching him, felt certain that no one would recognise him.
"And he speaks good Spanish, too," he told Rees.
Frank himself felt fairly confident as he rode into the town. He smiled a little as he passed the field where Rister's plane lay. By this time Rister must know all about the damage and be raging inwardly. Frank put Ms horse up and walked quietly down to the cable station. He had re-written his message the previous night and had it ready in his pocket.
As he neared the station he saw someone ahead of him, entering the building, and got a bit of a shock as he recognised Rister. Then he remembered that this was quite natural, for Rister would be cabling for replacements for the plane. He himself passed straight on and waited under cover until Rister came out. Rister went back up the street, but it was not until he was out of sight that Frank entered the cable station.
The English-speaking clerk took the cable and looked surprised at its length. He was also clearly interested in a message of such length being sent by a man who looked like a gaucho. He explained to Frank that it would take some time to send and would cost a large sum of money. Frank asked the man politely to send it as quickly as possible and to tell him exactly what it would cost.
The man made out the bill, Frank paid it, saw the clerk start tapping out the message and left the office. He went straight to the place of which Rees had spoken and found it to be a posada, a rough sort of inn used by gauchos and peons. He ordered a bottle of wine, got hold of a Spanish newspaper, and took a seat near a window from which he could watch the street. He knew that he had a long wait before he could hope for a reply to his message.
Part of the time he spent in writing a letter to Mr. Wilmott, President of his Company, explaining matters more fully than was possible in the cable.
At midday he got a meal; simple food but quite eatable. Afterwards he walked up to the flying field. There was Rister, with another man, busy on the plane. Frank chuckled softly. He felt very sure that his rival could not repair the damage until he got new parts.
Frank was careful not to show himself and presently strolled back to the posada. At four he visited the cable office.
Within a few minutes the clerk handed him the message. Frank thanked him, pocketed it and went back to his posada where he found a quiet corner and proceeded to decode his cable. In it his chief told him that a special messenger had already started for Valparaiso to negotiate for the concession. Frank himself was to return to the site of the find and to hold the place at all risks against all comers. As soon as possible the necessary machinery would be sent for boring and testing. Above all not a word was to be allowed to leak out.
This last order made Frank unhappy. Vincent had already given the show away to Rister, but the worst of it was that Rister still had in his possession the copy of Frank's first cable. Sooner or later he would get that cable decoded and then he would know about the helium.
Frank sat still, wondering if there were any possible means of getting the cable back from Rister. He was ready to take big risks in order to do so, but did not see any possible way of doing it unless he could get into Rister's room while he was out. He sat up straight. Why not? If Rister was still at the airfield there might be a chance of getting into his room at the hotel. Anyhow it was worth trying.
First, he carefully burnt both the cable he had received and his translation, then he went out and started up the street. It was later than he had thought, the wind had dropped and it had turned foggy again. There was not much daylight left. It took him only a few minutes to reach the Alcazar, which was a square, ugly building standing back from the street. In the yard—you could not call it a garden—were a few shrubs, a rarity in this wind-swept country.
Frank hesitated. His idea had been to go in and ask for some imaginary person, then take his chance of slipping upstairs to Rister's room. But suppose that Rister was already in, suppose he was in the hall, then the fat would be in the fire. At that very moment he heard footfalls up the street, sharp, steady steps. Instantly he stepped into the yard and took up a position behind one of the shrubs. He had hardly done so before Rister himself came through the gate.
Frank had already noticed that the hotel door was closed. There was no one else in sight but Rister. This was his chance and he must take it.
He slipped off his heavy poncho, then as Rister came past, almost within arm's length of the spot where he stood, Frank sprang forward, at the same time flinging the cloak over Rister's head. His arms went round the man, he kicked his legs from under him, bringing him down with a thud that knocked the breath from his tall body.
"Move and you die!" Frank threatened in Spanish. Rister could not see him because the cloak covered his head and Frank hoped the German would take him for a native robber.
He flung himself on Rister, ripped open the mackintosh he was wearing, then Rister, recovering himself, struck out furiously. Frank caught him by the throat and throttled him into submission. He thrust his hand into the breast pocket, found a quantity of papers, took them, sprang to his feet and, snatching up his poncho, was away in the fog before Rister could get his breath or scramble to his feet.
Turning into a side alley, Frank walked quickly down to the stable. All he wanted now was to get his horse and be off to Rees's place.
He paid the stableman and was in the act of saddling his horse when someone came into the place. By the light of an oil lantern hung from the roof Frank saw that the newcomer was Vincent Slade.
"SO it's you, Slade," said Frank as he turned and faced Vincent. Vincent stared. For the moment he did not recognise Frank in his gaucho disguise.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "And how do you know who I am?"
Frank smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile.
"I hear you didn't get as much as you expected out of Rister," he remarked.
Vincent wilted. He almost collapsed.
"Falcon!" he gasped.
"Nobody else," said Frank. "And I am glad of the opportunity of telling you that your plans went astray."
"I—I don't know what you are talking about," Vincent answered. He was making a great effort to pull himself together.
"Don't lie!" said Frank quietly. "When I tell you that I had a talk with Rister you will realise how silly it is."
"Rister's a swine," Vincent snapped out suddenly.
"That's no news to me, though perhaps brute would be a better word. I'd keep the other for myself if I were you, Slade."
Vincent reddened. For a moment he looked as if he would resent the insult. He was quite as tall as Frank, and heavier. Frank watched him warily.
"So you're not quite a coward, Slade," he said. "Come on, if you feel like it. I've been longing to give you a lesson ever since I first learned of your treachery. And it looks to me as if you would get another from Julio."
Vincent nearly collapsed again.
"Julio—so it was he gave me away."
Frank shook his head. "No, but your secret talk with him the other night was overheard."
"Then—then Dad knows?" Vincent got out.
"Actually he does not. But we did not keep quiet for your sake, Slade. It was for his. So you see we have a rod in pickle for you. Whether we tell him or not will depend entirely on your conduct from now on."
Once more Vincent showed signs of collapse. If his stepfather was told of what he had done it was ruin—the finish.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked at last.
"In the first place," said Frank coldly, "you will come back with me in my plane; in the second you will give your word to have no further communication with Rister; in the third you will stay at the estancia and try to help your stepfather."
Vincent had never expected to get off so cheaply but was too cunning to jump at Frank's offer.
"All right," he said at last. "I'll do as you say."
Frank, for his part, was too wise to tell him that he had no choice.
"Very well," he said, "saddle your horse and come with me. And be careful to keep just in front of me. I have had a run-in with Rister this evening and he is searching for me."
Vincent looked anything but happy, yet obeyed.
Frank rode straight up the main street. He reckoned that Rister and his men would be scouring the side streets. The last thing they would expect was that Rister's assailant would ride out openly. Having Vincent with him was something of a risk, for Rister knew Vincent. But on the other hand Frank thought it likely that, if Rister did see them, he would take Vincent's follower for his gaucho and pay no special attention. Another point in his favour was that it was now getting dark.
He and Vincent rode past the hotel without seeing any sign of Rister or his men. They had turned up the rough road leading west to Rees's place when two men on horseback suddenly barred the way. There was just light enough to see that they were both natives and Frank recognised one as his old friend, Carlos.
He did not hesitate an instant, and, swinging the life preserver which he had carried with him all day, he spurred his beast and rode straight at Carlos. Carlos tried to draw his knife, but Frank was too quick for him. The life preserver caught Carlos on the head and he went out of his saddle as if he had been shot. The other gaucho's horse was so startled at Frank's rush that it shied. Another moment and Frank and Vincent were past and galloping hard along the road. They did not check until they reached the farm. Jock was waiting to meet them.
"I say, I am glad to see you!" he exclaimed. "I've been worried." Then he saw Vincent and stopped short.
"Where did you find him?" he asked sharply.
"Don't ask questions," Frank said. "Two of Rister's men tried to hold us up. One may have followed. He mustn't know we're here. Put the horses away and let's get inside."
Two peons came out and took the horses. Frank, Jock and Vincent went into the house and, while Jock kept an eye on Vincent, Frank told his host exactly what had happened.
"I'm sorry about this," he said. "I don't want to get you into trouble with Rister, Mr. Rees."
The Welshman laughed. "Don't worry yourself on that score, Captain Falcon. Rister can't hurt me even if he wants to. I've lived here for years and am on good terms with the authorities. In any case I have plenty of men on the place in case Rister did start anything. I congratulate you on getting your cable away in safety, and especially on taking the copy from Rister. I think you have done very well indeed. What are your intentions regarding Slade?"
"I'm taking him back in the plane. I don't want him to get into Rister's hands. Rister might use him as guide to the oil valley."
The other nodded. "A good idea. Then you will be flying back in the morning."
"At dawn," Frank told him. "And then straight to Lake Argentino. I have orders to watch our claim."
The Welshman smiled. "You seem to be on top of Rister. Now come to supper. You have had a long day and you must want food."
Next morning was dull but with less wind. Frank and Jock were really sorry to say good-bye to their kind host and both promised to come and see him again at the first opportunity. Before starting they looked round for any sign of Rister or his men but saw none, then they were off and, with a following wind, did the hop to Tres Tortillas in two hours. Just as they came within sight of the estancia Frank spoke to Vincent.
"Remember your promise," he said curtly. "If you don't keep it you know what will happen."
Vincent bit his lip. "I'll remember," he answered sullenly.
Everyone was out to meet them. John Garnett, himself, walking with only one stick, Dan and Ned, a number of peons, and fat Maria with a beaming smile on her plump face.
"Yes, it's all right so far," Frank said in answer to the questions showered upon him. "But first let's put the plane away. Then we'll tell you about it."
They housed the plane most carefully, for everything depended on the machine, then went into the house. Maria waddled off to the kitchen to see about dinner, and the rest, except Vincent, went into the sitting-room. Vincent said to his stepfather that he had a headache and was going to lie down. Frank told all that had happened and Dan chuckled joyfully when he heard how Rister's plane had been disabled.
"But you'd ought to have burned it," he said. "Rister deserved it—no less."
"We'd have had the whole town on top of us," Frank answered. "Besides, I'd hate to burn a plane. Anyhow, the machine is out of commission for at least a fortnight, and long before then we'll be all settled at the valley."
"Don't ye be too sure," Dan said. "What's to hinder Rister from cabling for another plane?"
"He could do that, of course," Frank said, "but what good would it do him? We have the concession or will have it in a few days, and once that is signed and sealed Rister can't do a thing."
Dan was still doubtful.
"If Rister gets half a hint about that helium he'd butcher the lot of us rather than lose it."
"Probably he would," Frank agreed, "but unless he managed to decode that cypher he knows nothing of the helium and I'm willing to bet that he did not decode it before I took it from him. You can take it from me that Rister won't run big risks simply for a very doubtful oil find. That country round Argentino is so remote that it will cost an appalling lot of money to get boring plant to the scene. In fact, I don't see how it's going to be done unless everything is brought by air. There isn't a road or a railroad within two hundred miles of the place."
"What are your plans, Falcon?" John Garnett asked.
"To fly to the valley as quickly as I can and stay there until my company can send boring plant. Those are my orders from Mr. Wilmott."
John Garnett frowned.
"Just you and Doran?" he questioned.
"I'd like to take the boys if you'll let them go, sir."
"I have no objection to their going, for I know you will look after them, but you have to think of food. If you have four people in your plane you can't carry food as well."
"That's true," Frank agreed. "My idea is to make several trips. Now that we have plenty of petrol I can do that. Supposing I take two passengers and a small amount of food the first trip, then I have only one to carry next time, while, if I come back a third time I can take a full load of stores."
"Looks as if I should have to send waggons to the coast again," said John Garnett.
"I wish you would, sir," Frank agreed. "My boss told me not to spare money," he added with a twinkle in his eyes. Then Maria came to say dinner was ready. As they went out to have a wash before the meal Dan got Jock aside.
"Frank's mighty well pleased with himself," he said. "And I'll allow you and he did some right good work. But mark my words. We ain't out of trouble yet. Even if he don't know of the helium Rister'll try to get back on us some way."
WITH Frank Falcon at the controls and Dan and Jock as passengers, the plane flashed above the desolate pampas, covering in three hours the journey that had taken ten days of hard riding. For once the day was really fine and, even at 3,000 feet, the wind was not too strong. Jock pointed.
"There's the lake."
"And there are the mountains," added Dan. "Gee, but that's a fearsome looking country."
Dan was right. From the height at which they were flying they got an entirely new view of the terrifying tangle of ranges which reached endlessly to the west, ridge after ridge rising to vast peaks covered with everlasting snow. Immense glaciers like frozen rivers wound down the valleys. One actually overhung the western end of the lake, and icebergs, broken from it, floated in the cold, greenish water. The sun shining on these made them sparkle like diamonds. To the north circular Lake Pearson was just visible and immediately in front rose the towering crest of Mount Agassiz more than 10,000 feet high, its ice slopes glittering in the bright light.
Frank carried on across the end of the lake. It had been agreed that they should have a look at the oil bowl before coming down in the river valley where they had camped during their first visit. This was the nearest place where they could leave the plane in safety, because it was sheltered from the wind. No plane, however carefully moored, would last long on the open slopes below the forest. The gales would rip it to pieces.
Roaring through the clear sky, the plane was soon over the slopes, and the broken devastated forest lay beneath her. A moment later and the valley was in view. Frank circled, cutting out the engine and allowing the machine to glide downwards.
There was the deep bowl, there were the great meteor craters and there—Jock could hardly believe his eyes—there were four men busy around the central pit. He and Dan saw them look up and were near enough to make sure that three were white men and one darker-skinned. But the distance was still too great to recognise faces. Not that Jock had the faintest doubt as to who they were.
"Rister!" he gasped. "Rister has beaten us to it."
Frank glanced down and he, too, saw the men. A look of utter astonishment crossed his face; then, recovering himself, he set to circling lower.
It was risky work, for warm air, rushing up the slope, made the plane bump badly. But Frank hung on, circling until his machine was no more than five hundred feet above the bowl. Dan and Jock were hanging out of the windows, staring down at the intruders and suddenly Dan drew back.
"Rister ain't one of 'em," he told Frank. "And I never seen any of the others afore. Three of 'em looks like Britishers." Then Jock withdrew his head.
"Dan's right. They're not Rister's crowd," he cried.
"Then who the deuce are they?" demanded Frank.
"Don't reckon we can tell till we've talked to 'em," Dan said. "Guess you better put her down by the river, Frank. Then we'll walk along and pay 'em a call."
Frank made a good landing on the firm turf under the bluff of the river valley and Jock wanted to start at once for the Bowl, as they called the deep valley where they had found the oil. But Frank insisted on the plane being properly secured before they left it and declared that one of them must stay by it.
"Those people may be friends of Rister or they may represent some other oil company," he said. "They've seen the plane and will be on the look-out. We can't possibly leave her unguarded."
"All right," said Jock, "I'll stay."
Frank looked at him very kindly.
"That's just what I expected you to say, Jock, but I'm leaving Dan in charge. After all, a man is better than a boy in case of trouble."
"But you might need Dan if you have any fuss with these people," Jock objected.
"Then Dan will be more competent to pull us out of it," said Frank with a smile.
"You be careful," Dan warned his partner. "Keep your gun ready. Shoot first and talk after. That's my motto."
"There won't be any shooting," Frank assured him. "Whoever these people are, they can't do any harm or good. By this time our man is probably in Valparaiso and, once we have the concession, other companies don't count."
"Well, watch yourself," was Dan's advice as Frank and Jock left and scrambled up the bluff.
"I can't think they're any of Rister's people," Jock said, as he and Frank hurried across the great grass slope. "Even if Rister has cabled for another plane it couldn't have arrived at Santa Cruz till to-day. And if it had made a night journey and come across this morning he would have been in it."
"I don't much think it can be Rister," Frank agreed, "but I'll allow it's a shock to find someone ahead of us. Well, we shall soon know."
As before, it was tough work scrambling through the fallen forest, but they knew their way and it was not long before they stood on the rim of the Bowl. The first thing they spotted was a clearing opposite and a tent neatly rigged. Looking down, they saw one man only near the crater. Frank took out his glasses and focused them. He looked carefully at the man below, then handed them to Jock. Jock had a look and, as he lowered the glasses he was smiling.
"That chap has nothing to do with Rister. He's English," he said. "I say, Frank, of whom does he remind you?"
"Someone I've seen a picture of," replied Frank, frowning, "but for the life of me I can't remember who."
"Why—Professor Challenger," Jock told him. "Don't you remember? The chap who got mixed up with the King of the Apes in Conan Doyle's Lost World."
Frank chuckled. "That's it. Whiskers and all. Only he's not so big. Well, I hope he hasn't got such a bad temper as his counterpart. I'm going to hail him."
Frank stepped out of cover and shouted. The bearded man looked up.
"Who are you?" he bellowed in a voice that would not have disgraced a bull.
"Frank Falcon and Jock Burney—at your service, sir."
"English?" came a roar.
"Both," Frank answered.
"You'd better be. I don't want any Argentines nosing around. Come down and let's have a look at you."
Frank winked at Jock.
"Right you are," he shouted, and they started down. The bearded man came to meet them. He was not really short, but his chest was so immense it almost dwarfed him. He had a square curly black beard and his hair, too, was black and curly. He gazed at his visitors with eyes that were blue and extremely sharp.
"And where do you come from?" he demanded. He was not shouting now, but his great voice rumbled in his deep chest.
"We left Santa Cruz yesterday, sir," said Frank mildly, "and spent the night at Tres Tortillas, the home of my young friend here. You know our names. May I have the pleasure of knowing yours."
"I am Elliston Carne," replied the other in a tone which seemed to imply that Frank ought to have known without asking.
Now Frank did know. Elliston Carne was a geologist with a big reputation in every English-speaking country. Frank had heard that he was respected for his learning but hated because he rode rough-shod over everybody else. "But he's not going to stamp on me," Frank thought to himself.
"I've heard of you," he said. "And what brings you to this lonely spot?"
"Science," said Professor Carne, drawing himself up. "Though you may not be aware of the fact, a strange phenomenon has occurred here. A meteorite of unusual size has fallen in this valley. Those three craters were made by the fragments of this celestial visitant. I am now engaged in the extraction of one of the fragments."
"You'll have a job," Frank said. "Two craters are full of water. The third—that one up the bank—is the only one that gives you any chance, and I think you'll need a gang of men as well as machinery to get the fragment out."
"You seem to know a deal about it," said Carne, frowning.
"As a matter of fact I do. I was camped only half a dozen miles away when the meteorite fell." Carne's eyes widened.
"What extraordinary good fortune! I shall be obliged if you will give me some account of the phenomena accompanying the fall to embody in my report to the Royal Society."
"Certainly. But I ought to tell you that I have already posted a report to the Smithsonian at Washington. Also that I have claimed this property for my company and have sent a messenger to Valparaiso to confirm the concession."
Carne glared. His very beard seemed to bristle. "Your company! What do you mean? What is this precious company that collects meteorites?"
"Actually it collects oil, Professor Carne," Frank answered. "You have no doubt noticed that there is oil in one of these pits."
"Oil! Of course I have noticed it. But if you imagine for one moment that I am going to permit that filthy stuff to interfere with my recovery of this meteorite, let me tell you that you are entirely mistaken, Mr. Falcon."
FRANK badly wanted to laugh, yet not the trace of a smile showed on his face. He wished to keep on good terms with Carne and realised that the professor had little sense of humour. So he spoke mildly yet firmly.
"My monuments are already erected around this valley, Professor Carne, and as I have told you, the whole valley is practically the property of my company. But I feel sure that my chief, Mr. Wilmott, would have no objection to your scientific researches. He has left me in temporary control and I shall take it on myself to give you permission to excavate for the third fragment of the meteorite." He paused a moment and saw that Carne was simmering down, then went on again.
"All the same, I have to warn you that there may be trouble. A German named Rister has heard of my oil discovery here. He is not a scrupulous person and he will do his best to grab it."
"A German—bah!" exclaimed Carne scornfully. "What can he do?"
"Quite a lot if he gets here," Frank answered. "He might shoot us all."
"Shoot us!" boomed Carne. "Commit murder for the sake of a possible oil-well. You must be mad to suggest such a thing, Mr. Falcon." Frank kept a grave face.
"There are no police within some hundreds of miles, Professor Carne. Law does not run here. I know Rister. I have been in his hands and was left tied up to starve because I refused to give him certain information. If Burney had not come to my help I should not be here now. That was in Santa Cruz. If Rister does that sort of thing in a town, what do you think he would do here?"
Carne's thick eyebrows drew down in a scowl. "If this fellow tries any tricks of that sort here we shall teach him a lesson. I have firearms and I and my two men from the yacht know how to use them. Are you armed, Mr. Falcon?"
"We have rifles," Frank told him, "and to-morrow I am fetching the fourth of our party. I think, between us, we shall be a match for Rister. Now may I ask a question, Professor Carne?"
"Yes. What is it?"
"How are you off for provisions?"
Carne frowned. "Not too well," he admitted. "We carried heavy packs, but the journey across the mountains from my yacht, the Darwin, took longer than I expected, and I have stores for only a week. We had expected to live on the country, but have seen little game."
"The game is mostly over to the west," Frank told him. "There are guanacos, wild cattle and plenty of duck. To-morrow, with only one passenger, I can bring a good weight of stores and, if necessary, I will make a third trip for flour, sugar, coffee and groceries. With what we can shoot, we shall do well enough and, if you help us to guard this place, it is only fair that we should feed you."
For the first time since they had started to talk Carne thawed.
"That is kind of you, Mr. Falcon," he said. "It will be well then to join forces, and for your party to camp beside mine."
Frank was pleased. This was what he had hoped for. The extra men would make all the difference if there was an attack by Rister, and Carne and his two yacht-hands would be lusty fighters. Carne's fourth man was a Chilean whom Carne had hired as guide. His name was Eusebio and he, too, looked useful.
Carne took them to his tent and gave them tea, which was welcome after their hard tramp. He told them that he had been cruising through the Straits of Magellan when he had seen the big meteor and had made up his mind to find where it had fallen. At present the ship was lying in Cam Largo Inlet, not more than fifty miles away as a plane flies, but a terrible journey over the mountains. He boomed away in his big voice, but what he said was interesting and both Frank and Jock began to like him. Before the two left Frank gave Carne a word of warning.
"If Rister comes it will be by plane and he will spot your tent at once. If I may suggest it I would camouflage it with green branches." Carne agreed, then he made a rather startling statement.
"We may have other enemies besides this Rister. The Indians won't like our camping here."
"Why not?" Frank asked in surprise.
"They have some sort of tabu here. Eusebio told me of it, but he isn't very clear. I take it that the fall of the meteorite has made it sacred."
"One of our men said that Indians avoided these hills," Frank said.
"The Guanches do, but there are Yaghans. We shall have to watch them."
Frank agreed, and presently it was arranged that Jock and Dan should go to find game next day, while Frank flew back to Tres Tortillas to fetch Ned and stores.
"He's ever so much better than I thought," Jock said to Frank as they walked down the hillside. "And did you see how devoted to him his men were?"
"I didn't miss that," Frank answered. "Yes, Carne is a big man in more senses than one, and I am thankful we got on the right side of him. I thought he'd blow up when I told him that we owned the land."
"I hope we do," said Jock thoughtfully. "I suppose Rister couldn't stop the man Mr. Wilmott sent to Valparaiso?"
"But Rister doesn't know anyone has been sent," Frank objected.
"He'd guess," said Jock.
"He might, but I don't think there is much risk, Jock. The great thing is that he doesn't know about the helium. I don't believe he would take big chances over an oil find in a place so hard to reach as this is. Indeed, I'm hoping we have seen the last of Master Rister."
"I hope you're right," Jock answered, but he spoke in a doubtful voice.
Dan was tremendously interested to hear about Carne. Dan was a surprising person, for it seemed he had read a book of Carne's about geology and had long been keen to meet him.
"You'll meet him to-morrow evening," Jock said. "And I hope we'll have some meat with us."
"You won't if I have to shoot it," Dan answered with a grin. "But I'll come along and maybe I can drive the beasts to you, Jock."
Next day was again fairly fine but there was mist on the mountains. There was not too much wind for flying, so Frank got off at once. The other two watched his plane vanish in the northeast, then set out on their quest for meat. Dan had seen some guanacos on the far side of the river the previous day, so they went up-stream in search of a place where they could cross.
They had walked about two miles when suddenly Jock stopped and pointed silently upwards. A big guanaco was standing on the very edge of the bluff, high overhead. The creature had its back to them and had not seen them and the wind was blowing from it to them, so it had not scented them either.
Jock raised his rifle and took careful aim. With the crack of the report, the guanaco leapt high in the air, then disappeared. At the same moment another guanaco, which they had not seen before, came leaping down the bluff, making for the river.
"That one on top is dead," Jock said quickly. "Go up after him, Dan. I'll see if I can get the other. I may be able to shoot it as it crosses the river."
Without waiting for an answer, he ran off. The second guanaco was making for the river, which here was wide, dotted with rocks and shallow. The guanaco leapt gracefully from rock to rock and Jock feared it would escape. He reached the near bank just as the animal got to the far side and, as it went scrambling up the opposite bank, he risked a snap shot. The bullet took the creature in the spine, dropping it like a stone. It rolled back almost into the water.
Jock looked round for Dan, but Dan was already half-way up the bluff. Mist was driving down the valley and Jock realised that, if he wanted to secure his second beast, he must cross at once.
Actually it was not very difficult. In one or two places he had to wade and the water was horribly cold. But there were plenty of rocks to hold on to and in about five minutes he had reached the far side.
The mist was so thick now that he could no longer see Dan at all and Jock wondered how in the world he was going to get the meat of the guanaco back across the river. It is out of the question to let a dead beast lie anywhere in these parts, for condors and vultures, to say nothing of wolves and hoary dogs, will leave nothing but bones within an hour. Although the guanaco had only just been killed, two wide-winged, hideous coranchos (vultures) were already wheeling overhead.
Jock reached the top of the high bank just above the spot where the guanaco lay, put his rifle against a rock and drew his hunting knife.
A slight sound behind made him look round and he was in the act of turning when something came hissing through the air. A pair of leather thongs curled round his legs with terrible force and flung him down. His head struck the rock against which he had laid his rifle, a shower of stars seemed to shoot before his eyes and all went dark.
AS so often happens after a bad blow on the head, Jock's memory was not working when at last he began to come to himself. His first sensation was one of an ache which seemed to rack his whole head, while his body, too, was as sore as if he had been beaten.
When at last he managed to open his eyes he looked up at a dark rough rock about six feet above him. He could see in it the red glow of a fire which was burning not far away. But his eyes ached so that he closed them again and he dropped into a sort of doze.
When he roused again the firelight still glimmered on the rock roof and it came to him that he was in a cave. His head was not quite so painful, but now his chief trouble was thirst. His throat and tongue felt like leather.
"Water!" he croaked painfully. "Water!"
Something stirred. He heard steps and a man came into sight. At least Jock supposed it was a man, but it looked less than human. Its face was completely covered with hair and the hair of its head hung down in a matted tangle over a sort of coat made of wolfskin. Rough trousers made of deer-hide covered its legs; its feet were bare and horny, and its hands had apparently never seen soap and water.
This creature stood over Jock, looking down at him with red rimmed eyes, and Jock wondered feebly if he were not suffering from some terrible nightmare. But his thirst was so intense that he could think of nothing else.
"Agua!" he gasped.
The man turned away, to come back presently with a horn cup full of water. Jock almost snatched it from the filthy hands and drank every drop. It was cold and fresh and with every swallow new life ran through his parched veins.
"Gracias," he said, but the man took no further notice. He went back to the fire and sat down on a rock.
Jock's head was clearing; he was able to think again. "The Wild Man," he said to himself. "The Wild Man of Santa Ana. It can't be anyone else."
He remembered the stories that he and Ned had heard of this strange creature. No one knew who he was or whence he had come. He was supposed to be a murderer who had escaped and had turned bandit. Over and over again he had held up lonely travellers by stealing their horses. Then, when his victims had been forced to go on their journey afoot, he had helped himself to the stores they could not carry with them. So far as known, since he became an outlaw he had not killed, but he had robbed so many that his name had become a legend all through the country.
John Garnett had said that he had not been heard of for years and that he believed him to be dead. Yet here he was, very much alive.
Jock saw a pair of bolas lying on the cave floor near the fire. They were roughly made of two small stone balls connected by a thong of twisted raw hide. Jock had no doubt but that they were the weapons the Wild Man had used to bring him down.
The question was, where had the Wild Man taken him? Where was this cave? It might be quite close to the spot where he had killed the guanaco or it might be far away. The Wild Man always had horses and he might have loaded Jock on one of them and taken him for miles.
Jock knew how terribly anxious Dan would be, and he himself was mad to get a look outside the cave and see where he was. But, so far as he could gather, it was now night, for no daylight was visible beyond the fire. Also the Wild Man was between him and the entrance. He decided that he had better play possum and keep quiet until some chance of escape offered. For that he would need all his energy, so he made up his mind to rest. In spite of his worries he deliberately closed his eyes and went to sleep.
A crackle of burning wood roused him. He saw the Wild Man making up the fire. Above it was hung a pot from which came a savoury smell.
"Thanks be! He doesn't eat his meat raw," was the thought that came into Jock's mind.
Now there was daylight. Jock could see it leaking in through the mouth of the cavern some ten paces beyond the fire. Jock was wild to get a view outside but made up his mind that he would not move until he was told to.
Half an hour dragged by while the Wild Man stirred the pot, then at last he took it off the fire and turned its contents into a metal dish. He came across and stood over Jock, looking down at him. Jock kept his eyes closed and presently the man bent down and shook his shoulder. Jock opened his eyes and the man pointed to the smoking dish.
Jock sat up very slowly. There wasn't much pretence about it, for he was still desperately stiff.
"Good morning," he said in Spanish. The Wild Man's eyes flickered but he did not speak—only pointed to the food. Jock got to his feet. He moved like a snail.
"Agua," he said, and made motions of washing his hands. The Wild Man pointed to the inner part of the cave and Jock saw that a small spring seeped from the rock, making a clear pool below. He hobbled across to it, stooped, drank, then dashed water over his head and washed his hands as well as he could without soap. The other watched him but did not speak, and Jock wondered if he was dumb.
Jock limped back to the fire and once more his gaoler pointed to the dish. He also handed him a small bowl. To Jock's amazement this was of silver, terribly tarnished, yet of beautiful workmanship and evidently very old. The dish which held the stew was also of silver. Jock wondered where the Wild Man had got hold of this fine old plate. It was the last thing anyone would have expected to see in this wild land.
But the stew smelt good and Jock was starving. He had had nothing to eat since breakfast the previous day. There was no spoon or fork, so Jock had to use his fingers. He ate the whole of his portion and would have been glad of more, but the Wild Man had finished the rest. Jock waited to see what would happen, but the Wild Man sat on his stone, gazing vacantly in front of him, so Jock picked up the dishes, took them to the spring, and washed them. They certainly needed a wash. He put them on a rock shelf and came back.
The sun was shining outside and Jock longed to go to the entrance of the cave and look out, but, when he moved slowly towards the mouth, his gaoler jumped up, caught him by the arm and thrust him roughly back.
An hour passed. The Wild Man did not move or speak and Jock began to feel nearly frantic. Long before this Frank would be back at the camp with Ned and they two and Dan would be hunting for him. But they were not trackers and it would take a good native tracker to follow the trail of the Wild Man. Of course they might use the plane, but that would not help, for they could not see him in the cave.
By this time Jock had pretty well recovered from his ill usage of the previous day. He was strongly tempted to make a bolt for it. Then he heard a horse nicker outside and it came to him that, even if he got past his gaoler and out into the open, it would not do him any good. The Wild Man would simply jump on a horse and ride him down. No, he must have patience and wait for a better chance.
At last the Wild Man got up. He took down a lasso from a peg on the wall of the cave and started out. Jock followed. At the mouth the Wild Man swung round and signed to Jock to stay where he was. He looked so fierce that Jock thought it best to obey. But now Jock was near enough to the entrance to be able to see out and, to his intense disappointment, the surroundings were quite strange to him. True, there was a valley below with a river, but whether it was the same river on which the camp had been made he could not tell. He thought not, for the mountains looked quite different. The tall cone of Mount Agassiz, which had been almost due west from the camp, was now south-west.
There was no doubt about it. This cave was miles away to the north-west of the Bowl and, even if he managed to escape, Jock doubted whether he could ever find his way back to the camp.
THE valley below was a sort of pocket. The river came in through a narrow gorge at the top and went out through a similar gorge to the east. At the bottom were twenty or thirty acres of good grazing, with a natural fence of cliffs all around. The Wild Man might be crazy but he had certainly picked a perfect place in which to live and keep his horses, eight of which Jock could see feeding below.
The Wild Man was engaged in catching a horse. His animals were unusually tame and allowed him to approach without difficulty. He roped a sturdy bay, mounted bareback, then roped a second, a chestnut. With these he came back to the cave. He signed to Jock to bring out the saddles. So far he had not spoken a single word, but Jock had no doubt as to his meaning. Jock brought out the saddles and the other cinched them on the backs of the two animals. The Wild Man then motioned to Jock to mount.
For an instant Jock thought that this was a chance for escape. He would jump into the saddle, drive in his heels and ride. Then in a flash he realised that he did not know which way to go and that it would be madness to gallop down into a valley from which there was no road of escape. No, he must wait. He mounted and sat quietly.
The Wild Man swung easily into his saddle. Jock noticed that he was not taking any food. All he had with him were his rope and his bolas. He had no gun. Jock of course had already looked round the cave for his own rifle but had seen no sign of it. Then they rode off.
The Wild Man made for the head of the valley, and, when they reached the cañon through which the river came down, Jock saw that there was just room to ride between the river and the cliff. The track was a terribly rough one: in many places it was almost choked with boulders fallen from above. Some of these, Jock could see, were recent falls. The horses picked their way slowly and cleverly but more than once both riders had to get off and lead their beasts over slopes of slippery shale. Jock was thankful he had not tried to escape. He must have been caught long before he could have got through this dangerous pass.
There was more than a mile of it, then at last the trail grew wider and more level, and the cliffs less high and steep. They came to a ford and the Wild Man turned his horse into the river. The stream was very fast and the bottom loose and dangerous, but the horses cleverly picked their way across. On the far side a rough track led steeply up the opposite bluff. Now, if the plane was up, there was a chance of being seen, but there was no sign of it. Then, to Jock's bitter disappointment, they plunged into thick pine forest. The trees were huge and stood so close that he could no longer see the sky.
The Wild Man went on. He rode at a walk and evidently was in no hurry. Jock saw that he was following a regular trail. There were marks of horses' hooves and of men's feet in the moist earth. This was a fresh puzzle, for Jock had been told that these mountain forests were not inhabited. Again he wondered where the Wild Man was taking him.
Once he asked him, using his best Spanish, but the other paid no more attention than if he had been deaf. Yet Jock had a notion that he was not as stupid as he seemed. His eyes were always watchful and nothing that moved in the forest escaped his notice.
On and on they went, sometimes up-hill, sometimes down, and, if Jock had been puzzled at the cave, now he was hopelessly lost. He had not a notion where they were. Midday passed but the Wild Man kept straight on. He only stopped once at a brook to water the horses and drink.
The scenery was wild and splendid. Huge slopes covered with forest rose to the skyline and now and then Jock had a glimpse of some ice-clad peak towering against the clouds. They had to cross deep ravines but always there was the path. Once a herd of wild cattle was seen high on an open slope. The Wild Man paused a moment but seemed to think it was no use going after them and pushed on.
Early in the afternoon they came to the edge of another river valley. The river came down the mountain-side in a series of splendid cataracts dropping to an almost level plain quite half a mile across. Here horses were grazing and suddenly Jock saw a number of conical huts grouped in a sort of village. Dark-skinned men and women were moving among them.
"Indians!" Jock exclaimed. The Wild Man looked at him but said nothing, only beckoned the boy to follow down the slope.
Jock had seen plenty of Indians but none like these people. They were very different from the Tehuelches, the Indians of the pampas. They must, he thought, be Yaghans or Onas. All the same Jock was puzzled. The Yaghans and Onas are coast tribes, but these people were living inland.
The Wild Man rode straight to the village. A man came out to meet him. He was a huge fellow, well over six feet and weighing fifteen stone or more. He looked tremendously strong. His skin was darker than that of the Tehuelches and he was certainly no beauty. In fact, he was about the ugliest man Jock had ever seen. He wore a breech clout and a loose cloak made of guanaco skin. His body shone with grease.
He raised a hand in greeting to the Wild Man and the latter gave the same sign. Then, to Jock's astonishment, the Wild Man began to talk. It was the harshest language imaginable and Jock of course could not understand a word. But by the way both men looked at him he was sure they were talking about him. He would have given a lot to know what they were saying.
Presently the big Indian turned and walked back to the village. The Wild Man paced his horse slowly alongside and signed to Jock to keep with them. Several girls and children came out and stared at Jock, but they took no notice of the Wild Man. Jock saw that he was quite familiar to them.
Arrived in the village the Wild Man dismounted and signed to Jock to do the same. The horses were turned loose to graze and the big man took the visitors into his hut where a woman, who was apparently the wife of the big man, was cooking over a small fire. The hut was quite large but very dark, smoky and dirty. It reeked of rancid oil, for all these Indians oil their bodies to keep out the cold.
Jock got a fresh shock. The big Indian spoke to him in Spanish.
"You are one of the white men who have come to the pit digged by the gods," he stated.
"I am," Jock answered frankly, "but we knew not that the pit was of the gods. We came to take the oil which floats upon the water in one of the holes in the ground."
The big Indian frowned. "You lie. How can oil which comes from the fat of beasts rise from the ground?"
Jock did his best to explain, but it was no use. The big Indian had no idea at all of petroleum and thought that Jock was inventing the story.
"White men are all liars," he said. "They have treated us like beasts and have driven us from the sea to hide among these hills. Of them all El Sordito is the only one whom we can trust, and he hates you as we do. For that reason he has brought you here as prisoner. Now I shall send a message to your companions to tell them that if they do not leave at once, you will be killed by our young men. I, Caushel, say this."
Jock felt a nasty shiver run down his spine. Quite plainly Caushel meant exactly what he said. But he braced himself. It would not do to show the white feather before this savage. He shrugged.
"Then you had better kill me at once," he said, "and spare yourself the trouble of sending the message. For my friends have given their word to their white chief to fetch the oil to him, and my life counts as nothing against their oath."
Caushel glared at the boy. Then his grim face softened slightly and he said something in his own language to El Sordito, as he called the Wild Man. Jock had a notion that his bluff had had a good effect. Caushel spoke again in Spanish.
"I shall send the message," he said abruptly. "You will remain here and will not go out of this house without leave from me. If you try to escape you will be tied."
Jock said nothing. There did not seem any thing to be said. His chances of escape seemed to be getting less and less. He wished now that he had tried to bolt before he was brought to this village. Presently the Indian woman had the meal ready. It consisted of broiled fish and tortillas of maize flour. Since there was no table the party sat round the walls of the hut and ate with their fingers. No one spoke and it was a gloomy sort of meal, but Jock was so hungry he was glad of the food.
Just as they had finished Jock's quick ears caught the drone of a plane. Forgetting Caushel's threat, he leapt to his feet and sprang towards the door. The Wild Man was between him and the door. He, too, jumped up and grabbed at Jock. Jock's body struck him just as he was half up and off his balance. He went down with a crash and Jock leapt through the door.
Sure enough, a plane was overhead but, to Jock's bitter disappointment, it was not Frank's plane. It was one he had never seen before, a large, powerful-looking biplane.
Before Jock could get a second look Caushel caught him. In the powerful grasp of the huge Indian Jock was helpless. He was dragged inside and flung roughly to the floor. At her husband's order the woman brought raw-hide thongs and Caushel tied Jock hand and foot and left him lying, helpless, on the mud floor of the hut.
THE force with which Caushel had flung him down had left Jock partly stunned. When he recovered he saw that Caushel had lifted the Wild Man on to a sort of bed made of grass and covered with guanaco hide. The Wild Man's head was bleeding badly and the Indian woman was busy binding up the wound.
Half dazed as he was, Jock realised with dismay that, in falling, the Wild Man's head had struck the door-post, that he was badly hurt and insensible. By the black looks Caushel cast at him, Jock saw that he himself was in worse trouble than ever.
He could no longer hear the drone of the plane. It must have flown on. He racked his brain to think whose it was or whence it came. Then he saw Caushel stride out of the hut and heard the sound of people running outside. Was it possible, he wondered, that the plane had come down in the valley?
The woman finished her work and squatted down beside her patient, silent and motionless. A long time passed. The hard raw- hide was cutting into Jock's wrists and ankles and cramp began to twist his muscles. Soon he was in such pain it was all he could do to keep from crying out. He writhed and wriggled in a vain effort to get some relief, then, just when he had begun to feel that he could stand it no longer, Caushel came back and, with him, a white man.
Jock stared in petrified amazement, for the white man was Rister. Rister came across and stood over Jock.
"Luck seems to be turning my way," he said with a crooked smile. "You are the last person I expected to find here when I came to call on my friend, Caushel."
Jock kept silence. There did not seem anything to say. Rister went on.
"I think we must have a little talk, Master Burney. Between us, we might come to some useful arrangement. I take it that your friends set some value on your life. It lies with me whether you are freed, or left to drag out a rather dreary existence as slave to these Yaghans. You will have gathered that they do not love the whites, and really I do not blame them."
Jock spoke at last. "If you want to talk, Herr Rister, tell Caushel to cut me loose. I can't think, let alone talk, with cramps in both legs."
Rister pursed his lips. "No, you do not look comfortable, my young friend, but I am not so sure about turning you loose. I understand that you have already half-killed El Sordito."
"Oh, if you're afraid!" sneered Jock.
Rister laughed and Jock thought that he had never heard a more unpleasant sound.
"If you were Falcon I would leave you there to die of cramp or go mad—which is more likely. As it is, and since I wish to make use of you, I will ask Caushel to release you. But if you refuse my terms"—he shrugged—"your last state may be worse than your first." He spoke to Caushel in Spanish and the big man, scowling, bent down and untied the thongs. Jock tried to get up but fell down again. Rister offered no help but stood watching coldly while Jock rubbed the knotted muscles of his legs with his almost equally cramped hands.
At last Jock was able to stand. The relief of being free was so great that he felt almost cheerful, though inwardly he knew he was never likely to be in a tighter place. There was no mercy to be expected from Rister. Rister spoke.
"I trust you are feeling equal to our little talk."
"Quite," said Jock briefly.
"Then, listen. I am going to speak quite freely, for no one here, except ourselves, understands English. In the first place I mean to have that helium." For the life of him Jock could not help a start. Rister smiled sarcastically.
"Yes, I thought that would surprise you. After Falcon had succeeded in taking that cable from me you thought that I should never even suspect the existence of the helium. As it happens, I have a friend at court, or rather in the cable service. Through his good offices I was able to obtain a copy of the second cable. This I deciphered that same evening and at once cabled instructions to my own headquarters. I requested that your messenger should be intercepted and a fresh plane sent south for my use." He stopped and looked at Jock as if he expected him to speak, but Jock kept his face still as stone. Rister went on.
"I flew across the meteor pits to-day and saw that some of your people were there. My suggestion to you is that you go to them. I will drop you within easy reach. You are to tell them that I offer them their lives if they leave at once. Do you understand?"
"I don't," Jock answered bluntly. "Since you know Falcon, you must know as well as I that no threat of yours could make him budge from the valley or give up the helium. And I'd fight just as hard as he. So you see you wouldn't get much good out of turning me loose."
"But I am not turning you loose, my young friend," said Rister, showing his white teeth in a mirthless smile. "You have heard the phrase,'Word of an Englishman'?"
"Yes," Jock answered, wondering what was coming next.
"And you believe in it?"
"Of course I do," said Jock sturdily.
"Just so. Well, I am taking your word, before you start, that, if Falcon refuses my terms, you come back to me. I am paying you the compliment of believing you would keep your word."
"I'd keep it if I gave it," Jock answered curtly.
"It would be wise to give it," Rister told him in a tone which made Jock shiver inwardly. "You will at any rate be able to warn your friends of their danger. I prefer to avoid violence, but I tell you plainly that not your lives or a hundred others would stand in the way of my taking that helium. With these Indians behind me you can think for yourself how much chance you four will stand."
So Rister thought there were only four. He did not know of Carne and his men. That was all to the good, and Jock for one was not going to make him wiser. Aloud Jock said:
"If Falcon was alone he would fight, and nothing you or I could say would make any difference. Not that I would say it," he added.
"Am I to understand that you refuse my offer?"
"That's the size of it," Jock told him. He spoke stoutly but inside him was a nasty chill of fear.
"I have told you what will happen if you refuse," Rister said ominously. "And I, too, keep my word."
"I can't help what happens," Jock said. "You can kill me if you want to, but that won't help you to get the helium."
"You won't die just yet," said Rister curtly. "Perhaps before to-morrow you will wish you had. I shall tie you up again and leave you to think things over. By morning you may have changed your ideas."
For a moment Jock was very near to collapse. Small blame to him, for the agony he had endured during the two hours he had been tied was still cramping his muscles, and the thought of a whole night of such torture was enough to terrify the strongest man, while Jock was only still in his teens. But Jock had in him a tough fibre, inherited, like his name, from his Scottish grandfather.
"You'll be wasting your time," was all he said. Then Rister had him in his powerful grasp. He was forced to the floor and Rister knelt on his chest while he tied him again with the same raw-hide cords that had been used before.
Jock did not struggle. It was no use wasting his strength. What he did do was to brace his muscles with all his might against the cruel thongs. He had no hope of escape but he had the idea that the cords might not bite quite so cruelly when he relaxed. Rister stood over him.
"Now," he said, "you are going to be left alone. Caushel and his wife will sleep in another hut. They would not sleep very well here, for, long before morning, you will be screaming in agony. And Caushel is short-tempered. He might kill you." He grinned evilly. "I wish you a good night."
"Just a minute," Jock said. "Before you go you might give me a drink of water."
For a moment it looked even chances whether Jock would not get a savage kick in the ribs, then, without a word, Rister went across to the earthen jug which stood by the far wall, picked it up, filled a horn cup and put it to Jock's lips. Jock drank it all.
"Thanks," he said quietly.
Rister looked at him a moment and went out. Jock was left alone. No, not quite alone, for the Wild Man lay on his couch. But the Wild Man's eyes were closed and the only sign of life was that he breathed steadily.
Jock set to work to see if it was possible to get free. Thanks to his foresight, the cords were not quite so tight as the first time he had been tied, but he knew that he could not loosen them. His only hope was to find something against which he might cut them.
But savages do not have many cutting instruments and those they have they keep about them. There were no nails used in the building of the hut and no stones. Jock soon saw that his only hope was the fire.
He rolled towards it and tried to rake out a hot ember. The only result was to scorch his hands and the pain was so great he was forced to give it up. Time passed. It began to grow dark. Cramp seized him again. He stuck it out for a long time but at last the pain wrung a groan from him. A voice came in answer to the sound.
"Who's that? What's up?"
The words were in English, but curiously hoarse and harsh, and they appeared to come from the lips of the Wild Man.
Jock groaned again, but now from pain of mind, not body. He firmly believed that he was going crazy.
"WHO'S there?" came the voice again out of the darkness where the Wild Man lay.
It was his voice, too. Jock recognised it plainly. But how could the Wild Man be speaking English? It was impossible—crazy—Jock decided that he was either dreaming or, as he had first believed, had himself lost his senses. He tried to make up his mind to answer but, before he could frame any words, the hoarse voice spoke once more.
"What's the matter with me? My head hurts like the dickens. Have I had an accident? Can't someone tell me?"
"Who is speaking?" Jock managed to ask in a tone he hardly recognised as his own.
"Joe Wentworth. Who are you?"
"I'm Jock Burney."
"Never heard of you," was the puzzled answer. "Where are you?"
"Tied up on the floor. Rister tied me."
"Rister! Who's he?"
"The German. He's after the oil." There was a groan from the couch.
"I don't know whether you're crazy or I. I never heard of Rister. Where are we?"
"In Caushel's hut. This is a Yaghan village."
"Caushel. Yes, I know him, but where is he?"
"Rister turned him out. Rister is trying to make me promise to help him and I won't."
"I told you I never heard of Rister or of you. I suppose I've been ill a long time. I can feel that I have a beard, so it must be a long time."
Light began to dawn in Jock's mind. This was the Wild Man, but that blow on the head had done something to him—brought back his senses. Great goodness, he was really English then! The relief to Jock was so great that for the moment he almost forgot his own pain.
"Yes," he said, "I believe you've been ill a long time, but I never saw you till yesterday, so I don't know how long. Listen! Can you get up? Are you strong enough?" There was a sound of movement.
"Yes," came the answer. "I can move all right. My head aches but otherwise I seem to be fit enough."
"Then for goodness' sake come across and untie me," said Jock. "I'm half dead with cramp."
"I'll try," came the answer, and the Wild Man, otherwise Joe Wentworth, came shuffling across towards Jock.
Then he felt hands fumbling at the knots that bound him and smelt the curiously beast-like odour of the skins the Wild Man wore.
"There's a knife in my pocket," he whispered. "The right-hand trouser-pocket. Get that and you can cut the thongs."
The Wild Man found the knife, opened it and, as the cruel cords fell away, Jock dropped flat on his back on the floor, gasping with relief.
"Can't we get a light anywhere?" asked his rescuer.
"Light," repeated Jock, horrified. "Don't dream of it! We'd have Rister here in two ticks. Then the fat would be in the fire."
"I wish you wouldn't keep on talking about Rister," said the other half angrily. "Who is he and what's he doing here?"
"I've told you. A German, and about as cruel a brute as you ever saw. And he's got Caushel and all these Indians in his pocket. Listen and I'll put you wise to the situation. Only I've got to be quick, for we must get out of this village as soon as ever we can."
In as few words as possible Jock told the Wild Man—or Joe Wentworth as we had better call him—how things stood. The only thing he did not tell was how he himself had been caught. Instead he said he had got lost, found Joe and ridden with him to the Indian village.
When Jock finished Joe drew a long breath.
"It's coming back now, but oh, heavens! It must be a long time since I got smashed up. My dad was a missionary among the Yaghans. He was drowned, crossing a flooded river. I was about twenty then. I lived with the Indians and taught the children and hunted with them. Caushel was the chief.
"One day I was up in the hills after wild cattle. I had shot one. The creature fell the other side of a ravine. I started to cross on a log; the log broke and that's the last thing I remember."
Jock understood now. That fall had destroyed Joe's memory and the blow against the door-post a few hours ago had restored it. He had heard of such cases, but it seemed shocking that an accident could have changed a man so terribly.
"Joe," he asked softly. "What year was it that you were hurt?"
"What year! It was 1920."
Jock gasped. "Nineteen-twenty," he repeated.
"And you don't know what year this is."
"You don't tell me I've been ill for more than a year?" said the other in a queer, strained tone.
"Much more than a year, Joe," Jock answered gently. "This is going to be a shock for you. It is now 1937." He felt rather than saw Joe Wentworth stagger; he heard the thick gasp in his throat. Then Joe caught his arm in an iron grasp.
"You're lying. Tell me you're lying. It can't be seventeen years."
"I'm afraid it is," Jock answered. There was a long silence.
"Then I must be forty—no, forty-one," said Joe. "But where have I been? What have I been doing?"
"That I can't tell you," Jock said. "You were in a cave a long way from here when I met you. But you came straight to this village and Caushel knew you all right."
"But this can't be the Caushel I knew," Joe answered in his curiously hoarse voice. "He was an old man then. He'd be nearly eighty if he was alive."
"I expect he's the old Caushel's son. He's not more than forty. But, Joe, he is in with Rister and, as I've told you, Rister means to wipe out all of us at the oil-well. You can stay here if you like, but I must go and warn them."
"Do you know your way?"
"I haven't a notion of it," said Jock, and there was a touch of despair in his voice. "But I've got to try."
"A bowl valley near the head of Lake Argentino," said Joe slowly. "Yes, I know where it is. Come. We must get horses and be moving."
"But you're not fit to ride," Jock protested. "Besides, if you help me, the Indians may turn against you."
"They may, but I can't help that. And fit or not, I must save them from murdering whites. Heaven knows, white men have treated them badly enough but, if murder is done, the Chileans will be after them again and the whole tribe will be wiped out. I saved them from that before, or rather my father did. Now I must do it again. Let us get the saddles and go."
It was all Jock could do to get to his legs, but the necessity of escape was so urgent that he managed to stagger outside after Joe, carrying one of the saddles and a bridle. The night was dark for there was no moon, and the whole village seemed asleep. No lights showed anywhere.
Alone, Jock would not have known which way to turn. He did not even know the points of the compass, but his companion did not hesitate. Whatever he had lost, it was not knowledge of the village or the art of walking quietly. Within a few moments they were outside the ring of huts and on the grass plain which stretched to the river. There was little wind and the only sound was the roar of the cataract coming down at the head of the glen.
As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom Jock saw that Joe Wentworth had a rope, and presently was able to see the dim forms of horses grazing. He wondered if it would be possible to catch one of the animals. Alone, he knew he could not have done so.
He need not have worried. Moving with absolute certainty and silence, Joe got quite close to one animal and next moment the rope was round its neck. The horse shied away, but Joe spoke to it soothingly and it quieted at once. It was plain that Joe Wentworth was one of those men who have a born gift of handling horses.
In a minute or two it was bridled and one of the saddles was cinched on its back; Joe mounted and proceeded to catch a second horse for Jock. But he was not content.
"We must take them all with us," he explained. "Otherwise we shan't stand a chance. I must get the madrina, then the rest will follow." The bell mare's bell was tinkling not far away and Joe roped her without difficulty. "All right," he went on. "This way."
He rode away and presently the two were on the same path by which they had come. By the sound the whole tropilla of horses was following them. Jock longed to gallop but Joe kept on at a walk. Jock was straining his ears for sound of pursuit but none came. They were going up the hill now, leaving the valley behind. The trail, bad enough in the daytime, was simply awful at night. It was impossible to see the fallen trees or mud-sloughs. They had to leave it to the horses and ride very slowly.
On and on they went. Jock was terribly tired. He had had a very long ride already and those bitter hours of pain when he was tied up had done him no good. He was aching all over. It was all he could do to sit in the saddle. The thought of all the long miles before them was a nightmare. His eyes were heavy with sleep and he had to pinch himself to keep awake.
Two hours passed and they had covered perhaps six miles. Suddenly Jock's horse stumbled over a fallen log and Jock lost his balance and fell. His head hit something hard and he lay stunned.
WHEN Jock came to his senses he found himself lying on a mass of dead leaves. Joe sat beside him. Jock stirred and Joe spoke.
"How do you feel?" he asked anxiously.
"I'm all right," Jock lied manfully. "My horse stumbled and I expect I was half asleep. Help me up and we'll get on."
"No, you must rest a while."
"But the Indians. Those Yaghans can run like deer. They may be after us."
"I don't think they will move till morning. None of them likes night travel. They are very superstitious and believe that evil spirits are abroad at night. Sleep a while. I will wake you when it is time to go."
Jock knew that he must have rest. He closed his eyes and was dead asleep at once. It seemed only a few minutes before Joe was shaking him awake and for the moment he could not remember where he was or what had happened.
"It will be daylight in an hour," Joe told him. "If you are able we must ride."
Jock scrambled up with a horrified exclamation. He was terribly stiff, yet the ache had gone out of his head and he knew that he was stronger.
"You ought not to have let me sleep so long, Joe. We have a fearful way to go still."
"Don't worry," said the other kindly. "We'll manage." He helped Jock up and it was not till then that Jock missed the other horses.
"Where are they?" he asked in a startled voice.
"Gone. When you fell I stupidly let go of the rope holding the madrina. She bolted and the others with her, but I managed to hold the ones we are riding."
"Then the Indians will be after us," said Jock slowly.
"It's not so bad as you think. The horses will not hurry back but will stop and graze. I reckon it will be quite two hours before they start after us. With the six or seven miles we have covered already, that gives us a long start. Don't worry. We shall beat them." Joe spoke so confidently that Jock took courage again.
"You've been a brick," he said. "I'm game to ride all day now."
For a while they had to go very slowly, but when the dawn light began to leak through the trees they were able to quicken their pace. His sleep had done Jock a deal of good, but he was anxious about his companion. As the light increased he could see how pale his face was behind the mass of hair that almost covered it. More than once he noticed Joe looking down at the filthy skins which covered his body, with an expression of disgust. Truly, the contrast between his kindly voice and manners on the one hand and his wild appearance was absolutely startling.
"How is your head?" Jock asked when the trail became wide enough for him to ride abreast.
"Not too bad," Joe answered.
"And it was my fault," Jock said bitterly.
"Don't be stupid. You have done me the greatest service one fellow could do for another. It's through you I have got back my senses." He paused, then went on: "But these skins make me feel sick. And I'm longing for a shave and a wash."
"Frank will fix you up," Jock told him. "And you won't know yourself when you're in white man's kit again."
They kept going as fast as they dared, but the sun was two hours high before they reached the mouth of the defile leading into the Wild Man's valley. Jock kept looking up at the sky. What he was afraid of was that Rister might follow in his plane. Rister could land in the valley and, if he did, they were done, because he had firearms and they none. But there was no sign of the German or of the Indians and, to Jock's intense relief, they came safely through the pass into the valley.
"How far is it from here to the Bowl?" Jock asked.
"About fifteen miles," was the answer.
Jock's face lengthened.
"The horses will need a rest," he said.
"They certainly will," Joe agreed.
Jock thought a moment. "Do the Indians know of your cave?"
Joe shook his head. "I can't tell. I remember this valley and a cave. I used to shelter here after trips into the pampas. That's all I can tell you."
"Looks as if we should have to chance it," Jock said. "Is there any way of hiding the horses?"
"Can't we get them inside the cave?"
"We might. I think the entrance is fairly high."
It was just possible, but it was a job to get the animals inside. They were not accustomed to stables of any sort. Yet Joe managed it and they were firmly tied. Then the two went out and cut grass for the beasts. When Joe came into the inner part of the cave he looked about in wonder.
"You mean I've been living in this place?" he said in a tone of disgust.
"It seems like it. You have a lot of stuff here. Suppose you go and wash, while I cook some breakfast."
Joe nodded and went to the spring. Jock, looking round, found an amazing lot of stuff. There were packages of coffee, tea, sugar, and tins of condensed milk as well as flour and bacon. Much of it was mildewed and spoilt, but Jock found plenty to make a good breakfast. There was no bread, so he made bannocks in a frying-pan and these were just ready when he heard a step and looked up.
"Who are you?" he gasped as he stared at a good-looking, smooth-faced man with close-cropped hair who wore clothes that must once have belonged to a gaucho. The other laughed.
"I didn't even recognise myself when I'd finished," he answered. "You see I found a razor and a pair of scissors." The voice was Joe's, but even so Jock could not bring himself to believe that this was the Wild Man. It was not until he spotted a patch of plaster on the top of his head that he came to recognise his companion.
"It—it's marvellous," he got out. "Simply marvellous. And you don't look a day more than thirty."
"I'm forty-one. I must be," said Joe soberly. Then he smiled. "I'm glad you're pleased. Now let us breakfast; we mustn't waste time. Before we eat I'll go out and see if anyone is in sight."
He came back to say that he could see no sign of the Indians, and the two sat down to breakfast, their seats being a couple of old packing cases. But while they ate Jock could hardly take his eyes off the other. He had never seen such a miraculous change.
"The Indians won't know you," he said at last. "You'll never persuade them you are the man they have been trading with."
"It may be difficult. Still, I think I can persuade them." Jock finished his last mouthful of scone and stood up.
"I'm ready," he said, "unless you think there's time to wash the dishes."
"We shall have to leave them," Joe answered. Suddenly he ran to the entrance. His quick ear had caught a sound which Jock had not heard. In a moment he was back.
"They are here," he said briefly. "Now we shall soon find out whether or not they know the cave."
Jock hurried to the entrance, near enough at least to look out without being seen, and it at once became plain that the Indians did know of the cave. At any rate, they were riding hard towards it. There were about twenty of them; Caushel led them and Jock did not like the look of things at all.
"Have you a gun?" he asked of Joe.
"I don't believe so, but if I had I would not use it against the Indians," Joe answered. "Don't worry, Jock. I'll talk to them."
"What's the good? They'll never recognise you."
"I shall make them do so," said Joe firmly.
Jock shrugged. He did not believe it would work yet, since they had no firearms, and since there was no way of keeping the Indians out of the cave, there was nothing for it but to allow Joe to have his way. Joe stood in the entrance and at sight of him there was a savage yell and the Indians galloped up. Joe raised his hand.
"I am your friend, Josefo," he called in Spanish. "You know me."
Caushel came forward, a huge, forbidding brute.
"Josefo!" he repeated. "Who are you and where do you come from?"
"How can you pretend not to know me when I was in your house last night?" Joe asked.
"I have never seen you before and you lie when you say you were in my house."
"I do not lie." Joe's voice could be heard by all the Indians. "I was there with the white boy and the German man who came in the flying bird. I was hurt and it was your own wife who bandaged my head. Again I say you know me. I am the son of the Padre Wentworth, the friend of your father."
Caushel pushed his horse a little closer. He stared at Joe. On his big face was an expression of anger mixed with doubt.
"The voice is the same," he said slowly, "but you are not El Sordito."
"El Sordito—the Dirty One." Joe flinched a little at the name, then spoke up as clearly as before.
"I am that one and no other. Because I have washed, because I have shaved, because I have recovered my senses—that does not make me another man."
Fear came into Caushel's eyes.
"It is witchcraft," he muttered. "The evil spirits have changed you."
"Don't be a fool," returned Joe roughly. "If spirits have changed me they have been good spirits. For years I have been out of my senses, but now I am sane again."
Caushel had his answer ready.
"Was it good spirits that made you steal our prisoner and our horses?" he sneered.
"I did not steal your horses. I took them but a little way so that you might not chase us. As for the boy, he has done you no harm and he was the prisoner of the man Rister, who pretends to be your friend but wishes only to steal the sacred valley from those who hold it."
"The Señor Rister is our true friend. He has brought us much tobacco and other gifts," retorted Caushel. "You must give up the white boy. You we will not harm since you are afflicted by the spirits."
Joe spoke up strongly. "I will not give up the white boy who is my friend. If you desire to take him you will have to kill me first."
"DON'T talk rot, Joe," Jock cut in. "You've jolly well done enough for me already. I'll have to go back with them, but you can carry on and take the message to Falcon. Don't bother about me at all. Frank will get me out of their hands."
"That," said Joe flatly, "would be impossible. If he came to the village in his aeroplane the people would clear out into the forest, carrying you with them. Take my word for it, we have to hold out here—even if we are driven to fight. Go inside and fetch two machetes you will find hung on the wall, but don't bring them until I signal."
Jock did as he was told. After all, Joe knew more about the Indians than he did. He got the two heavy cutlasses and stole back to a hiding-place behind a buttress in the cave wall. He did not see what good Joe and he could do against ten times their number of Indians, but, if Joe said fight, he meant to fight.
Caushel was talking to his followers. It was clear that he was angry. Jock thought that it was the ugliest, harshest language he had ever heard. Then Caushel came forward again and spoke to Joe in Spanish.
"Be not a fool, Don Josefo. We are fixed in our intention to take the white boy back to the Señor Rister. No words of yours can avail against that decision. Stand aside." As he spoke he leapt out of the saddle and strode forward.
Joe beckoned, and Jock came out from his hiding-place. He and Joe faced Caushel, cutlasses in hand. A look of astonishment crossed the Indian's face. He had never supposed for a moment that El Sordito would really fight. He drew a great knife from his belt.
"You have seen me in battle, Don Josefo," he said. "You know that I am the strongest man of all my nation and that you could not stand against me for a moment. Once more I order you to step aside."
"And once more I tell you that I will not deliver this lad to the Germans," Joe answered quietly.
Caushel looked a savage and no doubt was a savage. Yet there was something decent about him, for he did not at once dash in upon Joe. His hesitation was not due to cowardice. That Jock could see as well as Joe. It was simply that Joe was an old friend and he did not want to kill him. But Jock was quite sure that Caushel's hesitation would last only for a moment. The Indian meant to have him at any price.
For his part Jock was set on saving Joe's life even at the sacrifice of his own. Joe had had a bad deal. He had lost seventeen years of his life. Now he had got his senses back it was only fair that he should live to enjoy them. The difficulty was that Joe was in front of him.
"Let me pass, Joe," he begged.
"Keep back, you young fool," said Joe in a voice so fierce it almost paralysed Jock. Before he could recover Caushel had raised his great knife. Jock could see the red gleam in the big Indian's eyes. His patience was exhausted. It was the end.
At this moment came a yell of terror from the other Indians. Out of the sky a plane flashed down, swooping so low that its wheels almost touched the heads of the Indians. Their horses, wild with terror, stampeded in every direction. Caushel's horse went with the rest and he was left alone, afoot, facing Joe and Jock.
"Caushel," said Joe. "You can still kill us if you like to try, but it would, I think, be wiser to leave us alone."
Caushel looked round, saw his men scattered in every direction, saw the plane coming to ground on the level below the cave and caught a gleam of sunshine reflected from the polished barrel of a rifle.
"You win this time, Don Josefo," he said grimly, "but here is the end of our friendship. Next time we meet I shall kill you." He turned and stalked away in the direction of the head of the valley.
"It's Frank and Dan," Jock cried in wild excitement. "Come, Joe. We'll soon be back now." He ran down to meet his friends and Joe followed more slowly. Frank ran to meet Jock. He took both his hands.
"My dear chap. I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. I hardly hoped to find you alive."
"You wouldn't if you hadn't come when you did. Caushel, that big Indian, was going to finish Joe and take me back to Rister."
"Rister! You've seen him. Where is he?"
"At Caushel's village, about twenty miles from here. And he has those Indians eating out of his hand. Joe here pulled me out." He turned. "Joe, come and meet Frank Falcon and Dan Doran. This is Joe Wentworth," he explained. "His father was a missionary among the Yaghans."
"And you pulled Jock out of trouble," said Dan as he grasped Joe's hand. "Man, we're mighty grateful to you. I've been worried sick since I lost the lad in the fog. And it's hurt ye got, doing it, by the patch on your head."
"No, Mr. Doran," Joe said, "that was an accident, and for me a lucky one. But I will tell you the story later. Now we should leave this valley, for Rister might arrive with his plane. Will your machine carry four?"
"It will that," Dan said. "And don't be calling me Mr. Doran. I'm Dan to my friends."
Joe smiled. "I'll remember. But let us be moving. Jock will have much to tell you, but it can wait until we reach the valley."
Frank needed no urging. The suggestion that Rister might come over made him wild to get away as soon as possible. He was not equipped for aerial fighting though he and Dan did have rifles. They waited only long enough to release the two horses that had been tied inside the cave, then climbed in and were off. Ten minutes later Frank was circling to a landing in the river valley below the Bowl.
The first thing to do was to hide the plane. They wheeled her under a projecting buttress and covered her with green branches. All the time they were watching the sky anxiously, but there was no sign of Rister. Frank sighed with relief when the job was finished, and the four moved back to Dan's camp, which was close under the bluff at some distance from the plane.
"Ned is up at the Bowl with Carne," Frank said. "We must let him know as soon as we can that you are safe, Jock, but both you and Joe look all in and I think we had better have a rest and a cup of maté before we move."
"I'll fix it," Dan said as he lit a spirit-stove. "And now I guess we'd like to hear your story, Jock."
"Before I tell it all," said Jock, "there's one thing that's too important to wait for. It's this. Rister knows about the helium."
Frank turned sharply. "How?" he demanded.
"He told me he had a friend in the cable office. In other words, he bribed one of the clerks to give him a copy of your last cable, and somehow managed to decipher it. Anyhow, he knows all about it."
"He told you this?" asked Frank in amazement.
"Yes. The Indians handed me over to him and he talked quite freely. Another thing he said was that he had cabled to his people in Buenos Aires to have your messenger about the concession stopped, and that this had been done."
"This is a bad business," said Frank grimly. "Tell us all about it, Jock."
Jock was in rather a fix. He did not want Joe to know that it was he who had captured him. He could tell that later, but he was specially anxious not to prejudice Frank and Dan against his new friend. So what he said was that he had got lost in the fog and that he had fallen in with the Wild Man who took him to his cave. Then, he said, they had both ridden on to the Indian village where Rister had turned up unexpectedly. The rest he told exactly as it had happened and he explained the accident which had turned El Sordito into Joe Wentworth.
"Gee, Jock, it must have scared you pink to hear a white man's voice coming out of the dark like that!" exclaimed Dan.
"I was never so glad of anything in my life," Jock answered. "And so would you have been if you'd been tied as I was. I was nearly crazy with cramp. It was Joe here who cut me loose, Joe who caught the horses for us to ride, and, when I fell off, he sat by me nearly all night and let me sleep. Then, when we did get to the cave, he faced the big Indian and told him that he'd fight him before he let him take me back."
"Good for you, Joe!" said Dan warmly, and Joe reddened a little at the unaccustomed compliment.
"We are deep in your debt, Joe," Frank added. "But Jock's story has upset all our plans. Now that Rister knows of the helium, he will go to any length to get hold of it."
"He told me that," put in Jock. "He said a hundred lives wouldn't stand in his way."
"Always supposing the hundred didn't have guns and stick up to him," Dan said drily.
"That's it," agreed Frank. "We must have help. There's only one thing to do. I must fly straight back to Santa Cruz and cable for help. At the same time I must warn the company about Rister and get them to cable to Valparaiso." He jumped up. "I'll go at once before Rister gets wise."
Dan spoke. "What's the use, Frank?" he asked bluntly. "Jock's told you already that Rister's got a friend at court. The chances are they'll never send your message at all or, if they do, they'll alter it. Santa Cruz is no good to you and I doubt if you can do the trip over the mountains to Valdivia."
FRANK pulled up short. A look of desperation came upon his face, for what Dan had said knocked his plan to pieces. Santa Cruz was useless for his purpose and it was out of the question to fly to Valdivia over the mountains. Even if the plane could do it he had not petrol for such a flight. Joe Wentworth spoke quietly.
"What about Gallegos, Captain Falcon? There should be a cable station there, and the distance is not much greater than to Santa Cruz."
Frank's eyes widened. "Gallegos. I've never been there. I'd forgotten its very existence. But you are right. That's where I'll go. And I must go at once, before Rister arrives. His plane is probably faster than mine and I shan't have a chance if he sights me."
"You surely won't," said Dan. "Get right along, old son. And when you come back bring a couple of tommy guns. It's likely we'll need them."
All ran for the plane. Joe, who knew nothing of aeroplanes, watched the sky while the others got all ready. The tank was filled from the spare cans which Frank had brought on his last trip, and in a very few minutes all was ready.
"Nothing in sight," Joe told them.
"Good luck, Frank," Jock said earnestly, then Dan spun the prop, the machine ran forward and quickly took the air.
The three left on the ground hardly looked at Frank's plane. Their eyes were searching the sky in the opposite direction. But all they could see were a couple of huge condors soaring high in the blue. As Frank's machine faded into the distance Dan heaved a sigh of relief.
"One up to us, fellows. Rister'll never know which way Frank's gone. But I'm sure wondering what's kept our Proosian friend. I'd have thought he'd have been here before now."
"Better be moving," Dan suggested.
"To your valley?" Joe asked.
Dan nodded. "That's right. Go while the going's good. I'll come along, too, now that there's no plane to mind."
In a few minutes they had packed up Dan's property and were climbing the bluff. They had a mile or so of open down to cover, and, if Rister appeared, were at his mercy, so, as may be imagined, they wasted no time, and all were relieved when they plunged into the edge of the forest.
They had hardly reached the rim of the Bowl before there was a yell and Ned came scrambling wildly up the steep bank, clambering over the fallen trees at astonishing speed. Jock strode to meet him.
"Where have you been, you old idiot?" Ned panted as he grasped his brother's hands. "Are—are you all right?"
"Right as rain," Jock told him. "You've been worrying," he said accusingly.
"Of course I've been worrying, and so have Frank and Dan. We thought you were drowned in that beastly river or that a puma had got you."
"Indians got me," Jock said. "I have quite a yarn for you."
"Then come along to the tent and let the professor hear. Carne's a good sort, Jock. I've come to like him in spite of his big voice and his queer temper."
They scrambled down, crossed the bottom of the Bowl and climbed up the far side. Dan and Joe followed. Carne and his men were digging in the third meteor hole, the one in the side of the valley. Carne came out, covered with dust and dirt.
"Glad to see you, Jock," he boomed. "What kept you?"
"It's a long story, sir. Before I tell it I have to warn you that Rister is only a few miles away with his plane. He may come over any minute. It would be just as well if we all got under cover. I believe he has a machine gun."
Carne scowled. "The fellow is an infernal nuisance." He went back to the pit. "Bentley, you and the others stay under cover," he ordered. "I'll tell you when to come out." Then he marched off towards his tent, which Jock noticed had been thoroughly camouflaged with green branches. There Dan and Joe Wentworth met them and Jock introduced Joe to Carne. Then Jock told his story all over again. Even Carne opened his eyes when Jock related the extraordinary change in Joe, caused by his fall. Carne stared at Joe, then asked to be allowed to examine his head.
"I have had medical training," he explained. He felt Joe's skull and nodded.
"You are lucky, Wentworth," he said with unusual gravity. "It was one chance in a hundred that this blow restored your senses. Later I will put a fresh dressing on that wound and you should take at least a day's rest, flat on your back."
Joe promised to do so, then Carne turned to Jock.
"It looks as if we may expect a visit from Rister. What beats me is that any man in his senses should take such risks for the sake of a very doubtful oil deposit in a remote place like this."
Jock looked at Dan and Dan nodded.
"Reckon we better tell him," he said. "Frank ain't going to mind." He spoke to Carne. "There's more to it than oil, Professor. The gas from that pit holds helium, more'n one per cent. Now I guess you'll understand why Rister's keen."
"That," said Carne in his deep voice, "puts a very different complexion on the business. More than one per cent, you say. That is amazingly rich. Even the gas at North Fort Worth in Texas gives less than one per cent, and that is by far the richest so far discovered. Now I can understand why this German will take big risks to grab this claim." He paused and frowned, then went on: "If Rister were alone we could handle him, but these Indians are a nuisance. How many are there?"
"About thirty men in all," Joe told him. "And Rister has worked on their superstitions. They will fight."
"Unless they can surprise us I don't think we need worry," said Carne. "They have no guns."
"They have bows and arrows," Joe reminded him.
"I wish we had some barbed wire," Carne growled.
"Couldn't we build a fence?" Jock suggested. "There's plenty of wood."
"A big job," Carne rumbled. "It would have to be a regular stockade to keep out the Indians. And there's the risk of fire. It hasn't rained for a week and, with this wind and sun, everything is dry as tinder."
That was true and Jock realised it.
"Then what do you suggest, sir?" he asked the professor.
The big man grunted. "The sensible thing would be to pull out and camp in some place where we should be safe. We could probably find a cave which we could easily defend. The oil can't run away and Rister can't take it or the gas until he has a considerable force of men."
"He has the Indians," Jock suggested.
"They wouldn't stay if we weren't here," Joe put in. "They couldn't stay long in any case on account of food. There is no game to speak of in these thick forests."
"Just what I was going to say," boomed Carne.
Dan spoke. "I ain't moving, Professor. Not till I have to. I gave my word to Frank I'd stay right here. Possession's nine points of the law. That's the way he put it. He meant that if Rister got here and dug his toes in, it would be a job to shift him."
Carne scowled again. "I don't want to move. Not until I have got out that meteorite or some portion of it. I am perfectly willing to stay and take the chances. There are seven of us and will be eight when Falcon returns. We ought to be able to hold the fort against Rister and his red men." He paused a moment, then went on: "You left these Indians some fifteen miles away. They can't get here yet. And I don't think Rister will come alone. If he had meant to do so he would have been here by now. I'm going back to work. Jock, you had better have a sleep and I've already told Wentworth that he must rest. Doran, I shall be obliged if you will keep guard. Fire a shot if you see anything suspicious."
"I can pull a trigger," said Dan with a grin. "But I ain't likely to hit anything unless it's by accident."
But Dan had no need to use the gun. The rest of the day was peaceful, and Jock slept till sundown and woke feeling quite fit and furiously hungry, to find that supper was ready. They fed in relays, for two men were kept posted as sentries and it was agreed that watch should be kept the whole time.
After supper Carne began to talk about helium. He told them that, unlike hydrogen, it was absolutely non-inflammable, that its loss by leakage through balloon fabric was less than half that of hydrogen, and that its lifting power was only ten per cent, less than that of its older and dangerous rival.
"There is," he said, "one cubic foot of helium in every million cubic feet of air. In 1916 there were only 100 cubic feet of pure helium in existence and that had been produced at a cost of £340 per cubic foot. Then helium was found in natural gas and two years later the daily output was 7,000 cubic feet at a cost of about sixpence a foot. But," he said, "if this gas works out as well as your analysis, Doran, the cost may fall to three-pence a foot, and every balloon will be filled with helium."
Jock was pleased to see that Joe was much the better for his rest and was able to eat a good supper. Carne had dressed his head and said that he was doing well.
The night passed as quietly as the day. All were wondering what had become of Rister. Had they only known it, he had hit a hidden rock in taking off the previous morning and burst a tyre and twisted the axle, and he and his mechanic had spent the whole day in repairing the damage. It was dark before repairs were completed and Rister was in an evil temper when he roused at dawn for his flight.
This time he got off safely and flew straight for the Bowl valley.
RISTER'S intention was to find Frank Falcon's plane and destroy it. He had a pretty good idea of where it would be lying and his temper grew more savage than ever when he failed to see any sign of it. He headed for the Bowl.
The spell of fine weather continued and in the bright, clear air the sentries set by Carne had already spotted Rister's plane. On getting the warning Carne had at once ordered the whole party into the great hole which the third portion of the meteor had driven into the wall of the valley and which had already been much enlarged by his digging. Carrying food and water and weapons with them the five men and two boys at once ran for the cave.
They were hardly under cover before the roar of Rister's engine sounded overhead. Dan chuckled.
"I reckon the little stranger is due for a disappointment," he said. "He can do all the shooting he's a mind to but he won't hurt no one."
"He's coming lower," Carne growled as the roar of the engine grew louder. "Keep down, all of you. We don't want the fellow to know where we are." There was a rattle of machine-gun fire.
"Sounds like he spotted the tent," Dan remarked. "Say, I hope he ain't broke no crockery."
The gun-fire ceased, but by the sound of the engine Rister was still circling the Bowl. Round and round he went and the refugees in the cave wondered what he was up to. It was impossible to see.
"He's off," said Jock at last, as the rattle of the exhaust grew less loud. He stepped forward, but Dan stopped him.
"Keep down," he said sharply. "Likely he's foxing." They all waited in silence, listening to the diminishing sound of Rister's plane. Presently it died altogether and Carne spoke.
"Wait here, all of you. I am going out." He stepped to the entrance and looked out, then turned quickly.
"Come out and hurry." By the tone of his voice Jock felt that something serious had happened. But neither he nor any of the rest were prepared for what they saw. In a dozen different places smoke was rising and already flames were leaping upwards.
"Fire bombs," snapped Dan. "Gee, but we'll have to shift or roast."
"Thermite," Carne said in his deep voice. "You are right, Doran. If we don't get out we shall burn."
He led the way and the others followed. After a week of fine weather the fallen timber was dry as tinder and every one of the small thermite bombs which Rister had dropped had started a fire. Thermite is the chemical used to burn holes in steel safes. The heat it produces exceeds that of a blast furnace. What it did to dry wood can easily be imagined.
The only point in favour of Carne's party was I hat there was little or no wind, so for the moment the fires were not spreading fast. But all knew that, when the wind did come—and they had never yet had a still day—the whole forest would be a fiery furnace in which nothing could live.
Carne made for the tent. One bomb had fallen within twenty yards of it, setting fire to a pile of logs which Carne's men had stacked to clear space for the tent, and the heat was terrific.
"Take all you can," Carne ordered. "We shall have to leave the tent." He was so cool himself that there was no excitement and each gathered all he could carry. There was no time to make up proper packs. Food and stores were piled up on blankets and each slung what he could find over his shoulder. Carne ordered them to take all the rifles and ammunition. The tent was scorching as they left it and staggered away through blinding clouds of smoke. Carne led the way to the west, uphill.
"Sure, he's a wise old bird," Dan said in Jock's ear. "Rister was thinking he'd be driving us out into the open where he'd machine-gun us."
"But it's all forest this way," Jock answered, "and if the wind gets up—"
"Don't be worrying. The old chap knows his job," was Dan's answer.
"Joe knows this country better than the professor," Jock replied as he struggled along. "See, he's talking to Mr. Carne." Joe had said something to Carne but the crackling of the burning forest drowned his voice. The fire was spreading fast, for the ground was a mass of pine needles and dead leaves through which the flames bit rapidly. A huge pall of smoke was rising, but this was to the good, because it would hide the party from Rister.
The travelling was terrible, for trees which had been felled by the great blast of the falling meteorite lay in every direction. It was impossible to move fast. Jock was scared and didn't mind admitting it to Ned.
"So am I," Ned said. "If the wind gets up we shan't stand a dog's chance."
The slope grew steeper and the heat was frightful, while the smoke was so thick it blinded them. What breeze there was came from the east and carried the smoke over them. Jock was dripping with sweat and panting for breath. By the look of the others, when he could see them, they were all in the same case. Yet by degrees they got away from the fallen trees and found themselves in thick forest which seemed to stretch endlessly up the side of a mountain.
Carne called a halt. It was time, too, for even Dan, who was tough as they make them, was nearly at the end of his tether. He, Jock and Ned dropped on a log and sat drawing long breaths. They could hear the fire roaring and see shafts of scarlet flame rising amid the smoke, but they were safe for a while if only the wind did not get up.
"Where are we going?" Jock asked presently.
"I wish I knew," said Dan dolefully. "It don't look to me as if anyone had ever been here before." Joe heard Jock's question and answered.
"We are going up into the mountains, Jock. I have told the professor that it is our only chance. We get out of the trees and there are caves."
"Do you know the way?" Dan asked.
"Not very well," Joe admitted, "but I have some remembrance of a pass up in this direction. If we can cross it we can get down to the sea and get help from Professor Carne's yacht."
"And what will Frank be doing?" Dan demanded.
Joe looked distressed. "I wish I could tell you, Dan. But we can't help him. All I can hope is that, when he sees the fire, he will realize what has happened and fly across to join us."
"And what about Rister?" Dan asked bitterly. Dan was devoted to Frank and the feeling that he was deserting him made him intensely unhappy. He knew that Frank's light plane was no match for Rister's bigger and probably well-armed machine. The only consolation was that Frank could hardly be back before the next evening, and that Frank knew that Rister was on the war-path, so would approach carefully.
Carne did not leave Dan much time for thought. He came to his feet again and, shouldering a pack as heavy as any of them carried, beckoned the party to come on. He had noticed that the smoke was travelling faster. The usual morning breeze was getting up and presently the forest fire would be rioting at their heels.
On they went. Jock had had a good rest the previous night and, once he had his second wind, was able to keep up with the rest. But Joe was still suffering from the blow on his head. His face had gone very white. Carne saw it, too, and ordered Joe to drop his load. Joe, plucky as they make them, objected, but Carne insisted. After that Joe managed better.
Now the breeze began to strengthen, the crackle of the fire became a steady roar. Flames leapt from one tree to the next and red-hot embers carried by the wind fell far ahead of the main blaze, starting new fires. The heat was frightful. Eusebio, Carne's guide, took a bad fall. Carne jerked him to his feet, but Jock saw with dismay that the man was limping. The party were running now but the fire was gaining on them and it looked all odds they would be caught and roasted to death. To Jock and Ned that flight through the burning forest was a nightmare. It seemed to last for ever, then, just as Jock felt he could not go another step, he saw Carne, who was a few steps ahead, fall headlong and disappear. There came a tremendous splash and a great roaring voice.
"Water! A stream. Get in, all of you." Next moment Jock and the rest were waist deep in a mountain brook. The water was like ice but no one minded that. They dipped their scorched faces and drank and drank, and presently straggled out on the far side, feeling like new. The stream was some twenty feet wide but there was no saying whether or not the fire would cross it. Then through a rift in the smoke they saw, a little way up-stream, a small open space covered with grass, and reaching this haven of refuge, all dropped their bundles and stretched themselves face downwards on the ground.
Blasts of hot air beat upon them and the smoke was suffocating, but they did not care. They were safe, and nothing else mattered.
Presently Jock realized that it was not so hot. He sat up stiffly and looked round. At once he saw what had happened.
"Wind's changed," he sang out, and his shout roused the rest. The wind had backed west and was blowing the fire back upon itself. What was more, the air to the west was now quite clear, and rising above the forest they saw a great white wall of snow- clad mountain.
"Do we have to be crossing that?" Dan asked in a tone so mournful that Jock laughed.
"Not right over the top, Dan. There's a pass somewhere. The professor crossed it."
Dan was not comforted.
"It gives me cold chills to think of climbing up there in the snow, and anyway I hate walking."
"You're going to do a lot of walking before you're much older, Doran," he said grimly. "If those Indians catch us here in the forest we haven't a hope. Wentworth advises that we follow the stream, and I agree. I believe it to be the same which I and my men followed down on our way here from the west." He stood up and shouldered his pack. "If you are ready, we'll go."
The going was bad. It always is in a sub-Arctic forest. In a tropical forest termites and ants eat up fallen wood, but in Alaska or Chile fallen trees lie for years until they slowly rot away. Still, by keeping close to the brook, the party got along at a fair rate and, now that they were relieved from the dread of being burned alive, their journey seemed comparatively easy.
Yet all were strung up to the last pitch for, if the Indians had followed and were lying in ambush among the trees, Carne's prophecy was only too likely to come true. A shower of arrows might finish half the party before they could fire a shot in return.
THE climb grew steeper, the little river was a series of leaping cataracts, the roar of which filled the air with sound; the trees grew smaller and were farther apart. Then, quite suddenly, they were out of the forest to find themselves at the bottom of a wide valley which rose endlessly up into the tangle of mountains ahead. Carne pulled up and drew a long breath.
"We are on the right track," he said in a tone of relief. "This is the pass by which I came down. And I remember a cave a few miles up. We should reach it by midday, then we can rest and have a meal."
They plodded along over rough rocky ground, but it was better walking than it had been in the wood. The change was complete, for now it was as cold as it had been hot earlier. The wind blowing straight down off miles of snow and ice was bitter. On either side of the valley rose steep slopes covered with snow. A pall of grey cloud draped the distant summits. But exercise kept them warm and in the next hour they made nearly three miles. Dan was silent and, by the frown on his face, Jock knew he was worrying about Frank.
It was Ned who gave the alarm. Happening to glance back, he spotted a man on horseback coming into sight round a bend in the valley.
"Indians!" he shouted.
Carne looked back and his face hardened. He said something under his breath that was not a blessing.
"Take cover," he ordered. "We shall have to fight."
Joe spoke. "No need to fight, sir," he said quickly, and pointed to the steep, snow-clad slope to the right. "If we climb that they can't follow on horseback, and they won't on foot."
Carne frowned. He did not like his authority being questioned, yet could not help seeing that Joe's plan was the best. Scattered rocks were the only cover in the valley, and if the mounted Indians got among his party a lot of damage might be done. Even if only one man was disabled it would make the journey over the pass impossible.
"You're sure they won't follow," he growled.
"I never knew a Yaghan who would venture on a steep snow slope," Joe assured him.
"All right," Carne snapped, and turned sharp to the right. The Indians were more than a mile away and there were at least a score of them. They had spotted the fugitives and were pushing their ponies hard, but the ground was too bad for fast travelling and before they were within bow shot the white men had reached the snow. Looking back, Carne saw the Indians springing out of their saddles.
"They are coming after us," he growled to Joe. "Fire a shot over their heads, Ballard," he ordered one of his men. Ballard obeyed and the Indians vanished like magic. They had taken cover behind the rocks and not one was to be seen. "Doran," Carne went on, "you and the boys, with Wentworth and Eusebio, go on as fast as you can. My men and I will guard the rear."
"Bossy old lad, ain't he?" said Dan to Jock, but all the same he obeyed. The lower edge of the snow was soft, but as they climbed it grew firmer and gave better footing. The party went straight up as fast as they could, but the hillside was so steep they could not travel as quickly as Dan would have liked. Joe kept looking back and Jock saw by his face that he was worried. Suddenly a rifle barked from below, the echoes rattling up and down the lonely glen.
"That was an Indian, Joe," said Dan.
"I don't understand it," Joe answered in a tone of deep distress. "I never knew a Yaghan use a gun."
"But that was years ago," said Jock quietly. "It's clear that Rister has armed them."
"Don't worry, Joe," Dan told him. "We didn't hear that there bullet. I don't reckon they're marksmen, any of 'em."
More shots came. At least three rifles were talking and this time a bullet struck the snow a few yards to the left of the party and ricochetted away with a nasty hum. Carne and his sailors pulled up and fired a dozen rapid shots, but the Indians were under cover and no damage was done.
"Spread out!" roared Carne. "And get on." Carne, too, was worried and Jock knew the reason. If one was hit the rest would have to carry him and then they would be hopelessly delayed. He looked round for cover but there was none. Here and there a knob of black rock stuck out from the snow but the projections were not high enough to give cover. To make matters still more unpleasant they were leaving the snow behind them and coming to sheer ice.
Bullet after bullet whined past or over them. The range was now about four hundred yards, but a modern rifle will kill at more than double that distance. All that saved them was that the Indians were such poor shots. Even so a chance bullet might get one of them. It was maddening to have to crawl onwards at something less than a mile an hour and act as targets for hidden enemies.
Worse was to come. The slope changed to blue ice and Ned slipped. If Jock had not managed to catch him he would have rolled or skidded right down to the bottom. Carne called a halt and ordered Martin, one of his own men, to take an axe and go ahead and cut steps. He told the others to lie flat on the ice.
"Those infernal Indians won't be so likely to hit you," he said.
Presently Martin gave a shout. "There's a loose rock up here, sir. If one of you could help me I could pry it out. It's big enough to put the fear into them Indians."
"Good idea," Carne answered. "I'll come up, myself. The rest of you crawl off to one side."
The boulder weighed about half a ton and was lightly propped against a low ridge of rock projecting out of the ice. All that held it was the ice into which it was frozen, and in a few minutes Carne and Martin were busy with their axes, chopping away the hard ice.
The Indians seemed to realise what was up and concentrated their fire on Martin and Carne. One bullet actually hit the boulder and flattened on it without doing any harm.
"I'll bet they don't know how big that rock is," Ned said.
"Nor what it'll do when it gets loose," Dan added with a chuckle, then, just as he spoke, they saw the rock sway slowly forward with a crunching sound. It rolled, then it quickened and jumped. The boys held their breath as they watched it come past. Each jump was longer than the last and each time it hit the ice it knocked out a quantity at least equal to its own weight. In less time than it takes to tell, an avalanche of ice was thundering downwards at ever increasing speed.
But it was not until the big rock hit the snow that things really started. Whole sheets of snow broke loose and with the snow other rocks and boulders. The roar was deafening.
"They're running," Jock shouted.
"They'd better," Ned answered grimly.
The Indians were properly scared. They were running like rabbits, leaping over the rocks, racing for their horses. Next moment they were all hidden by a huge cloud of snow-dust. When it cleared the Indians were mere dots in the distance.
"They've had their lesson," said Carne in his deep voice.
"And looks like we're going to get ours," Dan answered and pointed to the east. A dot against the sky, a plane was winging swiftly towards them. Carne whipped out a pair of glasses and focused them.
"It's Rister!" he roared. "And not an inch of cover," he added with a groan.
FOR once Carne himself was at his wits' end. There was no cover whatever and no time to get back into the valley. He and his party were absolutely at the mercy of their ruthless enemy whose ambition it was to wipe them all out. It was Dan who saw the one hope.
"Drop the bundles on the snow," he shouted. "Then all of you lie down on the bare rock where the snow slid. Keep well apart."
There was no time to argue. Not that anyone felt like arguing, for all saw that Dan's plan was the only one that gave them a hope. Everyone hurried to obey and the wonder was that none of them lost their footing in their haste. The only accident was that Ballard's bundle slipped and went skidding down the slope. It looked horribly like a human body as it rolled over and over and finally landed against a rock.
Rister's plane, slowed somewhat by the stiff breeze that was now blowing, took a matter of three minutes to arrive and by that time the whole seven were lying flat on the dark rock where at any rate they were far less easily seen than on the snow.
Jock heard the crackle of Rister's exhaust. It seemed to be almost exactly over his head but he dared not look: he dared not even move. He thought to himself that, whatever the hardships of the past few days, he would cheerfully face any of them again rather than lie here on his stomach, waiting helplessly for a bullet to finish him.
He hadn't much time for thinking. There came a sound like a stick being drawn rapidly across park palings. He heard nickel- tipped bullets thudding against the hillside all around him. His flesh crawled and he wished he could shrink to the size of a mouse. Then, quickly as it had begun, the firing ceased and he realised that he at least was untouched. He moved his head and saw the plane pass swiftly along the hillside. Next moment it would turn and come back and this time neither he nor any of them could hope to escape. Then, as he watched the plane, it seemed to grow dim.
At first Jock thought that something was wrong with his eyes, but then the plane turned to a mere wraith and next instant disappeared altogether. At last Jock realised the truth and sprang up like a jack-in-the-box.
"The mist—the mist has come down. We're safe," he shouted. Dan's voice answered him.
"Say, if we ain't playing in luck!" he gasped.
"Stay where you are!" roared Carne, but his voice was drowned by the thunder of Rister's powerful engine as he turned and came back. Once more Jock held his breath, but there was no need to do so. Driven by the strong breeze, the grey vapour poured down the mountainside, thick as smoke, and Rister had pulled back the stick and was pushing his machine upwards into a steep climb. This wild valley of rocks and snow was no place to be caught in fog. His one idea was to get above the cloud into clear air. He flew east, and within little more than a minute the last echoes of his exhaust had died away and all was silence.
"Is anyone hurt?" came Carne's booming question.
"Got my left arm nicked, sir," said Martin out of the gloom, "but it ain't nothing to worry about."
Martin was right. It was a graze only just deep enough to draw blood and, by what seemed a miracle, none of the rest had been so much as touched.
"Collect your bundles and follow me down," was Carne's next order.
It was not too easy, searching for those bundles in this smother, and it was still more difficult to grope down the terribly deep descent in the ever-thickening fog.
"Boy, was I scared?" said Dan to Jock as he came alongside him.
"I know I was," Jock answered.
Ned cut in. "There are two bullets through my bundle. That was a topping idea of yours, Dan. I bet Rister wasted his whole belt on the blankets."
"He wouldn't have done it a second time," Dan said. "It was the fog did the trick, not I."
The mist held. Even in the valley it was now thick. They followed Carne up the bank of the torrent and all were relieved when he stopped and pointed to the cliff rising to the right.
"The cave's in that cliff," he told them, and presently they were all safe under a great arch of rock. There was brushwood growing among the rocks and they managed to collect enough to make a fire and boil a kettle. They had coffee with them and Jock thought he had never tasted anything so good as a steaming mug of coffee with a spoonful of condensed milk. They opened two tins of meat and with these and biscuits made a much needed meal.
Jock and Ned had both noticed how quiet Dan was. They knew the reason and were not surprised when he suddenly spoke to their leader.
"See here, Professor, I'm real worried about Frank. The odds are Rister has put his plane down in the valley by the Bowl, and that Frank'll pitch right in on top of him."
"I, too, am uneasy," the professor admitted with unusual gravity. "But I don't see what we can do about it, Doran."
"I'm reckoning to give him a warning," Dan said. "We got a danger signal. It's three smokes. I can slip along back without them Injuns seeing me and fix up the signal."
Carne frowned. "The chances are that you will get scuppered as well as Falcon. We have no knowledge where those Indians are camping, but it will probably be near the Bowl."
"I'll watch out," Dan said quietly.
Joe spoke. "I'll come with you, Dan."
"You will not," Carne said forcibly. "You are not fit for any such journey, Wentworth. You know that as well as I."
Joe flushed and Jock spoke.
"Dan can't go alone. He'd never find his way, and anyhow he can't shoot. Let me go, sir."
Carne was not happy. All of them could see that. But he knew that Jock was reliable and a good shot with a rifle. In the end he gave his consent.
Ned would have liked to go, too, but Carne wouldn't have it. Ned didn't say much, but the look in his eyes did not make Jock happy as he left the cave. Jock had his rifle and plenty of cartridges, Dan carried enough food for a day, and together they walked off by the way they had come. The fog was still thick and there was no danger from Rister. Their trouble was the Indians, but Joe had told them that he expected they would go back to the Bowl, or as near it as they could get.
Soon they were again in the forest. As they reached lower ground the mist was not so thick, but this made the danger from Indians all the greater and the two watched keenly all the time. It was a beastly feeling that at any minute arrows might come whizzing out of the gloom.
It was still early in the afternoon when they reached the burned forest. But the fire had not crossed the river so they kept along its northern bank.
Here they found tracks of the Indians' horses and saw that they, too, had ridden on down the river. In any case they could not have made straight for the Bowl, because the forest was still smouldering and every now and then came the sullen crash of a falling tree. The river valley grew deeper and wider, with bluffs on both sides.
"It's the same river we camped on first time we came here," Jock said, and Dan nodded.
"I reckoned that all along," he answered. "And looks to me like we are pretty near opposite the Bowl. I wish I knowed where them doggone Injuns are camped."
"They're still ahead of us," Jock told him. "If they had been making for the Bowl they'd have crossed by now."
Dan looked uneasy.
"Seems like they're down at the landing-place, waiting for Frank." He pulled up. "We better decide what we're going to do."
"Keep on," said Jock. "There's nothing else for it. If the Indians are on our old camping ground we shall see them before they see us. But we ought to be on the other side of the river."
"That's a fact," Dan agreed. "Reckon we can cross?"
"Yes, at the place where I shot that guanaco. It's not far from here and luckily the river is low."
They went on slowly until they came to the ford. Jock hesitated.
"It means leaving the trail of the Indians," he said doubtfully.
"That don't make no odds," replied Dan. "If they're there we can't help it, and if they're gone, so much the better."
They crossed the river and kept on close under the bluff. At every bend they stopped and peered round the corner. But the valley was empty both of men and beasts. At last they came to the bend above their old camp, the spot where Frank had been accustomed to land his plane. Again nothing to be seen. Jock spoke.
"My notion is that the Indians have gone down to the lake to look for game."
"Then we can go right ahead," said Dan.
"Better be careful. Remember Rister flew this way."
"We got to go somewheres," Dan said impatiently.
"My notion is to climb the bluff," Jock answered. "From the top we can see a long way."
"And show ourselves just as far," retorted Dan. "If Rister spots us we don't get away a second time."
Jock pointed to a ravine cut in the bluff by some cloudburst of years past.
"If we climb up that we can see without being seen." Dan shrugged.
"I'll try anything once," he said.
So up they went. The climb was easy enough, and when they reached the top the first thing they saw was that the bare slope above was as empty as the valley. The wood around the Bowl was hidden in a haze of smoke which drifted away far across the great lake.
"Dan," said Jock, "you stay here while I crawl along the edge of the bluff and see if I can spot anything."
Dan knew that Jock could do this sort of thing better than he, so consented. Jock went away, crawling like a snake, flat on his stomach. When he came back he was looking puzzled.
"What did you see?" Dan demanded. "Is Rister there?"
"I didn't see Rister," Jock answered slowly, "but I believe he is there. Something is hidden under that big spur of rock. I couldn't see anything clearly, but I'm fairly sure it's Rister's plane."
DAN'S eyes glowed.
"Can't we bust her?"
"Not a hope. The spur protects her, so we can't roll rocks on her, and if we tried to get at her from below we'd be wiped out in no time. You can be jolly sure that Rister and his mechanic are keeping a sharp look-out."
"Then what the blazes are we going to do?"
"Fix up signal fires and wait for Frank. That's all we can do." Dan came as near scowling as he ever did. If there was one thing he hated it was waiting.
"We can't tell when Frank's coming. He might come before dark, and what a hope! Odds are he'd never see our fires with all this smoke drifting around. He and his machine would be riddled before we could do a thing to stop it."
"You're wrong, Dan. Rister hasn't a notion where Frank has gone or when he will be back. And suppose Frank does turn up. We shall see his plane at least as soon as Rister does, and shall be ready. If Rister starts to push out his plane there are plenty of rocks to roll on it, and if he gets out one of his machine-guns then again he'll get a nasty surprise." He tapped his rifle as he spoke. Dan looked happier.
"Likely you're right, Jock. Wish we knew when Frank was coming."
"He won't waste time. Be sure of that. I'm only glad he didn't get here ahead of us. Our job now is fix up the signal fires."
There were clumps of brush on the slope, and knowing that Rister could not see them from below they got to it. All the same, it took time to pick the dry stuff they needed. They had it at last and, each with a bundle on his back, were returning to the head of the cleft when Dan suddenly dropped his bundle.
"Gee, but we're too late!" he gasped. "He's coming." Down went Jock's bundle and both ran for the top of the cliff and waved frantically. Frank saw them and waved back but came straight on.
"He doesn't understand," Jock panted. "He's landing—running right into Rister's jaws. And—and I haven't my rifle."
"Get it," Dan snapped. "Maybe I can do something with a rock."
Jock ran like a rabbit, but it was a couple of hundred yards to the spot where he had left his rifle. Before he could get back Frank's plane was on the ground. He saw Dan frantically flinging stones, then heard a rattle of shots which made Dan leap back out of range.
"We've messed it," Dan said savagely, but Jock did not answer. Flinging himself flat he crawled to the edge of the cliff.
What he saw made him only too certain that Dan was right. Frank's plane was on the ground almost opposite the spot where Rister's plane was hidden. Clearly Frank had not seen Rister's plane, which had been well hidden under the big slab. He must, however, have heard the shots for, the moment his own machine came to a stop, he had jumped out in a hurry.
This move was fatal, for Rister and his mechanic, the latter a tall gaunt fellow, had run up behind Frank's plane and, the moment he got out, were on him. Jock flung up his rifle but dared not pull trigger for fear of hitting Frank. Then Rister's arm rose and, using his pistol barrel as a club, he hit Frank over the head. Frank dropped like a dead man and instantly the big mechanic picked him up and slung him over his shoulder. Then he stood between the cliff and Rister.
"Shoot!" snapped Dan. "He's going to fire the plane. Shoot, Jock. Frank himself would tell you to take the chance." Jock knew it was true—knew that if they lost the plane, they were done for. It was impossible to aim straight at Rister, for his body was shielded by that of the mechanic. He aimed at the ground just to the left and pulled trigger.
The crack of the rifle and the thud of the bullet came almost at the same instant, and Rister started violently and swung round. Clearly he had no idea that his enemies were armed. How could he when Dan had been reduced to throwing stones? He flung up his pistol and fired half a dozen shots in swift succession. The bullets smacked into the cliff close under the spot where Jock and Dan lay, but Jock had drawn back a little and they did no harm. Before Jock could take fresh aim the mechanic had dropped Frank and he and Rister had bolted back to their own machine. Dan's eyes were fixed on Frank's motionless body.
"I got to get him," he muttered. "They'll kill him if I don't."
"They have something else to think of," Jock said grimly. "They have to get away. Listen! They are starting their engine."
"Then you get 'em as they move out," said Dan eagerly.
"I'll have a jolly good try," was Jock's answer.
The roar of Rister's engine was deafening. It echoed up and down the valley. Jock leant right over the edge, his rifle ready. Suddenly Rister stepped out. He had a white handkerchief raised above his head in his right hand.
"Flag of truce," he said in his perfect English, yet in that sneering tone that Jock knew so well. "I'll make a bargain. Give your word you won't shoot until I'm off the ground. If you don't I'll put half a dozen bullets in Falcon's body and take my chance."
"You got to say yes," Dan said fiercely.
"Do you think he'll keep his word?" Jock asked.
"If he doesn't I'll kill him if it takes me the rest of my life," Dan vowed.
Jock spoke. "I give my word," he called. Rister merely nodded and stepped back under cover. A minute later his plane shot out. Jock waited with his finger on the trigger but Rister steered clear of Frank, turned into the wind, and was quickly off the ground and heading north-west.
Dan sprang up and raced down the slope. He was at Frank's side ahead of Jock. There was joy in his face as he looked round.
"His helmet saved him. He ain't bad hurt. Help me put him in the plane. We got to get Rister before he meets up with them Injuns." Between them they lifted Frank into the back of the plane, then both climbed in, and so quick were they that Rister's plane was hardly out of sight before they were in the air.
The engine was of course still hot and the gauge showed sufficient petrol. Dan sent her rocketing up out of the valley. As a pilot, there wasn't much to choose between him and Frank. Jock made Frank as comfortable as was possible in the small space, then put his lips close to Dan's ear.
"This is crazy, Dan. If Rister sees us and turns on us, we haven't an earthly."
Dan jerked a thumb backwards. "Get one of them tommy-guns unpacked. We'll learn Rister before we're through with him."
Jock shrugged and obeyed. The tommy-guns were Thompson sub- machine-guns, a type that can be fired from the shoulder. Jock soon had one ready and loaded. It gave him some confidence but he knew that Rister, too, had a machine-gun and that his machine was faster and more powerful than Frank's. This chase seemed to him a crazy business.
Dan was climbing. The sturdy little plane was going up at a steep angle and the air bit cold. Jock began to shiver and, knowing that this would not improve his shooting, he pulled out a big sheepskin coat and got into it. He glanced at Frank. He was still insensible but was breathing better, and some colour was coming back to his cheeks.
"There they are!" cried Dan sharply.
Rister's plane was in sight. It was flying over the valley of Joe's cave. Jock got out the field-glasses and adjusted them. So far as he could tell, Rister had no idea he was being followed. He was flying at leisurely speed at a height of about two thousand feet, while Frank's plane was a couple of thousand feet higher. Dan signed to Jock to adjust the phones. Then he spoke.
"Rister's crate is a Cormorant. I know 'em. She's faster than we are but she can't climb like this bus. That's what I'm counting on. If we can keep above her we'll be all right."
"They've seen us," Jock said sharply. "See! Rister's coming round to tackle us."
Dan showed his teeth in a fierce grin. "Gee, but that's just what I hoped he'd do. Don't shoot till I tell you, Jock."
RISTER'S big plane was climbing rapidly and Jock did not share Dan's joy. It looked to him as if their small machine would get short shrift once that ugly-looking mechanic got his gun to bear. But Dan kept calm. Pulling back his stick, he kept on climbing. The altimeter showed five thousand, six thousand, and presently seven thousand feet. Rister, too, climbed, and now he was close enough for Jock to see the barrel of his machine-gun poking over the edge of the cockpit. Jock longed to let loose, but Dan gave him no word. He kept the plane's nose pointed upwards at a steep slant.
They were at ten thousand. The wild country was so far below that the trees looked like bushes and the river had dwindled to a tiny streak. It was cruelly cold but Jock was too eager to feel the bitter chill. The small plane had nearly reached her ceiling. She rolled and wallowed. But Rister was in the same fix and he was a thousand feet lower. Dan eased the stick forward slightly and at once the machine steadied. Jock saw Rister's mechanic raise his gun and the strident rattle came to his ears above the roar of the two motors. The burst went wide and at once Dan dived.
"Now!" he snapped as he swerved slightly. Jock was one of those lucky people whom excitement steadies and his fingers did not twitch as he aimed and pulled trigger. He saw a row of black spots appear in the left-hand wing of Rister's plane. Before he could correct his aim Dan hooked his plane up into a roaring zoom.
"Missed!" said Jock bitterly.
"Missed your grandmother!" retorted Dan. "You put the wind up him properly."
"Doesn't look like it. He's coming after us again."
"Got his mad up," Dan said. "All I'm scared of is that he'll bolt. Watch out. I'm diving at him again."
Jock had reloaded and was ready when Dan started his dive. But this time Rister, too, was ready. Just as Dan swerved Rister side-slipped cleverly, and before Jock could get fresh aim bullets came ripping through the wings of Frank's plane and one struck the instrument board, smashing the temperature gauge, but luckily without touching Dan.
Dan zoomed again and now he was west of Rister. Rister had come round with amazing speed and was on the tail of the smaller plane. Dan was forced to climb for all he was worth. Again came the vicious rattle of Rister's gun, and with a grunt of pain Jock dropped his gun.
"Got you?" Dan asked sharply.
"Through my right shoulder. Can't hold the gun," Jock answered hoarsely.
"Then we got to get away," said Dan, as he pushed over the throttle and drove upwards at full gun. Dan had lost a lot of height and now Rister had the legs of him. Again came the blast of bullets raking and tearing through the smaller machine. Yet by some miracle no one was hit.
Jock was helpless. He lay back, weak from loss of blood. He had given up hope. Now it could be only a question of minutes before the plane was struck in some vital part and sent reeling into the depths. He had no pack and no strength to put one on.
He was sinking into a state of half consciousness when roused by a sound behind. Looking round, there was Frank, crouching in the rear of the cockpit with the machine-gun at his shoulder. Before Jock could well realise what was happening the gun was spitting a hail of steel.
Rister was caught napping. He had seen that Jock was hit, and had believed that all he had to do was shoot down a defenceless plane. Jock saw him push over the stick in an attempt to dive out of the line of fire. He was just too late. A puff of smoke rose, followed by a tongue of red fire.
"He's done!" Jock shouted hoarsely. "Rister's done. We're safe."
Rister's plane was done. No doubt about that; but its pilot kept his head. They saw him spring to his feet and fling himself over the side. His mechanic followed a moment later. Then two parachutes blossomed like vast white flowers and, carried by the wind, went dropping towards the east, while the plane shot down into the immense depths like a blazing comet. It seemed an age before it struck the ground, yet was only a matter of a few seconds. A fierce explosion rocked the forest, but hardly an echo reached the crew of the Metis more than a mile above. Then there was nothing but a pile of blazing wreckage.
Dan levelled out and cut out the engine. This gave him a chance to speak to Frank.
"Say, Frank, what about it? You going to let 'em go?"
"What do you suggest—that I machine-gun them on the way down?"
"I ain't any keener on it than you, but it's what any sensible chap would do."
"Then you can put me down for a fool," said Frank. "I'm not going to butcher any man, not even Rister. If he gets down alive he can take his chances."
"And what do you reckon he'd do to you if you was slung to a pack and he was in a plane?"
"That's no matter. Better get back, Dan. Jock's hard hit and needs attention." Dan said something which Jock could not hear, then he opened the throttle again and drove her swiftly back towards their starting-place. Frank Falcon turned to Jock, and set to staunching the blood which was dripping from his wounded shoulder.
"It's missed the bone," he told him. "You'll be all right in a few days."
"That's good? Did Rister get down?"
"I couldn't tell. There's mist below."
"I can't help wishing you'd finished him," Jock said.
"So do I," Frank agreed. "But without a plane I don't see he can do much harm. And if he does get down safely he'll have his work cut out to get back to his Indians. You'd better keep still, Jock. You've lost a lot of blood."
In a very few minutes Dan set the plane down safely between the river and the bluff, and he and Frank helped Jock out and made him comfortable on a bed of dry grass in the shelter of the overhanging crag. They boiled up coffee on a spirit-stove, which Jock accepted with gratitude, then wheeled the plane into shelter and made her fast.
By this time it was nearly sunset and they got busy with preparations for the night. They had to get wood for a fire. Luckily Frank had food in the plane and some blankets too.
"Wish I knew where them blamed Injuns had got to," Dan said uneasily.
"The Indians have gone home," Frank told him. "They must have, in order to find grub. When I flew across the pampas there was no sign of them and, as I told you, the smoke had driven away all the game. Myself, I'm much more interested in what's become of Rister."
"Broke his blighted neck, I hope," said Dan with unusual viciousness. "Anyway, we'll find out come daylight." He bent to light the fire and Frank got water from the river and hung the kettle to boil. As dusk fell the three sat down to a supper of coffee, biscuits and tinned tongue. Jock's arm was aching pretty badly but otherwise he felt fit. He was in such splendid fettle that no fever had developed from the wound.
"Frank," said Dan, "you ain't told us a word of what you did at Gallegos."
Frank laughed. "I haven't had a chance yet. There's been too much doing. But it's all right. I got my cable through to Mr. Wilmott and had his reply. He had heard nothing of his man being stopped by Rister's agents, but he wired that he would get on the phone to Valparaiso at once. Meantime he is sending a big plane south with reinforcements. For the rest he gave me a free hand."
Dan nodded. "The old man's got sense. He don't spare money when it's needed. And you did mighty well, yourself, Frank. That tommy-gun as you brought did the trick. We'd sure have been sunk without it."
Frank's lip curled. "Did well," he repeated. "If ever there was a fool trick it was jumping out of the bus and getting knocked on the head by Rister. It was Jock who saved our bacon with his rifle."
Jock laughed. "Me! I was scared stiff I'd hit you, Frank. And then I made a mess of it with the machine-gun. I ought to have got Rister with that first burst."
"Mighty modest, you two," jeered Dan; "but I'm still saying you never ought to have let Rister get away, Frank. Now we got it all to do again."
"Killing him, you mean?" Jock asked.
Dan nodded. "Sure! There ain't going to be no peace for us till we see Rister bust or buried." Dan was quite serious and Jock felt he was right. So, too, did Frank. He spoke.
"We'll fly round and have a look, to-morrow. If Rister's alive he will be in the Indian village."
"Likely the plane'll need some attention first," Dan said. "That left wing has got as many holes as a fishing-net."
"We ought to find out what the professor is doing," Jock suggested.
"Don't worry about them," Dan answered. "Him and the rest'll be along in the morning."
They chatted for a while, then Frank told Jock to go to sleep.
"For once we ought to have a quiet night," he said. Jock confessed that he could hardly keep his eyes open, and that was small wonder seeing that he had been going with hardly any rest since earliest dawn. Even without his wound he was due for a good sleep. He closed his eyes and was asleep in a minute. The others watched him until they were sure he had gone off, then Frank spoke in a whisper.
"You too, Dan. I'll take first watch."
Dan grunted. "Do you reckon we got to?"
"I do, Dan. I believe that the Indians have gone home, but there's Rister. Suppose he and his mechanic got down all right—and there's no reason why they shouldn't—what will he do?"
"Make for the Injun village," said Dan.
"How can he? He doesn't know the way. He's a sight more likely to follow the river, and that will bring him this way. Remember, he will be hungry and desperate and, as we know, he has an automatic."
Dan frowned. "You surely make a case, Frank. Myself, I think he'd be more likely to build a fire and stay where he is for the night. In the morning he'd climb to high ground and signal the Indians or find his way to the village."
"I dare say you're right, Dan, but we can't afford to take chances. I'm sitting up."
"You always was an obstinate cuss," growled Dan. "All right. Give me three hours and I'll be good as new." He paused and looked at Frank. "Sure your head's all right?"
"It aches a bit, but nothing to worry about. And I've been sitting still all day while you've been tramping since daylight."
Dan nodded ruefully. "Walking may be right fine exercise, Frank, but to-day I've mighty nigh wore the soles off my feet." He rolled himself in his blanket. "Wake me at twelve," he said.
Frank took up his lonely watch. It was a quiet night and the only sounds were the deep murmur of the river and now and then the distant howl of a wolf. The hours passed. It was nearly midnight when another sound reached the watcher's ears. Faint and distant, it sounded like a shot.
FRANK got up and stole away into the darkness outside the ruddy glow of the small fire. He stood there a long time, listening, but there was no fresh sound. At last he went back and, as his wrist-watch showed twelve, he roused Dan and told him what he had heard.
"Sounds like it must be Rister," Dan said. "None of our folk could be that near."
"But if Rister was creeping up on us the last thing he'd do would be to fire a shot," Frank objected.
"That's a fact, but maybe he ran into a lion or one of these here wild dogs."
"That's possible. Keep your ears and eyes busy, Dan, and wake me if you hear anything suspicious. In any case rouse me at three."
Dan heard nothing during his hours of watch, nor did Frank when he took on again, and when dawn broke there was no sign of any human being in the whole of the great wild river valley. While Frank was making up the fire for breakfast Dan crawled out.
"All clear?" he asked.
"Yes, and the lad is still sleeping."
"That'll do more for him than a shipload o' doctors," Dan replied, "but, say, Frank, what are we going to do about him? We can't put him in the plane and we certainly can't leave him."
"You could stay with him and I could take a turn in the plane."
"The Indian village."
"Have sense?" Dan retorted. "First place, you don't know where it is and, second, you can't go down there alone."
"If Rister's there he'd scupper you right off. Anyway, you don't know the language. See here. There's no hurry. If Rister's there he can't get away. We better wait till Carne and Ned and the rest come along. Likely they'll be here some time to- day."
Frank agreed and they set to getting breakfast.
By this time the forest fire seemed to have burned out, but smoke still rose and drifted away over the great lake. After breakfast Frank climbed the bluff, but there was nothing to see. The fire had driven all the game away.
Tired as they all were, they enjoyed a quiet morning. They would have been happy if only they could have known that Rister was out of the picture. But they all knew that, so long as he was alive, there was no safety for any of them. The man had said no more than the truth when he declared that a hundred lives would not stand between him and the helium. Just before midday they heard a yell.
"Jock—Jock, are you all right?" There was Ned on top of the bluff.
"All right," Jock shouted back, and Ned came plunging down the cut at such a pace that it was a wonder he reached the bottom on his feet. Dan met him.
"Go slow," he whispered. "Jock's all right but he has a hole in his shoulder. Don't worry," he added as Ned went white, "it's not bad. He'll be fit as you are in a week."
"Jock, you old ass, what have you been doing?" Ned demanded.
"Having a dog-fight with Rister," said Jock with a grin. "Where are the others?"
"Coming. I ran ahead. But tell me, did you get Rister, and how did you get hurt?"
While the brothers talked, Carne, Joe and the rest appeared, and Frank was kept busy explaining what had happened. Carne frowned.
"You should have shot the man, Falcon," he growled, deep in his huge chest. "He is nothing better than a murderer. Twice yesterday he tried to assassinate us all. He is not worthy of consideration."
"Probably you are right, sir," Frank answered, "but I just couldn't put bullets into a man when he couldn't shoot back."
Carne granted. He was much disturbed.
"Do you suppose he got down safely?"
"No reason why he shouldn't. But he dropped in the valley a dozen miles or more from here. He had no food or shelter and would not know which way to go."
Joe struck in. "The Indians would have found him. They probably saw your fight in the air."
"And took him back to their village?" Frank asked.
"Sure to—if he was alive."
"We must find out," said Frank curtly. "Will you come with me this afternoon, Joe?"
"And let those fellows murder you?" exclaimed Carne.
"No, sir. Dan would come, too, or one of your men. He would keep them off with a machine-gun while Joe does the talking." Carne smiled grimly.
"Better take one of my fellows, since Doran boasts that he can't hit a barn door."
"Sure," said Dan, "and while you're choosing him I'll look over the bus." With Frank's help he made some small repairs and pronounced the machine airworthy. "But handle her easy, Frank," he added. "She's due for a refit."
A few minutes later Frank, with Joe and Ballard, flew away in the direction of the Indian village. They flew low over the scene of Rister's fall, but could see nothing.
"Not even the parachutes," Frank said to Joe. "That means they got down all right, for if they'd been smashed, the silk of the parachutes would show up."
"Then they're at the village," Joe declared as Frank headed west. Passing over the belt of thick forest, they saw the open prairie with the Indian village, and Frank began to circle down. They could see the Indians grouped about their huts gazing up at the plane. Frank made a careful landing and spoke to Ballard.
"Don't shoot unless you have to," he warned him, "—not unless they attack us. Mr. Wentworth is specially anxious that none of the Indians are hurt and we don't want to make enemies of them."
Ballard, a smart fellow, nodded, and Frank and Joe stepped out of the plane. Frank had an automatic handy but Joe was not armed. Joe waved a white handkerchief and shouted for Caushel. The big Indian stalked forward. There was a scowl on his ugly face, yet there was something fine about him which appealed to Frank.
"What do you here, El Sordito?" the chief demanded in harsh Spanish. "Did I not tell you that we were no longer friends and that, when next we met, I would kill you."
Joe faced him calmly. "If you kill me, Caushel, you kill your best friend. This is El Capitan Falcon who is sent by the white chief to take the oil from the pit of which you know. Yesterday El Señor Rister fought with him in the air, but was beaten, and his flying bird was destroyed. So will it be with any who fight him, for more men and more guns are coming swiftly to his help from the north. What say you? Will you be friends and accept gifts and be left in peace, or will you still fight in vain?" There was no change in Caushel's sullen face.
"I hear what you say," he said. "I will speak to my people."
"Ask him about the German," Frank said in English.
Joe went on. "We know that the Señor Rister is still with you," he said, but Caushel broke in harshly.
"He is not with us. He is dead."
Joe's eyes fixed on the face of the big savage. "That is not true, Caushel. We have visited the spot where Rister and his companion fell and their bodies are not there. Nor the white wings on which they came down."
"Their bodies are not there because we have buried them," Caushel retorted. "As for the white cloths, those we have brought with us. Wait here. I will give you proof that what I say is the truth." He strode back to his house. The other Indian men were standing outside. They were all armed and it was noticeable that the women and children had disappeared.
"Lucky we have the gun, Joe," Frank said. "Those fellows are hostile."
"We must not shoot," Joe answered sharply. "Caushel and these others have been duped by Rister, who has given them tobacco and rifles. If you knew how brutally they have been treated by white men you would not blame them for their hatred of strangers. They have been shot down like wild beasts."
"We won't shoot unless we have to," Frank assured him. "I wonder what proof Caushel can give us." They had not long to wait. Caushel came back carrying a leather flying-coat which Frank at once recognised as the one that Rister had worn. He flung it down before Frank.
"See for yourself," he said harshly. Frank examined it and saw that it was torn and covered with dried blood. "You can see his grave, if you wish, Captain Falcon," the Indian added. Falcon shivered slightly. He could imagine only too clearly the condition of Rister's body.
"It is not necessary," he answered quietly. "We are obliged to you, chief. And now that the Señor Rister is dead my chief wishes me to offer you such presents as you desire."
Caushel spat. "We take no presents from those who have killed our friend and, but for your gun which speaks with many voices, we would send you to join him. Begone and trouble us no more."
Frank shrugged. He saw that it was no use saying anything. Even Joe did not attempt to remonstrate. They stepped back into the plane and a moment later were in the air.
"We've done our job," said Frank to Joe. "At any rate Rister is finished. Now we can get along with our work at the Bowl."
But Joe shook his head. "We shall have trouble with these Indians," he said. "They do not easily forgive."
THERE was plenty of work at the Bowl. They had to build a permanent camp and to make a landing-place for planes. The latter was a big job. True, most of the trees were down and many had been completely burnt, but the ground was a mass of stumps, each of which had to be burnt out separately. This meant digging a hole to one side of the stump, filling it with logs, and setting it alight.
Of course they had not hands enough for the task, for one man had to guard Frank's plane for fear the Indians might meddle with it, and one or two had to hunt for game to keep the camp supplied with meat.
Carne and his men worked like Trojans. Carne was tremendously keen to get his meteorite, but now knew that it was so large that tackle would be required to lift it. So he and Frank had struck a bargain. Carne was to help with making the landing-ground and Frank, when his men came, would haul out the sky stone.
Carne wanted to get a message to his yacht, and Frank promised that, on the first fine day, he would fly over the mountains and take it. The distance was only about fifty miles and he had sufficient petrol left for this double trip. For two days after the visit to Caushel's village it blew hard from the west, but the third morning dawned bright and calm and soon after breakfast Frank and Dan took off.
They had to climb to eight thousand to cross the Andes, but luckily the air was clear and presently they were over the water and the vast expanse of the Pacific stretched to the horizon. Nearer was Cam Largo inlet with Carne's yacht lying anchored opposite a sandy beach which gave a good landing-ground.
A boat at once put off from the yacht and the smart young man who steered it introduced himself as George Cornish, first officer of the yacht.
He was intensely interested to hear their story and insisted on taking them out to the yacht for luncheon. The Darwin was a stout ship of about 600 tons and her skipper, whose name was Gordon, welcomed the airmen cordially.
It was pleasant to eat a well-served, well-cooked meal after roughing it for so long, and in the end the two stayed longer than they had intended. The weather had changed and, when they got up, they found the wind was from the south-east and blowing strong. The higher they got the stronger was the gale, and Frank had his work cut out to hold the leaping, plunging machine. To make matters worse the tops of the mountains were completely hidden by a mass of driving grey cloud and Frank had to steer entirely by compass. An hour passed and still there was no sign of any improvement. If anything, the wind grew stronger. Frank anxiously studied his petrol gauge.
"Dan," he said, "juice is running low. I've a mind to turn back."
"If you do we're stranded," Dan said. "It'll mean walking all the way back."
"That's better than coming down in the mountains," Frank told him, and Dan knew this was true. If they had to make a forced landing in the hills they would be certain to crash. There was not ten yards of level ground anywhere in this tangle of snow- clad crags. Frank spoke again.
"The wind is blowing at least sixty miles an hour. Our best speed is only a bit over ninety. That means barely thirty miles over the ground and I haven't petrol for another hour. I shall have to turn."
Dan, who was looking out, pointed downwards. "Clouds have broken," he told Frank. "And we've passed the crest. See, there's the big lake."
"We might just do it," Frank said doubtfully.
"You'll do it all right," Dan declared. "Shove her along."
Frank shoved her. He was not happy, but with any luck he would have just enough petrol to get back to their camping ground. The plane was still at seven thousand and that altitude should make the difference. Also, he thought that the wind would not be so strong down below.
In this he was wrong. The gale increased and some of the gusts, Frank thought, must be reaching ninety miles an hour, for the plane, with engine all out, seemed actually to stand still. With every minute that passed he grew more and more anxious, for his petrol was rapidly running out and, once it was gone, hope, too, vanished. There wasn't a chance in a thousand of getting down alive. There was only one point in their favour. The air had cleared and they could see everything beneath them.
Minute after minute they battled on, and minute by minute the index of the petrol gauge sank nearer to zero. Frank's spirits sank with the needle and even the reckless Dan's face showed lines of worry. Frank looked out again.
"Dan," he said quietly, "we can't make it." Dan, too, looked down and suddenly a light of hope shone in his eyes.
"That Injun village," he said, pointing. "There it is. You can make that, Frank."
"And get our throats cut by friend Caushel," Frank answered grimly. "But there's no choice and, as you say, it's the only chance to get down alive."
The valley of the Indian village was plainly visible not more than five miles away and Frank headed the plane for it. A few minutes later he set her down on the very spot where he had landed a few days earlier. They jumped out to find that down here in the valley there was little wind. As before, the Indians had all come out to watch the plane but the women and children did not come near.
"There's Caushel," Dan said, "big and ugly as ever."
The huge savage stalked towards them, a splendid but forbidding figure.
"Did I not tell you to keep away from my people?" he began harshly. "What are you doing here?"
"We were driven down by the wind, Caushel," Frank told him simply. "It was not our desire to trespass on your land." He purposely said nothing about the petrol because, if Caushel knew they could not get away, he would feel that they were completely in his power. "We ask that you will allow us to wait here until the storm has blown over. Then we will go."
Caushel stared at them and at the plane. His sharp eyes noticed the machine-gun in the cockpit as well as the weather- beaten appearance of the plane.
"You are my enemies," he told them, "but it shall not be said that the chief of the Yaghans refused hospitality to any who sought shelter in his home. Food shall be made ready for you in my house."
"We thank you, chief," Frank replied gravely.
"Do we go with him?" Dan whispered.
"We must if we don't want to offend him," was Frank's answer.
Dan cast an uneasy glance at the plane. "We ought to take the tommy-gun along," he said and, turning, picked it up. Caushel frowned but made no remonstrance, and the two followed him to his hut, where his wife was busy cooking the evening meal. The white men were given skins to sit on and there they sat in awkward silence, for Caushel did not speak and Frank thought it useless to try to make conversation.
Soon the food was ready. It was the usual puchero, or stew, served with tortillas, pancakes made with maize flour. They ate in solemn silence. Frank and Dan were both racking their brains as to what was best to do. It was clear that they would have to spend the night in the village, or rather in their plane. The question was how to get petrol to fill their tank. The trouble was that there was none at the camp. At the same time they knew that Carne and the others would be very uneasy when they failed to turn up and that their friends would not have an idea where to look for them.
After their excellent luncheon in the yacht neither of them was hungry but, out of politeness, both did their best to eat the food set before them.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a familiar sound, the roar of an aeroplane engine. Both sprang to their feet, Dan snatching up the gun. But Caushel was even quicker than they. Already his great bulk blocked the doorway.
"Let us pass," Frank said sternly.
"You can kill me if you wish," said the chief, "but I will not let you pass until my friend has safely left the valley."
"Your friend!" An awful thought dawned in Frank's mind. "Rister, do you mean?" he gasped.
A LOOK of triumph crossed Caushel's face.
"The Señor Rister is alive and well. And already he is beyond the reach of your gun with many voices." He stepped aside. "Now you can see for yourself."
The two rushed out. Their plane was already in the air, rising fast and driving east. Dan turned to Frank.
"The fool! Didn't he look at the gauge?"
"Probably in too much of a hurry," Frank answered drily. "He has petrol for less than five minutes."
"Then he's for it," snapped Dan, his eyes on the plane which was now a thousand feet up and more than a mile away. Breathlessly they watched. There was just the chance that Rister might find out in time, turn and plane safely back into the valley. In that case they would have a fight on their hands. Their one hope was the machine-gun, but for this they had only one cylinder of cartridges.
"He's turning." It was Frank who spoke. "He has spotted the trouble. He's coming round." It was true. Rister must have noticed the gauge. The bow of the plane came round. Almost at the same moment the distant clatter of the exhaust ceased. There was no more petrol.
"That's done him," said Dan and for once he spoke solemnly. "With this wind he'll never reach the valley." Frank did not speak but from the Indians behind came grunts of amazement. They were utterly at a loss to understand why the German was turning and coming back.
With the wind with him, Rister might possibly have made the valley by a long volplane; with it against him that was out of the question. Rister realised it, too. The watchers saw his head out over the side of the cockpit, searching, but searching vainly, for any spot where he might land in safety. Trees surrounded the valley like a wall.
Lower he came and lower until his wheels were almost brushing the tops of the trees. Even the Indians now realised that something was wrong. They were utterly silent, and the only sounds were the roar of the gale in the tree-tops and the distant thunder of the cataract pouring into the head of the valley. Rister saw he could not make it and, as a last resort, pushed up the nose and pancaked the machine. All heard the crash as she dropped into the forest and disappeared from sight. Caushel stepped forward. His heavy face was like a thundercloud.
"What devil's work is this?" he demanded. Frank faced him. "Devil's work is right," he answered curtly. "Rister stole our flying machine and has destroyed it and himself."
"If he is dead you die too," said Caushel fiercely. In a flash Frank drew his pistol.
"You fool! The first to die will be yourself."
Caushel stood glaring. He had not known that Frank was armed. Frank spoke again.
"He may be alive, but if so he is certainly hurt. Go and see and, if he is alive, bring him in."
To Frank's surprise the big Indian obeyed. Nearly a dozen of his men followed. Dan watched them.
"Rister's dead as Methuselah," he remarked. "What do you reckon we'd better do?"
"Clear out pronto," Frank answered crisply.
"Walk?" asked Dan in horror.
"No other way, as far as I can see."
"If you know what them woods are like—specially at night—you wouldn't talk so easy. Can't we take a couple of them nags?"
"Then Caushel would be justified in killing us," Frank said. "Besides, we couldn't catch them in a week and where are we to find saddles?"
"Frank," said Dan seriously, "I'll go if you say so, but I think it's plumb foolish. Them Injuns can catch us any time they want, and they can see in the dark. If we go into them woods neither of us'll live till morning."
Frank frowned. "What choice have we? If we stay here we have the whole bunch on us."
"I'd say move into one of the huts. We got the tommy-gun and you got your pistol. We can hold 'em."
"Two or three of the Indians have guns, too," Frank reminded him.
"We'll be safer in a house," Dan insisted.
Frank shrugged. "Just as you say." He turned and walked towards Caushel's hut. The remaining Indians looked fierce but did not attempt to interfere. Caushel's wife was in the hut but did not say a word.
"Here they come," said Dan presently. The Indians, led by Caushel, were coming down the slope, Carrying two limp bodies. "Told you so," Dan added. "Both dead as planked shad." The Indians carried the bodies into the centre of the village, laid them down and covered them up. As they came past, Frank and Dan were able to make certain that Rister at least was dead. His neck was broken. Caushel came straight back to his house.
"Our friend is dead," he stated harshly. "It is your fault. Therefore you will die."
"It is no fault of ours," Frank retorted. "And if we die many of you will die with us. Give us horses and we will leave at once."
"I will not give you horses, nor will my men die," Caushel said with a certainty that scared Frank. But he put a good face on it.
"We shall see," he said quietly. "Meantime you had better take your wife away, for she at any rate has done nothing to deserve harm."
Caushel spoke to his wife and she at once went out with him. Frank and Dan were left alone.
"Say, Frank," said Dan, "what's the old toad mean? He seems mighty sure that he can finish us off."
"So he can," Frank answered. "He means to starve us out."
Dan's face fell. "Gee, I'd never thought of that. How much grub is there here?"
"Some ground maize and mighty little of anything else. They keep their meat in a sort of communal larder."
Dan stiffened. "We ain't going to stand for that. Come daylight, we'll clear out."
"And get ambushed in the forest, as you said. Our guns would be useless in the thick trees."
Dan bit his lip. "Looks like we're in a right nasty fix," he said slowly. The two sat on the floor and talked and talked but could not see any way out. Darkness fell, and it was not pleasant sitting in this squalid hut, surrounded by a ring of unseen enemies.
That night one watched while the other rested. Nothing happened and when they looked out in the morning all was quiet. The day was dull with rain threatening. Then came fresh trouble. There was only one calabash of water in the hut, not enough to last the two for a single day. The nearest water was the river, but how could they reach it?
"It's bad enough to be hungry," Dan growled. "I'm not going to die of thirst—not for any number of doggone Injuns." He picked up his machine-gun. "You take the olla, Frank. We're going down to the river."
Frank did not hesitate. It was no use staying inside the hut. Much better put up a good show, even if it meant a fight. He picked up the earthen water-jar and, with his automatic ready in his right hand, marched out. Instantly he heard a warning cry from an Indian guard. He paid no attention but walked steadily on. His skin crawled, for he fully expected a flight of arrows. To his surprise and relief none came, nor was there any rush. He and Dan were not molested in any way and reached the river without interference.
"We can have a wash. That's one comfort," said Dan. They washed and drank and filled their olla.
"And now what?" Frank asked.
"Search me," said Dan scratching his head. "I surely haven't a notion what that crafty old savage has got up his sleeve."
"I'm pretty sure he means to starve us," Frank said slowly. "We can get water but we can't get food."
"What's the matter with putting a gun on Caushel and making him fork up?" Dan asked truculently.
Frank shook his head. "He won't give us the chance. As you say, he's crafty. He'll keep out of our sight, but if we go raiding for food we shall get shot from round a corner."
Dan scowled. "Then I'm for shifting out," he declared.
"If it was open ground I'd be with you. But not through those woods. We'd best go back to our hut." They started back, but as they came near to the village a flight of arrows sped by unseen bowmen came hissing towards them and they had to hurry out of range. Dan, furious, unlimbered his machine-gun, but Frank checked him.
"No use wasting cartridges. We haven't any to spare. Now there's no choice. We have to try it afoot." He started across the valley and Dan followed. They knew where the path was. They had seen it from the air. They knew, too, that they were in desperate straits. The Indians could travel faster than they, would pass them like ghosts, hide behind great tree trunks and shoot them down.
IT was a stiff climb up the valley-side, and at the top the two paused a moment to take breath and look back. The village looked dead. Not a soul was to be seen.
"They know there's no need for hurry," Frank said bitterly.
"And why would we be hurrying, either?" Dan asked suddenly.
"What's in your mind?" Frank asked, for he saw that an idea of some sort had come to Dan.
"Why wouldn't we be the ambushers?" Dan demanded. "Why wouldn't we sit here with the gun and wait for them red divvles?"
Frank's eyes widened. "Not a bad notion," he agreed slowly. He laughed. "It's a good idea, Dan. Find a good hiding-place, and down we sit." Doing their best to disguise their tracks, they reached a nest of rocks a little off the trail and sat down and waited. They had not long to wait. In a quarter of an hour the Indians were out. They were fully armed with bows and spears and evidently meant business. And just then down came the long- threatened rain.
"Gee! This puts the hat on it," exclaimed Dan in dismay. "Now we can't see 'em."
"Nor can they see us," Frank answered. "What's even better, they can't see our tracks. Dan, we've got them all ends up."
Down came the rain, a pounding torrent bitterly cold. The two were soon soaked to the skin but too excited to notice it. Frank peered out through a cleft in the rocks.
"They're coming," he whispered presently and, like dim ghosts, the long file of Indians went straight up the path and presently disappeared in the driving downpour. Frank rose.
"Now's our chance," he said and back the two hurried down into the valley. The rain mist hid them and not a soul saw them until they were well into the village. All the fighting men were gone and the rest, dismayed by this utterly unexpected invasion, made no resistance. Within a very short time Frank and Dan had collected food for a week, a dozen ollas of water and plenty of firewood. Then they returned to Caushel's house, lit a fire and, after stripping off their soaked clothes, set to cooking a meal. Dan broke into a sudden laugh.
"We're sitting pretty, Frank. And Caushel's half-drowned and freezing."
"But boiling inside," Frank answered. "There'll be trouble when he gets back. I think he will attack."
"Then he'll get it in the neck," Dan said.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," Frank answered gravely. "Joe is very anxious we should not kill any of these people."
A good feed of roast venison and maize cakes put fresh strength into them, then came a long wait while the rain streamed down. It was late in the afternoon before Caushel and his soaked warriors came plodding back. The watchers saw Caushel's wife come out and speak to her husband but, in spite of what must have been a bitter disappointment, his grim face did not change. He and his men filed into their houses and all was silence. Frank nodded.
"They'll be on us to-morrow," he remarked.
That night they slept and watched by turns, but still all was quiet. By morning the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. They finished breakfast and still no Indians. Frank was puzzled.
"I wish I knew what they were up to," he said uneasily. "They're too quiet to suit me." Presently Dan sniffed.
"I smell smoke," he said. "Are they going to burn us out?"
"They can't," said Frank. "There's no one near enough to do that." But he, too, could smell smoke and presently it came curling past the house and thickened into a regular fog. The truth flashed upon him.
"Get your gun, Dan. They're going to tackle us under cover of the smoke. And," he added fiercely, "lie flat."
Both flung themselves down on the floor, and only just in time, for bullets came ripping through the flimsy walls, passing only a foot or two above their bodies.
"Don't shoot back," Frank whispered sharply. "Let 'em waste their cartridges. Time enough to shoot when they come inside." The bombardment went on. Splinters from the walls fell in showers and every moment the two expected to be hit. One bullet actually grazed Frank's shoulder but barely cut the skin. Then at last the shooting stopped.
"Groan, Dan!" muttered Frank, and Dan's groan was so horribly real it actually made Frank shudder. Again came the gruesome sound and now both heard Caushel's voice outside. Frank had his lips close to Dan's ear.
"If Caushel comes in, he still," he whispered. "I'll get him."
An anxious minute dragged by, then the door opened and the big Indian, knife in hand, stepped inside. In a flash Frank leapt to his feet and jammed his pistol muzzle against Caushel's ribs.
"Move and I kill you," he said curtly. It says something for Caushel that he did not flinch.
"You kill me, my men kill you," he answered doggedly. Now Dan was on his feet, holding the machine-gun to his shoulder.
"I don't want to kill you," Frank said. "I would hate to kill so brave a man or any of your people. I will only kill to save my friend's life and mine. Lend us two horses and let us go." As he spoke he stood back and lowered his pistol. Caushel glared at him, then slowly his expression changed.
"You are brave, white man. Also I think you are protected by the spirits. You shall have the horses." He turned quietly and went out. Dan's eyes were sparkling.
"By thunder, the old chap is right, Frank. You're the lad that's got guts. I wouldn't have dared drop my gun like you did."
"You're talking rot, Dan," said Frank with a laugh. "Let's get those horses and ride back to the Bowl."
Three hours later the two arrived at the Bowl, to be greeted as if they had risen from the dead. All there had felt sure that they had crashed in the storm, and Jock could hardly speak as he wrung Frank's hand. Those two had become very fond of one another. Even Carne's deep voice was softer than usual as he told them how very glad he was to see them back.
"But we've lost the plane, sir," Frank told him.
"Cheap at the price," Carne answered. "Your other will arrive shortly. We have been watching for it every hour, meaning to send for you. Not that we thought that would do any good," he added gruffly.
"And you got away without killing any of the Indians," said Joe. Joe's eyes were bright. He looked wonderfully fit. "That was the best bit of work of all. Now we are safe from them."
"I'm glad of that, Joe," Frank answered. "I've a real respect for Caushel, even if he did humbug us about Rister," he added with a laugh.
"Dinner's ready," Ned announced. "You chaps must be starving. Come and feed."
They had just finished their midday meal when the roar of an engine was heard and a big two-engined cargo plane came into sight and circled low overhead. A man looked out and waved.
"It's Mr. Elliot himself," Frank cried, then, as the plane turned back towards the landing-ground by the river, all started running along the newly-made road to meet it. Jock and Ned trotted side by side and, though Jock's arm was still in a sling, he travelled as easily as his brother. The plane had landed when they reached the valley and Mr. Elliot, a tall, lean, clean- shaven man of fifty, with a keen clever face, came to meet them. He had with him two expert drillers and a first instalment of machinery. Frank introduced Carne, Joe and the boys and the chief had something nice to say to each. Then all went back to the Bowl and Elliot spent the rest of the day exploring the new find. Later that evening Jock and Ned sat on a log, outside the camp, talking.
"Looks as if all the excitement was over," Ned said regretfully. "You and I will have to go home, Jock, and get to work again."
"It'll be a bit dull," replied Jock.
"Don't forget Vincent," said Ned with a grin.
"I'm not worrying about him any more, Ned. I've punched his head once and I'll do it again if he plays the fool."
"Who's this you're going to beat up, Jock?" came a pleasant voice as Mr. Elliot himself joined them.
Jock got rather red and the other laughed.
"I'm not butting in on State secrets. See here, Jock, Falcon tells me you are keen to go to college."
"That's true, sir," Jock agreed.
"How would you like to attend some engineering classes in Buenos Aires and then come into the company?" Jock sprang up. "No, don't decide in a hurry. You'll have to begin at the bottom and work up. Think you can do it?"
"I'd love to have the chance to try," said Jock.
"Right. And what about you, Ned?"
"I'm keen on the land, sir."
"Then you'd better come with Jock and have a few terms in an agricultural school. No, don't thank me. It's largely owing to you boys that this business looks like being a success. Now for plans. To-morrow the plane goes back. You can be dropped at your uncle's place, and a little later you can go north by plane or sea." He waved away their thanks and went back to Frank and Dan.
Next morning the boys flew home to find their uncle quite fit again and very cheerful, and Vincent oddly subdued and quite polite.
"Almost looks as if he was going to reform," said Jock.
"I'd wait a bit before I said that," returned Ned rather curtly.
Maria spread herself that evening and the boys enjoyed such a meal as they had not tasted for days. They and their uncle were sitting together after supper, talking hard, when Maria rushed in with a panic-stricken face.
"The barn, she is burning," she screamed. All three rushed out and saw flames rising from the end of one of the two biggest barns. Jock, running ahead of the other two, stumbled over something and nearly fell. To his horror it was a body. He turned and bent over it to find it was that of Vincent and that blood was streaming from a nasty gash in his side.
"Who's done this? Who hurt you?" he asked.
"Julio," Vincent answered hoarsely. "I caught him firing the barn. I—I hit him with a stick. He—he can't have gone far." His voice died away. He had fainted.
While some of the men attacked the fire, Jock and Ned carried Vincent into the house and left him in Maria's care. Then they ran out again to search for Julio.
They had not far to go. Not thirty paces from the spot where they had found Vincent they came upon the body of the treacherous vaquero. Jock turned his flashlight upon it.
"He's dead!" he said slowly. Ned nodded.
"Very dead," he agreed, as he noticed the gash on top of the man's skull. "Vincent did a good job. We'd better tell Uncle."
"Wait till the fire is out," Jock said. "I think they're on top of it." This was true. Luckily there was plenty of water and already the flames were dying down.
When the last spark was black the boys told their uncle what had happened. He came and looked at the body.
"I can't say I'm sorry," he said with a shrug. "He was a thief, a traitor and a fire bug." He called two of his men and told them to carry the body into an outbuilding, then they went back to the house. Vincent had come round but was very white and shaky. When they told him that Julio was dead he shuddered.
"It was my fault—my fault," he groaned.
"Don't worry about it," his stepfather said kindly. "He deserved his end. He was a thief and a traitor."
"But so am I," cried Vincent, and then it all came out.
John Garnett went almost as white as Vincent as he listened to his stepson's confession, and when Vincent had finished he stood silent. Presently he turned to Jock and Ned.
"You have known all about this," he said. "Yet you did not tell me."
"Of course we didn't, Uncle John," Jock answered. "We knew Vincent was sorry and we hoped you never would hear about it."
Ned spoke. "You're not going to hold it against him, Uncle," he begged. "He has done all he could to make up and got hurt doing it. Tell him it's all right." The old man looked from one brother to the other, then turned to Vincent.
"Ned is right, Vincent. I shall not hold this against you. We start fresh from to-day. Now go to sleep and get well as soon as you can." He went out and the boys followed.