Chapter XIII. Followed
 

"Well, this is something like it!" exclaimed Ned as he sat in front of the campfire, flourishing a sandwich in one hand, and in the other a tin cup of coffee.

"It sure is," agreed Tom. "But I say, old man, would you just as soon wave your coffee the other way? You're spilling it all over me."

"Excuse me!" laughed Ned. "I'll be more careful in the future. Mr. Damon will you have a little more of these fried beans--tortillas or frijoles or whatever these Mexicans call 'em. They're not bad. Pass your plate, Mr. Damon."

"Bless my eyelashes!" exclaimed the odd man. "Water, please, quick!" and he clapped his hand over his mouth.

"What's the matter?" demanded Tom.

"Too much red pepper! I wish these Mexicans wouldn't put so much of it in. Water!"

Mr. Damon hastily swallowed a cup of the liquid which Ned passed to him.

"I spects dat was my fault," put in Eradicate, who did the cooking for the three whites, while the Mexicans had their own. "I were just a little short ob some ob dem funny fried beans, an' I took some from ober dere," and the colored man nodded toward the Mexican campfire. "Den I puts some red pepper in 'em, an' I done guess somebody'd put some in afo' I done it."

"I should say they had!" exclaimed Mr. Damon, drinking more water. "I don't see how those fellows stand it," and he looked to where the Mexican ox drivers were eagerly devouring the highly-spiced food.

It was the second day of their trip into the interior, and they had halted for dinner near a little stream of good water that flowed over a grassy plain. So far their trip had been quite enjoyable. The ox teams were fresh and made good time, the drivers were capable and jolly, and there was plenty of food. Tom had brought along a supply especially for himself and his friends, for they did not relish the kind the Mexican drivers ate, though occasionally the gold-seekers indulged in some of the native dishes.

"This is lots of fun," Ned remarked again, when Mr. Damon had been sufficiently cooled off. "Don't you think so, Tom?"

"Indeed I do. I don't know how near we are to the place we're looking for, nor even if we're going in the right direction, but I like this sort of life."

"How long Massa Tom, befo' dat gold--" began Eradicate.

"Hush!" interrupted the young inventor quickly, raising a hand of caution, and glancing toward the group of Mexicans. He hoped they had not heard the word the colored man so carelessly used, for it had been the agreed policy to keep the nature of their search a secret. But at the mention of "gold" Miguel Delazes, the head ox driver, locked up quickly, and sauntered over to where Tom and the others were seated on the grass. This Delazes was a Mexican labor contractor, and it was through him that Tom had hired the other men and the ox carts.

"Ah, senors!" exclaimed Delazes as he approached, "I fear you are going in the wrong direction to reach the gold mines. If I had known at the start--"

"We're not looking for gold mines!" interrupted Tom quickly. He did not like the greedy look in the eyes of Delazes, a look that flared out at the mention of gold--a look that was crafty and full of cunning.

"Not looking for gold mines!" the contractor repeated incredulously. "Surely I heard some one say something about gold," and he looked at Eradicate.

"Oh, you mustn't mind what Rad says," cried Tom laughing, and he directed a look of caution at the colored man. "Rad is always talking about gold; aren't you, Rad?"

"I 'spects I is, Massa Tom. I shore would laik t' find a gold mine, dat's what I would."

"I guess that's the case with all of us," put in Ned.

"Rad, get the things packed up," directed Tom quickly. "We've had enough to eat and I want to make a good distance before we camp for the night." He wanted to get the colored man busy so the Mexican would have no chance to further question him.

"Surely the senors are not going to start off again at once-- immediately!" protested Delazes. "We have not yet taken the siesta-- the noon-day sleep, and--"

"We're going to cut out the siestas on this trip," interposed Tom. "We don't want to stay here too long. We want to find some good ruins that we can study, and the sooner we find them the better."

"Ah, then it is but to study--to photograph ruined cities and get relics, that the senors came to Mexico?"

Once more that look of cunning came in the Mexican's eyes.

"That's about it," answered Tom shortly. He did not want to encourage too much familiarity on the part of the contractor. "So, no siestas if you please, Senor Delazes. We can all siesta to- night."

"Ah, you Americanos!" exclaimed the Mexican with a shrug of his shoulders. He stroked his shiny black moustache. "You are ever so on the alert! Always moving. Well, be it so, we will travel on--to the ruined city--if we can find one," and he gave Tom a look that the latter could not quite understand.

It was hot--very hot--but Tom noticed that about a mile farther on, the trail led into a thick jungle of trees, where it would be shady, and make the going more comfortable.

"We'll be all right when we get there," he said to the others.

It was not with very good grace that the Mexicans got their ox teams ready. They had not objected very much when, on the day before Tom had insisted on starting off right after the mid-day meal, but now when it seemed that it was going to be a settled policy to omit the siesta, or noon sleep, there was some grumbling.

"They may make trouble for us, Tom," said in a low voice. "Maybe you'd better give in to them."

"Not much!" exclaimed the young inventor. "If I do they'll want to sleep all the while, and we'll never get any where. We're going to keep on. They won't kick after the first few times, and if they try any funny business--well, we're well armed and they aren't," and he looked at his own rifle, and Ned's. Mr. Damon also carried one, and Eradicate had a large revolver which he said he preferred to a gun. Each of our white friends also carried an automatic pistol and plenty of ammunition.

"I took care not to let the Mexicans have any guns," Tom went on. "It isn't safe."

"I'll wager that they've got knives and revolvers tucked away somewhere in their clothes," spoke Ned.

"Bless my tackhammer!" cried Mr. Damon. "Why do you say such blood- curdling things Ned? You make me shiver!"

In a little while they took up the trail again, the ox carts moving along toward the comparatively cool woods. Our friends had a cart to themselves, one fitted with padded seats, which somewhat made up for the absence of springs, and Eradicate was their driver. Tom had made this arrangement so they might talk among themselves without fear of being overheard by the Mexicans. At first Senor Delazes had suggested that one of his own drivers pilot Tom's cart, saying:

"I know what the senors fear--that their language may be listened to, but I assure you that this man understands no English, do you, Josef?" he asked the man in question, using the Spanish.

The man shook his head, but a quick look passed between him and his employer.

"Oh, I guess we'll let Rad drive," insisted Tom calmly, "it will remind him of his mule Boomerang that he left behind."

"As the senor will," Delazes had replied with a shrug of his shoulders, and he turned away. So it was that Tom, Ned and Mr. Damon, in their own cart, piloted by the colored man, were in the rear of the little cavalcade.

"Have you any idea where you are going, Tom?" asked Ned, after they had reached the shade, when it was not such a task to talk.

"Oh, I have a good general idea," replied the young inventor. "I've studied the map Mr. Illingway sent, and according to that the city of--well, you know the place we're looking for--lies somewhere between Tampico and Zacatecas, and which the plain of the ruined temple which used to be near the ancient city of Poltec, is about a hundred and fifty miles north of the city of Mexico. So I'm heading for there, as near as I can tell. We ought to fetch it in about a week at this rate."

"And what are we to do when we get there?" inquired Mr. Damon. "If we keep on to that place where the images are to be found, with this rascally crew of Mexicans, there won't be much gold for us." He had spoken in low tones, though the nearest Mexican cart was some distance ahead.

"I don't intend to take them all the way with us," said Tom. "When I think we are somewhere near the temple plain I'm going to make the Mexicans go into camp. Then we'll put the balloon together and we four will go off in that. When we find what we're looking for we'll go back, pick up the Mexicans, and make for the coast."

"If the head-hunters let us," put in Ned grimly.

"Bless my nail file! There you go again!" cried Mr. Damon. "Positively, Ned, you get on my nerves."

"Yais, Massa Ned, an' I jest wish yo' wouldn't mention dem head gen'men no mo'," added Eradicate. "I can't drive straight when I hears yo' say dem words, an' goodness knows dese oxes is wusser t' drive dan my mule Boomerang."

"All right I'll keep still," agreed Ned, and then he and Tom, together with Mr. Damon, studied the map, trying to decide whether or not they were on the proper trail.

They made a good distance that day, and went into camp that night near the foot of some low hills.

"It will be cooler traveling to-morrow," said Tom. "We will be up higher, and though we'll have to go slower on account of the up grade, it will be better for all of us."

They found the trail quite difficult the next day, as there were several big hills to climb. It was toward evening, and they were looking for a good place to camp for the night, when Delazes, who was riding in the first cart, was observed to jump down and hasten to the rear.

"I wonder what he wants?" spoke Tom, as he noted the approaching figure.

"Probably he's going to suggest that we take a few days' vacation," ventured Ned. "He doesn't like work."

"Senor," began Delazes addressing Tom, who called to Eradicate to bring his oxen to a halt, "are you aware that we are being followed?"

"Followed? What do you mean?" cried the young inventor, looking quickly around.

"Bless my watch chain!" gasped Mr. Damon. "Followed? By whom?" He, too, looked around, as did Ned, but the path behind them was deserted.

"When last we doubled on our own trail, to make the ascent of the big hill a little easier," on the Mexican, "I saw, on the road below us two ox carts, such as are hired out to prospectors or relic seekers like yourself. At first I thought nothing of it. That was early this morning. When we stopped for dinner, once more having to double, I had another view of the trail, I saw the same two carts. And now, when we are about to camp, the same two carts are there."

He pointed below, for the caravan was on quite an elevation now, and down on the faint trail, which was in plain view, for it wound up the mountain like a corkscrew, were two ox carts, moving slowly along.

"They are the same ones," went on Delazes, "and they have been following us all day--perhaps longer--though this is the first I have noted them."

"Followed!" murmured Tom. "I wonder--" -From his valise he took a small but powerful telescope. In the fast-fading light he focused it on the two ox carts. The next moment he uttered an exclamation of anger and dismay.

"Who is it?" asked Ned, though he was almost sure what the answer would be.

"Andy Foger and his father!" cried Tom. "I might have known they'd follow us--to learn--" and then he stopped, for Senor Delazes was regarding him curiously.