Chapter X. A Wild Horse Stampede
 

"Who is that man?" demanded Tom pointing to the one Ned had indicated. Tom's chum had had a glimpse of a shining revolver in the hip pocket of one of the mule drivers, and knowing that the simple natives were not in the habit of carrying such weapons, the lad had communicated his suspicions to Tom.

"What man, senor?" asked the head mule driver.

"That one!" and the young inventor again pointed toward him. And, now that Tom looked a second time he saw that the man was not as black as the other drivers--not an honest, dark-skinned black but more of a sickly yellow, like a treacherous half-breed. "Who is he?" asked Tom, for the man in question was just then tightening a girth and could not hear him.

"I know not, senor. He come to me when I am hiring the others, and he say he is a good driver. And so he is, I test him before I engage him," went in San Pedro in Spanish. "He is one good driver."

"Why does he carry a revolver?"

"A revolver, senor? Santa Maria, I know not! I--"

"I'll find out," declared Tom determinedly. "Here," he called to the offending one, who straightened up quickly. "Come here!"

The man came, with all the cringing servility of a born native, and bowed low.

"Why have you a weapon?" asked the young inventor. "I gave orders that none of the drivers were to carry them."

"A revolver, senor? I have none! I--"

"Rad, reach in his pocket!" cried Tom, and the colored man did so with a promptness that the other could not frustrate. Eradicate held aloft a large calibre, automatic weapon.

"What's that for?" asked Tom, virtuously angry.

"I--er--I--" and then, with a hopeless shrug of his shoulders the man turned away.

"Give him his gun, and get another driver, San Pedro," directed our hero, and with another shrug of his shoulders the man accepted the revolver, and walked slowly off. Another driver was not hard to engage, as several had been hanging about, hoping for employment at the last minute, and one was quickly chosen.

"It's lucky you saw that gun, Ned," remarked Tom, when they were actually under way again.

"Yes, I saw the sun shining on it as his coat flapped up. What was his game, do you suppose?"

"Oh, he might be what they call a 'bad half-breed' down here. I guess maybe he thought he could lord it over the other drivers when we got out in the jungle, and maybe take some of their wages away from them, or have things easier for himself."

"Bless my wishbone!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "You don't think he meant to use it on us, Tom?"

"Why no? What makes you ask that?"

"Oh, I'm just nervous, I guess," replied the odd man.

But if Mr. Damon could have seen that same half-breed a little later, as he slipped into a Rosario resort, with the yellow stain washed from his face, the nervousness of the eccentric gentleman would have increased. For the man who had been detected with the revolver muttered to himself:

"Caught! Well, I'll fool 'em next time all right! I thought I could get away with the pack train, and then it would have been easy to turn the natives any way I wished, after I had found what I'm looking for. But I had to go and carry that gun! I never thought they'd spot it. Well, it's all up now, and if Waydell heard of it he'd want to fire me. But I'll make good yet. I'll have to adopt some other disguise, and see if I can't tag along behind."

All unconscious of the plotter they had left back of them, Tom and his companions pushed on, rapidly leaving such signs of civilization as were represented by small native towns and villages, and coming nearer to the jungles and forests that lay between them and the place where Tom was destined to be made a captive.

They were far enough away from the tropics to escape the intolerable heat, and yet it was quite warm. In fact the weather was not at all unpleasant, and, once they were started, all enjoyed the novelty of the trip.

Tom planned to keep along the eastern shore of the Parana river, until they reached the junction where the Salado joins it. Then he decided that they would do better to cross the Parana and strike into the big triangle made by that stream and its principal tributary, heading north toward Bolivia.

"For it is in that little-explored part of South America that I think the giants will be found." said Tom, as he talked it over with Ned and Mr. Damon in the privacy of their tent, which had been set up.

"But why should there be giants there any more than anywhere else?" asked Ned.

"No particular reason," answered his chum. "But, according to the last word Mr. Preston had from his agent, that was where he was heading for, and that's where Zacatas, his native helper, said he lost track of his master. I have a theory that the giants, if we find any, will turn out to be a branch of a Patagonian tribe."

"Patagonians!" exclaimed Ned.

"Yes. You know the natives of the Southern part of Argentina grow to a considerable size. Now Patagonia is a comparatively bleak and cold country. What would prevent some of that big tribe centuries ago, from having migrated to a warmer country, where life was more favorable? After several generations they may have grown to be giants."

"Bravo!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "It's a good theory, at any rate, Tom. Though whether you can ever prove it is a question."

"Yes, and a big one," agreed the young inventor with a laugh.

For some days they traveled along over a comparatively flat country, bordering the river. At times they would pass through small native villages, where they would be able to get fresh meat, poultry and other things that varied their bill of fare. Again there would be long, lonely stretches of forest or jungle, through which it was difficult to make their way. And, occasionally they would come to fair-sized towns where their stay was made pleasant.

"I doan't see any ob dem oranges an' bananas droppin' inter mah mouf, Massa Tom," complained Eradicate one day, after they had been on the march for over a week.

"Have patience, Rad," advised Tom. "We'll come to them when we get a little farther into the interior. First we'll come to the monkeys, and the cocoanut trees."

"Hones' Massa Tom?"

"Surely."

And though it was pretty far south for the nimble simians, the next day they did come upon a drove of them skipping about in the tall palm trees.

"There they are, Rad! There they are!" cried Ned, as the chattering of the monkeys filled the forest.

"By golly! So dey be! Heah's where I get some cocoanuts!"

Before anyone could stop him, Eradicate caught up a dead branch, and threw it at a monkey. The chattering increased, and almost instantly a shower of cocoanuts came crashing down, narrowly missing some of our friends.

"Hold on, Rad! Hold on!" cried Tom. "Some of us will be hurt!"

Crack! came a cocoanut down on the skull of the colored man.

"Bless my court plaster! Someone's hurt now!" cried Mr. Damon.

"Hurt? Bless yo' heart, Massa Damon, it takes mo' dan dat t' hurt dish yeah chile!" cried Eradicate with a grin. "Ah got a hard head, Ah has, mighty hard head, an' de cocoanut ain't growed dat kin bust it. Thanks, Mistah Monkey, thanks!" and with a laugh Eradicate jumped off his mule, and began gathering up the nuts, while the monkeys fled into the forest.

"Very much good to drink milk," said San Pedro, as he picked up a half-ripe nut, and showed how to chop off the top with a big knife and drain the slightly acid juice inside. "Very much good for thirst."

"Let's try it," proposed Tom, and they all drank their fill, for there were many cocoanuts, though it was rather an isolated grove of them.

The monkeys became more numerous as they proceeded farther north toward the equator, for it must be remembered that they had landed south of it, and at times the little animals became a positive nuisance.

Several days passed, and they crossed the Parana river and struck into the almost unpenetrated tract of land where Tom hoped to find the giants. As yet none of their escort dreamed of the object of the expedition, and though Tom had caused scouts to be sent back over their trail to learn if they were being followed there was no trace of any one.

One day, after a night camp on the edge of a rather high table land, they started across a fertile plain that was covered with a rich growth of grass.

"Good grazing ground here," commented Ned.

"Yes," put in San Pedro. "Plenty much horse here pretty soon."

"Do the natives graze their herds of horses here?" asked Tom.

"No natives--wild horses," explained Pedro. "Plenty much, sometimes too many they come. You see, maybe."

It was nearly noon, and Tom was considering stopping for dinner if they could come to a good watering place, when Ned, who had ridden slightly in advance, came galloping back as fast as his steed would carry him.

"Look out! Look out!" he cried. "There's a stampede of 'em, and they're headed right this way!"

"Stampede of what? Who's headed this way?" cried Tom. "A lot of monkeys?"

"No, wild horses! Thousands of 'em! Hear 'em coming?"

In the silence that followed Ned's warning there could be heard a dull, roaring, thundering sound, and the earth seemed to tremble.

"The young senor speaks truth! Wild horses are coming!" cried San Pedro. "Get ready, senors! Have your weapons at hand, and perchance we can turn the stampede aside."

"The rifles! The electric rifles, Ned--Mr. Damon! We've got to stop them, or they'll trample us to death!" cried Tom.

As he spoke the thundering became louder, and then, looking across the grassy plain, all saw a large troop of wild horses, with flying manes and tails, headed directly toward them!