Chapter 10. The Hold-Up of the M. C. P. Flyer
 

Agua Negra is twelve miles from Chihuahua as the crow flies, but if one goes by rail one twists round thirty sinuous miles of rough mountainous country in the descent from the pass to the capital of the State. The ten men who slipped singly or by twos out of the city in the darkness that evening and met at the rendezvous of the Santa Dolorosa mission did not travel by rail to the pass, but followed a horseback trail which was not more than half the distance.

At the mission O'Halloran and his friend found gathered half a dozen Mexicans, one or two of them tough old campaigners, the rest young fellows eager for the excitement of their first active service.

"Is Juan Valdez here yet?" asked O'Halloran, peering around in the gloom.

"Not yet; nor Manuel Garcia," answered a young fellow.

Bucky was introduced to those present under the name of Alessandro Perdoza, and presently also to the two missing members of the party who arrived together a few moments later. Juan Valdez was the son of the candidate who was opposing the reelection of Megales, and Manuel Garcia was his bosom friend, and the young man to whom his sister was engaged. They were both excellent types of the honorable aristocratic young Mexican. They were lightly built, swarthy your men, possessed of that perfect grace and courtesy which can be found at its best in the Spanish races. Gay, handsome young cavaliers as they were, filled with the pride of family, Bucky thought them almost ideal companions for such a harebrained adventure as this. The ranger was a social democrat to the marrow. He had breathed in with the Southwest breezes the conviction that every man must stand on his own bottom, regardless of adventitious circumstance, but he was not fool enough to think all men equal. It had been his experience that some men, by grace of the strength in them, were born to be masters and others by their weakness to be servants. He knew that the best any civilization can offer a man is a chance. Given that, it is up to every man to find his own niche.

But though he had no sense of deference to what is known as good blood, Bucky had too much horse sense to resent the careless, half-indifferent greeting which these two young sprouts of aristocracy bestowed on the rest of the party. He understood that it was the natural product of their education and of that of the others.

"Are we all here?" asked Garcia.

"All here," returned O'Halloran briskly. "Rodrigo will guide the party. I ride next with Senor Garcia. Perdoza and Senor Valdez will bring up the rear. Forward, gentlemen, and may the Holy Virgin bring a happy termination to our adventure." He spoke in Mexican, as they all did, though for the next two hours conversation was largely suspended, owing to the difficulty of the precipitous trail they were following.

Coming to a bit of the road where they were able to ride two abreast, O'Connor made comment on the smallness of their number. "O'Halloran must have a good deal of confidence in his men. Forty to ten is rather heavy odds, is it not, senor?"

"There are six more to join us at the pass. The wagons have gone round by the road and the drivers will assist in the attack."

"Of course it is all in the surprise. I have seen three men hold up a train with five hundred people on it. Once I knew a gang to stick up a treasure train with three heavily armed guards protecting the gold. They got them right, with the drop on them, and it was good-by to the mazuma."

"Yes, if they have had any warning or if our plans slip a cog anywhere we shall be repulsed to a certainty."

By the light of a moon struggling out from behind rolling clouds Bucky read eleven-thirty on his watch when the party reached Agua Negra. It was still thirty minutes before the Flyer was due, and O'Halloran disposed his forces with explicit directions as to the course to be followed by each detail. Very rapidly he sketched his orders as to the present disposition of the wagons and the groups of attackers. When the train slowed down to remove the obstacles they placed on the track, Garcia and another young man were to command parties covering the train from both sides, while Rodrigo and one of the drivers were to cover the engineer and the fireman.

O'Halloran himself, with Bucky and young Valdez, rode rapidly in the direction of the approaching train. At Concho the engine would take on water for the last stiff climb of the ascent, and here he meant to board the train unnoticed, just as it was pulling out, in order to emphasize the surprise at the proper moment and render resistance useless. If the troopers were all together in the car next the one with the boxes of rifles, he calculated that they might perhaps be taken unawares so sharply as to render bloodshed unnecessary.

Concho was two miles from the summit, and when the three men galloped down to the little station the headlight of the approaching engine was already visible. They tied their horses in the mesquit and lurked in the thick brush until the engine had taken water and the signal for the start was given Then O'Halloran and Bucky slipped across in the darkness to the train and swung themselves to the platform of the last car. To Valdez, very much against his will, had fallen the task of taking the horses back to Agua Negra Since the track wound round the side of the mountain in such a way as to cover five miles in making the summit from Concho, the young Mexican had ample time to get back to the scene of action before the train arrived.

The big Irishman and Bucky rested quietly in the shadows of the back platform for some time. Then they entered the last car, passed through it, and on to the next. In the sleeper they met the conductor, but O'Halloran quietly paid their fares and passed forward. As they had hoped, the whole detail of forty men were in a special car next to the one containing the arms consigned to Michael O'Halloran, importer of pianos.

Lieutenant Chaves, in charge of the detail sent out to see that the rifles reached Governor Megales instead of the men who had paid for them, was finding his assignment exceedingly uninteresting. There was at Chihuahua a certain black-eyed dona with whom he had expected to enjoy a pleasant evening's flirtation. It was confounded luck that it had fallen to him to take charge of the escort for the guns. He had endured in consequence an unpleasant day of dusty travel and many hours of boredom through the evening. Now he was cross and sleepy, which latter might also be said of the soldiers in general.

He was connected with a certain Arizona outfit which of late had been making money very rapidly. If one more coup like the last could be pulled off safely by his friend Wolf Leroy he would resign from the army and settle down. It would then no longer be necessary to bore himself with such details as this.

There was, of course, no necessity for alertness in his present assignment. The opposition was scarcely mad enough to attempt taking the guns from forty armed men. Chaves devoutly hoped they would, in order that he might get a little glory, at least, out of the affair. But of course such an expectation would be ridiculous. No, the journey would continue to be humdrum to the end, he was wearily assured of that, and consequently attempted to steal a half hour's sleep while propped against a window with his feet in the seat opposite.

The gallant lieutenant was awakened by a cessation of the drumming of the wheels. Opening his eyes, he saw that the train was no longer in motion. He also saw--and his consciousness of that fact was much more acute--the rim of a revolver about six inches from his forehead. Behind the revolver was a man, a young Spanish gypsy, and he was offering the officer very good advice.

"Don't move, sir. No cause for being uneasy. Just sit quiet and everything will be serene. No, I wouldn't reach for that revolver, if I were you."

Chaves cast a hurried eye down the car, and at the end of it beheld the huge Irishman, O'Halloran, dominating the situation with a pair of revolvers. Chaves' lambs were ranged on either side of the car, their hands in the air. Back came the lieutenant's gaze to the impassive face in front of him. Taken by and large, it did not seem an auspicious moment for garnering glory. He decided to take the advice bestowed on him.

"Better put your hands up and vote with your men. Then you won't be tempted to play with your gun and commit suicide. That's right, sir. I'll relieve you of it if you don't object."

Since the lieutenant had no objections to offer, the smiling gypsy possessed himself of the revolver. At the same instant two more men appeared at the end of the car. One of them was Juan Valdez and another one of the mule-skinners. Simultaneously with their entrance rang out a most disconcerting fusillade of small arms in the darkness without. Megales' military band, as O'Halloran had facetiously dubbed them to the ranger, arrived at the impression that there were about a thousand insurgents encompassing the train. Chaves choked with rage, but the rest of the command yielded to the situation very tranquilly, with no desire to offer themselves as targets to this crackling explosion of Colts. Muy bien! After all, Valdez was a better man to serve than the fox Megales.

Swiftly Valdez and the wagon driver passed down the car and gathered the weapons from the seats of the troopers. Raising a window, they passed them out to their friends outside. Meanwhile, the sound of an axe could be heard battering at the door of the next car, and presently the crash of splintering wood announced that an entrance had been forced.

"Breaking furniture, I reckon," drawled Bucky, in English, for the moment forgetful of the part he was playing. "I hope they'll be all right careful of them pianos and not mishandle them so they'll get out of tune."

"So, senor, you are American," said Chaves, in English, with a sinister smile.

O'Connor shrugged, answering in Spanish: "I am Romany. Who shall say, whether American, or Spanish, or Bohemian? All nations call to me, but none claim me, senor."

The lieutenant continued to smile his meaning grin. "Yet you are American," he persisted.

"Oh, as you please. I am what you will, lieutenant."

"You speak the English like a native."

"You are complimentary."

Chaves lifted his eyebrows. "For believing that you are in costume, that you are wearing a disguise, Mr. American?"

Bucky laughed outright, and offered a gay retort. "Believe me, lieutenant, I am no more disguised as a gypsy than you are as a soldier."

The Mexican officer flushed with anger at the suggestion of contempt in the careless voice. His generalship was discredited. He had been outwitted and made to yield without a blow. But to have it flung in his teeth with such a debonair insolence threw him into a fury.

"If you and I ever meet on equal terms, senor, God pity you," he ground out between his set jaws.

Bucky bowed, answering the furious anger in the man's face as much as his words. "I shall try to be careful not to offer myself a sheath for a knife some dark night," he scoffed.

A whistle blew, and then again. The revolver of Bucky rang out almost on the same instant as those of O'Halloran. Under cover of the smoke they slipped out of the car just as Rodrigo leaped down from the cab of the engine. Slowly the train began to back down the incline in the same direction from which it had come. The orders given the engineer were to move back at a snail's pace until he reached Concho again. There he was to remain for two hours. That Chaves would submit to this O'Halloran did not for a moment suspect.

But the track would be kept obstructed till six o'clock in the morning, and a sufficient guard would wait in the underbrush to see that the right of way was not cleared. In the meantime the wagons would be pushing toward Chihuahua as fast as they could be hurried, and the rest of the riders would guard them till they separated on the outskirts of the town and slipped quietly in. In order to forestall any telegraphic communication between Lieutenant Chaves and his superiors in the city, the wires had been cut. On the face of it, the guns seemed to be safe. Only one thing had O'Halloran forgotten. Eight miles across the hills from Concho ran the line of the Chihuahua Northern.