Chapter X. The Wolf Meets a Panther.
 

The ragged soldiers halted when they came to where the amazed Jimmie stood, and in a moment were joined by the drummer, a slender boy of fourteen, who looked worn out.

When he saw Jimmmie he smiled and saluted by extending the right arm horizontally, palm out, three fingers vertical, with the thumb and little finger crossed on the palm.

"Where did you get that?" demanded Jimmie.

"Did stunts for it," was the reply. "And look here."

The drummer swept his left hand down his right sleeve, tapping half a dozen badges. These were those worn by Boy Scouts who had passed as Fireman, Signaller, Pioneer, Marksman, Horseman, and Musician. The officer in charge of the squad looked on with an amused smile as the drummer exhibited his honors.

"The kid is crazy over the Boy Scouts," he said. "He's been hunting for comrades among the Mexicans, and I reckon he found a few, at that. Well, I'm in favor of the organization myself. It teaches, honor, manhood, self-reliance, and has made a man of many a flat-chested, cigarette-smoking youth. It will be the saving of boys in the city slums if carried out properly."

"Sure it is all to the good," cried the drummer. "A Boy Scout can find friends wherever he goes--and friends that will stick by him, too. We get into the game ourselves and do things, instead of sitting on the bleachers ad smoking cigarettes while others get the exercise."

The little fellow smiled winningly at Jimmie, cast his eyes up the mountain, and then asked:

"Where did you come from? What patrol do you belong to? I'm Panther Patrol, New York."

"New York Wolf Patrol," was the reply.

"What you doin' here with the ragged army? Say, but they'd make a hit on a Bowery stoige, them soldiers."

"What do you know about the Bowery?" demanded the drummer. "Have you been reading about it in the Newsboy's Delight?"

"I know every inch of the Bowery," was the indignant reply. "When I walk down to Chatham Square the lamps bow to me. I'm hungry for it right now."

The drummer threw out his arms in a gesture of approval.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, then.

"I'm editing this end of a detective case," laughed Jimmie.

"All alone?" grinned the drummer. "Where are the others?"

"Lost," cried Jimmie. "Jere! I wish Frank Shaw was here and had hold of that drum. There'd be something doin'. He came down here to drum for Uncle Sam, but they wouldn't have him. They said he was too short an' fat."

"Fatty Shaw!"

The drummer held his sides with his hands while he laughed, and then dropped down on a convenient rock. The officer in charge of the file of soldiers shook him by the shoulder, though he was laughing too.

"Get up," he said. "What kind of a minstrel show is this?"

"Frank Shaw!" roared the drummer, paying no attention to the order. "He got sore because I told him I'd enlisted as a drummer and lit out.

His father'll be sending after him, though. He's a good scout. Where is he now?"

"Lost," repeated Jimmie. "I don't know where he is. Just dropped into a hole."

"Not into any small hole," observed the drummer. "Are those your tents?" he added, with a longing look at the soft blankets.

"Sure," replied Jimmie. "Want to sleep? Go to it then. You're welcome."

"You bet I will," said the drummer.

He started for one of the tents and then turned back.

"Did you see the wig-wagging awhile ago?" he asked.

"Sure I did," was the reply.

"It was brief," said the officer in charge of the file, "but, still, long enough to convince me that we arrived here at the right time. There is an army forming here, no one seems to know what for, and renegade Americans are mixing in the game. The signals called for a gathering some distance above us."

"That's the way I took it," observed Jimmie. "They are calling the men together, I reckon, and there must be Americans in charge for they talk United States."

"When you came up," began the officer, "did you observe the fellows near the bottom? They seemed to me to be asking questions of the ones up above."

"We saw no one except stragglers when we came up," was the reply. "After the signals came, Ned Nestor and Frank Shaw went down there to see who they were, and they are down there yet, I guess. At least, they haven't returned."

The soldiers, who were now laying aside their weapons and preparing to cook supper, late as the hour was, observed the lad eagerly at the mention of Nestor's name. The lad noticed, too, as they gathered about him with questioning looks, that they were not at all like Mexicans in appearance, now that they had thrown off their outer clothing. Jimmie glanced from the officer to his men.

"You don't look like Greasers to me," he said.

The officer laughed but made no reply.

"You came in with Ned Nestor?" he asked.

"Sure I did."

"And you say he went back down the mountain to see who was signaling down there?"

"That is what he said when he went away."

"What did he say about coming back?"

"Of course he'll come back," declared Jimmie. "He's needed here. Since his departure the boy he left here with me has been geezled by some one. I left him alone just a minute, and when I returned he wasn't here. They're all lost but me, and I'm from the Bowery, so nobody can lose me."

"Who was it that was taken from the camp?" asked the officer.

Jimmie hesitated, for he did not know what reply to make. These men might be in quest of Fremont. Tempted by the large reward offered for the capture of the boy, they might have crossed the river and followed Nestor into the mountains.

On the other hand, if they were not in search of Fremont, they might render valuable assistance in running down the men who had taken him away. It was rather a hard place to put the loyal little fellow, but he proved equal to the occasion by reserving his decision until further information concerning the new arrivals should be at hand.

"His name is Smith," he replied, shortly.

"And why did these unknown people abduct Smith?" laughed the officer, who understood from the manner of the boy that the name was a fictitious one.

"I don't know," was the truthful reply.

"Well, we'll look into this later on," said the officer. "Just now we've got to travel down this hill and see what Ned Nestor is about."

The officer talked with his men in whispers for some moments, and Jimmie saw that they were all anxious about something. Finally, directing two of his men to remain under arms at the tents, he set off down the mountain with the other four. As they disappeared Jimmie beckoned the drummer aside.

"What do they want of Ned Nestor?" he asked.

"They want some information he has," was the reply. "They were sent here to confer with him. Did you think they were Greasers because they wore the ragged clothes over their good ones? Huh! They had to do that, and talk Spanish, too, in order to get in here. The insurrectos think they're new recruits."

"Who are they? asked Jimmie. "What do they want to see Nestor for?"

"They are United States secret service men," was the reply. "They are here on a clue provided by Nestor, and they want to confer with him, as I said before."

"Jere!" cried Jimmie. "I didn't know that Ned was in partnership with the United States army. What is it all about?"

"You'll have to ask Ned," was the unsatisfactory reply. "He has been keeping the wires to Washington hot ever since he left New York, and these men were sent here at his request. There's something doing here, but I don't know what it is."

"I thought they were here to arrest Fremont," said Jimmie. "If I had known who they were, I wouldn't have lied about the boy. I said his name was Smith."

"Oh, it is George Fremont, is it?" asked the drummer. "That is the boy wanted for robbery and attempted murder in New York. Did Nestor bring him here?"

"Yes," was the reply. "He wanted to keep him away from the officers until the truth is known. Now he's gone and left us, and Fremont has been captured."

"Perhaps United States officers captured him," suggested the drummer. "If so, he is now on his way back to New York. I'm sorry."

"I don't believe civil officers got in here," said Jimmie. "When the secret service men come back, I'm goin' to ask them to help find him. I recon, now, that the Greasers caught him. I hope so, that is, I would rather they would have him than the others. We may get him away from the Greasers, but we couldn't get him away from officers."

A new view of the incident was now presented by one of the secret service men, who began questioning Jimmie about the boy he had called Smith. The boy thought best to tell him the truth, and did so.

It may be all right," the secret service man said, after hearing the story. It strikes me that the Greasers mistook Fremont for Nestor. In that case, they may release him as soon as they discover their mistake."

"Don't you ever think that," the other man cut in. "They are more likely to stand him up against a wall and shoot him. When the lieutenant comes back we'll see what can be done about it."

"But why should the Greasers want to capture Ned Nestor?" demanded Jimmie. "You said they might have mistaken Fremont for Ned."

"I can imagine that the man responsible for this gathering is interested in papers Nestor has," was the reply.

Jimmie and the drummer were now advised to get what sleep they could, the guards explaining that they were "expecting company," and that the talking might frighten the prospective callers away.

It was now nearing midnight, and Jimmie tried hard to lose himself in sleep, but, tired as he was, this seemed to be impossible. Fremont might be in deadly peril, and Nestor and Shaw were still unaccountably absent. His idea now was that the secret service man had advanced the correct theory regarding the abduction of Fremont. He had no doubt that the boy had been mistaken for Nestor.

Besides, the boy's mind was naturally excited over the strange revelations of the night. The arrival of the secret service men, the announcement that Nestor was working with the War department, the story that he had been in communication with the government at Washington ever since leaving New York, the hint that he held very important papers in his possession, all these supplied food for thought.

Under ordinary conditions the boy would have enjoyed himself to the limit in the mountains. He loved the forests and the wild places, the great spaces; he loved the light of the campfire and the rustle of foliage in the night. However, he was now by far too anxious to appreciate the outing he was having.

While he lay there trying to sleep he heard the guards whispering together. They were speaking of the important part Nestor was playing in the happenings there, and the boy was proud of his association with the resourceful patrol leader.

In a short time the boy heard the guards moving about as if acting under strong excitement. There was also the rattle of arms, as if they were preparing to meet an enemy.

Jimmie crept out of his blankets and crawled to the opening of the little tent. The guards were crouching low in the shadow of a rock, with their guns in hand, and the boy joined them.

"I thought you were asleep, kid," one of the men whispered. "Better go back to your tent. There may be shooting here."

"I didn't come down here to skulk," replied the boy, indignantly. "Are the stragglers coming here again?"

"There is some one moving about," was the reply.

"Perhaps it is Fremont, coming back," suggested Jimmie, hoping with all his heart that he had solved the riddle.

"If Fremont ever gets back here," the other guard observed, "we will have to bring him back. The men who took him away doubtless thought they were getting Nestor, and they will be so angry when they discover their mistake that the boy will receive very little consideration," was the discouraging explanation.

"Then we may as well be out after him," declared Jimmie. ""I'm not goin' to lie in any old tent while they are killing him. I'm going out to find him."

"In that case," said the guard, "we'll have to go and find you. Wait until the lieutenant returns, and we'll see what can be done. He may bring Nestor with him, you know, and he can assist."

Although this seemed good sense, it did not please Jimmie at all, and he went back to his tent resolved to get away from the guards as soon as possible and do what he could to find Fremont. At the very door of the tent, however, he came to a halt, for the signals were going again, and a great rocket flashed across the sky.