Chapter XIII. Captured the Wrong Boy.
 

As the boys listened voices came distinctly to their ears. It was evident that the men who were talking had only recently arrived at the spot where they stood, for all had been quiet a short time before.

The boys crept closer and saw a party of rough-looking natives gathered about an evil-looking man, who appeared to be an Englishman, and a slender figure which Jimmie had no difficulty in recognizing as that of George Fremont. The sinister Englishman, undoubtedly the leader of the party, was a giant of a fellow.

As the boys looked, he reached forth a great hand and, seizing Fremont by one shoulder, shook him fiercely. Then it was seen that Fremont's hands were tied behind his back. Jimmie started forward, involuntarily, at sight of the brutality of the act, but the drummer drew him back.

"You'll have to remain quiet," the latter said, "if you want to help your friend. We can't fight the whole party. Have you a gun with you?"

Jimmie nodded and laid a hand on his hip.

"I am unarmed," the other said, in a minute, "and so couldn't do much in a fight; so, perhaps I'd better go down and bring up the guards."

"Just the thing," whispered Jimmie. "I'll remain with this gang of bandits and manage to leave a trail that can be followed if they leave the place. Go on down an' bring the guards. And," he added, a half smile on his anxious face, "don't forget to bring your drum."

"My drum!" repeated the other, in amazement. "What is the good of bringing a drum, I'd like to know?"

"Bring it, anyway," directed Jimmie. "If you hear a shot up here, play it to beat a band. Beat it for keeps. Rattle off a charge, and make a noise like a regiment of cavalry. And if you can't make good time climbing down, slip on a rock an' roll down. Somethin' must be done quick!"

"I don't believe they will shoot him," the drummer said, tentatively, hesitating for an instant.

"If that big lobster gives the order to do it," Jimmie said, his eyes flashing, "I'll get him before the order can be obeyed. They may get me after that, but I'll have the satisfaction of knowin' that I got to him first. Now, run!"

The dawn was strong in the east when the drummer disappeared down the side of the mountain. It had been an eventful night, a long one to the boy standing there watching for an opportunity of making his presence known to the prisoner. There was a deal of talking going on in the group about the prisoner, but Jimmie could catch only part of what was said.

The soldiers--if the ragged, sullen-looking natives might so be termed--talked fast and in a villainous tongue which did not seem to be Spanish. They appeared to be greatly excited, and it was only when the heavy voice of the leader boomed forth that they reverted to silence.

Jimmie could not understand what the prisoner had been brought there for. If the idea of his captors was to restore him to his friends, that would be the work of only a minute. They would only have to cut the bonds and Fremont would do the rest. If the idea was to murder him, why the delay? It had been hours since his capture, and it would have taken only a minute to discover that the wrong boy had been taken.

If, as Jimmie considered gravely, the big man should prove to be a civil officer from Texas, a a man with a warrant for Fremont, then it seemed that he would be getting him across the border as quickly as possible, taking no chances with slow Mexican criminal procedure. This last view of the case was the one which Jimmie feared most. He might be able to get his friend away from Mexican bandits, but not from a Texas sheriff.

The next words of the leader settled every doubt on the question the boy was puzzling over. Although they showed that Fremont was in immediate peril of his life, the watcher was in a measure relieved at the knowledge they brought him. So long as Fremont was held a prisoner by those who were breaking and not enforcing the law in doing so, there was hope of rescue.

"Nestor," the Englishman said, thrusting his bewhiskered face into that of Fremont, "tell me where the papers are, and I'll set you free in an instant."

"I know nothing about the papers you speak of," was the reply. "I have never had them in my possession."

The renegade whispered with his companions for a moment. Jimmie could not hear what was being said, but the soldiers seemed to be insisting on some point which the leader was not quite certain of. Then the latter asked:

"You are certain you made no mistake?"

The others nodded and pointed at Fremont.

"It is as you commanded," one of them said, in fair English.

Then the big man turned back to the prisoner, an ugly frown on his repulsive face.

"You are not telling me the truth," he said. "You know well enough where the papers are. It is useless for you to deny."

The leader believed the prisoner to be Nestor. That was plain now. And Fremont had been captured by these brigands in the absence of the leader, and he was taking their word that they had abducted the right boy. This might account for the delay. The leader might have joined his men only now.

"I don't know anything about the papers," insisted Fremont.

"Huh!" muttered Jimmie, from his hiding place. "Why don't he tell his nobbs who he is? Then he might be released."

Jimmie did not know that Fremont had long been considering this very point, and finally decided that the correct course for him to pursue would be to permit his captor to remain in ignorance of his identity. The instant he knew that his brigands had made a mistake, the fellow would be out after Nestor with a larger force, and that would make it dangerous for the boy, would hamper him in the work he was there to do. Besides, he believed that the course he proposed would gain time, and that Nestor would certainly come to his rescue.

"You are making a mistake," the big man threatened, as Fremont again denied knowledge of the papers. "You are known to have been in the Cameron building that night. You are known to have taken the papers away from there, and to have made use of them. I won't say what treacherous use now. If the papers are not on your person, they are hidden somewhere."

Fremont only shook his head. In the growing light Jimmie could see that he was very pale, that he seemed tired out, as if he had been traveling all night. However, the white face he saw had a determined look, and Jimmie marveled at the mental processes which should so obstinately defend a wrong idea, which, of course, he only guessed.

"Everything you have done since you left the building that night is known to me," the big man went on. "You deserve death for the marplot that you are, but I will release you if you will restore the papers."

Fremont made no reply whatever to this. As a matter of fact, he did not even know the nature of the papers which were so in demand, Nestor having told him little of his real mission to Mexico. In the meantime Jimmie way trying in every way he could think of, without revealing his presence, to catch Fremont's eye and make him understand that help was at hand, and that he ought to reveal his identity and so create delay, as well as escape whatever cruelty the big fellow had in store for the boy he was being mistaken for.

"I'll give you three minutes, Nestor," the leader finally said, "to tell me where the papers are. At the end of that time, if you remain obstinate, I'll order you shot. Decide!"

Jimmie twisted and wiggled about until he became fearful that the noise he was making must disclose his presence, but Fremont did not cast a look in his direction. The leader stood grimly in the foreground with watch in hand. The seconds seemed to Jimmie to be running by like a mill-race.

"Two minutes."

Fremont's face did not change, except for a slight tightening of the lips. Jimmie listened intently for the sound of a drum on the mountain side below. It now was quite light, and the watcher could see every movement made by the men he believed to be brigands and their prisoner. A chill of terror ran through his veins as he saw the ragged squad examining their guns as if they expected to use them at the expiration of two more minutes.

"One minute."

The leader snapped out the words viciously; his evil eyes sparred for an instant with those of his captive and were then lowered to the ground. Jimmie took his revolver from his pocket and held it ready for action. As he had declared to the drummer, it was his deliberate intention to shoot the leader an instant before he gave the order to fire. He knew that the discharge would point out his place of concealment, and did not doubt that the volley intended for Fremont would be turned upon himself, but the knowledge did not swerve him from his purpose.

He counted the next seconds by his own fierce heart-beats. Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. It seemed to him that a second was never so short before. At sixty he would fire if he saw no evidence of weakening in Fremont. And he did not believe that Fremont would weaken. He was coming to understand that Fremont was obsessed with the idea that he was protecting Nestor by the course he was taking. This being true, he would remain loyal to the very end.

Thirty-nine. The leader seemed about to lift his hand as a signal for the squad to level their guns, when a shout came from up the slope, and a figure every whit as ragged and disreputable in appearance as the men gathered about the prisoner swung into sight, leaping over ledges and lifting voice and hand in warning as he advanced.

The men, now swinging their guns into position, paused and held them motionless while they gazed at the intruder. The leader shifted about uneasily and muttered something under his breath. Released, for the moment at least, from the strain he had been under, Jimmie dropped back in his hiding place, his weapon clattering to the ground. It was not the fact of his own peril that had wrought him up to the point of breaking, but the thought that it might be necessary for him to take a human life.

It seemed to the boy that there was displeasure half hidden in the leader's manner as he conferred with the messenger. He did not appear to approve of the interruption.

"Why didn't you tell me that you had made a mistake and taken the wrong boy?" he demanded, then turning to the men. "Why didn't you tell me this was not Nestor?"

The men made no reply except that one of them grumbled that they had captured the boy whose description they had been given, and the leader turned to Fremont.

"Why didn't you declare your identity?" he demanded.

"I had no reason to believe that anything I could say would be credited," was the cool reply. "You saw fit to disbelieve what I said about the papers."

"What is your name?" the other asked, laying a hand on the boy's arm.

Fremont remained silent, but the messenger stepped forward and declared that he knew the fellow well by sight, and that his name was George Fremont.

"Is that true?" demanded the renegade, and Fremont nodded.

Somehow it seemed to Jimmie that the renegade expected the answer that he had received, and that he way angry with the messenger for bringing out the boy's name. At any rate he glanced furtively at his men as the name was mentioned.

"And so," he said, then, "you are the boy wanted in New York for attempted murder and robbery? The boy with a reward of $10,000 on his head."