Chapter XIV. The Case is Well Stated.
 

It was a long, tedious climb back up the side of the slope. With almost every step the night watchman and the Mexican clamored for a hearing, for details of the charge against them, but they met with scant courtesy. Both Nestor and Lieutenant Gordon understood that they were fearful that they were to be taken at once back to New York, in which case they would be deprived of a chance to plunder the hidden mine, which they had come so far to find. Nestor had explained, very briefly, to the lieutenant that the Mexican and the watchman were there in quest of treasure, but had not confided to him the whole story of the Cameron tragedy, it being separate and distinct from the issue which had brought the secret service men to Mexico.

Don Miguel maintained a dignified silence--as dignified as a panting man can hold--through-out the tiresome journey, except on one occasion. Once, while the night watchman was violently demanding information concerning the crime with which he was to be charged, the diplomat asked:

"Why are you so silent concerning the man's alleged crime? It appears to me that you are conducting an abduction rather than an arrest. I, also, am anxious to know something of the charges against me."

"You shall know in good time," replied the lieutenant.

"I believe," Don Miguel went on, "that I can convince even you, prejudiced though you are, that you are making a great mistake--a costly mistake, both for yourself and your government."

"When we reach the tents I will listen to you," was the short reply, and the little party went on its way in silence for a long time, silent save for the mutterings of the Mexican and his fellow-conspirator, as Nestor believed the watchman to be.

Moonlight lay like a silver mist over the stubborn paths the party was following. Moving objects could be observed at a great distance, where the character of the surface permitted, and now and then moving bodies of men were discernible on the slopes of faraway peaks. Don Miguel's dusky face seemed to brighten, his eyes to gather almost a smile, whenever such parties were seen. It was plain to his captors that he looked upon the wandering bands as friendly to his interests.

Always the marching men--if scrambling up a mountain side in undignified positions may justly be described as marching--were headed for heights above. All were proceeding as silently as possible, too, and that gave an air of secrecy, of mystery, to the wild scenery and the romantic moonlight. Occasionally the flickering gold of a camp-fire mingled with the silver of the moon.

Just before dawn, when the members of the party were nearly ready to drop from exhaustion, a sharp challenge rang out ahead, and Lieutenant Gordon gave a word which caused a cautious guard to withdraw his threatening gun, and to hasten forward to greet his chief. With his first breath he asked a question.

"Have you seen anything of those confounded boys?"

"The drummer and the Bowery lad?" asked the lieutenant. "Why, we left them with you when we went down the hill."

"Well, they're gone!" exclaimed the guard, despondently.

"Gone!" repeated Nestor, stepping forward. "Where have they gone? Has anything been heard of Fremont?"

"Not a word," said the guard, answering only the last question. "It is my idea that the other boys sneaked off in the hope of finding him. I sent them into one of the tents to sleep, and when I looked in a short time later, they were not there."

"It is certain that they were not carried off?" asked Lieutenant Gordon.

"Certain," was the reply. "We watched the tents every second."

"And yet the boys got away without being seen," said the lieutenant, angrily.

"I don't see how they did it," was the abashed reply.

"I have little doubt that they have been carried away by the men who captured Fremont," Nestor said, gravely. "Still, it may be that they have only wandered off in search of the boy. It is a serious situation."

"The mountain is swarming with men," the lieutenant said. "The only wonder is that we have not been attacked. I fear that the boys have been captured, even if they only wandered away to look for their friend."

Nestor walked restlessly about the little camp for a moment and then looked into the two tents, as if expecting to find some one there.

"Where is Shaw?" he asked, then, alarm in his voice. "Where is the boy we sent on ahead of us? He must have reached here a long time ago."

The guards looked surprised at the question.

"Why," one of them said, "no one came here from below but yourselves. We have seen no one."

Nestor stood for a moment as if he thought the men were playing a trick on him, then the gravity of the situation asserted itself. What mischief was afoot in the mountains? Why had the boys disappeared, while there had been no attempt to obstruct the passage of the secret service men as they moved about?

"It seems, then, that there is another lost boy," said Lieutenant Gordon. "That makes four. It is most remarkable."

"Yes," said Nestor, "Fremont, Jimmie, Shaw, and this drummer you told me about. I think we have our work cut out for us now."

"It is the second time Peter Fenton has been lost to-night," Gordon said, with a smile. "He was lost and we found him--lost and hungry, but full of courage."

"Peter Fenton!" exclaimed Nestor. "I know him well as a member of the Panther Patrol. A bright boy, and full of information concerning Mexico. I have often heard him speak of this country. Well, let us hope that the four boys are all together, wherever they are. It seems strange that the outlaws should go about picking up boys."

"It will soon be daylight now," Lieutenant Gordon said, "and then we'll see what we can do. It may be that the lads will return and bring Fremont with them, though that is almost too much to hope for. Anyway, it seems to me that we have accomplished the principal object of our journey here," he added, with a glance at Don Miguel.

The diplomat turned about and faced the lieutenant with a sneer on his face.

"You are not the only one who is making progress here to-night," he said. "If you wish the return of your friends, release me and I will restore them to you."

"I think we'll take chances on finding the boys," Gordon said. "You are wanted very particularly at Washington."

"Then permit me to send word to my friends, urged Don Miguel. "I can cause the patriots who doubtless have the boys to return them to you. Odd that they should have carried them off," he added, with a scowl.

The man's inference was that the boys were being held as hostages, but this Nestor did not believe. Fremont had been taken away before the arrest of Don Miguel.

"That would be a very good move--for your interest," Nestor said, in reply to the suggestion. "As the lieutenant says, we prefer to take our chances on finding the boys. Your friends might want to interfere with your trip to Washington if they knew our intentions concerning you."

"You will soon see your mistake," was the significant reply.

During this talk the night watchman and the Mexican had remained silent, but it was plain that they had not lost a word that had been said. Especially when the talk of restoring Fremont to his friends was going on, the watchman had cast significant glances at Felix.

"Was it a part of the conspiracy," Nestor asked, facing the three men, "to abduct Fremont if he left New York? Or was it the intention to murder him there?"

Don Miguel turned to Nestor with a sneer on his rather handsome face. It was evident that he did not relish being questioned by a mere youth.

"I know nothing of the urchin to whom you refer," he said, scornfully. "I do not deal with precocious infants."

Nestor checked an angry rejoinder, and Don Miguel directed his attention to Lieutenant Gordon, whom he seemed to consider more worthy of his notice.

"Down there on the mountain side," the diplomat said, "you promised to further inform me as to the reasons for my being held a prisoner, deprived of freedom of action. I am waiting for you to speak."

Lieutenant Gordon smiled and referred the diplomat back to the boy.

"I know very little about the matter," he said. "I am working under orders from Washington, definite orders, which leave me virtually under the direction of Mr. Nestor. If you ask him to do so, he may be willing to go into the details of the matter with you."

"Must I deal with the infant class in such an important matter?" demanded the other. "Then perhaps, you will condescend to do as the lieutenant suggests," he added, turning back to Nestor, with a look of helpless rage on his face.

"I have no objection whatever," replied Nestor, seeing in the request a chance to inform the lieutenant, in the presence of the prisoner, of the exact status of the case, and also to observe the effect upon the latter of a statement dealing with the particulars of his treasonable actions.

"Proceed, then, my boy," said Don Miguel, patronizingly.

"A few weeks ago," Nestor began, only smiling at the weak condescension displayed, "you entered into correspondence with Mr. Cameron, of New York City, with reference to the purchase of arms and ammunition in large quantities. At first your letters met with prompt answers, for Mr. Cameron was in the business of selling the class of goods you had opened negotiations for. Then your letters grew confidential, finally suggesting a private arrangement between Mr. Cameron and yourself under which the arms and ammunition to be purchased were to be delivered to secret agents on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande."

Don Miguel's face was now working convulsively, his hands, clenched, were fanning the air in denial, and it seemed as if he would spring upon the boy.

"It is false!" he shouted. "All false!"

"Suspicious that the arms and ammunition were to be used against his own country, Mr. Cameron drew you out on this point, how cleverly you well know, until the whole plot lay revealed. You were purchasing the goods in the interest of a junta which proposed to arm such outlaws and rag-a-muffins as could be assembled, and to send them across the Rio Grande on a hostile mission in the guise of Mexican soldiers."

"False! False!" almost howled the diplomat. "How is it that you, a boy, a mere child, who should be with his mother in the nursery, should know such things?" he demanded; then seeing his error, he added, "should place such a construction on a plain business transaction?"

"It was the purpose of this junta," Nestor went on, not noticing the interruption, "in marching this ragged army across the border to precipitate war between the United States and Mexico. With an invader on their soil, the members of the junta reasoned, all Mexicans would flock to the standard of their country, and the war with the United States would be fought out by a united Mexico."

"Lies! Lies!"

Don Miguel was now walking fiercely about the little dent in the side of the mountain where the camp was built, pressing close to the loaded guns of the guards, each time, before he turned back to swing and rave over the ground again.

"This very pretty conspiracy to involve the United States in a war with Mexico," Nestor continued, "was unwittingly foiled by a desperate crime--perhaps committed by yourself."