Chapter XXI. Wolves Becoming Dangerous.
 

On the last slope of the mountain, where the sand of the desert crept up to the ridge of rock which might, at some distant day, become sand, too, Big Bob and his band of cut-throats came upon a deserted hut which had undoubtedly been used at some time by men who were searching there for gold.

The storm-clouds were shutting out the light of day when they paused before the one-hinged door of the two-room habitation. Seeing the approaching tempest, the renegade ordered his men to gather fuel and build a fire on the hearth, preparatory to passing the night there. This order was obeyed with reluctance, for the men were worn out with their exertions and ready to roll up in their blankets and seek rest without the comfort of a fire. Besides, fuel was not plentiful there, and it was a long time before enough to satisfy the renegade could be gathered.

Fremont was placed in a room to the west, a room only roughly partitioned off from the other. There was one window opening to this room, and that faced the west and the mountain range.

The storm was soon dashing in fury against the roof of the hut. The frail structure trembled beneath the blows of the wind, and the clamor of the beating rains made all interior sounds inaudible. The prisoner knew that the outlaws were sitting before the fire in the outer room, probably jesting and smoking, but they might have been far away for all evidences of their presence he heard.

With individual noises thus shut away by the noise of the downpour, the boy felt himself isolated and alone. For the first time since his capture, his courage was wavering, not so much because of the peril of the moment, but because of the general hopelessness of the situation.

Only a few days before he had been a trusted and respected member of the Cameron family, one of the wealthiest and most exclusive in New York. Now, discredited and in danger from the threatened exercise of a law he had not violated, he was presumably a prisoner on his way back to the Tombs. And yet, was he really on his way there? That was a question fully as puzzling as any other feature of the case.

It seemed a short time since he, with other members of the Black Bear Patrol, had visited in their luxurious club-house, planning a trip to Mexico. He had reached Mexico, all right, he thought, bitterly, but under what adverse circumstances. Instead of the companionship of his friends, instead of the jolly camps on the hills and long, pleasant days on the river, he was here a prisoner.

And he was the prisoner of a man who was desperate enough to take his life at any moment. Indeed, the renegade might not be taking him to the border at all. Fremont suspected another purpose. With this thought came the memory of the signals he had heard on the mountain, and he arose and went to the window opening, barren of sash and glass, and looked out, hoping to again hear, above the rain, the calls of the Black Bears. But no such sounds greeted his ears. There was only the rush of the rain.

Fremont knew that the renegade would not be paid the reward until after conviction, and he did not believe that any jury would convict him. It was not the fear of a penalty that had caused him to consent to flight, but the dread of the waiting in prison. He had an idea that Big Bob knew that he could not secure the reward at all unless he succeeded in securing a confession, and that he had given this up.

Under these circumstances the renegade might not go to the trouble of taking him to the border. Still, he seemed to be making for Texas with all secrecy and speed. Was there some other motive for landing him on Texas soil? The renegade had shown a strange familiarity with conditions in the Cameron building, and might be in some way interested in some other affair there. There seemed to be no answer to the puzzling questions the boy asked himself.

Looking into the immediate future, the boy could see but one ray of hope, and that centered about Nestor, Jimmie, and the Boy Scouts. He knew, from the call of the Black Bear Patrol signal, on the mountain, that his friends, loyal to the core, were not far away, but he did not know how many there were in the party, or what chances of success they had.

"Good old Black Bears!" the boy whispered. "They are in the hills somewhere, and will make themselves known when the right time comes."

After a couple of hours of such unpleasant thoughts as no boy of his years ought to be obliged to entertain, Fremont arose and again went to the window looking out on the mountain. The rain came a little less swiftly now, and the thunder heads were rolling away in heavy masses, leaving lighter spaces in the sky. He knew that a guard was at the angle of the building, placed there to prevent his escape, for he could hear the angry mutterings of the fellow as he moved about.

While he stood before the small window, he heard the call of a wolf not far away on the mountain. He bent nearer to the window and listened intently. Yes; that was the whine of a wolf, but such a whine as he had heard Jimmie give in showing the call of the Wolf Patrol.

His friends--the loyal Boy Scouts--were not far away! He wondered for a moment why the call of the Wolf Patrol had been given instead of the call of the Black Bears, and then remembered that there were really wolves in the mountains, while there were no black bears.

The guard at the corner growled something under his breath as the second signal came, and finally called out sharply:

"In the hut there!"

There was a short silence, silence except for the falling rain and the lashing wind, and then the voice of the renegade was heard.

"What do you want?" was asked.

"How much longer am I to remain here?" demanded the guard.

"Until there is no longer need of guarding the window," was the reply. "You are the only man here I can trust. You must remain on guard."

"He has as yet made no move to escape," the guard said, in fair English.

"I know that very well," came in Big Bob's voice, "for I have heard no shooting."

So that was why he had been left alone there so long! He was to be permitted to leave the hut by way of the window, and was to be murdered as soon as he touched the ground. The renegade figured that there could be no penalty for shooting at an escaping man who was charged with a serious crime.

"Perhaps it is just as well," Big Bob said, directly, "for I have not talked with him yet."

"Then you'd better do so at once," grunted the guard. "This is no picnic out here in the rain!"

"Have patience!" replied the renegade, and the voices ceased.

In a few moments Fremont heard the renegade at his door, speaking in a whisper to the guard there. Then the door was opened and the big fellow came bulkily into the room.

Fremont glanced up at the brutal face, only half revealed by the flaring candle he carried on a level with his enormous ears, but did not speak. From the outer room came a clatter of Spanish words.

"I have been wondering," the fellow said, in a voice which showed a degree of education and culture not proclaimed by the coarse face, "why you attacked Cameron?"

"I didn't!" replied Fremont, hotly.

"The proof is against you!"

Fremont did not answer. He was listening for the call of a wolf on the mountain.

"The proof is against you, boy," repeated the renegade.

After hearing the brief talk at the angle of the hut, Fremont had little desire for a conversation with the fellow. The inference to be drawn from that conversation was unmistakable. He was to be murdered by his captors. However, the boy could let this repetition of the charge go unchallenged.

"Remember," he said, "that you have heard only one side of the case. I do not know where you receive the information you claim to possess, but it goes without saying that it came from an enemy--probably from a man implicated in the crime with which you charge me. In fact, you have already opened up negotiations with me in the interest of the criminal."

"How so, boy?" demanded the other.

"You offered me my freedom if I would make a false confession. Why should you want a confession unless in the interest of one connected with the crime?"

"I told you why I wanted the confession," replied Big Bob, trying to force a little friendliness into his voice and manner. "It would give you a lighter sentence, and it would make it easier for me to get the reward."

Fremont made no reply to this. The manner of the fellow was so insincere that he could find no satisfaction in talking with him. Big Bob, however, did not go away. Instead, he sat down on a packing box which stood in the corner of the room and stuck the candle he carried up on the floor, under the window ledge so the wind would not extinguish it, in a pool of its own grease.

"If Cameron gets well," he said, "he'll be likely to forgive you if you do the right thing now."

No reply from the prisoner, sitting not far from the window, listening for another wolf call from the mountain.

"Cameron has always been your friend," the other went on.

"Indeed he has!" exclaimed the boy, almost involuntarily testifying to the kindness of the man who had taken him from the streets and given him a chance in life.

"He took you from the gutter?"

Fremont looked out into the rain, only faintly seen in the glimmer of the flaring candle, and made no reply.

"He took you into his family?"

Fremont arose and went nearer to the opening where the sash had been, and stood for an instant with the rain beating on his face.

"How did he come to do it?"

Fremont began to see a purpose in this strange form of questioning. Nestor had asked questions similar to these, and had suggested that Mother Scanlon, the woman who had cared for him in a rough way at one time, be looked up on their return to New York. Why this suggestion?

"Where did you first see Cameron?"

The voice of the renegade was threatening. Fremont heard only the sweep of the rain outside for a moment, and then the voice of the guard came through the sashless window opening.

"I'm going in to warm up a bit," he said.

"All right," the renegade replied. "I'll let you know when to go on guard again. Boy," he added, facing Fremont with lowering brows, "I can make it to your advantage to tell me all about your connection with Cameron."

Fremont heard the words dimly, for as the door of the hut slammed behind the drenched guard and his voice was heard in the outer room, the howl of a wolf came from the darkness just outside the window.

"Confound the wolves!" the renegade snarled. "They are becoming dangerous!"

"What you say may be true, so far as you are concerned!" Fremont replied, grimly.