Chapter XXII. The Call in the Rain.
 

There was a sudden splash, heard above the downpour of the rain, followed by an exclamation of surprise, and then Jimmie's voice called out:

"Say, you fellers, throw me that life preserver!"

Nestor turned the flame on the electric flashlight and directed it toward the spot from which the voice had come. Jimmie, who had been feeling his way cautiously a few paces in advance of the party, was seen floundering about in a pool of water.

"Come on in!" the boy cried out. "The water is fine!"

"What you doing in there?" demanded Frank, nearly choking with laughter at the odd plight of the little fellow.

"I came in to get measured for a suit of clothes!" replied Jimmie. "Say, you fellows, give me a hand and I'll climb out."

The pool was neither wide nor deep, and the boy was soon on solid earth again. The storm had filled one of the depressions in the canyon the boys were following, with muddy water, and in the darkness Jimmie had tumbled into it.

"You're a sight!" Nestor said, turning the light on the boy, whose clothes were now a mixture of mud and briars acquired while descending the mountain slope above.

"I ain't any wetter than you are!" retorted the boy, as the rain switched his hair about his face. "Why don't you let me take the light when I go on ahead, then?"

"For the same reason that we do not head our procession with a fife and drum" laughed Frank. "We're not supposed to be here at all!"

"There's nobody out lookin' for a light in this canyon to-night," grumbled Jimmie.

As he spoke he seized Nestor by the arm and drew him back.

"What's that square of light down there?" he asked.

"Probably the camp we are bound for," was the reply.

"Then we've made better time down here than that lobster of an Englishman did," the boy exclaimed. "It took him most of the afternoon to climb down the hills, and we've been only about two hours on the way."

"It seems that we came by a much shorter and easier route," Nestor replied. "Where the other party was obliged to wind around precipices and crags, we made our way along the beds of what was once a succession of streams, cutting the side of the mountain into canyons. Wait here, boys," he added, "until I go down there and see what the situation is."

"Just you hold on until I let Fremont know we are coming!" Jimmie said, and the next moment the wolf-cry which Fremont had first heard rang out.

"Sounds like a wet wolf!" declared Frank.

"I know of a Black Bear that ain't any dryer!" replied Jimmie.

Nestor reached the level space in front of the west window of the hut just as the guard left the corner in the interest of a little warmth. The steady fall of the rain and the swish of the wind drowned any noises he made, and so he crept up to the wall of the structure without fear of discovery.

During the talk between the renegade and Fremont the patrol leader crouched under the window, listening. He heard the inquiries concerning Fremont's early connection with Mr. Cameron with surprise. Who was this man, he asked himself, who knew so much of Fremont's early life? What motive could he have in seeking to learn more about it than he already knew?

Unable to solve the problem, and realizing that the time for prompt action had come, he retreated from the window and with a low whistle summoned the boys to his side. As they joined him, led on by the irrepressible Jimmie, the boys gave the wolf call again.

"Just to let the kid know we're comin'!" Jimmie explained.

Then, while the boys stood considering the course to puruse, the square of light was cut by a figure standing between the flame and the window space. The watchers could not, of course, see the face which was looking out on the stormy night, but they knew that it was Fremont who stood there.

"There's no one in the room with him but that big lobster," Jimmie whispered, "and there's no one watching outside! If I were in his place I'd take a dive into the night! You bet I would."

"Perhaps he will," Nestor replied. "It would be a good thing to do provided he can get out of the window and out of the little circle of light before the Englishman can get out his gun and shoot."

"I'll give him a little advice on the subject," Frank observed, and the next moment the low whine of a bear sounded through the storm. It whined, then lifted into a deep growl, then died away into a whine again.

"What does that mean?" asked Jimmie.

"That is one Black Bear telling another to take to his heels!" was the reply. "You will see Fremont making for that opening in a second. Here he comes!"

Fremont was indeed springing through the opening where the sash had been. The boys saw the renegade clutch at his clothing, saw the cloth hold for an instant, then tear away under the impetus of the boy's movement, and heard Fremont's answer to the call as he struck the ground under the window.

Instead of going through the outer room and leaving the hut by means of the door, for some reason Big Bob concluded to follow the boy through the window. The opening was large enough for the passage of his burly frame, but he was clumsy in getting through, with the result that Fremont was nearly beyond the circle of light when at last he came to the surface outside.

Then the renegade made another mistake, a fatal one. He lifted up his great voice in warning the boy to return, and fired his revolver into the air as a means of intimidation. As he did so, the door of the hut, situated on the east, flew open and the outlaws rushed out, doubtless under the impression that they had been attacked. They left the door wide open, and a red square of light lay on the rain-soaked ground before it.

The only members of the party who did not exit by way of the doorway was the messenger who had identified Fremont. He dashed into the inner room when the cry and the shot came and looked from the window opening, there being no one in the room.

For hours this man, known to his companions as Ren Downs, had been observing the actions of Big Bob with suspicion. When the renegade talked with the prisoner, as he had many times on the way down, Ren sauntered close to the two in a vain attempt to hear what was being said. He doubted the honesty of the big fellow, believing that it was his purpose to break away from the others, himself included, and so escape the necessity of dividing the reward.

Doubting the loyalty of the renegade as he did, it was natural that he should decide that the fellow was planning an escape with the boy. Therefore, when he saw Fremont disappearing from view in the darkness, with Big Bob close after him, he drew his revolver and fired at the renegade. The shot took effect and Big Bob dropped to the ground.

"I hope he's killed him!" Jimmie said, heartily.

"No such luck as that!" Frank exclaimed. "See, the lobster is getting out his own gun!"

Big Bob lay in an awkward pose on the ground, his face and the muzzle of his automatic revolver turned toward the window. The boys almost held their breath as the figure of the messenger appeared, blocking the opening. When they saw what the purpose of the wounded man was they shouted to Downs to warn him, but were too late.

The automatic sent a hail of bullets toward the opening, and Downs fell limply across the window-ledge. At the fusillade of shots the outlaws came to the corner of the hut and glanced fearfully about. The square of light before the windows showed Big Bob lying on the ground and Downs hanging, head downward, from the window. Their natural supposition was that the hut had been attacked by a large force, so they took to their heels and were seen no more by the boys.

After a minute devoted to Black Bear hugs, and handshakes, and words of congratulation over his escape, the boys left Fremont in the shelter of the darkness and advanced to where Big Bob lay.

"It is all off with me, lads!" the big fellow said, as he turned his face to the boys. "I can't walk, for he shot me through the back. Will you get me into the hut?"

"Sure!" replied Jimmie. "You're pretty tough as a human proposition, but we can't see you suffer out here in the rain."

"Before you go any further," the man said, then, "see if Downs is dead. If I didn't get him right, he'll kill some one before he dies."

Nestor and Frank walked over to the body and made a quick examination.

"Stone dead," they said. "He never knew what hit him!"

"I am glad of that," Big Bob said. "Now get me into the hut."

The wounded man was carried into the hut and laid down on a heap of coats before the fire. It was easy to see that he was fatally injured, and the boys gathered about him with pale faces.

"I'm glad none of us shot him!" Frank said.

The storm grew wilder at midnight, the wind blowing in great gusts and the rain falling in sheets. By dodging out into the rain now and then the boys managed to keep the fire going. Big Bob lay perfectly silent before the fire for a long time and then motioned to Fremont.

"You're a good lad!" he said.

"Not long ago you were accusing me of crime," the boy said.

"Gather the boys around," the man said, then, "I want them to hear what I am going to say. You may write it down if you want to."

The wounded man did not speak again for a long time, and while the watchers waited a call came from outside of the hut--a long, wavering scream, as of some one in dire distress.

"Some one lost on the mountain!" Frank exclaimed.

Nestor opened the door between the two rooms so that the light of the fire might show through the open window from which Fremont had escaped. The candle used by Big Bob had long since burned out.

The cries continued, seeming to come no nearer, and Frank went out into the storm with the flashlight, watched by the others from the window. They saw him force his way against the wind until he came to the end of the gentle slope which terminated at an outcropping of rock, then they saw him halt and stoop over.

In a moment more he was back at the hut, his face paler than before, his eyes showing terror.

"There's some one out there with a broken leg," he said, "and we must go and get him in."

"Who is it?" asked Jimmie.

"I don't know," was the reply. "It seems to me that I have seen him before, but I can't place him now."

"What hurt the man?" asked Jimmie. "Is he shot?"

"He says he fell down the mountain," was the reply. "He heard the shooting, and made his way here. Come on. Let's go and bring him into our hospital!"

Three minutes later Fremont sprang to his feet as the man's face showed in the light.

"The night watchman!" he cried, and Jimmie echoed the identification.