Chapter I. Spies in the Boy Scout Camp
 

Gates, the United States Secret Service man, closed the door gently and remained standing just inside the room, his head bent forward in a listening attitude. Ned Nestor and Jimmie McGraw, Boy Scouts of the Wolf Patrol, New York City, who had been standing by a window, looking out on a crowded San Francisco street, previous to the sudden appearance of the Secret Service man, turned toward the entrance with smiles on their faces.

They evidently thought that Gates was posing, as so many detectives have a silly habit of doing, and so gave little heed to the hand he lifted in warning. The boys knew little about Gates at that time, and so may be pardoned for the uncomplimentary thoughts with which they noted his theatrical conduct.

Young Nestor had been engaged by the United States government to undertake a difficult and dangerous mission to South America, and Gates had been sent on from Washington to post him as to the details of the case. The boys had waited at the San Francisco hotel three days for the arrival of the Secret Service man, and waited impatiently, as Sam Leroy, who was to be the third member of the party, was anxious for the safety of his aeroplane, the Nelson, in which the trip to "the roof of the world" was to be made.

The Nelson was lying, guarded night, and day, in a field just out of the city, on the Pacific side, and Leroy was impatiently keeping his eyes on the guards most of the time. There was a subconscious notion in the minds of all the boys that there were enemies about, and that the aeroplane would never be fully out of danger until she was well over the ocean on her way south. Gates had arrived only that morning, and now the lads were eager to be off.

A couple of hours before his appearance in the room that morning, the Secret Service agent had left the boys in the lobby below to arrange for the necessary papers and funds for the mission. Before going out, however, he had been informed of the boys' suspicions, and had made light of the idea that the aeroplane was in danger from secret enemies, pointing to the fact that no one was supposed to know anything about the proposed journey save the boys and himself as conclusive evidence that the suspicion of constant surveillance was not well founded.

Now, on his return, his cautious movements indicated that he, too, was alarmed and on his guard. While Ned was wondering what it was that had so changed Gates' point of view, there came a quick, imperative knock on the door of the room, which was occupied by Ned and Jimmie as a sleeping apartment.

Instantly, almost before the sound of the knock died away, Gates opened the door and stepped forward. The man who stood in the corridor, facing the doorway, was tall, slender, dark of complexion, like a Spaniard or a Mexican. His black hair was long, straight, thin; his black eyes were bright, treacherous, too close together, with a little vertical wrinkle between the brows. He was dressed in a neat brown business suit of expensive material.

When the door was opened he stepped forward and glanced into the interior of the room, apparently with the purpose of entering. But when Gates moved aside to give him passageway he drew back, the set smile on his face vanishing as he bowed low and swung his slender hands out in elaborate gesture.

"Pardon!" he said. "I have made a mistake in the room."

He was about to move away when Gates gritted out a question.

"For whom were you looking?" he asked. "We may be able to direct you to your friend," he added, more courteously, his alert eyes taking in every detail of the man's face, figure and dress.

"It is nothing!" was the quick reply. "I will make inquiries at the office--which, undoubtedly, I should have done before."

In a moment he was gone, moving gracefully toward the elevator. Gates watched his elegant, well-dressed figure with a smile of quiet satisfaction. When the visitor gained the elevator, he turned and bowed at the still open doorway, and the Secret Service man recognized the grin on his face as expressive of triumph rather than apology.

"What did he want?" asked Jimmie, as Gates, closed the door.

Gates did not answer the question immediately. Instead he asked one:

"Ever see that fellow before?"

Jimmie shook his head, but Ned looked grave as he answered:

"I have seen him about the hotel--frequently. He seems to have a suite off this corridor, or the one above it."

At this moment the door was opened again and Sam Leroy bounced into the room, his eyes shining with enthusiasm, his muscles tense with the joy of youth and health. He drew back when he saw Gates, whom he had not met before, and looked questioningly at Ned.

"This is Lieutenant Gates, for whom we have been waiting," Ned said, "and this, Lieutenant, is Sam Leroy, who is to take us to South America in his aeroplane."

"I hope the machine is above reproach as to strength and speed," laughed Gates, as the two shook hands cordially, "for there is likely to be doings down there."

"The Nelson is warranted for work and wind," said Ned. "She crossed the continent in a rush and spied on us through British Columbia and on down the Columbia river, not long ago, and I can recommend her as a very desirable bird of the air."

"She's all sound now," Leroy said, "but there's no knowing how long she will be if we don't get her out of San Francisco. There was a couple of men hanging around her last night, and one of them went away with a bullet in his leg. I'm glad you're here, Lieutenant, for now we can get away--quick!"

"Did you get a good look at either of the two men you speak of?" asked Ned, his mind going back to what seemed to him to be a secret conspiracy against the Nelson.

"One of them," Leroy answered, "was tall, slender, dark; with long straight hair and eyes like a snake. I noticed, too, that he had a habit of moistening his lips with the end of his tongue, and that made me think of a snake thrusting out his tongue. I got a shot at the other fellow, but not at this one."

Gates and Ned looked at each other with nods of mutual understanding. This was a pretty good description of the man who had just stood before the door of that room. Then the lieutenant turned to Jimmie.

"You asked a moment ago," he said, "what the fellow wanted here. Now I think I can tell you. He wanted to confirm his suspicions that the four of us axe working together. He has been sleuthing about the corridors all the morning, watching me; and his mission to this room was to make sure that my business in San Francisco is with Ned--that we are working together."

"He's sure doing a lot of Sherlock Holmes stunts," Jimmie declared. "And I reckon he's next to his job, for he appears to have inspected all the points of interest, from the field where the Nelson is to the room where the plans are being made."

"Yes," Leroy said, his manner showing apprehension as well as anger, "but how the Old Scratch did he get his knowledge, of what, we are about to do? I thought no one in the West knew except us four. And what's he trying to do, anyway? What difference does it make to him if we do go to South America in an aeroplane?"

"I have a notion," Gates replied, "that he objects to your going in an airship because you will make such swift time. Let me tell you something more about this case. Then you will be able to understand why efforts may be made to prevent your going to South America, in an airship or in any other way."

"It's just the airship they've been after so far," Leroy interrupted. "They haven't troubled us--and they'd better not!"

"I imagine," said the lieutenant, gravely, "that their activities will broaden out as they get warmed up to their work. Understand? What I mean is this: You boys are risking your lives in undertaking this mission. You will be followed and spied upon from the minute you leave San Francisco, and the chances will be all against you when you reach your field of operations. Even the Government cannot protect you in your undertaking, for the Government is not supposed to know anything about this case."

"We are to do something by stealth, then, which the diplomats of the State department are too cautious to undertake?" asked Ned.

"That is it exactly," was the reply. "If the State department should take cognizance of the situation down there and make any sort of a demand, war would be certain to follow in case the demand was denied, which it would be. Therefore, the State department does not wish to make a demand. Still, the American who is in trouble must be protected. You are to go and get him out of his dungeon, or wherever he may be, and the Department of State will wink at what you do and look innocent."

"Aw, why don't they send a warship to do the job?" demanded Jimmie.

"Because," replied the lieutenant, "Uncle Sam has taken the republics of South America under his protection, and he does not care to spank them in the presence of all the nations of the earth! He wants to get this man Lyman--Horace M. Lyman, to be exact--out of the clutches of a crooked gang in Paraguay without wasting money and lives. Hence the arrangement with you boys."

"I have read something about the Lyman case," Ned observed, "but I have forgotten all the material points, I guess."

"Lyman," Gates went on, "took up his residence in Paraguay some years ago and opened negotiations with the government for a cattle concession. The lands known as the 'Chaco' district, lying between the Paraguay and Pilcomayo rivers, are said to be the best for grazing purposes in all South America. Years ago they were considered worthless swamps, but this is all changed now.

"Well, Lyman entered into negotiations with the president of this alleged republic and got his concession. There is no knowing how much he paid for it, for every new president of Paraguay--and they have new ones quite frequently down there--seems to do business on the theory that what he doesn't get while the getting is good he never will get at all. There have been four or five new official heads of this alleged republic within a couple of years.

"The country is on the verge of revolution most of the time and as the army goes so goes the election. Jara was made prisoner last July, and one Rojes put in power. Now, in order to keep in good standing with the army, the government is obliged to have generals who are loyal to whoever is in power. These generals must be paid for their services, of course.

"It seems that Lyman fell under the displeasure of one of these powerful military chaps, probably because he refused to give up all his profits in the cattle business. Anyway, Lyman disappeared from home, quite suddenly, and his manager was notified that settlement could be made with one Senor Lopez, an army chief, said to be a relative of a former president. So Lopez was appealed to.

"Now Lopez is a slippery chap. He denied knowing anything about Lyman, but declared that unless the cattleman appeared shortly and took up his work on the cattle concession the grant would be taken from him. That is like South American justice. Lock a man up and then deprive him of his rights because he can't appear and claim them!"

"Must be a fine healthy country!" Jimmie interposed.

"It is all of that," laughed the lieutenant. "Then this manager, I think his name is Coye, appealed to the United States consul and the consul to the president. Nothing doing! Lyman, they insisted, had not been molested by the authorities. But Lyman's people in this country are kicking up an awful row, and something must be done.

"There is no doubt that the cattleman, is locked up in some of the old military prisons of the country, yet the State department can't get him out. The president offers any assistance in his power, of course! Lopez weeps when the matter is mentioned to him--weeps at the unfounded suspicions which are being cast upon him! So there you are! The only hope for Lyman lies in some such method as has been planned. If you fail, the situation will be desperate, indeed."

"Why don't Lyman buy the fellow off?" asked Jimmie.

"The purpose of Lopez in pursuing the course referred to is undoubtedly to find an excuse for robbing Lyman of the concession and selling it to another at a much greater price. So others besides the general and Lyman are concerned in this mix-up."

"You refer to a person, or corporation, waiting to buy the concession?" asked Ned, the reason for the surveillance in San Francisco coming to him like a flash.

"That is it."

"And these prospective concessionaires are looking to it that Lyman gets no aid from this country?"

"I had not looked at the matter in that way, had not thought of their venturing over here, but presume you are right."

"Look here," Leroy asked, "are you figuring it out that the people who are trying to steal or cripple the Nelson came here from Paraguay for the express purpose of watching this Lyman case and preventing his friends from assisting him?"

"You state the case in a way which gives it a good deal of importance," Gates replied, "But I believe you state it correctly. Just how the men who hope to gain the concession if Lyman loses it came to understand the attitude of our Government is more than I can imagine, but it is quite clear to me that they do understand the situation--that they are thoroughly posted as to every move that has been made by the Government and by the friends of the cattleman."

"It is a good thing to know that we are likely to be chased to South America," Ned said, "for we know exactly what to expect, and shall be on our guard."

"Chased to South America!" laughed Leroy. "They'll have to go some if the keep up with the little old Nelson! She can fly some--if you want to know!"