Chapter X. Dinner is Served
 

Ned stepped to the mouth of the cavern and looked out. Jimmie was making his way back to the machine, empty handed and evidently dejected. Ned gave a sharp whistle and beckoned to the lad when he looked up.

He did not care to make any unnecessary noise there, for he believed that Collins was not far away.

He was now half convinced that Lyman had been secreted in that vicinity after being abducted from Paraguay; that he had been closely guarded and comfortably provided for, the idea being to keep him out of Paraguay until his concession reverted to the government.

It was his notion, too, that Lyman had inhabited this cavern until the appearance of the Nelson, when he had been removed by his attendants and placed in custody in some other natural hiding place.

Whether he was still in that locality the boy could not say, but of one thing he was certain. That was that Lyman had not been taken away in the motor car.

And so the quest had been shifted! There would now be no need of proceeding to Asuncion. Probably to prevent getting mixed up in the crooked game, the plotters in Paraguay had ordered those interested in the disappearance of Lyman to get him out of the alleged republic.

This would account for his being in the mountains of Peru. It might also account for the presence in Lima of the Vixen and Mr. Thomas Q. Collins.

The telegrams without meaning which Ned had received on his arrival at Lima pointed out the fact that the conspirators knew that the Nelson was heading for that city as a base of operations. Ned's receipting for the telegrams was proof positive that he had arrived.

"A very pretty plot!" Ned thought, as he waited for Jimmie to make his way up the face of the cliff to the mouth of the cavern.

"Gee!" the little fellow cried, as his head showed above the level of the floor of the hiding place. "I never was so hungry in me blameless life!"

Ned backed up so as to conceal the tinned food.

"What will you give for a couple of tins of pork and beans?" he asked, with a provoking smile.

"I'll sign a check for any amount!" grinned the boy.

Ned stepped aside, disclosing the food, and handed Jimmie a small hatchet which he had found under the rubbish.

"Go to it!" he said.

Jimmie almost dropped with amazement. It was like getting water out of the desert. Like finding milk in the heart of a rock. Like uncovering snowballs from a bed of hot coals! American tinned goods in the mountains of Peru!

The boy examined the cans attentively. They were all correct on the outside. Then he cut one open with the hatchet and brought out a spoonful of beans on the corner of the implement.

"Wow!" he cried, in a moment. "They're all right! Come on an' fill up!"

Both boys fell to, and the supply of tinned food was considerably diminished before they had finished their breakfast. Then, fearful that the owners of the food might seek to remove it before another meal time came, they carried a considerable portion of the cans away and hid them in a small cache near the Nelson.

"We won't starve for a few days," Jimmie said, when this work had been finished.

"Now, tell me what it all means. I wanted to ask you before, but, somehow, I couldn't keep my mouth empty long enough to talk. What about it?"

"I think," Ned replied, "that we have blundered on the country residence of Mr. Horace M. Lyman!"

"What does he come up here for?" asked the little fellow. "Ain't he got no sense?"

"The decision wasn't up to him, I take it," laughed Ned. "The schemers in that crooked little country wanted to get him out of the way, so they wouldn't be getting into a quarrel with the little old U. S. A."

"I don't see him anywhere around," the other said.

"He doesn't seem to be on exhibition, and that's a fact," Ned replied.

"Perhaps," Jimmie grinned, "we'd better look up this Thomas Q. Collins! I guess, he could lead us to him."

"No doubt of that," Ned admitted.

Having securely hidden the tinned food, the boys still lingered in the vicinity of the Nelson. The machine lay shining in the sunlight, seeming to look reproachfully up at the boys, accusing them of getting her into a very bad predicament.

"Good old girl!" Jimmie cried, stroking the motors. "We'll get you out of this mix-up, all right!"

"If we do," Ned replied, studying the ground about the machine, "we'll have to get cover somewhere and watch her night and day." He pointed to footprints close up to the motors as he spoke, and Jimmie began measuring the impressions in the soft earth.

"They've been here since we landed, all right," the boy exclaimed, in a minute. "We never left these tracks. They're big enough for an elephant to make!"

"They were made by muckers," Ned continued. "You know the kind of shoes the men who work in mines wear? Big ones, looking more like a mud scow than a shoe. They have turned some of the copper workers loose on us, little man."

"Gee! How long will it take Pedro to get back?"

"Probably three days, if he has no bad luck--if they let him come back at all," Ned answered.

"You can take it from me that they won't let him come back at all if they have anything to say about it!" the lad muttered. "I reckon I'll have to go an' find him."

"I think it will take both of us to prevent the Nelson being broken up," was Ned's reply. "We shall, as I have already said, have to guard it night and day. And, besides, we've got to keep out of the way of bullets and poisoned arrows."

"This is a cute little excursion, when you look at it up one side and down the other," Jimmie grunted. "We've left Leroy in trouble at Lima, and we've got the Nelson all banged up. Perhaps they'll hang Leroy before we get back!"

"Cheer up!" laughed Ned. "The worst is yet to come!"

"And here it comes!" cried the little fellow, as a handkerchief which might once have been white fluttered above a boulder not far away, held aloft and waved frantically back and forth by a hand which could only faintly be seen.

"Come on out!" Ned shouted.

A figure lifted from behind the rock and stood straight up, waving a dilapidated slouch hat, now, instead of a handkerchief. The fellow wore a suit of clothes which was much too small for him, so that his wrists and ankles protruded a good six inches. The clothes were dirty and ragged too, and the man's face looked as if it had been a long time since it had been brought into contact with water.

At a motion from Ned he advanced toward the machine. Ned thought he had never seen a sadder face on a human being.

"Looks like Calamity!" Jimmie muttered

"Have you boys got anything to eat?" asked the stranger, rubbing his palms over the waist band of his ill-fitting trousers.

"You look like you needed something to eat!" Jimmie put in. "How long you been sleuthin' at us from that rock?"

"Not long," was the reply, in a slow, sober tone. "Just a minute. I fell down a mountain not so very long ago."

"Then," said Jimmie, pointing to the wound on his head, "you haven't got anything on me. I'm quite a hand at fallin' down precipices, myself!"

"You didn't say if you had anything to eat," insisted the stranger. "I'm so hungry that I could eat a fried griddle."

"Well," replied Ned, "we're just out of fried griddles, but we've got a tin of beans we might give you."

"Slave for life if you do!" drawled the other. "I've been wandering in the mountains for more than a week, and am so empty that it will require several tins to fill me up, but if one is the limit, why--"

Jimmie uncovered the cache and brought out a can of beans, which he opened with the hatchet and presented to the other, with a grave bow.

"Dinner is served, me lud!" he said.

The stranger did not wait for formalities. He had no knife, fork, or spoon, but he managed to remove the beans from the can and convey them to his mouth without the aid of such artificial aids to the hungry. He sighed when the can was empty, and wiped his hands on the grass at his feet.

"How did you get in here?" asked Ned, then, curious to know how any one could have the nerve to face a mountain journey in the condition this man was in.

"I came after the mother lode," was the reply.

"Have you got it in your pocket?" asked the little fellow.

"I didn't say I found it," was the grave reply. "I said I came in here looking for it. There was a party left Sicuani, over to the east, two weeks ago, and I trailed in behind. You see, I had a fool idea that these people were on the track of a big gold find, and so just naturally sneaked along. They had an automobile. I walked. They had plenty of provisions. I had no one to grub-stake me. They feasted while I starved, but the way is rough and slow, especially when tires break, and I managed to keep up with them until two days ago. Then they got away from me."

"Did you find gold?" asked Ned.

The stranger shook his head.

"Nothing doing!" he said. "I've been grubstaked all over Australia, and up the Yukon, and over Death Valley, but I have never found a spot where there's so little gold as there is in these hills."

"So, you are an American tourist?" asked Ned.

"I am," was the grave reply. "I stowed away on a ship bound for Asuncion and got a job shoveling coal to pay for the rottenest grub I ever ate. When we got up the river to Asuncion I hired out to a man to herd cattle. That was worse, only the air was not so confining."

"So you left and went to Sicuani?" asked Ned.

"Exactly, after many days. I liked the cattle business all right, but I had to move on. Horace M. Lyman is a good chap to--"

"Wait!" Ned said. "It was Horace M. Lyman you worked for, eh?"

"Sure. He's an American, and a fine fellow."

"Well," Jimmie cut in, "you're likely to see him if you stick around here. They geezled him, so another gazabo could get his concession."

"And marooned him off here? Is that it?" asked the stranger. "Well, there's a pair of us, then, that don't find anything nourishing in the scenery. Where is he?"

"We haven't found him yet," Ned answered, "but we're on the trail. If you had one more can of beans, do you think you could help us hunt him up?"

"Certainly. Of course. I'll do that without the beans, but--"

"I see," Ned answered. "You haven't the strength, just now, to do much looking. All right, we'll fat you up, and then--"

Ned did not complete the sentence, for a long, wavering call came from the west, and the stranger started off in that direction without a word of explanation. Ned wondered for a moment whether this fellow wasn't another hypocrite of the Collins stripe.

"Wait a minute!" he exclaimed. "Suppose you tell us something about that call?"

"I'm agreeable," replied the other. "Don't you know what that coo-coo-ee-ee is? Then you've never lived in the cattle country. That is a cowboy salute, pard, and my private opinion is that Horace M. Lyman is the party that uttered it."

"Then he's not far away," Jimmie said.

"Suppose I answer him?" asked the stranger.

"Go on an' do it," the little fellow advised, and Ned nodded.

The cod-coo-ee-ee which the ex-cowboy emitted rang through the valley and came back in weird echoes from the crags around.

"Now he knows there's some one here looking after him," the stranger explained. "He knows that Old Mose Jackson is right on the job. What might your name be, pard?" he added, turning to Ned.

"Nestor," was the reply.

"Ned Nestor, of course!" Jackson exclaimed. "I read about you being in Mexico, and in the Canal Zone. Strange I should bump into you away off here! And I'll bet this is Jimmie? What?"

"The same!" the little fellow replied. "Ned can't lose me!"

Hardly had the words left the boy's mouth when a bullet came zipping through the air. It struck a metal section of the Nelson and flattened out.

"Before now," Jackson said, coolly, "when I've found myself on the open plain with redskins popping away at me I've dug a hole in the ground and stowed myself away in it. What do you think of the notion, pard?"

"It looks good to me!" Jimmie cried. "But," he went on, "We've got nothing to dig with, so we'll just have to move back to that gully, an' take the grub with us."

The change was soon made, the Nelson being run back to the edge of the trench-like depression, and then the three awaited the next move on the part of the enemy.

Presently a shout was heard, and then the flashily-dressed figure of Mr. Thomas Q. Collins appeared on the shelf of rock.

"Don't shoot!" he cried, swinging both hands aloft. "I want to come down and talk with you."

"There's some trick in that!" Jimmie said.