Chapter XII. A Bribe of Half a Million
 

"What do you want to talk about?" asked Ned, as Thomas Q. Collins advanced a step, both hands still high above his head, as an indication that he was unarmed.

"I want to reach an understanding with you," was the reply.

"About what?"

"About--well, about your errand here."

"Oh! Well, what about it?"

Collins hesitated a moment and then asked:

"Why can't I come to you and sit down? I'm not armed. This is not an easy or a dignified position for me to hold."

"You say you are not armed," Ned replied. "Will you say as much for the savages who are with you in this dirty game?"

"There are no savages here with me," Collins protested. "Your Indian killed one by throwing him from the ledge, one was killed when the Vixen burned and dropped, and one was shot by one of your boys. The other went away with the motor car. You must have seen them riding away?"

"There were five people with him when he first came out here in the car," Jackson said, under his breath. "Ask him where the other white man now is."

"Did you see the other white man?" asked Ned of Jackson.

"Not distinctly."

"Would you have recognized him if it had been Lyman?"

"I might. I can't say. I wasn't very near to them. They kept me scouting over the hills to keep them in sight."

"Well," Collins called out, impatiently, "are you going to let me come in for a talk? If not, I'll go back and bring some shooters out here."

Without answering that special question, veiled, as it was, with a threat, Ned asked the one proposed by Jackson.

"Where is the white man who was with you when you first came here in the car?"

"I did not come in a motor car," was the reply. "I came in the Vixen."

"That's a lie!" Jackson whispered. "The Vixen, if that is what they call their airship, never showed up until a few days ago. I tried to signal to the driver; or, rather, I did signal to him, but he ignored me. This man Collins came in with the car more than two weeks ago, and went out in it, too, and the other white man remained. The next time he came, he was in the Vixen."

"Who is that fellow who is filling you with prejudice against me?" demanded Collins, presently. "It looks like a man wanted for stealing cattle from the Lyman ranch."

"Why didn't you communicate with him, if you were so hungry?" asked Ned of Jackson, suspiciously. "You say he has been here at least twice."

Jackson frowned and looked away. Then his forehead flushed and he said:

"I guess there's no use lying about it. I was accused of running cattle off the Lyman range. That is the man who accused me. I never did. He knows that. Now you know why I didn't approach him and ask for food."

"Well," insisted the boy, "why didn't you browse around and find the white man he left here? That is what he came in here for, isn't it--to hide some one he wanted out of the way?"

"I thought he came to look for gold," was the reply. "Now, about the other question. I did try to find the man he left here. I wanted to eat with him! I knew there was some one in the hills, but I never found him. It beats the Old Scratch where he is!"

"Come, come!" Collins cried, impatiently, "you can do your visiting after we have our talk. Shall I come to you, or will you come to me?"

"Don't you go out there!" Jimmie warned. "He's got some one hidden. You'll be shot if you do. Tell him to come here."

"Keep your hands up and come here," Ned ordered, thinking this good advice.

He had already experienced the treachery of the fellow, and did not care to take any chances. Collins came along sullenly, stood stock still, while Jimmie searched him, and then sat down on the framework of the Nelson.

"That aeroplane would look handsomer," Ned said, grimly, "if your men had not set it on fire."

"That was war!" Collins replied. "It is war still, unless we can come to some kind of agreement."

"I haven't much faith in your word," Ned replied. "You played a dirty game on me at Lima, you know."

"The chances of war!" Collins replied. "Now," he went on, "we can come to terms without any reference to the International Peace Congress, if we want to. I'll admit that if things were a little different I wouldn't be asking for terms, but that is neither here nor there. I want your assistance."

"On the level?" demanded Jimmie.

Jackson grinned scornfully, and Collins glared at both.

"The man we brought out here--merely as a matter of business--has disappeared," Collins went on. "We left him in the little cavern where you found his coat and the food. He's got away."

"You refer to Lyman?"

"Of course."

"You were keeping him a prisoner until his concession should lapse?"

"That's only business."

"When does it lapse, in case he does not appear and make payment?"

"On the 31st of August."

"And this is the 18th?"

"I think so. I'm pretty well mixed as to time, as well as everything else."

"Then he has only fourteen days in which to get back to Asuncion and make a large payment?"

"That is just it."

"And he is lost?"

"Yes."

"When did you see him last?"

"You remember how I came to be here? You brought me, trussed up like a hen in that aeroplane harness. Well, when the Vixen went into that pit and you went away to look over the scenery, I knew that the motor car would be along soon, so I didn't try to get away. I knew what would happen if I did. You'd shoot! Just as soon as the car came and I was released--the car brought in food for Lyman-- I sent a man over to the cave to find Lyman. He wasn't there. Understand? He wasn't there."

"But there were live embers in the cave when I got there," Ned said.

"I know. That was built by one of my men, who wanted to make coffee, but didn't. The food you stole was brought in by the car as I said before. You found Lyman's coat, didn't you?"

"Yes, and a packet of letters."

"I knew what you were in Lima for from the first. I knew of your mission before you left San Francisco. So I did not lie to you when you asked if the man who was brought in, something over two weeks ago, in a motor car was Lyman. I knew that you knew. You see, we had to get him out of Paraguay when it was learned that the United States had placed the Lyman affair in the hands of the Secret Service."

"Go on," Ned said. "You are getting pretty close to the point now."

"I thought at first," Collins went on, "that you had blundered into this district just by blind luck. Now I know better. I gave myself away by my fool antics at Lima. Then the Vixen showing up and chasing the Nelson around increased your suspicions. Oh, I know how it happened. You fooled us all. We led you right to the spot where Lyman was hidden by our attempts to mislead you. More fools we!"

"You have stated the case correctly," Ned said. "If you had kept away from me at Lima, and the Vixen had kept out of sight, I should have gone straight on to Asuncion, and should have been wasting my time there this minute."

"Yes, that's the truth! Well, now I've been perfectly frank with you, and I want you to be equally honest with me. Do you know where Lyman is?"

"I do not."

"You haven't seen him?"

"Never saw him."

"If you find him, what do you propose doing?"

"I shall take him back to Asuncion and see that he gets justice."

"Acting as a Secret Service man of the United States?"

"No, as an individual."

"But you are in the employ of the government?"

"Yes, but I'm not authorized to mix the two countries up in a war."

"Yes, I know, but your government will back you in whatever you do. That is the point with me. If you report no cause for interference down in Paraguay, there will be no danger of our getting into trouble. Your government wouldn't make a demand for Lyman's release, although it was understood he was kept in duress by a high official of the republic. Still, it sends you out to act unofficially. Now, this being the case, you are the person I want to talk with."

"Well?"

"I want you to help find Lyman, and then I want you to help me come to terms with him--we can't fight the United States!"

"In other words, you want me to betray my trust and help you rob him?"

"No. There are two sides to everything--where there are not three, or more. So there are two sides to this cattle concession business. I think that Lyman will be glad to settle if we find him--if he does not know that the United States has Secret Service men on the ground!"

"So you really do want to buy my silence?"

"I want to make sure that you will not attempt to defeat our plans."

"Nothing doing," Ned replied.

"Wait!" Collins continued. "You haven't heard me out. We'll see that Lyman gets all his money out of the deal, with something besides, and also that you get a quarter of a million dollars for saying nothing."

"Nothing doing!" Ned repeated.

Collins actually gasped with amazement. He had offered bribes before, but had never started out with so large a sum. And he had never been denied!

"Understand the proposition," Collins said, presently, as soon as he could catch his breath, "it is not you we want. We don't care a continental cuss for you. What we want is for you to keep quiet after we find Lyman. It is the Secret Service of the United States we axe afraid of. I'll make it half a million."

"It must be a rich concession," Ned said.

"It is, and Lyman got it for a song, for no one ever supposed that swamp would make good grazing ground."

"I guess Mr. Lyman will earn all he gets out of it," Ned laughed.

"He will never get anything out of it, unless he comes to terms with me," Collins said, impatiently. "We'll find some way to keep him out of Asuncion until after the 31st. It is a long way from here to Paraguay!"

"All the more reason why we should get busy looking for him," Ned said.

"And when we find him?" asked Collins, tentatively.

"I shall take him back to Asuncion."

"Then you'd better not find him," threatened Collins. "If you're going to oppose me, I'll leave it to you to look him up. I'll go back to Asuncion and bring men out here who will see that you never leave the mountains."

"Gee! That's a cheerful proposition!" grinned Jimmie.

Collins, disgusted at his failure to either bribe or frighten the boys, started away, but Jackson laid a heavy hand on his shoulder and swung him around.

"Wait a minute!" he said.

"What do you mean?" demanded Collins.

"You're not going to Asuncion after help," Jackson said. "I have a little score to settle with you myself! You're the man who accused me of running off cattle. Well, you're going to remain right here with me until I go out with you and give you a chance to make that right."

Collins glanced at Ned.

"Is this by your order?" he asked.

Ned shook his head.

"I have no present quarrel with you," he said.

Collins started away again, but Jackson thrust him back, not any too gently.

"If you make a touse," he said, "I'll tie you up. Now," he added, as Collins, almost foaming with rage, threw himself on the ground, "I want you to tell me where you left that tent."

Both Ned and Jimmie sprang to their feet at the mention of the word.

"A tent! Here!"

Collins snarled out some impertinent reply, and Ned asked:

"Did they bring in a tent?"

"You bet they did!" Jackson answered. "This fine-haired duck with the circus parade clothes wasn't going to sleep in no cavern. He was going to have a nice, soft, cool bed under a tent while he was waiting for the Lyman concession to lapse. He was reared a pet--he was!"

The ex-cowboy was so enraged at Collins for the insinuations he had cast upon him that he pushed up to where he lay and would have assaulted him if Ned had not interposed.

"Let him alone," the boy said. "We'll leave the law to make payment in his case. Are you going to tell us where the tent is, Collins?" he added, turning to the angry captive.

"I guess you can get along without the tent," Collins said. "You won't have to remain here long. I've got men coming in. They may be here at any moment. Officers of the Republic of Paraguay!"

"I shall be glad to meet them!" Ned laughed. "If you'll tell me where the tent is I'll be able to entertain them properly."

"Aw, I can find the tent if it is around here anywhere!" Jimmie broke in.

"What do you want of it?" demanded Collins

"A little tent cloth," Ned smiled, "would make a serviceable machine of the Nelson. We could make new planes in no time. What do you think of the idea?"

"I'm not going to have the tent cut up," shouted Collins.

"I guess yes," Jimmie said, provokingly. "You burned our planes, and you've got to supply material for new ones."

The little fellow darted away as he spoke, working his way over the ledges which separated the two dents on the mountain sides. In a short time Ned heard him calling and saw him looking down from the shelf above the cavern.

"Come on up," the lad cried. "I can see the tent over in the other valley, and there's another automobile coming. What do you think of that? This must be a regular station on the underground railroad between Asuncion and Lymanville!"

Ned lost no time in gaining the ledge. The white body of the tent was in plain sight, just where the men had dropped it out of the machine. The two boys hastened into the depression, seized the canvas in their arms, and started back toward the Nelson. On the shelf again, Ned asked:

"Where did you see a motor car?"

"Over east," was the reply. "There's a tunnel under the range off that way. I take it that a river ran there once, draining this valley."

Presently the machine appeared in the valley from which the Vixen had slipped off into the pit. There were four men in the two seats. One was the Indian in goggles who had driven the car away, the others were white men. The car could not have gone far, so these men must have been picked up just outside.

The boys carried the canvas down to the Nelson and began the work of making new planes, keeping close watch, but leaving the newcomers to do the calling if there was any to be done. There was plenty of canvas and the tools necessary for the work were found in the Nelson's tool chest. Collins watched the doings angrily.

"These men," he finally said, "are officers. Two from Paraguay and one from Peru. They have warrants for your arrest."

He started to his feet as if to join the others as he spoke, but Jackson saw that he did not get very far.

"Tell your friends," Jackson said, "that we're too busy to be bothered now. We'll soon have this aeroplane fixed, and then we'll give an imitation of men sailing out of this mess. Lyman knows a friend is here, for he heard my cowboy call. He will soon come out of his hole, and we'll take him back to Asuncion--just to prevent international complications!" he added with a grin.

The work of preparing the new planes progressed swiftly, but before it was completed the men who had arrived in the automobile appeared on the ledge and called down to those below.