BOY SCOUT EXPLORERS
AT EMERALD VALLEY
CUPPLES AND LEON COMPANY
Publishers New York
Copyright, 1955, by
CUPPLES AND LEON COMPANY
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
- I.Flash Message7
- II.Man of Mystery14
- III.Strange Actions20
- IV.A Surprise Cache30
- V.Heroes All!38
- VI.A Company Agent45
- VII.Toil and Trouble55
- IX.Off Course73
- X.A Banana Plantation80
- XI.Hitting the Trail89
- XII.Carlos the Bandit98
- XIII.The Emerald Pit106
- XIV.A Bribe Offer117
- XV.Map of A Mine126
- XVII.An Earth Slide140
- XIX.A Racing Stream161
- XX.The Missing Scouts169
- XXI.A Mission178
- XXII.Orders from Bogota188
- XXIII.Trailing Rhodes199
- XXV.Going Home217
“Only ten more minutes, Jack, and we’ll be off duty. That gives us just time enough to get to the Scout meeting by seven o’clock. I’ll be glad to call it a night too!”
Warwick Washburn yawned as he lowered a powerful field glass through which he had scanned the sky for a glimpse of aircraft.
He and Jack Hartwell, a companion Boy Scout and Explorer, were nearing the end of a two hour trick at the Civilian Defense observation tower. Few planes had passed overhead and there had been no activity to break the monotonous vigil.
“Oh, it hasn’t been so tough,” returned Jack cheerfully. He was a lean, friendly youth, deeply tanned because he had spent practically all of his spare hours out-of-doors. “Our work is needed here as a protection against unexpected enemy attack. I’m glad to help, even if it is tedious to perch on this tower platform.”
“I’m not kicking,” said War. “Don’t get me wrong. These observation posts are necessary to cover gaps in our radar system. Only I wish more planes would pass over.”
“You’d like an enemy attack, or at least a little mystery and intrigue,” chuckled Jack. “That trip we made to Peru gave you a taste for adventure!”
“It did at that,” the other agreed. “After weeks of exciting life in the wilds, Belton City seems a bit tame.”
“Particularly this observation post?”
“Well, we’ve been reporting the movement of planes for several months now, Jack. I sure wish a little excitement would come our way again!”
“Maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction.”
Warwick stared at his friend, surprised by the remark. “The wrong direction?” he echoed. “What d’you mean?”
Jack relieved him of the field glass, focussing it on the entrance road of a nearby cemetery. The tower platform also offered an unobstructed view of the Pablo Automobile plant adjoining the burial ground.
“What do you see?” War asked as his chum remained silent. “Any ghosts moving around?”
“It’s that old automobile again,” Jack reported. “This makes four times in the last month that I’ve seen it turn into that cemetery road.”
“You’ve got that car on the brain, boy!” War scoffed, losing interest. “Forget it and stick to airplanes.”
“Okay,” Jack agreed, again training the glass on an expanse of sky. “All the same, it strikes me as queer that the car keeps coming back time after time.”
For weeks, Jack had amused fellow members of Explorers Post 21 by his constant reference to a mysterious automobile.
Not only had he called attention to it repeatedly, but he had noted down the license number, LC 1478. The car was a seven-year old model, driven by a man who wore workman’s clothes.
Jack had pointed out that the car always appeared at the cemetery entrance just at dusk or a trifle later. Furthermore, the driver nearly always parked close to the main highway, proceeding through the trees afoot.
Where he went the Scouts never had learned, for foliage blocked their view. But after ten to twenty minutes, he always reappeared and drove away.
“One of these days I’m going to check up on that fellow—” Jack began, but War interrupted.
“Listen!” he exclaimed.
A plane was passing the observation tower, high overhead. Instantly alert, the Scouts determined its altitude and type. Jack went quickly inside to send an aircraft flash message to the filter center.
His telephone contact established, he received the terse “Air Defense, go ahead!”
“Single—multi-jet—very high—” Methodically, Jack went on to complete the message, and hung up immediately after he heard the operator’s clear, “Check, thank you.”
The task completed, he rejoined Warwick on the breezy platform.
“Our relief’s coming,” War remarked, indicating two men who were walking briskly toward the observation tower. “We may as well take off for the Scout meeting.”
After the newcomers had arrived, the Scouts started at a fast pace for the Belton Methodist Church where the meeting of Explorers Post 21 was to be held.
“Step on it,” urged Jack. As crew leader, he made a point of never being tardy for a session.
“I’m practically running now,” Warwick complained, hard pressed to keep up. “What’s the rush? Anything important coming up at tonight’s meeting?”
“We want to talk over that canoe trip to Minnesota. It was postponed when our gang went to Peru instead, but this time it’s all set.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” War said pessimistically. “Something may come up. I’ve got one of those dark brown feelings!”
“Oh, you and your feelings!” Jack retorted with a grin.
The pair arrived at the church only three minutes late. Willie Medaugh, a tow-headed youngster of 15, and Ken Dougherty, a serious high school senior, already were in the recreation room which had been fitted up for Scout use.
“Hi!” Jack greeted his friends. “Where’s Hap?” He referred to George (Happy) Livingston, a former FBI man who directed Scout activities in Belton City.
“Not here yet,” replied Ken. “He telephoned that he’d been held up. We’re to go ahead with the meeting. He’ll be along later.”
“See what came for him,” Willie said, pointing to a thick, slightly soiled envelope which had been placed conspicuously on the table. “Mail.”
“Wonder why the letter was delivered here instead of to his office?” Jack commented.
“Because it had no street address,” Willie informed him. “It’s directed it care of the Belton Methodist Church. So the postman brought it here.”
“Get a load of that foreign stamp!” exclaimed War, fingering the envelope. “Colombia!”
“I’m going to ask Hap if I can have it after he’s finished with the letter,” announced Willie, who collected foreign stamps. “Who’d be writing him from South America?”
“Cut out the speculation, and let’s get on with the meeting,” urged Jack. “Shall we start off with the Four Freedoms ceremony? I want to run through it to be sure we have it down pat before we invite our folks to watch.”
Forgetting the letter, the other Explorers settled down to the business of the evening. Willie brought four candles and the American flag which were to be used in the ceremony.
Jack assigned Bob MacDonald, a new organization member to act as narrator. Standing behind the flag, the red-headed youth recited slowly:
“This flag represents the past, the present and the future. The stripes stand for the original thirteen colonies. The stars represent the present states. The Explorers represent the men of tomorrow.”
“That’s fine, only put more feeling into it, Jack advised. Especially that part about Explorers being the men of tomorrow.”
Bob repeated the lines to the satisfaction of the group.
“Well done!” boomed a voice from the doorway. Unobserved, Mr. Livingston had come into the meeting room. He added seriously: “Here in America, the Four Freedoms do exist, but at times we’re inclined to take them for granted.”
“America’s the best country in the world,” declared War. With a quick change of subject, he went on: “Say, Mr. Livingston, a letter came for you! From Columbia!”
The Scout leader accepted the mail, studying both the stamp and the handwriting.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” War demanded impatiently. “Maybe it’s important.”
Mr. Livingston smiled and ripped open the soiled envelope. As he unfolded the closely written pages, a small, hard, cotton-wrapped object dropped to the floor.
Jack stooped to pick it up. His fingers closed over a sizeable green stone. He stared in amazement.
“Look at this!” he exclaimed. “An emerald!”
The others studied the gem which he held up.
“A chunk of green glass,” insisted Willie.
“No, Willie,” Mr. Livingston corrected him.
“You mean it’s a real emerald?”
“Yes, Willie,” the Scout leader soberly confirmed. “This letter and the gem are from an old friend of mine. Give me a moment to scan his message, and I’ll tell you what it’s all about.”
MAN OF MYSTERY
Their curiosity whetted by sight of the green stone, the Scouts eagerly waited as Mr. Livingston skimmed through the letter.
“Just as I thought,” he remarked when he had finished reading. “This is from Appleby Corning, an old college classmate, now an engineer in Colombia. The emerald is a sample from the Last Chance mine.”
“Quite a sample!” Jack commented. “Is the mine in Colombia?”
“Yes, not too far from Bogota. Appleby believes that the Last Chance can be made to produce handsomely for her American lessees. But he seems to have run into difficulties. He writes that a former manager, McClellan Rhodes, has caused him trouble. He needs help.”
“What sort of help?” inquired Willie.
“The letter is vague. Appleby just says he wants me to fly down there to look over the situation.”
“He wants you to join him in Colombia?” Willie repeated, his voice fading. “When?”
“At once, if I can. He offers to pay all expenses.”
A deep silence had fallen upon the little Explorer band. Only too well, the Scouts knew that if Mr. Livingston accepted the offer, their canoe trip to Minnesota might again be postponed.
Yet no one could deny that a plane journey to Colombia offered a thrilling prospect. Fresh in the memory of all the Explorers except Bob, was the recollection of a wonderful adventure shared with their leader in Peru.
Not many months earlier, the Scouts had been assigned to search for a missing explorer. Their mission to a lost Inca city had been a highly successful one, resulting in great honor for Post 21.
“Colombia sounds great!” exclaimed War. Half jokingly, he demanded: “When do we start?”
“That’s just it,” replied Mr. Livingston regretfully. “Appleby says nothing about the Explorers. I don’t suppose he could provide passage for the entire group.”
“I was only kidding,” War said at once. “We don’t expect to be taken along.”
“You’ll go, won’t you, Mr. Livingston?” Ken inquired politely.
“Well, I’ve given it no thought, as yet. If I could take you fellows along, I might be tempted.”
“What’s Colombia like?” Willie asked with quick interest.
“A rugged country with many unexplored areas. Bounded on the north by the Caribbean sea and Venezuela. On the east by Venezuela and Brazil; on the south by Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, and on the west by the Pacific.”
“You’ve been studying an atlas,” Jack remarked.
“Colombia always fascinated me,” the Scout leader confessed. “Bogota is the capital city. The Magdalena River traverses the entire country and provides the chief means of transportation.”
“It would be a dandy opportunity for you,” Ken said. “All expenses paid too!”
“Corning is one of my best friends, though I’ve not seen him in years. I know he wouldn’t call on me if he weren’t in a bad spot. He’s capable of handling any ordinary situation.”
“Why did he send the emerald?” War asked curiously.
“To snare my interest, I suspect. He says the mine is one of the world’s richest, but that the vein will be lost if it can’t be promptly worked.”
“What does he mean by that?” asked Willie.
“He didn’t explain. He merely instructs me to cable acceptance of his offer and take the first plane to South America.”
A silence fell. Jack busied himself putting away the record books. No one spoke of the projected trip to Minnesota. Mr. Livingston himself brought up the subject.
“I promised I’d go with you on the jaunt,” he said. “I won’t go back on that.”
“We won’t hold you to it,” Ken said instantly.
“Of course not,” added Jack. “That wouldn’t be fair. Why, a chance like this comes only once in a lifetime.”
“I’d go, if I could take you fellows with me. Say, that gives me an idea! I’ll cable Appleby Corning tomorrow and outline the situation!”
“You think he might include us in the invitation?” War asked eagerly.
“It’s possible. But as I said, I doubt Appleby would be able to finance the trip. Plane fare is no small item.”
The Scouts soberly agreed. Not many months earlier, Albert Monahan, a wealthy citizen of Belton, had paid the way of the Explorers to Peru where they successfully had traced his long-missing brother. A trip to Colombia, however, was a different matter. They could not expect Mr. Monahan or anyone else to provide passage money.
“We’ll forget it,” Jack said carelessly. “But you must seize the chance, Mr. Livingston.”
“At any rate, it will do no harm to send that cable,” the Scout leader said, smiling. “Something may turn up.”
For the remainder of the evening, the Explorers attended to routine business matters. All discussion of the proposed trip to Minnesota carefully was avoided. The Explorers knew that they might make the excursion alone or with another adult, but the prospect of having an outing without Hap left them completely cold.
Later, after the meeting had adjourned, Jack and Ken talked over the matter as they walked home together.
“Do you think Hap will accept the offer?” the latter speculated.
“If we urge him enough, he will,” Jack replied gloomily. “It’s only his conscience that’s holding him back. He figures he owes us a duty. We’ve postponed our canoe trip so many times.”
“We mustn’t stand in his way, Jack.”
“We won’t, Ken. We’ll convince him somehow that he should go. Golly! I sure wish we could make the trip with him!”
“Probably we could, if we could raise the dough.”
“Don’t be simple!” Jack replied with a short laugh. “We couldn’t earn enough for plane fares if we saved our cash for a year. This trip is immediate.”
“It’s hopeless, I guess,” Ken agreed with a shrug. “No use thinking about it.”
By this time the two Explorers were within view of the observation tower where they had spent so many hours on duty.
Instinctively, they raised their eyes to the platform. Jack waved and whistled, but in the semi-darkness of the street, the man who was in service there, did not see him.
The two went on, approaching the old cemetery road.
“There’s your friend!” Ken announced with a chuckle.
“The man of mystery.” Ken jerked his thumb toward a battered car which had passed them only to pull up just inside the entranceway of the cemetery.
“Say, this makes the second time tonight that bird has been here!” Jack exclaimed, stopping short. “What brings him here so often?”
“You’ve asked that question enough times. Why don’t you learn the answer?”
“Why not?” Jack echoed, impressed by the suggestion. “We’ll never have a better chance!”
From a distance, the two Explorers had seen the driver of the car alight. Leaving the car parked just off the road, he started afoot through the dark, deserted cemetery.
“Let’s follow him,” Jack proposed. “What d’you say?”
“Okay,” agreed Ken with a grin. “We probably won’t learn anything worth while, but it may put an end to those doubts that have been percolating in your brain!”
Keeping out of view, Ken and Jack followed the stranger from a discreet distance. Unaware that he was being trailed, the man walked swiftly along the lonely cemetery road.
Once as he passed a street light, the two Explorers caught a fleeting glimpse of his face. They gained an impression of an individual with a large, flat nose and square jaw.
“Ever see him before?” Jack whispered.
“Only in that car,” Ken replied. “He’s a tough looking egg. He might give us a rough time if he catches us trailing him.”
To be on the safe side, the two fell farther back. It was well that they took the precaution, for unexpectedly, the man paused and glanced back into the darkness.
Ken and Jack froze. They remained motionless, and after a moment, the stranger went on again.
“Wow! That was a close call,” Jack muttered. “We’ll have to be more careful than ever now.”
“Where’s this bird going anyhow?” Ken demanded.
His interest had heightened, for the one they followed, had left the winding cemetery road. Walking fast, he cut through the trees, avoiding the area where tombstones had been erected.
“Evidently, he doesn’t come here to visit any of the graves,” Jack observed.
To avoid losing sight of the stranger, the Explorers quickened their own pace. Suddenly, Ken placed a restraining hand on Jack’s arm. They both halted.
Ahead, only dimly visible, they could see that the one they pursued, had halted beside a wooden barrier fence.
For an instant, they thought that the man intended to climb over.
Instead, he walked along the barrier for a short distance. Then, squatting down, he began to dig in the soft earth.
“What’s he doing?” Ken muttered in astonishment.
“Looking for something that’s been buried, I’ll bet!”
As the two watched, the man suddenly ceased digging. Apparently satisfied, he replaced the thin layer of dirt he had removed, and covered the area with leaves.
Then, he started back through the woods the way he had come. Ken and Jack barely had time to secret themselves behind trees before he passed them.
“He’s going back to his car now,” Jack predicted, after the man had disappeared in the darkness. “What do you make of it, Ken?”
“He’s been here several times before. We know that. Let’s see what’s under those leaves.”
Going on to the fence, the Explorers quickly cleared a small area to locate the spot where the stranger had dug.
Jack removed a little dirt with his bare hands. “Wish I had a shovel or a spade!” he complained.
“Maybe that fellow has a pet buried here,” Ken suggested.
Jack straightened up, knocking dirt from his hands. “You would shatter the illusion!” he accused. “I was figuring on bringing up a box of gold. Enough to take us to Colombia!”
“Whatever is planted here is down deep,” Ken said. “We can’t bring it up without some tools.”
“Let’s trot home then and get ’em.”
“It’s late, Jack. Anyway, why not cut the other fellows in on the fun?”
“Sure, why keep a good thing like this to ourselves? War in particular would get a big boot out of digging up something—even if it proves to be only a dead cat!”
“Okay,” Jack agreed reluctantly, “but maybe whatever is buried won’t be here by tomorrow. We’re taking a chance.”
“Not a very big one. We know that bird comes at night ever so often. It strikes me, he doesn’t come to dig anything up, but only to make certain it’s still here.”
“Could be,” Jack agreed. “A treasure, maybe! Or loot from a robbery!”
“In that case we should notify the police.”
“Why don’t we find out what’s here first,” Jack proposed. “As you say, it may prove to be a buried cat or nothing of importance. We’d be the laughing stock of Belton in that case.”
“It won’t do any harm to wait a day,” Ken willingly agreed. “If anything is buried here, it’s been under ground for a long while.”
“Let’s get the fellows together tomorrow,” Jack proposed. “Say, I have an idea!”
“Spill it, boy.”
“Let’s invite ’em all to a hike, and advise ’em to bring spades. Then we’ll bring ’em here, and see what’s what.”
“Sounds all right to me,” Ken nodded, replacing dirt over the area disturbed. “I’ll leave it to you to get in touch with the fellows.”
Carefully, the two Explorers removed all evidence of their digging work. Before leaving the area, they covered the ground with leaves.
When they reached the cemetery road a few minutes later, the parked car was gone.
“I’m sure glad I jotted down that driver’s license number,” Jack remarked, as he and Ken walked on toward their homes. “Who knows? It may come in handy.”
The discovery of mysterious activity in the cemetery deeply interested both Scouts. Eager to learn if anything valuable had been buried by the fence, they lost no time in contacting the other members of the Rovers unit.
However, to make the hike more alluring, they refused to pass out even a hint of what might be in store. Jack not only telephoned Warwick, Willie and Bob, but also called Mr. Livingston. The Scout leader said regretfully that he would be tied up at his office and could not accompany them on the afternoon hike.
“We’re not going far anyhow,” Jack assured him. “If anything develops, I’ll get in touch with you right away.”
By pre-arrangement, the Rovers met at the entranceway to the cemetery the following afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Ken and Jack were to have the remainder of the day and the evening to themselves, for it was not a date on which they were assigned to the observation tower.
“Why did you ask us to meet you here?” War demanded, as he joined the waiting group. Following instruction, he had brought a spade. “Want me to dig a grave or something?”
“Your own!” Jack retorted. “Everyone here? Where’s Bob?”
“Coming up the street now,” Ken reported. “Look at the size of that knapsack he’s carrying! Filled with food, I’ll warrant.”
“He probably figures we’re going on a three-day hike,” Jack chuckled.
“How far are we going?” Willie demanded curiously. “A couple of miles?”
“Oh, about a thousand yards, more or less,” Ken returned carelessly.
“A thousand yards!” Willie fairly shrieked. “You call that a hike?”
“And why did you tell us to bring spades?” War asked. “What’s up, anyhow?”
“We’re going to do a little digging,” Jack said with a grin. “Come on, let’s get at it.”
He and Ken guided the other three through the cemetery to the barrier fence adjoining the automobile plant.
“X marks the spot,” Ken chuckled, indicating the area he and Jack had investigated the previous night. “Dig, slaves!”
“What’s this all about?” Willie probed. “Why all the mystery?”
“Yeah, and what are we expected to bring up? Oil?” demanded War. “Not a spadeful will I turn over until you tell us what we’re supposed to find.”
With a laugh, Jack related the manner in which he and Ken had followed the mysterious stranger on the previous night.
“Oh, so it’s that fellow in the old car!” War scoffed. “You’ve been talking about him for a month, Jack. So finally you make something of it!”
“Jack may have been smarter than the rest of us,” Ken said soberly. “After watching that bird last night, we’re convinced something has been buried here.”
“And you want to cut us in on the hard digging?” War joked.
“That’s the general idea,” Ken grinned. “Get busy! I’ll post myself down by the road to watch for that car driver. He’s not likely to show up here at this time of day, but it’s well to be alert.”
“If you see anyone coming, whistle twice,” Jack advised.
“Okay. If you hit anything interesting, give the same signal. I want to be on hand when the chest of gold is raised.”
“Gold,” War murmured with relish. “Pieces of eight! Say, wouldn’t it be swell if we would dig up money! We could make that trip to Colombia!”
“Oh, be your age!” Jack scoffed. “If money has been buried here, just remember it belongs to someone else. Not us. Here, give me that spade.”
“Not much,” War insisted, starting to dig. “This is my pleasure.”
For ten minutes, the Explorers clustered about as their chum dug steadily. The ground was relatively soft, encouraging them to believe that it had been disturbed not many weeks earlier.
“Careful!” Jack suddenly warned War. “You’ve struck something.”
He bent down to examine the metal object which protruded. It appeared to be the handle to a kettle or other heavy container. However, it was so deeply embedded, that even with Bob’s help, he could not raise it.
“Dig some more,” he advised War. “Be careful though.”
“Ken ought to be here,” Willie remarked, gazing toward the cemetery road. “Shall I call him?”
“Go ahead,” Jack nodded. “I think we’ve hit the treasure or whatever it is.”
Willie wet his fingers and blew two shrill blasts. Promptly, an answer was received. A few minutes later, Ken came running up.
“Find anything?” he demanded breathlessly.
By this time, War had removed more dirt. “An iron kettle,” he reported, resting for a moment on his spade. “Loaded to the brim with emeralds!”
“You’ve been thinking of emeralds ever since that one came for Mr. Livingston!” Ken laughed. “What is in the kettle?”
“We don’t know yet,” War admitted. “Being nice guys, we waited for you before we peeked.”
“Let’s not wait any longer,” Jack urged impatiently. “Remember, we have no guard now, and time’s slipping by pretty fast.”
“Yeah,” agreed Willie. “The owner of this little kettle may come back. So let’s lift ’er out.”
“First, we’ll see what’s inside,” Jack insisted.
The lid of the kettle had been wired down. With the aid of a Scout knife, he was able to untwist it. As the other Explorers huddled expectantly about the hole, he slowly and ceremoniously raised the cover.
A sudden silence ensued, to be followed by a howl of disappointment.
The kettle contained several pint milk bottles filled with a colorless liquid.
“Gold! Emeralds!” Willie warbled. “Yeah!”
“Nothing but water,” War added in disgust. “All that work for nothing! Jack, you and Ken certainly were taken for a ride this time!”
Ken had bent down again to sniff at the liquid in one of the bottles. Straightening, he gazed wide-eyed at his chums.
“This stuff isn’t water,” he told them tersely. “It’s too heavy. Furthermore, it has a peculiar odor.”
“What is it, if it isn’t water?” asked War. He started to pick up one of the containers. Ken seized his arm, shoving him back.
“Hey, what’s the idea?” War demanded indignantly.
“Don’t touch that stuff!”
“Because it’s nitro-glycerin! At least I think it is.”
“Nitro,” War echoed, looking scared.
“There’s enough to blow us all to Kingdom Come! We’re lucky we haven’t set it off with the careless way we’ve been digging.”
“Let’s get out of here fast!” War said, starting away.
“We can’t just go off and leave the stuff,” Jack protested. “It’s too dangerous.”
“There’s only one thing to do,” Ken advised. “Two of us will have to remain here on guard. The rest can go for the police.”
No one spoke for a moment. All the Explorers had a healthy respect for nitro-glycerin, a powerful explosive. Under certain conditions, even a slight jar would be sufficient to set it off. If the liquid still were active, there was quantity enough to destroy the nearby automobile plant.
“I’ll stay,” Jack quickly volunteered.
“I’m sticking too,” insisted Willie. “No, don’t argue. There’s no time to waste.”
“Right,” Jack grimly agreed. He turned to Ken.
“Take War and Bob and hot-foot it to the nearest telephone. Willie and I will stand guard, but we have no craving to meet the Angels. So tell those cops to step on it!”
A SURPRISE CACHE
Left to themselves, Willie and Jack took up the vigil near the kettle of fluid believed to be nitro-glycerin.
“If this stuff is still active, it’s a miracle it hasn’t been set off,” Jack remarked, pacing nervously along the fence. “Why, there’s enough explosive here to blow that automobile plant to smithers.”
“Us too, Jack.”
“Sure. Nitro’s mighty tricky stuff. I hope Ken, War and Bob get those cops here in a hurry.”
Scarcely ten minutes had elapsed when Willie thought he heard a car on the nearby cemetery road. As they listened intently, it halted some distance away and the motor was switched off.
“That can’t be a police car,” Jack decided, becoming worried. “Ken would have brought the cops closer. Anyway, the fellows haven’t had time enough to get help here.”
“It might be that bird in the ancient auto coming back again.”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jack agreed. Scanning the nearby trees, he noticed a cluster of dense bushes which offered a fairly promising hiding place.
As he was considering the possibility of seeking refuge in an emergency, Willie suddenly exclaimed: “Jack, someone is coming this way from the road!”
“And it’s that same fellow!” Jack observed, pulling his friend toward the bushes. “Quick! He hasn’t seen us.”
The two Scouts took cover. Although the screen of foliage was a thin, unsatisfactory one, the stranger who approached, seemed too intent upon his thoughts to glance in that direction.
Jack and Willie obtained a clear view of the man. He was about forty-five years of age, short and carelessly dressed in working clothes. A billed cap was pulled low over his eyes.
“Sure he’s the same one who’s been coming here so often?” Willie whispered. “If he isn’t, we’ll have to warn him not to get near that kettle.”
“He’s the same one,” Jack answered grimly. “He’s going straight to the fence too.”
Just then, the stranger, noticing that dirt had been disturbed by the barrier, stopped short. He uttered a muffled exclamation, and then went on.
The Scouts saw him bend down to gaze at the exposed kettle, and carefully raise the lid.
“That’s his nitro!” Jack asserted. “It’s live stuff too! See how careful he is?”
The stranger turned unexpectedly, surveying the area with alert eyes. Jack and Willie remained motionless.
But the workman had noticed footprints in the soft earth near the fence. His gaze followed an indistinct shoe pattern directly to the clump of bushes.
Almost before the two realized that they had been detected, he whipped out an automatic.
“Come out o’ there!” he ordered, moving slowly forward. “With your hands up!”
Jack and Willie silently obeyed. One glimpse directly into the face of the sullen stranger convinced them that he would tolerate no delay. His dark eyes had a wild look which unnerved them more than the barrel of the automatic.
“What are you boys doing here?” the stranger demanded harshly.
“Why, n-nothing,” Willie answered.
“You dug up that kettle by the fence, stupid!”
“What if we did?” Willie retorted. “Nothing in it anyhow, except water.”
“Water!” the one with the revolver echoed. “You’re lucky to be alive!”
“Then it’s nitro?” Jack asked quietly. “Why did you bury it by the fence?”
“What should I have done with it? Carry it around in my pocket? I’d like to get rid of the stuff, but how?”
“Dump it in the creek,” suggested Willie. “There’s one running through the cemetery.”
“You are stupid!” the stranger accused. “Don’t you know nitro is heavier than water? It would sink to the bottom and form a layer.”
“Notify the police,” advised Jack. “They’ll know what to do.”
The workman glared at him. “Sure,” he said sarcastically, “they’ll know what to do all right! You kids give me a pain! You never should have come poking around here. That stuff would have been okay if you’d left it alone. Now I’m in a spot.”
“How’d you get the nitro in the first place?” Willie questioned.
The stranger did not reply. His face twisted with worry, he ordered the Scouts to start walking toward the roadway.
“Where you taking us?” Jack asked, moving as slowly as he dared.
He could sense the man’s uncertainty, and was stalling for time. If only Ken, War, Bob and the police would arrive!
“I don’t know what to do with you,” the stranger admitted. “If I let you go, you’d blab about the nitro. I’ve got to move it, but where, I don’t know.”
“Why don’t we talk this over?” Jack suggested. “Maybe we can work out something.”
“Yeah? What? I don’t trust you.” Scowling, the stranger paused as he came to a cemetery bench. He sat down, but kept his automatic trained on the two Scouts who remained standing.
“If you’re afraid to go to the police, why not let us do it for you?” Jack proposed.
The workman looked momentarily interested, but shook his head. “No soap. The nitro would be traced to me. Besides, I may have a use for that soup later on. It’s valuable stuff—too valuable to be thrown away.”
“Dangerous though,” Jack suggested, lowering his hands.
“Keep ’em up,” the stranger ordered sharply. “No tricks!”
Jack continued to talk, though he scarcely heard his own words. From the roadway he had caught the hum of a motor. A police car perhaps? If so, the officers had avoided using a siren, which would have been a dead give-away.
“What was that?” the stranger asked suspiciously.
“Car going through the cemetery,” Jack answered with a shrug. “You sure are nervous.”
“You would be too, if you’d nursemaided ten pints of nitro for six months! I can’t sleep nights for worrying about it.”
“So that’s why you’ve kept coming back here so often?” Willie inquired. He could hear a slight rustle of leaves and thought that someone must be moving afoot through the trees.
“Sure,” the man admitted. “I had to make certain the stuff was okay. It would have been too, if you kids had kept away. I could wring your necks!”
“What are you going to do with us?” Jack asked, trying desperately to hold the full attention of the stranger.
By this time, he and Willie had glimpsed Ken, War and Bob walking near the fence. The man with the revolver could not see them, for he sat with his back to the approaching Scouts.
Jack and Willie were certain a car had stopped closeby in the cemetery, but there was no sign of the police. They were worried too, lest at any moment their three chums might betray their presence. If only they would catch on to the situation!
Deliberately, Jack began to argue in a louder tone, hoping his voice would carry to the fence. To his relief, he saw Ken turn to gaze toward the bench. Quickly, he shifted his own gaze lest his intense interest alert his captor.
Moments passed. Then as Jack and Willie remained with hands raised, they heard a soft rustle of leaves. Their friends were stealing up behind the park bench!
“I’ve got to take you with me,” the stranger suddenly announced, his mind made up. “Get going! To the car!”
Jack and Willie turned as if to obey. At that moment, as their captor started to arise, the other Scouts closed in from behind.
Before the man could resist, they overturned the bench, toppling him to the ground. The automatic was discharged harmlessly into the air. Jack seized and held the man’s arm.
Overwhelmed by numbers, the stranger found himself powerless to move. Ken, Bob and Willie used the overturned bench to hold him pinned to the earth.
“Quick! Get the police!” Ken urged. “Their car is down the road. We came on ahead.”
But there was no need for anyone to seek assistance. The revolver shot had brought the police on a run. A moment later they came up to take charge of the captive. Unprotesting, he allowed them to lock handcuffs onto his wrists.
“Good work, boys!” one of the officers praised. “Do you know this guy you’ve nailed?”
The Scouts admitted that they had no idea as to his identity.
“He’s Blackie Williams, an expert safe cracker,” they were informed. “He did a long stretch at the state penitentiary. Got out about a year and a half ago.”
The prisoner was escorted to the police car. While he remained under guard, one of the officers went with the Scouts to inspect the cache of nitro-glycerin.
“This is the real stuff,” the policeman announced after a brief examination of the liquid in the kettle. “There’s enough here to blow up the cemetery.”
“Still active?” Jack questioned.
“It probably is. This stuff is too tricky to be moved by anyone except a nitro expert. You Scouts were lucky you weren’t blown to bits.”
“I guess so,” Jack admitted ruefully. “We had no idea what was in the kettle when we started digging. Luckily, our spade never jarred the container.”
“It’s going to be a job getting rid of that nitro,” the policeman said. “The important thing now is to bottle up this area, so no one gets hurt. You boys willing to help?”
“Sure,” Warwick agreed eagerly.
“Then post yourselves along the cemetery road,” the policeman instructed. “Don’t let anyone in. If that nitro should let loose, this whole place would go up in one loud bang!”
Within an hour after the capture of Blackie Williams, the Belton newspapers carried front page accounts of the nitro-glycerin discovery. Photographers, reporters and hundreds of curious persons swarmed to the cemetery area.
Working under direction of police, the Scouts guarded entrance roads until relieved of duty. Reporters interviewed them and photographers insisted that they pose for action shots. To their intense embarrassment, townsfolk chose to regard them as heroes.
“Shucks, we didn’t do much,” Ken protested. “If anyone deserves credit, Jack does. He had that first hunch about Blackie Williams.”
A policeman informed the Scouts that an out-of-town explosives expert would be called in to set off a controlled explosion.
“We’ve talked to Blackie, and there’s no question the stuff is active,” he told Jack. “Too dangerous to move. It seems he stole it seven months ago from an explosives plant. Once he got his hands on it, he realized he had more than he could use in twenty years. So he had to get rid of it.”
The Scouts were on hand the following day when a nitro-glycerin expert arrived to inspect the kettle of fluid. He told police the explosive could not be safely moved and that it must be detonated. Preparations went forward for the big blast.
Under the direction of Bradley Graham, an expert, sod and screenings were placed atop the cache to control the explosion. A two-pound dynamite charge, activated by a battery-powered switch, then was set up.
When all was in readiness, great crowds jammed the streets, approaching as close as police would allow. Only newspaper reporters and Scouts were permitted within the roped off area. All were warned to hit the ground face downward at the moment of the explosion.
The signal was given. Mr. Graham pulled a switch. But for a moment, nothing happened.
“It’s a dud—” War muttered.
His words were drowned by a mighty explosion which rocked the earth. Dirt and crushed stone flew high into the air.
“A dud, eh?” said Jack laughing, wiping dust from his clothes as he got quickly to his feet.
After an interval, the Scouts were permitted to inspect the great crater which had been made. The hole was fully fifteen feet across and nearly five feet deep.
“I guess a little knowledge comes in handy,” Bob remarked in awe. “It’s sure lucky we recognized that stuff as nitro.”
The Scouts thought no more of the incident. Therefore, it came as a distinct surprise, when on the following day, they received word that a recognition dinner was to be given in their honor. Explorers Post 21 members were instructed to present themselves at the Belton Hotel at six o’clock on Friday night.
“Do we have to go?” Willie asked Mr. Livingston in alarm.
“I would,” the Scout leader advised. “The mayor and the president of the auto plant are giving the dinner. You boys performed a fine service, so it’s only right that Belton should show appreciation.”
Their consciences at ease, the Scouts pressed their green Explorers’ uniforms and at the designated hour presented themselves at the hotel. Two hundred businessmen and their wives had turned out to honor the boys.
The dinner was excellent and high praise was bestowed upon the Scouts. As a climax, the mayor arose to announce that citizens of Belton City wished to show their appreciation in a more material way. In behalf of the entire Post, he handed Jack a check for $900.
Jack glued his eyes on the bit of paper, too overcome to speak. He felt Ken nudge him.
“Say something, you lug!” his chum urged.
“In behalf of my fellow Explorers—” Jack began, “I want to say that we’re most grateful.” He laughed and dropped the formality. “Oh, heck! We only did what every Scout is supposed to do—his duty. We didn’t want pay.”
“Of course, you didn’t, Jack,” responded the mayor. “Nevertheless, we feel that the Scouts performed a great service. Had it not been for your alertness, the automobile plant might have been destroyed. So take the check and spend it as you wish—a vacation trip or new furniture for your club room.”
“Yes, sir,” Jack murmured, grinning. “We’ll manage to spend it all right!”
After the gathering had broken up, the Explorers joined Mr. Livingston to discuss their good fortune. Jack turned the check over to the Scout leader, who said he would deposit it at the bank the first thing the following morning.
“What a night it’s been!” Willie remarked blissfully. “With all this dough, we really can have a bang-up trip to Minnesota—if we go.”
The Scouts gazed speculatively at Mr. Livingston. Since the arrival of the letter and emerald from his friend in Colombia, he had not even mentioned the subject again. Had he given up all thought of making the trip, they wondered?
“Fellows,” Mr. Livingston said abruptly, “I hadn’t intended to spill this just yet, but I may as well. I’ve accepted Appleby Corning’s offer. I hope to leave for Colombia within three weeks.”
No one replied for a moment. The information was most disappointing.
Ken was the first to find tongue. “Why, that’s fine,” he said in a hollow tone. “We’ll miss you, but it’s a splendid opportunity. Post 21 won’t be the same without you, but we’ll get along somehow.”
“Who said anything about getting along without me?” Mr. Livingston demanded with a broad smile.
“You don’t mean you’re taking us with you!” cried War, his freckled face crinkling into lines of delight.
“That’s the general idea. I cabled my friend, and received a reply this morning. He said to bring you fellows along.”
“But the cost?” Jack interposed anxiously.
“That’s the rub,” admitted the Scout leader. “Appleby isn’t too well off. He’s offered though, to pay all the plane fares, round trip. All other expenses of the trip would have to be met by us.”
“Would nine hundred dollars do it?” War asked eagerly.
“We have another hundred or so we’ve saved for the Minnesota trip,” added Willie. “I’m for shooting the works!”
“Until the mayor presented the check tonight, I couldn’t see how the trip might be financed,” Mr. Livingston admitted. “But with plane fare furnished, I think we could get along. Once we’re in Colombia, Mr. Corning will put us up at the Last Chance mine. So we’ll have no living expenses there. Naturally, we’ll need a little extra money for emergencies.”
“When do we start?” War chortled. “Why wait three weeks?”
“There’s a little item of school for one thing,” Mr. Livingston reminded him. “Also, your parents must consent. Talk the matter over with them and report to me tomorrow.”
By the following day, all the Scouts with exception of Bob, had obtained permission to make the journey. His parents felt that he was too young to attempt such a long trip. Instead, they were taking him with them on a motor tour to California.
“Honestly, I don’t mind too much,” Bob cheerfully informed his friends. “I’m not a softie, but those tales you told about being held captive by Indians in Peru left me rather cold. I’m partial to a nice bed and three square meals a day.”
“This is a different sort of trip,” Jack said. “We don’t expect to become mixed up in an intrigue over Inca gold.”
“It may be emeralds this time,” Bob predicted. “Something’s brewing or Mr. Corning wouldn’t have sent for Hap.”
“You’re probably right,” Jack agreed with a grin. “Trouble certainly has developed at the Last Chance mine. And it’s a cinch we’re going to be in the thick of it!”
A COMPANY AGENT
“This must be the place. A filthy looking little office.”
Mr. Livingston had paused before a doorway on a shadeless, rather depressing back street of Cartagena. Only a moment before, a carriage had deposited the Scout leader and the four Explorers at an address where they hoped to obtain information concerning Appleby Corning.
The day was uncomfortably warm. Since arriving eighteen hours earlier at the Caribbean port, the Scouts had waited expectantly at their hotel.
No word had come from Mr. Livingston’s friend, the mining engineer, who had promised to meet and personally escort them to the Last Chance mine above Emerald Valley in the eastern Andes.
Learning that the company which controlled the emerald mine, had a Cartagena as well as a Bogota office, the Scouts finally had set out to find the former.
“This is the company office all right,” Jack Hartwell confirmed, consulting an address scribbled in his notebook.
“In we go,” the Scout leader urged.
He led the way into the untidy quarters of the Bolton Mining Company offices. The outside room in which the Explorers found themselves was both deserted and dusty. Old magazines and mining journals cluttered the tables and chairs.
“No one here,” Warwick remarked uneasily.
Ken, however, crossed the room to an inner doorway which opened into another office.
“I beg your pardon,” he said apologetically. “Good morning.”
The words were addressed to a man, who sat half-hidden behind a battered, roll-top desk. He wore no coat or necktie and had not shaved that day.
Seeing Ken in the doorway, the agent’s feet came down from the desk where they had been resting. His mouth dropped open to expose unclean, broken teeth.
“Good morning,” Ken repeated pleasantly. “Are you the agent for the Bolton Mining Company?”
“That’s me,” the man growled. “Who are you? What do you want?”
Unprepared for such an indifferent reception, Ken stepped aside so that Mr. Livingston and the other Scouts could enter. The company agent regarded them with obvious annoyance.
“Well, what d’you want?” he demanded again as no one spoke.
“My name is George Livingston,” the Scout leader introduced himself. “You probably know why I am here.”
“Never heard of you.”
Somewhat taken aback by the agent’s blunt reply, Mr. Livingston introduced Ken, Jack, Willie and Warwick. The mining company man merely stared at them with complete lack of interest.
“You are Ferd Baronni?” Mr. Livingston inquired, as the agent failed to introduce himself. He had been informed at the hotel as to the company representative’s name.
“That’s right. You got business with me?”
“Appleby Corning didn’t tell you we were coming to Colombia?”
“I ain’t seen Corning in three months. And if I don’t see him for another three, it will be soon enough!”
Mr. Livingston ignored the remark. “Mr. Corning agreed to meet us here,” he told the agent. “It seems there’s something wrong at the Last Chance mine, and he wanted us to help him out.”
“There’s always trouble at the mine,” Ferd Baronni growled. He eyed the Scout leader suspiciously. “What did he send word to you for?”
“Mr. Corning didn’t explain. He merely forwarded plane fares and asked us to come.”
“Corning paid your way here? I always knew that guy was half crazy and this proves it! What does he figure you can do to get the mine on a paying basis? You an engineer, huh?”
“No, I’m a Boy Scout leader.”
The agent’s thin lips parted in a hard, mirthless smile. “You’ll be a big help!” he said sarcastically.
“Sure! You’ll never be able to stand the climate at the Last Chance. It’s a lot colder than Bogota. I advise you to climb back on a plane and return to the States.”
“We’re asking for information, not advice,” Mr. Livingston said pleasantly. “Do you know when Mr. Corning is likely to get here?”
“You know more about it than I do,” the agent shrugged.
“You are the representative of the company,” Mr. Livingston reminded him.
“Sure, but Corning’s comings and goings ain’t none of my affair. It’s my job to ship out the emeralds. Lately, there ain’t been any to ship.” The agent smiled in grim satisfaction. “If you want it straight, your friend has fallen down on the job. He came here talking big—oh, he was going to clean up the mess at the Last Chance—get the cooperation of the workers, and open up a big vein! What’s he done? Failed like they all do.”
“You’ve handled company affairs for quite a while, I take it?” the Scout leader questioned.
“Twelve years. Part of the time I’m at the Bogota office.”
“Tell us a little about the Last Chance mine,” Mr. Livingston urged.
“Nothing to tell. Emerald mining is a government monopoly here, but an American outfit got a concession. The best emeralds in the world are found in Colombia.” For the first time, since the Scouts had met him, Mr. Baronni showed enthusiasm. “The Last Chance has been worked off and on before the coming of the Spaniards. But the mine’s playing out. Since your friend Corning took over, production has dropped alarmingly. Any day now I expect to get word from the company to close down completely.”
“Sounds rather discouraging,” Mr. Livingston commented. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“Corning doesn’t know how to handle the Indians. They steal him blind. Another thing, the mine is playing out. It’s up to him to find another vein of emeralds, and find it quick. The former engineer should have been left in charge.”
Mr. Livingston eyed the agent thoughtfully, but made no comment. It had been apparent from the first, that Ferd Baronni had no love for Appleby Corning.
“Want to see some emeralds?” the agent invited, pulling himself reluctantly from a swivel chair.
From an old-fashioned safe, he removed a cigar box. Almost reverently, he fingered a handful of large emeralds contained within. One which he offered Mr. Livingston was soft to the touch, very dark in color and had smoldering fire.
Another, somewhat smaller, was a shade lighter. Instead of having a subdued glow, it seemed to blaze with flame.
“Now this one’s a first quality emerald,” the agent informed the awed group. “We ain’t getting many of ’em any more from the Last Chance.”
“You say the mine is likely to close down?” Mr. Livingston questioned.
“Any day now. Then the workers will drift off to find work elsewhere. Once a mine shuts down, vegetation takes over. That’s how so many once-rich veins have been lost.”
“Mr. Corning didn’t tell you we were coming?”
“Not a word.”
“Our cables I think, came through here. Or perhaps they were sent by way of Santa Marta.”
“That’s the big banana shipping port. Corning has friends there. Your message to him still may be there uncollected.”
“But he knew we were coming,” Mr. Livingston said in a worried voice. “He promised to meet us here at Cartagena.”
“Sure it wasn’t Santa Marta or Bogota?”
“Of course not. We wouldn’t make a mistake as stupid as that. How can we get word to him?”
“No way,” the agent replied indifferently. “When Corning gets around to it, if he ain’t too busy, he may drop down to Santa Marta. Or maybe to Bogota. Lately, he’s been sending his emeralds to the office there—when he has any to send, which ain’t often.”
“Can’t we get word to the mine?”
“There’s no railroad. Only a mule track. My advice is to see Cartagena and if he doesn’t show up in a few days, take a boat back to the States.”
The agent’s advice was most discouraging to the Scouts. After talking with Baronni for a while longer, they gloomily returned to their hotel to think over the situation.
“I can’t believe Appleby would let us down,” Mr. Livingston told the Explorers. “He’ll get word to us soon. Meanwhile, we may as well do a little sightseeing.”
“We haven’t any too much cash,” Ben reminded the group. “In making our plans, we figured on Mr. Corning putting us up at the mine. If we run a fancy hotel bill here for a week or so, it will make quite a dent in our funds.”
“Appleby will show up within a couple of days,” Mr. Livingston insisted. “Let’s not worry about it.”
With time heavy upon their hands, the four Explorers thoroughly explored the delightful port of Cartagena. They visited the old reservoir, the ancient walls, the harbor and the fine residential section.
But after three days of leisurely sightseeing, the Scouts wearied of the quiet old city. Each morning they called upon Ferd Baronni to ask if any word had been received from Appleby Corning. Each day, the answer was in the negative.
“Better forget about the Last Chance mine,” the agent advised them gruffly. “You can catch a boat tomorrow for the States. After that, there won’t be another for a week.”
Mr. Livingston shook his head. “Mr. Corning sent for us. I’m unwilling to return without at least making an effort to contact him.”
“Suit yourself,” the agent shrugged. “You got a long wait ahead probably.”
“We can’t afford to lose any more time. I’ve practically decided to go on to the Bogota office.”
Baronni straightened in his swivel chair. “Some company officials live there, but the office is closed most of the time,” he informed the Scout leader. “If you’re dead set on pulling out of here, you’d have a better chance of learning about your friend at Santa Marta.”
“Very well. How do we get there? Can you help us, or shall we make arrangements ourselves?”
Ferd Baronni gazed steadily at Mr. Livingston a moment. “I’ll make the arrangements, if you’re determined to go,” he said. “I got a friend who runs a sled boat between here and Calamar. When you get there you can take a boat.”
“Be at the dock tomorrow at seven,” the agent advised, writing an address on a slip of paper.
The Scouts thanked him for his trouble, and went back to the hotel to pack. Their spirits soared at the prospect of leaving Cartagena. At dinner however, Jack noticed that Mr. Livingston was unusually quiet.
“Worried?” he inquired.
“You’re afraid we may not find Mr. Corning at Santa Marta?” Jack guessed.
“The thought does bother me. It’s a little out of our way in going to the mine. Another thing—”
“What’s that?” Jack asked as the Scout leader hesitated.
“I’m borrowing trouble, I guess. But I can’t help wishing I hadn’t allowed Ferd Baronni to make our travel arrangements. He seemed too eager to do it.”
“You don’t trust him?”
“Not entirely,” Mr. Livingston admitted. “He dislikes Appleby Corning. Furthermore, he’s resented our mission here.”
“I noticed that. We could cancel the arrangements.”
The Scout leader considered for a moment, then shook his head. “No, we’ll let them stand,” he decided. “I’m ashamed of my suspicions. The sled-boat trip should prove to be an interesting diversion. I’m looking forward to it.”
TOIL AND TROUBLE
Mr. Livingston and the Explorers presented themselves at the dock promptly at seven o’clock the following morning.
They were to proceed by way of a natural channel connecting the Magdalena River with the sea. The propeller boat in which they were to ride already was waiting.
“Queer looking contraption,” Ken remarked upon inspecting it.
The sea-sled was approximately thirty feet in length, motor-powered, and with curious runners. A canopy was provided as protection from the sun, and there were comfortable wicker chairs.
“Are we ready to start?” Mr. Livingston inquired cheerfully after the luggage had been placed aboard.
“Not yet,” the operator answered.
He was a young Colombian, dark-haired and with an extremely nervous manner.
The Scouts took their places in the sled-boat and waited. Fifteen minutes passed, and finally a half hour.
“Why the delay?” Jack finally asked, walking over to the boat operator.
“Waiting for another passenger,” the man answered curtly. “Don’t bother me.”
“What sort of service is this, anyhow?” Willie grumbled. “This late passenger must be a mighty important guy!”
Another twenty minutes elapsed while the Scouts grew increasingly impatient.
Finally, the one for whom they waited, arrived at the dock. A handsome woman of forty, dressed in a white linen suit, came hurriedly to the sled-boat. Porters carried her luggage, and a number of boxes.
“Gosh, she must be the wife of an official or something!” Warwick whispered to Jack. “She had her nerve holding us up nearly an hour!”
“Quiet!” the other warned him. “You want her to hear?”
The woman spoke briefly with the operator of the sled-boat, whose name the Scouts now knew to be Haredia. They conversed so rapidly in Spanish that Jack could not understand, despite some knowledge of the language. However, he saw the pair glance twice in the direction of the boat, and had an uneasy feeling that the Scout party was under discussion.
Presently, the woman came aboard, accepting the chair which Mr. Livingston offered her. She scrutinized each of the Scouts and sat down without mentioning her name.
“I’m George Livingston,” the Scout leader introduced himself, intending to be friendly.
A roar of the powerful boat motor drowned out his words. The woman merely inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement of the introduction and made no answer.
The Scouts settled back into their chairs expectantly. A great fountain of spray was thrown up as the boat glided smoothly over the water on her long runners.
“This is great!” War cried, thoroughly enjoying himself. “Just like a toboggan!”
From the bay, the boat shot out into the open Caribbean sea and presently slowed down to enter a passageway leading to a marshy lake.
The sled continued to skim along between banks dense with tropical growth. Jack stole a glance at the woman passenger. She showed no interest in the scenery, and in fact, appeared bored. From her indifference, he concluded that she had made the trip on prior occasions and that the experience no longer interested her.
Without slackening speed, the sled raced on past villages of thatched huts. Only when they reached a great marsh, did the operator throttle the motor.
Anxiously, he studied the many bays and inlets which were heavily clogged with water-hyacinths.
“What’s wrong now?” Ken murmured, as Haredia tried first one and then another of the openings.
“He’s searching for a passageway through,” Mr. Livingston explained. “I hope we don’t clog the propeller.”
As the sled proceeded, the way became more difficult. Hyacinths were floating everywhere in dense masses.
“I’ll bet we’ve taken the wrong channel,” Willie muttered. “Haredia should turn back before we’re hemmed in.”
“He never will,” Ken replied. “Not that bird!”
For no reason that the Scouts could explain, they had taken a dislike to the operator of the sled boat. Haredia had not been hostile, but he had coldly ignored them. Though he had handled the boat skillfully enough in open water, it seemed to them that now that the going had become harder, he was abandoning all caution.
“We’re getting into those hyacinths deeper and deeper,” Jack remarked uneasily. “Why don’t we turn back?”
Glancing over his shoulder, he was rather dismayed to see an almost solid meadow of water plants behind the boat.
“It would be easy to get lost in this mess,” he remarked. “But I suppose Haredia knows what he’s doing.”
The sled kept stubbornly on, its laboring engines cutting a passage.
Then suddenly the motor set up a frightful clatter and the boat began to move in jerks.
“We’ve done it now!” Jack exclaimed. “The motor’s shot!”
Mr. Livingston left his chair and went over to see what he could do to help. Haredia, nervous and perspiring, brushed aside his offer.
“Don’t bother me now!” he rasped. “We’ll get out of this!”
“We will, if you use your head,” the Scout leader replied. “But you can’t keep on without ruining the motor. It sounds to me as if the clutch has slipped.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Haredia demanded savagely. “Fix it here?”
“Isn’t there a place where we can put in for repairs?”
“We’ll do better to go on, if we can find the channel.”
“We’re lost then?”
“Not lost,” Haredia insisted irritably. “With the motor running right, I could find the channel in time.”
“Can’t we pole out of this?”
“It will be hard work,” the operator tried to discourage him.
Nevertheless, he brought out the long poles and the Scouts took turns shoving the heavy boat backwards through the thick, choking mass. A hot sun beat upon them, causing perspiration to run down their foreheads and legs.
As they toiled, the woman passenger showed little interest. Remaining under the shade of the canopy, she fanned herself and calmly read a magazine.
The Scouts began to feel annoyed as the sun rose higher and the poling became harder. They expected no help from their fellow passenger, but her utter indifference to their toil rather nettled them.
As for Haredia, he divided his time between steering the craft and smoking cigarettes. Not once did he grasp a pole to exert any physical effort.
Getting out of the worst of the hyacinth net, the Scouts tried several inlets which offered promise. None led to open water.
Haredia was able to move the boat slowly now by means of the crippled motor. But stretches of clear going were few and far between. For the greater part of the time, the Scouts were forced to pole. Their hands became blistered and their backs sore.
By dint of exhausting work, they finally brought the boat to an area of sparse hyacinth growth. Three passages opened before them. Haredia steered toward one of them.
“Let’s take the other opening,” Jack proposed. “It looks less clogged with plants.”
Haredia acted as if he had not heard. Jack repeated the suggestion. Still there was no response. The other Scouts had stopped poling, allowing the boat to drift.
Haredia started to turn on the disabled motor.
“Wait!” Jack said tersely. “Let’s talk this over. You admit you’re lost.”
“We will find the passage in time.”
“But one looks the same as another.” Jack went on. “It’s just a process of elimination—trying them one at a time?”
“That is right, Senor.”
“Then let’s try the other passage first.”
Haredia glowered at Jack. “This one is better,” he insisted.
The woman passenger had laid aside her magazine. She spoke firmly. “Haredia is right. We must follow his advice.”
Jack knew he was beaten. Actually, in appearance, there was little choice between the passageways. He was ready to give in to Haredia’s wishes when Ken nudged him and pointed.
A native in a dugout canoe had just emerged from another inlet.
“He should be able to guide us to a village if we can make him understand!” Ken asserted. “Let’s give him a yodel!”
To the obvious displeasure of both the woman and Haredia, Jack shouted to the native. He came readily, gazing in awe at the crippled boat.
Haredia spoke rapidly to him. Jack caught a few of the words and the native’s answer.
“He says we’re to take this passage,” Haredia translated, pointing to the one he had favored.
Jack’s eyes smoldered. “Sorry,” he said coldly, “but I happen to understand a little Spanish. You didn’t ask him how to reach the nearest village. You said something about the weather.”
“I’ve had enough of this!” Haredia said furiously. “Maybe the Senor would like to take charge?”
Jack glanced questioningly at Mr. Livingston.
“Thanks, we will,” the Scout leader replied. Quietly, he instructed Jack: “Try to make the native understand that we want him to guide us to the nearest village or plantation. Tell him we’ll pay well for the service.”
When Haredia understood that Mr. Livingston and the Scouts were determined to question the native, his attitude abruptly changed. He spoke again to the man in the dugout, who nodded and gestured in the direction Jack had suggested that they take.
“This Indian will guide us,” Haredia informed the passengers. “He says we are to follow him. With your permission, senor, I will do so.”
In an insolent manner, the boat operator bowed to Mr. Livingston.
“It seems we were right about the passageway,” the Scout leader replied. “How far is the nearest village?”
“There is a plantation on about a quarter of a mile,” Haredia returned.
“Then we will go there.”
Aided by the racking motor, the sled boat moved by spurts through the hyacinths. The Indian, naked to his waist, paddled ahead, indicating every turn in the maze.
Gradually, the mat of entangling hyacinths thinned out and they saw the main channel ahead.
“This looks more like it,” Jack sighed, putting away the poles.
The disabled motor presently brought them to the wharf of a large plantation. While Haredia and Mr. Livingston attended to getting repairs, the Scouts sat in the shade and sipped cool drinks.
“I can’t figure Haredia,” Willie remarked, swatting an insect. “Was he trying to pull a fast one on us, or not?”
“It’s easy enough to lose one’s way in a field of hyacinths,” War returned. “We can’t blame him for that, although one would think he’d know the route.”
“He was stubborn about wanting to take that other inlet,” Willie went on reflectively. “If we’d followed his advice, we’d be poling yet!”
“I wouldn’t have thought too much about it, except that he clearly didn’t want that native to guide us here,” contributed Ken. “I’m glad Happy insisted upon staying at the dock while repairs are being made.”
“Hap won’t let him pull anything,” Jack declared confidently. Draining his glass of limeade he arose and stretched his legs. “Guess I’ll amble down to the wharf to see how the work’s going. Maybe I can help.”
Bored by inactivity, Ken decided to accompany him. Leaving Willie and War to finish their drinks, the two sauntered down to the wharf where the sea sled had been raised out of water.
“Wonder what became of our female passenger?” Jack remarked.
“Oh, she went to the plantation house,” Ken answered indifferently. “I hope she stays there too. She’s a cool number.”
“Learn her name?”
“Not yet, but I aim to,” Ken announced. “Maybe this is my chance now.”
Haredia was coming up the path, eating a sandwich of sardines. He would have avoided the pair had not Ken stopped him.
“How’s the work coming along?”
“All right,” the boatman told him briefly. “The clutch is fixed.”
“Then we’ll be starting soon?”
“The rudder is bent.”
“Oh, that’s bad,” Ken commented. “How long will we be held here?”
Haredia shrugged. “Who knows?” he asked. “Maybe an hour. Maybe three.”
“It’s a bit hard on the lady,” Ken commented, seeing an opening. “By the way, what’s her name?”
“I would not know,” Haredia returned stiffly.
“You and she seemed well acquainted.”
“The Senora has traveled on my sled boat once before.”
“But you don’t know her name?”
“I do not ask as many questions as the American Scouts,” the boatman retorted with an unpleasant smile. “You will pardon me now? I have an errand.”
He passed them and went on up the path to the thatched roof plantation house.
“That was telling us, I guess,” Jack laughed shortly. “We were being rather inquisitive.”
“It’s unfriendly not to give one’s name. Anyway, you can bet little Haredia knows who she is, but he’s keeping it dark.”
“Why would he do that, Ken?”
“I dunno, Jack. Maybe she’s the wife of a big shot.”
“Even so, would that be any reason for keeping her name a secret? She knows Haredia well. What’s more, she supported him when he deliberately chose the wrong route.”
“That may have been a natural mistake. He’s supposed to know his business, while we’re unfamiliar with the waterways.”
“Sure,” Jack acknowledged, “but I didn’t like the way they kept looking at each other, as if they were pulling some trick. Haredia can’t be trusted.”
“If he ever gets us to the Magdalena, we’ll be free of him.”
“I hope so.” Jack frowned thoughtfully. “For the life of me, I can’t see why he’d try to delay us. But that’s what he seems to have done.”
“We may have misjudged him.”
“Don’t forget Ken, Ferd Baronni made the arrangements for our trip.”
“You’re saying Baronni may have messed up our journey on purpose?”
“It hits me that way, Ken. I’ll admit though, I can’t figure out any logical reason he’d have for not wanting us to go on to find Appleby Corning.”
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Livingston. He reported that repairs on the sled boat should be completed in another hour or two. The delay, however, would put them a day behind in their schedule.
The Scout leader was inclined to brush aside Jack’s theory that Haredia and Ferd Baronni might have conspired together.
“I doubt it,” he replied. “Haredia is an irresponsible fellow with an ugly disposition. He took a dislike to our party and is being most uncooperative. I question though, that he and the company agent have any close connection.”
“Haredia tried to delay us by choosing the wrong passageway,” Jack pointed out.
“His attitude, I think, resulted from inefficiency. He was unwilling to admit a mistake.”
No more was said, for just then the boatman sauntered back from the plantation house. Mr. Livingston joined him and they returned together to the wharf.
Jack and Ken watched the repair work for awhile, but there was nothing they could do to help. The intense heat presently drove them to shade.
As they flicked mosquitoes, Mr. Ferendez, the genial plantation owner, came up with Warwick and Willie. The three struck up a friendly conversation.
“Mr. Ferendez has been telling us about Santa Marta,” Willie asserted, munching a banana. “He says it’s situated on a good harbor, and has weekly steamers to New York and New Orleans.”
“It’s a big banana center, isn’t it?” Ken remarked to make conversation.
“Exports have increased enormously,” Mr. Ferendez told him. “You should have an interesting visit there.”
“Oh, we’re not on a pleasure trip,” War disclosed. “The fact is, we’re on our way to the Last Chance mine, and are going by way of Santa Marta.”
“The Last Chance mine! You’re heading into the mountains?”
Jack and Ken were flashing War warning signals, considering it unwise to reveal their plans, even to a friendly stranger. The younger Scout, however, failed to take the hint.
“To Emerald Valley,” he went on. “Appleby Corning, the engineer at the mine, sent for us. He was supposed to meet us at Cartagena, but didn’t. So we’re going on to the mine.”
“But why go by way of Santa Marta?” the plantation owner asked with a puzzled frown. “Bogota is considered the gateway.”
“We thought we might run into Mr. Corning at Santa Marta. He’s supposed to have friends there.”
The plantation owner made no comment. His very silence, however, troubled the Scouts.
“Do you know Mr. Corning?” Jack finally inquired.
“I’ve heard of him, but he seldom travels this way. I understand he’s been kept very busy at the mine.”
“Trouble there?” questioned Willie.
The planter smiled. “So long as I can remember, there’s been trouble at the Last Chance. Wherever you find emeralds, you’ll find intrigue and grief. If you’re going there, I advise you to be careful.”
“Careful?” echoed Jack.
“The mule trail to the mine is dangerous. That section of country, you know, is overrun with bandits. Carlos in particular, has a reputation for holding up mule trains.”
“We’re hoping Mr. Corning will meet us at Santa Marta,” War said. “Or at least send word.”
“By the way, what became of the former engineer at the Last Chance?” Ken inquired thoughtfully. “Did he return to the States?”
The planter revealed his astonishment. “The engineer’s wife could answer that question better than I,” he replied.
“His wife?” Ken repeated. “Where would we meet her?”
“You already have,” the planter answered in amusement.
“You don’t mean that woman passenger on the sea sled!” Jack exclaimed incredulously. “The one who didn’t tell us her name!”
“She is Mrs. McClellan Rhodes, wife of the engineer. Her first name is Rosie.”
“Ye fishes!” Willie yipped in sudden apprehension. “You don’t suppose she’s going to the mine too!”
“I wouldn’t know,” replied the planter. “Rosie didn’t say. But if she is heading for Emerald Valley and the mountains, her husband must now be at the mine. And in that event, your friend, Mr. Corning, had better be alert!”
Disturbed by the planter’s remarks, Jack and his friends tried to learn more. Mr. Ferendez could tell them very little.
He related that he had met McClellan Rhodes and his wife only once before, at Bogota. At that time they were mingling in society, living high.
“Rhodes didn’t attend to his duties at the mine, I was told,” Mr. Ferendez reported. “According to rumor, he was replaced because of inefficiency. Under Appleby Corning, the mine has improved. But apparently, there’s dissatisfaction among the emerald miners.”
“You think Rhodes may have something to do with it?” inquired Willie.
“Oh, he’d like to get his old job back,” the planter returned. “No question about that. He and his wife made a good thing of it.”
“Where is Rhodes now?” asked Ken.
“You’ll have to ask his wife,” the planter responded, inclining his head toward the path. “She’s coming now.”
The Scouts had no intention of questioning Mrs. Rhodes. It annoyed them though, that they had not learned her identity earlier.
“What stupes we’ve been,” Willie remarked after the woman had passed them on her way to the wharf. “We talked about the mine and our plans in front of her! She just kept her lips buttoned and listened!”
“She didn’t learn much from us,” Jack replied.
“She knows who we are, and where we’re going.”
“There’s no mystery about that, Willie. Now that we’ve learned she’s Mrs. Rhodes, we can be careful.”
Just then, Mr. Livingston called the Scouts, beckoning them to the water’s edge.
“We’re ready to shove off,” he announced. “With luck, we may reach Calamar tonight.”
Once more the Scouts took their places in the boat. The halt seemingly had improved Haredia’s disposition for he appeared almost cheerful as the craft again sped through the waterway.
Mrs. Rhodes paid no attention to the Scouts. Even when War, in an attempt to be friendly, pointed out an unusual bird, she merely nodded.
Night came on. Banana groves and mango trees lost detail, merging into an indistinct shoreline. No longer could the Explorers see the thatched-roof huts as their craft raced along.
Everyone was relieved when at last the boat reached the wide Magdalena river, and ultimately Calamar.
“We’ll stay here tonight,” Mr. Livingston announced. “Tomorrow we’ll proceed by boat.”
As their craft made dock, the Scouts stiffly arose and gathered their luggage. Willie tried to help Mrs. Rhodes, but she ignored his hand as she stepped ashore.
“Goodbye ma’am,” he mumbled politely.
“Goodbye?” she repeated, with the faintest trace of a smile. “Oh, I rather think we shall meet again.”
“At Santa Marta?”
“There or elsewhere.” With a hard, mirthless laugh, Mrs. Rhodes turned and walked away.
For the next few days, the Scouts saw no more of Mrs. Rhodes. Upon their arrival at the banana port of Santa Marta, they were disturbed to learn that Mr. Corning had failed to send any message for them.
“There’s been a mix-up somehow,” Mr. Livingston said, deeply worried. “Appleby couldn’t have received word from me, or he’d have met us.”
“What’ll we do now?” Jack asked. “Go on to the mine?”
“If we don’t hear from Appleby within a day or two, it’s all we can do, Jack. Our money won’t stretch too far.”
That night the Scouts ran into Mrs. Rhodes in the hotel dining room. They saw her again the next day at breakfast, and later at a large banana plantation which they visited.
“Say, is she trailing us, do you think?” Jack speculated, noting the woman’s presence among a throng of tourists at one of the banana sheds.
“What gave you that idea?” Ken scoffed.
“Well, she showed up at our hotel, didn’t she? And she’s more or less been around ever since.”
“Santa Marta’s small, Jack.”
“Sure, I know. I wouldn’t think anything of it if I didn’t know she’s the wife of that deposed engineer. But War told me she was quizzing him this morning after breakfast.”
“What sort of questions did she ask, Jack?”
“Well, it seems she was trying to find out if we were dead set on going on to the mine.”
“What’s so suspicious about that?” Ken asked, turning his head away as the woman under discussion glanced in his direction. “It might be natural curiosity.”
“Maybe,” Jack conceded, “only Mrs. Rhodes doesn’t hit me as the curious type. When she asks a question, she’s after information.”
“What did War tell her?”
“Nothing. He figured she was pumping him, so he gave her double talk.”
The two Explorers forgot Mrs. Rhodes as a guide appeared to conduct them through the banana groves. Somewhat to their relief, the woman did not join the sightseeing party.
Grassy lanes intersected the plantations, stretching as far as the Scouts could see. The giant plants were spaced fifteen feet apart, and rose to a height of nearly forty. Except for the droning, monotonous voice of the guide, a great stillness prevailed.
“Gosh, what a forest of ’em!” War murmured in awe. “A fellow could get lost here!”
“Don’t go wandering around,” Jack warned him. “Stick close to the guide.”
The Scouts kept together on the main cart road and in the lanes which seemed to stretch endlessly. With keen interest, they watched the cutting of green bananas.
Workers went in twos, a cutter and a backer, equipped with a long pointed stick and a sharp machete.
The cutter would stick the banana plant below the bunch, so that it toppled slowly down within reach of the backer, who promptly shouldered it.
With swift strokes of the sharp machete, the cutter then severed the bunch from the plant. Off trotted the backer with his heavy burden, to deposit it along the card road. Bunches were protected from the sun with green banana leaves.
Wearying of the guide’s lengthy description of how bananas were harvested, Jack and War returned to the cart road to await the sightseeing party there.
Seating themselves on a mat of cut banana leaves, they watched as a worker with a cart gathered the deposited bunches and rattled off out of sight.
War became absorbed in watching tiny lizards which darted everywhere. “Say, isn’t it about time our gang got back here?” he demanded impatiently.
He arose and Jack trailed after him. But when they peered down the long row of banana plants where their party had been, no one was to be seen.
“Where’d everyone go?” Jack asked in alarm.
“They must have gone into another row. A good joke on us! We’d better find ’em.”
Walking quickly along the cart road, the two Scouts looked down one long green lane after another. Their friends were nowhere to be seen.
“How’d they get away so fast?” Jack murmured, annoyed at himself for having missed the group.
“We sat by the roadside a lot longer than we realized, I guess.”
“Well, we’re not really lost,” Jack asserted. “We can follow this cart road back to the shed.”
“Sure,” War agreed, “but we may not hit the right shed without a lot of hunting. Hey, listen! I think I hear someone talking!”
Pausing, the two became attentive to the sounds about them. A humming bird whirred by and there came the throaty croak of a frog from a nearby irrigation ditch.
“I don’t hear anyone—” Jack began, only to check himself. “Yes, I do,” he corrected.
The inaudible words reached his ears only as an indistinct, blurred flow of speech.
“That must be our guide!” he exclaimed. “Catch the direction, War?”
“This way,” his companion directed, starting down one of the grassy lanes.
“Hold on,” Jack called, but War, impulsive as always, paid no heed.
Reluctantly, the older Scout hastened to catch up with his friend.
War, finding he had made a mistake in entering a deserted row, cut through to an adjoining lane.
“Hey, wait!” Jack called, thoroughly annoyed.
Even then, War did not pay attention to the command, if indeed he heard it. Now far ahead of his friend, he kept moving from row to row, trying to follow the elusive murmur of voices.
Finally, perspiring heavily, he halted to catch his breath and listen again. Jack then caught up with him.
“Listen, you!” he exclaimed. “What’s the big idea? Where do you think you’re going?”
“To find our gang. I thought they’d be in this row.”
“You’ve chased through a half dozen of ’em. I can’t even hear voices now.”
War listened a moment. “Neither can I,” he acknowledged uneasily. “I guess we’ve missed our party.”
“We’ll have to get back to the cart road and make for the shed.”
“I guess so,” War agreed, crestfallen.
They started back through the lane, trying to retrace the way they had come. Rows of arching banana plants marched endlessly.
“I’m all mixed,” War presently confessed. “Shouldn’t we be coming to the cart road?”
“It seems to me we’ve walked far enough.”
“Maybe this row we’re following doesn’t intersect the road where we came in,” War said, struck by a sudden, unpleasant recollection. “Before we started out this morning, I was looking at a map that hung in the main shed.”
“Some of the rows bisect at right angles. But at one point, the road curves around. The rows at that place, just go straight on.”
“How far, War?”
“Why, it looked as if some of them extended the length of the plantation—miles.”
“Gosh! You think we’ve hit one of those rows, War?”
“I’m afraid of it. We’ve walked a long distance now.”
Jack paused, his eyebrows pulling together in a worried frown.
“Are we lost?” War asked, nervously wiping perspiration from his forehead.
Jack grinned reassuringly. “Not lost,” he corrected. “I don’t like that word.”
“Temporarily off course?”
“That’s better, War. Now let’s sit down a minute and think this thing through. There must be an easy way out of this fruit garden, and we’ll find it.”
A BANANA PLANTATION
Jack and War were more annoyed at themselves than alarmed by their situation.
Common sense told them that although the plantation was an extensive one, they eventually would reach a loading shed where directions could be obtained. The worst they would suffer would be inconvenience and delay.
However, they realized that by this time their friends would have missed them. Their failure to be on hand would prevent the others from returning to the hotel for lunch.
“I’m starving too,” War announced with chagrin. “Let’s get out of this steam bath!”
“Now just sit still and think for a change!” Jack scolded him. “I’m not blaming you, because I was equally at fault. But if we’d used our heads, instead of chasing off in pursuit of a voice, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“What’ll we do? Sit and wait for someone to find us?”
“We could, but it would waste a lot of time. The bananas in this particular row are only half developed. So I imagine a cutter won’t be coming this way for days or weeks.”
“Meanwhile, we survive on raw lizards and green bananas—”
“Try to be serious, War. We’re bound to cause Hap and the gang a lot of trouble if we don’t find the group fast.”
“What can we do except start walking?”
“The point is, we’ve got to figure out a sensible route—just moving from row to row at random won’t get us to the cart road unless we’re lucky.”
“Can’t we retrace our way? We can follow our own prints, I reckon. But it will take an age.”
“In the end it probably will save time,” Jack declared, getting up from the mat of banana leaves. “If we miss our own trail, we still have the sun to guide us. It was at our back when we started this way.”
Determinedly, the Scouts returned the route they had come. Memory of small, almost unnoticed things, now aided them. Jack recalled a pile of dried banana plant leaves they had passed just after changing rows. War remembered seeing the rusty, broken blade of a discarded machete.
Nevertheless, a full half hour elapsed before the two Explorers finally emerged at the narrow cart road. No one was in sight.
“We’re still lost—off course, I mean,” War said in discouragement. “What do we do now that we’re back where we started?”
“Try to find a loading shed,” Jack decided. “No use chasing through the banana rows searching for our party. By this time, Hap and the fellows probably have gone back to the entrance gate.”
Uncertain which direction to go, the Scouts stood a moment in the blazing sun. Just then an empty oxen cart rattled down the road.
“Here comes our private limousine!” War chuckled. “Let’s hitch a ride.”
As the cart jogged by, the Scouts hailed the driver. He understood no English, but Jack in halting Spanish succeeded in conveying the idea that they wanted to ride to the loading shed. The workman motioned for them to climb in.
The floor of the cart was padded with the thick fiber of old banana stalks. Jack and War sat in the back, swinging their legs over the edge. The vehicle bounced along, stopping at intervals to pick up bananas.
“You reckon he understood your Spanish, Jack?” War asked as the trip dragged on. “Maybe we’ll spend the afternoon bouncing along over this road.”
“Maybe,” the other agreed philosophically. “Isn’t it better than walking?”
“Sure. Only I’d like to get out of here fast.”
“Take it easy, War,” Jack grinned. “We’ll roll in after our driver picks up a few more bananas. Patience, my lad!”
As they jounced along, the Scouts kept an alert watch for their missing friends. But in the long plant rows, they saw only occasional workmen.
Presently, the little cart, now two-quarters filled with banana bunches, bounced over a log bridge which spanned a ditch. Seeing the big loading shed and a railroad siding beyond, the Scouts leaped off their perch.
“Thanks for the ride,” Jack called to the cart driver. “Gracias, Senor.”
The workman responded with a friendly wave of his hand.
Wilted by the noonday heat, Jack and War walked toward the shed adjoining the railroad tracks. Through the open door they could see rows of green banana bunches stacked ready for shipment to the boat dock.
“I’m thirsty,” War announced, wetting his lips. “Let’s see if we can find some drinking water. I could go for a nice iced cocoanut!”
“You won’t find it here,” Jack rejoined. “Or an ice cream soda either.”
At the doorway of the banana shed, he abruptly halted, his attention fixing upon two persons who were inside.
“See who’s here!” he whispered to War.
Mrs. McClellan Rhodes stood inside, her back to the door. She was talking earnestly to a man whom the Scouts instantly recognized as Ferd Baronni.
“How did he get here?” War muttered.
Jack shook his head, as he tried to catch a few words of the conversation. Baronni was speaking hurriedly and with emphasis.
“After you left, I got nervous,” he told the woman. “This man Livingston and his boys may make trouble if they go on to the mine. It was a mistake to let them come this far.”
“I’m beginning to think so myself,” Mrs. Rhodes replied. “No good can result from their going on. They must be discouraged.”
“I’ll leave it to you,” the mining company agent went on. “I’m pulling out—going back to Cartagena within the hour. Good luck.”
“I’ll handle everything,” Mrs. Rhodes promised. “Leave it to me.”
They shook hands and Baronni started toward the door. Jack and War barely had time to duck back behind the building before he emerged and walked rapidly away.
Making no comment upon the alarming conversation they had overheard, the Scouts waited five minutes. Then, casually they sauntered into the banana shed.
Seeing them, Mrs. Rhodes looked startled. “Have you been here long?” she inquired with a show of friendliness.
“Not long,” Jack answered.
“We lost our party and have been wandering around through the rows,” War added. “Have you seen Mr. Livingston?”
“No, I haven’t. Not since early this morning.”
“Didn’t we see someone leave the shed a few minutes ago?” Jack inquired.
Mrs. Rhodes shot a quick look at him as if to read any hidden meaning behind his words. The Scout’s expression of innocence reassured her.
“Only one of the workmen,” she replied indifferently. “I’m waiting for the banana train.”
The woman’s deliberate lie made Jack and War more than ever suspicious. Wisely, however, they did not show their true feelings.
War picked up a discarded banana and began to strip the peelings.
“Have one?” he invited, offering another to Mrs. Rhodes.
She drew back with a gesture of distaste. “I can’t bear bananas!”
“I suppose one would get tired of them,” commented Jack politely. “Still you find this plantation interesting enough to visit?”
The woman shrugged. “Why not?” she returned. “A friend of my husband’s is a foreman here.”
Jack was quite certain that Mrs. Rhodes again was lying. He believed that she had come to the plantation either to keep the Scout party under surveillance or to meet Ferd Baronni.
It seemed reasonable to believe, however, that the latter had journeyed to Santa Marta on sudden impulse, and had sought the woman after learning that she was absent from her hotel. Their close association deeply worried him. Why were the pair so determined to prevent the Scout party from reaching the Last Chance mine?
As if reading his thoughts, Mrs. Rhodes questioned abruptly: “You’re still planning on your trip to the emerald mine?”
“That’s our intention, unless we hear from Appleby Corning.”
“You’ll find the trip most uncomfortable,” Mrs. Rhodes said, fanning herself with a green banana leaf. “There is no road. Only a trail. The temperature extremes—intense heat in the valleys, and freezing cold in the mountains, is most trying.”
“We don’t mind hardships,” Jack replied, amused by the woman’s attempt to discourage them. “We’re used to them.”
“I’m sure you are,” the woman returned. “Well, if I can’t persuade you to give up the trip, let me advise you to leave your valuables behind.”
“Bandits?” Jack asked.
“One in particular. Carlos has been terrorizing the mountainside, robbing the pack trains and making travel most precarious.”
“You are not afraid to make the journey, Ma’am?”
Mrs. Rhodes returned Jack’s steady gaze. “No, I have no fear,” she responded briefly. “I have lived many years in Colombia.”
“What takes you to the mine?” War asked rather abruptly. “Your husband isn’t there any more, is he?”
The question plainly annoyed Mrs. Rhodes. She dropped the banana leaf and moved quickly to the shed door.
“The train is coming now,” she announced. “After the bananas are loaded, we can ride to the main gate. I should imagine that you will find the rest of your party waiting there.”
Jack and War made no further attempt to question the woman. During the loading of the car, she moved some distance away, coldly ignoring them.
“I thought she’d make more effort to try to convince us we shouldn’t go on to the mine,” War remarked as they watched the last of the loading. “I guess she realizes it’s useless.”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” Jack said grimly. “Mrs. Rhodes is a clever woman. She’ll try again.”
“Why do you figure she and that company agent are so bent on keeping us away from the mine?”
“I wish I knew,” Jack returned thoughtfully. “Something is stirring there, that’s certain. Appleby Corning said he was in trouble when he wrote Mr. Livingston. It may be he’s mixed up in some mess the Rhodes’ have been cooking. I’ll be relieved when we manage to get in touch with him.”
A toot of the engine informed the Scouts that the banana car was about to move out. They swung aboard and rode to the main gate. There, as Mrs. Rhodes had predicted, Mr. Livingston and the other Scouts anxiously awaited them.
Enroute back to the hotel, Jack and War related the conversation they had overheard in the banana shed. Mr. Livingston was gravely concerned, and unable to understand why Ferd Baronni had trailed the party to Santa Marta.
“I distrusted that company agent at the start,” he admitted. “Now I’m more than ever convinced that he’s no friend of Appleby’s. If only Mr. Corning would get in touch with us, some of this fog might clear.”
The Scouts reached the hotel and headed for the dining room for a late lunch. As they crossed the lobby, the clerk signalled Mr. Livingston.
“A wire for you,” he said, thrusting an envelope into the Scout leader’s hand.
Quickly, Mr. Livingston read the enclosed message. His face became a puzzle.
“Anything wrong?” Ken inquired anxiously.
“Plenty,” Mr. Livingston replied, offering the message for the others to read. “This is from Appleby. He says an unusual situation has developed at the mine. We’re instructed to return to Cartagena.”
HITTING THE TRAIL
“Return to Cartagena!” Ken exclaimed after he had reread the message delivered to Mr. Livingston. “Of all the miserable luck, this is the worst!”
“I thought we were headed for the emerald mine,” Willie added, sunk in gloom. “Why did Corning send for us anyway, if he doesn’t want us here?”
Mr. Livingston was unable to explain the strange communication. The failure of the mining engineer to meet his party had worried him more than he had confessed to the Scouts.
“Hey, before we start packing, let me put in my two cents worth,” spoke up Jack. “How did Corning know we were at this hotel?”
“That’s right!” Ken exclaimed, startled by the implication of the other’s question. “Maybe the message is phony!”
“Sent by Mrs. Rhodes or Ferd Baronni,” suggested Warwick. “Jack and I know they’re up to something! They don’t want us to go on to the mine.”
“What’s more, Mrs. Rhodes promised the company agent she’d take care of the matter,” Jack went on. “Before we act hastily, shouldn’t we try to check on this message?”
“I’ll do it myself,” Mr. Livingston offered. “Wait here for me.”
For nearly two hours the Scout leader was absent from the hotel. When finally he rejoined the Explorers, his face was grave.
“Learn anything?” War eagerly greeted him as he entered the bedroom where the Scouts awaited him.
“I did. The message, supposedly from Appleby, was delivered to the hotel by a boy, but it never came from the telegraph communications office.”
“Then Mr. Corning couldn’t have sent it?” questioned Ken.
“I’m fairly certain he didn’t. The message must be a fake.”
“Any idea who sent it?” asked Jack.
“An idea, yes. But no proof. We couldn’t trace the message.”
“I take it, we’ll not obey the instructions,” Jack remarked, well pleased by the investigation.
“No, I’m more than ever in favor of pushing on to the mine above Emerald Valley. We can’t get there soon enough to please me. I have a feeling Appleby didn’t meet us because he’s in bad trouble.”
“How soon can we get out of here?” asked Ken quietly.
“We can catch a plane to Bogota in an hour. I’ve already booked reservations.”
“Any chance Mr. Corning may show up here after we leave?” speculated Willie, quickly starting to gather his scattered belongings.
Mr. Livingston replied that the possibility seemed a remote one. “Except for the enjoyment we’ve had in seeing the banana plantations, I think it was a mistake to come here,” he admitted.
“You believe Ferd Baronni deliberately threw us off the track?”
“I’m afraid so, Willie. For some reason, he doesn’t want us to go on to the mine—possibly for fear of what we may learn. This trip to Santa Marta, I suspect, was only to keep us occupied.”
“Then if we waited a month, you don’t think Mr. Corning ever would show up here?”
“That’s my slant. I’ve been unable to locate any of those close friends Appleby was supposed to have here. To be on the safe side, I’ll leave a letter for him here at the hotel. Now pack your duds, fellows. We haven’t much time.”
The plane flight to Bogota proved an uneventful but thrilling experience for the Scouts. Accustomed as they were to air travel, they were awed nevertheless, by breath-taking views of the vast Magdalena valley, forests of deep green, and the great ranges of the Andes which divided the land into isolated plateaus and valleys.
At the capital city, the party lingered half a day before taking a bus to a little Colombian village high in the cool hills. During their brief stay in Bogota, Jack and Mr. Livingston twice visited the mining company office. The official in charge, they learned, had absented himself on a week’s holiday.
“We can’t wait for him,” Mr. Livingston decided. “We’re going on to the mine.”
Late the next morning, the bus deposited them in the chilly little village which served as a take-off point for the mine. The trail which the Scouts were to follow wound sharply upward toward a line of rugged mountain peaks and a narrow pass. Somewhere beyond, lay the Last Chance mine.
Their lagging spirits revived by rolls and hot spiced chocolate, the Scouts set about making arrangements for mules to take them up the zigzag trail to their destination.
From their Indian guide, Jose, Mr. Livingston learned that Appleby Corning had not been seen in the village for many weeks. His absence had occasioned no alarm, for the engineer usually remained secluded at the mine for months at a time.
“Senora come here today,” the guide reported.
“Senora?” Mr. Livingston repeated in surprise. “What Senora, Jose?”
“The Senora that go on to mine. Wife of engineer there.”
“Corning has no wife to my knowledge,” Mr. Livingston replied. “You don’t mean the wife of McClellan Rhodes?”
“Si, Senor.” The little guide pulled his ruana more tightly about his shoulders as protection from the chill wind. “She leave on trail at dawn. Join husband there.”
The information that Mrs. Rhodes had gone ahead of them was most disconcerting to the Scouts. Mr. Livingston was especially troubled to learn that the deposed engineer might be at the mine.
“This may explain though, why Appleby didn’t meet us,” he told the Explorers. “With McClellan Rhodes on the scene, he might hesitate to leave, even for a few days.”
“Mrs. Rhodes sure must have traveled like a house afire to get here ahead of us,” Willie remarked thoughtfully. Turning to Jose, he inquired: “So went on to the mine? Not alone?”
“No, Senor, with a guide. Senora know trail well. Travel light. Shoot straight like a man. Good traveler.”
“I hope you’re mistaken about her going to the mine to join her husband,” Mr. Livingston said, frowning. “Rhodes shouldn’t be there. At least it was my understanding that Corning sent him packing when he took over.”
“Senora go to be with husband,” the guide repeated. “At emerald mine changes come fast. Today one engineer—tomorrow another.”
The Indian’s information increased Mr. Livingston’s eagerness to be away. He urged that the loading of the animals be hastened.
After numerous and vexing delays, the Scout party finally set off single file into the hills. Considerable equipment had to be taken, for the Explorers repeatedly had been warned that they must expect extremes of heat and cold, often within an eight or ten mile stretch of trail.
“Odd that a road never was built to the mine,” Willie remarked as he trudged along.
“Not so odd,” Jack returned. “The government never has been eager to make the mining area accessible. Emeralds are too easily stolen.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Livingston backed him up. “About the only equipment needed for emerald mining is a strong back, a pick axe and a crowbar. Laborers are kept under contract and during the period of their service, not permitted to leave the area. That’s to prevent theft of emeralds.”
“I’d like to find an emerald while we’re at the mine,” War remarked eagerly. “A great big one!”
The others laughed. “Don’t worry,” Jack teased him. “If you do find one, you won’t be allowed to walk off with it.”
“For that matter, the size of an emerald isn’t as important as its shape and color,” Mr. Livingston added.
Before the Scouts had been long on the steep, winding trail, they noted evidence that Mrs. Rhodes, traveling fast, was well ahead of them. At a spring they came upon her heel marks, and Willie picked up a lacy handkerchief with the letter “R” embroidered in one corner.
“It’s Mrs. Rhodes, all right,” he asserted gloomily. “I’d hoped Jose was wrong.”
“She’s making better time than we are,” Jack nodded in chagrin.
Skirting outthrusts of rock, the Scouts continued to follow a fairly well outlined trail. As the sun rose higher, they could see sharp peaks with caps of snow outlined against the blue sky. Climbing above the desolate little farms to a world of chilly isolation, they met no one. Higher and higher they struggled, marveling anew at the remarkable stamina of the woman ahead.
“You got to hand it to her,” Willie admitted grudgingly. “She’s tough.”
“Don’t waste any sympathy or admiration,” Jack advised. “That old gal has a grim purpose that is driving her on.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could toss a stick,” Willie answered quickly. “The mere fact that she’s going to the mine makes me suspicious.”
“If it’s true her husband is at Emerald Valley, that’ll make two of ’em to gang up on us,” interposed War soberly. “I guess Appleby Corning will be glad to see us arrive. He may be in a spot.”
Descending into a valley area where the trail was nearly obliterated by dense foliage and creepers, the Scouts encountered rain. It let up by late afternoon. Nevertheless, Mr. Livingston decided to camp early.
War and Willie soon had a fire going which enabled them to dry out other wood for use during the night. Damp clothing was hung on a quickly constructed rack near the heat.
By the time supper was ready, everyone felt quite comfortable. Jack and the guide looked after the pack animals, while the other Scouts cleaned up the camp for the night.
Returning to the fire, Jack stood for a moment with his back to the flames. The night had closed in dark and with a hint of more rain.
“Y’know, I’ve had an uneasy feeling the last hour or so,” he confessed in a low voice.
Ken, busy laying out his eiderdown sleeping bag, quickly raised his head. “Uneasy?” he repeated. “About going on to the mine, you mean?”
Jack kept his voice low. “It’s not that, Ken. I’ve had an odd feeling that someone has been trailing us, even before we made camp.”
He expected Ken to laugh, but the other accepted his remark seriously.
“I’ve had the same feeling, Jack. The foliage is so dense here that one gets that closed in sensation. But who would follow us? Not Mrs. Rhodes?”
“No, she couldn’t have doubled back because there’s no other trail.”
“I’ve thought several times in the last hour that I’ve heard a rustling among the foliage, Jack. Wild animals probably. All the same, I think I’ll look around.”
“I already have, Ken. No sign of anyone.”
“We’re just being jittery.”
“Maybe,” Jack agreed, not completely convinced. “We’d better keep a good fire going tonight, just in case.”
Feeding the dying flames with another cut log, he started into the tent. Just then he was startled by a slight rustling of leaves almost directly behind. He and Ken both turned swiftly. Their pulses began to pound.
Against the dark foliage, a man stood clearly outlined. He was armed. As they stood frozen, he spoke a sharp command in Spanish, and came slowly toward them.
CARLOS THE BANDIT
Jack and Ken did not understand the words, but the meaning was clear enough.
The smiling, hard-faced man who confronted them was a bandit.
Before they could make any response to his command, he fired a shot. The bullet nipped into the dirt at Jack’s feet.
Thus warned that the grizzled little man was not one with whom to trifle, the two Scouts quickly raised their hands.
The shot had brought War, Willie and Jose out of the shelter. They too were instantly covered and forced to line up with their faces to a tree.
The bandit kept up a patter of Spanish which only Jose could understand. Shaking with fear, he interpreted for the others.
“The bandit is Carlos, who long has terrorized the hills,” he told them nervously. “He says he will not harm anyone, if his commands are obeyed. We are to turn over all money and watches. If we refuse, he shoot to kill!”
Willie and War began to empty their pockets. Jack and Ken were more deliberate. Their delay brought an exclamation of impatience from the bandit.
Carlos gazed sharply about the camp, evidently aware that only five persons were accounted for. What had become of Mr. Livingston, Jack wondered. He remembered that the Scout leader had slipped away from camp for a moment to bring in more fire wood. Surely, he must have been alerted by the firing of a shot!
Carlos swiftly scooped up the money and watches which the Scouts reluctantly turned over. But before he could stuff the loot into the pouch he carried at his belt, there came a sharp command from the darkness behind the bandit.
“Hands up or I’ll shoot!”
The voice was Mr. Livingston’s! The Scouts knew that their leader was unarmed. Carlos, however, had no such knowledge.
Startled, he whirled around and fired blindly into the darkness.
In that instant, when the man’s attention was diverted from the captives by the fire, Jack and Ken acted together.
Lunging forward, they tackled the bandit below the knees. He went down, and in the brief but fierce struggle, they succeeded in knocking the weapon from his hand.
With the agility of a jungle cat, Carlos squirmed from Jack’s grasp. Slipping back into the foliage, he was swallowed by the darkness.
Jack groped and finally found the lost weapon. He started in pursuit.
“Let him go,” ordered Mr. Livingston, who had emerged into the circle of flickering firelight. “We can’t possibly overtake him, and it’s risky to try. He’ll have a horse tethered somewhere near.”
As the Scouts listened, they heard the bold bandit’s retreating footsteps. Then all became silent in the forest.
“What if he comes back later, maybe with some of his followers?” War asked anxiously.
“We have his gun, so I don’t think he’ll be back tonight,” Mr. Livingston replied. “Good work, Jack! I thought you and Ken would react as you did! Any of our stuff missing?”
The Scouts took careful inventory. In his haste to escape, the bandit had left behind all the cash and jewelry.
“I doubt Carlos will try another raid tonight, knowing we’ll be on the alert,” Mr. Livingston commented. “All the same, we’ll set up a guard.”
The incident was more disturbing to Jose than to the Scouts. For hours after the bandit had gone, he huddled in his blanket, his back to a tree, fearfully watching the shadows.
In broken English, he related to the Explorers that Carlos was well known for his cruelty and bold ways. Somewhere in the hills he maintained a hide-out with a few faithful but disreputable followers. The Colombian government had placed a price upon his head. But no one ever had claimed the reward. Year after year, the bandit continued to swoop down on luckless travelers. Three times in the past year he reportedly had made valuable hauls of emeralds which were being taken out of the mine for shipment.
Despite Jose’s fears, no more was heard that night from the bandit. The Scouts slept well, and as soon as the sun came up, were on their way.
For several hours they pushed on, keeping an alert watch for Carlos. At times, they imagined they heard a soft rustling of the foliage along the trail, but they saw no one. Jack had kept the bandit’s automatic as a souvenir, disregarding Jose’s advice to discard it.
“You keep gun—Carlos come back for it,” the guide predicted grimly.
“Let him,” Jack returned cheerfully. “Next time I’ll be more alert.”
By noon, the party had reached a low ridge. As they rested briefly, Jose pointed out a forested valley and a fast-moving river.
“Last Chance mine,” he informed the group. “We be there in next hour.”
“The mine is very old?” Mr. Livingston inquired.
“Si, Senor. It was worked before the Spanish Conquest and many times lost. When the mine close, workers move away—jungle close in. Mine have many names.”
“The Last Chance sounds pretty modern,” the Scout leader remarked with a smile.
“Senor Corning give it that name when he come,” Jose explained.
“I can imagine why,” Mr. Livingston remarked to Jack. “He figured that if he didn’t make good here, the mine might be closed again. At least the company which employs him would lose its government lease.”
“With Carlos hovering around ready to swoop down, I shouldn’t think mining would be very profitable,” Ken contributed. “That old boy is a pest! Maybe Mr. Corning sent for us to help him get rid of the hill bandits.”
“I doubt it,” the Scout leader rejoined. “Corning would know how to deal with Carlos. No, I’m afraid the trouble is more serious than that.”
Eager to reach the mine, the party went on, working through vines which had overgrown the trail. After a wearisome struggle, they emerged onto a wider path which showed evidence of recent use.
Finally, they came out into a clearing which offered a view of the mine. Spread before them at the edge of a gorge were a cluster of wooden buildings with thatched roofs. The largest, and most sturdily constructed, they took to be the main office.
Weary and footsore, the arrivals left Jose in charge of the animals, and tramped into the central building. Their approach had been observed by native workmen. Yet, there had been no one to welcome them.
“Corning may be sick,” Mr. Livingston remarked anxiously.
He and the Scouts found themselves in an untidy two-room office, furnished with a couch, a desk, a safe and a filing cabinet. As they gazed about, a tall, lean man with dark moustache came in through the door they had just entered.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he greeted them, politely but without a flicker of a smile. “Anything I can do for you?”
“We’re looking for the engineer in charge,” Mr. Livingston said after a moment of silence.
“Appleby Corning, I should have said,” the Scout leader corrected himself.
“Corning no longer is in charge here.”
“Not in charge?” Mr. Livingston responded, startled. “There must be some mistake.”
“No mistake, I assure you.”
“Is Mr. Corning ill?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the man replied somewhat indifferently. “He’s not here. The last time I saw him was six months ago.”
“Six months!” the Scout leader exclaimed. “Impossible! Why, I’ve had letters from him and a couple of cables since then.”
“Of that I wouldn’t know, Mr.—”
“Livingston,” the Scout official supplied. “Excuse me for not introducing myself and the other members of my party. Seeing you instead of my friend, rather gave me a jolt.”
“I can imagine,” the other rejoined coldly. “I’m McClellan Rhodes.”
“I guessed it,” Mr. Livingston returned. “You say you’re in charge here? The company reassigned you?”
The engineer gazed at the Scout official with defiant, unwavering eyes. “I took charge when I found everything going to the dogs here,” he informed the group. “Someone had to do it, you understand. If I had waited to get authority from the company, the workers would have been gone, and the mine stripped.”
“Where is Mr. Corning?”
“I wish I knew.”
“When did you take over here?” Mr. Livingston demanded. His voice was sharper than he meant it to be.
“About ten days ago.”
“Mr. Corning wasn’t here when you came?”
“He was not. As I told you, I found everything in a mess—workers preparing to pull out. I stepped in to save the mine for the owners.”
“What became of my friend?”
“I’ve told you I don’t know,” the engineer replied, no longer hiding his impatience. “I have important work to do now, and can’t answer any more questions. Corning, I think, is dead. That’s all I can tell you.”
THE EMERALD PIT
“Just a minute, please,” Mr. Livingston interposed as the mining engineer started to leave the office. “We’ve come a long distance to see Appleby Corning. I feel I must know more about his strange disappearance.”
Rhodes halted in the doorway, scowling. “I’m busy,” he replied pointedly. “As I told you, work isn’t progressing as it should. Whenever I turn my back, those confounded Indians lean on their tools, instead of working.”
“We won’t keep you long,” Mr. Livingston returned in a quiet voice. “Just tell us what became of Mr. Corning.”
“I don’t know,” the engineer retorted in exasperation. “I thought I made that clear.”
“Why do you say he’s probably dead.”
“Because he’s a captive of Carlos.”
“So I assume. I’d heard repeated reports that the mine was being badly managed. I came here to see if I could help. Lucky I did too. I found everything in chaos. Bandits, led by Carlos, had dropped down on the camp twelve hours earlier. They’d robbed the safe of emeralds and taken Corning captive.”
“How long ago was that?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“Ten days ago.”
“What attempt have you made to trace Appleby?”
“None?” The Scout leader repeated sharply.
“It’s useless,” the engineer informed him. “You don’t know this country. Carlos is a devil. It would take a small army to blast him out of his hide-out.”
“He didn’t seem such a bold demon when we brushed into him,” Jack drawled, entering the conversation. “In fact, he turned tail and ran like a coward.”
Rhodes turned to stare intently at the youth. “You encountered Carlos?” he demanded. “Where?”
“On the trail. He was alone.”
“He tried to rob us,” contributed Ken, “but we were fortunate enough to elude him.”
“Carlos doesn’t usually operate alone,” Rhodes informed the group. “You were lucky he didn’t shoot you at sight.”
“If we’d known that he had taken Mr. Corning captive, we’d have pursued him,” Mr. Livingston said. “Where is his hide-out?”
“Oh, he has half a dozen of them back in the hills,” the mining engineer returned vaguely. “He moves from one to another. A reward has been placed on his head, but no one ever collects.”
“You say you’ve made no effort to try to find Corning?”
“That’s right,” Rhodes retorted, “and I don’t like your tone, Mister. You know what these mountain trails are like.”
“I can’t send natives to look for him. They wouldn’t venture a step. As for myself, it would be folly to leave the mine. My first duty is to the operators.”
“So nothing is to be done?”
“I didn’t put it that way,” Mr. Rhodes returned, his eyes flashing. “If your friend is still alive—which I seriously doubt—there will be a ransom demand in time. It will be prohibitive, of course. Whether or not it is met, will be up to the mine operators, not to me.”
“I’m not satisfied to sit and wait, Mr. Rhodes. Appleby and I were close friends. Something must be done.”
“Then you do it!” the engineer snapped. He started to leave the office, then paused again. “I’ll put you up here for a day or so, if you’re not too particular about your accommodations,” he told the group. “One of the men will show you to your quarters as soon as the place has been fumigated.”
“Fumigated?” Mr. Livingston’s eyebrows jerked upward. “For insects, you mean?”
“Not exactly. The last occupant died of some unknown disease that’s been knocking the natives off like flies.”
“In that case, we’ll use our sleeping bags and remain out-of-doors,” Mr. Livingston stated. “We have our canvas shelters.”
“Suit yourself,” the engineer shrugged. “The nights here get pretty cold though. After a couple of days, I think you’ll be hitting the trail.”
No one made a reply. The engineer hesitated a moment, and then without saying more, went out of the building. The Scouts saw him descend a series of roughly hewn stone steps into a pit where a dozen natives were at work.
Mr. Livingston made certain that no one loitered near the office, before he spoke. Then he said: “The situation is a lot worse than I expected.”
“Rhodes may be lying!” Ken asserted.
“Do you think Appleby Corning really is dead?” War asked anxiously.
“Something has happened to him, that’s evident,” the Scout leader replied. “I was afraid of it when he didn’t meet us or send word.”
“All the same, there’s something fishy about Rhodes’ story,” Jack insisted. “Why would he show up here at exactly the right moment to check on the mine? Wasn’t he discharged?”
“That was my understanding, Jack. Corning didn’t write very much, you know.”
“The natural thing after being discharged would be to clear out,” Jack went on. “Rhodes apparently didn’t do that. He hung around, waiting for a chance to move in.”
“And maybe he created that chance!” suggested Willie. “Maybe he did away with Corning himself! I’ll bet the tale about Carlos swooping down here is a phony!”
“It might be,” Mr. Livingston conceded. “That part should be easy to check, if we can talk with the natives. Some of them must speak a little English.”
“Rhodes has moved in here to further his own interests, and he doesn’t give a hoot what became of Appleby Corning,” Willie expanded his theory. “It’s to his advantage not to have him found.”
“That’s so,” agreed Jack. “Getting rid of Corning may have been part of a well-planned scheme. If it’s true that Rhodes came here only ten days ago, it’s unlikely he’d have had time to get word to his wife.”
“Yet she knew he was in charge here days ago!” Ken exclaimed. “Otherwise, she wouldn’t have made the trip.”
“I’m terribly afraid Appleby has been the victim of treachery,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “We’ve got to learn what became of him, and not depend on Rhodes’ word either.”
“We might drive him into a corner, and try to force the truth out of him,” War proposed.
The others vetoed his suggestion. “That wouldn’t get us anywhere,” Mr. Livingston objected. “Rhodes controls the natives here. His word is law.”
“Can’t we organize search parties?” Willie asked.
“In this jungle growth?” Jack caught him up. “It would be worse than looking for a needle in a haystack! Without a clue as to Carlos’ hide-out, we’d lose ourselves, and never find Corning.”
“That’s the way it looks to me,” Mr. Livingston admitted. “Another thing, I’m not fully convinced that my friend was seized by bandits. Our first job is to confirm that fact.”
“Rhodes won’t do anything to help us,” Ken said. “Where do we start?”
“While you fellows get settled, I’ll amble around to see what I can learn,” Jack offered.
Once outside the office building, curiosity led him toward the V-shaped pit where stocky Indians labored with crowbar and pick. A vein of beryl lay exposed.
With infinite skill, the laborers shattered the rock, taking care not to smash the calcite or the emeralds. Eagerly, Rhodes examined the exposed gems. But the take did not satisfy him. With an exclamation of rage, he struck one of the workers in the face.
The fellow stumbled backward against the rocks. A small object rolled from his gnarled hand. Only then did Jack realize that Rhodes’ anger had been caused by the native’s thievery.
The engineer seized the gem and dropped it into his leather pouch. His gaze fell upon Jack who stood watching.
“Get out of here!” he ordered harshly. “No one is allowed near the vein except the workmen! Believe me, I have enough trouble watching them. They steal me blind!”
“You or the company?” Jack asked, irked by the engineer’s unwarranted attack.
“The company,” Rhodes corrected himself. “Every gem taken from this mine is accounted for, I assure you. But the vein’s playing out. A new pit must be opened, or the mine soon will close down.”
Jack made no reply for his eyes were on the fallen workman. The fellow had no shoes, his trousers were ragged, and his shirt torn. It was his gaze however, that held the Scout’s attention. The man was eyeing Rhodes with a deep, smoldering hatred.
The engineer himself became aware of the expression. Ignoring Jack for the moment, he strode over and bestowed a savage kick upon the fallen one.
“Thieving leech!” he berated him. “Stupid, stealing fool!”
His wrath expended, the engineer again turned upon Jack.
“Didn’t I ask you to get out of here?” he asked coldly but with his voice now carefully controlled. “No one is allowed in the pit. It’s a company rule.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack apologized. “I’ll leave. You needn’t worry, though, about any of the Scouts taking your emeralds.”
“No?” The engineer flashed an amused smile. “Son, if you’re here long enough, you may find their lure irresistible. Many a murder has been committed for an emerald—here at this mine too.”
“Appleby Corning being the latest victim?”
“Carlos has preyed upon this mine for years,” Rhodes replied, not answering Jack’s question directly. “He’s a bad actor.”
“Why doesn’t someone clean out his gang?”
“This isn’t the United States,” Rhodes retorted. “The authorities can’t be bothered. Now will you move out and stop asking so many questions? You hinder me.”
Jack nodded and climbed out of the pit, but not before he had made careful note of the fallen workman. He would remember the face. Later, if he approached the matter right, the man might talk.
Leaving the pit, he sought his companions, who had pitched their tents in a sheltered area some distance from the huts.
“Learn anything, Jack?” Ken accosted him as he came up.
“Not yet. Rhodes drove me out of the mine.”
“We took a look at that hut Rhodes assigned to us,” Willie informed him in disgust. “It’s the worst looking hole in the place. We figure he wanted to make it as tough as possible for us.”
“Where’s Mrs. Rhodes?”
“She’s moved into the best place in the diggings, with her husband.” Ken pointed to a well-built frame structure near the main office. “That must have been where Appleby Corning lived.”
“I wish we could look through his papers,” Mr. Livingston said. “We might run into something that would help.”
“What sort of clue?” Jack questioned, staring thoughtfully toward the hut.
“I don’t actually know, Jack. But there’s more to this raid and kidnapping than Rhodes has told us.”
“Maybe we can get in and look around.”
“Not now at any rate,” Mr. Livingston rejected his proposal. “Mrs. Rhodes is in there. We saw her go in a few minutes ago.”
“She knows we’re here, but she just ignores us,” added War. “Suits me fine.”
Leaving Jose, War and Willie to unpack the equipment, the other three started toward the office. Enroute, Jack told of the beating Rhodes had inflicted upon the peon.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Mr. Livingston commented. “Rhodes is a brute!”
“The man was trying to steal an emerald,” Jack admitted. “Obviously, he hates Rhodes and probably would like to get even. I’ll talk to him at the first opportunity.”
“You may not get anything,” Mr. Livingston advised. “Jose might have better luck. At least, he could draw the fellow out better, and Rhodes wouldn’t be suspicious if he saw them together.”
“I never thought of Jose!” Jack exclaimed. “That’s the ticket!”
The three had reached the little office on the rise of land. An outer door stood open to the breeze. Jack was surprised to see that Rhodes had left the pit and now was inside the building.
His back was to the approaching trio. He had squatted before the big safe, and deftly was turning the dials.
Involuntarily, the three halted, alerted by the engineer’s tense attitude. Why, they wondered, did he act so furtively, as if engaged in a dishonest act?
The big safe door swung open. Rhodes reached in and drew out a long, cardboard box. Dipping in his hand, he lifted out a fistful of green emeralds.
Gloatingly, as a miser would gaze at his hoard of gold, he fondled the gems. The watchers saw him compare some of the larger emeralds with those taken from his leather pouch.
“There’s something fishy about this!” Jack muttered. “Didn’t he tell us that ten days ago, Carlos broke into the safe and took all the emeralds? Why, that handful must represent weeks of digging!”
His voice, though scarcely above a whisper, had carried inside the building.
Startled, Rhodes suddenly straightened. Seeing the three just outside the door, he thrust all the gems back into the box and hurriedly locked the safe.
A BRIBE OFFER
“I was just putting away the emeralds that were brought up this morning,” McClellan Rhodes remarked as Mr. Livingston and the two Scouts tramped into the office.
“Quite a haul?” inquired the Scout leader.
“Fair.” Reluctant to discuss the subject of emeralds, the mining engineer dismissed the matter. “You’ve pitched your tent, I see,” he remarked. “Well, you can take your meals with my wife and me for today. I’d advise an early start in the morning.”
“We hadn’t planned on leaving,” Mr. Livingston told him.
“No?” Rhodes voice was sharp. “I don’t like to seem inhospitable, but visitors aren’t particularly welcome here at the mine. No facilities, you know.”
“We don’t mind roughing it.”
“You can’t stay,” Rhodes said shortly. “Your presence here would interfere with the work. If it’s worry about Corning that is holding you, let me say again, there is absolutely nothing you can do. In time, there may be a ransom demand—probably in emeralds.”
“But didn’t you tell us earlier today that Carlos stripped the safe?” Jack interposed.
There was a moment of strained silence, and the engineer’s dark eyes glinted with suppressed anger. But his voice was carefully controlled when he replied:
“That’s right. Since then, we’ve dug a few more. I just finished washing them in a bath of hydrochloric acid.”
Jack let the remark go unchallenged. He was convinced however, that the man was lying. Since he had left him in the pit, there had been insufficient time to clean the day’s gleaning of emeralds. Yet the cardboard box, replaced in the safe, had contained at least a double handful of fine specimens.
“Please tell me everything you know about the bandit raid,” Mr. Livingston urged, seating himself on a high stool.
“Nothing to tell. When I arrived here, the workers were preparing to pull out. They told me Carlos and his men had swooped down the night before, terrorizing the camp. Your friend Corning was caught by surprise and taken prisoner. The bandits made him open the safe. They took the emeralds and a little cash and rode off.”
“Odd they’d burden themselves with Corning,” Mr. Livingston commented. “Especially after they got what they wanted.”
“Carlos doesn’t miss any bets. He’ll make a ransom demand.”
“Earlier today you said you were convinced Corning is dead,” Ken reminded him. “Now you’re pretty sure he’s being held prisoner?”
“What are you trying to do? Mix me up?” Rhodes shot at him. “I told you I think your friend is dead, and I’ll stick by it. But if he’s still alive, there will be a ransom demand. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” Ken drawled. “I don’t mean to be inquisitive, but to help us get the picture, would you mind telling us why the mine operators hired Corning in the first place?”
“I’ll be glad to, because it was a mistake, and they realize it now. Until Corning took over, I’d been in charge here for nearly three years. Emerald production began to drop during the last six months or so. That wasn’t my fault. The vein’s played out.”
“Then it was because production had fallen off that Corning was assigned here?” Mr. Livingston inquired.
“That was behind it,” Rhodes admitted with a scowl. “Corning’s a big talker. He sold himself and ran me down—convinced the operators that the miners weren’t being handled right, and that I—”
“Yes?” the Scout leader prompted as Rhodes ended in mid-sentence.
“Nothing,” the engineer said shortly. “That’s all there was to it. Corning took over here and things went to the dogs fast. He had a wild theory that he could find the old mine that was worked at the time of the Spanish Conquest. He spent a lot of his time searching for it, and even had some of the natives helping him. Production fell off more than ever.”
“Corning didn’t find the rich vein?” Mr. Livingston questioned to keep the other talking.
“What do you think? That old mine has been lost for centuries, and it will stay hidden for years to come.”
“Corning always was a methodical sort of fellow,” Mr. Livingston said thoughtfully. “If he searched for that old vein, he must have done it systematically. He’d have left a record of his work too.”
“He did make a map.”
“A map?” Jack interposed eagerly. “May we see it?”
“Anyway, may we see it?” Jack insisted.
“It’s in the safe, and I haven’t time to get it out now,” Mr. Rhodes said, looking at his wrist watch. “I must get back to the pit.”
Making certain that the safe door was locked, the engineer abruptly quitted the office.
“That talk about the map certainly made him pull out in a hurry,” Ken remarked when they were alone. “What do you think, Hap?”
“That he was lying again,” Mr. Livingston answered. “I can’t believe he has the slightest concern about Appleby Corning’s welfare.”
“And how was it that he just happened to arrive here at the opportune time to take over the mine for the owners?” Jack added. “Fishy!”
Ken had moved to the desk, an old fashioned roll top affair. It was locked. On top of a bookcase devoted to mining journals and books on mineralogy were numerous specimens of rock, an Indian bow and arrow and other trinkets.
Noticing several sheets of paper thrust into one of the books, he examined them. All were blank, evidently having been used as a page marker.
Inspired by Ken’s activity, Jack also searched the room for possible clues, even peering behind the safe.
“If Corning left any papers behind, they’re locked in the desk,” he concluded. “Rhodes wouldn’t be dumb enough to leave anything kicking around.”
“He might at the house where Corning lived,” Ken suggested. “Naturally, he wouldn’t figure we’d do any searching there.”
“How can we?” Jack demanded. “Not with Mrs. Rhodes camped on the spot.”
“She can’t stay there forever. Maybe, if we watch our chance—”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Livingston demurred. “It’s a risky thing to do and not to my liking.”
“We’re not dealing with honorable people,” Jack reminded him. “Shouldn’t we try to learn the truth about what happened here?”
“Go ahead,” Mr. Livingston reluctantly consented. “I can’t see, though, that we’re likely to come upon anything that will help us trace Corning.”
“We could go for the authorities,” Ken proposed. “Wouldn’t they organize a search party?”
“Possibly, Ken. But from what I’ve been told, the authorities don’t concern themselves very much with the activities of Carlos. He’s a law unto himself.”
“How about setting off by ourselves?” Ken asked.
“I’m afraid Rhodes told us the truth when he said the country hereabouts is impossible. Once we left the trail, we’d have to hack our way foot by foot. We’d have no chance of reaching Carlos’ hide-out without a guide. And who knows the way?”
“What’s more,” Ken added, “if we did succeed in finding it, we’d be no match for Carlos and his armed followers. They’d make short work of us.”
“Then what’s to be done?” Jack asked in discouragement. “Give up? Return to Bogota or Cartagena?”
“I’ve thought it over, and I intend to stay here at the mine for a day or two at least,” Mr. Livingston told him. “I’m not convinced that Corning is dead. If there should be a ransom demand, I want to be on hand when it comes.”
“Will Rhodes let us stay, do you think?” Jack questioned doubtfully.
“He may become quite unpleasant,” Mr. Livingston admitted. “We’ll ignore his hints to leave, and see what happens. Circulate a bit, meanwhile, and see what information you can pick up. I’ll do likewise.”
Quitting the little office, the three went out into the bright sunlight. Jack noted that Mrs. Rhodes was seated in the screened porch of Corning’s former dwelling. Although she appeared to be reading a magazine, he noticed that her gaze followed the trio.
Workmen were coming up out of the mine pit, to eat their lunch. The man whom McClellan Rhodes had abused, sat down with his back to a rock and began munching a cold tortilla. Jack sauntered over to speak to him.
Before he had spoken more than a phrase of halting Spanish, he heard heavy steps behind him. Turning, he saw Rhodes bearing down upon him.
“You are not to talk to the workmen,” he told Jack harshly. “A company rule.”
“Seems to me you have a lot of ’em around here,” Jack growled. “I was only passing the time of day.”
“It makes no difference. You know my orders. Stay out of the pit, and away from the miners.”
“Okay,” Jack agreed, deciding to make no issue of the matter.
He ambled down to the edge of a deep but swift flowing stream some distance from the camp but within the cleared area. A log bridge, made by felling a tall tree, spanned the torrent. He started to cross, but had taken scarcely three steps on the precarious footing when Rhodes again descended upon him.
“Hey, you!” the engineer shouted.
Startled, Jack nearly lost his balance. Retreating to shore, he waited for Rhodes to come up.
“Stay in camp!” the engineer ordered. “Don’t go wandering around.”
“I merely intended to cross the stream,” Jack replied, nettled. “I hope I have better sense than to go roaming the wilds without leaving a trail.”
“No one is allowed across the river.”
“Then why the bridge? Decoration?”
Mr. Rhodes coldly ignored the question. “My wife has lunch ready,” he said. “She’s an excellent cook and I trust you’ll enjoy her cooking during your brief stay here. You will join us?”
“Thanks,” Jack responded, feeling at a disadvantage. “But we don’t want to put you to any trouble, or your wife.”
“No trouble,” the engineer said shortly. “Come along.”
Jack fell into step. As they left the river, Rhodes relaxed somewhat and talked cheerfully of a recent visit he had made to the coast.
“You don’t trust me, do you?” he abruptly asked the Scout.
The unexpected question caught Jack off guard. At a loss for a reply, he began to stammer.
“You have me all wrong,” the engineer went on. “Maybe I seem abrupt, but this is rough country, and one can’t be too careful. Worried about Corning?”
“Believe me, if anything can be done, I’ll do it,” Rhodes assured him. “The point I’m trying to make is this, you can’t help him by remaining here. You’ll only hinder my work.”
“It’s for Mr. Livingston to decide what we do.”
“So I gathered.” The engineer eyed Jack shrewdly. “But your opinion carries weight with him. I saw that right away. Now if you and the other boys were to talk to him, you could make him see how foolish it is to remain here. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“How do you mean?”
Rhodes drew a small emerald from his pocket. In the sunlight it shown with a deep fire.
“Notice the color,” he directed. “A perfect gem. You like it?”
“Feel it—roll it in your hand,” Rhodes urged, closing Jack’s fingers over the gem. “Now all you need to do is convince Mr. Livingston to leave here by tomorrow morning. Do that and this emerald is yours!”
MAP OF A MINE
Annoyed by the attempted bribe, Jack returned the emerald to the mining engineer.
“No, thanks,” he said. “Sorry, you can’t buy me. Seems you’re mighty eager to get us away from here.”
“No such thing.” Rhodes replaced the gem in a pouch which Jack noticed contained even larger emeralds. “Visitors interfere with the work. I was willing to make it worth your while to leave—that’s all.”
“I doubt Mr. Livingston will pull out while his friend is held captive by bandits. Odd isn’t it, that there’s been no ransom demand in so many days?”
“Nothing odd about it,” Rhodes retorted. “Corning’s probably dead. Carlos is without heart, cruel and vicious.”
“Why not organize a party and track him down?”
“He’d elude us. No, the only thing to do is to be patient and see what develops.”
Jack made no reply, although Rhodes’ views displeased him. He had tried to hide his anger at being offered a bribe. Nevertheless, he was more than ever convinced that Rhodes wanted to get the Scouts away from the mine to prevent them from learning important facts about Corning’s kidnapping.
Thinking it over, he decided to make his own investigation by talking to some of the miners. No opportunity presented itself, however. Whenever he approached a workman, Rhodes quickly arrived upon the scene.
Biding his time, Jack waited until nightfall. Then, slipping away from the Scout tent, he stole to the thatched roof shack of Phillipe, the man Rhodes had struck.
A soft tap on the door brought the miner to the door. Suspiciously, he gazed at Jack.
“Amigo—friend,” Jack assured him. In halting Spanish he asked to be admitted.
The man allowed him to enter the barren hovel. Laboriously, Jack tried to make him understand that he sought information about Mr. Corning.
“Bandits come, Senor,” the miner informed him with gestures. “They ride off with Senor Corning.”
“And the emeralds?”
“No, Senor. Carlos get nothing. Senor Corning refuse to open safe.”
“That’s funny,” Jack remarked, half to himself. “Rhodes told us Carlos cleaned out the safe. He must have lied.”
“Senor Rhodes lie about many things,” Phillipe muttered. “Old mine—”
The words froze on his lips. Unnoticed, Rhodes had approached and now stood, feet astride, in the open doorway.
Coldly, he addressed Jack. “I figured I’d find you here. Trying to stir trouble among my workers?”
“No such thing,” Jack denied.
“Go to your quarters and remain there for the night! Must I remind you, this is an emerald mining camp and that regulations must be rigid.”
Jack held his tongue, knowing that opposition most certainly would result in a beating for Phillipe. He left with the engineer, separating from him at the cottage. Going on to the Scout camp, he was surprised to find his friends in earnest conversation.
“Say, Jack,” War greeted him. “Did you take that gun—the one we snatched from Carlos?”
“Haven’t touched it,” Jack rejoined. “You’ll find it under my sleeping bag.”
“Someone’s swiped it,” War informed him. “Rhodes probably! We saw him poking his nose into the tent before supper. I’ll bet he took it to make sure we don’t start anything!”
“Let’s demand it back!” Willie urged.
“No use,” Mr. Livingston advised. “He’d only deny he took it. Besides, maybe we’re better off without that weapon. Loaded guns do cause accidents.”
Dismissing the matter of the lost revolver, Jack told the group of his talk with Phillipe.
“Corning was kidnapped, all right,” he declared. “But why did Rhodes lie about the emeralds? Apparently, Carlos didn’t steal them, because Corning wouldn’t open the safe.”
“That needn’t have stopped him,” Mr. Livingston pointed out. “He could have blown it quite easily.”
“Seemingly, emeralds weren’t Carlos’ main objective. He must have swooped down here with the deliberate intention of taking Corning captive. For ransom?”
“He’s made no demand as yet,” Mr. Livingston commented. “Furthermore, those emeralds in the safe would be worth far more than he could expect to get in a cash demand.”
“The whole deal looks phony,” Jack said. “Rhodes knows more than he’s telling, and he’s afraid I’ll find out something by talking to the miners. That’s why he watches me so closely.”
“I’d like to look over Corning’s papers,” Mr. Livingston said thoughtfully. “If ever he searched for an old mine, I’m sure he would have left a record of his work.”
“We could ask Rhodes to let us look over his things.”
“I did, this afternoon, Jack. He denied me access to the office file.”
“Why not look without his permission?”
“I don’t like to do that, Jack.”
“We’re dealing with a guy who has no scruples,” Jack pointed out. “Anyway, let’s breeze him again. Maybe if we bear down hard, he’ll let us go through Corning’s papers.”
“We can try,” Mr. Livingston agreed.
Leaving the other Scouts behind, the pair walked to the office. The building was lighted with two gasoline lamps, but upon entering, they found no one there.
“Rhodes is at the house, I guess,” the Scout leader said.
“Then this may be our chance,” Jack suggested. His gaze fastened upon the filing cabinet. “Why not?”
“It’s probably locked.”
“Probably,” Jack agreed. He tried the wooden drawer, and to his surprise, it pulled open.
Stuffed into the back of the file were samples of rock and a bottle of chemical. Manila folders were stacked in the front, each neatly labeled. However, nearly all were empty of papers.
“Rhodes must have cleaned out about everything,” Jack commented. “Nothing here apparently, except routine letters.”
He pulled out a second drawer, entirely empty except for a long roll of heavy paper, tied with cord. Impelled by curiosity, he untied the knot and spread out the sheet.
“Why, it’s a map!” he exclaimed. “A map of an emerald mine!”
“This one?” Mr. Livingston demanded. Getting up, he went to the desk to peer over Jack’s shoulder.
The map was roughly drawn, but to scale. Even a casual glance convinced the two that it was not a representation of the Last Chance mining operation.
“It seems to be located across the stream,” Jack said, his interest growing. “In the densely forested area. You don’t suppose—”
“That it might be a drawing of the old lost Spanish mine?” supplied Mr. Livingston. “It could be, Jack!”
“The mine seems to be situated south of here,” Jack went on, studying the markings intently. “Some of these lines have been erased and re-drawn.”
“The map can’t have too much value, or it wouldn’t have been left out of the safe,” Mr. Livingston replied. “The legend appears to be in Corning’s handwriting, but I’m sure some of the writing isn’t his.”
As the two poured over the drawings, they were startled to hear approaching footsteps. Quickly, Jack thrust the map back into the filing cabinet drawer.
Scarcely had he closed it than the door was flung open. But it was not McClellan Rhodes who stood there, but Willie.
“Come quick!” he urged the pair.
“What’s doing?” Mr. Livingston asked alertly. “Anyone hurt?”
Willie shook his head. “War and I were taking a little walk down the trail before turning in for the night. We saw something mighty queer! We want you both to see it too! Come right away or it may be too late!”
Taking time only to replace the map in the filing cabinet, Jack and Mr. Livingston followed War and Willie outside the office.
“What’s this all about?” Jack demanded.
“You’ll see,” Willie promised, leading the way down the trail.
The night was dark, with only a sliver of a moon to light the path. Though the Scouts had flashlights, they avoided using them.
The mountain mist swirled about them as they crept through a tunnel of trees to an outcropping of rock which gave an unobstructed view. Below, but invisible, lay the valley.
“Why did you fellows bring us here?” Jack demanded, as Willie and War paused. “What is there to see?”
“Wait,” War advised.
Even as he spoke, Mr. Livingston and Jack were startled to catch the flash of a light. It appeared to come from another rock almost level with them, jutting out from the mountain side.
The beam went on and off in a series of flashes.
“Code!” Jack muttered.
“It’s code, all right,” Willie agreed, “but not Morse. Nothing you can read.”
As the four watched, there was an answering series of flashes from below. The light signals seemed to come from a level of perhaps a third of the distance to the valley.
“What does it mean?” Jack demanded. “Who is signaling?”
“Rhodes at this end,” War informed him. “Willie and I learned that much before we came to the office.”
“There are no houses down there—nothing but trail,” Mr. Livingston said. “Can it be—”
“That he’s signaling Carlos, the bandit?” War supplied eagerly. “That’s the way Willie and I doped it out.”
“I was thinking of that possibility,” Mr. Livingston admitted. “Rhodes isn’t bothered by Corning’s disappearance. I’m sure of that. He may have plotted it, though I hate to think so.”
“He’d do anything to stay at the mine as engineer,” Willie said grimly. “He isn’t making the slightest effort to trace Mr. Corning.”
“It seems that way to me,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “Of course, unless the authorities will undertake a search, there’s not much that can be done.”
“Rhodes must know the hide-out of those bandits,” Jack asserted. “Shall we breeze him now?”
“No, let’s not let him know that we saw him signaling,” the Scout leader decided after a slight hesitation. “He’d tell us nothing. We’ll learn far more by appearing dumb, and keeping an alert watch.”
After the signaling had ceased, the Scouts waited until Rhodes had returned to his cottage. Then rejoining Ken at their own camp, they discussed the strange flashes.
Reluctantly, the Scouts agreed with Mr. Livingston that it would be folly to set off into wild country in search of a bandit camp.
“With more definite information, we may be able to get the authorities to step in,” the Scout leader suggested. “I propose that we disregard Rhodes’ order to leave, and stay here a few days longer to see what we can learn.”
“If Rhodes was signaling Carlos, it’s a cinch he plotted Mr. Corning’s kidnapping,” Jack speculated. “But how can we prove it?”
When no one answered, he abruptly arose from the fire. “Phillipe may be our answer,” he asserted. “I’m going to try once more to talk to him.”
Pulling on a heavy jacket, he swung down a dark path toward the miner’s hut.
He had walked only a short distance when a figure suddenly emerged from the shadows. Rhodes stood there, blocking the trail.
“Out rather late, aren’t you?” the engineer asked.
“Just taking a walk,” Jack muttered.
“Better walk back to your camp.”
Jack hesitated, ready to give argument. But he recalled Mr. Livingston’s advice that it would be wise to make a show of cooperation.
“Okay,” he agreed, turning around. “This mountain air is too chilly for comfort anyway.”
“It’s unsafe to go wandering around after dark,” Rhodes continued, walking with Jack. “Someone might misjudge your motives and take a shot at you.”
“You go about though?”
“That’s different,” the engineer answered. “I’m armed and the miners know me.”
He walked with Jack to the camp, and there left him.
“It’s useless,” Jack reported his failure to the other Scouts. “Rhodes will have this camp watched all night.”
“We may as well turn in,” Mr. Livingston advised. “Something may develop tomorrow.”
The Scouts spent a comfortable night in their sleeping bags. As they were cleaning up the next morning, Rhodes strode down the path. His quick glance noted that no preparation had been made for departure.
“You’ll be pulling out soon?” he demanded.
“Hadn’t figured on it,” Mr. Livingston replied.
“I told you yesterday that you can’t remain here. Company rules.”
“We’re not leaving until we learn if my friend is still alive.”
“You can’t do him any good by staying here,” Rhodes said, his eyes narrowing. “Return to Bogota. If there is a ransom demand, I’ll notify you at once.”
“We plan to stay another day or so.”
“Why is it impossible? What reason do you have for wanting us to leave at once?”
“Why, no reason,” the engineer replied. “I told you it’s a company rule. You refuse to leave?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I’ll have you driven out!” Rhodes exclaimed, losing his temper. “I’ll show you who is in charge here. I’ll—”
His tirade was interrupted by the arrival of Phillipe. The miner’s grimy face was pale beneath his broad, floppy hat.
“Come quick, Senor!” he urged.
“Trouble in the pit?”
“Si, Senor, the men refuse to dig. They say it is not safe—danger of a slide.”
“That’s rot! There’s no danger!” Rhodes fumed. “I’ll have a look.”
Temporarily forgetting his feud with the Scouts, he went quickly with Phillipe. Curious to learn what was happening, Mr. Livingston and the Explorers followed.
Miners had clustered at the top of the pit, chattering excitedly in their own tongue. As Rhodes came up, they showed him a crack which had developed in the rock wall above the big hole.
“It’s nothing,” Rhodes assured them. “Back to your digging!”
The miners sullenly refused to budge. Rhodes whipped out a revolver.
“There is no danger!” he shouted. “Get back to work!”
Unwillingly, the miners picked up their tools and slowly descended into the pit. Rhodes remained above, his revolver held in readiness.
Mechanically, the miners worked, now and then raising their eyes fearfully to the towering rock above them. As their crowbars failed to dislodge even powdery dust from above, they relaxed somewhat.
Presently a pocket of emeralds was uncovered. In great excitement, Rhodes rushed down to examine the gems. All were small and of poor color.
“This vein is playing out!” he exclaimed wrathfully.
Pocketing the gems, he started to climb the rough rock steps. Watching from above, the Scouts saw him halt to re-examine the emeralds.
“Rhodes seems determined to get everything he can from this pit without loss of time,” Mr. Livingston remarked in a low tone.
Jack nodded. He had raised his eyes to the wall of rock above the engineer. Suddenly he was struck with horror! A new crack, much deeper than the other, had formed.
Even as he gazed in sick fascination, it widened and moved horizontally, like a runner in a silk stocking.
Jarred to a realization of the danger, he shouted a hoarse warning to the engineer below.
“A slide! Run for your life!”
Rhodes heard, but he seemed rooted to where he stood. As he jerked his eyes up to stare at the towering wall, the rock began to move.
With a choked, terrified cry, the engineer leaped wildly up the steps. For a moment, it appeared that he might make it safely.
The great main mass of rock and dirt fell behind him, sending up a cloud of dust. But Rhodes was caught by the edge of the slide. A huge rock felled him.
Clawing and fighting, he was buried beneath the debris.
AN EARTH SLIDE
Even before the dust from the slide had cleared away, Mr. Livingston and the Scouts were frantically at work. Descending into the pit, they organized the miners and themselves seized shovels.
Rhodes’ left arm and his cap lay exposed. In a matter of minutes, they had freed him from the tomb of earth and rock.
Badly battered and unconscious, the engineer nevertheless still breathed.
On an improvised stretcher, Rhodes was carried to the cottage. His wife, meeting the procession, gazed at the prone figure, and uttered an agonized shriek. Becoming calm after a moment, she bade the Scouts carry her husband into the bedroom.
“How badly is he hurt?” she asked anxiously.
“We don’t know yet,” Mr. Livingston told her. “He’s lucky though, to be alive. How far is the nearest doctor?”
“Then we’ll have to do what we can for him ourselves. Get hot water and bandages. Antiseptic. Pain drugs if you have them.”
Mrs. Rhodes hastened to obey the orders. Though the Scouts never had admired the woman, they now found themselves feeling very sorry for her. In the emergency, she worked efficiently and did not allow herself to become emotional.
Getting the engineer undressed and into bed, the Explorers examined him for serious injury. Aside from innumerable scratches and cuts from fallen rock, the right arm was broken and he had a deep gash across his thigh.
Mr. Livingston set the arm expertly and treated the wounds. Rhodes’ breathing had become steadier, but he did not regain consciousness.
“I’m worried,” the Scout leader confessed to the Scouts who anxiously hovered near. “He should be coming around unless he has a skull injury.”
“Should we send to Bogota for a doctor?” Ken suggested.
“That would take more than a week, round trip. By that time, Rhodes either will be much better, or beyond help, I’m afraid. We can send Jose, but I’m doubtful that it will do any good.”
Leaving Mr. Livingston and Jack with the patient, the others sought their guide. He readily agreed to go for a doctor, promising to return as quickly as possible to the mine.
“When you reach the village, report Appleby Corning’s absence,” Ken urged. “Ask the authorities to send a search party.”
“Si, Senor,” Jose nodded.
He mounted a mule and rode away from the mine, never to be seen by the Scouts again. An irresponsible fellow, he pocketed the money they gave him, and once well away from the area, promptly forgot the mission on which he had been sent.
Left with Rhodes, Jack and Mr. Livingston remained anxiously by the bedside. The patient tossed and jerked restlessly, but his occasional mutterings encouraged them to believe that he might yet recover consciousness.
Mrs. Rhodes was in the kitchen when the engineer’s eyes opened for a moment. He stared blankly into Jack’s face, but without recognition.
“Corning—” he muttered, his voice bitter with hatred. “I’ll get you—I’ll get you!”
As Mr. Livingston moved from the window to join Jack at the bedside, the engineer again lapsed into silence. The Scout leader stood watching him.
“He’s coming around, I think,” he told Jack. “While he may be out of his head for awhile, this is an encouraging sign.”
Within a few minutes, the patient became so restless that he had to be restrained to keep him from flinging off the bed covers.
“Don’t try to stop me!” he muttered. “I’m going back to the mine—Corning can’t take over in my place—I’ll get him for it!”
“You are at the mine,” Mr. Livingston told him patiently. “Relax.”
Rhodes fell back on the pillow, but only for a moment. A crafty smile overspread his pallid face.
“Carlos, you’re a wicked bandido,” he chuckled, “but so very stupid! Now you will do as I tell you, we both will profit—at the expense of Senor Corning, who hates us both!”
As Jack and Mr. Livingston bent low to catch the almost inaudible mutterings, Mrs. Rhodes came in with a pitcher of water. She caught the mumbled word “Corning” and stiffened alertly.
“My husband is conscious?” she demanded. “Why didn’t you call me at once?”
“There seemed no need,” Mr. Livingston replied. “He’s coming around, but he’s not himself yet.”
“What did he say?”
“Something about Corning and the bandit, Carlos.”
Mrs. Rhodes laughed nervously. “His mind is wandering. Why, he doesn’t even know Carlos!” Setting the pitcher on the stand, she turned again to the pair by the bedside. “I’ll take over now, thank you.”
“We don’t mind staying,” Jack said. “You may need us if he turns restless again.”
“If I do, I’ll call. I prefer to be alone with my husband.”
“Very well,” Mr. Livingston agreed, with a nod to Jack. “If you want us, we’ll be in our tent.”
Once well away from the cottage, the two discussed the abrupt dismissal.
“She was afraid her husband would spill something,” Jack declared.
“We might have learned a few things if we could have stayed,” Mr. Livingston agreed. “This convinces me Rhodes knows only too well what became of Corning. It was no casual kidnapping.”
“I’ll bet Rhodes paid Carlos to pull off that raid!” Jack replied. “He probably knows where Corning is held.”
“He may. But Rhodes’ position here would be most insecure should Corning escape and return.”
“So you figure if Rhodes planned the kidnapping, he’d want to see to it that your friend never got back?”
Mr. Livingston nodded soberly. “I’d think Corning already is out of the picture except for one thing.”
“What’s that, Hap?”
“Carlos is a sly, treacherous fellow. Clever enough to realize that alive, Corning could be a financial asset.”
“He could blackmail Rhodes!”
“Yes, Jack, I figure if Carlos is wholly unscrupulous, that’s what he may do. So I half expect a ransom demand, but upon Rhodes—not the mine owners.”
“That’s why you’ve been waiting here?”
“Partially. I’m hoping Carlos presently will show his hand. If we can get a clue, he may lead us to the hide-out.”
“With Rhodes laid up, the situation has changed!” Jack chuckled. “He won’t be sending us away today!”
“No, and we’ll have a chance to talk to Phillipe. Let’s do it now.”
The miner was not at his hut. However, they found him at the mine. No work was being done. Tons of rock and dirt had fallen into the pit, and must be moved before emeralds again could be mined. Disinterested, the men sat about, smoking and talking. From the general tone of the conversation, the Scouts gathered that no one grieved because of Rhodes’ accident.
Drawing Phillipe aside, Mr. Livingston and Jack questioned him again as to the bandit raid. The miner repeated his previous story. He talked more freely however, and nodded wisely when Jack hinted that the kidnapping might have been plotted by Rhodes.
“I can’t understand why Rhodes is so keen on being in charge here,” Mr. Livingston went on. “The vein of emeralds seems to be playing out. At least, that’s what we’ve been told.”
“It is true, Senor. But greater riches not far from here.”
“You’re speaking of the lost Spanish mine?” the Scout leader interposed alertly. “We saw a map in Rhodes’ office.”
“Senor Corning spend many weeks searching for mine. He make big mistake in telling Senor Rhodes.”
“So that’s why Rhodes was so eager to get back here!” Mr. Livingston exclaimed. “At last I begin to see the picture!”
“Si, Senor, he find it by following Senor Corning’s map. Then he change map, so no one else find mine!”
“That explains why Rhodes left the map lying around so carelessly,” Jack commented. “He figured that if anyone tried to use it, they’d be mixed up.”
“Phillipe, who besides Mr. Corning and Rhodes knows the location of the old Spanish mine?”
“No one, Senor.”
“Only me, Senor. I follow Senor Rhodes across river, into wilderness. Learn secret.”
“Phillipe, could you take us to this mine?”
“Very difficult trip, Senor.”
“But you could guide us there?”
“We’ll make it worth your while. How far is the mine from here?”
“Not far, Senor, but way hard.”
“How soon can we start?” Mr. Livingston urged.
“Tomorrow morning,” Phillipe said reluctantly.
It was obvious he had no zest for the adventure.
“No, Senor. Trip very long. Bad to be on trail over night.”
“To be on the safe side, we’ll take a tent and light camping equipment,” Mr. Livingston decided. “Jack, only you and Ken are to go with us. Phillipe, be ready at dawn, and tell no one where we are going.”
“Senor Rhodes make trouble if he finds out!” the miner warned.
“Rhodes needn’t know about this little trip,” Mr. Livingston answered. “Anyway, he’s in no condition right now to ask any questions.”
Preparations rapidly went forward for the next day’s expedition.
“If all goes well, we should be back here by tomorrow night,” Mr. Livingston told Willie and War. “Once I’ve learned the location of the lost mine, I’ll have a leverage over Rhodes. I think then, if he regains his sense, I can force him to tell me the truth about Corning.”
“Rhodes is coming around all right,” Willie reported. “I was up to the cottage a few minutes ago. He was sitting up in bed, guzzling soup.”
“The man has the constitution of an ox,” Mr. Livingston replied. “I’m not worried about him. He’ll come through in fine shape.”
“We’ll have to work fast while he’s laid up,” asserted Jack. “Once he begins to regain his strength, he’ll start tightening up on us.”
That night, Mr. Livingston and the Scouts revisited the engineer. Very much himself again, he was in an ugly mood. Not even thanking them for their efforts in saving his life, he said gruffly:
“My wife tells me you’re packing your stuff. Leaving?”
“Only for a day,” Mr. Livingston returned.
“You’re not crazy enough to venture out into the bush in search of your friend?”
“Would that be crazy?” Mr. Livingston countered.
“It sure would! I tell you that if you’ll wait, there may be a ransom demand.” Sudden suspicion shone in Rhodes’ dark eyes. “Say, maybe this excursion of yours doesn’t concern your friend!”
Mr. Livingston made no answer. He and the Scouts already were turning toward the door.
“Just a minute!” the engineer called sharply. With an effort, he half pulled himself from the bed. “If you have anything else in mind, I’m warning you to lay off or it may cost you your lives! I’m ordering you to stay here in camp!”
Mr. Livingston smiled. “First you order us to leave. Now you order us to stay. Can’t you make up your mind?”
“You’re taking advantage of me while I’m flat on my back!” Rhodes snarled. “Oh, you’re not fooling me one bit. I may be cooped up here, but I’m not stupid. I know what you’re about. And I’m giving you a last warning! Stay in camp, or you’ll regret it!”
Mr. Livingston and the Scouts did not hear the final threat. Leaving the man to his tirade, they quietly closed the bedroom door and left the cottage.
When the Scout party, led by Phillipe, slipped out of camp shortly after dawn the next morning, they saw Rhodes at the cottage window.
He sat in a big chair, wrapped in blankets. Obviously, he had posted himself there to watch, and was well aware of their intention.
“We’re not fooling him one bit,” remarked Ken. “I’ll bet a cent he’ll have one of his men keep track of us. He’d stop us if he could.”
Once well away from the mining camp, the Scouts doubled back to the river. The stream, fed by recent rains higher in the mountains, raced as fast as a mill stream.
Phillipe guided the party to a log bridge crossing. There Ken, Jack and Mr. Livingston parted with the other Scouts.
“Return to camp and wait for us,” the Scout leader instructed Willie and Warwick. “We’ll make a fast trip to see what we can discover.”
“Rhodes probably won’t be able to get out of the cottage,” Jack added. “But if he does, keep an eye on him. Especially watch to see if he flashes any more of those mysterious signals.”
“Sure,” Willie promised. “How long will you be gone?”
“If all goes well, we should be back in camp by nightfall. But don’t worry if we’re delayed. The going will be rough, and the trip may take longer than we expect.”
Crossing the narrow, log bridge, Phillipe and the three explorers lost themselves in the dense vegetation. For hours, they hacked their way through tough creepers, and at times were compelled to chop down small saplings.
By noon, as the party rested and ate a cold lunch, it was difficult for the Scouts to maintain their customary good cheer. Although accustomed to hard, outdoor work, the boys suffered from strained muscles and aching backs.
“We’re making about a mile every two hours,” Ken calculated gloomily. “Maybe less. Phillipe, are you sure you’re taking us the right way?”
“This the way,” the miner replied. “Trail very bad.”
After resting, the Scouts forced themselves to continue, though they had long ago lost zest for the adventure.
Phillipe seemed to know exactly where he was headed, yet as the day wore on, the Explorers began to lose faith that he ever could lead them to the lost Spanish mine. Then, the little miner seemed to become less certain. They saw him studying the ridges with puzzled eyes, and occasionally shaking his head as if confused.
“Phillipe doesn’t know where he’s going,” Ken said to Jack as the party made another halt. “The vegetation has closed in since he saw that mine. This trip was a mistake.”
Phillipe would not admit confusion. But after another hour of hard labor had brought them to a relatively clear area overlooking the river, he had to admit defeat.
“Very sorry, Senor,” he apologized to Mr. Livingston.
Phillipe’s regret was so genuine that the Scouts could not believe that he had betrayed them deliberately. His intentions, undoubtedly, had been good. Given several days to search, they might find the lost mine. But in the present circumstance, the quest must be abandoned.
“Wish we’d followed directions on that map,” Willie remarked regretfully.
“The result would have been the same,” Mr. Livingston declared. “I’m sure the markings were altered. We’ll rest awhile and start back.”
Anxiously, the Scouts noted how fast the sun was lowering. The return trip, of course, would be much easier. Even so, it would be nightfall before they reached the Last Chance mine.
After resting for awhile, Jack arose to hack at the rocks with a pick. Among the fragments were a few tiny green specks. But there was no fire in them.
“We must be close to the old vein,” he remarked. “Too bad we can’t camp and try again tomorrow.”
He gazed questioningly at Mr. Livingston. The Scout leader hesitated, then shook his head.
“I wish we could find that old mine, Jack. But time is running out on us. We must get back to camp and devote all our energy to finding Mr. Corning, if he still is alive.”
“How we going to do it?” Ken asked in despair. “Rhodes may have the answer, but he won’t help us. As you pointed out, Hap, it’s hopeless to undertake a search in this wild country unless one has a definite clue.”
“The clues, I’m afraid, never will be forthcoming. Our only one—those flashing signals—aren’t much to go on.”
“Then what’s the program?” Jack questioned.
“When I get back to camp, we’ll start for the village to notify the authorities. They may organize a search, though I haven’t much hope.”
“Rhodes is the key to the whole situation,” Ken insisted. “If only we could force him to talk—”
“That’s a forlorn hope too, I’m afraid,” the Scout leader answered. “If we’d found this old mine, we might have used our knowledge as a leverage. Having failed, I don’t see what we can do.”
After hacking awhile at the outcropping of rock, Jack walked down to the river’s edge. Foam was back-washing against the boulders and the current was very swift.
He stood there a moment, fascinated by the speed of the wild torrent. Intending to rejoin his friends, he chose a way different from the one he had come. Soon he regretted it, finding himself in a mat of dense vegetation.
As he hacked a path, he felt his footing give beneath him. Unexpectedly, the floor of creepers dissolved.
Down he plunged, uttering a terrified shriek as he fell!
Jack struck solid earth some distance below. Stunned by the suddenness of the fall as well as the impact, he lay for a moment, unable to move.
Then gingerly, he sat up. No bones had been broken. He felt for his flashlight and was relieved to discover it intact.
The beam of light disclosed that he had fallen into a cave-like hole perhaps ten feet below the surface of the ridge above.
Slowly, Jack pulled himself to an upright position, discovering that he could stand without stooping. It was then that he made an exciting discovery.
The ceiling overhead had a distinct curve!
“This looks like part of an old tunnel!” he thought in elation.
Before Jack could investigate further, he heard a shout from above.
Mr. Livingston peered down through the narrow opening, calling anxiously:
“Jack, are you hurt?”
“Hardly a scratch,” the Scout replied with a chuckle. “This is a deep hole though, and I can’t get out by myself.”
“Stay where you are,” Mr. Livingston directed. “We’ll get a rope and haul you up.”
“Don’t be in too big a hurry, Hap. I want to look around a bit while I’m here. It appears to me that I’ve fallen into a tunnel.”
“A tunnel, Jack? What makes you think so?” The tone of Mr. Livingston’s voice plainly disclosed that the information had startled him.
“This is no cave. The walls have been hewn, and the ceiling is arched.”
“It may be the lost mine!”
“I suspect so,” Jack agreed cheerfully. “While you’re getting that rope, I’ll see what I can learn.”
Venturing forward, the youth flashed his light over one of the side walls. Distinctly, he could make out ancient pick marks.
That the tunnel was an old one he no longer had the slightest doubt. Mr. Livingston had told him that the Spaniards, being amateurs at mining, had used the tunnel method in their quest for emeralds.
Focusing his beam ahead of him, he walked until his way was blocked by earth and debris. Unable to proceed farther, he returned to find his friends anxiously lowering a knotted rope through the opening.
“It’s the lost mine!” Jack reported jubilantly. “I’m sure of it!”
“Bring up a handful of emeralds,” Ken shouted with a laugh.
“Toss down a pick and I’ll try!”
“There’s no time for exploration,” Mr. Livingston objected. “We’re mighty lucky to have found the mine!”
“It may not be the one Corning mapped,” Ken commented. “It looks like an old Spanish tunnel though.”
“This mine same one Senor Corning find,” Phillipe asserted. “Senor Rhodes later on cover vein with earth and rock to hide it and keep gems safe.”
“That debris certainly looked as if it might have been piled on deliberately,” Jack informed the group above. “Lower a pick and I’ll find out.”
Persuaded against his better judgment, Mr. Livingston lowered the requested tool. Phillipe also went down by means of the rope.
He and Jack removed some of the loose debris, exposing a streak of rock, narrow but with a well-defined green color.
“We strike vein,” Phillipe said, resting for a moment from his labors. “If emeralds form, they big ones I think.”
On they labored, taking turns with pick and crowbar. Above, Mr. Livingston and Ken warned them that the day fast was waning.
“We’ve found the mine and that’s the important thing.” the Scout leader called down impatiently. “We’ll mark it well, and hope we can return. Now we must leave or we’ll never reach camp tonight.”
Deep in the earth, Jack and Phillipe scarcely heard. In a fever of excitement, they sensed that they were on the verge of a great discovery.
Phillipe struck again with his bar, using infinite skill. The sharp point split the rock neatly, exposing a section of dark green beryl. Embedded in it were several large, well-formed emeralds.
Phillipe sucked in his breath. “Senor,” he murmured, “Great wealth is here! A fortune!”
Jack scooped out the emeralds, examining them in the beam of the flashlight. All were perfect gems, dark green, with a deep smoldering fire.
“Senor, you hold great riches in your hand,” Phillipe whispered.
“Appleby Corning’s ransom perhaps.” Hypnotized by the warm glow of the gems, Jack turned them over and over in his palm.
He was brought from his reverie by an echoing shout from above.
“Jack!” It was Mr. Livingston who called. “Get up here! It’s late.”
“Coming,” Jack replied.
Swiftly he and Phillipe recovered the vein with earth and by means of the rope climbed out of the tunnel.
“Gosh, do you realize how late it is?” Ken greeted them.
“Does it matter?” Jack asked, still in a land of enchantment. “We found the mine, didn’t we? And look at this!” He flashed the handful of emeralds.
In awe, the others examined the treasure.
“They’re first quality gems, or I’m no judge,” Mr. Livingston asserted. “No wonder Rhodes wants to reestablish himself here.”
“You think he knows the value of the vein?” Jack asked.
“He must. I believe it was because of this vein that he went to so much trouble to set himself up in Corning’s place. He’s kept the knowledge from the miners and probably from company officials, hoping to profit personally!”
“We’ll spike his little game,” Jack chuckled.
“We may,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “The important thing now is to get back to camp.”
“Fast,” Ken added, with an uneasy glance at the lowering sun. “We can’t possibly make it by dark now.”
Before starting back, the Scouts carefully disguised the hole through which Jack had fallen, marking the locality. The work completed, they shouldered their packs and started off at a fast pace.
Though the return trip was much easier, darkness soon overtook them. Doggedly they followed the stream which rushed over the rocks in a foaming, angry torrent.
Unwilling to waste even a moment, the party did not pause to prepare supper. Aching in every muscle, the Scouts nevertheless kept moving.
“Shouldn’t we be coming to the log bridge?” Ken complained after a while.
“Seems like it,” Jack said, halting to shift his pack. “Around this next bend, I think.”
Realization that the long trek was nearing its end gave the four renewed strength. On they went through the darkness. The night air was cold and very still, and the only sound that of the rushing torrent.
Phillipe, who was a little ahead of the other three, abruptly halted. He uttered a grunt of surprise and dismay.
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Livingston demanded.
Receiving no answer, he and the Scouts pressed quickly on.
They came upon Phillipe standing on the rocks, staring at the racing stream. For a moment, they could not comprehend the reason for his dead silence.
“Say, isn’t this the place where we crossed this morning?” Jack finally asked, noting several vaguely familiar landmarks.
Phillipe inclined his head. “Same place.”
“But it can’t be!” burst out Ken. “There’s no bridge!”
“Bridge gone. Swept away.”
No one spoke as the full import of Phillipe’s words soaked in.
“Gone,” Jack finally echoed in a faint voice. “That means—”
“We stay here,” Phillipe said, sinking wearily down on a flat rock. “There is no other bridge—no way to cross.”
A RACING STREAM
The situation, though alarming, did not dismay Mr. Livingston or the two Scouts. Knowing that the washed-out log bridge was not far from the mining camp, they reasoned that Willie and War soon would become aware of their plight.
“We’re stranded here for awhile, that’s certain,” Mr. Livingston commented, staring at the foaming waters. “It won’t be easy to build another bridge across that span.”
“Assuming that Rhodes will assign his men to the task,” added Ken gloomily. “He’ll probably be tickled pink that we’re bottled up here.”
“Queer that bridge went out just when it did,” muttered Jack. “It seemed sturdy and secure early this morning when we passed over. Guess the current must be even stronger than we figured.”
For an hour, the Scouts took turns flashing signals with their lights. The distant mining camp was completely blocked from view by trees and rocks. They had little hope that the flashes would be seen, but did think that War and Willie, alarmed by their long absence, might venture toward the river to investigate.
“We’re bushed,” Mr. Livingston declared, after the effort to attract attention had proved futile. “Let’s try to sleep. In the morning, we can find a way to get help or to rescue ourselves.”
Following Phillipe’s example, Ken and Jack sought shelter. The night was bitterly cold. Nevertheless, in their thickly lined sleeping bags, they spent fairly comfortable hours.
When they awakened at dawn, Mr. Livingston had the fire built, and was preparing a hot breakfast.
Stretching their cramped limbs, Jack and Ken went down to the river to wash.
As they bent down to dash the icy water on their faces, the torrent rushed past, foaming and hissing.
“This stream is plenty swift,” Ken remarked. “Too deep to wade across, and a fellow couldn’t hope to swim it, either.”
“Rapids and whirlpools below here,” Jack reminded him. “Rhodes told me that. He probably was telling the truth too.”
“It’s darn funny War and Willie don’t take any interest in what became of us,” Ken went on, scanning the rugged shoreline. “Wouldn’t you think they’d see the smoke from our fire?”
“Probably not up yet,” Jack rejoined with forced cheer. “You know how War is—with no one to pull him out of bed, he’d sleep until noon.”
“Even so, he and Willie must have realized that something went wrong with our plans. Common sense would tell ’em we’re in trouble.”
“Maybe not, Ken. You remember, Mr. Livingston told them we might be gone over night.”
“What bothers me, is how are they going to help us even after they discover our situation? One can’t build a bridge in five minutes.”
“We’ll have to risk a raft probably.”
“And maybe be swept down into the whirlpool. No thanks!”
The two Explorers rejoined Mr. Livingston and Phillipe, who were dishing up breakfast. The meal revived everyone’s spirits.
“What’s the plan?” Jack questioned the Scout leader.
“We’ll send up some smoke signals,” Mr. Livingston advised. “That should draw attention to our plight.”
The morning was clear and windless. Knowing that a column of smoke would rise high, the Scouts were hopeful that despite the rim of mountain peaks, it would be visible at the mining camp.
“War and Willie will soon know we’re in trouble,” Ken asserted, starting to gather an armful of dry twigs.
Jack already was accumulating a pile of green leaves and had dampened a blanket at the stream.
With everything in readiness, the group built up their fire and when it was burning briskly, threw on the leaves. A heavy column of smoke arose.
After a moment, Jack and Ken interrupted the smoke by means of the blanket. Over and over they flashed a distress signal.
“We should be getting a reply soon now,” Jack asserted, anxiously scanning the sky in the direction of the mining camp.
For fifteen minutes, the Scouts kept up the signals. Then, as the smoke column faded away, they continued to watch for a response. None came.
“Our signals must have been seen at the camp,” Mr. Livingston declared. “I can’t understand it. What’s happened to War and Willie?”
More disturbed than at any time since they had found themselves stranded, the Scout leader went down to the stream’s edge. He studied the swift current and then directed attention to the spot where the log bridge had washed out. Only a few broken wires remained. These he carefully examined.
“This bridge didn’t wash out,” he told Jack, who had followed him over the slippery rocks.
“It was weakened deliberately?”
“Looks that way, Jack.” Mr. Livingston showed him where the wires had been snipped with a cutter.
“I’d guess so. He may be on his feet by this time, or he could have ordered his men to let the bridge go.”
“Willie and War wouldn’t have stood for that.”
“Not if they could have prevented it. But they haven’t answered our smoke signals. I’m afraid they may be in trouble too.”
“It might suit Rhodes very well to have us stranded on this side of the river.”
“We know he didn’t swallow our story about looking for Appleby Corning,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “He must have suspected we were searching for the old mine. Now he intends to keep us stranded until he and his wife can get away.”
“We’re stranded, all right,” Jack muttered, staring at the boiling waters. “No big trees close by, even if we could fell one and cross on its trunk.”
“We can’t stay here much longer,” Mr. Livingston said. “Willie and War may need us as much as we need them. We’ve got to get back to camp!”
“It’s our best bet, I think. We’re all good swimmers, with exception of Phillipe. The current is swift, but I think we can make it.”
The Scouts set to work, pegging out a rounded shape, somewhat smaller than a waterproof tarp included in their equipment. This accomplished, they used dry twigs and small pieces of wood to fill in between the pegs, and lashed it all firmly together with stout twine.
Next, they built a floor of webbed sticks and then removed the pegs. Finally the bundle was slid onto the waterproof tarp which was lashed securely in place around the circle. As the last step, they attached a long rope.
“Not a bad little raft,” Jack declared, surveying the finished job. “She should carry one of us at a time without trouble.”
Mr. Livingston offered to go first, but the others would not have it so. Jack insisted that he was the strongest swimmer, and after some argument, the Scout leader reluctantly agreed that he might make the initial trip. Phillipe, meanwhile, had hacked out a crude paddle.
With Ken and Mr. Livingston holding an end of the rope, Jack settled himself firmly on the circular tarp raft, and shoved off.
The fast current caught the craft, whirling it. For a minute, Jack was afraid he was going under. Icy water splashed over his legs. The awkward craft twisted and turned in the grasp of the racing stream.
Paddling desperately, he regained control. Without disaster, he reached the opposite shore, though some distance down stream. Ken, Phillipe and Mr. Livingston promptly pulled the raft back to their side of the shore. The Scout leader next made the trip across, followed by Ken.
Phillipe, desperately afraid of the racing water, had to be coaxed before he too attempted the stream.
All went well until the miner was close to shore. Then unexpectedly, the make-shift paddle snapped, leaving him with a useless stub of wood.
A gasp of horror escaped his lips as the current viciously seized the little craft.
“Throw the rope!” shouted Jack, running along the jagged rocks at the stream’s edge.
Paralyzed with fear, Phillipe sat frozen. He fancied he could hear the roar of rapids below and was certain he would be swept to his doom.
“Throw the rope!” Jack yelled again. “Quick!”
Recovering from paralysis, Phillipe suddenly hurled the free end toward shore. His throw was powerful. To the relief of the Scouts, the rope fell on the rocks, and they were able to seize it. Fighting the current, they slowly pulled the raft to safety.
Dripping wet and shivering from terror, Phillipe stumbled out onto shore.
“Gracias Senors,” he mumbled, collapsing in a shivering heap. “You save my life!”
“We may have saved you a wild ride down the canyon,” Jack conceded as he salvaged the water-soaked tarp. “This rope is badly frayed. A few more hard jerks against the sharp rocks and it would have been cut in half.”
After wringing out their damp clothes, the Scouts started for the mining camp. Passing the locked, deserted office, they went on to the tent area.
“No fire,” Ken observed from a distance. “No one around, either.”
Slightly in advance of the others, he went quickly to the tent occupied by Willie and War. Everything was in order. But no one was there.
Meanwhile, Jack and Mr. Livingston had been looking around outside. The fire, they noted in alarm, had been dead many hours.
“Where are they?” Jack demanded. “What’s happened to War and Willie?”
“Rhodes must know!” Mr. Livingston asserted, his voice grim. “Come on fellows! We’re going to have a show-down with him right now!”
THE MISSING SCOUTS
The Scouts found the mining engineer at the cottage, breakfasting with his wife. Though somewhat pale, Rhodes looked much better, and was able to be about. His right arm remained in a splint, but he managed his coffee cup fairly well with his left one.
As the three came to the screen door, the engineer’s first look of shocked surprise revealed very plainly that he had not expected their return so soon.
Quickly recovering, however, he invited them in. “Have some coffee?” he offered with more cordiality than usual.
“No, thanks,” Mr. Livingston spoke shortly. “We’re here to learn what became of War and Willie.”
“Don’t ask me,” the engineer shrugged. “I haven’t seen them since they left camp last night.”
“They didn’t start for Bogota?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“It’s not like them to start off anywhere without leaving word. Which way did they go?”
“Down the valley.”
“Then they couldn’t have gone off in search of us,” Ken replied. The remark slipped out before he considered how it would be taken.
Rhodes regarded him steadily as he reached for another muffin.
“So you didn’t go off in quest of your friend, Corning after all?” the engineer inquired in a soft, faintly amused tone.
“You know very well where we went!” Jack accused, losing his temper. “You thought you’d arrange things too so we wouldn’t get back until it suited your convenience!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, young man. Suppose you explain.”
“Gladly. You weakened the log bridge so it washed out, leaving us stranded on the other side of the river!”
“And what were you doing over there?” the engineer questioned insolently. “Searching for your friend Corning, I suppose?”
Mr. Livingston had seated himself at the breakfast table, opposite Rhodes and his wife.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he informed the engineer quietly. “Frankly, we were trying to find the old Spanish emerald mine that Corning came upon some months ago.”
Rhodes laughed unpleasantly. “I suspected as much,” he said. “Every greenhorn that comes to Colombia falls for those romantic tales about lost mines. Corning was as big a sucker as anyone. But he never found the mine.”
“You’re sure?” Mr. Livingston questioned.
“Of course, I am. He fell heir to an old map when he took over here. But it was worthless. If the Spaniards ever mined in this area, the emeralds are pretty well gone, except in this pit we’re working now. Any day it will play out. Then the mine is finished and should be closed.”
“What do you say to this?” Carelessly, Mr. Livingston dropped a large emerald on the table.
Both Rhodes and his wife gasped as they saw the handsome green stone. In the morning sunlight, it burned with a rich fire and appeared flawless.
Carefully, the engineer examined the gem. For a long moment, he did not speak.
“Well?” the Scout leader prompted.
“So you found the old mine after all?” Rhodes returned, his eyes glittering. “Or shall we say you were guided there? You never could have come upon it by your own efforts.”
“At any rate, we have discovered the mine—apparently, a rich one. The Last Chance should take on new life now.”
“That remains to be seen. One emerald doesn’t make a mine, you know. I’ll send this sample to Bogota to be assayed. Meanwhile, I’ll put the men over there, opening up a new pit.”
Ken and Jack were rather dismayed at Rhodes’ proposal that he keep the emerald. To their surprise, Mr. Livingston appeared to fall in with the suggestion.
“How soon can the emerald be taken to the Bogota office?” he inquired.
“My wife had planned to return there today or tomorrow. She can take the gem.”
“You’re not afraid to have her travel alone with a valuable stone? She might meet Carlos.”
“I have no fear of him,” Mrs. Rhodes spoke up quickly. “Anyway, I have a means of carrying the gem—”
“You’ll start early tomorrow,” her husband interrupted, deliberately cutting her off.
“I’ll have one of my boys go along,” Mr. Livingston said, off hand. “Corning’s disappearance must be reported to the authorities.”
“My wife can take care of it.”
“I’d prefer to have a Scout along. Besides, your wife should have someone with her on the trail.”
Rhodes started to protest, then seemed to think better of it. “Suit yourself,” he shrugged.
“About Willie and War,” the Scout leader resumed. “You’ll send out a searching party?”
“No, I can’t!” Rhodes snapped. “We’re running a mine—not a kindergarten. I didn’t ask you and your party to come here! You’ve interfered with operations!”
“We did discover the old mine, don’t forget.”
“Oh, that! You didn’t make such an important discovery. I’ve always known—”
“You’ve known the location for some little time?” Mr. Livingston quietly supplied. “Perhaps that was why you were so eager to get back here again as engineer?”
“No such thing!” Rhodes denied. “Now get out of here, will you? Let me finish my breakfast in peace!”
“Sorry to have disturbed you,” Mr. Livingston returned. “Good morning.”
He and the two Scouts left the cottage. Once they were well beyond hearing, Jack and Ken anxiously questioned their leader as to his plan of procedure.
“Don’t you think it may have been a mistake to let Rhodes have that emerald?” Ken demanded. “It must have high value.”
“Whatever its worth, Ken, the gem belongs to the mining company.”
“Sure, but will Mrs. Rhodes turn it over to agents in Bogota or Cartagena?”
“That’s one thing I want to learn, Ken. I have a hunch Rhodes doesn’t want to reveal to company officials that the old mine has been located. If his wife delivers the emerald, it will be a dead give-away because any expert will know immediately that the gem didn’t come from the Last Chance.”
“And if she fails to turn it in?” Jack suggested.
“That would be enough to arouse company officials.”
“So you’re figuring Rhodes and his wife may be forced to show their hand one way or the other?”
“I have a hunch Rhodes is trying to bleed this mine for his own benefit,” the Scout leader replied. “His decision to open a pit at the new mine before the sample is assayed, convinces me of that. He figures on working the vein fast, and getting out with what he can before the company clamps down on him.”
“And before Corning is found, either dead or alive,” supplied Ken.
“That’s the way I see it,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “Unless Willie or War can be found in the next few hours, you must go to Bogota with Mrs. Rhodes, Jack. See that she turns the emerald over to company officials. Report Corning’s disappearance, and that Willie and War are missing.”
“I’ll send the authorities.”
“That may take some doing, Jack. I’ve been told they maintain a hands-off policy with respect to this mine. There’s one thing you can do. When you reach Bogota, rent a plane and fly back here.”
“Fly? There’s no possible landing place.”
“True. You’re to survey the area, especially Emerald Valley in the locality where we saw those flashing signals. See if you can spot anything remotely resembling a bandit hide-out.”
“From the air that might be done! If I see anything suspicious, I’ll drop a message!”
“I hate to spare you for the trip, Jack,” Mr. Livingston went on anxiously. “But there’s no other way unless we get a trace of Willie and War.”
In an attempt to gather some information about the missing pair, the Scouts talked to several of the miners. They were able to confirm that Willie and War had left camp the previous night, starting down trail with only light equipment.
“Something important must have come up,” Ken said. “But it’s mighty queer they left no word.”
With Mr. Livingston, the Scouts searched the camp thoroughly without finding even a clue as to the strange disappearance. Nor could the missing boys be sighted through field glasses. Ken was in favor of seeking them afoot, but the trail had not been marked. If Willie and War had left the main path to wander in the bush, they might be hopelessly lost.
“I’m depending upon their good common sense,” Mr. Livingston asserted. “They know the dangers. If we wait a few hours, I think they may come dragging in under their own steam.”
As the morning wore on, the Scouts fretted at delay, yet acknowledged that hasty action would accomplish nothing. Rhodes, meanwhile, spurred by their discovery of the old Spanish mine, had put men to work rebuilding the washed out bridge. Watching the engineer direct the laborers, the Scouts lost some of their conviction that he previously had weakened the structure.
“Maybe that bridge did go out by itself,” Jack remarked to Ken.
“Don’t you believe it! He’s putting on a show for our benefit. Anyway, he’s anxious to dig emeralds in a new pit now that he knows we’ve uncovered the vein.”
After watching the bridge building for awhile, the two Scouts rejoined their leader. Mr. Livingston had just returned from down-trail where he unsuccessfully had sought clues with respect to the disappearance of their chums.
“No signs anywhere along the path,” he reported in discouragement. “Apparently, when they left, they were confident they could get back without any trouble.”
Uncertain what to do, the Scouts kept close watch of the trail as the morning wore on. They were discussing the possibility of a mule-back search, when Jack suddenly cried:
“Say, I think they’re coming now!” Excitedly, he pointed down through the dense trees hemming much of the winding trail.
The three watchers glued their eyes on a visible stretch of path some distance below. Before Mr. Livingston could adjust his field glasses, the two missing Scouts were sighted trudging wearily around a bend.
“It’s War and Willie all right!” Jack shouted in relief. “Safe and sound too! Who do they think they are, anyhow, scaring the living daylights out of us? I’ll give ’em a piece of my mind!”
Mr. Livingston smiled, but shook his head. “Don’t be too hasty,” he advised as the three started down the trail to meet the truants. “Unless I’m mistaken, War and Willie probably had a good reason for taking off from camp. Let’s give ’em a chance to explain.”
Spent from the long, hard climb up the steep trail, War and Willie nevertheless greeted the other Scouts with good humor.
“Where you fellows been?” Ken demanded as the party retired to the shelter of the tents. “We thought you were lost on the mountain.”
“You don’t think we’d be that dumb?” War scoffed, flinging himself down near the fire which Jack had rekindled.
“As a matter of truth, we were lost for a little while,” Willie admitted with a laugh. “We went exploring.”
“That was a very risky thing to do in this country,” Mr. Livingston chided. “You shouldn’t have left camp.”
“Sure, we know that now,” War agreed. “But we had to find out the hard way.”
“What happened after we left?” Ken questioned impatiently. “You started off in search of us—or were you hoping to find Mr. Corning?”
“It was like this,” War said, stirring the fire with a stick. “Last night, shortly after dusk, we saw those signals again.”
“The light flashes?” Jack asked.
“Yeah,” War nodded, “only the signals didn’t come from this camp. They were being flashed from half way down to the valley floor.”
“It didn’t look more than a mile or so away,” Willie added.
“Then what?” prompted Mr. Livingston.
“Well, we watched ’em for a minute or two. Someone down below kept sending three long flashes.”
“Any answer from this camp?” Jack asked.
“None,” Willie told him. “We figured that with Rhodes confined in the cottage, there wouldn’t be any.”
“He didn’t catch the flashes?” Mr. Livingston inquired.
“Apparently, not. At any rate, he didn’t leave the cottage,” Willie replied. “Probably wasn’t feeling up to it.”
“So you decided to investigate?”
“Well, it looked like a perfect opportunity,” Willie confessed sheepishly. “It proved to be a mistake.”
“What happened?” Mr. Livingston questioned.
War took up the story. “Not very much, Hap,” he admitted. “We took careful note of those flashes and started off down the trail. After awhile, the fellow who was signaling, gave up. We had nothing to guide us. We thought we had a good idea where the signals originated, but at night the forest all looks pretty much the same.”
“You got lost?” Jack demanded.
“What d’you mean, not exactly?”
“Well,” War grinned, “we did come upon a path that led off into the forest from the main trail. We decided to follow it.”
“Where did it take you?” Ken interposed. “To the middle of nowhere?”
“Something like that,” War acknowledged. “It just kept on and on, and after awhile, we decided we’d have to turn back.”
“You’d marked you way, I take it?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“Well, in a fashion,” War answered, avoiding the Scout leader’s direct gaze. “We figured we couldn’t go astray following a regular path. But somehow in the semi-darkness, we slipped up and got off the darn thing. Getting back was what took so long.”
“We had to wait until dawn,” Willie confessed. “Once it was daylight, we figured things out, and were able to retrace our way.”
“At least you used your head on that point,” Mr. Livingston said. “Your excursion, I take it, netted no real information.”
“Not a scrap,” War acknowledged ruefully. “We’re almost certain though, that that path we started to follow must lead to either a village or to the bandit hide-out.”
“You’re probably right,” the Scout leader nodded. “It confirms my own opinion that we can do nothing without definite information and assistance from the authorities.”
He then told Willie and War what had happened during their absence from camp.
“Mrs. Rhodes leaves tomorrow for Bogota with the sample emerald to be assayed,” he added. “Willie, if you and War are up to it, I’d like you both to go along.”
“We’ll be okay after a few hours sleep,” Willie replied at once. “What’s the plan?”
Mr. Livingston outlined the proposal he previously had made to Jack. The two Scouts were to accompany Mrs. Rhodes, and without arousing her suspicion, make certain that she delivered the emerald to company officials. Once the mission was accomplished, they were to charter a plane and fly back over the area in an attempt to locate the bandit hide-out.
“With a plane, you should be able to scout the entire area in a matter of hours,” Mr. Livingston declared. “By mule or afoot it would be a hopeless task.”
“Once we’ve surveyed the area, then what?” War asked.
“You can’t land here. Your job done, you’re to drop a message and return to the nearest landing field. Bogota probably. If your information warrants it, try to get authorities to organize a search party.”
“You believe Mr. Corning still is alive?” Willie asked quickly.
“I do. Until we have proof otherwise, I’ll assume he is being held captive.”
“When do we start?” War asked with a drowsy yawn.
“Soon after dawn tomorrow. Get some sleep now. You’ll need it.”
Willie and War promptly turned in and fell at once into heavy slumber. When they awakened in late afternoon, Jack was preparing a hearty supper over the camp fire.
“What’s new?” Willie asked, ambling over. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle—all out of touch.”
“Nothing very exciting,” Jack reported. “Rhodes finished getting up the bridge. Late this afternoon, the miners started digging at the tunnel across the river. Our orders are to stay in camp.”
“He doesn’t want you to see what’s going on!”
“That’s the size of it,” Jack nodded, squatting by the fire. “He pretended it was all news to him, our finding that old vein. But he sort of let it slip later that he’d uncovered it himself, probably by using Corning’s map.”
“Which he cunningly redrew, to keep others from learning the exact location,” Ken contributed. “Now that we’ve tumbled to his secret, he’s decided to dig emeralds as fast as he can!”
“Has he found many at the new site?”
“He claims not,” Jack said, “but that’s only his story. We know the emeralds are there.”
Mr. Livingston joined the Scouts at the fire. “Rhodes, I suspect, intends to clean up what he can for himself, and pull out,” he remarked. “So far as I know, the company isn’t even aware that he’s seized control here.”
“In that case, we ought to put a little crimp in his plans,” Willie muttered.
“That’s where you and War fit into the picture,” the Scout leader nodded. “When you get to Bogota, talk to company officials. We have no proof of Rhodes’ treachery, so you’ll have to be careful. Use your best judgment, and don’t let Mrs. Rhodes catch on.”
“It’s quite a responsibility,” War said anxiously.
“You’ll do all right,” Mr. Livingston assured him. “Just don’t tip your hand too soon, because Mrs. Rhodes and Ferd Baronni probably are working together.”
“The rest of you intend to stay here and keep watch of Rhodes?”
“Yes, I have a hunch he’ll over-play himself before long,” the Scout leader declared. Taking a roll of bills from his leather fold, he gave them to War. “You’ll need this,” he said. “But use it carefully.”
“I sure hope we don’t run into Carlos on the trail,” War replied, placing the money in a belt at his waist. “That boy has taking ways! I’d hate to be robbed.”
“It’s a risk that must be taken,” Mr. Livingston said. “Mrs. Rhodes will be carrying the emerald—and that might be quite an attraction. Just be cautious.”
“We will,” War promised soberly. “All the same, I’d feel better if the rest of you were going along.”
The Scouts ate the tasty supper Jack had prepared. After the camp work had been done, they wandered down to the river to inspect the new bridge. On the way back, as a gesture of courtesy, they stopped briefly at the cottage to discuss the next morning’s departure with Rhodes.
“My wife will be ready by seven o’clock,” the engineer curtly informed them. “You’ll all be leaving, I assume?”
“No, only War and Willie,” Mr. Livingston told him. “The rest of us are sticking around for a few days.”
Rhodes made no attempt to hide his displeasure. “You can do nothing here,” he said shortly. “I’ve told you, if a ransom demand is made, I’ll refer it to the company.”
“We’ll feel better by staying.”
“Suit yourself,” Rhodes gave in. “It’s useless though.”
Back in the Scout camp once more, the Explorers began to get ready for bed. War and Willie made a last check of their belongings to be certain that everything was in readiness for the early morning departure.
By nine o’clock, everyone had turned in for the night. Jack, however, could not get to sleep. He rolled and tossed, and finally arose and dressed.
Standing with his back to the tent, he studied the sky. The night was cold but clear. Stars winked overhead and a sliver of moon was rising above the jagged mountain peaks.
Tossing wood on the fire, he ambled down the path. The miner’s huts were dark. In fact, the only glow of light came from the engineer’s office.
Turning in that direction, Jack approached the building from the rear. A shade had been pulled down, blocking the office window, but it gaped a full inch at the bottom.
Jack glimpsed Rhodes and his wife inside the inner office. Rhodes had opened the heavy door of the big safe. As the Scout watched, he removed a cardboard box.
No word was exchanged by the engineer and his wife. Rhodes rolled the contents of the box out on the table—a collection of emeralds so large that it snatched Jack’s breath.
“There’s enough wealth here to give us a new start in the States,” he heard the engineer say. “I hadn’t intended to open the new vein until I was certain Corning was safely out of the way. But with those Scouts poking their noses in, I couldn’t afford to risk delay. I’m depending upon you to get these gems safely out, my dear. I’ll follow within a few days.”
“Those Scouts may suspect—”
“They can’t prove anything without Corning, and they’ll never find him.”
“How about the two that are accompanying me?” Mrs. Rhodes asked anxiously. “If they learn about these gems—”
“Don’t worry about those lads, my dear. They have no reason to believe that you’re carrying more than the one sample to be assayed. Handle the others in the usual way, and no one will suspect.”
“Give him no thought, my dear. He will not trouble you on the trail. I will see to that.”
“I don’t trust him,” Mrs. Rhodes answered. “He will betray you—”
“Will you stop worrying?” her husband cut in impatiently. “Let me handle this end of it. Your job is to get those gems through safely.”
Rhodes replaced the empty cardboard box in the safe. He blew out the light and the couple started to leave together.
Jack, fearful of being seen, quickly moved back behind the rear building wall. His heart pounded with excitement! He had seen and heard enough to convince him that distrust of the engineer was well founded!
Obviously, Rhodes was scheming to defraud the mining company officials. Furthermore, his conversation with his wife indicated that he was in close touch with Carlos, the bandit!
ORDERS FROM BOGOTA
From his hiding place, Jack watched Rhodes and his wife walk to the cottage. Taking leave of Mrs. Rhodes at the doorstep, the engineer went directly to a supply shed nearby.
Presently he emerged with an unlighted lantern.
Jack’s curiosity was aroused. When Rhodes took the trail leading away from the mining camp, he followed at a safe distance.
The engineer did not go far. Leaving the well-defined path, he made his way to a projecting, flat rock which gave a clear view of the valley below.
Jack guessed that the man intended to signal, and he was right.
Rhodes lighted the lantern. Uneasily, the engineer glanced about. No sound had given warning that Jack crouched behind the bushes, yet the man seemed to sense that he was not alone. However, after carefully surveying the area close by, he slowly began to move the lighted lantern back and forth.
After awhile, he set it down on a rock and waited. From his hiding place, Jack could not see below the ridge. He knew, however, from Rhodes’ reaction, that no answering signal had been received.
After perhaps ten minutes, the engineer repeated the lantern signals. Again he failed to obtain answering flashes.
After another long wait, the man tried a third time. The valley below remained dark.
“Stupid fool!” Rhodes muttered, losing patience. “Doesn’t he see my signal? Or has something gone wrong?”
Angrily, the engineer extinguished the lantern and left the high rock. Jack saw him retrace his way to the cottage. A moment later, the light went out, telling him that Rhodes had gone to bed.
Satisfied that he could learn no more by remaining abroad, Jack ambled back to camp. To his surprise, he found Mr. Livingston up and dressed.
“Oh, here you are!” the Scout leader greeted him in relief. “I discovered you were gone, and I was worried. What’s wrong?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Jack explained. “Lucky too, I guess, because while I was prowling around, I picked up some useful information.”
He then related to Mr. Livingston the entire conversation he had overheard between Rhodes and his wife.
“That confirms what we have suspected,” the Scout leader nodded. “Rhodes must know what became of Corning! That raid Carlos pulled off probably was a phony!”
“Then you think Rhodes arranged it? He hired Carlos to get rid of your friend?”
“If he didn’t, Jack, at least he’s making no honest effort to ransom Corning.”
“Corning may not be alive.”
“I refuse to take any view except that he is being held for ransom, Jack. Carlos is a cunning fellow. Even if he did team up with Rhodes, it wouldn’t be to his advantage to do away with Corning.”
“That’s so,” Jack agreed. “Mrs. Rhodes hinted as much when she told her husband she was afraid of treachery. Carlos may try to play both sides! But why doesn’t he show his hand?”
“That’s why we’re staying here and I’m sending War and Willie with Mrs. Rhodes. Sooner or later, Carlos will make a demand, I believe. I don’t trust Rhodes. So I want to be here when it comes.”
“What about the gems Mrs. Rhodes will be carrying? Shall we let her get away with it?”
“Theoretically, as the wife of Rhodes, she’d be acting as his agent. If she delivers the emeralds to the company office, we have no complaint.”
“Sure, but that’s not the plan,” Jack protested. “She intends to get them through, but for her own and her husband’s use.”
“We’ll tip Willie and War to what’s going on,” Mr. Livingston decided. “They can keep an eye on Mrs. Rhodes, and turn her in, if she doesn’t deliver the gems. Now get some sleep, Jack. Tomorrow may be a hard day.”
Shortly after dawn the next morning, Willie and War set off with Mrs. Rhodes on the difficult trip back to Bogota.
Aloof as always, the engineer’s wife coldly ignored her Scout escorts. She carried a minimum of personal luggage, but had provided herself with a more than generous supply of food, including a basket of bananas.
“Why does she take bananas?” Willie demanded in an undertone to Jack, just prior to the start down the lonely mountain trail.
“You got me!” Jack replied with a shrug. “Seems to me that back at Santa Marta, she said she disliked them.”
“That’s right! But she’s got some reason for carrying ’em. Mrs. Rhodes never does anything without a reason. Say, I got a hunch—”
His “hunch” remained unrevealed, for the caravan had started to move away. Mr. Livingston addressed a quiet word of warning to Willie as they shook hands in farewell.
“Don’t underrate Mrs. Rhodes,” he told the Scout. “And keep an alert watch for Carlos. I doubt he’ll make any trouble, but he might try to hold up your party.”
“I’ll sure be glad to get to Bogota,” Willie sighed. “I got an uneasy feeling about this trip.”
After the Scouts and Mrs. Rhodes had departed, the camp resumed its usual routine of work. Mr. Rhodes, in a driving mood, assigned miners across the river to the newly opened pit. However, he would not permit Jack, Ken, Phillipe or Mr. Livingston to visit the area.
“He’s sore because we discovered the old vein,” Ken asserted.
“There’s more to it than that,” Jack insisted. “He’s accumulating emeralds fast, and he doesn’t want us to know the extent of his haul.”
Two days elapsed. The weather was unpleasantly cold and the Explorers found it difficult to keep comfortably warm in their tents.
Rhodes, though he now lived alone in the cottage, did not invite Mr. Livingston, Ken and Jack to move in with him. They were too proud to make the request.
The mining engineer worked hard. He was up before dawn and at the new emerald vein soon after breakfast. There he remained for the greater part of the day. Upon his return each night, he locked the diggings in the big office safe.
During the engineer’s absence from camp, Jack and Ken made leisurely inspections of the office and even the cottage. Rhodes however, had anticipated the investigation and if any evidence existed, carefully had destroyed it.
“We can’t hold out here much longer,” Mr. Livingston remarked on the afternoon of the third day. “Our supplies are running low. Rhodes might let us have what we need from the company stores, but I doubt it.”
“I’d rather starve than go begging to him!” Ken asserted. “Wonder what’s happened to Willie and War?”
“It’s a long, hard trip to Bogota,” Mr. Livingston reminded him.
“Sure, I know,” Ken nodded. “They’ll do the best they can. But it’s hard waiting—especially with nothing to do.”
The day wore on with the Scouts becoming increasingly restless. They yearned for action. Anything, it seemed to Ken and Jack, would be better than to remain inactive, merely waiting.
“If we just had some idea where to search for Corning,” Jack fretted. “As it is—”
Hearing heavy footsteps, he did not finish what he had intended to say. Rhodes strode into camp. He had fully recovered now from his accident, save that his arm remained in a sling.
The engineer directed himself to Mr. Livingston, who was occupied writing in a daily journal which he kept. Expectantly, the Scouts gathered close, wondering what had brought Rhodes. He did not waste words in informing them.
“I’ve just received a message from the company,” the engineer asserted. “My wife reached Bogota and had the sample assayed.”
“You’ve heard so soon?” Mr. Livingston asked in astonishment. “We saw no one arrive here at the camp.”
“The messenger came and departed a few minutes ago. My orders are to close the mine.”
“To close it!” Mr. Livingston echoed incredulously. “In view of the new discovery?”
“The pit is not worth the expense involved. Your sample assayed as practically worthless.”
“It can’t be! That emerald looked flawless!”
“Emeralds are deceptive. I admit I was deceived myself as to its value. But my orders are definite. The vein must be sealed, and the mine closed no later than tomorrow.”
“What will you do?” Mr. Livingston asked slowly.
“Naturally, I’ll have to obey orders. I’ll dismiss the miners tonight and join my wife in Bogota. You’ll have to leave in the morning. I advise an early start.”
The Scout leader made no reply.
“You understand?” Rhodes said sharply. “This is not a bluff. The mine will be shut down tomorrow.”
“We understand,” Mr. Livingston replied.
After Rhodes had gone, he and the two Scouts discussed the predicament in which they now found themselves. They were reluctant to leave the mine with Corning missing, and word expected momentarily from Willie and War.
“Maybe Rhodes is just pulling another trick to get us out of here,” Ken suggested. “Couldn’t we defy him and stick?”
“Our supplies are nearly gone,” Mr. Livingston reminded him. “Once the mine closes, the camp likely will be looted by hill bandits or the dismissed miners.”
“Carlos might show up here,” Jack suggested. “If so, we might make a deal with him, or pry out of him what became of Mr. Corning.”
“I’d like to stay,” Mr. Livingston answered, “but it seems too risky.”
“It’s sure funny that Rhodes would get word back so fast from Bogota,” Ken muttered. “We haven’t heard anything, and our boys were to have chartered a plane.”
“I think Rhodes is lying,” Jack stated flatly. “Oh, he may close the mine as he threatens, but I can’t believe that emerald we sent to Bogota was worthless.”
“Maybe he’s just scared and intends to pull out,” Ken speculated. “That strikes me as more likely.”
The discussion continued for some little time. It ended by Mr. Livingston advising the Scouts to pack up their belongings and equipment.
“Let’s be ready for an early start from here in the morning,” he advised. “We don’t have to go, if we change our minds. But we’ll be set, and Rhodes will assume that we intend to leave.”
Jack began to pack the items which would not be needed that night. The task finished, he set off to fill the canteens with fresh water from a nearby spring.
Passing the office and cottage, he noted that both appeared deserted. Rhodes was not to be seen anywhere in camp.
“He’s probably across the river again,” Jack reflected.
A faint humming sound overhead, caused the Scout to halt abruptly. Shading his eyes from the lowering sun, he scanned the sky.
At first he could see nothing. Then, with a pounding pulse, he observed a moving speck against the blue. An airplane!
Jack glued his eyes upon the craft, scarcely daring to hope. Could it be Willie and War obeying Mr. Livingston’s instructions to survey the forest area? The plane was a long distance away, flying straight north over the sea of trees.
Jack dropped the canteens and raced back to find Mr. Livingston and Ken. The pair joined him on the path, having themselves heard the hum of the distant motor.
“It must be Willie and War!” the Scout leader asserted jubilantly. “I knew I could depend on them! But why don’t they fly over the camp?”
For twenty minutes the watchers caught tantalizing glimpses of the plane. At times it passed beyond their line of vision, being hidden by the mountain ridges or the clouds.
Then, as the trio became more impatient, Jack noted that the craft had turned toward Emerald Valley once more. This time, the plane came steadily on, flying directly in a line with the mining camp.
Drawing close, it dropped lower and began to circle.
“It’s Willie and War all right!” Ken chortled. “They’ll probably drop a message because they can’t hope to land. I hope they’ve picked up some information that’s worth while!”
The plane circled three times. Mr. Livingston and the Scouts signaled their readiness to receive a message.
At length the cylinder was dropped. It flashed down, but was caught in a strong gust of wind, and deflected from its target. Jack saw it fall into a clump of bushes near the river.
Even as he and Ken started off to retrieve the cylinder, Rhodes came hurriedly across the bridge. From the grim expression of his face and his manner of walking, the Scouts instantly knew that he had seen the cylinder dropped from the plane.
“Quick!” Mr. Livingston urged the two Explorers. “Don’t let him see that message. If he gets it, all our plans will be ruined!”
Scrambling over rocks and through a tangle of vines and bush, the two Scouts sought to obtain the cylinder before the mining engineer could do so.
At the risk of a bad fall, Jack half slid down a steep slope. The cylinder had tumbled into a crevice but he retrieved it before Rhodes could get there.
There was no opportunity to examine the message. In a matter of moments, Rhodes had joined him, moving cautiously because of his useless arm.
“Let me have that cylinder!” the engineer ordered.
Jack shook his head. Turning his back, he started to climb the rocks to rejoin Ken on a ledge above.
“Your friends dropped a message!” Rhodes accused. “You’re working with them to make it hard for me here! What’s your game?”
Jack still made no answer. He climbed steadily, handing the cylinder up to Ken who passed it on to Mr. Livingston.
Impeded by his injured arm, Rhodes had to climb very slowly. While Ken and Mr. Livingston went to their camp with the retrieved cylinder, he waited to give the engineer a helping hand up the steepest part of the slope. Rhodes did not thank him.
Instead, the engineer gazed at the youth with undisguised hatred.
“You and your friends have ruined me here!” he asserted wrathfully. “Except for you, everything would have gone off well. What was the reason for that plane circling this camp?”
Jack’s answer was a smile and a shrug.
“All right, don’t answer!” Rhodes snapped. “But if you think you’ve won this little game, you have another guess coming! I might have helped you find Corning. Now I’ll never do it!”
With that, the engineer strode off to the cottage.
Jack quickly joined Mr. Livingston and Ken at the tent camp. The other two had opened the cylinder and already were scanning the somewhat lengthy message from Ken and Willie.
“Read it aloud,” Jack urged.
“Okay,” Mr. Livingston agreed. “Rhodes isn’t sneaking up here to listen, is he?”
“He went to the cottage in a dreadful fury,” Jack answered. “I’ll keep an eye out for him though.”
Mr. Livingston began to read slowly so that every word of the message could be grasped.
“Emerald sample assayed. Highly favorable—”
“Highly favorable!” Ken broke in excitedly. “Then Rhodes lied again!”
Mr. Livingston nodded and read on: “Mrs. Rhodes tried several tricks, substituting poor grade emeralds for one of top quality. Certain she is teamed up with Ferd Baronni on deal to defraud company. We went over their heads and got the emerald sample to higher officials.”
“Good lads!” Jack chuckled. “I knew we could depend on ’em. What else do they say?”
Mr. Livingston continued to read: “Only visible habitation in mine area a group of huts above Emerald Valley. This may be bandit hide-out. Returning to Bogota.”
A map had been included with the hastily scrawled message. Studying it, Mr. Livingston and the Scouts estimated that the cluster of huts might be about seven miles from the mining camp in the more rugged area.
A portion of the way could be traveled by means of the narrow trail which gave access to the outside world. But to reach the hide-out, if such it was, would require a hard trek over a bisecting path in a densely overgrown area.
“Willie and War have done their part well,” Mr. Livingston asserted. “Now the rest is up to us.”
“Maybe we can get in there,” Jack urged. “It’s a cinch we’ve learned all we can here. No use hanging on even another day.”
“When do we start?” Ken demanded, eager to be off. “Right away?”
“We may as well,” the Scout leader nodded. “We can let Rhodes assume we’re starting for Bogota.”
“How about taking Phillipe along?” Jack suggested.
“Good idea, if you can persuade him,” Mr. Livingston nodded. “With the camp here closing down, he should be willing to come with us, and he’ll be useful. See what you can do, while Ken and I round up the mules.”
Jack found Phillipe in his shack, sharing a meal with his family. However, nothing he could say would induce the miner to become a member of the exploring party. Firmly, the man rejected an offer of money.
“Senor, I am not a coward,” he said, “but I would not face Carlos in his own lair! No, Senor. You are very brave to attempt it.”
Discouraged by his failure to interest Phillipe in the expedition, Jack started back to the tent camp.
In passing the little office, he heard someone stirring around inside, and impulsively opened the door and peered in.
Rhodes was in the inner room, beside the safe. For a moment he did not hear or see the youth. The engineer was deeply engrossed in emptying the vault of valuables, including the little box of newly mined emeralds.
“So the vein has been producing?” Jack remarked to draw the man’s attention.
Rhodes whirled around, thrusting the emeralds into his pocket.
“These samples are worthless,” he muttered, his eyes smoldering.
“Then why bother to take them with you? You are leaving, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” Rhodes returned with a sneer. “I’m shaking the dust of this mine from my feet forever. Why should I worry what becomes of the place or whether bandits take over as soon as I’ve cleared out? Why should I worry about the company? Did it ever do anything for me?”
“Going to Bogota?”
“I am! I’ll be away from here within the hour, to join my wife. I hope I never see you or the lousy place again!”
“What about him?”
“You’re not forgetting that he’s still missing? A prisoner probably of the bandit, Carlos?”
“Corning is nothing to me, and I don’t mind telling you so! Didn’t he set himself up here as engineer in my place? He made me look bad to the company—convinced them that I was stealing half the emeralds that were mined.”
“You weren’t, of course.”
“If I could salvage anything for myself, I’d be entitled to it,” Rhodes retorted. “I gave the best years of my life to the company for very little return. I’m fed up! I’m getting out.”
“Before you leave, why not tell us what really became of Corning?” Jack urged earnestly.
Rhodes slammed the safe door shut and turned slowly to face the Scout. For just an instant, Jack was hopeful that the engineer meant to make a full revelation of the facts. Then, the man’s mood changed again.
“I’ve told you exactly what happened,” Rhodes said shortly. “Carlos raided the place and took Corning as hostage. There’s been no ransom demand, so I assume your friend is dead.”
“Mr. Livingston never will be satisfied unless we establish the truth.”
“Let him go ahead if he wants to,” Rhodes shrugged. “Who’s stopping him?”
“You know this country well. You could help us if you would.”
“I’m heading for Bogota to join my wife! Nothing will make me change my mind.”
“At least tell us where Carlos has his hide-out.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. He shifts from place to place. To find Carlos would be very much like chasing a humming bird.”
Jack realized that it was useless to try to obtain the cooperation of the engineer. Giving up, he went back to report to Mr. Livingston and Ken.
“I’m almost certain he’s made a big haul of emeralds and is taking the pile to Bogota for his own use,” he concluded his account. “What’ll we do? Try to stop him?”
“He’s armed,” the Scout leader pointed out. “Besides, we have no absolute proof that he won’t turn the gems over to Baronni when he reaches the home office.”
“We’ll return to Bogota with him?”
“Not with him, Jack. We’ll trail along behind to see if we can find that village Willie and War spotted from the air.”
The Scouts resumed their packing. Long before they had finished, they saw Rhodes ride away from camp, carrying only the necessities of the trail.
After giving the engineer a little start, the Scouts followed. Burdened by camping equipment, they fell farther and farther back. As dusk approached, they began to feel uneasy lest they lose him entirely.
“I don’t like to make camp after dark,” Mr. Livingston said. “On the other hand, if Rhodes can press on, I guess we can too.”
Eager to make time, the Scouts did not halt to cook supper. Instead, they ate cold snacks as they jogged on over the uneven trail. Presently, they gained on Rhodes and in the gathering darkness dimly could make out his figure ahead.
The party approached the bisecting path which Willie and War had marked on their crude map dropped from the plane. Mr. Livingston was consulting it with a shielded flashlight, when Jack, who was leading, suddenly halted his mule.
“Hey, what’s the idea?” Ken demanded.
“Rhodes is at the trail junction!” Jack informed him in a whisper. “Something’s wrong! I think he’s been held up!”
“Held up!” Ken echoed, peering ahead. “Jeepers!”
From the bushes on the trail some distance below them, a dapper little man had emerged. By his body build, the Scouts were sure that it was Carlos, the bandit. Though they could not see plainly, they knew that the man must have the engineer covered.
“We haven’t been detected yet,” Jack warned in a whisper. “Those sharp bends in the trail protected us from view. Let’s see what happens!”
The Scouts could hear heated conversation in Spanish and Rhodes’ violent protests. But they were to no avail. The engineer was forced to dismount and set his mule free. Carlos then ordered him to start afoot ahead of him up the steep bisecting trail.
“Can you beat that!” Jack muttered. “Rhodes a captive! What do we do? Try to rescue him?”
“He’s not worth the trouble,” Ken said in disgust.
Mr. Livingston, however, had another opinion. “Evidently, Rhodes is being taken to the bandit village,” he said thoughtfully. “The one Willie and War spotted. This, I think, is our chance!”
“To trace Corning?” supplied Jack.
Mr. Livingston nodded as he dismounted. “We’ll have to rescue Rhodes, but there’s no great hurry. Let’s follow Carlos and his captive for awhile, and learn where the trail leads.”
Leaving their mules at the trail entrance, the Scouts plodded up the narrow, rocky path in the wake of Rhodes and Carlos. Fearful of losing the pair in the darkness, they kept as close as they dared.
The going was hard. But after more than a half hour’s struggle over tree roots and creepers, the path widened a bit. A short distance farther on, the trees suddenly opened up into a small clearing.
Peering cautiously down, the Scouts made out a cluster of seven thatched huts scattered over a small area. A camp fire burned brightly in the center of the little village.
“This is the bandit hide-out, all right,” Mr. Livingston asserted. “But why has Carlos brought Rhodes here? If robbery were the motive, he could have accomplished it with less trouble.”
“Want me to sneak down there to see what I can learn?” Jack offered.
“I’ll be careful,” Jack promised. “Wait here for me. If I need help, I’ll whistle. Otherwise, you’ll know I’m okay.”
“Learn what you can and report back,” Mr. Livingston advised. “Don’t take any unnecessary chances.”
Jack slipped away in the darkness, avoiding the open clearing. Keeping low, he circled until he came out directly behind a thatched hut. Peering cautiously in, he saw that it was deserted.
A man with long, shaggy black hair came out of one of the buildings, a bush knife swinging from his leather belt. Jack drew back and waited until he had moved out of view. Then, making certain that no one else was about, he crept stealthily on toward the doorway of a larger hut.
Only a dim light burned inside. It gave forth enough illumination however, for Jack to discern the figures of Rhodes and the bandit.
They were seated opposite each other at a crudely made wooden table. The bandit seemed in an ugly mood, for he spoke in a loud voice, his talk an incoherent mixture of Spanish and English.
At first, crouching against the flimsy wall, Jack could not gain the conversation’s drift. But he saw Rhodes lay several bills on the table in front of Carlos.
“This will pay you well for your work, Carlos,” the engineer said. “Believe me, I wasn’t trying to give you the slip. You’d have had your pay for getting rid of Corning.”
With gesture of contempt, Carlos brushed the money aside.
“It is not enough, Senor.”
Unwillingly, Rhodes laid two more bills on the pile.
Carlos sneered at him. “Senor, you are very rich. I am very poor.”
Rhodes shoved back his chair, getting to his feet. “Don’t think you can blackmail me, Carlos!” he said sharply. “I’ve paid you too much now. What you do with Corning is nothing to me—nothing! I’m leaving this country.”
“Oh, no, Senor,” Carlos corrected softly. “Not until you pay. Money is no good. I will take the emeralds.”
“There are none. The mine has played out.”
“You take Carlos to be a stupid fool? Senor, my men have watched. You have mined many gems and you carry them with you. Give them to me now.”
“You’re crazy, Carlos!”
“Senor would like to have me tell what I know? That it was you who planned the little raid? That it was the Senor who ordered Corning kidnapped and put to death? Carlos much too smart to obey orders. Corning more valuable to Carlos alive.”
“You’re a dirty blackmailer!” Rhodes accused. “But you won’t get by with it, because it means nothing to me whether Corning is dead or alive. I’m leaving the country.”
“Senor stay with Carlos until he hand over the emeralds.”
With his uninjured hand, Rhodes drew for a revolver secreted at his waist. Carlos was much quicker. His shot winged the engineer in the fingers.
“Try that again, Senor, and I shoot to kill,” Carlos warned. He spoke in Spanish and Jack did not catch the words that followed.
But he saw the bandit confiscate the weapon, which he recognized as his own. It was the automatic Jack had taken from Carlos, and that later had disappeared from the Scout tent.
Rhodes sagged back into a chair, nursing his wounded hand.
“The gems,” Carlos reminded him.
When Rhodes made no move to hand them over, the bandit tore a small pouch from the leather belt beneath the engineer’s shirt.
“You are welcome to half the emeralds,” Rhodes muttered.
“Why have you brought me here? You are a worse rascal than I knew! Now that you have stripped me clean, release me!”
“No, Senor,” the bandit said in his silken voice.
“What’s your game, Carlos? You have the gems. What more do you want?”
“Your wife, she loves you, eh? She will pay well to see you again. No?”
“Senor Rhodes will now go to see his old friend, Senor Corning,” the bandit chuckled. “You two have much to talk over. Go, Senor! Walk ahead of me.”
Jack pulled back behind the hut only a moment before the strutting little bandit marched Rhodes out into the open. The engineer was forced to enter another hut at the far end of the village, one guarded by two natives armed with knives and guns.
Making no attempt to approach the prison hut, Jack rejoined his companions and made a terse report.
“Rhodes got what he deserved,” he informed the group. “Apparently, Carlos has tossed him in with Corning. The hut is well guarded.”
“How many in camp?” Mr. Livingston asked.
“I saw four men. There must be others. We’re outnumbered.”
“Then our only hope of getting Corning out of that hole is to start a diversion,” Mr. Livingston said.
“We might fire one of the huts,” Jack suggested.
“Any of them empty?” the Scout leader asked.
“One of ’em appeared to be.”
“It’s a wild scheme,” Mr. Livingston said dubiously. “But it might work. If it shouldn’t, we’d likely wind up prisoners of Carlos.”
“Let’s try it,” Jack urged. “If we can free Corning, we’ll have another helper. Two, if we count Rhodes.”
After discussing the plan in detail, a decision was made that Ken should remain behind. He was instructed that if the rescue scheme miscarried, he was to escape at once and try to seek help at the closest village or Bogota.
Details arranged, Jack and Mr. Livingston slipped quietly down to the hut village.
Unable to get close to the cottage where Rhodes and Corning were imprisoned, the pair spotted a hut some distance away. It was empty, and apparently had not been used in many weeks.
“I wish we had some gasoline,” Jack muttered. “That would send her up in a flash.”
Mr. Livingston instructed Jack to set a series of fires in the straw along the back wall.
Swiftly, they both worked. Once they were assured that the empty building was well afire, they crept through the darkness toward the rear of the guarded prison hut.
For awhile, nothing happened. Then as the roof straw began to blaze, the attention of one of the guards suddenly was attracted. With a wild yell, he alerted his companion.
Leaving the other alone to guard the hut, he rushed toward the flaming building.
“This is our only chance!” Mr. Livingston whispered. “Now!”
He and Jack crept through the darkness. The guard did not hear nor see them, for his eyes were upon the blazing hut some distance away.
Before he was aware of danger, the two were upon him. They tackled hard, and with only a grunt of surprise, he went down.
Mr. Livingston wrested the gun from his hand, while Jack seized the knife. A handkerchief was stuffed into his mouth.
Leaving Mr. Livingston to hold the guard at bay with his own weapon, Jack rushed into the hut. Rhodes was there, his hands now tied behind his back.
Another man, whom the Scout took to be Corning, also had his hands bound. He lay upon a heap of straw, face unshaven.
“You’re Corning?” Jack demanded.
“Yes,” was the quick answer. “Untie me, quick!”
Jack slashed the cords which held the engineer’s hands. He was tempted to ignore Rhodes, but a realization of the fate that awaited the man if he were left behind, softened him. A quick thrust of the knife, and he too was free.
“Quick! Make for the trail!” he directed. “Ken is waiting there.”
Rhodes started off at a run. Corning would not abandon his rescuers. He helped Mr. Livingston tie up the guard. Then with Jack and the Scout leader, he made a fast break for the path.
As they struggled up the incline, a shout arose from the direction of the blazing hut.
“They’ve seen us!” Corning cried. “Go on! I’ll try to hold ’em while you get away.”
Jack seized his arm, pulling him along. “No one stays behind,” he insisted. “We’ll make it!”
Several shots were fired. Ignoring them, and crouching low, the two ran for the trees. In the darkness, the bandits could not see their targets. All shots went wide of the mark.
Breathless from exertion, Corning and Jack reached the trail where Ken nervously waited. Rhodes already was plunging down the path in fast retreat.
“Where’s Hap?” Jack demanded anxiously. “He was with us until a minute ago.”
Just then the Scout leader came crushing through the bushes.
“There’s a swarm of ’em!” he reported tersely. “They’re hot after us!”
The four quickly caught up with Rhodes who was in a near panic. Slipping and sliding, they made no attempt to move quietly as they crashed along the narrow, treacherous trail.
After awhile, Jack wheeled up for a moment to listen. “They’re drawing in close!” he gasped. “Maybe we ought to make a stand—”
“No!” shouted Rhodes. “Keep on! If we can make the trail junction, we can stop those devils!”
“How? With our fists? We have no ammunition.”
Rhodes’ laughter had a wild ring. “Ammunition!” he chortled. “If we can get to the junction, I’ll supply you with enough to blow Carlos to kingdom come! Steal from me, will he? I’ll show that blackguard he’s dealing with McClellan Rhodes!”
At the union of the trails, the Scouts and the two engineers elected to make their stand against the bandits.
In a frenzy of excitement, Rhodes led the others to a rock cavity where he had cached a supply of dynamite. He had hidden it there weeks before, intending to use it in an emergency if his plot to gain possession of the Last Chance mine failed.
“I’ll dynamite the path ahead of Carlos!” Rhodes shouted. “He’ll be trapped behind the rock slide!”
“They’re coming fast,” the other engineer warned. “Get busy!”
The dynamite was planted with its fuse ready to light. But Rhodes deliberately delayed setting it off. Corning spoke sharply to him, saying he would be no party to a massacre.
“That demon has the emeralds,” Rhodes muttered. “He’s a traitor. I want to finish him!”
“Set off the charge,” Corning ordered. “Now!”
Carlos and his men still were a considerable distance away.
Rhodes hesitated, but realized that his will was not to prevail. With a shrug he lighted the fuse and everyone rushed for cover.
The minutes of waiting seemed endless. As the explosion failed to materialize, Rhodes began to fret and worry.
“That dynamite was stored too long,” he muttered. “I was afraid it had lost its juice. I’m going to take a look. The fuse may have gone out.”
Corning hauled him back to cover. Scarcely thirty seconds elapsed when a terrific explosion shook the earth.
Jack, Ken and Mr. Livingston flattened themselves, face downward. Even so, they were showered with dirt and chips of rock.
When the dust had settled, Corning and Rhodes went to investigate. They returned to report jubilantly that tons of rock now blocked the path giving access to Carlos’ hide-out.
“He and his men are trapped back there in the hills,” Corning told the Scouts.
“Is there no way out for them?” Jack asked.
“None, unless they climb down the cliffs. If I know Carlos, he will not attempt it. We’ll send the authorities, who at their leisure can reopen the passage. By that time, I imagine Carlos no longer will be in a belligerent mood.”
“Rhodes?” Jack questioned. “What’s to be done about him? He plotted to put himself back at the mine in your place.”
“I know,” the engineer replied. “Carlos told me the whole sordid story while I was his captive. Rhodes is greedy, and for years, before I took over at Emerald Valley, he milked the mine for his own benefit. Even so, I feel sorry for the fellow.”
“You don’t aim to let him escape?”
“We can’t do that,” Corning answered after a moment’s thought. “No, we’ll take him on to Bogota and let company officials decide what’s to be done. As for myself, I’m willing to forget the foul trick he played on me.”
“What about the lost emeralds? Carlos robbed Rhodes of a small fortune.”
“We may get them back,” Corning said, undisturbed. “With the path blocked, Carlos isn’t going anywhere. If the authorities will back me up, I’ll return here with a posse and force the bandits to give up the gems.”
“What of the mine?”
“It can’t be left many days without someone in charge. I’ll see the party safely to Bogota, and get back to my post.”
So it was decided. That very night, the Scouts pushed on, accompanied by Rhodes, who surprisingly offered no resistance. With the loss of the emeralds, all the spirit and fight seemed to have left him. He and Corning talked together almost as friends.
“I resented it because the company put you in charge,” Rhodes told the other. “I figured you were a greenhorn and I could get rid of you without much trouble. So I hooked up with Carlos, paying him to stage a fake raid and haul you off.”
“That’s where your plan backfired.”
“Yes. Carlos double-crossed me as I might have expected. He kept demanding more money, threatening to release you and tell all.”
“We saw you flashing signals down the mountain,” Ken commented, entering the conversation. “You were communicating with Carlos?”
“That’s right. We had worked out a crude code system. It never was very effective.”
“Carlos took you by surprise today on the trail?”
“Yes, with a little luck, I’d have made it to Bogota with the emeralds.”
“Leaving Mr. Corning to his fate?”
Rhodes flushed, ashamed to have his intentions so openly discussed. He fell into a morose silence, making no further attempt to act friendly.
On the trail, Mr. Corning and Mr. Livingston had ample opportunity to renew their old friendship. The engineer explained that he had urged the Scout leader to come to Emerald Valley in the hope of forestalling the very situation which had developed.
“Carlos has been terrorizing these hills for years,” he informed his friend. “I suspected that Rhodes was stirring things up a bit, but I never had proof. That was one reason I sent for you. I figured you could help me.”
“That vein should establish the Last Chance on a highly productive basis again,” Mr. Corning asserted. “Operations should remain profitable for many years.”
Rhodes talked very little during the tedious journey back to civilization. He admitted however, that he had ordered his workmen to weaken the log bridge so that the Scouts would be stranded across the river.
“I figured you would find the vein,” he confessed. “I wasn’t ready to start mining operations until I had made certain Corning wouldn’t come back to plague me. So I figured I could keep you tied up across the river for a day or so until I could make my plans. It didn’t work.”
“You and your wife teamed with Ferd Baronni to get a cut on all the emeralds mined under your direction?” Jack probed. “That is, you saw to it that a certain percentage of them never went through to company officials?”
Rhodes would make no admission implicating either his wife or the company agent.
However, the Scouts were determined to learn the entire truth. Days later, in Bogota, after the deposed mining engineer had been turned over to company officials, they rejoined Willie and War who assisted in piecing together the full story.
Lounging comfortably in a hotel room, the two Scouts recounted their own unpleasant adventures on the trail.
“Mrs. Rhodes gave us a rough time of it,” War told his friends. “She tried to trick us about the emerald. We knew she turned over a poor imitation of the gem to company officials, but it took Willie to prove it.”
“I remembered that back in Santa Marta she told us she disliked bananas,” Willie related with a chuckle. “I couldn’t figure out why she carried a sack of ’em with her when she left the mine. I tried to take one from the bunch, and she set up an awful yip. That started me to thinking. So, we mashed up the bananas and found the prize emerald!”
“She’d been carrying gems that way for quite a while without being caught,” War added. “We turned the good emerald over to company officials. It’s top grade.”
“What did you learn about Ferd Baronni?” Ken questioned.
“Oh, he’s hooked up with Rhodes,” War answered. “In checking the books, company auditors found a lot of discrepancies. So Baronni’s been fired.”
“We learned too, that it was Baronni who hired that sled-boat operator to try to delay our trip to the mine,” contributed Willie. “He figured a big dose of trouble would discourage us from going on.”
In due time, the Scouts met company officials and learned first hand that Rhodes and his wife were to be shipped out of the country. Company representatives, grateful to the Explorers, also told them that they were to enjoy a three weeks’ vacation at the firm’s expense.
Mr. Livingston and the Scouts were put up at Bogota’s best hotel. Sightseeing trips, deluxe food and luxurious rooms were theirs at no cost.
Unfortunately, Mr. Corning could not remain with the party. Uneasy about the mine, he obtained a posse and set off at once for Emerald Valley.
For more than a week, the Scouts received no word. Then by messenger they were informed that Carlos had been captured and the stolen emeralds recovered. Mr. Corning notified them that he had reopened the mine, and would resume operations at the new site across the river.
The Scouts did not expect to see him again during their stay in Colombia. Therefore, it came as a pleasant surprise, when, three days before their scheduled departure by plane for the States, the engineer suddenly appeared at their hotel.
“I couldn’t let you fly off without saying goodbye,” he told them. “Not after all you did for me! We’re going to pack a lot of excitement into your last few days here.”
The engineer more than kept his word. He took the Scouts everywhere and constantly delighted them with new and interesting sights.
“If this gay life keeps up much longer we’ll be softies,” Jack asserted one afternoon on their final day in Bogota. “It’s been swell here, but I’ve had enough.”
“Same here,” warbled Willie. “Emerald hunting is okay, but give me the USA.”
“You know I catch myself thinking about that nice quiet camping trip to Minnesota,” admitted War sheepishly. “The one we always plan to take, and never do.”
“We’ll make it yet,” promised Mr. Livingston. “Next summer maybe.”
“Sounds great!” approved Ken, stretching luxuriously on the hotel sofa. “There’s only one drawback.”
“What’s that?” asked Jack.
“A vacation without bandits might seem dull.”
“Different anyhow,” contributed War.
“Maybe so,” drawled Jack. “All the same, it will seem mighty good to open that old Post log book again—to start once more where we left off.”
Thinking of the reunion they would have with their friends and fellow Scouts, the Explorers all became silent. Two wonderful vacations in South America had conditioned them to high adventure! And even more was in store.
Copyright notice provided as in the original—this e-text is public domain in the country of publication.
Silently corrected palpable typos; left non-standard spellings and dialect unchanged
Retained the original’s inconsistent italicization of Spanish words.
In the text versions, delimited italics text in _underscores_ (the HTML version reproduces the font form of the printed book.)
This eBook, following the printed version, inconsistently italicizes Spanish words.