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   Chapter 3 HELD FOR RANSOM.

Frank Merriwell Down South By Burt L. Standish Characters: 13480

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Gone!"

The professor was astonished.

"Shimminy Gristmas! I don'd toldt you dot!" came from Hans Dunnerwust.

"Yes, gone," repeated Frank, throwing the light about the room and finally bringing it back to the bed of grass.

"But-but it's impossible."

"Impossible or not, it is true, as you may see."

"But the man was dead-as dead as he could be!"

"Yah!" snorted Hans. "Py shingoes! dot peen der trute. Dot man vos teader as a goffin nail, und don'd you vorget him!"

The trio were silent, staring in stupefied amazement at the bed of grass.

An uncanny feeling began to creep over Frank, and it seemed that a chill hand touched his face and played about his temples.

Hans' teeth began to chatter.

"I am quite ill," the professor faintly declared, in a feeble tone of voice. "The exertions of the day have been far too severe for me."

"Yah, yah!" gurgled the Dutch lad. "You vos anodder. Oxcuse me while I go oudt to ged a liddle fresh air."

He made a bolt for the open door, and Professor Scotch was not long in following. Frank, however, was determined to be thoroughly satisfied, and he again began looking for the body of the dead man, once more going over the entire hut.

"The body is gone, beyond a doubt," he finally muttered.

"There is no place for it to be concealed here, and dead men do not hide themselves."

He went out, and found Professor Scotch and Hans awaiting his appearance with no small amount of anxiety.

"Ah!" said the professor, with a deep breath of relief, "you are all right."

"All right," said Frank, with amusement; "of course I am. What did you think? Fancy I was going to be spirited away by spooks?"

The little man drew himself up with an assumption of great dignity.

"Young man," he rumbled, in his deepest tone, "don't be frivolous on such an occasion as this. You are quite aware that I do not believe in spooks or anything of the sort; but we are in a strange country now, and strange things happen here."

"Yah," nodded Hans. "Dot peen oxactly righdt."

"For instance, the disappearance of that corpse is most remarkable."

"Dot peen der first dime I nefer known a deat man to ged ub un valk avay all alone mit himseluf by," declared Hans.

"What do you think has happened here, professor?" asked Frank.

"It is plain Jack Burk's body is gone."

"Sure enough."

"And does it not seem reasonable that he walked away himself?"

"Vell, you don'd know apout dot," broke in Hans. "Maype he don'd pelief we vos goin' pack here to bury him, und he got tiret uf vaiting for der funerals."

"There must have been other people here after we left," said Frank.

"Right," nodded the professor.

"Bandits?"

"Bushnell?"

"One or the other."

"Perhaps both."

Frank fell to examining the ground for "signs," but, although his eyes were unusually keen, he was not an expert in such matters, and he discovered nothing that could serve as a revelation.

"The man was dead beyond a doubt, professor-you are sure?"

"Sure?" roared the little man, bristling in a moment. "Of course I'm sure! Do you take me for a howling idiot?"

"Don't get excited, professor. The best of us are liable to err at times. It would not be strange if you--"

"But I didn't-I tell you I didn't! The body may have been removed by the bandits which hang about this section."

"Or by Al Bushnell, Burk's partner."

"Yes; Bushnell may have recognized him, although he did not seem to do so. In that case, he has been here--"

"And that explains everything."

"Everything."

"He took the body away to give it decent burial."

"And we have had our trouble for nothing."

By this time the native undertaker got the drift of the talk, and set up a wail of lamentation and accusation. He had come all that distance at great expense to himself and great waste of time during which he might have been sleeping or smoking. It was robbery, robbery, robbery. It was like the Americanoes. He had a wife and many-very many children depending on him. He had been tricked by the Americanoes, and he would complain that he had been cheated. They should be arrested; they should be compelled to pay.

"Oh, come your perch off, und gone took a fall to yournseluf!" cried Hans, in disgust. "You gif me der lifer gomblaint!"

The native continued to wail and lament and accuse them until Frank succeeded in quieting him by paying him three times as much as he would have asked had the body been found in the hut. The old fellow saw how he could make it appear as a clean case of deception on the part of the strangers, and he worked his little game for all there was in it. Having received his money, he lost no time in turning his cart about and heading back toward Mendoza, evidently fearing the body might be found at last and forced upon him.

"We'd better be going, too," said Professor Scotch.

"That's right," agreed Frank. "There is no telling what danger we may encounter on the plain after nightfall."

"Vell, don'd let us peen all nighd apout gedding a mofe on," fluttered Hans, hastening toward the horses.

So they mounted and rode away toward Mendoza, although Frank was far from satisfied to do so without solving the mystery of the remarkable disappearance.

Darkness was falling heavily on the plain, across which a cool and refreshing breath came from the distant mountains.

Frank kept his eyes open for danger, more than half expecting to run upon a gang of bandits at any moment. As they approached the town they began to breathe easier, and, before long, they were riding along the dusty road that led into the little town.

Entering Mendoza they found on each hand low buildings connected by long, white adobe walls, against which grew prickly pears in abundance, running in straggling lines away out upon the open country.

About the edges of the town were little fires, winking redly here and there, with earthen pots which were balanced on smoldering embers raked out from the general mass.

Withered and skinny old hags were crooning over the pots, surrounded by swarthy children and lazy men, who were watching the preparation of the evening meal.

Groups of peons, muffled to the eyes with their serapes, were sitting with their backs to the adobe walls, apparently fast asleep; but Frank noted that glittering, black eyes peered out from between the serapes and the huts, and he had no doubt but that many of the fellows would willingly cut a throat for a ridiculously small sum of money.

Within the town it was different. All day the window shutters had been closely barred, but now they were flung wide, and the flash of dark eyes or the low, musical laugh of a se?orita told that the maidens who had l

olled all the hot day were now astir.

Doors were flung wide, and houses which at midday had seemed uninhabited were astir with life. In the patios beautiful gardens were blooming, and through iron gates easy-chairs and hammocks could be seen.

Many of the se?oritas had come forth, and were strolling in groups of threes or fours, dressed in pink and white lawn, with Spanish veils and fans. The most of them wore white stockings and red-heeled slippers.

Many a witching glance was shyly cast at Frank, but his mind was so occupied that he heeded none of them.

The hotel was reached, and they were dismounting, when a battered and tattered old man, about whose shoulders was cast a ragged blanket, and whose face was hidden by a scraggly, white beard, came up with a faltering step.

"Pardon me," he said, in a thin, cracked voice, "I see you are Americans, natives of the States, Yankees, and, as I happen to be from Michigan, I hasten to speak to you. I know you will have pity on an unfortunate countryman. My story is short. My son came to this wretched land to try to make a fortune. He went into the mines, and was doing well. He sent me home money, and I put a little aside, so that I had a snug little sum after a time. Then he fell into the hands of Pacheco, the bandit. You have heard of Pacheco, gentlemen?"

"We have," said Frank, who was endeavoring to get a fair look into the old man's eyes.

"We surely have," agreed the professor.

"Vell, you can pet my poots on dot!" nodded Hans.

"The wretch-the cutthroat!" cried the old man, shaking his clinched hand in the air. "Why didn't he kill me? He has robbed me of everything-everything!"

"Tell us-finish your story," urged the professor.

Frank said nothing. The light from a window shone close by the old man. Frank was waiting for the man to change his position so the light would shine on his face.

For some moments the man seemed too agitated to proceed, but he finally went on.

"My son-my son fell into the hands of this wretched bandit. Pacheco took him captive. Then he sent word to me that he would murder my son if I did not appear and pay two thousand dollars ransom money. Two thousand dollars! I did not have it in the world. But I had a little home. I sold it-I sold everything to raise the money to save my boy. I obtained it. And then-then, my friends, I received another letter. Then Pacheco demanded three thousand dollars."

"Der brice vos on der jump," murmured Hans.

"But that is not the worst!" cried the old man, waving his arms, excitedly. "Oh, the monster-the demon!"

He wrung his hands, and groaned as if with great anguish.

"Be calm, be calm," urged Professor Scotch. "My dear sir, you are working yourself into a dreadful state."

"How can I be calm?" groaned the stranger. "It is not possible to be calm and think of such a terrible thing!"

"What terrible thing?" asked Frank. "You have not told the entire story, and we do not know what you mean."

"True, true. Listen! With that letter Pacheco-the monster!-sent one of my boy's little fingers!"

"Shimminy Gristmas! I don'd toldt you dot, do I?"

"Horrible! horrible!"

The professor and Hans uttered these exclamations, but Frank was calm and apparently unmoved, with his eyes still fastened on the face of the old man.

"How you toldt dot vos der finger uf your son, mister?"

"That's it, that's it-how could you tell?" asked the professor.

"My son-my own boy-he added a line to the letter, stating that the finger had been taken from his left hand, and that Pacheco threatened to cut off his fingers one by one and send them to me if I did not hasten with the ransom money."

"Dot seddled you!"

"You recognized the handwriting as that of your son?"

"I did; but I recognized something besides that."

"What?"

"The finger."

"Oh, you may have been mistaken in that-surely you may."

"I was not."

"How do you know?"

"By a mark on the finger."

"Ah! what sort of a mark?"

"A peculiar scar like a triangle, situated between the first and second joints. Besides that, the nail had once been crushed, after which it was never perfect."

"That was quite enough," nodded Professor Scotch.

"Yah," agreed Hans; "dot peen quide enough alretty."

Still Frank was silent, watching and waiting, missing not a word that fell from the man's lips, missing not a gesture, failing to note no move.

This silence on the part of Merriwell seemed to affect the man, who turned to him, saying, a trifle sharply:

"Boy, boy, have you no sympathy with me? Think of the suffering I have passed through! You should pity me."

"What are you trying to do now?" asked Frank, quietly.

"I am trying to raise some money to ransom my son."

"But I thought you did raise money?"

"So I did, but not enough."

"Finish the story."

"Well, when I received that letter I immediately hastened to this land of bandits and half-breeds. I did not have three thousand dollars, but I hoped that what I had would be enough to soften Pacheco's heart-to save my poor boy."

"And you failed?"

The old man groaned again.

"My boy is still in Pacheco's power, and I have not a dollar left in all the world! Failed-miserably failed!"

"Well, what do you hope to do-what are you trying to do?"

"Raise five hundred dollars."

"How?"

"In any way."

"By begging?"

"I do not know how. Anyway, anyway will do!"

"But you cannot raise it by begging in this land, man," said the professor. "This is a land of beggars. Everybody seems to be poor and wretched."

"But I have found some of my own countrymen, and I hoped that you might have pity on me-oh, I did hope!"

"What? You didn't expect us to give you five hundred dollars?"

"Think of my boy-my poor boy! Pacheco has threatened to murder him by inches-to cut him up and send him to me in pieces! Is it not something terrible to contemplate?"

"Vell, I should dink id vos!" gurgled the Dutch boy.

"But how did you lose your money?"

"I was robbed."

"By whom?"

"Pacheco."

"How did it happen?"

"I fell into his hands."

"And he took your money without setting your son free?"

"He did."

"Did you tell him it was all you had in the world?"

"I told him that a score of times."

"What did he say?"

"Told me to raise more, or have the pleasure of receiving my boy in pieces."

"How long ago was that?"

"Three days."

"Near here?"

"Yes."

"How long have you been in Mendoza?"

"Two days, and during that time I have received this from Pacheco."

He took something from his pocket-something wrapped in a handkerchief. With trembling fingers, he unrolled it, exposing to view--

A bloody human finger!

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