By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
THE STORY SO FAR: Laura and Bill and their cousins, Gray and Beth, had been at their fathers’ construction camp in Sonora all summer, helping to earn enough money to pay their father’s mortgage and to give their mother a much needed operation. Now they were on their way back to the border. Laura, because she had overheard her father and Bill talking, believes they are carrying something valuable; but does not want Bill to know she suspects. At their noon meal they were held up by a dangerous looking Mexican; but after having eaten with them he leaves after warning them about the pass in the mountains.
At a pueblo through which they passed they saw three horses tied beside the cantina. The horses belong to three tough men who had left camp the day before they did.
Their first night out they decide they need not stand guard. The boys sleep under the wagon. During the night Bill comes suddenly awake. Glancing up, he sees the hand of a Mexican.
In a breath Bill was ready. He drew himself up, kicking back the blankets and awakening Gray, while his fingers shot out and grasped the brown wrist. He tried to turn onto his knees but was hampered by the low running gears. Gray, awakened but slow with sleep, rolled from beneath the wagon. Sensing his purpose the intruderr knew he had lost. Releasing a knife, he lurched free and disappeared in the growth at the side of the road just as Gray appeared back of the wagon. Gray jumped to follow him.
“Don’t,” Laura called sharply. She had been awakened just in time to see her cousin come around the wagon. “Don’t follow him into the trees. He might lay for you.”
“Good advice.” Bill came into sight rubbing a place on his head where he had cracked the wagon.
“Now what shall we do?”
None knew, but each was unwilling to remain longer in the place. They decided to go on. The boys had slept in their clothes, so while Gray rolled their bedding, Bill harnessed the mules. Not until they were miles away did they talk. Then Beth broke the silence.
“Who do you suppose he was?”
“I didn’t get a good look at him,” her brother answered, “but I’m sure I’ve never seen him before.”
“Are you sure it was not – it was not –?”
“We are not sure of anything,” Gray answered. “But there is nothing to get excited about. It was probably just a vagrant hunting sugar.” They had not told the girls of the knife. Bill had slipped that among the bed clothes.
Laura could not speak of it. She was thankful her brother had awakened in time. If she only had some idea of who it was. It was one more thing for her to worry about, she decided; but she said nothing to Beth.
The day came on. Higher and higher they climbed. In the early forenoon they reached a small flat where they stopped and cooked breakfast. From there on the vegetation changed. The road became a mere line that twisted and crawled around crags and promontories.
“There is someone coming,” Beth said suddenly. Then after a moment she added, “Why, it is some men from camp. Three of them.”
Gray, who was driving, brought the team to an abrupt stop. “They mean trouble,” he said, from the corner of his mouth.
“Drive on,” was all Bill answered.
Reluctantly Gray spoke to the mules, but he gave his cousin a black look that meant because he was in charge was no reason to disregard danger. Laura’s face clouded. How could Bill be so casual? Surely now he would tell them what it was all about. Perhaps that was part of his defense. She glanced back. In spite of the grade of the road the men were urging their horses cruelly. As they came alongside, Gray turned the mules to allow them to pass.
“Howdy, Juan,” Bill called as they passed. “Hi, Manuelo, Pedro.”
Juan pulled up his horse, but at a sharp command from Pedro he went on with only a nod of recognition.
“Whew,” Beth whistled, then they had passed from sight. “They were certainly unfriendly for people we have known all summer.”
Two hours later they approached the pass. It was here there would be trouble, if trouble they were to have. Laura waited anxiously for Bill to say something, to caution them; but he said nothing. Could she have been mistaken? No, his lips were clamped in hard lines. Beth looked from one to the other. She sensed something she could not define. Even the mules were restless and strained spasmodically at their traces. Then among the shadows on the cliff Laura saw a movement.
“Let’s turn back,” she demanded.
Bill turned to her. His keen eyes noted her white, set face and frightened eyes.
“We can’t,” he answered. “We have gone too far. Don’t show fright if you can help; and regardless of whom we meet, do not argue. Remember, all of you, that unarmed people have nothing to hide.”
Then as the outfit turned slowly into the pass the renegades stepped into view, the same three who had passed two hours ago. A slanting shaft of light hit the bright metal of their guns. “Halt.” Pedro was the spokesman.
“Let’s crowd them off the road,” Gray whispered, and raised his whip to strike the mules.
“No.” Bill caught his arm. “What do you want, Pedro?”
The mules had halted. Gray set the brakes.
“The gold, Senor. Give us the dinero and we are gone.”
For one wild breath Bill hesitated. Laura’s pulse smothered her. Then from an inner pocket Bill drew a small leather bag and held it out.
“Give him your money,” he said to the others.
Reluctantly Beth and Laura offered their bit. Gray set his chin stubbornly.
“I’ve worked all summer for this money,” he said in English. “They won’t get it that easy.”
“Hand it over,” Bill demanded loudly in Spanish. “Let’s not have trouble.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Gray started to argue, but at an impatient gesture from Pedro he drew his money from his pocket and held it out.
Eagerly Pedro took each contribution and emptied it in Bill’s sack. When the total amount of it became apparent, he stuffed it angrily in his clothes and demanded: “The money, senor.”
“You have it.”
Pedro spoke sharply to his companions. Manuelo advanced and motioned to the face of the cliff. “Descend.”
“Like thunder,” Gray exploded. “I’m not being a target for those greasers. It is all your fault. If you had let me –”
“Do as he says,” Bill commanded, this time in English.
Muttering maledictions Gray twisted the lines about the brake handle. “I’ll get even with you for this,” he promised his cousin as he swung to the ground.
“– and Senor Bill will take his place also.”
“You know, Pedro,” Bill sparred for time as he flung his leg over the wheel, “you can’t get away with this.”
“You’re blamed right you can’t,” Gray cried. “The police will be on your trail before night.”
“By that time, my friend, we shall be far away.”
Pedro’s hands went swiftly over the boys.
The girls were quaking with fear. They climbed quickly down and stood beside the boys; but Beth, like her brother, was rebellious.
“To think,” she cried in broken Mexican, “of all the pie I’ve fed that brute. Next time I work in a cook shack I shall know better.”
Pedro grinned. “For that, Senorita, we do not shoot – if you do as we say. You can tell us where is the dinero, no?”
“You have it.”
“Since you know so much,” Gray sneered, “help yourself.”
With an oath Pedro slid from his horse. His hands went swiftly over the boys. Finding nothing more of value he stepped back perplexed. His eyes turned to the girls. For the first time Bill felt fear. Clammy cold crops stood out on his forehead. He looked to Gray and they tensed their muscles. If Pedro dared to touch – but the girls without waiting to be asked had turned their apron pockets inside out.
“You see,” Laura spoke calmly, “we have no more.”
“Ha.” With sudden enlightenment the Mexican sprang into the wagon. He threw aside the tarpaulin and made a hasty search. He found nothing. Taking a knife from his pocket he ripped open the oat sacks and emptied the contents. Still nothing. Valises were overturned. As he flung the boys’ bedroll apart something hit the wagon box with a thud. Pedro snatched at it. When he rose his face was a puzzle. In one hand he held a twenty-two, in the other a long glittering knife.
“Why you not shoot?” he asked Bill.
“Why should I?” Bill shrugged indifferently.
More angry because he was baffled, Pedro passed the knife and gun to Juan and resumed the search. Profaning loudly he threw up the lid of the grub-box and began pawing among its contents.
Laura thought of mother and her long days of patient waiting. In a flash she was up in the wagon beside him. She did it so quickly the watching Mexicans were too slow. Their attention had been on the boys.
“Laura, get down,” Bill cried out in English. “I’ll tell him.”