"The guard has been doubled. Now, I'll just bet that's some of Tremmer's work."
"He not only refuses to help us escape, but he's going to make mighty sure that we won't do so ourselves," grumbled Joe.
Yaqui emerged from behind the niche where lie had been hidden.
"Don't worry," he advised softly. "I think everything be all right."
Thereupon he sprawled on the floor, pillowed his head on one arm, and fell fast asleep.
"It doesn't seem to worry him very much," murmured Frank.
"He knows it won't do him any good to worry. We may as well go to sleep, too, and try to forget it all."
So, following the philosophic example of the Indian, the boys also were soon asleep.
They were awakened in the morning by a disturbance at the mouth of the cave. Frank sat up, blinking, and saw a tall figure come striding through the entrance. Quickly he reached over and shook Joe.
"So!" observed their visitor. "The young detectives have slept well, I hope?"
The man was Pedro Vincenzo. He stood grinning unpleasantly at them, a smirk of triumph on his swarthy face.
Joe sat up and rubbed his eyes. When he recognized Vincenzo, he became fully awake.
"Just the man we wanted to see."
The Mexican looked about the cave.
''Not very luxurious,'' he said. ''But a hard bed and plenty of fresh air will hurt no one." Then his manner changed. "Well, you brats!" he snarled, "I hope this will teach you to think twice before you try to interfere with me."
"It'll teach us to be more careful, perhaps," replied Frank with spirit. "I suppose you know you're letting yourself in for plenty of trouble, Vincenzo."
The man laughed harshly.
"You cannot scare me," he said. "I am master in this place."
Frank and Joe had been frightened lest Vincenzo should discover the presence of Yaqui. Now they found to their surprise that the Indian had disappeared. How and when he had vanished they did not know.
"How long do you intend to keep us here?" Joe asked.
"I have plans of my own," returned their captor. "I have a little deal under way. I need that fool Tremmer, and you were trying to take him away from me. When I've finished with him–well–who knows?"
"If you have a deal under way I'll bet it's a crooked one," Frank said warmly.
"Mind your own business," growled Vincenzo. "You'll stay here until I'm ready to let you go. And you won't be released until Tremmer and I are miles away. But remember-if you try to escape sooner it will be that much worse for you. I'll turn you over to the natives in charge of the Ceremonial of the Fire. Do you know what that will mean?"
His face was ugly with malice and cruelty.
"Don't take a chance on being branded with the mark of the P and the fire!" warned Vincenzo. "You wouldn't want to go back to your friends in Bayport with that sort of decoration on your foreheads. Besides, it's said to be very painful."
"We're not afraid of your threats," Joe answered.
"Brave boys!" jeered Vincenzo. "You're not so clever now, are you? And you won't think your father is so clever, either, when he's thrown in here to keep you company."
"Our father is worth twenty of you."
In the distance they heard a shot. Pedro Vincenzo looked up, startled, and strode to the entrance. As he said something to the guard, they all heard another shot, followed by a series of wild yells.
"Better hurry," advised Frank. "Perhaps the soldiers have come to clean up this den of yours and set us free."
"Soldiers! Bah!" exclaimed Vincenzo.
It was plain, however, that he was puzzled and nervous.
"You might leave us something to eat," suggested Joe. "I hope you don't intend to starve us to death."
"You'll get food. All in good time. It won't hurt you to go hungry for a day or so."
Then the scoundrel strode hastily out of the cave. In a moment there was a slight rustling sound. The boys looked around, and saw Yaqui emerging from behind some rocks.
"You heard what he said?" asked Joe.
"He talks big. But he is not as safe as he thinks. Already the natives are beginning to grumble."
"How do you know?"
"I have heard the guards talking. They say Vincenzo has made many promises but has not kept his word. He said he would pay them if they helped him. They are wondering when they are going to see the money."
"They'll never see it," replied Frank. "The fellow is a crook. I can't figure how any man can be as dumb as Elmer Tremmer, to be fooled by that sort of talk."
"I don't feel very much like trying to escape, just the same," observed Joe. "I'm not eager to be turned over to the natives for branding."
Yaqui then explained that the ceremony the boys had witnessed the previous night was part of the regulation ritual of the Sun Worshippers, and that Pedro Vincenzo had doubtless introduced a few ideas of his own, among them the branded sign of his initial in the fagot fire.
"It is–what do you call it?–his mark."
"His trademark," said Joe. "Well, I'm not looking forward to having it on my forehead."
As they talked, the three heard more shots and sounds of a disturbance near the main camp. The guards, too, seemed to be excited, for they were crouching together and staring down in the direction of the river.
"There's something going on," Frank said, puzzled. "I wonder what's happening."
At that moment a native came running up to the entrance of the cave. He talked excitedly to the guards. Yaqui crept closer to the opening so that he could hear what was being said. In the distance the boys heard a burst of gunfire, followed by shouts and screams.
Whatever information the newcomer brought to the guards, it proved to be important.
One of the men threw aside his gun and would have hurried away, had not the other argued with him and held him back. The native who had run up to the entrance of the cave went away again hurriedly and the two guards launched into a feverish dispute.
Yaqui came back to them.
"A revolt!" he whispered eagerly. "There is trouble in the camp."
"What's up?" the boys demanded.
"The natives are tired of waiting for their pay. Tremmer is stirring them up to get rid of Vincenzo. Some of them are leaving the village and crossing the river with Tremmer."
"Good!" cried Frank. "If their forces are split it will make it easier for us to try a getaway."
"Vincenzo is hoping to hold his men together. He is promising them anything they want–but he says he has no money, and nothing else will satisfy them.''
"I didn't realize Tremmer had it in him," Joe declared. "He must have done a lot of thinking after he left us last night. Perhaps at last he realizes the truth."
The uproar was growing in volume. Evidently Vincenzo was having a hard time keeping the natives under control.
The boys' guards wanted to be in the thick of the disturbance. As the racket from the river bank grew louder and louder they hastily left their posts and dashed down the trail without another thought for their prisoners.
"Now's our chance!" cried Joe gleefully. "Let them fight all they want to. We'll get away from here. Yaqui, where are the horses?"
"About a mile up the trail," he answered. "But do not be too hasty. Let us see what is happening."
They emerged from the cave, and came out onto the level adobe platform at the entrance. It was evident that Elmer Tremmer's revolt was at least partly successful. A dugout canoe was crossing the river with half a dozen natives, while another was just landing on the other side. Even at that distance the boys could distinguish the figure of the missing witness, shouting orders to the men as they landed.
On his side of the .stream Vincenzo was vainly trying to hold the rest of the tribe in check. Some of them were clambering into a canoe preparatory to deserting to Tremmer's crowd. The outlaw was striding up and down, waving his arms wildly as he shouted at the men. Everything was in confusion. Many of the women were packing up their meagre household effects. Occasionally someone would fire a rifle into the air, and a native across the river would answer with a shot.
Suddenly Vincenzo ran down to the water's edge and collared one of the men who was stepping into the dugout. The man struck back at him. Two others leaped out of the canoe and tackled Pedro, whereupon some of the loyal natives rushed down the bank to protect their leader. In an instant a real fight was in progress. One of Tremmer's canoes started back across the stream. At the same time five of Vincenzo's natives leaped into a dugout and paddled out to meet them.
The two canoes came together with a crash in midstream. There were wild yells as Vincenzo's party went over into the water. The others, being more expert as canoeists, held their craft upright. In the meantime, the fight on shore was becoming general, with the deserters getting the best of it.
Vincenzo himself was hurled into the water. He emerged spluttering just as Tremmer's party thrust their craft away from shore. Farther up the bank a few more natives were sneaking off to join the others on the opposite side of the river, evidently having no desire to stay with a lost cause.
Tremmer's little army was growing. Only a handful of natives, including the women and children of the camp, remained loyal to Vincenzo.
"He's beaten!" cried Frank. "Come on, Joe. Come on, Yaqui. Let's find those horses."
They went scrambling down toward the main ledge above the river. Vincenzo, his clothes dripping with water, was yelling threats at the party on the opposite bank and trying to persuade his men to return to him.
One of the natives who had refused to join the insurgents suddenly caught sight of Yaqui and the Hardy boys. He uttered a yell of alarm and grabbed his leader by the sleeve.
"After them!" roared Vincenzo.
Terms of Peace
"Run!" shouted Joe.
Yaqui could have escaped. He was as fleet-footed as a deer and could have outdistanced the pursuers with ease. Yet he would not desert his young companions. Frank and Joe strained themselves to the utmost, but when they looked back they saw that three of Vincenzo's men were swiftly overtaking them. Within a hundred yards the chase was over.
One of the natives flung himself at Frank in a flying tackle and brought him down. Another leaped at Joe when he stopped to help his brother. A third presented a rifle at Yaqui's head and ordered him to surrender.
The Hardys struggled vigorously, but they were no match for the natives. In a few moments they were led ingloriously back to camp and brought before Pedro Vincenzo, who glared at them malevolently.
"Didn't I warn you of what would happen if you tried to escape?" he snarled. "Didn't I say you'd be branded?"
"I think you have enough trouble on your hands without worrying about us," Frank reminded him. "Tremmer seems to have turned the tables on you pretty neatly."
Vincenzo flushed darkly. He had only about half a dozen natives at his disposal, all the others having gone across the river to Elmer Tremmer's side. He knew that he could not even bank strongly on the loyalty of those who had remained. It was only too true that the fugitive bookkeeper had turned the tables on him. He was beaten, and he knew it.
"The natives are fools," he growled. "What can Tremmer do for them? They're crazy to listen to the fellow."
"They didn't have much sense when they listened to your promises, either," chirped Joe.
"That's enough!" snapped Vincenzo in an angry voice. Then he turned and called out in a loud tone, "Come back, Tremmer! Let's talk this over."
But Elmer Tremmer, now that he was out of Vincenzo's power for the moment, seemed to have gained new courage. He was standing on the opposite river bank in the attitude of a man who has won an unexpected victory, and has not yet decided how to proceed.
"If there's any talking to be done," he called back, "I'll do it!"
"That's right, Mr. Tremmer!" cheered Joe, "Don't let him bluff you."
Vincenzo silenced the boy with a look.
"What do you want, then?" he called back to Tremmer. "What are your terms?"
"I want my freedom!"
"But you are free," cried Vincenzo. "You've always been free. Haven't I treated you well ever since we left the States?"
"I've been no better than a prisoner, and you know it," Tremmer answered. "You're afraid to let me out of your sight for fear I'll go home."
"Send my men over to me," Vincenzo shouted, "and you can go wherever you wish."
But Tremmer was not to be trapped by this promise.
"Then you'd put them on my trail and have me brought back," he answered. "No, that won't do. I'll make a bargain with you."
"What's your bargain?"
"I know where Fenton Hardy is and I can turn him over to you," came the astonishing reply.
Frank and Joe gasped with amazement.
''The detective!'' shouted Vincenzo.
It was evident that he found the bookkeeper's statement hard to believe.
"Let me go and you can have him," the other declared.
The Hardy boys did not know what to think of Tremmer's extraordinary proposal. At first they felt the man was just bluffing, and bargaining for his own safety. On second thought, however, they saw that Tremmer could not hope to win release by a bluff alone. He would have to make good, otherwise Vincenzo would follow him.
"If you know where Fenton Hardy is," cried Vincenzo, "produce him. If you send him here you won't be followed. If you fail, I'll hound you to your death! And I'll brand these innocent countrymen of yours. These Hardy boys!"
Tremmer spoke to some of the natives. Three of them struck out into the bush along the river bank, and a few minutes later appeared on a high level, making their way up the opposite wall of the canon. Then Tremmer himself, accompanied by another native, set out behind them.
"Remember!" shouted Vincenzo. "If Hardy isn't in this camp within an hour I'll be on your trail."
As the boys watched Tremmer slowly make his way up the canon wall their hearts sank. They had found the missing witness, only to lose him again. Their mission had failed completely.
Their own plight was worse than it had ever been, for it was certain that if Fenton Hardy should not appear Vincenzo would wreak vengeance as he had threatened. Moreover, it was impossible now for the lads to try to escape. They must wait in case their father should come. Every chance to foil Vincenzo had been cut off.
"Every chance but one," said Frank to himself.
Then he whispered his idea to Joe and the latter shook his head in agreement.
Together they looked around for Yaqui, who during the talk had become separated from them. While Pedro was addressing the men on the opposite shore, evidently exhorting them to return to his leadership, the Hardy boys found their Indian guide.
"Yaqui," said Frank, "we mustn't lose Tremmer. My brother and I do not dare leave here because our father may come."
"Do you think," asked Joe excitedly, "that you could slip away and follow Tremmer?"
The Indian glanced around and nodded. The boys grasped his hands in thankful appreciation. As he moved off, Frank gave him a final instruction which Joe could not hear.
The latter knew, however, that his brother was very much like his father, and never missed an opportunity to work out a problem down to the slightest detail.
A moment later Yaqui mixed unobtrusively with the few men nearby. Then the Hardy boys saw him make his way slowly and quietly down the river bank. He vanished around a bend in the stream.
Shortly thereafter they saw a head appear above the surface of the water some distance down the stream. The Indian was swimming across the river. If any of the natives saw him they did not cry out, perhaps thinking that it was one of their own number deserting from Vincenzo's ranks. Frank and Joe saw a sleek brown body emerge from the water and vanish swiftly into the undergrowth. Yaqui was. on Elmer Tremmer's trail.
Vincenzo was not successful in persuading the deserters to return. In spite of all his arguments the natives decided to wait a while. They wanted to know if Tremmer would keep his word and send the white man back to Vincenzo.
"Take those boys to the cave," snarled Vincenzo suddenly. He was in a bad temper. "See that they're well guarded. If Tremmer doesn't keep his promise I'll make them suffer for it."
It was then that the outlaw noted the absence of Yaqui.
"Where's that other fellow?" he demanded. "Where's the Indian?"
The Hour of Suspense
The guards looked around blankly for Yaqui. Vincenzo was furious.
"He escaped! Right under your noses! Look for him. Bring him back."
The natives scattered and made a great pre-tense of conducting an industrious search for the fugitive, yet they had not the faintest idea where to look. Frank and Joe were hastily bundled off to their cave, where an armed guard took his place in front of the entrance.
"I'll bet Tremmer won't get very far out of Yaqui's sight," said Joe after a time.
"Do you think Tremmer really knows where Dad is?" ventured Frank.
"If he does, it will be easy enough for him to send our father straight into a trap. He'll tell him where we are, and when he comes for us Vincenzo will be here to capture him."
"And in the meantime Tremmer will be legging it away to goodness knows where."
"Was Tremmer lying? That is the question," said Joe anxiously.
"He didn't have enough imagination to think np a story like that," Frank decided. "That's why I believe there is something to his claim that he knows Dad's whereabouts."
"Vincenzo gave him an hour. He didn't say he would need more time. If Dad is in this part of the country at all he can't be far away."
A little dog just then came scampering up to the mouth of the cave, nosed suspiciously about the feet of the guard, and poked an inquisitive head into the entrance. It was a Mexican hairless, of the same breed as the dog Vincenzo had given the boarding house keeper in Bayport.
"We promised we'd try to get Mrs. Smith another dog," said Joe, trying to appear calm, although his spirits were in a turmoil.
He whistled softly, and the little animal ventured inside. It was very shy, however, and when Joe tried to pat its head the dog drew back quickly.
"I'd like to collar that pup and take it home with me," Joe said.
"If we ever get there," Frank reminded him mournfully.
His brother crept toward the animal, but it suddenly retreated and began capering around the cave entrance, barking furiously. Again and again Joe tried to coax it back.
Finally he conquered its fears, and the dog crept forward again until Joe was able to scratch its head. A moment later it licked the boy's face and snuggled up in his arms.
"Well, young fellow," said the eager boy, "if I ever get back to Bayport once more, you'll come with me."
"Its owner may have something to say about that," Frank observed.
Just then a shadow crossed the entrance to the cave. The boys looked up to see a girl peering in at them. She was a dark-skinned, gypsy-like young creature with big eyes.
"Pepita!" she cried when she saw the dog. "Pepita!"
"Your dog?" asked Joe, disappointed.
The girl nodded. The guard looked on with interest.
As the young woman came closer Frank and Joe noted something that horrified them. In the center of the girl's forehead, plainly visible, was an ugly mark.
It was a brand–the symbol P which they had seen before–burned into her flesh!
The Mexican maid was trying as best she could to coax the pup to come to her, but the independent little animal seemed to prefer to stay with its new friends.
"Look here," cried Frank. "How did you get that mark on your forehead?"
The girl was puzzled. She did not understand. Frank leaned forward and lightly touched the branded symbol. A look of terror crossed her face. She glanced over her shoulder as if fearful of being overheard.
"Eet was Pedro," she whispered.
"He branded you!" Joe exclaimed in horror.
Although she did not understand his words she gathered their meaning. The girl nodded slowly.
"Pedro–not please with me," she answered.
Then she shrugged and gestured toward the mark again.
"He branded you because he was angry with you?" Joe asked.
The girl nodded her head vigorously. Then she called to the dog again, trying to coax it away from the boys.
"So that's the sort of fellow Pedro Vincenzo is," muttered Frank indignantly.
The boys knew then that Pedro's promise to brand them if Tremmer did not keep his bargain was no empty threat.
By signs with his hands Joe tried to make the girl understand that he would like to keep the dog.
"I'll buy him from you," he said. Then his face fell. "I forgot. The bandits took all our money."
The girl spoke sharply to the dog in Spanish.
The animal reluctantly moved toward her. Joe suddenly thought of the strange bracelet he had discovered on the floor of the other cave. He took it from his pocket and held it out to the girl, at the same time pointing at the dog.
The girl exclaimed with delight when she saw the piece of jewelry. She reached for it shyly, slipped it over her arm, and gazed at it with shining eyes. Again Joe pointed to the dog, making signs to indicate that he wished to make an exchange.
The girl understood. She did not try to coax the animal to come to her any more. Admiring the bracelet, she withdrew from the cave and slipped away.
"Come back, pup," said Joe to the dog. "You belong to us now."
The animal was quite willing. He seemed to understand and frisked about the boys, barking happily as if to show his appreciation.
"All we have to worry about now," Frank remarked, "is how we are going to get him back to Bayport."
Even the antics of the dog, however, could not relieve the suspense they were enduring. If their father should not appear in the camp by the end of the hour, Vincenzo would certainly wreak vengeance upon them. And if he did appear, what then? Fenton Hardy would be unable to aid them, and the torture of the Fire Ceremony might be carried out just the same.
Frank looked at his wrist watch.
"Fifteen minutes," he said quietly.
The brand they had seen on the girl's forehead told them that they could expect no mercy from their captor. Pedro Vincenzo was cruel and relentless. He would carry out his threat.
Frank got up and went over to the mouth of the cave. Some of the natives were coming back from the other side of the river, and as they arrived he could hear Vincenzo arguing with them.
Suddenly a great shout went up.
One of the tribesmen ran up to Vincenzo and grasped him by the arm, at the same time pointing to the wall of the canon that rose high from the opposite bank of the stream. Frank gasped.
At the top of a narrow trail, meandering up the side of the wall, he saw three figures. Two of them were natives. The other one was a white man!
Was the latter Fenton Hardy?
Frank could not distinguish the form very plainly at that distance.
"Joe!" he called. "Come here, quick!"
Joe leaped up and ran to his brother's side the dog leaping gaily at his heels.
Vincenzo and the natives were silent. They were watching the three figures beginning the difficult descent down the steep wall of the canon.
"It's Dad!" exclaimed Joe.
"I'm not sure yet. Perhaps it's Tremmer, coming back."
"No, he isn't dressed like Tremmer."
Suspense gripped the lads as they watched the three men slowly making their way down a trail. Even when the trio finally reached the base of the cliff, the boys were unable to learn for certain if the newcomer was really Fenton Hardy.
The three men got into one of the dugout canoes and began to paddle across the stream. From the actions of the deserters, who immediately made preparations to return, the boys were convinced now that Tremmer had somehow kept his promise.
At last the canoe reached shore, and one of the natives leaped out. He was followed by a white man. Joe and Frank uttered a simultaneous groan of despair.
"Dad, oh, Dad!"
It was indeed Fenton Hardy!
How had Tremmer learned of the detective's whereabouts? How had he lured Mr. Hardy so easily into Pedro Vincenzo's trap?
As the boys watched closely, they could see Pedro step forward. He gave a curt order to the natives at his side.
Instantly those strong men flung themselves on the detective and pinioned his arms behind his back.
Fenton Hardy was now a prisoner, as well as his sons!
Plans for Escape
Fenton Hardy was the sort of man who could accept apparent defeat with a smile. When he was brought to the cave where his sons were imprisoned, he wasted no time bemoaning his luck. He greeted the boys warmly.
"We don't seem to be having much success in Mexico," he said. "I thought I was walking into a trap when those natives told me I would find you here, but I had to come."
Pedro Vincenzo, who had come up the trail behind the men guarding Fenton Hardy, laughed triumphantly.
"You bit off more than you could chew when you thought you could beat me," he said. "You may be a smart man in the States, Hardy, but you're mighty small down here."
"I'm not through yet," replied Fenton Hardy significantly.
"You're through, all right, but you don't know it. You and your boys." Vincenzo put his hands on his hips and showed his teeth in a wicked grin. "I'm sorry to see Tremmer get away from me–"
"Tremmer!" exclaimed Mr. Hardy in surprise.
"Yes, Tremmer," snarled Vincenzo. "The man you wanted to complete the case against the Bio Oil people. You didn't know I had him here, eh? Well, you won't take him back with you to give evidence."
Fenton Hardy glanced at his sons.
"Is this true?" he asked quietly. "Was Tremmer in this place?"
"Yes," replied Frank. "He escaped an hour ago."
"Two natives came to my camp beyond the gorge and told me they could show me where my sons were held captive," explained Mr. Hardy. "I came with them–and here I am. I suppose that was Tremmer's work."
So Pedro had not known of the whereabouts of the boys' father!
"We made a little deal," said Vincenzo. "He said he would see that you came here if I let him go. I didn't believe him. Even yet I cannot figure how he knew you were nearby. But he kept his word and I'll keep mine. I've frightened that fool so that he'll never set foot on American soil again."
Frank and Joe said nothing. Their best chance of escape, they were aware, lay in making Pedro believe that they were submissive. Fenton Hardy evidently had the same thought in his mind, for he said:
"All right, Vineenzo. You win. You're too smart for us. What do you intend to do with us now?"
"That remains to be seen," replied the outlaw. "Now that the natives have come back to me they feel I ought to give them a little entertainment. Perhaps the Ceremony of the Fire will please." He laughed maliciously. ''The three of you will look handsome returning to Bayport branded on your foreheads–a little souvenir of your visit to Mexico."