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CHAPTER VII SACKETT’S RAID
They galloped down the long sloping hill rapidly, unobserved by the two men who were entering the Mercedes ranch. The second man had leaped lightly in the window and disappeared from sight. It was evident that they feared no interruptions for they did not even glance out and the party of boys arrived in the yard without having warned the men of their coming.

But once in the yard the ring of the horses’ hoofs on the hard packed soil reached the ears of the men inside the house. Two heads appeared swiftly at the window, at the same time that a candle flickered upstairs. The men, seeing the party of boys, jumped from the window with one accord.

“Sackett and Abel!” cried Don, as he jumped from his horse.
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All the boys had dismounted, which was precisely the wrong thing to do, for the two men began to run swiftly for a small patch of trees and bushes which stood at the edge of the senorita’s property. Ned rushed forward and seized Sackett, who promptly felled him with a blow on the chin, while Abel kept on going and entered the grove several yards ahead of his pursuers. Sackett soon joined him, and before Terry, who was in the lead, could reach him, he had joined Abel, who was already on horseback with a second rein in his hand. Sackett tumbled into the saddle and the two men thundered away across the plains.

“Shall we go after them?” shouted Jim, as the senorita appeared on an upper balcony.

“No,” cried Ned. “They have too big a start, and I want to find out what they were doing here.”

Somewhat reluctantly the boys turned away, while the two outlaws put greater distance between themselves and the ranch party. The senorita, recognizing Ned in the moonlight, hurried back to her room and soon appeared at the side door of the ranch house.

“Senor Ned, what is it?” she called, and the boys were attracted by her soft and gentle voice.

Ned and the boys walked to the steps, taking off their hats, and Ned spoke up. “We were riding by at a distance, senorita, and we paused to look down at your ranch. While we were looking these two men that just rode away broke in a side window and entered the house.”
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Ned then went on to introduce his friends, to whom the senorita bowed with a stately grace. They were quite taken with her beauty and charm, her fine olive skin and her flashing black eyes. She drew their admiration, for she was not the least bit terror stricken by what had happened, but only thoughtful and puzzled.

“In the library you say, Senor Ned?” she puzzled. “But why do you think they should want to go in my library? What is it that is in there?”

She spoke remarkably good English, with only a slight accent. Ned shook his head.

“Senorita, I do not know. May we inspect your library and see if anything is missing?”

“Certainly. Do come right in, and welcome,” she replied, and led the way into the small library of the Mercedes ranch.

It was a square room filled with books, in cases reaching to the ceiling. A single table was there, and two comfortable chairs. Upon examination the boys found that a few books, in a section which was filled with ancient, hand-written manuscripts, had been handled by the men.

“It is evident that those fellows were about to steal some of your valuable manuscripts, senorita,” remarked Ned, after they had made an examination.

“Yes,” nodded the girl. “But I wonder how those men knew that I had any books?”
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“I’m very much afraid you are wrong in your ideas,” spoke up Don, who had been considering deeply. And Jim nodded, for his ideas were running along the same lines of those of his brother.

“What do you mean, Don?” asked Ned, quickly.

“You remember that your father was attacked in San Francisco by this man Sackett, who took away your letter to him? Well, that letter contained your ideas about the treasure and that ancient book which came from this library. Those men are taking that matter seriously, and they have been here tonight to try and find the other half of that Spanish manuscript and learn the exact location of the wreck!”

“Ah, ha!” cried Senorita Mercedes sharply. “The senor is right!”

“I certainly believe that you are!” cried Ned. “I had never thought of it all in that light, but that is surely the answer. Sackett is a freebooter who will turn his hand to anything that promises profit, and he has done as you say, taken that letter seriously. I wish it had never fallen into his hands. However, with all of his knowledge of the country, and I suppose he has quite a knowledge of the land, he doesn’t know where the treasure is, so we are safe on that point.”

“Yes,” put in Terry. “But we’ll have to be on our guard from now on. There is no doubt that that gang will push the search with all vigor.”
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“They seem to have faith in the story,” said Ned. “I have unlimited faith in it because I have seen the manuscript, but they are placing their faith in my letter to my father. There is only one weak spot in my claim of thought.”

“What is that?” asked Jim.

“That the treasure may have been found and removed since that book was written. The priest who wrote the book was going to raise a party to go back and recover the treasure, but whether he did or not is not known. He may have done so, in which case our efforts and plans are absolutely useless.”

“Of course,” nodded Don. He turned to the senorita. “Senorita Mercedes, you do not know how that book ever came to be in your house, do you?”

“No,” confessed the girl. “As far as I have knowledge, senor, it has quite always been here. But I can say this, which will perhaps aid you: before my family came here to dwell we lived in Mexico. You see what I mean?”

“I do,” nodded Ned. “You mean that this priest may at one time have lodged at your house and have left his book there?”

“He may have even died there, Senor Ned.”

“That is very true. I lean to the belief that the treasure was never recovered. Well, there are two parties after it now, so we will have to be on our guard.”
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Terry, who had walked to the window, spoke up. He had been examining the double windows, which opened like doors, with hinges on each side.

“Do you keep your windows locked at night, senorita?” he asked.

“Of a certainty, senor,” she replied.

“I was just wondering,” said Terry, slowly. “Because these two fellows just reached up and pushed the window open.”

“Impossible, Senor Mackson! You may see that there is a much thick bar across that window.”

“Yes, so I notice. But all of the boys will tell you that they simply reached up and pushed the window open, and that they didn’t have a thing in their hands when they did it!”

“That’s so,” exclaimed Ned, a sudden light breaking over him. “Senorita, where is Alaroze, your overseer? How is it that he has not appeared during all of the excitement? The rest of your men are outside; I can see them gathered in the courtyard.”

“I do not know,” answered the senorita, “I shall call him at once.” She stepped to the door and clapped her small hands sharply.

There was a slight pause and then a man entered the room quickly. He was small and chunky, with a brown face and shifty eyes. He was fully dressed in the nondescript outfit of a ranch foreman.
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“Senor Alaroze, where have you been?” the senorita asked him in Spanish, which the boys understood slightly. They had studied the language in high school, all except Terry, and they could follow the conversation.

“A thousand pardons, senorita, but I was awakened by the noise and hastened to dress,” the Mexican said, softly.

“It took you much time, senor,” retorted the senorita, curtly. “Tell me, when you closed up did you lock this library window?”

“Surely, senorita. I take pains to always carry out faithfully the tasks intrusted to me,” he replied, his tone becoming haughty.

“The reason we ask you, Senor Alaroze,” said Ned, still in Spanish, “is because two rascals have just broken into the house and have searched this library. But the strange part is that they did not even have to break in. They simply reached up and pushed the window and it opened under their touch. That does not look as though they found the window barred, does it?”

“I can only say that I dropped the bar across the window before I retired, senor,” replied the overseer, his lips moving uneasily. “Perhaps someone else——”
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“Nonsense!” cried Ned, sharply. “The senorita is the only one who sleeps in the house. You and the ranchmen sleep in the bunkhouse. You do not think for a minute that Senorita Mercedes came down and took the bar from the window do you?”

“I regret to say that I do not know what to think, senor,” returned the overseer, quietly enough. The other boys watched him closely, puzzled at his calm and speculating as to what thoughts might be in his mind.

“Well, it is very strange,” remarked Ned, closing the window and dropping the bar in place. When he spoke there was a trace of gloom in his voice, especially when he addressed the overseer. “Be more careful in the future, Senor Alaroze. You alone have the keeping of Senorita Mercedes and her safety.”

“I am worthy of the trust, senor,” retorted the overseer, his eyes narrowing.

Ned looked at his watch. “We’ll have to be getting back, or dad will begin to be worried. I don’t think you will have any more trouble, senorita. If you do, send one of your men to me and I will come as quickly as possible.”

The senorita murmured thanks and accompanied them to the courtyard, where the boys swung onto their mounts. The three ranchmen, seeing that all was well, went back to the bunkhouse, while the overseer, his face hidden in the shadow of the doorway, stood back of the senorita.
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She bade them goodbye, thanking them once more. The boys quietly overlooked the fact that she held onto Ned’s hand for a moment longer than seemed actually necessary. They rode away, looking back more than once at the gleaming white ranch in the moonlight, until it was lost to sight.

“I’m very much afraid I don’t trust that overseer,” said Don.

“Well,” said Ned. “So far he has been very good in the management of the ranch. I wonder if he can be in league with that Sackett gang?”

“Hard to tell,” said Terry. “I don’t like the thought of the senorita living alone with that fellow around, and not a woman for miles.”

There was a pause, and then: “I don’t like it, either,” spoke Ned, frankly. “But she claims that she is not afraid. She goes armed all the time and is very determined to be a success at raising cattle and caring for herself. Pride, you know, is something that the Spanish are great for, and I’m afraid she has more than her share. However, sometime——”

He did not finish his thought, but the boys thought that they knew what he had in mind. They arrived at the ranch in silence and relieved the professor’s anxiety.



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