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CHAPTER XX THE TAR BARREL
Jim and Terry looked helplessly at the Mexican overseer as he faced them with levelled rifle and the cool assurance that he would kill them to keep the treasure from the galleon for himself. They tried to believe that he was only joking, but from the set on his face and the glint in his eyes they knew better. All too often in the history of gold hunting and discovery had the discoverers paid for it with their lives, so that someone else could reap the reward.

“But why should you wish to kill us, senor?” Jim asked in Spanish. “Have not we agreed to see that you have a large share in it?”

“How do I know that you will keep your word to me?” the Mexican answered.

“Well, I like that!” cried Jim. “We know how to keep our word, Senor Alaroze!”

“What of it?” returned the overseer, with a slight shrug. “Why should I not have all of it instead of a small part?”
192

“Oh, well, if you feel that way about it,” said Jim, turning pale.

While Jim had been talking Terry had been doing some rapid thinking. They were standing close to the man, and the extended muzzle of the rifle was within easy reach. Any kind of motion toward it would be sure to be disastrous, and Terry knew it. There was one thing needed and Terry did it. With great coolness, a feeling which he was far from possessing, he looked over the shoulder of the overseer.

“Well,” he said, carelessly. “I guess neither of us will get the treasure. Here comes Sackett and his party.”

He used just the right amount of conviction in his tones and he won. Jim looked away over the Mexican’s shoulder and was fooled as completely as the overseer. With a muttered imprecation the man turned his head slightly to see who was back of him. That motion was his undoing. Quick as a flash Terry’s foot came up in a splendid football kick that sent the rifle flying upward. Before the astonished ranchman could move the red-headed boy flung himself on him and punched him a hard wallop on the stomach. With a groan the Mexican sank to the ground.
193

“Bully for you, Chucklehead!” cried Jim, springing forward and securing the gun. “Now we have this fellow where we want him!”

They dragged the crestfallen Mexican to his feet and tied his hands behind him with a piece of cord which they had originally tied their clothes to the spars with. He groaned and moaned and begged them to show mercy to him. Terry became impatient.

“Shut up!” he ordered, savagely. “If I hadn’t done that our two bodies would have been lying here right this minute, and here you are crying your head off for mercy! You’re getting a whole lot better than you deserve right now, let me tell you. Don’t howl until you get back to the ranch, then we’ll give you something to howl about.”

Still dazed at their terrible peril the boys started on the journey, placing the cowardly overseer on the horse and following close behind. When darkness came down they made camp, fed the captive without speaking with him, and then made camp for the night, resolving to take turns at keeping watch.

“We can’t let this snake get loose again,” warned Jim. “If he ever gets away, good night!”

“That was the luckiest break we ever had,” said Terry. “If he had been standing any further away I never could have done it.”
194

Jim took the first watch and Terry the second, during which time the Mexican seemed to sleep calmly. His hands had been untied, so they covered him with the rifle and kept unwavering eyes upon him. In the morning the march was resumed and late in the afternoon they approached the ranch of the Senorita Mercedes.

The senorita was the first to approach and she expressed amazement at the strange sight which they presented as they walked down into the ranch yard. Jim related the story to her and she was deeply interested. Turning to the sullen foreman she upbraided him furiously in Spanish and turned back to the boys.

“He did not go away to look for stray cattle,” she said. “None of my cattle have strayed. I do not know why he left me, but I think he is part of that wicked Sackett band. I think he was only kind to you so he could place you in that man’s hands.”

“By George, I’ll bet that is right!” exclaimed Jim, and Terry nodded.

“Put him in that small shed,” directed the senorita, pointing to a little building which stood at the edge of the ranch yard. “Then come to the house and rest and eat.”
195

Quite willingly the two boys locked the silent prisoner in the little shed and returned to the ranch house. The energetic little senorita had hot water, soap and towels laid out for them, and they fairly revelled in the washing process.

“When I was a kid,” grinned Terry, “I loved to have a dirty face, but now I know just what luxury it is to feel clean again.”

“Hope I don’t break this comb of the senorita’s trying to comb my tangled hair,” grunted Jim. “I can’t honestly say that we are any beauties to appear at the table of the young lady.”

When they sat down with the youthful and beautiful owner of the little ranch to eat she said: “My men are at present eating, but as soon as they have finished I shall send one of them to Ned’s ranch for your friends.”

“That is very kind of you, Senorita,” murmured Jim, as he ate ravenously.

“Nonsense!” laughed the girl, tossing her head. “You have been through such thrilling adventures of late! Tell me more about them.”

As Jim knew more Spanish than Terry it fell to him to relate the experiences of the past few days. They were lingering over their coffee when an excited ranchman burst into the room. All three at the table rose quickly and the man poured something out in some unknown dialect.
196

“Ride immediately to the Scott ranch for help!” commanded the senorita, growing pale.

“Alas, senorita, the house is surrounded, I cannot go,” said the man, in Spanish.

“What, is the house surrounded?” asked Jim, quickly.

“Yes,” answered the senorita, rapidly. “This man tells me that Sackett and three men rode down, let Alaroze out, and are creeping to the house. Fly to the doors, quickly!”

Flying was necessary. Terry and Jim hurled the main door of the ranch house shut just in time to keep Sackett and Abel from rushing it. Rapidly, under the direction of the girl, they closed all windows and drew the blinds. Then she gave them each a rifle and took one herself.

“We must watch diligently,” she said, her eyes shining. “They will try to burst in and we must keep them off.”

A shot rang out and a bullet crashed through the front door. Feeling that they would be attacked from more than one side they separated, Jim going to the front of the house and Terry and the senorita keeping watch on the sides. Several shots were fired, all of which did no harm.
197

It was now very dark and their peril was increased. A concerted rush might blast their hopes and Jim in particular was worried. It would be bad enough to have to surrender to Sackett’s gang, but it would be far worse to have the dainty senorita fall into their hands. He set his teeth and determined that it should not happen. There was complete silence outside, a silence that was not reassuring.

Jim went to the girl where she was crouching beside a window, peering out into the darkness of the yard. He knelt down beside her.

“Is it possible that one of your men could have slipped away to Ned’s ranch?” he asked.

“I am sorry to say no, senor. My man tells me that they were all penned up in their bunkhouse. There is no way we can let our friends know of our danger.”

“I see. They couldn’t see a light from the top of the ranch, could they?”

“No, the hills are too high. We must fight these men off until morning and then see what we can do.”

“If we could only attract Ned’s attention someway,” said Jim. “Watch out, senorita!”

He fairly dragged her away from the window as a shot tore in through the glass and the blinds. She shook him off, but kept away from the exposed part.
198

“There is nothing—Ah, the tar barrel!” she exclaimed.

“Where is there a tar barrel?” asked Jim, quickly, as Terry fired his rifle out of another window.

“You see that hill?” asked the senorita, pointing to a low mound back of the ranch. “On top of that hill is a barrel which is half full of tar. I have been using it to repair my roofs, and it is half full. If that could only be lighted they would see it at Ned’s ranch.”

“That’s fine!” cried Jim. “I’ll light that tar barrel myself!”

“Senor, you will be killed!”

“Maybe!” said Jim, grimly. “But I’ll start that bonfire, anyway!”

He related his plan to Terry, who warmly assented, and a little later Jim worked his way to a side of the house where there was no shooting. Senorita Mercedes wanted to send her ranchman out on the perilous venture but Jim had opposed it.

“No, I’ll go,” he said. “It means everything to have it succeed, and the man might get scared or bungle it in some way. Let me do it.”
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He opened a low window on the quiet side of the house, while Terry stood in the shadows, prepared to shoot down anyone who should loom up. Jim dropped out of the window and lay flat alongside of the house, and after a moment he raised his head. The attacking party was in the front and the rear of the house and he had not been seen. Terry closed the window and watched Jim slide forward along the ground toward the distant barn.

Fortunately the night was dark and Jim had a good opportunity. Using extreme care he reached the barn and then looked toward the hill where the tar barrel stood. The senorita had stood it on the hill because she was afraid of fire and thought it best to keep it away from the ranch building. Bending low Jim ran quickly toward the black barrel and reached it in safety.

Near the house he could see three shadows and he knew that they were Sackett’s men. They had not dreamed that anyone would be foolhardy enough to leave the building and so they waited for a favorable opportunity to rush the doors and break in. They had no intention of doing so as long as those three guns were flashing out viciously.
200

There were still three flashes from the house and Jim readily saw what had happened. Terry or the senorita had given the ranchman who had brought the news of the attack a gun and he was firing. Probably the attacking party thought Jim was still in the house. Lying flat on the ground Jim took a long piece of paper from his pocket and a box of matches. He placed the papers in the soft tar and lighted it.

The tar caught fire quickly, so quickly that Jim was bathed for a second in its light. He had made no plans for a retreat, and as the tar barrel burst into flames he was clearly revealed.

A shout arose from the men who were attacking the house and they sprang recklessly from cover and dashed toward him. This piece of carelessness cost them dearly, for the senorita and Terry each brought one man down with accurate shots in the legs. At the same time Jim sprinted for the corner of the barn and crouched there, his rifle held in readiness to bring down anyone who should attempt to put out the blazing beacon.

Higher and higher blazed the barrel with its cargo of tar, sending its light for several miles over the surrounding countryside. The outlaws had now rushed back to cover, to consider what move to make next.

“I surely hope the others are at Ned’s and that they see that light,” thought Jim fervently, as he waited in his position back of the barn.


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