A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE

Despite their position, Nattie and Mori were compelled to laugh. And
from within came a hoarse burst of merriment that fairly shook the air.

“Ha, ha! ho, ho! Look at the monkeys, will ye! Watch them run at the
sound of a shot. Worra! Patrick Cronin, did ye live to see the day when
forty men would scoot from the sight of yer face?”

The fellow’s taunts were cut short in a manner unpleasant to his
feelings. While he was dancing about inside, crowing over his victory,
Mori crept behind his shelter and let drive with his pistol. The bullet
cut a hole in Patrick’s sleeve, and sent him backward in hot haste.

Seeing their advantage, both Nattie and the young Japanese darted across
the drawbridge, reaching the shelter of the forest without mishap. There
they were joined by Sumo, who appeared thoroughly discomfited.

“I thought they would fight, masters,” he explained. “But it seems they
would rather work in the paddy fields than face firearms. We are not all
like that. If you wish, I will face that red-bearded foreigner myself,
and I’ll cut his comb for him, too.”

“That is not necessary, Sumo,” replied Nattie, with a smile. “We know
you are brave, but we won’t put you to such a test. A man’s strength is
as nothing before a leaden bullet.”

“One good thing,” said Mori, “we are away from that trap on the
drawbridge. Now we must arrange to capture the scoundrels. Sumo, who is
a good man to send to the nearest town for police?”

The porter recommended one of the _karumayas_, and the fellow was
immediately dispatched on a run with a written message to the chief
official of the province. This matter attended to, Nattie and the young
Japanese enlisted the services of a part of Sumo’s former forces and
established a line of spies around the land side of the castle.

Several natives were sent to a small village on the shore of the lake
for boats, then the two youthful commanders established themselves
within hailing distance of the castle entrance. They could see Patrick
pacing up and down, still alert.

Nattie waved his white handkerchief as a flag of truce, and hailed him.

“What do yez want?” growled the fellow, angrily.

“Tell Ralph Black to come to the door.”

“Not Oi. Oi’m no sarvant for the likes of yez.”

“But I wish to speak with him, fool. It will be to his interest,
probably.”

“I am here,” suddenly replied a voice, and the merchant’s son showed
himself through the portcullis. “What have you to say, Nattie Manning?”

“I want to tell you that you will save time and trouble by surrendering
my brother.”

“You don’t say!” sneered Ralph. “And suppose we don’t look at it in that
light?”

“You are a fool, that’s all.”

“It is easy to call names out there.”

“It would be still easier if I had you here.”

“Let me explain matters a little, Ralph,” spoke up Mori, quietly. “You
are in a bad box, and you know it. You and your father have committed a
serious crime against the law by abducting Grant, and you will suffer
for it.”

“That’s our lookout,” was the reckless reply.

“We have arranged matters so that you cannot hope to escape,” continued
the young Japanese. “We have sent a messenger to the authorities, and in
the course of a few hours a force of police will come to our assistance.
It will then be an easy matter to capture you.”

“You think so?”

“We know it to be so.”

“Don’t be too sure, John.”

Now, if there is anything on earth that will anger a native of Japan, it
is the appellation “John.” It places them on the same level with the
Chinamen in America, who conduct the familiar and omnipresent laundry,
and, look you, the Japanese rightly consider themselves much above their
brother Asiatics.

Mori felt the insult keenly, but he was too much of a gentleman to
retort in kind. Nattie–hot-tempered, impulsive lad–could not restrain
himself.

“You cowardly brute!” he shouted, shaking his fist at Ralph. “I’d give
half of what I expect to own on this earth to have you before me for
five minutes.”

The merchant’s son paled with anger, but he discreetly ignored the
challenge.

“What would you do, blowhard?” he blustered. “You think yourself
something, but I can bring even you to your knees.”

“We will see about that when the officers of the law arrive,” replied
Nattie, grimly.

“As I said before, don’t be too sure. I have not played all my cards.”

Mori and Nattie exchanged glances. What could the fellow mean? Ralph
speedily informed them.

“Do you think I would tamely submit to arrest and go from here with the
certain knowledge that my destination would be a long term in a prison?”
he snarled. “Do you think I am a fool? I have a safeguard here in the
person of your puny, crippled brother.”

Again Mori and Nattie asked themselves what the fellow meant. Was it
possible he would be villain enough to resort to personal violence. The
younger Manning paled at the very thought.

“What would you do?” he called out, and his voice was unsteady.

Ralph laughed, triumphantly.

“I see I have touched the right spot,” he replied. “I’ll tell you in a
very few words. If you do not permit us to go free from here and give
your solemn promise–I guess you had better put it in writing–that you
will not molest us for this, and also that you will withdraw from the
competition for those army contracts, I’ll kill Grant Manning with my
own hands.”

Nattie was very white when the English youth finished. His worst fears
were realized. That Ralph meant what he said he firmly believed. Not so
Mori.

“Don’t pay any attention to his threats,” whispered the latter. “He is
only trying what you Americans call a ‘bluff.’ He wouldn’t dare do any
such thing. He thinks too much of his own neck, the precious scoundrel.”

As if in refutation of his opinion, Ralph called out in determined
tones:

“I mean what I say. I would rather hang than live ten or fifteen years
in prison. I leave it to you. You can take your choice. I will give you
ten minutes to make up your minds, and if, at the end of that time, you
do not agree to my terms it’ll be the last of your brother.”

“Come away where we can talk without being under the eye of that
miserable villain,” said Mori, gravely.

“Wait; I wish to try a last chance,” replied Nattie. He added in a loud
voice: “In the castle, there. Willis Round, Cronin, do you intend to
abide by Ralph Black’s murderous proposition?”

“That Oi do, and if he’d take my advice, he’d kill th’ lot of yez,”
instantly replied the Irishman.

The ex-bookkeeper’s answer was longer in coming, and it was not so
emphatic, but it was to the same effect. Nattie was turning away sadly
when he heard Grant’s familiar voice saying, resolutely:

“Do not give in, brother. Wait for the police, and you can capture them.
Ralph won’t—-”

The sentence remained unfinished. The speaker’s captors had evidently
interposed with effect. Nattie and Mori walked sadly to the edge of the
forest. They left Sumo in front of the entrance on watch.

“There isn’t any use talking about it,” said the former. “We must agree
to his terms. I wouldn’t have a hair of Grant’s head harmed for all the
contracts on earth. True, he may be lying, but it is better to run no
risks. What do you think about it?”

“I believe you are right. We will permit them to go free, but we’ll wait
until the expiration of the time mentioned. Perhaps something will turn
up. I hate to see that scoundrel and his mates crowing over us.”

“I have known Ralph Black a great many years, but I never thought he
would prove to be such a thoroughly heartless and desperate villain. As
a boy he was headstrong and willful. He delighted in cruelty to animals,
and was brutal to those weaker than himself, but I little dreamed he
would come to this.”

“The boy was father to the man,” replied Mori, philosophically. “He had
it in him from birth. It is hereditary; see what his father is. Well,
the time is almost up, and we might as well go and confess ourselves
beaten. Ugh! it is a bitter pill to swallow.”

On rejoining Sumo they found that worthy moving uneasily about in front
of the entrance. They saw also that the space behind the portcullis was
empty. The tramping of horses came from within, but there were no signs
of Ralph or his companions.

“Where in the deuce have they gone?” exclaimed Nattie, anxiously.

“I do not know, excellency,” replied the porter. “The funny man with the
fire hair and the youth went away from the door a few minutes ago. The
tall, thin man, ran up to them and said something in a voice full of
joy, then they all disappeared.”

“Something is up,” exclaimed Mori, then he hailed the castle in a loud
voice. There was no reply. Nattie repeated the summons, but with the
same result. Now thoroughly alarmed, he and the young Japanese advanced
to the portcullis and beat upon it with their weapons.

An echoing sound came from the gloomy interior, but that was all. Sumo
was instantly bidden to bring men with axes, and others were sent along
the shore of the lake to see if an attempt at escape had been made.

In due time the barrier at the entrance was broken away, and the two
lads, followed by their native allies, rushed past into the ruins. Over
in one corner of what had been the main yard were five horses tethered
to several posts. Stores and articles of clothing were scattered about,
but of the fugitive party there was no sign.

A hasty search was made of the different apartments; the remains of the
roof were examined; the outer walls inspected, but at last Nattie and
his companions were compelled to acknowledge themselves baffled. The
entire party, prisoner and all, had mysteriously disappeared.