"By water?" Driscoll repeated, glaring at Ney. "That poor little girl!—And make her sick again!"
Jacqueline's chin tilted. "Ma foi, monsieur, I was not sick."
Driscoll noted her fragile dainty person, and recalling his own experience, had grave doubts about the consistency of Nature. But this was apart. There was still the mystery of his having blundered into a business that somehow concerned the Emperor of Mexico. And it was a matter that must be set right.
"You say you are an officer," he demanded of the ranchero, "but your Greaser clothes, that's not a uniform?"
Uniforms were not necessarily a part of the contra-guerrilla service, said the Mexican; and besides, there might be reasons for a disguise. But as to his own identity, he reproduced the order signed by Colonel Dupin.
"Correct," said Driscoll, and handed back the paper.
"Now then," he added to Ney, "what do you say for yourself?"
Unconsciously the French soldier replied as to a superior officer. "I've just been transferred to the service of His Excellency, Marshal Bazaine, in the City of Mexico, and am on my way there now."
"You are in the French service?"
"Of course I am."
Here, in a caprice of kind heart, as well as of mischief, Jacqueline interposed. "Your sergeant, Monsieur the American, is the Duke of Elchingen." But she might have called Ney a genus homo, for all the impression it made.
"Too bad, sergeant," said Driscoll, "but a captain ranks first, you know, and—well, I reckon I'll have to change sides. I know it's tough," and his brow knitted with droll perplexity, "but I'm afraid we'll just have to do this thing all over again, unless—well, unless you give in, sergeant."
Jacqueline had been waxing more and more agog, and her boot had tapped impatiently. Now she gave way, and declared that it was too much. What, she demanded, had monsieur to do with the matter in the first place? Driscoll took off his slouch hat and ran his fingers through his hair to grope for an answer. It had never been brought to him before that fighting might be a private preserve. But his face cleared straightway. In this second skirmish, due momentarily, he would be a legitimate belligerent and not a trespasser, because since he had stumbled amuck of Maximilian's authority, another joust was needed to correct the first. It all depended on whether Miss—Miss—if the senorita—still wished to go by land.
"If monsieur will have the condescension," returned Jacqueline.
Then out came the brace of navies once more, as naturally as the order book of the grocer's clerk on your back porch. Involuntarily Ney reached for his cap.
"Now captain," said Driscoll.
Fra Diavolo took the cue instantly. "A-i, mis muchachos!" he called, and the little demons came hurrying back, like a damned host with a new hope of heaven.
If there were any police about, or had been, they were mysteriously indifferent. But Jacqueline did just as well. No one had thought to put her back in the cafe, and she promptly took a hand in the man's game.
"Michel Ney," she commanded, "do you hear me; lower that pistol!"
"You, you wish me to surrender, mademoiselle?"
"You know I don't! If anyone even asks it, I will go back to the ship with you, at once."
"But I, I don't understand."
"You understand that I want your escort overland. Is it gallant, then, to disappoint me by getting yourself killed?"
"But all your trunks are on the ship."
Jacqueline turned to her Fra Diavolo. He could answer that? To be sure he could, and he was honored. He suggested, with her permission, that she spend the night on shore, she and her maid, since the cafe was also a hotel. Meantime, the sailors could bring what she needed from the boat.
As he listened, Ney's slow thoughts came to a focus. And when Jacqueline turned to him again, he gave way graciously, which brought on him a sharp scrutiny from the ranchero. However, the truce between the two antagonists was patched up with a readiness on both sides. Ney restored to Fra Diavolo his pistol, and had his own weapons back in exchange. Next he took the ship's steward aside, apparently to instruct him about bringing the trunk. "And steward," he whispered, "don't forget to make it urgent. The skipper must land all the troops on board at once." He decided that meantime he would stroll up to the fort on his own account, and bring down more aid from there.
"Now then," reflected the beaming young Gaul, "our spirituelle little marquise will find that one may have wits, and not read her dense old poets, either."
He opened the cafe door for her and both joined the maid Berthe, who was still clinging to sanctuary inside.
The American lieutenant-colonel and the Mexican capitan looked at one another. They felt deserted. Fra Diavolo's teeth bared. "Ai, que mal educados," he observed. "They're ill-bred, I say. They kick a gentleman in the stomach—in the stomach, senor!"
Driscoll turned to go. It was enough of satisfaction to reflect that, if any mention of the affair reached Maximilian, his own part therein would not injure his errand to Mexico. As for the rest, Mexicans and French could go their own ways—he had amused himself. "Well, adios, captain," he said, and swung on his heel.
"Wait! Which direction, senor?"
"To this meson here, around the corner."
"If Your Mercy is not in a hurry——"
Driscoll nodded, and the capitan stopped to say a few words to two of his vagabonds. One of these immediately hurried off in the direction of the river. The other was still loafing outside the cafe when his chief rejoined Driscoll.
"Looks like you were interested in His Resplendent Majesty," Fra Diavolo began with weighty lightsomeness. "Mustn't hurt his feelings, eh, caballero?"
Driscoll laughed easily, "It was all on the girl's account," he said.
The ranchero glanced at him quickly, sideways, a dark look of suspicion. "On her account, senor, not Maximilian's?" he repeated. "Dios mio, caballero, I'll wager you have forgotten her already." Which, to tell the truth, was fairly exact.
At the meson Don Anastasio regarded the American with much more respect to see him returning in such company. But to Fra Diavolo he addressed himself in his thin obsequious voice, "You see I am waiting, as you wished. But on my, my daughter's account, I——"
"So, captain," Driscoll interrupted, "you're the one that's holding back Murgie! Just tell him, Murgie, that I am in a rush."
Fra Diavolo smiled and bade his American have patience, for he quite believed that the Senor Murguia would be starting in the morning.
"Si senor," he went on in a different tone, when Driscoll had left him alone with the trader, "you set out to-morrow, and you are to have two extra horses ready. But for whom, do you suppose? Bien, they are for La Senorita Jacqueline and her maid."
Murguia's countenance changed strangely, a most inexplicable contortion. His little rat eyes focused on the ranchero, and he drew back in a sort of fear. Convoy her whom people called Jacqueline through the lawless Huasteca, at the bidding of this man! "No, no, no!" he cried, and shuddered too.
Trying to read a meaning behind the capitan's dark scowl, he knew only too well the meaning that was there. He moaned at the thought. Maximiliano would have him shot, or burned, or tortured. He would lose his ranch, his cotton mill. He would be poor. It was vague, what would happen, but it was horrible, horrible!
"Hush, you fool!" growled Fra Diavolo. "The entire meson will hear you, including that Gringo."
"That Gringo? He, he is one of your friends?"
"Friend! For Dios, he nearly ruined my little plans for Jacqueline. Listen, he has business of some kind with Maximiliano."
"Yes, yes. And there's a—a mystery in his business."
"What do you mean?"
"If I knew, would it be a mystery?"
"Who is he?"
"He won't tell. I only know that he is a Confederate officer."
"A Confederate officer?" The capitan whistled low and softly. "Come to the Plaza, there you can tell me what you think."
And in the solitude of the Plaza they planned according to their suspicions.
SWORDSMANSHIP IN THE DARK
"Cry 'holla' to thy tongue, I prithee; it curvets unseasonably." —As You Like It.
"Strange there's no motion," thought Jacqueline the next morning, rubbing her eyes. "Why, what ails the old boat, I wonder?" Then she remembered. She was in the Tampico hotel which called itself a cafe, and the landlord's wife was knocking on her door and calling "Nin-a, nin-a" with a plaintive stress on the first syllable. The word means girl, and oddly enough, is often used by a Mexican servant to address her mistress.
"I'm not a n-e-e-n-ya," Jacqueline assured her drowsily, "and if I were, madame, why make a fete out of it this way in the middle of the night?"
"Nin-a," the unctuous nasal rose higher, "if Your Mercy goes with Don Anastasio, she must hurry. It is late. It is four o'clock, nina."
"Four o'clock—late?" gasped the luxurious little marquise. "And how much difference, exactly, would your four o'clocks make on the planet Mars, my good woman?"
"But nina, there is Don Anastasio, he is ready to start."
"And who is Don Anastasio, pray?"
"The trader, nina, at the meson. He is to take Your Mercy to Valles, as Don—as the Capitan Morel told Your Mercy yesterday."
"The Capitan Morel, pardi! Faith, if any man had told me it meant rising at any such unholy hour. Oh well, I suppose it is the hour for larks, too."
And sighing at the sacrifice of an age of slumber, Jacqueline reached out for the matches. But there was no dainty limbed night table of a Louis XV. beside her bed, which helped her again to remember where she was, and if doubts still remained, they were gone when her bare feet touched the fibrous, prickly native carpet instead of soft furs.
She groped to the door, and opened it enough to take a greasily odorous candle from a dusky hand outside. As the sickly glimmer awakened the shadows, she called the woman back in sudden dismay. "My trunk, senora, kindly have it sent up at once. No," she added, catching a fluffy garment from a chair, "in five minutes."
There was a brief silence, followed by positive lament. "Nina, it is not here. I believe, nin-a, it is at the meson, with Don Anastasio."
"F-flute!" cried Jacqueline. The word means nothing at all, but it may express a lass's exasperation in a wardrobe crisis, and that is nothing except a catastrophe. "Now just possibly," she soliloquized, "they permit themselves to imagine that one can wear a white frock two days together," whereupon she sat herself down despairingly among the crisp things that had already had their poor little day. To mock her there was the jaunty handsatchel packed for an hour's shore leave. She let petulance have sway, and informed herself that she should not go a step, when the voice in the hall pleaded insidiously that Her Mercy make haste.
"But I am, senora, I'm making fast haste," and she sat three minutes longer, communing with her tragedy. "Oh, this bitten, biting country," she cried, gazing ruefully at arms and shoulders, and fiery blotches on the soft white skin. "Still, if there's a brigand for every mosquito, it may yet be worth while." Hopefully she rose and called Berthe from the next room to help her dress.
When the two girls came downstairs, the landlord's wife took their satchel, and led them over broken sidewalks to the meson, where the street was filled with torches and laden burros and blanketed shadows. Murguia's caravan was forming, making a weird, stealthy scene of activity. Jacqueline picked up a lantern, and searched here and there.
"Now where can it be?" she cried.
The rebosa about the shoulders of the Mexican woman rose. She knew nothing. But the gesture was an unabridged philosophical system as to the resignation and the indifference that is seemly when one knows nothing. Jacqueline refrained from pinching her, and pursued the quest of her trunk even into the meson.
Hardly had she passed within when a greatly agitated little old man tried to overtake her. But at the door he thought better of it and vented his chagrin on the Mexican woman.
"Why did you let her go in there?" he cried. "She will wake the Gringo, she will wake the Gringo!"
Jacqueline reappeared. "No trunk," she announced. "Do you know, Berthe, I do not believe it came at all?"
The old man's voice sounded at her elbow, faltering, placating. "With permission, senorita, we must be starting."
"And similarly with permission, senor, who are you?"
"Anastasio Murguia, the servant of Your Mercy."
"Ah, the poor little crow? Perhaps you will tell me, sir, why neither the Senor Ney nor Fra—nor Captain Morel is here?"
The young French caballero had visited the fort last evening, he replied. Her Mercy knew that? Yes, precisamente. Yes, the caballero had spent the night up there with his compatriots of the garrison. Her Mercy did not know that? No? But it was quite exact, yes, because he, Don Anastasio, had been so informed. But the Senor Ney would meet them out of Tampico—yes, precisamente, with a detachment of cavalry from the fort."
"That poor Michel!" said Jacqueline. "He's determined that I am to have a French escort. But Captain Morel, senor?"
Murguia would not answer. He repeated the question to the Mexican woman, who took up explanations with a glib readiness. "Si, nina, I saw the capitan, not more than an hour ago. He was riding by the cafe, to meet his—Contra Guerrillas. But he stopped and woke me. He said that I was to bring Your Mercies here to the meson, and to say that he would meet Your Mercies—yes, surely, before you had gone very far, nina." Her tone was a sugared whine, and more than once she peered around at Murguia; while he, for his part, stood by as though overseeing a task. But Jacqueline only allowed herself a little inconsequential sniff, and went back to the really serious business that did worry her. She demanded her trunk.
"How, the senorita does not know?" asked Murguia.
"That the sailors did not come back from the ship?"
"Not come back! Eh bien, I will not go a step."
At first Don Anastasio's pinched face lighted with relief. But at once a conflicting anxiety, lest she might not go, seemed to possess him. "But senorita," he protested, "what will Your Mercy do? The ship, yes, senorita, the ship has sailed already. It left last night for Vera Cruz."
"And here am I," Jacqueline exclaimed, tapping her foot, "with only one dress!"
A long bubbling whistle sounded near a gendarme's lantern in the middle of the street. A block away another sounded, then another, and another, and others yet, each thinly shrill and distant. It was the challenge to slumber and the answer of wakefulness from the watches of the night over the silent city.
"Another quarter gone by!" Murguia exclaimed nervously. "Come, senoritas, if we are to reach the Valles stage by nightfall, we have no time to lose. There are your horses, I will——"
A tremor cut short his words. Someone had just emerged from the meson.
"Gracious, Murgie, off so early?" the newcomer observed cheerily.
Murguia scowled. He knew that tone.
"If I'm late, I apologize," the other drawled gently, from behind the flare of a match over his pipe. "Howsoever, all my eyes weren't shut, and you wouldn't of left me. Pretty quiet about striking camp, though! Didn't want to disturb me, maybe? Well, well, who made you so thoughtful? Not Captain Morel? Now I wonder!"
"I uh, why should I wake you, Mis-ter Driscoll? Have I asked you even to go?"
"N-o, but you evidently asked old Demijohn there." And Driscoll pointed to his horse, all saddled. "But cheer up, Convoluting Squirmer, of course I know you aren't a horse thief. No, I just come out to say you forgot the blanket. I was sleeping on it."
Then he turned to the two girls. They were going also. But why try to leave him behind, even without a horse? He knew, for all his whimsical cheerfulness, that something serious was afoot. It was hardly likely that the girls themselves had interfered. Still, he must make sure. To provoke a reply elsewhere, he asked Murguia if it were the senoritas, perhaps, and not Captain Morel, who preferred his absence? A surprised "Ma foi!" from Jacqueline answered him. As he supposed, she had not thought of him one way or another.
But she deigned to say, that since the American gentleman—there was a lingering on the word, which opened wide the Storm Centre's eyes with anticipation of battle—that since the American gentleman had broached the subject of his going (as no doubt interesting him, being about himself), then she would permit herself to inquire why, indeed, he should be going with them at all. She had not observed any cordiality in the requests for his society.
The light was not good, and she did not see his lips pucker as for a long whistle. But he did not whistle. He replied very humbly; and so sweetly that Murguia quailed for the little shrew.
"W'y miss," he said, "it all comes of feeling my responsibility. I'm the cause of your going, and that's why I'm going too."
His very earnestness gave her to understand that he had forgotten her entirely. The finesse of the Tuileries could not have struck home more delicately, and more keenly. "I've often heard," she thought to herself, "that an awkward swordsman is dangerous." But she made no cry of "touchee!" Instead she caught at the point to turn the blade aside. "Responsibility? Truly sir, you are considerate. But permit me—my safety on this trip, what concern can that have for Your Mercy?"
"None at all," replied Driscoll, heartily.
His brow, none the less, was crinkled, and he watched dubiously as Murguia helped the two girls into great armchair-like saddles. There was not a woman's saddle in Tampico, but Jeanne d'Aumerle did not mind that. She, the marchioness, enjoyed the oddity of a pommel in lieu of horn. And the lady's maid might have been on a dromedary, for all the consciousness the poor child had of it.
"Say," Driscoll interrupted with cool obstinacy, "where's our friend the captain and that sky-blue Frenchman?"
Murguia pretended not to heed him. Jacqueline really did not. But Berthe spoke up eagerly. She said that the two gentlemen were to meet them later in the day. At least she hoped so, but—no, no, there could be no doubt of it! Yet her words faltered, and there was an appeal in them. But if she placed any hope in the strange American, she was quickly disappointed.
"All right," he said, as if the matter were of no further consequence. "Then I can make a nice comfortable report to Maximilian."
"Report to Maximiliano?" exclaimed Murguia.
Driscoll nodded indifferently.
"But Senor Coronel, when you do, you—you will remember that I said nothing to—that is, to persuade the senoritas to take this journey."
"Nor not to take it, Wriggler."
"Yet you will say to His Majesty that I did suggest—yes, I do now—that they had better not——"
His utterance drivelled to incoherency. The Mexican woman, she of the cafe, stood before him. There was a warning on her stolid countenance. Murguia wet his lips. "But," he stammered, "there—oh what danger can there be in their going?"
Driscoll shoved him aside and placed himself at the head of Jacqueline's horse. "You had better risk the water, miss," he said quietly.
"My good sir," she replied, clear and cold, "I commend your prudence, in making certain, before you dared touch my bridle-rein, that neither of the two gentlemen were here."
Din Driscoll swung on his heel. "Damned!" he murmured, and he pronounced the "n" and the "d" thoroughly, to make the word adequate if possible. "Lord, I believe I feel like a closed incident! And to think, Demijohn," he went on as he busied himself about his horse, "to think that it's the first and only time we've ever seen trouble coming and tried to keep out of it."
But the trouble might appear now, he had done what he could. The thought brightened him, and he patted his short ribs musingly. There was a friendly protuberance there on either side. His belt sagged comfortingly. He opened the pack which he was tying with his blanket behind his saddle, and from it he filled with cartridges the pockets of his rough cape coat.
By now the caravan was passing him. The burros, like square-shelled monstrosities with ears, were settling into a steady trot. Their blanketed arrieros ran beside them and prodded, and were in turn prodded by the fretful Murguia. Then Jacqueline rode by on an ambling little mountain-climber. She had forgotten his presence. This was not a pose with the Marquise d'Aumerle; she had, really. But her little Breton maid coming behind timidly drew rein. Driscoll looked and saw in the moving yellow torchlights that her face was white. A thing like that somehow alters a man's attitude. "W'y, child," he exclaimed, "what's——"
"Monsi—senor," she said hastily, in pathetic and pretty broken Spanish, "you, oh, you will not leave us! In the mercy of heaven, tell me that you will not! Ah, seigneur," she sobbed, "mademoiselle will yet lead us to our death!"
"Berthe," mademoiselle at that instant called, "oh you little ninny, are you coming ever?"
The maid obeyed. "Just the same," she sighed, "God bless her!"
"And did I," Driscoll had begun angrily, but she was already gone, and he finished it to himself, "did I once intend to leave you?"
He leaped astride his buckskin horse, who trotted with him briskly to the head of the caravan. Behind was Anastasio Murguia, a quaint combination of silk hat, shawl, and ranchero saddle. The two Frenchwomen followed, and behind came the straggling file of burros and pack horses.
Yet the American was as a solitary traveller leaving a town for the wilderness at the first touch of dawn. The road soon narrowed down to a trail as it wound through the undergrowth of the Huasteca lowlands, then westward toward a bluish line of mountains. At each cross trail the American would turn in his saddle to force an indication of their course from Murguia. Then on he would ride again, the while sinking deeper and deeper into his thoughts; thoughts of why he had come, of how he might succeed, and of the Surrender at that moment perhaps a fact. For him, though, there was his sabre yet, dangling there under his leg. And there were the sabres of comrades that likewise would not be given up, for to save them that shame was he in Mexico. Riding there, so much alone, and lonely, he was a rough, savage, military figure. But in his meditations, so grave and unwonted in the wild, hard-riding trooper lad, there was nothing to indicate a second nature in him, an instinct that was on the alert against every leafy clump and cactus and mesh of vine.
THE THOUGHTS OF YOUTH MAY BE PRODIGIOUSLY LONG THOUGHTS
"And many a Knot unravell'd by the Road; But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate." —Omar.
Another young person, Jacqueline herself, was also pondering rather soberly this morning. And her thoughts fitted as oddly with her piquant, lightsome, cynical youth as the gloomily patriotic ones of the Storm Centre did with his youth, which was robust and boyish and swashbuckling. To judge from the way their brains worked now, both young people might have been grave wielders of state affairs, instead of the lad and the lass so heartily and pettily scorning each other a short hour before.
Yes, the great rugged Missourian had his disdain too, and for none other than the darling beauty of two imperial courts. The beauty would have been vastly amused, no doubt, had she known of the phenomenon. But knowing a little more, such as its source and the man himself, she must have flushed and drooped, piteously hurt, as none in her own circle could have wounded her. The shafts which flashed in that circle were keenly barbed. They were the more merciless for being politely gilded. But she understood, and despised, the point of view there. It was a dais of velvet, of scarlet velvet. And a worldly little gentlewoman like the Marquise Jeanne was not one to be unaware of the abyss beneath, of which the flaming color was a symbol. But she rather enjoyed the darts, if only to fling them back more dazzlingly tipped.
The perspective of the Missouri boy was different. And his disdain was different. A titled belle mattered little with him, and was apart, like the girl in a spectacular chorus. Operettas and royal courts were shows, which real men and women paid to see, and to support. He was a deep-breathing, danger-nourished man of life and of things that count. And his only cynicism, and even that unconscious, was the dry honest sort which sheer unpolished naturalness bears to all things trivial and vain and artificial. One can readily understand, then, the attitude of such a man toward a playactor off the stage; toward a playactor, that is, who thinks to impress the great, wide, live world with the superficial mannerisms of his little playacting world. Here was Din Driscoll, Jack Driscoll, Trooper Driscoll, here he was, traveling near a handsome young woman who for the moment had been cut off from her precious wee sphere. And he saw her outside of it, playing coquettishly, and to her own mind, seriously; playing bewitchingly her shallow role patterned after life, yet without once realizing the counterfeit. The Western country boy, whatever his Cavalier stock, had a Puritanical backbone in common with the whole American race. And without being aware of it, his personal, private bearing toward the light and airy French girl was a sneer, a tolerant, good-natured and indifferent sneer.
However, Mademoiselle la Marquise was neither amused nor hurt, because, quite simply, she rode in happy oblivion of the rustic and his standards for the appraising of a girl. He looked very straight of neck and spine, and she wondered if he had been cradled in a saddle, but that was all.
Now if Lieutenant-Colonel Driscoll had had the slightest glimpse of what was actually passing through the winsome and supposedly silly little head behind him, there is no reliable telling into what change of opinion he might have been jostled. But this is certain, that if he had known, he could have saved himself some rare adventures afterward.
In Jacqueline's musings there was poetry and there were politics. The poetry justified the politics; moreover, was their inspiration. A dilettante such as Jacqueline, aesthetic and delicately sensitive, was naturally a lover of the beautiful in her search after emotions. A sentiment for her surroundings came now as a matter of course. If she turned, she beheld the chaparral plain stretching flatly back of her to the sands and lagoons of the coast. If she flirted her whip overhead, down hurtled a shower of bright yellow hail from the laden boughs. Her nostrils told her of magnolias and orange blossoms; her eyes and ears, of parrots and paroquets and every other conceit in fantastic plumage. They were a restless kaleidoscope of colors blending with the foliage, and from their turmoil they might have been quarreling myriads, and never birds of a paradise. Little red monkeys grinned down at her as they raced clutching among the branches, while a big bandy-legged sambo, an exceedingly ill-tempered member of the same family, bawled his reproaches in a tone gruesomely human. Now and then her horse reared from an adder squirming underfoot, or she would see a torpid boa twined sluggishly around a limb, as about a victim. Once in a jungle-like place she experienced something akin to the prized ecstatic shudder as she made out the sleek form of a jaguar slinking into the swamp. The ugliest of the picturesque "properties" was a monstrous green iguana with his prickly crest and horn and slimy eye, basking full five feet along a rotten log.
But the things of horror merely gave to those of beauty a needed contrast, and did not hurt the poetry in the least. They were every one on the same grand, wild scale. As the palms, for instance, rising like slender columns a hundred feet without a single branch. As yet other palms, which were plumed at the summit like an ostrich wing; or as the smaller ones at their base, spreading out into fans of emerald green. Again, as the forest giants which far overhead were the arches of a watercourse, like the nave of a Gothic cathedral. And even the parasite vines were of the same Titan designing, for they bound the girders of the vault in a dense mat of leaves and woven twigs, while underfoot the carpet was soft inches deep with fern and moss. As for the flowers—Jacqueline wanted to pluck them all, to wreathe the wondering fawns, as ladies with picture hats do in the old frivolous rococo fantasies. And as to that, she might have been one of those Watteau ladies herself, so rich was the coloring there, and she in the foreground so white, so soft of skin, so sylvan and aristocratic a shepherdess.
And then it was a thing for wonderment, that beyond, where the mountains were, all this world changed, yet changed to another as strange and vast. And that still farther on there stretched yet other regions, and each one different, and each no less marvelous and grand. A bewildering prodigality of Nature, spelling the little word "romance"! Jacqueline's lip quivered as she gazed and imagined, and as the poetry of it filled her soul. But of a sudden the little woman sighed. It was a sigh of rebellion. And just here the politics leaped forth, inspired of the wild thrilling beauty of the world.
"To think," she half cried, "that we are losing this—all this! And yet we have won it! Mon Dieu, have we not won it? Yet for whom, alas? Maximilian?—Faw, an ungrateful puppet such as that, to have, to take from us, such as—this! Now suppose," her lips formed the unuttered words, while her gray eyes closed to a narrowing cunning, "just suppose that we—that someone—reminds His Majesty how ingratitude falls short of courtesy between emperors."
The boy's thoughts were of the country he had lost. Those of the resplendent and wayward butterfly were of an empire she meant to gain. But in her, who might suspect the consummate diplomat? Even then she was speaking to Murguia, asking if it were not time that Fra Diavolo remembered his engagements. Driscoll heard the query, and his comment was a mental shrug of the shoulders.
TOLL-TAKING IN THE HUASTECA
"And when he came bold Robin before, Robin asked him courteously, 'O, hast thou any money to spare, For my merry men and me?'" —Robin Hood.
For all his campaigner's instincts, the first of Driscoll's expected troubles came and was gone before he knew that it was trouble. It arrived so naturally, and was so well behaved! With a stop for a bowl of coffee at a roadside fonda, they had been traveling for perhaps five hours, when Driscoll saw the heads of two horses and their riders over the brush, and at a turn in the trail he found that they were coming leisurely toward him. He observed them suspiciously, and wistfully. The wild tropics around him had quite won his heart as peculiarly adapted to violent amusements of a desperate tinge, far more so really than his own Missouri woodlands. Yet thus far the uneventful tameness had depressed him as a shameful waste of environment.
To boot all, here was this brace of villainous, well-armed Mexicans not giving the least promise of entertainment. There was nothing to distinguish them from the usual sun-baked rancheros of the Huasteca, unless it were the first man's straw sombrero, the heavy silver mounting of which must have been worth in bullion alone a fair pocketful of pesos. There was a cord of silver hanging over the broad brim, and there was a silver "T" on one side of the sugar loaf, an "M" on the other side, and a Roman sword in front, and all three were linked together in fanciful silver scrolls. But the rest of the man was wretched. His feet were encased in the guaraches, or sandals, of a peon. One of his eyes was so crossed that hardly more than a baleful crescent was ever visible. The other vaquero, his companion, had no relieving trait at all, either luxurious or strikingly evil. His breeches of raw leather flapped loosely from the knee down, and at the sides they were slit, revealing the dirty white of cotton calzoncillos beneath. Though the April morning was hot, a crimson serape covered his shoulders. Both men had pistols, and each also had a long machete two inches wide hanging with a lariat from his saddle.
They lifted their sombreros, and he of the gorgeous one inquired if that were Don Anastasio's outfit coming up behind. A civil answer was merest traveler's courtesy, and Driscoll reluctantly took his cob pipe from his mouth to reckon that they were pretty nearly correct. He might have loaned them a thousand dollars, to judge from their gratitude, and they made way for him by drawing off the trail entirely. Here they halted till all the burros and horses had gone by. The muleteers in passing them, confusedly touched their hats. Murguia, who was then in the rear, stopped when he saw the two strangers. Driscoll looked back, but judged from the greetings that the three were old acquaintances. The assiduously respectful bearing of the timorous old man was to be counted as only habitual. And when he saw one of Don Anastasio's mozos bring a bottle and glasses, he was completely reassured, and rested like the others of the caravan some little distance ahead.
Murguia dismissed the mozo, himself poured the cognac, and begged the honor of drinking health and many pesetas to his two "friends." They craved a like boon, and the clinking of the copitas followed ceremoniously.
"I counted three hundred and sixty-eight half-bales," said he of the crossed eye, with a head cocked sideways and tilted. The evidence was against it, but Murguia knew well enough that the sinister crescent was fixed on himself. "Three-sixty-eight, at half a peso each, that makes one hundred and eighty-four pesos which Your Mercy owes us, Don Anastasio. Add on collection charges, ten per cent.—well, with your permission, we'll call it two hundred flat."
Don Anastasio manifested an itch for argument.
"Oh leave all that," he of the crimson serape broke in. "Why go over it again? We are loyal imperialists, and only our lasting friendship for you holds us from informing His Majesty's Contras how you contribute to that arch rebel, Rodrigo Galan."
"But," weakly protested Murguia, "but who believes that Don Rodrigo turns any of it over to the Liberal—to the rebel cause?"
"A swollen-lunged patriot like your Don Rodrigo—of course he does, every cent," and the cross-eye took on a jocular gleam.
"Now, Senor Murguia," he of the same eye continued, "the favor of your attention. See that 'T' on my sombrero? That's 'Tiburcio.' See that 'M'? That's 'Maximiliano.' And that sword? That's 'Woe to the Conquered,' at least the sombrero maker said so. Well, Don Anastasio——" and he ended with a gesture that the poor trader saw even in his dreams, the unctuous rubbing of fingers on the thumb.
Sadly Don Anastasio unstrapped a belt under his black vest, and counted out in French gold the equivalent of two hundred Mexican dollars.
Don Tiburcio took the money, and observed, as in the nature of pleasant gossip, that Don Anastasio had quite an unusual outfit this time.
Murguia took alarm immediately. "Not so large as usual, Don Tiburcio. The crops up there——"
"Crops? No, I don't mean your cotton. I mean fine linen and muslin, and silks, and laces—petticoats and stockings, Don Anastasio."
"They—they are Don Rodrigo's affairs, not mine."
"Enough yours for you to be anxious to deliver the goods safely, I think. But the rate on that class of stuff is rather high. Now what do you suppose, my esteemed compadre, Don Rodrigo would say if we had to confiscate the consignment?"
But Don Anastasio did not need to suppose. "How much?" he whimpered.
"Well, with the American——"
"Fires of hell consume the American! Collect your tolls from him yourself. He's no affair of anybody's."
The vaqueros laughed. "We'll throw in the American for nothing," said Don Tiburcio generously. "Besides, to look at him, he may not be very—tollable. But delicate dress goods now, there's a heavy duty on them. I should say a hundred apiece." And without any seeming reference to this revenue statement, the toll taker placed the tip of an index finger under each ear, then pointed them lower down against his throat, then lower again, and at the last the two fingers met in an acute angle, significantly acute, under his chin, while the half-veiled black bead in the outer corner of his eye had a sheen unutterably merry and malignant.
The pantomime bore a money value, for Murguia stifled his wrath, again drew out the belt, and more Napoleons changed hands. Murguia was then for remounting, leaving the flask of brandy with the two imperialist emissaries, as had become his custom. But the jovial Tiburcio stopped him. "What must you think of us, Don Anastasio?" he exclaimed contritely. "We haven't offered you a drink yet." Murguia dared not refuse, and he paused for the return of hospitality from his own bottle. At last he was on his horse, when Tiburcio again called.
"I say, Don Anastasio, if you want a big return for your money"—Don Anastasio halted instantly—"if you do, well, we ought not to say it, being devoted to Maximiliano. But no matter, I will tell you this much, poor old man—look after your daughter! Look after her, Don Anastasio! We've just come from up there."
A half cry escaped the father as he jerked back his horse. He demanded what they meant. He pleaded. But they waved him to go on, and rode away indifferently, taking a cross trail through a stretch of timber.
Rigid, motionless, Murguia looked after them until they had disappeared. But when they were gone, a frenzy possessed him. He turned and galloped to his caravan, which was again moving. He did not stop till he reached the American. "You owe me two hundred dollars," he cried. Thus his decent emotion concerning his daughter found vent. "Two hundred, I tell you!"
"Will you," asked Driscoll, "take 'em now, or after you tell me what I owe 'em for?"
Murguia wavered. The simple question brought him to his senses. But he had gone too far not to explain. Besides, his insane device for reimbursing himself appealed to him as good. "Because—don't you know, senor, that travelers here must pay toll? You don't? But it's true, and—and I've just paid out two hundred pesos on Your Mercy's account."
The trooper's brown eyes flashed. "Which way did those thieves go?" he demanded. "Quick! Which way?"
Murguia's avarice changed to trembling. He feared to tell. Driscoll caught his bridle. "Which way, or by—by—Never mind, you'll pay toll to me, too! I'll just learn this toll-taking trade myself."
Murguia saw a six-shooter sliding out. "You also!" he cried.
"Also?" laughed Driscoll. "There, I knew it, they were robbers."
He wheeled and rode back with the fury of a cavalry charge, heedless of Murguia's cries to stop by all the saints, heedless of the saints too. Murguia did not care what happened to his guest, but he cared for what might happen to himself, afterward, at the hands of Don Tiburcio and partner. He frantically called out that he was jesting, that Driscoll owed him nothing. But Driscoll had already turned into the side trail, and was following the hoof prints there. Murguia could hear the furious crackling of twigs as he raced through the timber. But in a little while he heard and saw nothing.
"He's a centaur, that country boy," observed Jacqueline critically. "The identical break-neck Centaur himself. Really, Berthe, I think we shall have to dub him Monsieur the Chevalier. Why Berthe, how pale you are!"
"I? Oh, mademoiselle, is there any danger?"
"Danger, child? Nonsense!"
"But what made him do that, that way?"
"Poor simple babe! That was a pose. Our mule driver knows he can ride, but we did not. And there you are."
"But the little monsieur, he looks like a ghost?"
Jacqueline laughed. "That, I admit, is not a pose. With the little monsieur, it's become—constitutional."
A half-hour later they heard an easy canter behind them, and Din Driscoll reappeared, flushed and happy as a boy pounding in first from a foot race. His left hand covered the bowl of his cob pipe from the wind, the other held his slouch hat doubled up by the brim. As for bridle hand, old Demijohn needed none. Driscoll seized Murguia's silk tile and poured into it from the slouch a shimmering stream of coin and a mass of crumpled paper.
"To be robbed while I'm along, now that makes me mad," he said. "You won't tell anybody, will you, Murgie?"
The old man did not hear. His palsied hands were dipping down, dipping down, bathing themselves in the deep silk hat. The hat was heavy with gold and silver pesos, and foaming with bills.
"Greenbacks, Confederate notes," he mumbled. "Some I've paid before—only, lately, the rascals won't take anything but coin."
"Why's that, Murgie?"
"Why, because these green things are not worth much now, while these gray ones"—he fingered them contemptuously—"would not, would not buy a drunkard's pardon from our cheapest magistrate."
The slur on Mexican justice only emphasized his scorn of the Confederate notes.
"Give 'em here!" Driscoll snatched them from the yellow, desecrating fingers. "These here are promises," he muttered, "and we've been fighting for four years to make them good. For four years, even the children and old men, and—yes, and the women folks back of us!"
The impulsive mood carried him further. He counted and pocketed the despised notes. Then from an humble tobacco pouch he sorted out a number of British sovereigns, and flung them into Murguia's hat.
"Prob'bly my last blow for them promises," he murmured to himself.
Meantime a burro back of them had become possessed of an idea, which for some reason necessitated his halting stock still directly across the trail to think it over. The caravan behind stopped also, while the arrieros snorted "Ar-re!" and "Bur-ro!" through their noses, and prodded the beast. Jacqueline lost patience. She touched her horse, which bounded out of the trail and galloped past the outfit almost to Driscoll and Murguia. So she had seen the exchange of money and she had heard. She looked thoughtfully at the trooper's straight line of back and shoulder.
"Monsieur the Chevalier," she murmured softly, as though trying the sound of the words for the fast time. She would have supposed that none but a Frenchman could have done that.
As to Don Anastasio, the Quixotic redemption in specie was beyond him entirely. He gave it up. The counting of discs was more tangible to his philosophy. His rusty black tile, so wondrously become a cornucopia of wealth, had by that same magic upset the old fellow into a kind of hysterical gaiety, which was most elfish and uncanny. He motioned Driscoll to ride faster.
"Ai, ai, mi coronel," he cackled, when they were gone out of hearing, "you talk of bandits! Ai, ai, Dios mio, you have robbed them!"
"What the devil——"
"Si senor, robbed them! A-di-o-dio-dios! here's more than they took from me!"
"N-o?" said Driscoll in dismay. "Gracious, I hadn't any time to count money when I searched 'em!"
"You!—searched Don Tiburcio?"
"Why not? Isn't he a thief?"
"W'y yes, they both let me, I had the drop. But they got indignant and called me a thief—I believe they'd of called a policeman if there'd been one handy, or even—— Now what," he exclaimed, "what ails the old bare-bones now?"
The senile mirth had left the trader's face, and his olive skin was ashen. "Next time," he moaned, "next time, Santa Maria, they will be in force and they—they will take the very horse from under me!"
"Tough luck," Driscoll observed.
Murguia darted at him a look in which there was all the old hate, and more added. But it disturbed the trooper as little as ever. "Come," he said, "own up. You knew we were going to meet those fellows?" Murguia said nothing. "Of course you knew. But why didn't you change your route, seeing you're too high-minded to fight?—What's that?—Oh that voice! Dive for it, man!"
"I, I couldn't change on account of my passport."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"In the passport I declare the route I take."
"I see, and you can't change it afterward?"
"Now look here, Murgie, have you got any more of these dates on?—Yes? No?—Murgie, if you don't dive, by——"
Murguia dove, and denied with eagerness that he had any further toll-paying appointments. But Driscoll reckoned that he was lying. "And," he added, "we are going to change our route, passport or no passport. We'll take—let's see—yes, we'll take the very next crosstrail going in the same general direction."
Murguia's alarm at the proposal belied his former denial. The law required him to follow the course laid down in his passport, but he feared the law less than the disappointment of road agents. Don Tiburcio's receipt protected him from those controlled by Don Tiburcio. But Tiburcio was not powerful, except in blackmail. Murguia paid him lest he inform the government of tribute also paid to Don Rodrigo. Now Rodrigo Galan was powerful. His band infested the Huasteca. He called himself a Liberal and a patriot, and he really believed it too. But he also declared that the tolls he collected went to the revolutionary cause, which declaration, however, even he could hardly have believed.
Don Rodrigo gave receipts, and his receipts were alleged guarantee against other molestation, since he controlled the highway more thoroughly than ranger patrols had ever done. But lately a competitor had appeared in the brush, and he was that humorous scoundrel, Don Tiburcio of the crossed eye. Goaded near to apoplexy by the double tolls, Murguia had once ventured to upbraid Don Rodrigo with breach of contract. There was no longer immunity in the roadmaster's receipts, he whined. Then the robber chief had scowled with the brow of Jove, and hurled dreadful oaths. "You pay an Imperialista!" he stormed in lofty indignation. "You give funds to put down your struggling, starving compatriots! So, senor, this is the love you bear your country!"
It was a touching harangue, and the remorse-stricken trader ever after denied that he even saw Don Tiburcio, at which times a queer smile would supplant Don Rodrigo's black frown.
It was this same Don Rodrigo who had been reported as slain by Jacqueline's Fra Diavolo. But Driscoll, not having heard of his death, was quite ready to expect more brigands. He insisted, therefore, on changing trails.
"The Senor Coronel is most valiant," sneered Murguia.
"So darned much so, Murgie, that I want to dodge 'em."
But his struggle against temptation was evident. He glanced back at the two women and again denounced the unfamiliar feminine element in men's affairs. To avoid the brigandage encounter took more of manhood than Don Anastasio might imagine in a lifetime.
But they had not followed their new route five minutes before Murguia was again at the trooper's side. An "I-told-you-so" smirk hovered on his pinched visage. "Segundino has gone," he announced.
"So Segundino has gone?" Driscoll repeated. "Well, and who's Segundino?"
"He's one of my muleteers, but now I know he is a spy too. He will tell the bri—if there are brigands—where to meet us." Murguia was thinking, too, of their reproachful increase on collection charges for the extra trouble.
"Then," said Driscoll, "we'll go back to our old trail," which they did at once. Soon after he was not surprised to hear from Murguia that "this time it was Juan who had disappeared."
"Didn't I tell you to set a close watch?"
"Y-e-s, but what was the use? He slipped into the brush, and," the trader complained, "I can't spare any more drivers."
"Don't need to. We'll just keep this trail now."
THE BRIGAND CHIEF
"Don Rodrigo de Vivar, Rapaz, orgulloso, y vano." —El Cid.
Imagine an abnormally virtuous urchin and an abnormally kindly farmer. The urchin resolutely turns his back on the farmer's melon patch, though there is no end of opportunity. But the farmer catches him, brings him in by the ear, makes him choose a big one, and leaves him there, the sole judge of his own capacity. Driscoll had tried to dodge a fight, but Fate was his kindly farmer.
"Better fall back a little, Murgie," he said. "You'd only scare 'em, you know."
He himself passed on ahead. But it was mid-afternoon before anything happened. Jacqueline meantime had shown some pettish ill-humor. Those who had fought to be her escort were now singularly indifferent. Driscoll was idly curious and quietly contemptuous, but he detected no fright in her manner. "Fretting for her silver-braided Greaser," he said to himself. "A pretty scrape she's got herself into, too! Now I wonder why a girl can't have any sense." But as the answer was going to take too long to find, he swerved back to the simpler matter of a possible fracas.
"Well, well," he exclaimed at last, rising in his stirrups, "if there isn't her nickel-plated hero now!"
A quarter of a mile ahead, mounted, waiting stock-still across the trail, was Fra Diavolo. The American put away his pipe and barely moved his spurred boot, yet the good buckskin's ears pointed forward and he trotted ahead briskly. From old guerrilla habit, the cavalryman noted all things as he rode. To his left the blue of the mountain line, being nearer now, had deepened to black, and the Sierra seemed to hang over him, ominously. But the dark summits were still without detail, and midway down, where the solid color broke into deep green verdure and was mottled by patches of dry slabs of rock, there was yet that massive blur which told of distance. Foothills had rolled from the towering slide, and mounds had tumbled from the hills, and a tide of giant pebbles had swept down from the mounds. These rugged boulders had turned the trail, so that the American was riding beneath a kind of cliff. To his right, on the east of the trail, the boulders were smaller and scattered, like a handful of great marbles flung across the cactus plain. He may have glanced toward this side especially, at the clumps of spiny growth over the pradera, and caught glimpses behind the strewn rocks, but his look was casual, unstartled. He breathed deeply, though. The old familiar elation set him vaguely quivering and tingling, with nervous, subtle desire. The young animal's excess of life surged into a pain, almost. Even the buckskin, knowing him, took his mood, and held high his nostrils.
Fra Diavolo's peaked beaver, his jacket, his breeches, his high pommeled saddle, his great box stirrups, the carabine case strapped behind, all be-scrolled with silver, danced hazily to the magic of rays slanting down from the lofty Sierra line. Like himself, his horse was a thing of spirited flesh, for glorious display. The glossy mane flowed luxuriantly. The tail curved to the ground. A mountain lion's skin covered his flanks. He was large and sleek and black, with the metal and pride of an English strain. He was a carved war-charger. The man astride was rigid, stately. Man and horse had a heroic statue's promise of instant, furious life.
"Oh, la beaute d'un homme!" cried Jacqueline, perceiving the majestic outline silhouetted against the rocks. "Why, why—it's Fra Diavolo!"
"It—it is!" confessed Murguia. There was dread, not surprise, in his exclamation. The waiting horseman, and a lonely hut there behind him—none other than a brigand "toll-station"—these were but too significant of an old and hated rendezvous. Don Anastasio got to his feet and nervously hurried his caravan back a short distance. Then he ran ahead again and overtook the two Frenchwomen. "Senoritas, wait! Neither of you need go. But I will—I must, but I can go alone, while you——"
"Why, what ails the man?"
"Back, senorita, back, before he sees you!"
Jacqueline looked at the imploring eyes, at the palsied hand on her bridle. "Berthe," she said, "here's your little monsieur getting constitutional again."
"You will go, senorita?"
"Parbleu!" said the girl, and lashed her mustang.
"Dios, Dios," gasped the little monsieur, hurrying after them, "when Maximiliano hears of this——"
"You should see Maximilian when he is angry," Jacqueline called over her shoulder. "It is very droll."
Din Driscoll had vaulted to the ground in the instant of halting. Immediately he led his horse behind the solitary hut, which was a jacal of bamboo and thatch built under the cliff, and left him there. Demijohn was a seasoned campaigner, and he would not move until his trooper came for him. When Driscoll emerged again, his coat was over his left arm, and the pockets were bulging. Fra Diavolo had already saluted him, but gazed down the trail at the two women approaching.
"How are you, captain?" Driscoll began cordially.
Fra Diavolo looked down from his mighty seat. "Ai, mi coronel, I was expecting Your Mercy."
"Honest, now? Or weren't you worrying lest I'd got left back in Tampico?"
One of the ranchero's hands rose, palm out, deprecatingly.
"But someone might have told you I didn't get left at all," Driscoll pursued. "Segundino maybe? Or was it Juan?"
"Or Don Tiburcio?" suggested the captain. He dismounted and doffed his big sombrero. "Good, I see you brought Her Ladyship safely."
"Or I myself, rather," said Jacqueline, reining in her pony at the moment, "Ah, the Senor Capitan as an escort knows how to make himself prized by much anticipation."
"Senorita!" The Mexican bent in heavy ceremony, the sombrero covering his breast. "I am honored, even in Your Mercy's censure. Those who deserve it could not appreciate it more."
"Forward then, captain. On with the excuses, I promise to believe them."
"Those sailors, my lady, who fight with kicks. Ugh!—they attacked some of my men this morning in Tampico. I had to call at the fort for aid."
"Oh, but Maximilian shall hear of this!"
"I think he will," and Fra Diavolo bowed again, hiding the gleam of a smile. "But I forget, your compatriot——"
"He meant to help the sailors——"
"But he was not hurt?"
"Oh, no, no! But he had to be held in the fort."
"That poor Michel!"
"So," the syllable fell weightily, as if to crush Ney out of her thoughts, "here I am at last, to claim the distinguished pleasure of seeing Your Ladyship to the stage at Valles."
Din Driscoll had been gazing far away at the mountains, his thumbs tucked in his belt. He stood so that the Mexican was between him and the scattered boulders on the right of the trail. Now he addressed the mountains. "The stage at Valles? There is no stage at Valles—— And, captain," he dropped Nature abruptly, and turned on the man, "who are you, hombre? Come, tell us!"
If Fra Diavolo were a humbug, he was not nearly so dismayed as one might expect. For that matter, neither was Jacqueline. She inquired of Driscoll how he knew more about stage lines than the natives themselves. Because the natives themselves were not of one mind, he replied. For instance, Murgie's muleteers had assured him fervidly that there was such a stage, whereas passing wayfarers had told him quite simply that there was not, nor ever had been.
Jacqueline's gray eyes, wide open and full lashed, turned on Fra Diavolo. "You are," she exclaimed, noiselessly clapping her hands as at a play, "then you are—Oh, who are you?"
The Mexican straightened pompously. "Who?" he repeated deep in his chest, "who, but one at Your Mercy's feet! Who, but—Rodrigo Galan himself!"
"The terrible Rodrigo?" She wanted complete identification.
He looked at her quickly. The first darkening of a frown creased his brow. But still she was not alarmed. Berthe, however, proved more satisfying. "Oh, my dear lady!" she cried, reining in her horse closer to her mistress.
"And who," drawled the American at a quizzical pitch of inquiry, "may Don Rodrigo be?"
"What, senor," thundered the robber, "you don't——" He stopped, catching sight of the timorous Murguia hovering near. "Then, look at that old man, for he at least knows that he is in the presence of Don Rodrigo. He is trembling."
But Jacqueline was—whistling. The bristling highwayman swung round full of anger. Driscoll stared at her amazed. Then he laughed outright. "Well, well, Honorable Mr. Buccaneer of the Sierras, now maybe—— Yes, that's what I mean," he added approvingly as Fra Diavolo leaped astride his charger and jerked forth two pistols from their holsters, "that's it, get the game started!"
Jacqueline's red lips were again pursed to whistle, but she changed and hummed the refrain instead:
"Mironton, mironton, mirontaine!"
Driscoll stared at her harder. The words were strange and meant nothing. But there was a familiarity to the tune. That at least needed no interpreter. The old ballad of troubadours, the French war song of old, the song of raillery, the song of Revolution, this that had been a folk song of the Crusader, a Basque rhyme of fairy lore, the air known in the desert tents of Happy Arabia, known to the Jews coming out of Egypt, known to the tribes in the days without history or fifes—why, if this wasn't the rollicking, the defiant paean of Americans! But how came she by it, and by what right?
"'And we won't go home till morning,'" he joined in, inquisitively.
The girl paused, as explorers singing it have paused when savages never before seen by white men joined in with barbarian words. But she went on, letting the miracle be as it might.
"'The news I bear, fair lady——'"
she sang, and nodded at the bandit, to indicate that here was his line,
"'The news I bear, fair lady, Will cause your eyes to weep.'"
"'——Till daylight doth appear,'" Driscoll finished it with her. Then both looked up like two children, to the awful presence on horseback.
Don Rodrigo was at some pains to recover himself. A helpless girl and one lone trooper were practising a duet under his very frown. Only a glance toward the boulders and cacti reassured him.
"Well, what next?" Jacqueline demanded sweetly. "Is it to be the—the 'game' at last?"
"One word," said the Mexican solemnly. Straight in his saddle, he fixed them with keen eyes, keen, black eyes under shaggy brows. The syllables fell portentously. His voice deepened as far away thunder. "One word first," growled the awakening lion. "You know now that I am Don Rodrigo Galan. Yes, I am he, the capitan of guerrillas, the rebel, the brigand, the hunted fugitive. Such names of ignominy a true patriot must bear because he dares to defy his poor country's oppressors." Here Fra Diavolo scowled; he was getting into form. "But to His Majesty in our own Mexican capital, to His Glorious Resplendent Most Christian, Most Catholic, priest-ridden, bloodthirsty, foppish, imbecile decree-making fool of a canting majesty—to this Austrian archduke who drove forth the incarnation of popular sovereignty by the brutal hand of the foreign invader—to him I will yet make it known that the love of liberty, that the loyalty to Liberal Reforms, to the Constitution, to Law and Order, to—uh—are not yet dead in these swamps and mountains of our Patria. And he will know it when he—when he hears my demand for your ransom, Senorita Marquesa. He will know it, too, when he learns that Captain Maurel—a Frenchman, senorita, not a Mexican—now lies stark in death in the brush near Tampico, where he came to take and to hang the steadfast patriot, Rodrigo Galan. But his Tender-Hearted Majesty will grieve less for that than for the loss of you, Senorita—Jacqueline. For is it not known that you, the first lady of honor to the Empress, that you are also His Majesty's——"
"My faith," said Jacqueline, "he speaks Spanish well!"
Thus she stopped the insult. Also she stopped an unforeseen champion at her side. Driscoll, with pistol half drawn, was willing to be checked. A shot just then, placed as they were, would mean a bad ending to the game. That he knew. So he was thankful for Jacqueline's hand on his wrist.
Forked eloquence was silenced by now. Yet the patriot had been in earnest, under the spell of his own ardor. Don Anastasio, with head bowed, had listened in sullen sympathy. But both Mexicans started as though stung at Jacqueline's applauding comment. Don Rodrigo purpled with rage. She only looked back at him, so provokingly demure, that something besides the ransom got into his veins. He wet his lips, baring the unpleasant gleam of teeth.
"Come!" he said thickly. "You and your maid go with me."
Driscoll's jaw dropped. "Diablos," he exclaimed, bewildered, "you don't mean—— Look, Don Roddy, you're crazy! Such things——"
"But I tell you it's foolish. Such things do not happen, unless in melodrama."
For reply the guerrilla chief wheeled his charger and caught the bridles of the two horses that the girls rode. He pulled, so as to leave exposed the troublesome American behind them.
"Grands dieux," exclaimed Jacqueline, "have the men in this country nothing to do except catch my bridle! But really, sir, this situation is forced. It is not artistic. As—as Monsieur the Chevalier says, it's quite impossible."
She looked around for Monsieur the Chevalier to make it so, but to her dismay, to her disgust, he had taken to his heels. He was running away, as fast as he could go. Then her horse reared, for musket firing had suddenly, mysteriously begun on all sides of her. Many fierce pairs of eyes were bobbing up from behind the boulders on the right of the trail; yellow-brown faces, like a many-headed Hydra coiled in the cacti. They were shooting, not at her, but at the fleeing American. She felt an object in her hand, which Driscoll had thrust there, and she remembered that he had whispered something, though she had forgotten what.
Her captor was straining at the bridle. In his frenzy he leaned over, to lift her from the saddle, and then she struck him across the face with her whip. And then, with what the American had put in her other hand, she struck again. The weapon was Driscoll's short hunting knife. The blade grazed Rodrigo's shoulder. He loosed his hold, and before he could prevent, both she and Berthe were in the shack under the cliff. The maid sank to the floor. The mistress stood in the doorway. There was a glint in the gray eyes not lovable in man or woman, but in her it was superb.
Fifty feet back up the trail she saw Driscoll scaling the cliff. That demon yelling, which is the first spasm of Mexican warfare, had not ceased, and each demon was shooting as fast as he could reload. She saw the white dust spurt out from the bullet peppered rock. But either the sun slanting down from the mountain line was in their eyes, or they were disconcerted at the American's change in their plans; at any rate their laboriously ascending target did not drop. Up he climbed. Jacqueline wondered why he still clung to the jacket over his arm, as people will cling to absurd things in time of panic.
"To go through that peril, and yet a coward!" she murmured. "It's a waste——"
The runaway gained the top of the embankment, and fell behind a rock. And now a half dozen of the little demons were coming across the trail to the shack—to take her.
"Oh, the frisson, the ecstasy!" she cried. There was a certain poignant sense of enjoyment in it.
THE COSSACKS AND THEIR TIGER COLONEL
"Ah, Captain, here goes for a fine-drawn bead; There's music around when my barrel's in tune." —Song of the Fallen Dragoon.
Din Driscoll tumbled himself over among the rocks. "There, I'm fixed," he grunted, as he squatted down behind his earthworks. "Plenty of material here"—he meant the cartridges which he poured from his coat pockets into his hat—"and plenty out there too"—indicating the Hydra heads—"and my pipe—I'll have a nice time." He got to work busily.
In the door of the shack Jacqueline saw the campaign for her possession begin. Don Rodrigo had fled to the corner of the shack, taking his horse with him. The hut of bamboo and thatch was no protection against Driscoll's fire, but the two girls, though inside the hut, were between and afforded a better screen. Jacqueline did not, however, hold that against her Fra Diavolo. To save himself behind a woman was quite in keeping with his sinister role. And she, as an artist, could not reproach him, and as a woman she did not care. But the American's running away—now that was out of character, and it disappointed her.
She heard Rodrigo bellowing forth an order, and she saw five or six guerrillas rise out of the cacti and spring toward her. But the constant shadow of self-introspection haunted her even then. In her despair, and worse, in her disgust, feeling already those filthy hands upon her, she yet appraised this jewel among ecstatic shudders, and she knew in her heart that she would not have had it otherwise.
"Oh, am I ever to live!" she moaned in startled wonderment at herself. "Always a spectator, always, even of myself!—God, dost thou know? It is a robbery of living!" And the vagabonds were twenty paces away!
Something hurt her hand, she opened her clenched palm; it was the horn handle of Driscoll's knife. Had she really thought to defend herself with that inadequate thing? "Poof!" She tossed it from her, vexed at her own unconscious heroics. Then two dark arms reached out, nearer and nearer, and ten hooked fingers blurred her vision. But the arms shot upward, the fingers stiffened, and a body splashed across the doorway at her feet with the sound of a board dropped on water.
"Ai, poor man!"
She was on her knees, bending over him. But a second of the vermin lurched against her, and he too lay still. A pistol report from the cliff was simultaneous with each man's fall. Both were dead. A third sank in the trail with a shattered hip, and another behind knew the agony of a broken leg. The marksman's mercy was evidently tempered according to distance. For, having the matter now under control, he nonchalantly cracked only shin bones. Fra Diavolo from his shelter roared commands and curses, but not another imp would show himself. Crouched jealously, they chose rather to besiege their lone enemy on the cliff.
"Must have howitzers," muttered Driscoll. The soft lead, bigger than marbles, went "Splut! Splut!" against the rock on all sides of him, flattening with the windy puff of mud on a wall. But he was well intrenched, and as the guerrillas were also, he lighted his pipe and smoked reflectively. But after awhile he perceived a slight movement, supplemented by a carabine. One of the besiegers was working from boulder to boulder, parallel with the trail. He did it with infinite craft. At first the fellow crawled; then, when out of pistol range, he got to his feet and ran. Still running, he crossed the trail at a safe distance beyond the hut, and began working back again, this time along the cliff, and toward Driscoll. When about a hundred yards away, he disappeared; which is to say, he lowered himself into a little ravine that thousands of rainy seasons had worn through from the foothills. But almost at once his head and shoulders rose from the nearer bank, and Driscoll promptly fired. The shot fell short. A pistol would not carry so far; which was a tremendously important little fact, since the other fellow was aiming a rifle. The bullet from that rifle neatly clipped a prickly pear over Driscoll's head. The strategist certainly knew his business. There was a familiar shimmer of silver about his high peaked hat. Yes surely, he was Don Tiburcio, the loyal Imperialist of the baleful eye. No doubt the malignant twinkle gleamed in that eye now, even as the blackmailer bit a cartridge for the next shot. A victim who had only pistols, and at rifle range, and with not a pebble for shelter from the flank bombardment—it was assuredly a situation to tickle Don Tiburcio.
Now Driscoll's point of view was less amusing. To change his position, he must expose himself to a fusilade from across the way. And if he tried to rush his friend of the gully, the brigands meantime would carry off the two girls. A gentleman's part, therefore, was to stay where he was and be made a target of. But he varied it a little. At Don Tiburcio's second shot, he lunged partly to his feet and fell forward as though mortally wounded. He lay quite still, and soon Don Tiburcio came creeping toward him. Don Tiburcio was thinking of his lost toll-moneys that should be on the corpse. Driscoll waited, his nerves alert, his pistols ready. But just beyond range, the blackmailer paused.
"Go for the women, you idiots," he yelled. "The Gringo's dead."
The idiots verified the title straightway, for up they popped from behind their boulders and started for the shack.
"'Possuming's no use," Driscoll muttered, then fired. The guerrillas got back to cover quickly enough, and so did Don Tiburcio, grinning over his stratagem. In his arroyo again, he proposed to make the Gringo as a sieve. Each bullet from his carabine twanged lower and lower. "Ouch!" ejaculated Driscoll. One had furrowed his leg, and it hurt. He looked anxiously, to see if the Mexican were lowering his aim yet more. An inch meant such a great deal just then. But a tremendous surprise met him. For Don Tiburcio had changed his mind. The rascal was firing in another direction entirely, firing rapturously, firing at his very allies, at the little imps themselves among the boulders and nettles. And the little imps were positively leaping up to be shot. They ran frantically, but straight toward the traitor, and on past him up the trail. The Storm Centre could not shoot lunatics any more than he could babies. He only stared at them open mouthed.
"Los Cosacos!—El Tigre! Los Cosacos!" they yelled, scrambling out upon the road, bleeding, falling, praying, and kissing whatever greasy amulet or virgin's picture they owned.
Then there beat into Driscoll's ears the furious clatter of hoofs. It deafened him, the familiar, glorious din of it. The blood raged in his veins like fiery needle points. To see them—the cavalry, the cavalry! Then they were gone—a flashing streak of centaurs, a streamer of red in a blur of dust, maniac oaths, and pistol shots, and sweeping sabres. Hacked bodies were sucked beneath the swarm as saplings under an avalanche. Driscoll sprang up and gazed. Through eddying swirls he still could see red sleeved arms reach out, and lightning rays of steel, and half-naked fleeting creatures go down, and never a jot of the curse's speed abate.
"Lordy, but Old Joe should 'a seen it!" he fairly shouted. He was thinking of Shelby, of the Old Brigade back in Missouri; daredevils, every one of them.
Don Tiburcio had sighted the vengeful horde from afar, and had recognized them, since he was, in fact, one of their scouts. They were the Contra Guerrillas, the Cossacks, the scourge wielded by the French Intervention and the Empire. And they were Don Tiburcio's cue to loyalty. For seeing them, he began firing on his late friends, the brigands. Yet he spared their Capitan. At the first alarm Fra Diavolo had vaulted astride his black horse, and Tiburcio darting out, had caught his bridle, and turned him into the dry bed of the arroyo. Others of the fugitives tried to escape by this same route, but Tiburcio fought them off with clubbed rifle, and in such occupation was observed by him who led the Cossacks, who was a terrible old man, and a horseman to give the eye joy. At the gully he swerved to one side, and let the hurricane pass on by.
"Sacred name of thunder," he cursed roundly, "a minute later and——"
"Si, mi coronel," the faithful Tiburcio acknowledged gratefully, "Your Excellency came just in time."
The colonel of Contra Guerrillas frowned a grim approval for his scout's handiwork of battered skulls. He was a man of frosted visage, a grisly Woden. The hard features were more stern for being ruggedly venerable. His beard was wiry, hoary gray, through whose billowy depth a long black cigar struck from clenched teeth. If eyes are windows of the soul, his were narrow, menacing slits, loopholes spiked by bristling brows. Two deep creases between the eyes furrowed their way up and were lost under an enormously wide sombrero. This sombrero was low crowned, like those worn farther to the south, and ornately flowered in silver. His chest was crossed with braid, cords of gold hung from the right shoulder to the collar, and the sleeves were as glorious as a bugler's. His brick-red jacket fell open from the neck, exposing the whitest of linen. His boots were yellow, his spurs big Mexican discs. Altogether the blend in him of the precise military and the easy ranchero was curiously picturesque. But Colonel Dupin, the Tiger of the Tropics, was a curious and picturesque man. His medals were more than he could wear, and each was for splendid daring. But on a time they had been stripped from him. It happened in China. He had made a gallant assault on the Imperial Palace, but he had also satiated his barbarian soul in carnage and loaded his shoulders with buccaneering loot. And though he wondered at his own moderation, a court martial followed. However, Louis Napoleon gave him back his medals, and sent him to Mexico to stamp out savagery by counter savagery.
"There were two accomplices in this business," the Tiger was saying, "one a trader, Murguia——"
"Killed him my very first shot," lied Tiburcio. He would save his golden goose of the golden eggs.
"And the other, an American?"
"Got away with the others, senor." Again Tiburcio's reason was obvious. The American, if taken, might tell things.
"And"—Dupin gripped his cigar hungrily—"and Rodrigo?"
For answer the scout waved a hand vaguely up the trail.
"None went that way?" and the Colonel jerked his head toward the ravine.
"No, none. Your Mercy saw me driving them back."
"Quick, then, on your horse! We're losing time."
Don Tiburcio was reluctant. He had not yet recovered his money from the American. "But the women, mi coronel? They are there, in that shack. Hadn't I better stay——?"
"Jacqueline, you mean? Of course the little minx is in trouble, the second she touches land. But you come with me. She shall have another protector."
Tiburcio knew the Cossack chief. He obeyed, and both men galloped away after the chase.
They had not gone far when they passed Michel Ney swiftly returning. He was the protector Dupin had in mind. He had seen Jacqueline in the doorway of the hut as he stormed past with the Contra Guerrillas, but he had been too enthusiastic to stop just then. He was a Chasseur d'Afrique, and to be a Chasseur d'Afrique was to ride in a halo of mighty sabre sweeps. And Michel had fought Arabs too—but the good simplicity of his countenance was woefully ruffled as he turned back from that charge of the Cossacks.
"Michel!" cried Jacqueline, stepping over the forms of men before the hut, and forgetting them. The natty youth was torn, rumpled, grimy. The sky-blue of his uniform was gray with dust. But to see him at all proved that he had escaped Fra Diavolo's web in Tampico. And the relief! It made her almost gay. "Ah, Michel—le beau sabreur!—and did you enjoy it, mon ami?"
He alighted at her feet, and raised her hand to his lips.
"Monsieur," she demanded quick as thought, "my trunk?"
"Mon Dieu, mademoiselle, I did well to bring myself."
"You should have brought my trunk, sir, first of all. Deign to look at this frock! No, no, don't, please don't. But tell me everything. What could have happened to you last night? Why did you not meet me this morning?"
His story was brief. Of his contemplated strategy at Tampico, there had been a most lugubrious botching. The night before, when he started to the fort for aid, Fra Diavolo's little Mexicans had waylaid him, bound him, and dragged him back to the cafe, where Jacqueline that very moment reposed in slumber. And there, in a back room without a window, he had gritted his teeth until morning. As for the sailors, who were to return to the ship for her trunk; well, more little Mexicans had fired on them from the river bank. The small boat, riddled with shot, had sunk, and the sailors, splashing frantically to keep off the sharks, had gained the shore opposite. But they could neither get word to the ship, nor cross back to Tampico.
"Yet," demanded Jacqueline, "how could you know all this, there in your prison room?"
"Am I saying I did, name of a name? Well, those poor sailors wandered about all night in the swamps across the river, and this morning they ran into Colonel Dupin and his Contras, and the colonel was frothing mad. He had only just stumbled on the bodies of Captain Maurel and some of his men, who had been ambushed and murdered. Poor Maurel was dangling from a tree among the vultures. Others were mutilated. Some had even been tortured. And all were stripped, and rotting naked. Mon Dieu, mon dieu, but it's an inferno, this country!"
"Yes, yes, but how did they find you?"
"Colonel Dupin simply brought the sailors back to Tampico and searched that cafe, and got me out. The proprietor wasn't thought to be any too good an Imperialist, anyway. They shot him, and then we came right along here."
"Very nice of you, I am sure."
"Not at all. Dupin isn't thinking of anybody but your Fra Diavolo, who must have killed Captain Maurel.—Was he here?"
"Who? Don Rodrigo?"
"Of course. He's the same as Fra Diavolo."
"You mean that bandit," cried Ney, "that terrible Rodrigue? But he is dead, don't you remember, Fra Diavolo said so?"
"Stupid! Fra Diavolo is Don Rodrigo himself."
"Not dead then? And I'll meet him yet! But," and his sudden hope as suddenly collapsed, "Dupin will get him first."
"I think not, because Rodrigo did not take the trail."
"Then which way did he go? Quick, please, mademoiselle, which way?"
"He turned off into that arroyo."
"Oh, what chance, what luck!" But the boy stopped with his foot in the stirrup. "No, mademoiselle, I can't leave you!"
"Oh yes you can. I daresay there's another champion about." She glanced up at the cliff. "And besides, all danger is past. The donkey caravan is still here, and for company, I have Berthe, of course."
"Yes, Michel, really."
"Good, I'm off! But we will meet you at—Dupin just told me—at the next village on this same trail. Now I'm off!" He was indeed. "I say, mademoiselle," he called back, "I'm glad we left the ship, aren't you?"
Jacqueline turned hastily her gaze from the cliff. He startled her, expressing her own secret thought.
Chasseur and steed vanished in the ravine, and she smiled. "The God of pleasant fools go with him," she murmured.
PASTIME PASSING EXCELLENT
"Il y a des offenses qui indignent les femmes sans les deplaire." —Emile Augier.
Like another Black Douglas, Din Driscoll rose among the crags, the dark tufts curling stubbornly on his bared head. He looked a sinewy, toughened Ajax. But he only spoiled it. For, raising his arms, he stretched himself, stretched long and luxuriously. His very animal revelling in the huge elongation of cramped limbs was exasperating. Next he clapped the slouch on his head, and clambered down.
Jacqueline might have been surprised to see him. Her brows lifted. "Not killed?" she exclaimed. "But no, of course not. You gave yourself air, you ran away."
Driscoll made no answer. He was thinking of what to do next. She knew that he had run because of her, and she was piqued because he would not admit it. "So," she went on tauntingly, "monsieur counts his enemy by numbers then?"
"Didn't count them at all," he murmured absently.
"But," and she tapped her foot, "a Frenchman, he would have done it—not that way."
She was talking in English, and the quaintness of it began to create in him a desire for more. "Done what, miss?" he asked.
"He would not have run—a Frenchman."
"Prob'bly not, 'less he was pretty quick about it."
She looked up angrily. Of course he must know that he had been splendid, up there behind the rocks. And now to be unconscious of it! But that was only a pose, she decided. Yet what made him so stupidly commonplace, and so dense? She hated to be robbed of her enthusiasm for an artistic bric-a-brac of emotion; and here he was, like some sordid mechanic who would not talk shop with a girl.
"I wager one thing," she fretted, "and it is that when you bring men down to earth you have not even at all—how do you say?—the martial rage in your eyes?"
"W'y, uh, not's I know of. It might spoil good shooting."
"And your pipe"—her lip curled and smiled at the same time—"the pipe does not, neither?"
His mouth twitched at the corners. "N-o," he decided soberly, "not in close range."
She gave him up, he had no pose. Still, she was out of patience with him. "Helas! monsieur, all may see you are Ameri-can. But there, you have not to feel sorry. I forgive you, yes, because—it wasn't dull."
"Hadn't we better be——"
"Now what," she persisted, "kept you so long up there, for example?"
Driscoll reddened. He had lingered behind the screen of rock to bandage his furrowed leg. "S'pose you don't ask," he said abruptly, "there's plenty other things to be doing."
He turned and invited the little Breton maid to come from the shack. She was white, and trembled a little yet. "I knew, I knew you would not leave us, monsieur," she was trying to tell him. "But if you had—oh, what would madame——"
"Now then," the practical American interrupted, "where's Murgie?"
Jacqueline pointed with the toe of her slipper. There were prostrate bodies around them, with teeth bared, insolent, silent, horrible. One couldn't be sorry they were dead, but one didn't like to see them. Jacqueline's boot pointed to a man lying on his face. A silk hat was near by in the dust. A rusty black wig was loosened from his head. The girl invoked him solemnly. "Arise, Ancient Black Crow, and live another thousand years."
Driscoll lifted the shrunken bundle of a man, held him at arm's length, looked him over, and stood him on his feet. The withered face was more than ever like a death's head, and the eyes were glassy, senseless. But as to hurt or scratch, there was none. The beady orbs started slowly in their sockets, rolling from side to side. The lips opened, and formed words. "Killed? yes, I am killed. But I want—my cotton, my burros, my peons—I want them. I am dead, give them to me."
"You're alive, you old maverick."
The gaze focused slowly on Driscoll, and slowly wakened to a crafty leer. Believe this Gringo?—not he!
With an arm behind his shoulders Driscoll forced him down the trail to his caravan. Most of the animals were lying down, dozing under their packs. Murguia's eyes grew watery when he saw them, but he was still dazed and his delusion was obstinate. The leer shot exultant gleams. "A rich man can enter heaven," he chuckled with unholy glee.
"Oh wake up, and give me two donkeys for the girls. Their horses got hit, you know."
Then the stunned old miser began to perceive that he was not in heaven. His tyrant's voice! "You get my horses killed," he whined, "and now you take my burros."
Driscoll said no more, but picked out two beasts and bound some cushioned sacking on their backs for saddles. Then with a brisk hearty word, he swept Berthe up on the first one.
"Next," he said, turning to Jacqueline.
But the marchioness drew back. Next—after her maid! It nettled her that this country boy, or any other, could not recognize in her that indefinable something which is supposed to distinguish quality.
"What's the matter, now?" he asked. "Quick, please, I'm in a hurry."
"It's too preposterous. I'll not!"
"You will," he said quietly.
Her gray eyes deepened to blue with amazement. She stood stock still, haughtily daring him. She even lifted her arms a little, leaving the girlish waist defenseless. Her slender figure was temptation, the pretty ducal fury was only added zest. Up among the rocks Driscoll had found himself whispering, "She's game, that little girl!" But at the same time he had remembered Rodrigo's innuendo, the linking of her name with Maximilian's. She was so brave, and so headstrong, so lovably headstrong, and her beauty was so fresh and soft! Yet he could not but think of that taint in what nature had made so pure. Of a sudden there was a something wrong, something ugly and hideously wrong in life. And the country boy, the trooper, the man of blood-letting, what you will, was filled with helpless rage against it; and next against himself, because the girlish waist could thrill him so. "A silly little butterfly," he argued inwardly. Before, he had been unaware of his own indifference. But now he angrily tried to summon it back. He set his mind on their situation, on what it exacted. It exacted haste, simple, impersonal haste. And keeping his mind on just that, he caught her up.
"Oh, you boor!" she cried, pushing at him.
His jaw hardened. His will was well nigh superhuman, for he battled against two furious little hands, against the dimple and the patch so near his lips, against the fragrance of her hair, against the subtle warmth of his burden.
"No, no!" she panted. "Monsieur, do you hear me? I am not to be carried!"
"Maybe not," said he, carrying her.
A moment later she discovered herself planted squarely on the burro.
"Bonte divine!" she gasped. But she took care not to fall off.
He drew a long breath.
"Now whip 'em up," he commanded.
* * * * *
The first village beyond, where Dupin had promised to meet Jacqueline, was a squatting group of thatched cones in a dense forest of Cyprus and eucalyptus. Its denizens were Huasteca Indians, living as they had before the Conquest, among themselves still talking their native dialect. The name of the hamlet was Culebra.
The coy twilight waned quickly, and the caravan was still pushing on through the thick darkness of the wood, when a high tensioned yelping made the vast silence insignificant, ugly. But as the travelers filed into the clearing where the village was, the curs slunk away with coyote humility, their yellow points of eyes glowing back on the intruders.
With a forager's direct method, Driscoll roused the early slumbering village. He would not take alfafa, he declined rastrojo. It was human food, corn, that he bought for his horse. He housed his dumb friend under a human roof too. After which he prepared a habitation for the women. He swept the likeliest hut clean of ashes, brazier, and bits of pots and jars. He carpeted the earth floor in Spanish moss, as King Arthur's knights once strewed their halls with rushes. It was luxury for a coroneted lass, if one went back a dozen centuries. There were chinks between the sooty saplings that formed the wall, but over these he hung matting, and he drove a stake for a candle.
Supper followed. The trooper chose to change Don Anastasio from host to guest, and he exacted what he needed from the Inditos. They, for their part, were alert before his commands. None of them had been overlooked in his preliminary largesse of copper tlacos and they made the teaming wilderness contribute to his spread. Kneeling, with sleeves rolled from his hard forearms, he broiled a steak over hickory forks. The torches of gum tree knots lighted his banquet, and the faces of the two girls, rosy in the blaze and mysterious in the shadow, were piquant inspiration. Even the sharp features of Don Anastasio stirred him into a phase of whimsical benevolence. He knocked two chickens from their perch in a tree and baked them in a mould of clay. There was an armadilla too, which a Culebra boy and the dogs had run down during the day. Its dark flesh was rich and luscious, and the Missourian fondly called it 'possum. Crisply toasted tortillas, or corn cakes, served for bread, and for spoons as well. But to Driscoll's mind the real feast was coffee—actual coffee, which he made black, so very good and black, a riotous orgie of blackness and strength and fragrance. Here was a feast indeed for the poor trooper. He thought of the chickory, of the parched corn, of all those pitiful aggravations that Shelby's Brigade had tried so hard to imagine into coffee during the late months of privation along the Arkansas line.
And the Marquise d'Aumerle? Learning to eat roasting ears, which somehow just would leave a grain on her cheek with every bite, the dainty Marquise thought how much finer was this than the tedious bumping ship. How much more tempting than the ultra-belabored viands on white china that had to be latticed down! Here was angel's bread in the wilderness. And the appetite that drove her to ask for more, that was the only sauce—an appetite that was a frisson. A new sensation, in itself!
And later, sleep too became a passion, a passion new and sweet in its incantation out of the lost cravings of childhood. When the nearer freshness of the woods filled her nostrils, there from the live-oak moss in her night's abode, she smiled on the grave young fellow who had left her at the door. And both girls laughing together over the masculine notions for their comfort, knew a certain happy tenderness in their gaiety.
"Eh, but it's deep, madame," said one.
"It's the politeness of the heart," the other explained.
Outside Driscoll spread his blanket across the doorway where his horse was sheltered, and wrapped in his great cape-coat, he stretched himself for a smoke. But Murguia came with cigars, of the Huasteca, gray and musty. Driscoll accepted one, waving aside the old man's apologies. He puffed and waited. Conviviality in Don Anastasio meant something.
"Ah, amigo," the thin voice cracked in a spasm of forced heartiness, "ah, it was a banquet! Si, si, a banquet! Only, if there were but a liqueur, a liqueur to give the after-cigar that last added relish, verdad, senor?"
Driscoll tapped his "after-cigar" till the ashes fell. "Well? he asked.
"Ai de mi, caballero, but I am heavy with regrets. I can offer nothing. My poor cognac—no, not after such a feast. But whiskey—ah, whiskey is magnifico. It is American."
He stopped, with a genial rubbing of his bony hands. But his sad good-fellowship was transparent enough, and in the darkness his eyes were beads of malice. Driscoll half grunted. A long way round for a drink, he thought. "Here," he said, getting out his flask, "have a pull at this."
Murguia took it greedily. He had seen the flask before. The covering of leather was battered and peeled. "Perhaps a little—water?" he faltered. Driscoll nodded, and off the old Mexican ambled with the flask. When he returned, he had a glass, into which he had poured some of the liquor. The canteen he handed back to the trooper, who without a word replaced it in his pocket. Murguia lingered. He sipped his toddy absently.
"I, I wonder why the friends of the senoritas do not come?" he ventured.
"Want to get rid of them, eh, Murgie?"
The old man shrugged his shoulders. "And why not? You may not believe me, senor, but should I not feel easier if they were—well, out of the reach of Don Rodrigo?"
"Out of——Look here, where's the danger now?"
"Ai, senor, don't be too sure. Colonel Dupin still does not come, and it might be—because the guerrillas have stopped him."
"Man alive, he had 'em running!"
"H'm, yes, but there's plenty more. This very village breeds them, feeds them, welcomes them home. Don Rodrigo can gather ten times what he had to-day. And if he does, and if, if he is looking for the senoritas again——"
Driscoll shifted on his blanket. "I see," he drawled. "F'r instance, if the senoritas vanish before he gets here, he won't blame you? Oh no, you were asleep, you couldn't know that I had up and carried 'em off. Anyhow, you'd rather risk Rodrigo than Colonel Dupin——Yes, I see." He tucked his saddle under his head, and lay flat, blinking at the stars. "This trail go on to Valles?" he inquired drowsily.
Murguia's small eyes brightened over him. "Yes," he said, eagerly.
"Correct," yawned the American, "I've already made sure."
"And if——" But a snore floated up from the blanket.
When Murguia was gone, the sleeper awoke. He carefully poured out all the remaining whiskey. "It may be what they call 'fine Italian,'" he muttered, with a disgusted shake of the head, but he neglected to throw the flask away as well. Next he saddled Demijohn and two of the pack horses, then lay down and slept in earnest, as an old campaigner snatches at rest.
The night was black, an hour before the dawn, when his eyes opened wide, and he sat up, listening. He heard it again, faint and far away, a feeble "pop-pop!" Then there were more, a sudden pigmy chorus of battle. He got to his feet, and ran to call the two women.
"So," said Jacqueline, appearing under the stars, "monsieur does not wish to be relieved of us? He will not wait for his friends?"
"Get on these horses! Here, I'll help you."
Soon they three were riding through the forest, in the trail toward Valles. Behind them the fairy popping swelled louder, yet louder, and the man glanced resentfully at his two companions. He was missing the game.