HotFreeBooks.com
The Missourian
by Eugene P. (Eugene Percy) Lyle
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"And," he added savagely, "just let any parlor critic smile at the sacred feet of those same lines!"

"Let him once!" said Driscoll. His eyes were moist.

Mr. Boone faithfully traversed the rest of the way with the "Iron Brigade," and no company of errant knights, perhaps, ever had such a junketing as those same lusty troopers. No sooner did they set foot in the enchanted land of roses than a damsel in distress, the Republica Mexicana herself, came to them for succor. Or more literally, a dissident governor, backed by the authority of President Juarez, offered Shelby military control of the three northern states and grants in the fabulously rich Sonora mines, if he would hang high his shield and recruit his countrymen in the republican cause. There is little doubt that General Shelby could have raised an army and become henceforth a power in Mexico, for Washington would have smiled on the undertaking and all Texas would have afforded a base of supplies. But the Missourian's Round Table voted it down. They awaited Maximilian's reply which Driscoll was to bring. Perhaps, too, they would have a chance to wage war against the United States again, and that was better than being smiled on.

Henceforth they fought the forlorn damsel herself, fought every foot of the way through desert mesquite thick enough to daunt a tarantula. There were guerrillas, robbers, spies, deserters, and Indian tribes. It was one eternal ambush, incessantly a skirmish, often a pitched battle. They saved a French garrison. They rescued a real maiden by a night attack on an hacienda stronghold, and did it with strictly de rigueur dash and chivalry. Once or twice they were even stung, by some "langourous dusky-eyed scorpion of a saynorita" to fight among themselves, cavalryman's code. Daniel was never one to spoil a romance by mentioning that a tropical maid was faced like a waffle-iron, though more than likely she was. Finally, as a last stroke, Fat Jenny promised to shoot Shelby and hang the rest.

"You've been derogatory about this lady before," Driscoll interposed, "and I want to know who she is."

"She is the English for Jeanningros, the French general at Monterey, who'd heard about those negotiations with the Republica. But Shelby formed in battle line, to storm his old city, and at the same time sent word explaining that he hadn't accepted any offer from the Republica. So, instead of shooting and hanging, Jenny asked us around for supper. That's where I left 'em."

"What for?"

"W'y," said Boone in surprise, "to see if you'd gotten here, and to take back Maximilian's answer."

"But what's the use? The Trans-Mississippi went and surrendered."

"Gra-cious, but you're in a vicious humor! Now, here's the use. Instead of fifty thousand, we're only one thousand, I know. But there are hundreds and hundreds of Americans down here like us, and all of 'em wanting service. There's that colony just starting at Cordova near Vera Cruz. But they'd fight, if there was an American to lead them, and more yet 'ud come from the States. Quicker'n that, Old Joe will have a division."

Driscoll ruefully shook his head. "Maximilian wants us," he said, "if we'll give up our arms first."

"If we——"

"If we will surrender, Dan."

Mr. Boone's jaw fell. The phrase that would measure the depth of the proposed ignominy would not come. Finally, he dug from his pocket a bright new gold coin, twenty pesos, and contemplated reflectively the side that bore Maximilian's effigy.

"I've got the cub repohter's superstition," he said at last. "You get your cards printed," here he tapped the coin significantly, "and you're sure to lose your job—still we might of helped him."

There was nothing, though, for Daniel but to turn back and meet the Brigade. Learning Maximilian's decision, the Missourians would probably join the Cordova colony. Boone reckoned that he would. He discovered that he was tired of fighting. Perhaps the new citizens at Cordova would want an organ, a weekly at least; and already his nostrils were sniffing the pungent, fascinating aroma of printer's ink. Then he asked Driscoll what he thought of doing, now that he was free.

"Don't know," came the reply lonesomely. "Stir around, I guess. There's a flying column leaving this week to capture Juarez. Maybe that'll do me."



CHAPTER II

THE BLACK DECREE

"So may heaven's grace clear whatso'er of foam Floats turbid on the conscience."—Dante.

That unleashed hawk which was the flying column failed to clutch its prey. From the City of Mexico across the far northwestern desert the Chasseurs and cuirassiers rode their swift Arabian steeds, and into the town of Chihuahua at last. But the old Indian for whom they came was not there. Benito Juarez had fled. He must have known. Yet how, no one might conjecture. It was as though some watchful Republican fairy had marked the sturdy, squat patriot as the one hope of the Empire's overthrow, and did not propose to have him taken. Scouts, spies, the entire French secret service, delved, gestured, and sweated. But they laid bare next to nothing. At the Palacio Municipal a number of functionaries told of a peon in breech clout, a wretch coated with alkali dust till the muscles of his legs looked like grayish ropes, who had emerged from the cacti plain ten days before and come running into Chihuahua. The peon had made direct for the Palacio, where, in some way, he had contrived a secret word with Don Benito; and that very day Don Benito with his one minister, Lerdo, had set out toward the north.

Afterward the functionaries had questioned the messenger, but he knew next to nothing. A senor chaparro had sent him, was all he said. It was a ridiculous anti-climax. A senor chaparro, "El Chaparrito," "Shorty," such a one to be the omniscient guardian of the Republic! But for all that "El Chaparrito" was to be heard of again and many times, and always as an enigma to both sides alike, until the absurd word became freighted on the lips of men with superstitious awe. There was an inscrutable, long-fingered providence at work in the blood-strife of the nation. The warning to Juarez at Chihuahua was its first manifestation.

Their quarry had escaped, but Driscoll was not sorry. More than once he had felt a vague shame for the unsportsmanlike chase after one lone, indomitable old man. Driscoll held a commission, which Michel Ney, happily recovering, had procured for him from the marshal. But as the American's healthy spirits, like cleansing by vigorous blood, swept the gloom from his mind, he began to wonder at the craving for bustle and forgetfulness which had made him snatch at such an offer. The corners of his mouth twisted in whimsical self-scorn. He, one of your drooping, unrequited lovers! "Shucks!" that is what he thought. And he persuaded himself that it was all over. Quite, quite persuaded himself. But as a matter of fact, he hoped that he might never have to see her again.

It was not until October of the same year that Driscoll saw actual battle in his new service. With the Fifth Lancers under Colonel Mendez, the best of the few native regiments in the field, he had been assisting at a manner of pacification. That is, they marched from town to town, and received allegiance. Guerrillas of course punished the towns later, but Maximilian would not be induced to organize a native army, and thirty thousand French could not garrison fifteen thousand leagues. They could only promenade, through sand storms, through cacti. Then the battle took place. It was the last vestige of Liberal resistance to the Empire. A few hundred men near Uruapan in Michoacan flaunted their defiance. Driscoll noticed an expectant and wolfish look in his colonel's eyes. Mendez was a strikingly handsome and gallant Indian, but his expectancy now was not for battle. It was for the battle's sequel. Michel Ney and a squad of Chasseurs had just brought him an Imperial packet from the City, and the packet contained general orders very much to his Indian taste.

The fight was a rousing one, and Driscoll enjoyed himself for the first time in many days. His Mexicans behaved as he could have wished, better than he had hoped. At the start in the familiar uproarious hell, he missed the hard set, exultant faces of his old Jackson county troop, and seeing only tawny visages through the smoke and hearing only foreign yells, he felt a queer twinge of homesickness. But he was at once ashamed, for the humble little chocolate centaurs whom he had been set to train were dying about him with lethargic cynicism, just as they were bidden. Wearing a charm, either the Virgin's picture in a tin frame, or the cross, they might have worn the crescent. They were as effective as Moslems. They were ruthless fatalists.

Michel Ney also spent a diverting half-hour. He had lingered for the fray. Waving a broken sabre snapped off at the hilt, he charged with Gallic verve and got himself knocked under his kicking and wounded horse, and pummeled by Liberal muskets on every side. Driscoll saw, and straightened out matters. Handing the Frenchman a whole sabre, he reproved him soberly, as a carpenter might an apprentice caught using a plane for a ripsaw.

After it was over, the living of the enemy were prisoners. The victors marched them to Uruapan near by, because it was charged that at this place two of the captured Liberals, Generals Arteaga and Salazar, had lately shot two Imperialists. Here, in their turn, they were promptly executed.

Driscoll heard the volleys, ran to the spot, and saw the last horrid spasms.

"What—what——"

Ney turned on him a sickened look.

"Don't you know, it's the new decree."

"What new decree? These dead men were prisoners of war. If murderers, they weren't tried."

"It's the decree I brought from Maximilian, the decree of general amnesty."

Driscoll glared fiercely at such a jest, but to his utter amazement Ney was quite in earnest.

He who had commanded the shooting squad stooped over the corpses, a smoking pistol in his hand. Now he glanced up at Driscoll. "Pues, si senores," he said, "of amnesty, yes," and chuckling, he indicated the bodies with his pistol. "But wait——" He thought he saw a form quiver, one he had overlooked. Remedying this with a belated coup de grace through the brain, he shoved back his white gold-bordered sombrero and mopped his forehead as a laborer whose labor is done.

"Under which general amnesty, caballeros," he went on merrily, "you have just witnessed the first act. My loyalty to the Emperor grows. His Majesty has a sense of humor."

It was Don Tiburcio. He had deserted the Contras to waylay the rich bullion convoy of which Rodrigo Galan had told him. But the convoy never came. Rodrigo, the "sin vergueenza," had not levied toll at all. He had swallowed it whole, a luscious morsel of several millions in silver and gold. The coup was of a humor the less appreciated by Don Tiburcio because he had figured on doing the very same thing himself. At present he was chief of scouts under Mendez, and commanded the Exploradores, audacious barbarians who were invaluable for their knowledge of the country.

From Tiburcio and Ney Driscoll finally gathered the meaning of the decree. It was the keynote to the Imperialist hopes. Its cause was the flight of Juarez across the border. Maximilian was surcharged anew with enthusiasm. Even the United States must now recognize his empire, he believed. And confounding flurry with activity, as usual, he fervently proclaimed the courage and constancy of Don Benito Juarez, but added that the Republican hegira finally and definitely stamped all further resistance to the Empire as useless. Then, august and Caesar-like, he allowed amnesty for those who submitted immediately; he prescribed death for all others. Rebels taken in battle were not even to have trial. Maximilian believed that ink, thus sagaciously besmeared by a statesman's fingers, would blot out further revolution. But it was so fatuous, so stupidly unnecessary! The court martials, or French gardens of acclimatization, as the dissidents called them, were already doing the work of the decree. The poet prince merely lifted the odium of it to his own shoulders. His amnesty became infamy, and was called the Bando Negro, a nefast Decree to blacken his gentleness and well-meaning for all time.

Driscoll left his informants, and walked up and down, up and down, alone. It did not occur to him to fill the cob pipe between his teeth. A scowl settled between his eyes, and it deepened and grew ugly. The desperado was forming in the man—desperado, as contrast to polite conventions. Desperado, as primitive man, who hews straight, cutting whom or what he might, cutting first of all through the veneered bark of civilization. For this reason, in this sense, he might be termed outlaw. And walking up and down, up and down, he hewed till he had laid bare the core of the matter. And he saw it naked, without the polish. Thereupon he knew what he was going to do.

He saddled Demijohn, and Demijohn followed at his shoulder to the jefetura. Here, at the entrance, under the brick-red portales, Driscoll left the horse, untied, and opened the door and passed within.

The jefetura, or prefecture, was at present the headquarters of the command, and in the long front room were assembled a number of officers, including Ney and Tiburcio, besides the jefe of the place and several town magistrates, all chatting with Colonel Mendez about the recent victory. They greeted the American cordially, and poured out tequila for him. He had done as much as any to win the fight. Michel laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Monsieur," he said with mock formality, "to-day, when you permitted yourself to save my skin, you called me a fool. But I would have you observe, monsieur, that only my patron divinity, the god of fools, is permitted to know so much."

Driscoll loosed himself from the affectionate grip, and turned to Mendez.

"Colonel," he said, "I'm going to get out of this."

"What? Oh come, mi capitan, find a better one!"

"It's not a joke, sir. Profiting by a commission that does not bind me, I am here to tell you good-bye."

"Jean, mon ami!" Ney cried in protest.

Don Tiburcio waited with keen appreciation, as he always did when the unexpectedness of this Gringo was unfolding. The others stared agape at the man between them and the door. Mendez saw too that he was in earnest, and he began to argue, almost to entreat. The Mexican leader had lost the quality of mercy in civil wars that had touched him cruelly, that had exacted many near to him, but there was sincerity in the man, and men were won by the stirring sound of his voice.

"You would retire now," he exclaimed, "now, when every soul here may look for promotion, and none of them more than you, Senor Dreescol?"

But he did not stop there. He conjured up a tempting vista of long and honored life under an empire that was now supreme. Even the scum of rebellion yet left on the calm surface was that day swept away, and naught remained but to enjoy the favors of his grateful Majesty.

"Which only makes it," said Driscoll, "a good time to quit. I should mention, too, that I intend to join the Republic, that is," he added, "if there's any of the Republic left."

Don Tiburcio was not disappointed.

Mendez sprang to his feet and his voice was stentorian, as when he rallied his men by the magnet of fury and hatred.

"It's desertion!" he roared.

"Or simple honesty," Driscoll corrected him. "But it doesn't matter. The penalty is no worse for a deserter, if you catch him."

Mendez curbed his rage. He did not wish to lose this man. That is, he would regret deeply having to kill him.

"Why do you mean to change?" he demanded.

"Because I can't feel right! It's like—somehow it's like being an accomplice of murderers."

"Dios mio, I suppose Your Mercy and his tender heart refers to the Decree?"

"Partly. That thing is a blanket warrant of death. Just because your enemy can't fight any longer——"

"But you forget, senor, the mines that exploded in the highways. You forget the poisoned springs, the ambuscades, the massacres. Would they not shoot prisoners too, your new friends?"

"Si senor, as you and others may some day experience personally."

"Then, mighty judge, condemn them also."

"Don't I? But I can't blame them. They are punishing crime."

"But not of murder, as we did to-day."

"That too, for that was murder to-day. But I was thinking of a worse crime. I was thinking of theft, sir."

"Theft? How can that be worse?"

"Theft of their country, I mean, and as your accomplice I owe restitution. Leaving after a victory ain't so bad, but if I'd known that I was fighting for that Black Decree, I'd of dropped out before the fight. But look at it anyway you please. How it looks be damned!"

"Senor, lay down your pistols and sabre, there, on that table, because, by Heaven, I shall stop you! But if you are armed, I—I shall have to shoot you, too."

"Hang it, Mendez, you're a good fellow! But—I can't help it."

"Lay them down, you renegade!"

Driscoll removed his sabre and gravely placed it on the table.

"The guns are my own," he said. "Dupin had them returned to me. He took them. Suppose you take them, Colonel Mendez!"

He was in the doorway, and from there he faced them. The day was hot, and Mendez had taken off his belt with his weapons. But the others were armed. Yet they hesitated. They were brave enough for death, but before the certainty of death for at least one among them and the uncertainty of which one, they paused. Driscoll had not touched the black six-shooters under his ribs. That would have snapped the psychological fetter. As he expected, Mendez sprang first. This put an unarmed man between himself and the others. In the instant he wheeled, was in the saddle, and clattering down the street.

Back in the room Mendez saw his blunder and made way. Ney passed him first, reached the door, aimed and fired. But someone behind him touched his arm, and the ball sped high. Ney turned, and saw Tiburcio filling the door against the others, and regarding him with evil challenge in his eye.

"Oh, don't think that I hold it against you," Ney cried gratefully.

Tiburcio half laughed.

"A man who don't want prisoners shot is better with the enemy than dead," he said.

Tiburcio's chuckle was prophetic. The enemy invariably executed Exploradores, and would certainly do as much for Don Tiburcio if they caught him.

Ney heard the hoof beats, already far away.

"May the god of fools look after him too," he murmured heavily.

The fugitive swept round the first corner of the street and on through the town. None thought to stop him. Soldiers and townsmen supposed him on the Empire's urgent business, and when they knew better, there was no longer hope for their ponies against the great Missouri buckskin, now a diminishing dusty speck mid cacti and maguey.

"The devil of it is," Driscoll muttered ruefully, "I don't know where there's anybody to desert to!"

However, he was feeling much better.



CHAPTER III

AS BETWEEN WOMEN

"A laugh is worth a hundred groans in any market."—Lamb.

Jacqueline had wrought close to success during that May twilight on the edge of the Cuernavaca pond. She had won a promise of abdication. Yet in the end it was not the Emperor that left Mexico, but the Empress. And Jacqueline was to accompany her, to leave despite herself the scene of her labors. Such was the case precisely, and it all came to pass in this wise.

Maddened by the distance which his temptress kept, also goaded to it by the sorry state of his empire, Maximilian thought only of abdication. Napoleon responded to Jacqueline's cipher dispatch with orders to Bazaine. But Bazaine, urged thereto by Empress and marechale, ignored the orders, and advanced Maximilian more money. And Maximilian, having no longer his excuse to quit, stayed on to spend the money. Jacqueline sighed, and—began all over again. Consequently Bazaine, hearing once more from Napoleon, found himself a defaulter, and virtually recalled. Consequently, Napoleon set dates for evacuation. Consequently the rebellion sprang into new life, and the Empire lost armies and cities, and thousands of men by desertion. But the darkest cloud was formed by one hundred thousand Yankees massed along the Rio Grande. Napoleon took heed. He ordered that the French troops should leave at once, unless half the Mexican customs were turned over to the French administrator. This was during the summer of 1866, only six months after the bright hopes embodied in the Black Decree of general amnesty. Utterly appalled, Maximilian took up his pen again to sign his abdication.

But there was Charlotte. Even yet she pettishly clung to her crown. The Mexican agents in Paris had availed nothing with Napoleon. Bien, she would herself go to Paris. She would get the ultimatum recalled, and Bazaine as well, because Bazaine no longer advanced money. The imperial favorites, among them the sleek-jowled padre recommended by Eloin, seconded her intention. And as they all talked so well, Maximilian quaffed of hope. With a spite hardly noble though entirely royal, he predicted that soon the marshal would find himself in a sadder fix than himself, the Emperor.

Suddenly, secretly, a little after midnight, Charlotte left the capital. Maximilian bade her good-bye with a solemn promise to rejoin her in Europe if she failed. Three days later Dupin and his Contra Guerrillas met her in the Tierra Caliente, and offered to join her French cavalry escort. The Empress took his presence as an affront. Of late small things excited her to a feverish agitation which she was unable to control. The Tiger bowed over his saddle, and kept his gray hair bared to a torrential downpour while her carriage passed on. It was the tropical rainy season. The clouds hung low around the mountain base and truncated the more distant peaks, while the valley below was a bright contrast in wet, tender green. The wheels sank deep, and mired in the black, soggy earth. Men tugged constantly at the spokes, and the steaming mules reared and plunged under the angry crack of whips.

The Tiger of the Tropics waited as carriage after carriage toiled past him and creaked and was forced on its way. Behind the dripping windowpane of the very last he saw a face he knew, a beautiful, saddened face, puckered just now by some immediate ill-humor. She frowned on recognizing the French barbarian, but unlike Charlotte, she did not jerk down the shutter. Instead, she lowered the glass by the length of her pretty nose.

"Is it dotage already, monsieur? Then put on your hat!"

"Name of a name, yet another petulant grande dame!" But the Frenchman turned his horse and rode beside her coach.

"Did Her Majesty pout, then?" inquired the lady within.

"Almost as superbly as Mademoiselle la Marquise."

"Thank you well, but I have a superb reason for it."

"Because you return to Paris, surely not? Yet, if that is the reason, you need not quite despair."

"Why, what—what do you mean?"

"Only brigands, mademoiselle. When everyone is looking for abdication, a cortege mysteriously leaving the City must be the Emperor who goes back to Austria. The news travels like wildfire. The Indito runners go as fast as when they brought Moctezuma fresh fish from the Gulf. I rather think they have carried the news to an old friend of ours. It's my chance to catch him."

"Not my Fra Diavolo—Rodrigo Galan?"

"None other. But Rodrigo is stirred by more than patriotism these days. Upon it he has grafted a deep wrong, and he swears lofty vengeance by a little ivory cross such as these Mexican girls wear. The conceited cut-throat imagines there is a blood feud between himself and His Majesty. So if he hears that Prince Max comes this way——"

"He will find Charlotte instead? But he must not detain her."

"Tonnerre!" exclaimed the Cossack chief. "Why not? She goes to Europe to sustain the Empire, while we French——"

"All the same, let her go. She will gain nothing there. Listen to me, monsieur. She leaves that he may not abdicate, while if I stay, she fears that——"

"He will abdicate?"

"Your wits, mon colonel, are entirely satisfactory. And so she invited me to go with her, and as first lady of her household, I could not refuse. I wonder, now, if Fra Diavolo would deign to capture just me, alone!"

The sharp look which Dupin gave her from behind the streams tumbling off his sombrero was the sixth of a half-dozen. But it was this last one that seemed to satisfy him.

"Put up the window, mademoiselle," he said, "you're getting wet."

Ten minutes later Jacqueline felt the coach lurch heavily and sink to the hub on one side.

"Go on with your nap, Berthe," she said to her one companion. "They'll pull us out, as usual."

The customary yelling and straining began, and men grunted as they heaved against an axle. After a long seance of such effort there came a sharp exclamation, like an oath, and the confusion fell to a murmur of dismay. Someone jerked open the door, and Dupin's grizzled head appeared.

"Mademoiselle, I regret to have to announce that a wheel is dished in."

Jacqueline's gray eyes regarded him quizzically. The sardonic old face spread to a grin, but deftly readjusted itself to the requisite despair.

Not a carriage except the wrecked one was in sight. Only the Tiger's whelps, by the hundred, surrounded her.

"And the others? Her Majesty?"

"The others did the sensible thing. They know that you will catch up with them when they themselves are mired. Her Majesty, being ahead, is probably still in ignorance of your accident."

"But the wheel?"

"If mademoiselle wishes it mended?"

"Is it so bad?"

Dupin caught her expression. "It will take six hours," he said mercilessly.

"Oh dear!" said Jacqueline.

"There's a settler's cabin a mile from here. If you will accept my horse, and Mademoiselle Berthe can mount behind——"

"Poor Berthe," sighed Jacqueline. But she nodded eagerly.



CHAPTER IV

THE LACKING COINCIDENCE

"Achilles absent was Achilles still."—The Iliad.

Colonel Dupin helped first one and then the other of his charges upon the same horse and wrapped them about in the same gaudy serape till only two pair of pretty eyes peeped forth at the rain. The Vera Cruz highway clung to the mountain side, but the Contra Guerrillas took a venturesome little bridle path which dropped abruptly down into the rich valley of a thousand or more feet below. Emerging from the dense tropical growth of the highland, they beheld a vast emerald checkerboard of cultivation, field after field of sugar cane, and set in each bright square a little house of bamboo with a roof of red piping. After the dreary black gorges behind them, the light of the sun seemed boxed in here under a leaden cover of cloud. Coming suddenly out of the chill and mist, the two girls felt the very rain gratefully warm and the fragrant smells of the wet earth a thing of comfort. As the beauty and the cheer of it subtly gladdened her mood, Jacqueline thought that here at any rate was an adequate mise-en-scene for whatever tremors might befall.

There was one circumstance that already seemed a portent, and got on a person's nerves like the stillness of nature just before a Kansas cyclone. This was the curious absence of all human life. Except for the grimly expectant troop around her, and the clanking of metal as the Contras rode, she had no token of a fellow creature. The first of the plantations was deserted, and likewise the next. But the house doors were open. Nothing showed preparation for departure. The riddle was uncanny. At the third Jacqueline stated that she would go no farther. She hated to tramp down a man's field when the man himself was not about to express an opinion, and the ruthless swath made by her escort through the cane gave her shame. Besides, it was too much like wading, the way her skirts brushed the long leaves and knocked off glistening drops by myriads.

The third cabin was abandoned too, but there were inducements within for any houseless creature. A hammock was hanging from corner to corner in the front room, probably to thwart the fauna of tropical stingers, and there was that comfort unfamiliar to French women, a rocking chair, before a most inviting fireplace, itself a luxury rare in Mexico. The two girls removed their cloaks, and settled themselves to dry their shoes before a roaring fire which the men lighted for them. Then the Cossacks, including their colonel, left on some stealthy business without, and Jacqueline and Berthe were alone.

Jacqueline tried the rocker, found it good, and smoothed her skirts over her knees to the warmth of the blaze. "We've only to yawn at the flies, eh, ma cherie?" said she.

"Not a thing else, madame," came a cheery voice from the hammock.

Jacqueline was at once suspicious. "You absurd little mouse," she cried, "don't I understand that gaiety of yours! And all the while you are really trembling in fear of terrible bandits. For months now you grieve because you imagine that I—well, that I am sad. But you'll not make me hilarious, you won't, Berthe, as long as it's 'madame.' Child, child, will you not let me have my friend in you, I who have none, nor a mother or sister! There now, if I'm not to be—ah—pensive—remember there's no 'madame' between thee and me, dear!"

The Bretonne's gentle eyes filled suddenly. Jacqueline had before sought to change their relations, ever since Berthe's part in Driscoll's rescue from execution, but she had always tried to bring it about by playful bantering. Now, however, Berthe was given to see the utter loneliness of an orphaned girl in one who for all the rest of the world was the disdainfully independent little aristocrat, who had met the proffered intimacy of the French empress with a sneer, who was the cold princess when among princesses of the Blood. The loyal child of simple Breton folk sprang impulsively to the arm of the rocker, and was herself clasped no less impulsively.

"But there," said Jacqueline, laughing rather brokenly, "we're forgetting the flies."

A belt over the fireplace caught her eye, and she unexpectedly discovered that her breath had quickened. She stared fascinated at the letters on the buckle. "C. S. A.," she murmured. Then her startled gaze roved hurriedly over the walls. It became even frightened before a faded gray cape-coat of the Confederate cavalry and a battered white gauntlet sticking from the pocket. Involuntarily, trembling foolishly, she looked to see if there might not be an old cob pipe also. There was not, but the other familiar objects made her imagination leap fearfully to what might be. Both hope and dread will always override common sense, and convoy imagination perforce. If he did live here—if they should meet! Could such a coincidence happen, could it, outside the neat ordering of a book or play?

She sprang to her feet and began investigating. She went awesomely as one would tiptoe over a haunted house. In the next room she came upon what was an odd treasure trove for an isolated bamboo cabin tucked far away under the Tropic of Cancer. It was a printer's shop, after a fashion. The case was a block of stone, in whose surface the little compartments had been chiseled. They were sparsely accoutred with type and plentifully with cigar ashes. As for a press, there was none. But a form had been made up on a slab of marble, and near by were a tiny hillock of ink, a roller and a mallet. The mysterious printer could at least take proofs. There was one now on a file. Jacqueline pulled it off, and contemplated a miniature American newspaper, of one sheet, printed on one side only, and no larger than a magazine cover. At the top she read the legend, in German caps: "The Cordova ColonistWeekly Independent."

"Is that a pun?" she wondered.

But now at least she could identify the ghostly company of the valley, though not its scribe. That word "Cordova" gave the clue. A year ago one thousand hardy men had ridden into the capital from the north. Their leader was a fiery, black-whiskered little man with a plume in his hat and the buff sash of a brigadier general around his waist. They were the Missourians, defamed as "Shelby's horse thieves and judges of whiskey," honored as "The Old Brigade," and so feared and respected under any name that the City fairly buzzed and stared goggle-eyed. But Maximilian again refused their offers to enlist under his standard, and they could only disband. Some took ship to hunt for Kidd's treasure in the Pacific, others went to Japan and the Sandwich Islands, and a number joined a congenial regiment of veterans, the Zouaves. But the majority, she remembered now, had been settlers, persuaded thereto by their countryman, Commodore Maury, who was Imperial Commissioner of Immigration. Maury had secured a grant of land near the town of Cordova, within a hundred miles of Vera Cruz. There were one-half million acres of rich land, suitable for the three Big C's of southern countries, cotton, cane and coffee. But until now the strip had not been cultivated. The Church had held it fallow. Then the Republic had nationalized it; and the Empire was selling it to the Americans at $1.25 an acre. The hopeful settlement bore the name of Carlota.

So the cape-coat and those other things were explained. She was denied her coincidence. But as there was so much of a plot forward anyway, she ought to have been satisfied—as an artist, she ought. She craved an ecstasy of peril or of terror, not as the former dilettante of emotions, but as the lotus eater who exacts forgetfulness.

Meantime she read editorials, and got interested. The Colonist never advanced beyond the proof-sheet stage, but as such it circulated with avidity over the valley. Eloquence flowed serene under mashed type and variegated fonts. The editor persisted in viewing the Empire and Republic as political parties, and the horrors of civil warfare as incidents of an electoral campaign. He had congenial scope for his unpartisan and independent pen, advising with owl-like sagacity or abusing with peppery virulence, and either, for either side, with blithe impartiality. At times, though, the strained analogy between ballots and bullets evidently cracked, and rather floored the editor. For instance, in a pot-pourri of long primer and pica with a dash of Old English lower-case was the following:

As we wen[t] to press last week we paused to entertain a torchlight procession of the Young Imperialists' Flambeau [C]lub, which was collecting a campaign contribution in the semblance of our alfalfa stack. The spectacle of citizens taking an active [p]art in the issues before their country ne'er fails to rouse in us a spirit of collaboration, so [w]hat could we do but join heartily in the celebration, so that a most excellent time was had. Later our editorial staff, a score who in our canefields teach the tender sprouts [h]ow to shoot, knowing t[h]e same so well themselves, gently laid to rest a score and one Cossacks, past members of the [F]lambeau Club, wh[o] had lingered behind for the reason that they were past. But, we ask, ad quod damnum?—i.e., isn't it as futile as cauterizing a wooden leg? How much longer, O Jove, must we let our public-opinion moulds cool off while we chase enthusiastic young patriots away from our alfal[f]a!!!... In conclusion, with a cool brow, we are constrained to say that if the party in power cannot discourage the depredations above ci[t]ed, we shall have to fortify ourselves to the contemplation of a c[h]ange of administration.

[Transcriber's note: characters in brackets were originally printed as bold Old English lower-case as explained above.]

"Why," cried Jacqueline, "what an animal disputans it is!" She perceived an ink bottle, and exclaimed, "Ah, more milk from the black cow!" Taking up a wad of copy paper, on which a future editorial was already begun, she read, and quickly her amusement changed to a livelier interest.

"Rumor goes," she read under the caption, Ardentia Verba, "that Father Augustine, political manager for the administration, vice Eloin, is soon to leave for Europe. He goes to have a pourparler with the Pope. He will concede everything, since the Empire no longer hopes to win over the moderate Mexicans. But the obstinate though Holy Father will negotiate a concordat on one basis only, and that is the return to the Mexican church of all nationalized church lands.

"Men of the colony, attention now! We each own something like three hundred acres apiece of these lands. And we are paying for them, we are cultivating them, and we have to defend them against both guerrillas and contra-guerrillas. And now they are to be confiscated! Our new homes are to be taken from us!! Alas, we who are peaceful settlers, to think that we were Trojans on a time!!! Fellow citizens, with us it's a severe case of e pluribus unum. Oh, for a leader! But our incomparable chief of yore will not stir. Yet there was one, gallant cavalier of the South, peerless captain, just the dauntless heart for any forlorn hope under the starry vault of heaven, if he were only here! If he, John D. Driscoll, were only——"

The matter stopped abruptly. More than that, by force of habit the scribe had ringed the figures "30" underneath. They meant "finis." The editor had known, then, that he would not return to end his harangue.

"A flea bite," mused Jacqueline, "would interrupt the penning of an Alexandrian line. Now, I wonder who or what the flea could have been, and what——"

But there, she would ask herself no question concerning the editorially mentioned "John D. Driscoll."

It was mid afternoon when Colonel Dupin, like a shaggy, dripping bear, returned to the house and begged leave to dry himself. Standing before the fire, he reloaded his holster pistols. They were tremendous, elegant utensils of French make, with a nine-chambered cylinder, and a second barrel underneath that carried a rifle ball. Where no prisoners were taken on either side, the owner of such a weapon usually reserved the murderous slug for himself, and the loading of that lower barrel became a sort of ghastly rite. Jacqueline shuddered as she watched him fix on the cap.

"How do you explain your desertion of Her Majesty?" she asked. "Our Fra Diavolo should thank me for drawing you off."

The Tiger adjusted the double hammer so that it would play on the cylinder first. A rumbling chuckle came from the depths of his throat.

"I should be honored with mademoiselle's approval," he said, "for at court mademoiselle is a guileful warrior. The casualties there may not be so sanguinary, but the strategic principle is the same. Know, then, that Rodrigo Galan employs a spy whom I own, body and soul. By now Rodrigo has learned from this spy that the Imperial coach broke down, and that to-night Her Majesty rests—here. So you see that she is not likely to be attacked——"

"But I see that we are, parbleu!"

"Of course," and the Tiger unctuously rubbed his hands in the blaze. "It's my chance to trap him. He has only three hundred men."

"And you, monsieur?"

"Our mutual spy has told him that I have less than two hundred men. The brigand knows that I was forced to leave a garrison at Tampico."

"But how many have you, really?"

Dupin motioned her to the window. But she saw not a man, not a musket. She saw only the wet fields of cane, and the black mist-shrouded mountains beyond.

"Just the same," the Frenchman assured her pleasantly, "they are there, full five hundred of my little tribe. Does mademoiselle approve?"

"It looks like the curtain on 'Fra Diavolo,'" she replied, shuddering.



CHAPTER V

THE MISSOURIANS

"Men sententious of speech and quick of pistol practice." —Major John N. Edwards.

An hour before nightfall the guerrillas attacked. Jacqueline was standing at the window, when she heard a jubilant din and saw a tawny troop charging through the fields toward the house. They yelled as they came, waving machetes and carbines. It was the usual theatrical dash of Mexicans. Like savages, they thought first to frighten their adversaries.

"Won't you come and see, Berthe? It's like a hippodrome."

She felt sorry for them. The dulcet cane grew thorns. Under the leaves the black soil was become clay red with leather jackets. The Cossacks had fixed sword-bayonets to their muskets, and were waiting on their knees.

Stung by the hidden barbs, the first horses reared in air, pawing and screeching frantically. Many sank down again, and they were limp as the life ebbed. Others crashed backward, their riders underneath, and those behind plunged over them, unable to stop. Soon it was a fearful jumble; men and beasts, hoofs and steel, curses and shrill neighing. Then the firing began, a woof of fine red threads through the warp of pale-green reeds. The guerrillas yet fought. The myth of their own heavier numbers kept them from panic. Ragged fellows with feet bare in the stirrups leaned over to slash at heads between the tasselled stalks. They squirmed like snakes from under kicking horses, and fainting, got a carbine to the shoulder at aim, and someway, pulled the trigger. Then they were taken in the rear. One-half of the Contra forces, mounted, had waited under the sapling growth of the nearest foothill. Now they sprang from cover, bloodthirsty whelps trailing the Tiger. The guerrillas could not turn back. To retreat they must cleave the way in front, and they did, by sheer desperation. Falling in the mesh at every step, they at last gained the large open space around the cabin.

Then it was that Jacqueline got a near view of Don Rodrigo. He was superbly mounted, and his long body made a heroic figure on the curveting charger. He frowned, and his mustachios bristled fiercely, and his shouts of command were heavily ominous. The wind turned the folds of his black cloak. It was faced with scarlet silk; and the charro elegance beneath was black and resplendent. All told, he was a very outburst of glitter; breeches, jacket, sombrero, saddle, stirrups, and bridle; not of silver, but of gold. Good carbines for his vagabond Inditos, magnificence for himself, these had come from that fabulous theft of the bullion convoy. And he had arrayed himself this rainy day to dazzle a princess of the Blood. So now he wielded his sword with a conscious flourish, glancing toward the window to see if he were seen.

"The poseur, never out of his role," murmured his audience there. "How will he enjoy running, I wonder?"

But to her astonishment he did not run, though Dupin was cutting closer and closer through tangled bodies, eager to grapple with his old-time slippery foe. Don Rodrigo raised in his saddle, and looked anxiously in all directions. Suddenly his dark face lighted, and wheeling round, he called to his men, and in his turn strove as furiously to reach the Tiger as the Tiger had striven to reach him. Jacqueline could not now tell which side to feel sorry for. But she exulted in the thrill of it, even as she wrung her hands at sight of the red agony.

Then something happened, which even the Tiger, who knew his warfare so well, had never known; which got into even his dried and toughened marrow. It was the Rebel yell. It rose over a sudden thunderous rush of hoof beats. And next, as a puff of air, a herd of horsemen, a wild mud-spattering streak, surged past the house. On across the open, and straight upon the fray, they merged everywhere, and made bigger and livelier the blotch of mad swarming. Some wore slouch hats, others straw sombreros, and all were ruddily burned. They fought with revolvers, and often one would pause between shots to spit tobacco. They brought to the battle one thing above all else, and that was vim, vim unbounded, vim that simply had to have vent.

Jacqueline caught her breath. What race of men were these? Exalted, quivering, she watched them doing as workmen what fell to their hands, yet ever with that whirlwind of vim.

"The Missourians—of course!" she cried.

Through powder smoke and misty rain the figure of one horseman slowly grew familiar. She caught fleeting glimpses of him, as he darted into a melee, as he spurred round to find a hotter field. Suddenly her eyes widened, and she pressed a hand hard against her breast.

"The coincidence!" she gasped, trembling from head to foot. "It is the coincidence!"

Her nose flattened against the wet pane. She remembered how that general of the Missourians had told Charlotte about this man, for the Empress had asked. And the general had related how the troop had dubbed him the Storm Centre.

"And no wonder!" she breathed. "Mon Dieu, how he enjoys it!—But, oh—he will be killed—oh!"

Yet nothing of the kind happened. When she uncovered her eyes, his assailants were in flight. Every Cossack survivor was in flight. The Storm Centre wheeled and confronted Don Rodrigo, who raised his sombrero effusively.

"Rebellion makes strange comrades," thought Jacqueline. "But no, my—the—chevalier—does not take his hand."

Indeed Driscoll was looking the guerrilla over with little favor. "So," he exclaimed, "it was you I was to help here!"

"And what better patriot, senor——"

"Never mind that. Why didn't you wait till dark to attack? Weren't those the orders, or—that is, the suggestion?"

"But whose suggestion? Perhaps, senor, you know who El Chaparrito is?"

"Haven't the least idea, nor anyone else. But it's certain, Rod, that this is your first experience of Shorty. Another time, and you'll have sense enough to take his hints. Now then, where's the emperor we were to catch?"

Fra Diavolo's smile was Satanic. "Your Chaparrito was either mistaken about the Emperor, or," and he glanced toward the window, "or he deceived you into helping me capture a beautiful young woman."

"How? What——"

"I mean that His Cautious Majesty did not come, however much El Chaparrito seems to want him. But—" and Rodrigo's tone lowered heavily, "but his August Spouse came instead. She is in that cabin now. It is well, senor, for vengeance in kind is just. It is righteous, it is biblical. Since fate has thrown——"

"E-a-s-y! Eas-y, boy. Of course, if we've gone and netted an empress, we'll ask 'em to please take her back. This ain't a woman's game."

"Give up a queen's ransom?"

Driscoll nodded cheerfully.

"I believe, caballero," said the brigand with awful dignity, "that I command here."

Driscoll looked at his Missourians returning from the chase. "Well," he laughed, "you might try it on, and see how they take it."

Behind Jacqueline the door opened. She almost jumped. Of the hundreds likely to enter there, her startled fancy pictured only one. But the new comer was a stranger.

"Oh-ho, come a-visiting, eh?"

The voice was cordial, robust, Western.

"Missour-i!" she exclaimed involuntarily.

"Yes'm, Cooper county."

She turned, won to friendliness, and beheld a man who, to use her mental ejaculation, was "of a leanness!"

"Monsieur——" and she paused.

"Boone, ma'am. Daniel, your most obedient servant. If I'd known—Sho', we might of had things spruced up a bit. Are you the queen, maybe?"

The lady's laugh rang as clear as a bell. Taken aback, Boone sought to correct his mistake. He saw that Berthe was seated in the hammock. She, then, must be the Empress.

"I'm downright sorry we went and captured Your Majesty," he began.

"Her Imperial Highness does not understand English," Jacqueline explained.

Then to her surprise the man proceeded in French. He was evidently greatly disturbed because Missouri hospitality did not harmonize with war. "It was a blunder," he apologized earnestly, "come of our deciding just this morning to make you Europeans vacate our continent. But don't let that worry Your Majesty. Here, under my roof, the decision doesn't hold, at all!"

Berthe lifted her head quickly. It was her second promotion in the social scale that day. She had trembled when the door opened, for she knew that Rodrigo's side had triumphed. But this tall stranger brought relief to one's nerves, and somehow she had watched him trustingly. He was of the same race as Monsieur Driscoll, to whom also she had once turned instinctively for help. But when the tremendous young fellow addressed her with reverence due a queen, she felt only the respectful admiration due a pretty young woman. It unexpectedly awakened in her the knowledge that she was a pretty young woman; and with a winsomeness that amazed and delighted Jacqueline, to say nothing of its effect on Daniel, she gently put him right as to her identity.

"It doesn't matter," Boone protested stoutly, "you ought to be one!"

The door opened again. It struck the wall with an insolent bang, and in strode Don Rodrigo. Jacqueline noted who it was and indifferently seated herself in the rocking chair, with her back toward him. The Mexican advanced to the centre of the room. The brief twilight had fallen, and the place was in half light except for the blazing logs. He stopped rigid and flung his scarlet-lined cloak back over his shoulder.

"Where," he demanded in the huge tones of a victorious general, "is the tyrant's empress?"

No one volunteered as to where the tyrant's empress might be. The toe of Jacqueline's boot was indolently busy with the embers on the hearth. The heads of both girls were in shadow.

Rodrigo's furrowed brow creased more deeply. "Which of you is she?" The heavy syllables dropped one by one. He stepped tentatively toward Berthe. So did Boone.

"Stand aside, senor!"

"Can't, dear brigand," said Daniel.

Then Berthe spoke. "Please, messieurs," she began, "Her Majesty is not——"

"It's only a maidservant," Rodrigo exclaimed in chagrin.

"Don't make any difference," said Boone, "she's come a-visiting."

"If, Seigneur Brigand," spoke a clear voice, "you had not interrupted Mademoiselle Berthe, you would stand informed by now that Her Majesty is not here. Will you deign to close the door?"

Rodrigo knew well those bell-like tones. Forgetting the question of an empress, he drew nearer to the lady of the rocker. She gave him no heed, but her profile against the red glow was very soft and beautiful. His chagrin vanished. Here was a more ravishing triumph.

"A vengeance in kind," he muttered, wetting his lips. "Ha, he took nobody's wife, as to that; and his wife may go. But in the matter of sweethearts—ah!"

Bending, he laid a hand caressingly on her neck, against the tendrils.

At the touch she sprang to her feet, and Boone leaped forward with fist drawn back. But both stopped. Her face changed from fury to pallor. Boone's expressed approval.

The room had filled through the open door with men and torches, but the first man among them had come as far as Rodrigo's shoulder even as the insult occurred. From behind, the man's arm had straightened under Rodrigo's chin, and twisting to a lever, was gradually forcing back his head. Rodrigo groped for a knife, but half way to his waist the fingers clutched vainly in a sharp spasm, and all involuntarily flew up and gripped at the vise under his chin. Yet another ounce of pressure, and it seemed his neck must snap like a dry twig. Suddenly his spine bent limp. Muscles relaxed. The whole body capitulated. Then the man behind stooped a little, and Rodrigo began to rise. Slowly at first, and next, as from a catapult, the brigand shot backward over the man's shoulder and struck his length on the floor.

"No, not that, boys," said the man. "Don't kick him. Laugh at him, it hurts more."

He spoke more particularly to one "Tall Mose" Bledsoe of Pike county who was purple with indignation that a "saddle-colored Greaser should dare lay hands on a white woman."

But there were also "Rube" Marmaduke of Platte, "Mac" Crittenden of Nodaway, the "Doc" of Benton, "Cal" Grinders from the Ozarks, Clay of Carroll, and Carroll of Clay, besides a ruddy sprinkling from the county of Jackson. Among the latter was "Old Brothers and Sisters," a plump little young man with cherubic eyes behind round brass spectacles. Clem Douglas had been ordained in the M. E. Church (South), and became thereupon the Rev. Mr. Douglas. "Old Brothers and Sisters" was a theological degree of later acquirement, lovingly bestowed by the Iron Brigade. But in his more recent gospel of pistol practice, Clem Douglas was not a backslider. He was simply all things Southern to all men. Like the others in the cabin, his hat was off, his muddy boots scraped; and like the others, he was not unaware of the two girls.

"Rather showery out," he observed genially, wiping the mist off his glasses, and imagining weather a livelier topic than battle.

Jacqueline did not hear. Her eyes were still on the man who had disdained to strike Rodrigo from behind, who had flung him away instead, as one would a dog. She stood motionless, and her face was very white. She saw that he wore loose leather "chaps," a woolen shirt, and an old coat, with only stained shoulder straps, green braid on dark blue, to indicate a uniform. His wet black hair was curly. His brown eyes flashed whimsical contempt on the resplendent guerrilla at his feet. He was the Coincidence; he was the Storm Centre. He turned, expecting to see the Empress, and he met her eyes. His own darkened with a new anger, and involuntarily, he swung round, himself to kick the Mexican who had insulted her. But a flood of memory swept over him, the memory of what he had seen at Cuernavaca. Not for her could he touch a fallen man.

"Take him into the back room, two of you."

Red, red to the neck, he was turning to follow, when he saw Berthe.

"Miss Burt!" he exclaimed.

Heartily he shook hands with her. "It's my first chance, you know, to mention what you did for me over a year ago. But I sure appreciate having my life saved, you know that. There now, you're not to worry over this present mess. We'll have it straightened out, just in no time."

He stammered as he spoke, and when he turned and left the room, his bearing was constrained. Jacqueline's eyes followed him until the inner door closed behind him. Then, with a half shrug, she sat down and pensively resumed the building of fiery mounds on the hearth.



CHAPTER VI

IF A KISS WERE ALL

"A man, a woman, a passion—what else matters?"—Sardou.

"Tall Mose" Bledsoe and the Rev. Mr. Douglas conveyed Don Rodrigo to the back room, and here Driscoll and Boone joined them. They did not disarm the Mexican. It did not occur to them that any man would risk drawing a weapon in such company. And as to Fra Diavolo they surmised correctly. He sulked a little at first, for there were sore tendons that ached. But in the end he grew reasonable, and his white teeth gleamed acquiescence to all that the senores were pleased to say. He agreed to bivouac his men apart from the Missourians and go his own way at daybreak. The Contras were routed. The Tiger had barely escaped. There was no further need of combined forces. Indeed, Don Rodrigo feared a night attack so little that he meant to reward his men with many copitas of aguardiente. Might he send a barrel over to his esteemed allies?

Mose Bledsoe turned a pleading look on the parson, and to his surprise the Rev. Mr. Douglas beamed tolerant benevolence. "Why yes, my friend," he himself said to Don Rodrigo, "good liquor is always acceptable, especially when soldiers must sleep on the wet ground."

The brigand was then allowed to depart, and Old Brothers and Sisters explained. It was best to let Rodrigo send the brandy, for then one knew what to expect. Otherwise the Christian brother and rascal would hatch up some other plot, and any other plot might take them off their guard.

When an hour later, Rodrigo did in fact attack the presumably somnolent Americans, more happened than either he or they expected. A third was also waiting to strike for the sake of a woman. He was Dupin, who wanted nothing better than the allies at each other's throat. Crouching warily near, the Tiger sprang at both of them. In the rain and the black night, the three-cornered fight raged like firecrackers under a tin bucket. The guerrillas, repulsed by the Americans, fled upon the Contras, whereat the Americans swept them both back indiscriminately. Instead of a lady, the Tiger carried off Don Rodrigo, and was quite glad to carry himself off. But Boone, scouting near, reported that Rodrigo was held a prisoner instead of being executed at once. This meant something. It meant beyond any doubt that the Mexican and the Frenchman would combine, Rodrigo for his life, Dupin to rescue Jacqueline.

The Missourians held council in Daniel's sanctum. To restore the captives to Dupin had been Driscoll's intention from the first. But now it was a question of trading them against Rodrigo. Dupin must know the American offer before he and Rodrigo should attack. Driscoll proposed for himself alone the errand to the Tiger's camp. Rising to his feet, he left his protesting friends without a word further. But he had to pass through the front room first, to get the cape coat hanging there. It was, in fact, his own. The two girls were seated before the fire, Jacqueline still in revery, Berthe nervously agitated from the late racket of battle. Daniel Boone had laid before them a ranchman's supper with tropical garnishing, but it was untouched. Driscoll nodded, crossed the room, took the coat from its nail, and started for the outer door as he drew it on.

"Snubbing—an acquaintance," spoke an impersonal little voice, "is cheap."

He stopped, waited.

"Of a gentleman, I reckon you'd say," he interrupted uneasily. "Maybe not, but a ruffian's got his instincts too. When he's afraid of hurting someone, he hides himself."

"I was mistaken," she said gravely, with that quaintest inflection of the English he had ever heard, "yes, mistaken. He mais—but it is just that the complaint. You hurt more by not speaking."

"But there's nothing to say," he faltered. "I'm just going to Old Tige's—to Dupin's camp, and get him to come here for you."

"Monsieur, monsieur, you fight for your captives only—only to give them up?"

"That's not the question. You can overtake the Empress yet. Dupin will——"

"But it is not that I want to overtake empresses at all. I—Berthe, would you mind carrying back these supper things?—I," she continued, when they were alone, "have no wish to go back to Paris. I shall return to the City."

Again the liaison with Maximilian, he thought bitterly. And Charlotte away! It was infamous. However, he had no right to be concerned.

"Very well," he said, "then Dupin can take you to the City, or wherever you wish."

"Ma foi, what trouble to be rid of your prisoners, monsieur, and after two battles too!"

"That's got nothing to do with it."

She meant, though, to have him confess that she had had a great deal to do with it. She was taken with the self-cruel fancy to lay bare and contemplate his love for her, that she might feel more poignantly the happiness she had lost. But he abruptly turned again to leave, and all else was forgotten in terror.

"You go to that Tiger!" she cried. "Do you not know that——" She darted between him and the door—"that he recognizes no rules of war? He will shoot you, he will, he will!"

Driscoll laughed.

"Oh, I'll be safe enough all right, thank you. Dupin holds Rodrigo, we hold you. So it's simply an exchange of prisoners. And he'll not do anything to me, for fear of what might happen to you here. You're not a hostage, sure not, but as long as he thinks so, I'll profit by it."

"You are right," she admitted, yet not heeding his anxiety to pass. "Dupin will not even detain you. He will judge you Missou-riens by himself. So, voila, he frees Diavolo. He comes for me. And—and you, monsieur?"

"Me? W'y, I'll wait for the boys at Dupin's camp, after he takes charge here. Then we'll march."

"And—you do not come back?"

"No need to. Now will you please get away from that door?"

"Not coming back!" she repeated. Could the Coincidence be for naught after all? Could not real life be for once as complacent as art? He was going, and when, where, in the wide world, in all time, might they ever meet again? And he was going, like that! Except for her, he would not even have spoken.

But—if he were the man to hold her, despite herself? If he were primal man of primal nature, the demigod raptor who seizes his mate? Yes, she would forgive him—if only he were that man. If, as such, he would but hold her from her duty, from her sacrifice, despite herself, if—if—if——And so her daring fancy raced, raced as desire and hope to outrun sorrow. And why not? She could look him in the eye with that honesty which pertains to woman, for she knew that the shame he thought of her was only in the evidence of what he had seen, of what he had heard the world say, and not—no, not in fact. And for the kindness of that fact she thanked Providence. Then, daring to the end, her insane hope for happiness gave her to remember that there was a clergyman among these Americans, and to see in that the ordering of fate.

But Reality was still there, grim and greater than either Providence or Art. The man was waiting for her to step aside, and when she did, he would pass through the door and out of her life. She gazed, as for the last time, on his stalwart shoulders, on his splendid head, the head of a young Greek, on his flushed face, his mouth, and those obstinate little waves of his hair. How good he was to look upon—for her, that is! No, no, she could not let him go.

And she tempted him. With all her woman's beauty she tempted him. If beauty were aught, it must win her now what she held dear. Afterward, when she should tell him why, he would forgive her the unmaidenly strategy. She had noted with a passionate joy that the lines of his face were tightly drawn, were even haggard, that his breath came short; in a word, that he suffered. It told her that his gruff manner was not indifference, but the rugged front of self-control. What a will the man had! Knowing that strength, she must have been an odd young woman indeed not to try to break it.

"I suppose," she said, lowering her head and shaking it in demure resignation, "no, I suppose a captive has not the littlest thing to say of her disposal? But if the poor child has curiosity, monsieur? If, for the instant, she wonders why a monsieur fights for her, and then why he hazards his life to be rid of her?" With which she raised her eyes inquiringly. It was disconcerting.

"We'll not talk of that any more," he grumbled. "Are you going to let me pass?"

Frail creature between him and the door, how easy to remove her! But he feared the warmth of her hand, should he but touch it, or the faint odor from her hair, should a stray lock no more than brush his cheek.

"Even a captive will wonder why she is so little prized," observed the perverse maid.

She considered with glee that the window was too small, and with yet keener delight that his wits for strategy had left him. He did not once think of exit by the inner door.

"Why do you keep me?" he demanded.

His tone was harsh command, and for the moment it frightened her. She all but gave way, when she perceived that the menacing growl was really a plea. The poor fellow was at bay. She very nearly laughed. Then, too, he would not meet her eye again.

"Oh, am I keeping you?" she exclaimed in innocent dismay.

It provoked him to what she wanted. He came toward her angrily, while she stepped back against the door and spread her arms across it. Her pose was a dare; and the trouble was, he had to look. He had to see the girlish, the wonderful line of head and shoulder, the color flooding cheek and neck, and most dangerous of all, the challenging gray eyes. His teeth snapped to, and his hand closed over her wrist. He pulled, she yielded. He felt her other hand laid on his. The touch seemed to sear his flesh.

"You must not go," she whispered, "must not!"

He drew her farther from the door, toward himself.

"Must not!" she repeated. He could feel the breath of her whisper.

"Don't—Jack-leen!"

She barely heard the words, but she knew the agony there. And he, as he gripped her wrist, sensed the throbbing that passed through her whole body. For pity, he was powerless to thrust aside a lass who pitied him.

"It is that common, yes. It is not the instinct of——"

Yet, all the while, like another Brunhilde, she was praying in her heart that she had not taunted him in vain. A very eerie Valkyrie, she had taunted him to be the stronger, stronger than his will, stronger than herself, to strive with her, to master her. And now she saw a fury of love and hate aroused in him, a fury against herself for making him love her more than his great will could bear. In her lust for seeing this anger of his, she forgot her mission absolutely, forgot why she had come to Mexico, forgot all but the prayer in her heart.

Nothing was left her but to learn the answer, and this she did, by tugging firmly, coyly, to free her wrist. The answer was rapture; his grip had tightened. She pulled harder, and felt herself being drawn toward him. Yes, yes, her triumph was a fact. Slowly an arm of iron, a tremulous, masterful vandal, circled her waist.

She pushed at him with her fists, and panting, tried to fight him off, however the blood stung in her veins and coursed hot as in his. The matter had gone far enough. It was time for explanations, for an adjustment. But he did not seem to think so. He was relentless. Barbarian Siegfried with the warrior virgin was not more so. The tendons in that arm of his suddenly went rigid, and crushed her body against him. It was then that a sudden horror took her, and she struggled like a tigress. She gasped out a cry for help, but the scream had no volume. Before she could try again, his hand covered her mouth.

And then, and then—oh, the words he was whispering! Even as he smothered her shriek, she heard them.

"Well—we'll just have in Clem Douglas. You've seen Clem, little girl? He's our parson."

His life long, Driscoll had never dreamed of heaven as he saw it then in her eyes. Never, his whole life long, as she raised those eyes to his. And the sweet relaxing of herself, the trustful pillowing of her head on his breast, the soulful content as she softly breathed there, instead of that wild panting of a moment before! Blinded to the world, he fervently thanked God that he had been made.

He touched her white brow lovingly, and gently tilted back her chin. Again her eyes lifted, confidingly. His head bent. She waited. His lips drew nearer to hers, very slowly. He was held in a deep reverence, in an awe of something sacred. It was a rite of adoration before a shrine. And she, seeing that look in his eyes, wanted him to know that the shrine was truly as pure as in his oblivion to the world he for the moment believed. For later memory would come to him, and that she could not bear. He must know now, before their lips met. Yet a good woman may not brazenly avow that rumor and evidence speak what is false. But for all that he still must know, in some way. With a playful gesture she intercepted his lips against the soft palm of her hand, her eyes the while holding his in their communion of soul. And thus she spoke, prettily, saucily, and blushing the while,

"And are you so sure, sir, that you are the first?"

She had looked for protestation, and she would have answered. And he would have believed. He must have believed. But instead the spell of faith broke sharply. Poisoned memory rushed in before it could be belied. She could see the tragedy of it in his changed look, in his ashen face, cold and gray. He thought her question a gloating over his weakness, and it revolted him. He was, then, but a caprice for her. He remembered that after all he had only happened by, and that she was returning to Maximilian. But still she was hardly less tempting. He had a moment of cruel conflict with himself, which left him with a sullen rage against the princelet in Mexico, against the order of princelets, that thus fell a deathly pall between an honest man and a true love kiss. Yet, she was there in his arms, dear and fearfully clinging and—no less tempting.

"Take this woman to my mother?" the question rose.

As one might close the eyes of his dead wife, he loosed the arms about his neck, and let them fall at her side. Once free, he leaped to the door, flung it open, and was gone.



CHAPTER VII

A CROP OF COLONELS

"And thus they led a quiet life During their princely raine." —Ballad of King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid.

Some years after the events recorded here, there appeared in the Boonville Javelin (post-bellum and revived) a serial of reminiscences, which, behind an opalescent gossamer of romance, pictured the Missourians and the chivalrous role they played around that forlornly chastened and be-chased damsel, la Republica Mexicana.

Quite aside from the prodigious deeds set forth therein, the journalistic epic is of itself naively prodigious, as anyone knowing Mr. Boone with pen in hand will at once suspect. All the little Trojan band—call them Gascons if you will, but own that if they boasted they were ever keen to substantiate the bluff—all of them, then, strove and blazed away invariably as heroes and were just as peerless as could be. You wouldn't look for anything else from Mr. Boone. He must, however, be credited with one peculiarity, that he never hinted at himself as one of the glorious company. Daniel knew his newspaper ethics. He knew that the newspaper man is not the story, however they may regard it in France, for instance, where the reporter is ever the bright particular cynosure of any interview that bears his signature.

A few strokes of the Meagre Shanks brush in the way of excerpts from his narrative, with plenty of extenuating dots in between, should make an impression, even though impressionistic, and serve perhaps as a sketch of what befell after Din Driscoll had bearded the Tiger, freed Don Rodrigo, and surrendered his own two captives. To begin:

A retreat was had [Daniel always got under way slowly, as though fore-resolved not to stampede.] Echo demands, "Retreat?—The Iron Brigade in retreat?" 'Twas true. Rallied once again, but under another flag than the Bars, the Missourians rode all that dank, wet night lest they meet and have to fight their new friends, the guerrillas under Rodrigo Galan. It was a weird predicament. Two days before, they were peaceful settlers in the land—omne solum forti patria—their blood-flecked swords as ploughshares fleshed in earth's warm bosom.... But tyrannical confiscation of the soil they tilled loomed foreboding.... Pestered nigh unto forceful phrases with shooing robbers of both sides out of their melon patches, and fired at last by the sentiment that it behooved them to sally forth and regulate things themselves.... They only lacked a Cincinnatus. Their old general would not lead them. Wearing his bright chaplet of renown, Joe Shelby now drove mules, a captain over long wagon trains....

Then gallant Din Driscoll appeared among them, the dry-humored, reckless Jack Driscoll of other days, attired now in the brave, dashing regimentals of the Republic[!] From out the wilds of distant Michoacan he came with the long gallop that never would tire, and pausing at cabin after cabin in the Colony's broad acres, summoned his old comrades to arms ... to arms against the invader.... Who, now, will argue bucolic content? Those lusty young planters smelled the battle from afar. What now were waving tassels to the glory of deeds?—a cuspide corona—to a wreath of powder-burned laurel? That very day the Iron Brigade rallied again, gathered once again at the oft remembered bugle's full, resonant blare.

Fighting came sooner than the Missourians hoped. Even as they started for Michoacan, a ragged Indito, whose village had been razed by the Cossacks, met the command and asked for the Senor Coronel Gringo. Driscoll heard what he had to tell, and was greatly concerned, though the others laughed at first and scoffed. For it seemed that the Indito did not know who sent him, except that it was a senor chaparrito, a short little senor. "Then you must be a Shorter Yet?" said Driscoll. "Well, what do you bring?" The Indito produced from his ragged shirt a bit of parchment, whereon Colonel Driscoll was urged to join with his new recruits in an attack on Maximilian's escort, for Maximilian was on his way to Vera Cruz. The parchment was signed, "El Chaparrito."

"Shorty! That word means 'Shorty'," the troopers guffawed. But Driscoll showed them another handwriting at the bottom. The parchment had been countersigned in blank, thus: "Benito Juarez, Libertad y Reforma." The Missourians were respectful after that. Many thought that the mysterious guardian angel of the Republic's battles must be the Presidente himself, though the Presidente was thousands of miles away.

* * * * *

After the victory won against Dupin's Contra Guerrillas [so the chronicle goes on], the Missourians found their ally to be none other than that picturesque buccaneer of the Sierras, Don Rodrigo, wild as a prairie wolf, handsome as Lucifer; and their captives to be not the Emperor and suite but two beautiful women....

When the prisoners had been exchanged—i. e., the two fair girls restored to Dupin, and Rodrigo freed—and Rodrigo had hurried away to gather his scattered vagabonds from among the foothills, the Missourians realized their predicament. That day they had fought the Empire. Then they had turned and fought the Republic in the person of the guerrilla chief, Rodrigo Galan. They had rebelled against the rebels, so were doubly rebel, doubly outlawed. Ye gods, it was bizarre! And as morning dawned on them trailing along a dreary inferno gorge of the Sierra Gorda, they blinked at each other ruefully. Poor waifs, they had lost their native country. And now, one rainy morning, they found they had lost an adopted one. But each man looked into a face likewise so rueful that his own broke into a grin.

"We'll just start a new country," cried Driscoll abruptly.

His voice sounded strange and very unlike him, but the inspiration was characteristic of the man, and true to the old irrepressible Storm Centre they had known. Hunted outlaws, they too were in the mood for any desperate venture. Spontaneous as wildfire, they seconded this one ere they had asked a question. They never did ask "How?"

"A new country," roared Tall Mose, "but where?"

"And when?" Old Brothers and Sisters inquired gently.

"We'll start right after breakfast," their intrepid leader replied. "And right here in Mexico. It's anybody's country yet, and we might as well slice off a little private republic for ourselves."

"And won't we fight, by Jiminy!" drawled Cal Grinders, with Ozarkian deliberation.

"And it don't matter whom we fight," Marmaduke added. "Let 'em show themselves, Slim Max or Don Benito. We'll meet all comers."

That was the mood they were in, and they were in it to the chin. Submit a wholesale fighting order, and they bid for it like neither bulls nor bears, but like wolves.

"About taxation?" asked Clay of Carroll dubiously.

But as a good general, or as another Romulus, Driscoll had figured it all out. His answer brought comfort.

"We'll not have any. We will levy on commerce, as republics have the right to do."

"Then," said Carroll of Clay, "we'll need a seaport?"

"Of course. Ain't Tampico simply waiting for us? The French aren't there now. They are concentrating in Mexico City for evacuation. There's no more of a garrison than what Old Tige left, a few hundred Cossacks. If we get there before the Liberals——" ...

... And why not? They were nearly five hundred and greater than Romulus. They were Missourians, sir. They were from that State which gave the best fighters to both sides; which, population considered, gave more to the North than any other Northern state, more to the South than any other Southern state, and yet as a state would be a Republic unto herself. What, then, might not be possible to these her sons on a foreign shore? Intrepid youngsters, they were of royal State lineage, Missourians from Kentucky, Kentuckians from Virginia, which was in the beginning. Dauntless cavaliers of the Blood, if they chose to carve themselves a kingdom, why not?

But they themselves answered the questions, questions that had men's lives in them thicker than hard words in the Blue-back speller. The business was as already done, and Mose Bledsoe could go back to his chant with an easy mind. And once more Missouri's revered saga echoed among the crags:

"I come from old Missouri, Yes, all the way from Pike. I'll tell you why I left there, And why I came to roam And leave my poor old mammy, So far away from home."

Then, the bard leading in a fashion vociferous, the whole command helped out:

"Says she to me, 'Joe Bowers, You are the man to win; Here's a kiss to bind the bargain,' And she hove a dozen in...."

... Bivouacked under the black-lipped howitzers of Tampico's sullen heights.... Dismal fens ... where fever exhaled its dread gray breath thick over swamp and lagoon ... above, the vast aegis of the firmament, wrought in a diamond dust of stars ... a sickly, jaundiced, moon tilted drunkenly.... Through ooze and fetid slime the Americans crept stealthily out of the reeds; and on, over cypress roots, silently in the silent night; on, up the hill under the low walls of Fort Iturbide. Gently and fleeting as a dark beauty's sigh in old Castile, they were come in canister range.

"Steady, men," their leader whispered.

"Unto death," came the low-breathed response.

[No such words were uttered, as Daniel knew perfectly well, but he knew that they should be—in the telling.].... A sharp cry ... fearful alarums from the crest of the hill ... next a belching fury of grape.... But Tall Mose was happier for it. The seal was off his lips at last, and out thundered his stentorian war-song:

"O Sally! dearest Sally! O Sally! for your sake...."

... still upward, until the cannon fumes broke as a dun-colored wave over pennant and plume ... and grimy troops fell as spring blossoms in a balmy south breeze.... Dying as they loved to die, game to the last ... they stumbled back to the river, which swept over the gallant stranger slain....

"... It's enough to make me swear!— That Sally had a baby, And the baby had red hair...."

... Then piercing and wildly plaintive, the clarions rang out, clamoring for victory and vae victis ... and Din Driscoll's hoarse voice.... "We are the last of the race, let us be the best as well."... "Back at 'em, fellows!" Bledsoe bellows.... And the parson murmurs, "He prays best who fights best, both great and small" ... his soft voice tremulous enough for Glory, his superb trigger finger disturbing enough for Chaos.... At last, the supreme command "like volley'd lightning"—"Give 'em the revolver. Charge!"...

Not until the story is told shall ... for over the battered masonry, in through the splintered doors, felling shadowy foes on every hand.... When well within-side ... the prowess of each unto himself ... tempest of pistol cracking ... bleeding deathfully ... ah, the killing is fast and desperate ... and not a candle over the pitiless fray.... Huddled together for a brief last stand, the Cossacks ... panic, flight.... The fort is taken!

When the incarnadine embers of sunrise glowed in the east, the Missourians stood on the battlements and surveyed their domain. "You are the man to win, Joe Bowers," Mose hummed with an I-told-you-so air, but softly, for many of his comrades were wounded, though he was not, as usual, for all his seven feet of perpendicular target. But "the Doc," of Benton, was, of course. Getting wounded was the greatest trouble with Doc. If he attacked a hornet's nest, he would contrive some way to get a leg shot off. But with him such things had become to be a matter of course, so now he crated himself together enough to move around and attend to the others. Driscoll was most innumerably barked, with a perforated humerus as climax. [The modest Boone might have catalogued similarly his own casualties.] Old Brothers and Sisters, that cool Christian, had lost a lens out of his spectacles, and was now replacing it from a supply he always carried. What, though, were fractured arms and busted specs to becoming a republic over night?

But eternal vigilance is ever ... and menace was not long in coming. Three French gunboats, like sluggish water beetles, crossed the bar and steamed up the river.... Promptly the howitzers on the ramparts were trained.... But there was no need ... a white flag ... a naval lieutenant at the fortress gate.... The gunboats had not come to fight. Bazaine had sent them to carry off the endangered garrison, it being expected that a Liberal army under a General Pavon would shortly besiege the place. The Frenchman was astounded to find that the Liberals, as he imagined the Missourians, had already arrived. Driscoll allowed him to embark the dislodged garrison, as well as the defenders of the other fort, Casa Mata; that is, all except those who might want to change sides. And nearly every Mexican among the Cossacks did change. It was a sign of the panic that had spread throughout the Empire. Driscoll also insisted on the burial of certain guerrilla corpses which Dupin had left hanging to the town's lamp posts. After which the gunboats took themselves out of republican waters.

Yet they left behind expectancy. So, a Liberal army two thousand strong was approaching? The Missourians provisioned themselves from the town and rested on their arms. The Liberal host appeared, variegated of costume, piratical of aspect.... Again a flag of truce.... "If the senores Imperialistas desired to surrender?"... "We are not Imperialists," came the reply from the fort, "and we're blessedly d-n-d if we desire to surrender."... "Then, the saints bless us, who are you?"... "The Republic of Tampico, de facto and determined."

The dumfounded Liberals scratched their heads. They were Republicans, and here was a republic, and naturally it bothered them. But when they had gotten it tangled unmistakably enough, they decided that they wanted surrender anyhow, if the senores Tampicoistas would have the kindness ... and on refusal from the fort, they withdrew to load their siege guns.

They had sent a shot or two and received a dozen, when an Indito, emaciated and loathsome from scales of dirt, dashed from nowhere through the cross-fire and pounded at the fortress door. Driscoll ordered him admitted. The first President of the Tampico Republic seemed extraordinarily anxious about this ragged vagabond, especially as he had perceived a second one, likewise from nowhere, dash into the Liberal camp. Ten minutes later the enemy ceased firing. "Now come, all of you," Driscoll then said to his little army, "and hear what he's got to tell. I reckon he's a Shorter Yet."... "From Shorty, then!" exclaimed his men. And so it proved, for the Indito produced the usual bit of parchment, signed El Chaparrito and countersigned Benito Juarez, Libertad y Reforma. The message thereon demanded why the Coronel Driscoll and his new recruits for the cause had turned against it.... "'Cause we don't hanker after hanging," Cal Grinders interposed.... Was it, Driscoll continued to read, because they thought they had lost favor by fighting Rodrigo Galan? If so, there was naught against them, nothing, because President Juarez had outlawed Galan for robbing a bullion convoy. It was true that the writer of the parchment had used the said Rodrigo, in the hope of capturing Maximilian, but the bandit was not for that reason a Republican officer.... "In other words," lisped Crittenden of Nodaway, "we're in-lawed because the good patriot Don Rodrigo is away outlawed."... "Therefore," the parchment went on, "His Excellency the Presidente through the writer has herewith sent a message to General Pavon of the besieging camp to comply with whatever Their Mercies the Americans may deem fit to require. Further, knowing the temper of Their Mercies, General Pavon is ordered to at once cease operations and leave Their Mercies in possession."

The Missourians looked at one another and were reluctant. They hated to forego a battle. But it takes two sides to make one. Not outlawed, not even threatened, they had no excuse to hold against the Liberals.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse