"Still I promised him to send the cross to you, because you will have a chance to give it to him. He said so."
"Oh, he did?" But Driscoll put the trinket in his pocket, not unwilling to see more of this foolish drama in Latin-American sentiment. "Now then, Rod," he went on impatiently, "you haven't explained yet how you happen to find her again."
"That," replied the outlaw, "was his part of the bargain."
"Rod, you talk like a——"
"But no, senor, it's because you Americans cannot understand. Murguia also believes in vengeance. I haven't seen him either, not since he sold his hacienda over a year ago. But I do know that he or some spy of his is in the capital, for a messenger from him came to me in the mountains. The messenger said that the Marquesa d'Aumerle was leaving for Queretero. If I captured her, it would be vengeance in kind. But Murguia wanted pay for his information. He wanted that cross—it was his daughter's—and I was to send it to him through you. Dios mio, but I had to hurry! A little more, and the Marquesa would have been inside your lines."
"She is already," Driscoll corrected him, "and so are you. Will you fight it out, or surrender?"
He pointed to the Grays as he spoke. They had dismounted, and each man had a rifle at aim across his saddle. It was a reminiscence out of Driscoll's boyhood of Indians and the Santa Fe trail. But Don Rodrigo only smiled.
"You want the coach first?" he said.
"No!" Driscoll retorted. "You're the one that's wanted, and you can either wait for your trial, or be shot now, fighting. The coach will have to take its chances. But see here, if the firing once starts, not a thief among you will be left standing——"
It was a perilous "bluff," and none might say if it would have broken the deadlock. But the outlaw interrupted.
"Listen! What's that?"
"Oh, nothing. We're only throwing a few bombs into Queretero."
"Only!" The brigand's eyes flashed, and his voice was filled with envy. Throwing bombs among the traitors?—and magnificence like that had grown common! Yet he, whose patriotism was a passion that fed and thrived upon itself, must be barred from such exquisite satiety.
Driscoll understood, and thought it droll. First there was that loyal Imperialist, Don Tiburcio, frothing chagrin because he had had to desert. And now here was this rabid Republican, heart broken over being outlawed from the ranks of his country's avengers.
Again Rodrigo interrupted, more excitedly yet. "Senor, senor, you don't shoot them that way every day? What does it mean?"
Both gazed across the plain to the city of domes under the green hills. Driscoll's chin raised, and he listened intently. What had commenced like indolent target practice against a beleaguered town had suddenly burst into a terrific cannonading chorus. More, there was musketry, vicious and sustained. There were troops deploying over the plain. Something critical was happening. If it were the supreme rally of the famishing Empire!
Driscoll stirred uneasily. He glanced at his outlaw. He thought of the coach. To leave her with these ruffians? To miss a fight? Here was a quandary!
"You are not going?" Rodrigo cried at him furiously. "Now, now," he raged, "is the hour of triumph for the incarnation of popular sovereignty. Go, I say, go, the Republic needs you!"
Until those words Rodrigo had held the situation. With them he lost it, and Driscoll was master. And Driscoll grew serene, and very sweet of manner. He began filling a cob pipe. A nod of his head indicated the coach as a condition of his going.
"Look, look!" Rodrigo shouted. "Oh, que viva—they're running! We've smoked them out! We've smoked them out!"
Driscoll swept the country with his glasses. Thousands of men were running like frightened rabbits down the Cimatario slope, and spreading as a fan over the grassy plain. Mountain pieces boomed farewell behind them, until in abject panic they cast away carbines and scrambled the faster. But other troops were pushing up the slope opposite the town, and these were ordered ranks of infantry. Up and up they climbed, to trench after trench, and the howitzers one by one stopped short their roar. When Driscoll laid down the glasses, his face was white. Rodrigo's glee turned to uncertainty.
"Smoked out, you fool? We're the ones smoked out!"
"But those runaways?"
"Are our own men, ten thousand of 'em, raw conscripts to support our batteries on the Cimatario."
"But the Cimitario?" Rodrigo knew by instinct the crucial importance of the black cone.
"The Cimitario is taken by the Imperialists!"
Driscoll did not forget, however, the nearer contest, and as the Mexican grew frantic, he was the more coolly indifferent.
"Max has everything his own way now," he added soothingly. "He can either evacuate, or go around on the north side and thrash Escobedo."
But the Grays were clamoring for action. "By cracken, Din, hurry up there!" yelled Cal Grinders.
Driscoll raised his palm, waving the fingers for patience. He scanned the plain again. The Imperialist ranks were breaking. Hungry men rushed on the besiegers' camps, snatching untouched breakfasts. The townsmen poured out among the uniforms, and darted greedily in every direction. The llano was alive with scurrying human beings. Driscoll could well wait for the psychology of Republican defeat on Don Rodrigo, since at the same time he awaited the effects of victory on a starving army. The Grays fretted, but they knew their colonel was never more to be depended upon than when his blood grew cold like this.
"If," Driscoll observed pleasantly to the Mexican, "Escobedo isn't already making tracks for San Luis——"
It was the last straw. The patriot brigand jerked off his sombrero and flung it to the ground. He gestured wildly over the plain, and he gestured in the American's face. He choked on words that boiled up too fast.
"You—you—traitor!" he spluttered. There was actually froth on his lips.
"We haven't," Driscoll reminded him with exceeding gentleness, "settled this other yet," and again he nodded to the coach.
"That—that is why you wait?" Rodrigo had forgotten his prize entirely. "Take her, then, take her! Only go, go, kill all the traitors!"
"After you, caballero," Driscoll returned with Mexican politeness. He wanted to be sure of the outlaw's departure, since holding him prisoner was now out of the question. But Rodrigo chafed only to be gone. With a reed whistle he signaled his little demon centaurs, then at a touch of the spurs his horse leaped forward and all the band clattered close on his heels.
"Sure anxious to escape," thought Driscoll. But he stared after them in wonder. Instead of turning to the safety of the mountains, they charged straight ahead on the town, straight against the Empire, and in any case, straight into the maw of justice. Behind, the coach and mules stood high and dry in the road. Driscoll was at once all action.
"Shanks," he called.
Mr. Boone hurried to him from the Grays.
"Shanks, will you stay here with six men——"
"To watch that coach, Dan. There's two girls in it."
"Jack! Miss that there fight!"
"But Dan, these girls are friends of yours, you met them once."
Mr. Boone started violently.
"Never mind, I'll ask Rube Marmaduke or the Parson."
A pitiful struggle racked Mr. Boone.
"You, you're not fooling me, Din?" he pleaded.
"Sure not. It's your empress all right. It's Miss Burt all right."
"Then, Lawd help me, I'll stay!—But you'd best be hustling and get to work."
"Just a minute, Shanks, there's the other one in the coach. She wants to go to Queretero. If she gives her word of honor—never mind, she knows honor from a man's standpoint—if she gives her word that she brings nothing that will help 'em inside, then you can escort the coach into the town after things quiet down some. All right? Good. Then we're off!"
Demijohn's hoofs pelted dust balls with each impact. The Grays were ready. They surged behind. The sound of them was a swishing roar. In the apex of the blinding tempest, Driscoll sat his saddle as unmoved as an engineer in his cab. He looked ahead placidly. Empire and a prince had just triumphed. So he was going to readjust fatality. The smile touched his lips as it never had before, and hovered there in the midst of battle.
BLOOD AND NOISE—WHAT ELSE?
"On stubborn foes he vengeance wreak'd, And laid about him like a Tartar, But if for mercy once they squeak'd, He was the first to grant them quarter." —Orlando Furioso.
Only for the moment of a cooling breath is Nature gray in Mexico. The sun's barbed shafts had already ripped away the cloak of dawn when Driscoll and his cavaliers swept over the glaring road. But there was no longer any battle. The plain swarmed confusion only. Panic cringed before hunger. The defeated besiegers panted, stumbled, ran on again, or lay still in trembling. The victorious besieged were gorging from fingers crammed full. It was the hour for trophies. A prosperous townsman bore a stack of tortillas, and gloated leeringly as he hurried to put his treasure safely away. A dashing Hungarian with fur pelisse shouted gallant oaths at a yoke of oxen and prodded them with his curved sword, as though a creaking cart filled with corn were the precious loot of an Attila. Pueblo and soldiery tore ravenously at fortifications that had so long kept them from one savory broth. With nails alone they would demolish walls and trenches. Some lurched over fugitives in the grass, and then pinned them there with bayonets, the lust for food turning fiendishly to a lust for blood.
But what most inflamed the Grays were the captured cannon. They counted as many as twenty being dragged into the Imperialist lines. The Missourians were aggrieved. Never, never had Joe Shelby's brigade ever lost a gun. And as they galloped, they looked anxiously about for chances of more battle. Just then Rodrigo's outlaw band caught their eye. These had swerved from the road out upon the field, hot to engage anything, everything. A long provision train offered first. Many carts had been loaded with Republican stores, and were being convoyed to the town by a squadron of Imperialist cavalry. It was the clash between this escort and the brigands that attracted the Grays coming on behind. But the escort wheeled and fled and the brigands pursued, slashing with machetes, and so charged full tilt into the Dragoons of the Empress who were sent to retake the abandoned prize. Red tunics mixed with ragged yellow shirts, and war-chargers and mustangs swirled together as a maelstrom. Then the Grays pounded among them, in each hand of each man a six-shooter. The red spots began to fall out of the peppered caldron. The red tunics that were left broke, retreated, ran. It became a rout. Only a few of the Empire's best survived those ten minutes of blood-letting. Fatality? Driscoll's lip curled. Fatality? The Dragoons, now no more, had twice held him for their bullets.
Grays and brigands chased them back toward Queretero. The fleeing remnant began yelling for help. Driscoll rose in his stirrups, and saw just ahead a large force of the enemy. It was gathered around the Casa Blanca, a little house on the plain. The large Imperialist force there was an army, nothing less, though still disordered from the late action and victory. Surrounded by a brilliant staff was a tall, golden bearded chieftain, sumptuously arrayed as a general of division, regally mounted on a cream-coated horse of Spain. He was Maximilian, viewing from there the winning of his empire. The army behind him filled his ears—"Viva Su Majestad!"
But he who had given the cue for that thrilling music now saw the convoy's fate. He rode up and down anxiously, striving for order in the confused ranks. He wore the green sash of a general. He had a moustache and imperial, searching black eyes, and an open brow. His fine features showed in the blend of French and Castilian blood. He was the real chieftain. He was Miramon. Impetuously he made ready to avenge the Dragoons.
These things that he saw ahead brought Driscoll to his senses. With reluctance, but instantly, he made up his mind. He held high his sabre and halted his own men, turning at the same time to collide obliquely, and purposely, against Rodrigo.
"Not that way, Rod, not that way!"
"But it's the tyrant! It's the tyrant!"
Driscoll got the brigand's bridle and swung him around fiercely. "Let the poor tyrant be!" he yelled. "We've got to take that there Cimatario hill."
A moment later Grays and brigands wheeled to the right and were off. Back at the Casa Blanca Maximilian lowered his glasses. "They surely, they surely are not—yes," he cried, "they are going to attack the Cimatario!"
Miramon smiled. "Then they are lunatics," he said. "Why, Your Highness knows that we have five thousand of our best men on the Cimatario."
"Yes," Maximilian agreed uneasily, "but I thought I recognized the man who leads those lunatics. Do you happen to know, general, how Tampico fell?"
"Do not worry, sire," Miramon replied, willing to humor the prince, "I will take our infantry to the Alameda and strengthen our reserve there, should anything really happen."
Across the grassy plain raced the twelve hundred cavalry and the two hundred outlaws. They raced to attack five thousand brave men who had that morning dislodged ten thousand. Five thousand in the trenches above, fourteen hundred in the open below, such were the odds of Empire against Republic.
Grays and brigands drew rein under the Cimatario's west slope, and the bugle sounded to dismount.
"But senor," Rodrigo protested, "don't we charge straight up?"
"And not have a man left when we do get up? Here Clem," Driscoll added to Old Brothers and Sisters, the lieutenant colonel of the Grays, "you circle round and up the other side with eight companies. Take all the horses, but leave 'em back of the hill as you go. Don't that look like the best scheme?"
The parson's cherubic features beamed. "Good-bye, Din," he said. "But pshaw, I reckon—I reckon we'll be meeting up above." He referred, however, to the top of the Cimatario.
Four companies and Rodrigo's band remained. These Driscoll spread out in a skirmish line that made a long beaded chain around their side of the hill. It was evidently an unfamiliar method, for the Imperialist tiradores fired down on them contemptuously. But each time, while the enemy above were reloading, the Grays and outlaws below were climbing a few yards, each man of them individually, up from behind his own particular rock. The Imperialists, it now appeared, had blundered incomprehensibly, since they had actually taken away nearly all the cannon captured on the Cimatario. But six-pound affairs from batteries in the Alameda soon began to splinter and furrow around the climbing men. One loosened boulder rolled and struck Doc Clayburn on the tip of the shoulder, bringing him down like a bag of meal. He arose, feeling himself. "Now, by the Great and Unterrified Continental——" he began, as he always did at the monotony of being hit. Then his disgust changed to wonder. "W'y," he cried, "I'm not either, I only thought I was!"
They mounted higher, and the business grew hotter. Each man had to look to himself more and more sharply, lest he forget that economy of the individual was now the hope of the regiment. But for all that, when a Missourian craved tobacco—it is a craving not to be denied, in no matter what danger, as most any fireman knows—he would leave cover to beg his nearest neighbor for a chew, and obtaining it, would feel the heart put back into him.
As they drew close under the first of the trenches, they concentrated for a bit of sharp in-fighting, and so suffered more. But once they provoked the next volley, they meant to rush the works. The Imperialists though were loath to squander the one ball to a carbine when Indian-like fighters like these were so near. They had one mountain piece, a brass howitzer, and the gunner stood ready, the lanyard in his hand. But he hesitated, bewildered. His targets were not twenty paces below, yet nowhere crouching behind the rocks were the foe massed together. His pride forbade that he waste twelve pounds of death on a single man.
But suddenly that happened which the gunner never in this life explained. Poised expectant in the lull of the fray, he was trembling under the tense silence, when he saw the impetuous Don Rodrigo dart up the slope, full against the muzzle. At the same instant he heard shouts of warning behind him, and he heard the tiradores there above firing at someone almost at his feet. But the figure that had scaled up the back of the hill, crawling around the trench, was already on him. He drew back his arm to drive the heavy shot through Don Rodrigo in front, but only to feel the cord in his hand part before a knife's keen edge. With a cry of dismay he sprang to grasp the rope's end, but as in a vision a head of curly black and an odd smile rose between, and a swinging fist of a great bared arm crashed back his chin, and he sank as a brained ox.
"Lambaste 'em, Din Driscoll!"
It was a rapturous shout, and Cal Grinders, passing Rodrigo, tumbled over the earth-heap and joined his colonel against five hundred. Behind swarmed others into the newly awakened hell, coatless men of Saxon necks tanned a dark ruby, and in the hot Imperialist fire they settled to their work.
"By cracken, lambaste 'em! Why in all hell don't ye lambaste 'em?"
This fury boiled through oaths, unable to spend itself in blows. The tigerish rage seized on them every one. Teeth grated vengefully as men struck.
"Lambaste 'em, Din Driscoll!"
"Lambaste 'em—good—Din Driscoll!"
The yell swelled to a murderous chorus. These men did not know that they were raving. A war cry is just the natural vent. It is simply the whole pack in full cry.
But never before—for now around him there was the contrast of hate and panting and passions in ferment—had Driscoll seemed so distant a thing from flesh and the human sphere. In grime, in dust, in smoke, among faces changing demoniac wrath for the sharp, self-wondering agony of mortality, his face was cool, serene, with just the hint of a smile tugging at his lips. His own men would try to look another way, try uneasily to break the fascination of this strange warrior who led them.
The battle was short, but of the hottest. Its central point was the little brass howitzer. Driscoll, Grinders, Bledsoe, the Doc, all four pushed at the carriage or pulled at the trunnion rings, while around them, hindering them, swaying back and forth over rocks and in the ditches, the two forces battled for possession, hand to hand, with six-shooters and clubbed muskets. Grinders fell, cursing angrily. Bledsoe fell, toppling heavily his great length. The Doc fell. "By the——" he began, but got no further. He was not mistaken this time. But the gun was turned at last, and a vicious hand jerked the rope. Powder grains pierced the eyes of the nearest Imperialists. The shot tore through the mass of them. Yet Driscoll remembered most how wan, how hungry, they looked.
"Death to the traitors! A muerte! A mu-erte!"
It was a heavy nasal, hurled from the lungs with that force and venom peculiar to the Spanish tongue. It came from Don Rodrigo, who had pulled the lanyard, and who now pulled it again and again, crazed first with joy, then with rage because the emptied gun would not respond.
While the combatants were so confused together, the tiradores in the upper trenches had to hold their fire, but when the defenders gave way at last, those above could wait no longer. Four thousand and more, they leaped their earthworks, and came charging down the slope on what was left of Driscoll's six hundred.
Grays and brigands faced about, but most of all they looked beyond the enemy's right flank, to the line of the hill's crest there. For just beyond that jagged line and somewhere below Old Brothers and Sisters and the eight other companies must be toiling up. But they would have to appear in the interval of the Imperialists' downward rush. Driscoll turned to his bugler. "Blow, Hanks! Blow like the very devil!"
The blast sounded long and shrill, like a plaintive wail. The six hundred pumped lead up the hill mechanically, but their hearts were echoing the clarion's cry for help, and rather than on the foe sweeping down over the rocks to crush them, their eyes were strained on the sun-emblazoned line against the sky. But the parson was a man. At last, just over the slope's crest, a head appeared, a cherubic head with spectacles, and two arms waved for haste to others behind. And instantly more heads bobbed up, and more yet, until the jagged line was fairly encrusted with mouse-colored sombreros, like barnacles on a stranded keel.
From where they were the new comers began their work, lying flat on their stomachs. Once over the ridge, down each man fell and joined the chorus of musketry. Their fusilade thickened to a blanket of flame, closely woven. The host rushing down the slope forgot the tales that were told of the marvelous sixteen-shot rifles. They thought instead that an army of Republicans, and not a man less, were upon their flank. For how else could volleys be so well sustained, how else so deadly? And how fast they themselves were dropping! The thing was not like bullets, but as the earth caving under them. The charge turned to panic. They plunged on downward, indeed, and even sheer into the cross fire of Driscoll's six-shooters and the one howitzer. But it was headlong flight. At the trench they did not stop to grapple, but fought their way through and fled on down the hill, on across the grassy plain, nor paused until they had crowded pell-mell into the main Imperialist army drawn up before the Alameda.
Maximilian and his resplendent staff were there at the Alameda. The Emperor was perhaps less astounded than they.
"Ai, general, if you had known how Tampico fell!" he said to Miramon.
Yet neither was actually dismayed. The Cimatario and five thousand men had succumbed to a thousand or fifteen hundred daredevils. It was hard enough to believe, in all conscience. But the daredevils could be dislodged, and they must be, at once. Miramon's orders rose sharply and quick, and the Empire sprang to obey. The Alameda batteries were trained on the hill, and a few moments later the guns on the roof of the La Cruz monastery were also. At the same time, the army, the entire Imperialist reserve, battalion after battalion in close, hurried ranks, set out across the grassy plain, straight toward the Cimatario's front slope. Foot, horse, artillery, the concentrated might of the Austrian's sceptre, was being hurled against a handful of jaded warriors. Maximilian flushed with something like shame at the thought.
Back on the slope Driscoll cried, "No, no, keep to the trenches, you fellows! This ain't our promenade."
And soon, when screaming comets began to fill the air and burst around them, they were glad of the ditches. There they waited, smoking, spitting tobacco against the torrid rocks, but with sullen eyes on the army moving nearer and nearer. Where, all this morning, was Escobedo, who, with his thousands of Republicans on the north of the town had taken no thought of the Republican stress on the south? He had not fired a shot. Yet surely he must know by this time. But no matter. Over a hundred outlaws were left, and nearly a thousand Grays. Missourians, brigands, and guerrillas of Michoacan, they were a dangerous blend.
"Got a match, Harry?" asked Driscoll of the Kansan, as he filled his cob pipe.
They had to wait, you see. Yet haste was all they would have begged of the advancing Imperialist host.
The red jackets of the Dragoons—the few that were left—brightly dotted the van of the attacking thousands. On either side rode the Second and Fourth Lanciers. Behind tramped the battalions of Iturbide, of Celaya, and regiments of the line. They gained the foot of the hill and the cavalry were dismounting before they drew fire. The baptism had a sharpshooter deadliness, even at that distance, but the Imperialists waited tentatively. No, there was but one volley. When the second came, it was only after an interval long enough for reloading. Officers and men glanced at one another more hopefully. The terrified fugitives were of course mistaken, they thought. For the force above could not be large, nor yet possess the mysterious sixteen-shot rifles. The assurance gave the buoyancy of relief. To charge against carbines that made each man as sixteen were uncanny, too much like challenging the Unknown. But a thousand men who fired only every two or three minutes—an antagonist like that was quite well known to their philosophy. So breathing hard, they valiantly marched up the hill. They suffered cruelly under the scattered fusillades, yet were not materially resisted. At last they were near enough, and the bugles sounded for the final rush.
Now what was odd, the Republicans stopped firing altogether. But they were waiting for shorter range, and a moment later, at a hundred paces, their reopening volley had all the clockwork dispatch of platoon drill. Yet the Imperialists took the dose as a thing expected, and sprang over their wounded to gain the trenches. They required only the lull of reloading. But instantly a second volley prolonged the first. The column staggered, and faces blanched. In a sudden despair they realized the enemy's tactics, for the enemy did have those terrible rifles, after all. From the trenches a low sheet of flame had spread, searing the breasts of rank after rank that pressed against its edge. Scarlet-coated Dragoons, the last of them, flecked the rocks, and over them fell green uniformed troopers, as grass will cover a bloody field, and the Municipal Guards, swaying up from behind, paid out a sprinkling of blue—a ghastly pousse-cafe, as one grim jester described it afterward. The long massed lines wavered.
"They've stopped, they've stopped!" cried Rodrigo. "Now we'll close with them, eh, senor—por Dios, now!"
"All you fellows," shouted Driscoll, "just fill your rifles while they wait. Stopped nothing, Rod! And anyhow, who'd hold the hill if we left it? Who?"
The answer came at once, and in dramatic form. One of the pickets stationed on the flank ran among them.
"There's another big slew of 'em a-coming!" he yelled excitedly. "Yonder, over yonder!"
Driscoll rose and followed the man to the east slope. From there he beheld an overpowering force, advancing diagonally across the llano below. It came by the Carretas road, which skirted Queretaro on that side, and it was hurrying toward the Cimatario. The colonel of Grays watched them anxiously through his glasses.
"Shucks," he said at last, "the fight's over. It's Escobedo. He's sent his reserve. Don't you see those black shakos, Jim, and those gray coats? They're the Cazadores de Galeana, and the best yet. Now we'll have someone to hold the hill!"
But getting back to the trenches, Driscoll saw that the help might not come soon enough. For however the Imperialists squandered their lives, they would yet overcrowd death. Some had already gained the first trench, and were there engaged hand to hand, with sabre and pistol. In the trenches above the Grays steadily fed the molten flame. But Driscoll chose the in-fighting, and naturally became himself the centre of the hottest patch.
"Help's here! in five minutes, just five minutes!" he spoke right and left to his men, as a carpenter will converse and hammer at the same time. For the outnumbered Grays it was the help arrived already.
The Imperialist cannon had of necessity ceased firing, so what should be the consternation of the attacking column to have a shell fall among them from the rear! All eyes turned, and a murmur of panic rose. It was not that their own batteries had made a mistake, but that there had not been any mistake. The reserve sent by Escobedo, hearing the battle, had wheeled and rushed straight down the centre of the plain on the chance of giving quicker assistance. Once in sight of the trenches, though still considerably to the right of the hill, they had unlimbered a gun, while cavalry and infantry pushed on to the rescue. Not to be caught between trenches and plain, the Imperialists acted with soldiery decision. Their clarions sounded retreat.
"Now it's our turn!" shouted Driscoll, and with the parson and the Kansan and the outlaw chief, and guerrillas and Missourians pouring out of their ditches, he chased down hill the concentrated might of an Empire. So closely was that chasing performed that pistol flashes burned into standards and uniforms.
Maximilian and Miramon and the high officers of the realm were still at their post of observation in front of the Alameda. For the third time that morning they faced Imperial cohorts hurled back upon them by a man named Driscoll. Miramon reproached himself bitterly. His plans to intercept Escobedo's reserve on the north had failed. The Emperor's pallid features were drawn with the tensity of a big loser. Yet in the soft blue eyes there flashed a chivalrous wonder at an enemy's valiant deed.
On the llano fugitives and pursuers mingled as one in the human wave of confusion. Escobedo's cavalry had overtaken the melee, and blended with the rear of the fleeing column, until it seemed likely that both must enter the town together. But a charge of grape, fired obliquely from the Alameda, mowed a path between them—a Spartan business, for it reaped Imperialists among Republicans. However, a second and third blast were better gauged, and these carpeted the new alley-way with Republican bodies. Also, the Imperialists were re-forming, and under a withering fire the little band of victors had to draw back to the Cimatario.
As Escobedo's reserve occupied the hill, Driscoll marched his own force behind the same to get his horses there. But the mustangs of the brigands had disappeared, and far to the southwest were the brigands themselves, moving swiftly over the plain toward the mountains. They hardly numbered two-score now, and at that distance seemed a few men herding a drove of empty saddles. The late indignant patriot, Don Rodrigo, had changed back to outlaw. As another Cid, he might have looked for pardon from a grateful country, but possibly he feared the Roman justice of Juarez too much to risk it. Besides, a man will not lightly give up his career. That same night Rodrigo lay again among the sierras, quite ready for the first bullion convoy or beautiful marchioness passing by.
Shells and minie balls were yet dropping perfunctorily, and the llano between hill and town was still a dangerous place enough, but scattered here and there were a few of both sides looking for their wounded, and often themselves going down before the aim of sharpshooters. Stiffening bodies lay under the trampled grass in every varied horror of mutilation, and glassy eyes peered unseeing upward through the stalks, like the absurd and ghastly contrast of a horrible dream. But among them were the stricken living in as varied an agony, of raw wounds stung by gnats, of pain cutting deep to vitality, of thirst, of the broiling sun, of a buzzing fly, or of an intolerable loneliness there with death. Groans rose over the plain, and guided the searchers. Driscoll had already found many of his men in this way. Once he heard his own name. The voice was weak, but there was something vaguely familiar to it, and involuntarily he held his pistol against treachery as he parted the grass and revealed a wounded man at his feet. It was a piteously famished body that raised itself a little by one hand. It was a soul-tenanted death-head that crooked gruesomely down on the shoulder and lifted its eyes to Driscoll's in greeting. They were glowing coals, those eyes, glowing with the virile fire of twenty men, however wasted the face or tightly drawn the yellow parchment skin.
Driscoll's exclamation was a shudder rather than the surprise of recognition. What could it be that had grown so—so terrible in the weazen, craven miser! And to find the abject little coward on a battlefield, and wounded! An occasional bomb even then screeched overhead. And he was clothed in uniform, a soldier's uniform, he, Don Anastasio!
"Gra-cious!" Driscoll muttered.
More and more stupefying, the uniform was not Republican, but Imperialist. There were the green pantaloons with red stripes, the red jacket, the white shoes, the white kepi, of the Batallon del Emperador—a ludicrous martial combination, but pathetic on an aged, withered man. The Batallon del Emperador? Driscoll remembered. They were the troop that had surrounded Maximilian during the recent battle in front of the Alameda, and Murguia had fallen on the very spot. The venomous Republican was then become one of the Emperor's bodyguard!
As the Republican, so also was the coward gone. The gaunt little old Mexican seemed oblivious of peril, as fever blinds one to every nearest emotion. There was even a grimness in the shifting gaze. And a certain merciless capacity, born of unyielding resolve—born of an obsession, one might say—was there also. He could have been some great military leader, cruel and of iron, if those eyes were all. Little shriveled Don Anastasio, he had no sense of present danger, nor of the red blood trickling.
"That's bad, that," said Driscoll, overcoming his repugnance. "Here, I'll get you taken right along to our surgeons."
But Murguia shrank from the offer as though he feared the Republicans of all monsters.
"No, no," he protested feebly, yet with an odd ring of command. "Some one on—on my side will find me."
"But you called?" Driscoll insisted.
"Yes, you—have heard from Rodrigo Galan? He was to have sent you a—to have sent you something for me."
More and more of mystery! Rodrigo had said that Driscoll would see Murguia to give him the ivory cross, and so it had come to pass. But the battle, the old man's wound, surely these things were not prearranged only that a trinket might be delivered.
"How was I to see you?" Driscoll asked abruptly.
Murguia started, and there was the old slinking evasion.
"There, there," said Driscoll hastily. "Don't move that way, you'll bleed to death! Here, take it, here it is."
Murguia clutched the ivory thing in his bony fingers.
"Maria, Maria de la Luz," he fell to murmuring, gazing upon the cross as though it were her poor crushed face. In the old days she had made him forget avarice or fear, and now, before this token of her, the hardness died out of his eyes and they swam in tears. Driscoll gazed down on him pityingly. The old man was palsied. He trembled. There passed over him the same spasm, so silent, so terrible, as on the night of her death, when he had sat at the court martial, his head buried in his arm.
"Rod said you would want it," Driscoll spoke gently. Then he moved away. An Imperialist officer was approaching over the field who would bring the help which Murguia refused to accept of the Republicans.
Driscoll looked back once. The Imperialist officer was carrying Murguia into the town. He was a large man, and had red hair. His regimentals were gorgeous. There seemed to be something familiar about him, too. Greatly puzzled, Driscoll unslung his glasses, and through them he recognized Colonel Miguel Lopez. Lopez, the former colonel of Dragoons, now commanded the Imperialist reserve, quartered in the monastery of La Cruz around the person of their sovereign. But Lopez had once condemned Murguia to death. A strange solicitude, thought Driscoll, in such a high and mighty person for a little, insignificant, useless warrior as poor Murgie. A strange, a very strange solicitude, and Driscoll could not get it out of his head.
OF ALL NEWS THE MOST SPITEFUL
"O poor and wretched ones! That, feeble in the mind's eye, lean your trust Upon unstaid perverseness."—Dante.
Her gestures, her every word, were an effervescence. There was something near hysteria in the bright flashes of her wit. However gay, joyous, cynical, Jacqueline may have seemed to herself, to Berthe, terrified though the girl was, Jacqueline's mood was a sham.
"The frisson, oh, those few exquisite seconds of emotion, eh Berthe?" she exclaimed. "Pursued by robbers—the chase—the rescue—and the jolting, the jolting that took our breaths! Why, Berthe, what more would you have? Helas, to be over so quickly! And here we are, left alone in our coach, robbers gone, rescuers gone! Berthe, do you know, I believe they compared notes and decided we weren't worth it. But I should have thought," she went on in mock bitterness, "I should indeed, that at least our Fra Diavolo would have been more gallant, even if——"
"Even if?" prompted Berthe, then bit her lip.
"Even—Oh Berthe, fi donc, to catch me so because I was wandering!—even if one could expect no such gallantry from the Chevalier de Missour-i. There now, do you tell Tobie to drive on——"
"Say 'Jeanne'," the marchioness commanded, stamping her foot.
"My lady," the girl persisted, but added with affectionate earnestness, "and my only friend, I was simply going to say that we are not deserted after all."
"But didn't I see him riding away?"
"Him, yes, but look out of the window. See, he's left six or eight—O—oh——"
It was a joyful cry, which got smothered at once in confusion. Turning quickly, Jacqueline beheld a little Bretonne with eyes cast down and cheeks aflame. Yet even then Berthe gave a cosy sigh of relief. There was cannonading not far away. They had just been taken by brigands, and as suddenly left alone on the road. Thus Jacqueline's company ever cost her many a tremor. Yet somehow one of those chevaliers de Missour-i needed only to appear, and she felt as secure as a kitten on the hearth rug. A chevalier de Missour-i had but now ridden up to the coach door.
"Berthe!" whispered Jacqueline severely, so that the girl thought her dress was awry. "Quick, tuck your heart away in your pocket. It's right there on your sleeve." Whereat Berthe employed the sleeve to hide her higher mantling color.
Jacqueline turned on the chevalier at the window, and surveyed his sleeve. It was covered with dust, but Jacqueline's big eyes could see through dust. She felt about her a subtle atmosphere that made her an outsider.
"Ah, Monsieur le Troubadour?" came her bantering recognition.
Mr. Boone's French crowded pleasantly to his tongue tip. "Mademoiselle," he returned, "and," he added, with an odd glance toward Berthe, "Madame l'Imperatrice, uh—how goes it?"
Jacqueline's lashes raised inquiringly, until she remembered how the lank gentleman before her, with the tender heart of a Quixote, had mistaken Berthe for the Empress, months before at the Cordova plantation. She liked him somehow better now for persisting in it.
"Her Imperial Highness," she explained, very soberly, "may deign presently to observe that you are here, monsieur, though, as you see, her thoughts are far away. However, if you can possibly give your own to a humbler person, to myself, dear Troubadour, I should very much like to know what is to happen next. Use fine words, if you must; even put it into verse, only tell me——" With an impulsive shove she flung open the door and stepped into the road. She could still see Driscoll's troop, or rather the cloud of dust, speeding toward Queretaro, but her arm swept the horizon impersonally. "Only tell me," she demanded, "what's happening now, over yonder?"
"Pressing business, ma'am—mademoiselle, and," Daniel lied promptly, "Colonel Driscoll wished me to make you his excuses."
"The minstrels of old, sir," said Jacqueline, "usually accompanied their more gallant fibs with a harp."
Her vivacity was rising fast, and for some reason, Berthe darted an angry look of warning on Mr. Boone. But the poor fellow was blind to Jacqueline's jealousy of a distant conflict, and he blundered further.
"Jack Driscoll's just that way," he apologized for his friend cheerfully. "Abundat dulcibus vitiis—he's chuck full of pleasant faults. When there's a clash of arms around, let the most alluring Peri that ever wore sweet jessamine glide by, and—she can just glide. While with me——"
"I see. You have stayed. But I, too, like battles, monsieur. Tobie, get back up there with the driver. There's no admission charge, I imagine, to this battle?"
Boone gladly offered to take them for a nearer view, but he saw Berthe—his eyes were never elsewhere—shrink involuntarily.
"Stop, arretaz! Hey there!" he ordered, and the driver stopped.
Jacqueline's pretty jaw fell in wonder. The natural order of things was prevailing over the artificial. Social status to the contrary notwithstanding, it was Berthe who commanded here, and not Mlle. la Marquise. But Jacqueline was happy in it, and perhaps a little envious too. Ah, those Missouriens! This one, who would rather stay than fight! And that other, who was now fighting for quite the opposite reason! They had a capacity for variety, those Missouriens!
It was much later, after a lunch from Jacqueline's hampers under the nearest trees, and after the distant fusillades had quieted to an occasional angry spat, that the ladies' escort of Gringo Grays, bearing a flag of truce, set out with their charge toward the town. Daniel rode beside the coach window, and the flaps of the old hacienda conveyance were drawn aside. He wondered how it happened that the hours had passed so quickly. He would not believe that his comrades had been fighting, that many of them had died, so blissfully fleeting were those hours to himself.
"It's all according," he mused profoundly.
And he could not help singing. He hummed the forlorn chanson of Joe Bowers of the State of Pike, which Bledsoe, then lying cold and stiff under a mountain howitzer, had so often bellowed forth.
"It said that Sal was false to me, Her love for me had fled, She's got married to a butcher— The butcher's hair was red."
But he sung it as a plaint, yet not hopelessly, and Mademoiselle Berthe was the maid entreated of his melody.
The sharpshooters on both sides paused as the coach drove into the little sweet-scented wood that was called the Alameda, and the Missourians, with sabres at salute, transferred their charge to the Imperialists crowding around. Among the latter were some of Jacqueline's own countrymen, and those, in starvation and defeat, were as debonair as the cadets of Gascogne.
"A rose, mademoiselle," said one, bowing low. He had an arm bandaged, and his sword was broken. "An early merciful bullet plucked it for you, so that it fell unhurt, though the petals of all the others are scattered everywhere among the leaves, among the fallen branches, among the shattered statues of our classic grove here. See, like the rose I tender, you come among us poor broken soldiers of fortune. I think, dear lady, there will be those above to bless you for it."
Jacqueline smiled behind her tears. "Always a Frenchman, eh, mon lieutenant?" she said.
The fragrance of the place was smothered under gunpowder and sluggish fumes. The pleasant drives, the grass, the flowers, were trampled by gaunt soldiers bearing their wounded, but the young officer murmured on in the speech of the Alameda's one time fashionable promenade.
"Who is that?" she interrupted.
She pointed over the heads around her to a man bearing someone off the late bloody field, and that moment staggering across the trenches into the Alameda. It was an act that moved her, for the rescuer was a richly uniformed officer, and the other but a common soldier. With Berthe close behind, she alighted from the coach and hurried forward to help. The wounded soldier's face lay on the officer's breast, and she saw only his hair, matted and very white, from which a rusty brown wig had partly fallen. But more to the purpose she saw that he was bleeding, and the callous warriors there knew that the angels of the siege had come at last.
"Lay him in my carriage—but carefully, you!" she said, and was obeyed, while Berthe deftly fixed cloaks and blankets around the withered form. Someone mounted with Toby and the driver, and the coach rolled slowly away to the hospital, leaving behind the two girls staring at the richly uniformed officer, and the officer staring tenfold harder at them. He was a large man, with big hands and feet, and for a Mexican he had a mongrel floridness of skin. His cap was in his hand, and his hair was red and thin. Amazement and a startled prying anxiety choked his utterance.
"Now then, Colonel Lopez," Jacqueline addressed him calmly, "may I ask you the way? I have come to speak with Maximilian."
"La Senorita d-d'Aumerle!" he stuttered.
"Faith, no other, who is awaiting your pleasure, senor."
"You come from, from—Mexico?"
"But hardly to chat with you all the afternoon, caballero."
"From Mexico! From the capital!" he kept repeating. The man's finger nails cracked disagreeably, and his features worked in an extreme of agitation. He tried to fix his shifting blue eyes upon first one and then the other of the two girls, as though to ferret out what they must know. "You do bring news from there?" he said huskily. "What of Marquez? Is he coming? Shall we have the aid he went for? When——"
"Ah, the medal for military valor!" observed Jacqueline. "Indeed, mi coronel, all must acclaim your bravery, as well as—your loyalty. But take me to your beloved Prince Max, for I do assure you, senor, my news goes not without myself."
"He visits the hospital every day," Lopez advised reluctantly. "Perhaps if I should take Your Mercy there first——"
Passing on through the ravaged Alameda, they entered the streets of Queretaro.
"Hear!" Jacqueline exclaimed. "Such a quantity of vivas and clarins and national hymns and triumphant dianas, one would imagine, for example, that there had been a great victory?"
"Eh? Oh yes, or a hearty breakfast, senorita."
Which was more essential. And why not? Hope's bright hue blotted out emaciation. They had broken through to food that day. Bueno, could they not do it again? Old croons had returned to their stalls and accustomed corners in the market place, and as in days of peace were already squatted before corn or beans heaped on the stone pavement in portions for a quartilla, a media, or a real, as though the pyramids were not so pitifully little, as though the wholesale purchase were not made just that morning in heavy terms of blood.
Behind the ponderous Assyrian-like church of Santa Rosa, in the old, half ruined monastery and garden, was the hospital of the besieged. A stifling, fetid odor, far worse than of drugs merely, sickened the two girls as a foul breath when they passed with their guide between thick walls into the large, overcrowded rooms. Military medical service was not yet become an institution in Mexico, and this place was like some horrible antechamber of the grave. Every cot had its ghastly transient, and so had the benches, brought here from the different plazas. More and more wounded were arriving constantly, and those found to be still alive were laid on the flagstones wherever space for a blanket remained. But in spite of the morning's fight, in spite of almost daily skirmishes for weeks past, the sick outnumbered all others; and those who did come with wounds, and survived them, stayed on to swell the longer list. Men tossed in fever, craving what they might not have, a cooling draught, a proper food, and effective medicine, until, with waking, they craved an easier boon, and died. But the hospital fever, the calenturas, the gangrene, were not to be all. Out of the diseased air, mid the fumes of pious tapers, the spectre of epidemic was taking hideous shape over the many, many upturned faces. The spectre was the tifo, a plague more dreaded in high altitudes than black vomit in the low.
Jacqueline found Maximilian bending over a stricken cavalry officer. The Emperor was far from a well man, and his fair skin more than ever contrasted as something foreign and lonely among the swarthy faces on every side. His ostentation was now simplicity, as befitted a monarch in camp. He wore neither sword nor star. His garb was plain charro, in which he often walked among citizens and soldiers, inquiring about rations, or requesting a light for his cigar, never minding if a shell burst and kicked dust over him, and always affable, always ready to smile and praise. It was a role that came naturally to his gentle soul. One would like to believe—if one could, alas!—that he had in mind no kingly precedent.
Pausing unseen, Jacqueline noted tears in the blue eyes as he pinned some decoration on the officer's bloodstained shirt. A good heart, she thought, yet ever the prince. In his divine right was he even here, presuming to send a dying subject to the Sovereign in Heaven with a "character," with a recommendation for service faithfully done. His hands trembled from haste, for he would have the soldier appear before that dread Throne above as a Caballero of the Mexican Eagle. In pity for them both, Jacqueline asked herself what precedence awaited the new Caballero of the Mexican Eagle in a Court, not Imperial, but Divine.
Jacqueline had not journeyed her perilous way out of simple friendship for a desolate prince, but could she have foreseen how his eyes lighted with gladness to behold one friend who remembered, in sweet charity she would almost have come for that alone.
"When Your Highness has finished here," she said, glancing at the inquisitive Lopez near her, "or whenever I can speak with Your Highness in private——"
There was beseeching in Maximilian's quick scrutiny of her face, as though the helpless messenger had aught of power over her tidings. "In—in a moment, mademoiselle," he said tremulously. "I always see the—new ones, before I go."
The "new ones" were still being brought in, until any first aid from the distracted surgeons was of the most casual—the ripping of bandaged cloth, a knot tied, and so on to the next. Followed by Lopez, the two girls, and several officers of the hospital staff, Maximilian passed from ward to ward. But Jacqueline's hand seemed always to be threading a needle, or holding a ligature, or lightly touching a hot forehead, and in every case the surgeon would nod quickly, gratefully, as to a fellow craftsman. Berthe the while gazed in tender wonder on her calm mistress, and nerved herself someway to help also.
And so they came to the withered form in brave red coat, and green pantaloon whom Lopez had carried off the field. One of the nurses had placed a handkerchief over his face, because of the stinging flies, but Jacqueline recognized the thin white hair and the twisted wig as of the old man whom she had sent ahead in her coach. At first he seemed to be dead, for he lay very still on the floor, though a surgeon was probing his wound, and his blood was fast filling the bowl held by the nurse. But now and again, the straining cords in his emaciated wrist twitched with the protest of life. Maximilian stooped to raise the handkerchief. Lopez made a movement to prevent, but restrained the impulse as useless. And then Maximilian revealed the gaunt, leaden features of Anastasio Murguia, the father of Maria de la Luz.
Jacqueline fell back with bloodless lips. The father of that dead girl—and Maximilian! They were face to face, these two! But the Emperor's expression was of pity only. He sank to his knees, the better to make the wounded man understand the words of comfort on his lips. For Jacqueline, the horror of it chilled her. Surely, surely, she thought, the hidden tragedy must now unmask; because of its very awfulness, it must! That the prince should be thus oblivious of such a knowledge, and yet kneeling there, made the scene ghastly beyond words.
"I remember him," said Maximilian softly, looking up to the others. "One of your orderlies, Colonel Lopez, I believe? Of course I remember him, for I see him often. He is always near me. Even to-day, on the llano, during the thickest of the battle, there he was at my stirrup, and there he must have fallen, in humble, unquestioning loyalty."
Jacqueline drew back in relief, and she imagined that Lopez did also. Maximilian had forgotten the hacendado utterly.
With a grunt of satisfaction the surgeon drew forth his forceps from the wound and dropped a bullet to the floor. Next he gently rolled the patient over on his back, and then it was that Jacqueline saw in Murguia's hand, in the hand that had been under him, a little ivory cross. Fainting, unconscious, he still clutched it, from Driscoll's leaving him on the battlefield until the present moment. By now the stains of his child's blood were washed away in his own. Jacqueline's quick eyes caught an inscription on the gold mounting, and leaning close she read the dead girl's name, "Maria de la Luz."
With the gripping of the bullet and its extraction, or possibly at the sound of a voice—Maximilian's—the old man's eyes opened, and held the Emperor's in a deathly stare. Jacqueline watched the piercing beads grow smaller and smaller in their cavernous sockets, and all the while they seemed to concentrate their intense fire. The others, except Lopez, thought it delirium, but Jacqueline would have named it the very blackest hate. "This man will live!" she said to herself, and shuddered.
Maximilian, seeing consciousness returned, spoke cheerily. "Ah, doctor, you will have him well and sound within a week, I know? Look to it, sir; a heroic veteran like this cannot be spared."
A strange distortion wrapped the visage of suffering. "Could that be a smile?" Jacqueline wondered. But the Imperial party took its leave, and the tragedy lurking beneath was not revealed, as yet.
Through the throng waiting outside the hospital to acclaim him again as a prince victorious, Maximilian led the two girls to their coach, and went with them to the convent of Santa Clara, where he asked that they be received as guests by the sisters. Here, in the comfortless parloir of the retreat, he learned the reason of Jacqueline's daring journey from the capital.
"I bring Your Highness," said she, "the most spiteful news my feeble sex can ever bring."
Again the involuntary plea for fair tidings swept his face.
"And, and that is, mademoiselle?"
"'I told you so.'"
Maximilan's cheeks paled to the marble whiteness of his brow. He had just heard the answer to the one question, to the one hope, of all Queretaro.
"You, you mean Marquez?"
"Yes." And then she told him, and seeing how stricken he was, her exasperation at his vain incapacity changed to pity for his breaking pride—which may be called his breaking heart.
"But mademoiselle, I gave my empire into his keeping," he protested, as though such trust in a man of itself proved that man's constancy. But the messenger, but Truth, would not recant.
"Then," moaned the Emperor suddenly, "Marquez is not coming back?"
"Nor ever meant to, sire. Listen, Your Highness made him lieutenant of the Empire, and sent him to the capital for aid. Bien, he turned out the ministers. He broke into homes, and pillaged even the stanchest Imperialists. He heard that Puebla was besieged by a Liberal general, Porfirio Diaz, so instead of coming here, Marquez marches all his army down there. You will observe, sire, that he wanted the road kept open to Vera Cruz."
"But why? Tell me!"
"Ma foi, to sell the capital more easily. In any case to be able to save himself."
"Sell the capital?"
"Just a little patience, sire. Now what did Diaz do, but take Puebla by assault before Marquez could arrive? Then he turned on Marquez, and Marquez turned and ran. Oui, oui, sire, he ran, ran like the little ugly, skulking Leopard that he is. To cross a creek, he filled it with all the ammunition, and kept on running, leaving his army defenseless behind him. Groan if you must, sire; others have died in groans. But the Leopard had done this kind of thing before, it should have been remembered. He got back safely though, and squandered the army that might have relieved Queretaro to do it. Mon Dieu, what that panic must have been! One entire battalion surrendered to fifty guerrillas. Yet the Austrian cavalry, the Hungarians, and some others fought, fought with their sabres, and won victories too. Helas, they only proved what might have been. They only proved how Marquez, if he had not hesitated, might perhaps have saved Puebla and destroyed the Liberals. As it was, they could only retreat, and hardly two thousand of them, ragged and bleeding and filthy, straggled back into Mexico during the next few days. Now they are besieged there. Oui, oui, besieged, by Diaz, by the army of the East, by twelve thousand Republicans, formerly called brigands. And inside is the Leopard, snarling as ever with his regency of terror. Oh no, he will not come to Queretaro. Bonte divine, he cannot. Nor would he. He still holds the capital—for sale."
"No, no, mademoiselle, there you wrong him, surely. Or tell me, then, who would buy?"
"Probably no one. At least not Santa Anna. The buyer must have an army."
"My friend, this is a cruel jest."
"Earnest enough, parbleu, to make the Leopard forget Queretaro, once he was safely away."
"Then why doesn't he sell out to Diaz?"
Jacqueline's eyes snapped contemptuously. "Young Diaz," she replied, "is not a fighter to buy what he can take. It's only a question of a few weeks."
"Then by all that's mysterious, who would buy? I cannot."
"Of course you cannot. That is why Marquez wants you out of the way, sire. So he left you here. The Liberals will attend to that for him."
"Then who will buy? Who? Who?"
The blood shot into the girl's cheeks, and one small hand clenched tightly.
"France—possibly," she said.
The Emperor started as from an acute shock. His thoughts raced backward, then forward, gathering the whole heinous truth about the perfidy of Marquez.
"And I," Jacqueline added calmly, though she was still flushed, "I have forwarded his offer to Napoleon."
"You, mademoiselle? You, an accessory?"
"To Your Imperial Highness's downfall? Ah no, sire! Your Highness is no longer a factor. Your August Majesty will be eliminated absolutely before Napoleon can reply to my despatch. As I said, the Liberals around Queretaro will attend to that. Your Highness has merely delayed the profit my country might have had from his abdication. Meantime Your Highness himself has made his own ruin inevitable. But I, sire, I would not see Marquez, nor receive a word from him, until we were actually besieged in the capital, and he beyond the hope of coming to Your Highness here. Now then, if Marquez only holds out until the army of France returns——"
A deep sigh interrupted her. "No longer a factor," murmured the Emperor. Thus quickly, then, could the world take up its affairs again after his elimination!
"Mademoiselle," he cried suddenly, generously, "you are—superb! Dear little Frenchwoman, you are, you are!"
"Poof!" said Jacqueline. "But don't you see, sire," she hurried on eagerly, "that we will have to fight the Americans? Yes, yes, then they can no longer say they drove us out."
"Indeed they cannot. And I, among the first, and the most heartily, do wish you a warlike answer from that firebrand of a Napoleon. But tell me, why do you come to Queretaro? How did you come?"
"How? Easily. All the guerrilla bands—except one, which I escaped—are concentrated either here or with Diaz."
"And Marquez let you come, you who are so important to him now?"
"As though he could help it, parbleu! My message to Napoleon was in my own cipher, and after he had sent it by a scout to Vera Cruz, I informed him that in it I had directed Napoleon to send his answer to me at Queretaro. Otherwise Marquez would have kept me in prison rather than let me go. But as it was, he assisted me through the Republican lines by a secret way he has arranged for his own escape, if need be. So——"
"But why did you wish to come at all?"
"Ma foi, as if I knew! A matter of conscience, I suppose."
"Matters of conscience are usually riddles."
"Like this one? Bien, I am still trying to get Your Highness to leave the country. But this time, sire, it is to save you."
"To save me?"
"Of course, on account of France."
"Oh, on account of France?"
"Why else? If—if anything happens to Maximilian, France will be blamed. Oh why, why did you not escape this morning, while the road was open?"
For the first time during the interview the fire of high resolve leaped into the prince's eyes. "But could I, in honor?" he demanded sternly. "Think of the townspeople, abandoned to the Liberal fury. Their Emperor, mademoiselle, means to face the end with them, here, in Queretaro."
The dignity of his catastrophe was already beginning to appeal to him, to exalt him, even as the vision of a Hapsburg winning his empire had so often done before.
"But," protested the girl, "if they capture Your Highness, if they—if they hold you for trial?"
She stopped, for Maximilian was laughing, and laughing heartily. The idea of hands laid on him, an Archduke of Austria—ha, he was grateful to her. Its very absurdity had given him the first relaxation of a laugh in months.
"Nevertheless," persisted Jacqueline, whose heritage of a revolution was an obstinate bundle of these same absurdities, "nevertheless, I had hoped to save Your Highness with my news, since it is news that leaves no hope. Why not, then, escape? Treat for terms, do anything, only save your followers and—yourself, sire?"
But she found it impossible to sway him from this, his latest conceit. His new role, the more desperate it looked, only ensnared him as the more worthy. He contemplated the end serenely. As a military captain he was culling laurels against theatric odds. His heroic loyalty to a lost cause, with perhaps a little martyrdom (of personal inconvenience), how these would count and be not denied when he should return to his destiny in Europe!
His was even a mood to consort with lofty traits in others, and in a kind of poetic ecstasy he thought of Jacqueline's steadfast devotion to her country's glory. And he was moved again by the vague, chivalrous longing to bend the knee, to do her some knightly service. But—yes, he seemed to remember, there was such a service to be done, yet and yet—no, he had forgotten.
Then quite curiously, yet still without remembering, he dwelt in reverie on that man named Driscoll who had so filled the morning with valiant deeds.
VENDETTA'S HALF SISTER, BETTER BORN
"When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen." —Emerson.
Just outside Driscoll's tent, under the stars, a fragrant steak was broiling. The colonel's mozo had learned the magic of the forked stick, and he manipulated his wand with a conscious pride, so that the low sizzling of flesh and flame was as the mystic voice in some witch's brew. There were many other tents on the plain, a blurred city of whitish shadows against the night, and there were many other glowing coals to mark where the earth lay under the stars, and the witching murmur, the tantalizing charm of each was—supper. In this wise, and thinking themselves very patient, men were waiting for other men to starve to death. The besieged had tried, but they had not again cut through to food.
In Driscoll's tent there was a galaxy of woolen-shirted warriors, a constellation of quiescent Berserkers. For they were Missouri colonels, except one, who being a Kansan, required no title. They were tobacco-chewing giants, famous for expectoration. Except Meagre Shanks, who tilted his inevitable black cigar now toward one eye, now toward the other. Except the Storm Centre, who fondly closed his palm over his cob meerschaum and felt its warmth and seemed far away, a dangerous poet. Except Old Brothers and Sisters, most austere of Wesleyans, who had neither pipe nor quid. He was cleaning his pistols. They were men hewn for mighty deeds, but—cringe must we all before the irony that neither life nor romance may dodge—it was not a mighty deed which that night was to exact of them, which yet they were brave enough to do, though sorry the figures they thought they made.
Politics was their theme, since men, though busy with war and death, must yet relieve their statesmen, especially after supper, and neatly arrange the Tariff, Resumption, or whatever else. Like oracles the ex-Confederates held forth that the Yankees had only driven out the French to march in themselves, and so tutor the Mexicans in self-government. To which the Kansan ventured a minority opinion, though being thus a judge of the bench, as it were, he had no need of the oaths he took.
"Why God help me and to thunder with you, the United States ain't aiming at any protectorate. You unreconstructed Rebs simply cain't and won't see good faith in the Federal government!"
"Carpet bags?" Driscoll murmured sweetly. It was the majority opinion.
"Yes sir'ee," and Daniel took the cue as a bit in the mouth, "there's blood on the face of the moon up there, acerrima proximorum odia, by God sir! Look at the troops at our elections! Look at the Drake Test Oath! Look at——" Mr. Boone was fast getting vitriolic, in heavy editorial fashion, when a famished face, a wolfish face, appeared between the flaps of the tent. "Look at—that!"
Politics vanished, war and death resumed their own.
The whole mess stared.
"Sth-hunderation, it's an Imperialist!" lisped Crittenden of Nodaway. He pointed at the newcomer's uniform, which was of the Batallon del Emperador.
"Well, bring him on in," said Driscoll to the pickets gripping the man by either arm.
"He was trying to pass through our lines," one explained. "And when we stopped him, he begged hard to be brought to the Coronel Gringo, that is, to you, senor."
The mess turned curiously on Driscoll. Why a half dead soldier of the Batallon del Emperador should have a preference as to his jailer was beyond them. But they were yet more puzzled to hear Driscoll address the prisoner by name.
"See here, Murgie," he said, "is this the occasion Rodrigo meant when he talked about my meeting you soon? Is it? Come, crawl out of the grass. Show us what you're up to. No, wait, feed first. There's plenty left."
But the old man had not once glanced toward the table. Whatever the pangs of hunger, another torment was uppermost.
"What do you mean by this," Boone demanded, as though personally offended, "you've got the hospital color, dull lead on yellow? Here, take a drink. Yes, I know, it's mescal, out-and-out embalmed deviltry that no self-respecting drunkard would touch, but Lord A'mighty, man, you need something!"
Murguia shook his head irritably. Offers of what his body craved were annoying hindrances before the craving of his soul. He twitched himself free of the sentinels, and limped painfully to where Driscoll sat. He wore no coat, but his green pantaloons with their crimson stripes were rolled to the knee, and the white calzoncillos beneath flapped against his skeleton ankles. His feet were bare, the better for an errand of stealth in the night. He was a pitiful spectacle, yet a repulsive, and the Americans despised themselves for the strange impulse they had to kick him out like a dog. They watched him wonderingly as he tried to speak. He panted from his late rough handling by the sentry, and his half-closed wound gave excruciating pain. The muscles of his face jerked horribly, but his will was tremendous, merciless, and at last the cords of the jaw knotted and hardened.
"To-morrow morn—morning," he began, "the Emperor will fight. It is arranged for—for daybreak, senores. To to fight—to break through—to—to ESCAPE!"
"W'y then," exclaimed Harry Collins, the Kansan, "good for him!"
The parson snatched off his brass-bowed spectacles, and his brow lowered fiercely over his cherubic eyes.
"And so you had to come and tell us?" he demanded.
But the traitorous old man had not the smallest thought of his shame, nor could have.
"You—you will let him escape?" he challenged them in frantic anger.
The mess stole abashed glances at one another. They would, they knew well enough, have to act on this information. But they were men for a fair fight, and they had no stomach to rob the besieged of a last desperate chance. For a moment they were enraged against the informer.
"We'll just keep him here," said one.
"Yes, till morning. Then he'll tell no one else, and we won't. Poor old Maxie!"
"Sure," ejaculated Collins, "give Golden Whiskers a show!"
The wolfish light in the sunken eyes quickened to a flash. Lust for Maximilian's capture turned to chagrin.
"Senores, senores mios," he whined, "you do not know yet, you do not know, that if Maximilian is not taken——"
"Ah, here now," growled Clay of Carroll, "you needn't worry so much. He'll be driven back into the town all right, I reckon."
"And what then, senor? No, you do not know. Your general, senores—General Escobedo—has orders to—to raise the siege."
"Si senor, to raise the siege! The orders are from San Luis, from the Senor Presidente there. He—he thinks the siege has lasted long enough."
"Precisamente. Yes, it would look like—defeat. It would, if—you don't capture Maximilian by daybreak."
Meagre Shanks brought his boot soles wrathfully to the ground, kicking the stool back of him. His whole mien exuded a newspaper man's contempt for faking. "Now then, young fellow," and he shook a long finger at the ancient Mexican, "here you know all that Maximilian knows. And here again you know all that the Presidente knows. All right, s'pose you just tell us now more or less about how mighty little you do know?"
"It's—it's like a message from El Chaparrito," the parson demurred.
"From Shorty?" Daniel almost roared. "Oh come, Clem, don't you go to mixing up the unseen and all-seeing guardian of the Republica with this dried-up, wild-eyed specimen of a dried-up—of, of an old rascal. No one ever hears from El Chaparrito 'less there's a crisis on, and is there one on now? You know there ain't. If there was, someone would be hearing from Shorty—Driscoll there, prob'bly. But there ain't. Shucks, this old codger is only plum' daft. Aren't you now"—he appealed querulously to Murguia, "aren't you just crazy—say?"
But even as the Americans breathed easier, they stared aghast at the old man.
"Crazy?" he repeated. "Crazy?" he fairly shrieked, clutching Boone by the sleeve. "No, I am not! Senor, say that I am not! No, no, no, I am not crazy, not yet—not—not before it is done, not—before——"
"God!" Boone half whispered. "Look at his eyes now!"
The old man checked himself in trembling. No help for him lay in human testimony. But there was his own will, which had driven his frail body. Now as a demon it gripped his mind and held it from the brink.
"Go, out of here, all of you!" he burst on them. "Go, I have more to tell—more, more, more, do you understand?—but I'll tell it to no one, to no one, unless to Mister Dreescol."
A raving maniac or not, canards or not, there might be in all this what was vital. The Americans stirred uneasily, in a kind of awe, and at a nod from Driscoll they left the tent.
Murguia grew quieter at once. His faculties tightened on the effort before him. He was alone with the man who would understand, so he thought; who had the same reason to understand, so he thought.
Driscoll had shared nothing of the late emotions. He had smoked impassively. His interest was of the coldest. Only his eyes, narrowed fixedly on the Mexican, betrayed the heed he gave. When the others were gone, he uncrossed his legs, and crossed them the other way, and thrust the corncob into his pocket.
Murguia dropped to the nearest camp stool.
"Now then, you with your dirty little affairs, why do you come to me?"
Murguia leaned forward over the table between them, his bony arms among candles and a litter of earthen plates. The odor of meat assailed his nostrils. But the hunger in his leer had no scent for food.
"This is the time I meant, senor, when Rodrigo told you that you would see me."
"About the ivory cross? But I gave you that a month ago."
"A month ago—a month, wasted! How much sooner I would have come, only another had to be—persuaded—first."
"Oh, had he? Then it's not about the cross? And this other? Suppose I guess? He was—he was the red-haired puppy, my old friend the Dragoon, who carried you off wounded that day? Humph, the very first guess, too!"
Murguia darted at him a look of uneasy admiration.
"I would have told Your Mercy, anyway," he said, half cringing. "Yes, he is Colonel Lopez."
"And you 'persuaded' him?"
"Events did. Since the siege began I've tried, I've worked, to convince him that these same events would happen. Ugh, the dull fool, he had to wait for them."
"I can almost guess again," said Driscoll, as though it were some curious game, "but if you'd just as soon explain——"
"Listen! You remember two years ago at my hacienda, when Lopez sentenced you to death? But why did he sentence you to death, why, senor?"
"That's an easy one. It was because he didn't want my offer of Confederate aid to reach Maximilian."
"But why not? I will tell you. It was because he was trying even then to buy the Republic's good will, in case—in case anything should happen. But he was afraid to change, the coward! He must first know which side would win. I am his orderly—he knows why I am—and I've tried to drive it into his thick wits that the Empire is damned and has been, but he still doubted, even when we were starving again, even when every crumb was gathered into the common store, even when it was useless to shoot men for not declaring hidden corn, even when forced loans were vain, since money could no longer buy. No senor, even with proofs like these, Miguel Lopez was stubborn."
"I'd prob'bly guess he was a loyal scoundrel, after all."
"More yet, he has fought bravely, making himself a marked man in the Republic's eyes."
"Because so long as the Empire had a chance, or he thought it had, he hoped for more coddling. You see, senor, he thought Marquez was coming back with relief. There was that—that Frenchwoman you know of—who brought news from the capital. But Maximilian dared not make the news public. He forged a letter instead, a letter from Marquez, and he had its contents proclaimed. Marquez had been delayed, so all Queretaro read, but he had at last destroyed the Liberals in his path, and was then hurrying here with his victorious army. This false hope blinded Lopez with the others in there. But when Marquez did not come, when utter demoralization set in, when we were a starving town against thirty-five thousand outside, when there were scores of deserters every day, when any man who talked of surrender was executed, and still no Marquez, then Lopez began——"
"I see, he began to be persuaded?"
"Still, he wanted to be a general. But the other generals forced Maximilian not to promote him."
"So he was disappointed?"
"And persuaded, senor. The sally was already planned for this morning, but Lopez argued obstacles, and so got it postponed until to-morrow morning. He wanted to—to act on his—persuasion. And that is why," Murguia got to his feet and limped around the table to Driscoll, "and that is why," he ended in a croaking whisper, "why I am here!"
"And the red puppy, how near here did he come with you?"
Again Murguia darted at his questioner that uneasy glance of admiration.
"Lopez is waiting between the lines," he replied. "As to our own lines, we passed them easily, since Lopez commands the reserve brigade and places the sentinels himself around La Cruz monastery."
"Oh, does he?" Driscoll whistled softly. "But what's your plan?" He put the question sympathetically, which disturbed Don Anastasio vastly more than the American's peremptory tone in the beginning. "What's your plan?" he asked again, gently coaxing.
Murguia hesitated. This polite drawing-room interest was the most ironical of encouragement for villainy. Driscoll frowned impatiently, but at once he was smiling again. He placidly filled his corncob, and a moment later, his gaze piercing the tobacco smoke, he said, "Then I'll tell you. You're here to make a dicker, you and your tool between the lines. The monastery of La Cruz on top of the bluff is the citadel of Queretaro. Maximilian has his quarters there. The troops there are the reserve brigade. This puppy, this mongrel, commands the reserve brigade. He places the sentinels. And you are his orderly.—Oh, I haven't forgotten how he let you off that time he condemned me!—So now you are his orderly, for your own reasons and his. And here you are, talking mysteriously about capturing Maximilian. But you don't mean that, snake. You are here to sell him! Howsoever," and smiling a little at the stilted phrasing, Driscoll paused and delicately rammed the tobacco tighter in the bowl, "howsoever, Murgie, you've come to the wrong market. No, there's no demand for Maximilians just now, not in this booth. But why in blazes didn't you go to Escobedo? With his Shylock beard, I reckon he'd take a flyer in human flesh."
"I was going to him, but I came to you first, to take us there, to take Lopez and myself, I—I thought you would manage it all, because you—Your Mercy is the strongest, the most resourceful——"
"Resourceful enough, eh, to dodge the bullets you had fixed up for me once? Thanks, Murgie, but I liked your attentions then better than your slimy advances now. By the way, how are you going to get to Escobedo?"
The tone was honey itself.
Murguia gasped, yet not so much to find himself a prisoner, as to find himself mistaken in the American.
"Now maybe," Driscoll suggested, "maybe you'll be wondering yourself why you bring your dirty little affairs to me? Lopez may be an open book, but you seem to've read me wrong. Prob'bly the language is foreign."
Murguia's jaw dropped, and he gaped as one who beholds the collapse of high towering walls. It was his system of life, of motives calculated, of humanity weighed. It was the whole fabric of hate and passions which quivered and crashed and flattened in a chaos of dust before his wildly staring eyes.
"You mean, senor, you mean you do not want—as well, as I!—to bring to his end this libertine, this thief of girlhood, this prince who scatters death, who scatters shame, this—this——"
"Man alive, you're screaming! Stop it!"
With his nails the old man combed the froth from his lips.
"But you too have cause," he cried, "cause not so heavy, but cause enough, as well as I! There was my daughter, my little girl! With you there is that French wo——"
He stopped, for he thought he heard the sharp click of teeth. But Driscoll was only grave.
"Well, go on," he said. "But—speak for your daughter only."
"I can't go on. I won't go on," Murguia burst out desperately, and flung up his arms. "If you don't understand already, then I can't make you. It's useless. A book? You're a stone! But any other, who had a heart for suffering, in your place would——"
"Oh shut up, Murgie!" cried Driscoll wearily, but in something akin to supplication.
With the serpent's wisdom, the tempter struck no more on that side. His fangs were not for the blighted lover. What, though, of the soldier?
"No one doubts, senor," he whined unctuously, "that Your Mercy is loyal to the Republic. So it cannot be that Y'r Mercy knows——"
"See here, Murgie, I'm getting sleepy. But I'll find you a comfortable tent, with plenty to eat, and a polite guard——"
"Senor," stormed the old man, "I tell you you don't know what this means to the Republic. Maximilian will escape, no matter the cost. At daybreak there is to be a concentrated attack on some point in your lines; but where, nobody knows except Miramon. Then Maximilian will cut through with the cavalry. The infantry will follow, if it can. And after them, the artillery. You Republicans may not even know it until too late, because meantime you will be fighting the townspeople, thinking you are fighting the whole army."
Driscoll roused himself suddenly. "The townspeople?"
"Si senor, they are to be a decoy. Some volunteered, the rest were drafted. They have been armed, but they are only to be killed, they are only to draw the Republican strength, while the Emperor and the army escape."
Driscoll sprang from his seat, in an agitation that was Murguia's first hope.
"Do you mean to tell me," he demanded, "that this Maximilian who makes speeches about not deserting intends now to sacrifice these poor helpless devils? Prove it!"
Murguia had touched neither lover nor soldier. But what man was here, in boots and woolen shirt, puffing angrily at a corncob, yet sitting in judgment supreme on the proud Hapsburg himself? Blindly stumbling, Murguia had touched the inexplicable man who was of stone, and the baffled fiend that was in him leaped up with a cry of glee.
"To prove it?" he cried, "Ai, then Lopez shall walk with you in our outer trenches. For in them you shall see the doomed townsmen themselves, a thousand townsmen, sleeping there until the dawn. Afterward, when Maximilian is safe, they who are still alive will be free to surrender."
"And then——" But Driscoll knew the temper of the siege. What with the chief prize lost, there would be scant mercy for surrendered townsmen.
"God in heaven," he muttered fervently, "if there's any to suffer, it might as well be the guilty one, and a thousand times better one than one thousand! A man's a man, or alleged to be!—Murgie, you wait here, I'm going to call the others."
The others came, and heard. It was the court en banc, five Missourians and a Kansan. And the culprit was a Caesar. But they hewed forth their Justice as rugged and huge, and as true, as would the outlaw, Michel Angelo. Like him, they were their own law. Nor were they nice gentlemen, these Homeric men who spat tobacco. Finding their goddess pandered to by those who were nice gentlemen, and finding the gift of these a pretty scarf over her eye, they roughly tore it away. For them she was not that kind of a woman.
"W'y, this prince is no Christian," Crittenden announced in querulous discovery.
"One thousand loyally dying for their sovereign," Daniel mused, his romantic soul wavering. "Sho!" he cried the instant after, "that thing's out-dated!"
"And the prince there——" began the Kansan angrily.
"May just go—to—the—devil!"
All swung round on one of their number. It was the parson himself who had pronounced sentence.
Then they set out under the stars to attend to it.
UNDER A SPANISH CLOAK
"What misadventure is so early up, That calls our person from our morning's rest?" —Romeo and Juliet.
Just within their own bivouac four Missourians waited with eight horses. Driscoll and Boone, and the small limping shadow of Murguia between them, went on outside the sentry line toward the Alameda. When they returned, a stranger accompanied them, a little distance apart.
"It's true," Driscoll whispered to those who had staid. "The trenches are filled with townsmen. He took me."
The Americans glanced once the stranger's way, and grunted. He was a large man, hidden to the eyes in a Spanish cloak. For all the charity of darkness, he seemed ill at ease, and held himself from them, a marked figure, alone. A leprosy in himself tainted his every thought. He would not willingly come near any man. He understood English, unhappily now for him, and Boone's warning as they mounted seared like vitriol. "Look out, Harry, don't touch the filthy skut! It'll take the rotting of death to clean your fingers." After that, even Murguia drew involuntarily away from the stranger.
They circled the town widely, having only Republican challenges to quiet, and they dismounted under the trees which shade the valley to the northeast, between the Sangremal, or mound of La Cruz, and the besiegers' range of hills. Here, under La Cruz's steep bluff, the Republican general-in-chief had his quarters, and here he kept a hawk's jealous watch on the walls above, where slept his country's invader.
Open battle is clear honor, so reckoned; but it takes a brave man to dive for a pearl in slime. Driscoll was the one to conduct Murguia and his gloomy companion into the presence of General Escobedo. When he rejoined the other five outside the tent, he was alone.
"Well, come on," he said as he mounted under the trees. "We needn't stay for the rest of it, thank God."
For a while they rode in silence back toward their camp. They passed under the aqueduct and entered the open plain. Then the parson stretched out his hand to the pommel of Driscoll's saddle.
"Well?" he ventured softly.
"Well, Clem, it's done."
The others crowded their horses nearer.
"I want to tell you all," Driscoll abruptly began again. "I want to tell you that I've just seen the strangest thing of my whole life, right back there in that tent. I—well, it's simply flattened me out!"
"You mean Lopez, Din?" one asked tentatively.
"Lopez? No, no, there's nothing strange in him. Any low hound will sell out to save his hide. No, Dan, I mean the other. I mean the old man. He's the one who used to run the blockade off Mobile, and a whiter-livered, more contemptible old grandmother I never hope to see anywhere, no, never! Yet not a month ago, the day of that Cimatario scrimmage, I found him on the battlefield, and he had been wounded. But he didn't seem to know it. He didn't even seem to know that the shells were still banging all around him."
"An old coward, too!" someone muttered.
"But wait. He used to be one thing worse, one thing more, than a coward. He was a miser, and such a miser that he made himself face danger. You should have seen him running a blockade, with the Yankees chasing behind. He trembled—I tell you, he trembled like a withered cottonwood leaf on a broken stem. Yet he whined against stoking with turpentine, because it cost a little more. I'd 'a' thought, I did then, that the miser was in his bones until the last trumpet. But to-night, back in that tent just now——"
"Well, he refused money! He refused gold! He didn't seem to know what it was, any more than he did bullets a month ago. Escobedo asked him his price, and shoved a glittering heap across the table at him. You saw how he acted when we offered him something to eat? Well, he looked the same way at the gold. He acted impatient. He didn't want to see anything except Lopez. But you'd have called it a miser's eagerness, the way he watched that Lopez. Only a miser don't exult when it's someone else who pockets the money."
"Maybe they'll divide?"
"Not much, because Murgie could have had his share over and above. No, it wasn't that. It wasn't the gold. He was greedy—for a soul! He wanted to see Lopez bought, and no hitch. And when it was done, he wet those catfish lips of his with his tongue. I believe the devil in hell must look just that way when he gets some poor sinner. But to think of that old skinflint, to think of that old feeble cowardly shark not knowing danger, not knowing money——"
"Come, Din," the parson's blessed, cheery voice interrupted, "let's hurry back and wash our hands. Then we'll all feel better."
While the six Americans rode gloomily away from what they had done, and from their own thoughts as they best could, a stealthy company was forming under the trees among the tents of the Republican general. After a time the seeming spectres began to move in unison, an undulating wave that spread as the grayish shadow of a low hanging cloud. The dim figures slowly swept the little space of valley, on toward the steep slope of La Cruz, and soon they were climbing, silently creeping, nearer and nearer the dark walls above.
Two seemed the leaders, and the third limped close behind. But one of the first two held a pistol ever near the heart of his companion, who was wrapped to the eyes in a Spanish cloak.
"Who goes——" cried an Imperialist sentry.
"Your colonel, fool!" he of the cloak stopped him short. "I, Miguel Lopez. I am changing the guard. Return now to your barracks and get what sleep you can before morning. One of these men with me will take your place."
In like manner each later challenge was satisfied, and so on to a cannon-battered crevice in the wall. The spectres passed through the gap there into a field of graves on the mound's level summit. The earth had an uncanny softness under their tread. The plots were mostly fresh, of slain Imperialists still keeping their rank according to battalion. But the living, the Reserve Brigade, were here as well, sleeping over the dead. They stirred and grumbled at being disturbed, but thought then no more of the intruders. The secret plans for the daybreak attack explained everything. Their colonel, whose voice they knew, was shifting forces in preparation. But when the dawn came, they awoke to find their weapons gone, and themselves defenseless prisoners.
Many of the spectral troop fell away to hold the cemetery, but the rest kept on, and entered the monastery garden. Here there was a battery of one gun, whose muzzle pointed the way to the Republican camp. Without a sound the Imperialist gunners were replaced by Republicans. The cannon was one captured during the Cimatario fight. It was called "La Tempestad," and bore an inscription, "The Last Argument of Nations." Its new possessors turned the muzzle squarely on the monastery, not fifty yards away, where Maximilian lay then asleep.
The shadowy host did not linger in the monastery itself. They swept through hastily, in at the garden entrance, along the corridor, and out by the great portico door upon La Cruz Plaza. They had passed the citadel. The town lay before them. But in the Plaza were more cannon, which had been taken from the trenches and massed for the supreme effort. They lay silent, under the silent bells of the church. They lay under the giant Cross of the Apparition, which was adorned by the Inditos with garlands in vague memory of pagan rites on that very spot. They lay under the splendid Arabian palms. They lay among defenders. To take them was like prowling with a torch among broken casks of gunpowder. Not a shot must be fired until the thing was done. Otherwise, a quick second shot was to find the heart of Lopez. So Lopez was exceedingly cautious. However, he commanded here. He was the Emperor's favorite. Squad after squad, the drowsy Imperialists moved off, letting the strangers relieve them. So the critical work was achieved, even as day appeared over the eastern hills. Then he who had kept so close to Lopez put his revolver away.
"Your bargain is fulfilled, senor," he said. "Accordingly, here's the paper I was to give you. It is your safe conduct throughout the Republic. You are free. Go!"
Lopez clutched the thing that meant his life, but as his fingers tightened over it, his first greed vanished. He stared about him uncertainly. The Plaza swarmed with men. They were the gray battalion he had led there. In the dawning light they were still gray. They were the Supremos Poderes de la Republica. De la Republica? Yes, of the enemy, and he had brought them. But it was as though he had just awakened, and found them there. The enemy? The enemy was in La Cruz! With a sharp cry, he turned and ran back into the monastery. He brushed aside the hateful gray uniforms. He ran panting up the stone steps. In the dark hall above he stopped at a cell door, and pounded, and tugged frantically at its latch.
"Senor, awake! Hurry! We are betrayed! Hurry! Escape—escape——"
Within came a startled sleepy voice, "What, what's—" which changed at once to reproving dignity. "Can it be?—Lopez!"
"But senor—sire—the Chinacos, the Republicans, they are here already!"
"Colonel Lopez!" In its shocked surprise the voice was edged with rebuke. "Man, man, where are your years of training near my person? One would think you some boorish night-watchman."
Lopez outside the door dropped his hands, and fell abjectedly silent, as servilely abashed in his lapse of etiquette as though he stood the traitor unmasked.
"Now then, Miguel," spoke the Emperor more kindly, "go to General Mejia and the others. Let them have the goodness to attend me here."