"I thank you, Senor Baraja, for you good opinion," returned Cuchillo, at the same time taking from the cinders a piece of the meat, half burnt, half raw, and munching it down with the most perfect indifference; "I thank you sincerely, and when I tell you the circumstances you may judge for yourself."
"I shall be glad to hear them," said the other, easing himself down into a horizontal position; "after a good repast, there is nothing I so much enjoy as a good story."
After saying this, and lighting his cigarette, Baraja turned upon the broad of his back, and with his eyes fixed upon the blue sky, appeared to enjoy a perfect beatitude.
"The story is neither long nor interesting," responded Cuchillo; "what happened to me might happen to all the world. I was engaged with this friend in a quiet game of cards, when he pretended that I had tricked him. The affair came to words—"
Here the narrator paused for an instant, to take a drink from his leathern bottle, and then continued—
"My friend had the indelicacy to permit himself to drop down dead in my presence."
"What at your words?"
"No, with the stab of a knife which I gave him," coolly replied the outlaw.
"Ah! no doubt your friend was in the wrong, and you received great provocation?"
"The alcalde did not think so. He pestered me in the most absurd manner. I could have forgiven the bitterness of his persecution of me, had it not been that I was myself bitterly roused at the ill-behaviour of my friend, whom up to that time I had highly esteemed."
"Ah! one has always to suffer from one's friends," rejoined Baraja, sending up a puff of smoke from his corn-husk cigarette.
"Well—one thing," said Cuchillo, "the result of it all is that I have made a vow never to play another card; for the cards, as you see, were the original cause of this ugly affair."
"A good resolution," said Baraja, "and just such as I have come to myself. I have promised never to touch another card; they have cost me a fortune—in fact, altogether ruined me."
"Ruined you? you have been rich then?"
"Alas! I had a splendid estate—a hacienda de ganados (cattle farm) with a numerous flock upon it. I had a lawyer for my intendant, who took care of the estate while I spent my time in town. But when I came to settle accounts with this fellow I found I had let them run too long. I discovered that half my estate belonged to him!"
"What did you do then?"
"The only thing I could do," answered Baraja, with the air of a cavalier, "was to stake my remaining half against his on a game, and let the winner take the whole."
"Did he accept this proposal?"
"After a fashion."
"Why, you see I am too timid when I play in presence of company, and certain to lose. I prefer, therefore, to play in the open air, and in some quiet corner of the woods. There I feel more at my ease; and if I should lose—considering that it was my whole fortune that was at stake—I should not expose my chagrin to the whole world. These were the considerations that prompted me to propose the conditions of our playing alone."
"And did the lawyer agree to your conditions?"
"Not a bit of it."
"What a droll fellow he must have been!"
"He would only play in the presence of witnesses."
"And you were forced to his terms?"
"To my great regret, I was."
"And of course you lost—being so nervous in presence of company?"
"I lost the second half of my fortune as I had done the first. The only thing I kept back was the horse you see, and even him my ex-intendant insisted upon having as part of the bet. To-day I have no other hope than to make my fortune in this Tubac expedition, and if I should do so I may get back, and settle accounts with the knave. After that game, however, I swore I should never play another card; and, carramba! I have kept my oath."
"How long since this happened?"
"The devil!—You deserve credit for keeping your word."
The two adventurers after having exchanged these confidences, began to talk over their hopes founded on the approaching expedition—of the marvellous sights that they would be likely to see—but more especially of the dangers that might have to be encountered.
"Bah!" said Baraja, speaking of these; "better to die than live wearing a coat out at elbows."
Cuchillo was of the same opinion.
Meanwhile the sun was growing hotter and hotter. A burning wind began to blow through the trees, and the horses of the two travellers, suffering from thirst, uttered their plaintive neighings. The men themselves sought out the thickest shade to protect them from the fervid rays of the sun, and for a while both observed a complete silence.
Baraja was the first to resume the conversation.
"You may laugh at me, Senor Cuchillo," said he, fanning himself with his felt hat, "but to say the truth the time appears very long to me when I am not playing."
"The same with myself," hastily responded Cuchillo.
"What do you say to our staking, on word of honour, a little of that gold we are going to find?"
"Just what I was thinking myself, but I daren't propose it to you;—I am quite agreeable."
Without further parley each of the two thrust a hand into his pocket, and drew forth a pack of cards—with which, notwithstanding the oath they had taken, both were provided.
The play was about to commence, when the sound of a bell, and the clattering of hoofs at a distance, announced the approach, most probably, of the important personage whom Cuchillo awaited.
THE SENATOR TRAGADUROS.
The two players suspended operations, and turned their faces in the direction whence came the sounds.
At some distance along the road, a cloud of dust suddenly rising, indicated the approach of a troop of horses.
They were without riders. One only was mounted; and that was ridden by the driver of the troop. In short, it was a remuda—such as rich travellers in the north of Mexico usually take along with them for a remount. These horses, on account of the half-wild life they lead upon the vast plains where they are pastured, after a gallop of twenty leagues without carrying a rider, are almost as fresh as if just taken out of the stable. On long routes, each is saddled and mounted at regular intervals; and in this way a journey is performed almost as rapidly as by a mail express, with relays already established.
According to usual custom, a bell-mare preceded this drove, which appeared to consist of about thirty horses. It was this bell that had first attracted the attention of the players.
When within a hundred yards or so of the huts, the driver of the remuda galloped to the front, and catching the bell-mare, brought her to a stop. The other horses halted on the instant.
Shortly after, five cavaliers appeared through the dust, riding in the direction of the huts. Two were in advance of the other three, who, following at a little distance, were acting as attendants or servants.
The most distinguished looking of the two who rode in advance, was a man of somewhat over medium height. He appeared to have passed the age of forty. A greyish-coloured sombrero, with broad brim, screened his face from the fervent sunbeams. He was habited in a pelisse, or dolman, of dark blue, richly laced with gold, and almost concealed under a large white kerchief, embroidered with sky-blue silk, and known in Mexico as pano de sol. Under the fiery atmosphere, the white colour of this species of scarf, like the burnous of the Arabs, serves to moderate the rays of the sun, and for this purpose was it worn by the cavalier in question. Upon his feet were boots of yellow Cordovan leather, and over these, large spurs, the straps of which were stitched with gold and silver wire. These spurs, with their huge five-pointed rowels, and little bells, gave out a silvery clinking that kept time to the march of the horse—sounds most agreeable to the ear of the Mexican cavallero.
A mango, richly slashed with gold lace, hung over the pommel of the saddle in front of the horseman, half covering with its folds a pair of wide pantaloons, garnished throughout their whole length with buttons of filigree gold. In fine, the saddle, embroidered like the straps of the spurs, completed a costume that, in the eyes of a European, would recall the souvenirs of the middle ages. For all that, the horseman in question did not require a rich dress to give him an air of distinction. There was that in his bearing and physiognomy that denoted a man accustomed to command and perfectly au fait to the world.
His companion, much younger, was dressed with far more pretension: but his insignificant figure, though not wanting in a certain degree of elegance, was far from having the aristocratic appearance of him with the embroidered kerchief.
The three servants that followed—with faces blackened by dust and sun, and half savage figures—carried long lances adorned with scarlet pennons, and lazos hung coiled from the pommels of their saddles. These strange attendants gave to the group that singular appearance peculiar to a cavalcade of Mexican travellers. Several mules, pack laden, and carrying enormous valises, followed in the rear. These valises contained provisions and the menage necessary for a halt.
On seeing Cuchillo and Baraja, the foremost of the two cavaliers halted, and the troop followed his example.
"'Tis the Senor Don Estevan," said Baraja, in a subdued voice. "This is the man, senor," he continued, presenting Cuchillo to the cavalier with the pano de sol.
Don Estevan—for it was he—fixed upon Cuchillo a piercing glance, that appeared to penetrate to the bottom of his soul, at the same time the look denoted a slight expression of surprise.
"I have the honour to kiss the hands of your excellency," said Cuchillo. "As you see, it is I who—"
But in spite of his habitual assurance, the outlaw paused, trembling as vague souvenirs began to shape themselves in his memory; for these two men had met before, though not for a very long time.
"Eh! if I don't deceive myself," interrupted the Spaniard, in an ironical tone, "the Senor Cuchillo and I are old acquaintances—though formerly I knew him by a different name?"
"So too your excellency, who was then called—"
Arechiza frowned till the hairs of his black moustache seemed to stand on end. The outlaw did not finish his speech. He saw that it was not the time to tell what he knew; but this species of complicity appeared to restore him to his wonted assurance.
Cuchillo was, in truth, one of those gentlemen who have the ill luck to give to whatever name they bear a prompt celebrity; and for this reason he had changed his more than once.
"Senor Senator," said Arechiza, turning toward his compagnon de voyage, "this place does not appear very suitable for our noon siesta?"
"The Senor Tragaduros y Despilfarro, will find the shade of one of these cottages more agreeable," interposed Cuchillo, who knew the senator of Arispe. He knew, moreover, that the latter had attached himself to the fortunes of Don Estevan, in default of better cause: and in hopes of repairing his own fortune, long since dissipated.
Despite the low state of his finances, however, the Senator had not the less a real influence in the congress of Sonora; and it was this influence which Don Estevan intended using to his own advantage. Hence the companionship that now existed between them.
"I agree with all my heart to your proposal," answered Tragaduros, "the more so that we have now been nearly five hours in the saddle."
Two of the servants dismounting, took their masters' horses by the bridle, while the other two looked after the cargas of the mules. The camp-beds were taken from the pack saddles, and carried into two of the houses that appeared the most spacious and proper.
We shall leave the Senator reclining upon his mattress, to enjoy that profound slumber which is the portion of just men and travellers; while we accompany Don Estevan into the hut which he had chosen for himself, and which stood at some distance from that occupied by the legislator.
After having followed Don Estevan, at the invitation of the latter, inside the hovel, Cuchillo closed behind him the wattle of bamboos that served as a door. He did this with great care—as if he feared that the least noise should be heard without—and then he stood waiting for the Spaniard to initiate the conversation.
The latter had seated himself on the side of his camp-bedstead, and Cuchillo also sat down, using for his seat the skull of a bullock,— which chanced to be in the house. It is the ordinary stool of this part of the country, where the luxury of chairs is still unknown—at least in the houses of the poor.
"I suppose," said Arechiza, breaking silence, "that you have a thousand reasons why I should know you by no other than your present name. I, with motives very different from yours, no doubt, desire to be here nothing more than Don Estevan Arechiza. Now! Senor Cuchillo," continued the speaker with a certain affectation of mockery; "let us have this grand secret that is to make your fortune and mine!"
"A word first, Senor Don Estevan de Arechiza," replied Cuchillo, in the same tone; "one word, and then you shall have it."
"I listen to you; but observe, sir, say nothing of the past—no more perfidy. We are here in a country where there are trees, and you know how I punish traitors."
At this allusion to some past event—no doubt some mysterious souvenir— the face of the outlaw became livid.
"Yes," replied he, "I remember that it is not your fault that I was not hung to a tree. It may be more prudent not to recall old wrongs— especially as you are no longer in a conquered country, but in one of forests—forests both sombre and dumb."
There was in this response of the outlaw such an evident air of menace, that, joined with his character and sinister antecedents, it required a firm heart on the part of Don Estevan not to regret having recalled the souvenir. With a cold smile he replied:
"Ha! another time I shall entrust the execution of a traitor in the hands of no human being. I shall perform that office myself," continued he, fixing upon Cuchillo a glance which caused the latter to lower his head. "As to your threats, reserve them for people of your own kind; and never forget, that between my breast and your dagger there is an insurmountable barrier."
"Who knows?" muttered Cuchillo, dissembling the anger which was devouring him. Then in a different tone, he continued: "But I am no traitor, Senor Don Estevan; and the proposal I am now about to make to you is frank and loyal."
"We shall see, then."
"Know, then, Senor Arechiza, that for several years past I have followed the profession of a gambusino, and have rambled over most of this country in the exercise of my calling. I have seen a deposit of gold such as mortal eye perhaps never looked upon!"
"You have seen it, and not possessed yourself of it?"
"Do not mock me, Don Estevan; I am in earnest. I have seen a placer so rich that the man who gets it might for a whole year play the game of hell with luck all the while against him, and not be impoverished! So rich as to satisfy the most insatiable avarice; so rich, in fact, as to buy a kingdom!"
At these words, which responded to some hopes and desires already conceived, Don Estevan could not hinder himself from the manifestation of a certain emotion.
"So rich," continued the outlaw, in an exalted tone, "that I would not hesitate for one instant to give my soul to the devil in exchange for it."
"The devil is not such a fool as to value so highly a soul which he knows he will get gratis. But how did you discover this placer?"
"Thus, senor. There was a gambusino called Marcos Arellanos, who was celebrated throughout the whole province. It was he who discovered this bonanza in company with another of the same calling as himself; but just as they were about to gather some of the gold, they were attacked by the Apache Indians. The associate of Marcos Arellanos was killed, and he himself had to run a thousand risks before he succeeded in making his escape.
"It was after he came home again that by chance I met him at Tubac. There he proposed to me to join him, and go back to the placer. I accepted his offer, and we started. We arrived safely at the Golden Valley, for by that name he called the place. Powers of Heaven!" exclaimed Cuchillo, "it only needed to see those blocks of gold shining in the sun to bring before one's eyes a thousand dazzling visions!
"Alas! we were only permitted to feast our eyes. The savages were upon us. We were compelled to fly in our turn, and I alone escaped. Poor Marcos! he fell under the horrible war clubs; and I—I have sorely grieved for him! Now, senor, this is the secret of the Golden Valley which I desire to sell to you."
"To sell to me:—and who is to answer for your fidelity?"
"My own interest. I sell you the secret, but I do not intend to alienate my rights to the placer. I have vainly endeavoured to get up an expedition such as yours, for without a strong force it would be of no use going there. It would be certain death to a party of only two or three. With your band, however, it will be easy, and success would be certain. I only ask the tenth part of all the gold that may be gathered, which I would deserve as guide of the expedition; and going as guide I will be at the same time a hostage for my good faith."
"Is that what I am to understand; you estimate the price of your secret and services a tenth part of the whole?"
"That and two hundred dollars paid down to enable me to equip myself for the expedition."
"You are more reasonable than I expected, Cuchillo. Very well, then let it be so; the two hundred dollars you shall have, and I promise you the tenth part."
"Agreed, and you have my word upon it. Now, answer me some questions which I wish to put. Is this Golden Valley in that part of the country where I intended to have taken my expedition?"
"It is beyond the Presidio of Tubac; and since your men are to meet there you will not need to make any change in the dispositions you have already taken."
"Good. And you have seen this Golden Valley you say with your own eyes?"
"I have seen it without the power of touching it. I have seen it grinding my teeth as I looked upon it, like the damned in hell who get a glimpse of Paradise."
As Cuchillo spoke, his countenance betrayed beyond doubt the anguish he felt, at his cupidity having been balked.
Arechiza knew too well how to read the human physiognomy to doubt the truth of Cuchillo's report. Two hundred dollars were to him a mere bagatelle; and taking an ebony case from his bed, small but heavy, he drew from it a rouleau of gold pieces and handed them to the gambusino, who immediately put them in his pocket.
There was a little more in the rouleau than had been bargained for. The Spaniard took no notice of this, but forming a cross with his thumb and index finger of his right hand a la mode Espagnole, he held it before Cuchillo, directing him to make an oath upon it.
"I swear by the cross," said the latter, "to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. At the end of ten days' journey beyond Tubac, going in a north-western direction, we shall arrive at the foot of a range of mountains. They are easy to recognise—for a thick vapour hangs over them both night and day. A little river traverses this range of hills. It is necessary to ascend it to a point where another stream runs into it. There in the angle where the two meet, is a steep hill, the summit of which is crowned by the tomb of an Indian chief. I was not near enough to distinguish the strange ornaments that surround this tomb; but at the foot of the hill there is a small lake by the side of a narrow valley in which the water from rain torrents has thrown to the surface immense treasures of gold, this is the Golden Valley."
"The way will be easily found?" inquired Don Estevan.
"But difficult to travel," replied Cuchillo. "The arid deserts will be no obstacle compared with the danger from the hostility of Indians. This tomb of one of their most celebrated chiefs they hold in superstitious veneration. It is the constant object of their pilgrimages, and it was during one of these visits that we were surprised. Arellanos and myself."
"And this Arellanos—do you think, he has not revealed this secret to any one besides yourself?"
"You must know," replied Cuchillo, "that it is a custom of the gambusinos, before starting upon any expedition, to swear before the Holy Evangelists not to reveal the bonanzas they may find without the consent of their associates. This oath Arellanos took, and his death of course prevented him from betraying it."
"You have said that after his return from his first expedition, you met him in Tubac. Was there no woman whom he may perchance have had in his confidence?"
"His wife only—he may have told it to her. But yesterday a vaquero gave me the news that she has lately died. For all that, she may have revealed the secret to her son."
"Arellanos had a son then?"
"An adopted son—a young man whose father or mother no one knows anything about."
Don Estevan could not repress an involuntary movement.
"This young fellow is, no doubt, the son of some poor devil of this province?" said the Spaniard, in a careless way.
"No," replied Cuchillo, "he was born in Europe, and very likely in Spain."
Arechiza appeared to fall into a reverie, his head bending towards his breast. Some souvenirs were disturbing his spirit.
"This much at least is known," continued Cuchillo. "The commander of an English brig-of-war brought him to Guaymas. He stated that the child, who spoke both French and Spanish, had been captured in an affair between the brig and a French privateer. A sailor who was either killed in the fight or taken prisoner, was beyond doubt his father. The captain of the English brig, not knowing what to do with him, gave him to Arellanos—who chanced to be in Guaymas at the time—and Arellanos brought him up and has made a man of him—my faith! that he has. Young as the fellow is, there is not such a rastreador nor horse-tamer in the province."
The Spaniard, while apparently not listening to Cuchillo, did not lose a word of what he was saying; but whether he had heard enough, or that the subject was a painful one, he suddenly interrupted the gambusino:
"And don't you think, if this wonderful tracker and horse-breaker has been told the secret of his adopted father he might not be a dangerous rival to us?"
Cuchillo drew himself up proudly, and replied:—
"I know a man who will yield in nothing—neither at following a trail, nor taming a wild horse—to Tiburcio Arellanos; and yet this secret has been almost worthless in his keeping, since he has just sold it for the tenth part of its value!"
This last argument of Cuchillo's was sufficiently strong to convince Don Estevan that the Golden Valley was so guarded by these fierce Indians that nothing but a strong party could reach it—in short, that he himself was the only man who could set this force afoot. For a while he remained in his silent reverie. The revelations of Cuchillo in regard to the adopted son of Marcos Arellanos had opened his mind to a new set of ideas which absorbed all others. For certain motives, which we cannot here explain, he was seeking to divine whether this Tiburcio Arellanos was not the young Fabian de Mediana!
Cuchillo on his part was reflecting on certain antecedents relative to the gambusino Arellanos and his adopted son; but for powerful reasons he did not mention his reflections to Don Estevan. There are reasons, however, why the reader should now be informed of their nature.
The outlaw, as we have said, frequently changed his name. It was by one of these aliases used up so quickly, that he had been passing, when at the Presidio Tubac he made the acquaintance of the unfortunate Arellanos. When the latter was about starting out on his second and fatal journey—before parting with his wife and the young man whom he loved as well as if he had been his own son—he confided to his wife the object of his new expedition; and also the full particulars of the route he intended to take. Cuchillo was nevertheless ignorant of this revelation. But the knowledge which the outlaw carefully concealed, was that he himself after having reached the Golden Valley guided by Arellanos, murdered his companion, in hope of having all the treasure to himself. It was true enough that the Indians appeared afterwards, and it was with difficulty that the assassin could save his own scalp. We shall now leave him to tell his own story as to how he made the acquaintance of young Arellanos, and it will be seen that this story is a mere deception practised upon Don Estevan.
"Nevertheless," resumed Cuchillo in breaking the silence, "I was determined to free my mind from all doubt upon the subject. On my return to Arispe I repaired to the dwelling of the widow of Arellanos to inform her of the death of poor Marcos. But with the exception of the great grief which the news caused her, I observed nothing particular— nothing that could give me the least suspicion that I am not the sole possessor of the secret of the Golden Valley."
"One easily believes what he wishes to believe," remarked Arechiza.
"Hear me, Senor Don Estevan! There are two things on which I pride myself. One is, that I have a conscience easily alarmed; the other, that I am gifted with a perspicuity not easily deluded."
The Spaniard made no further objections. He was satisfied, not with the outlaw's conscience, but his perspicuity.
With regard to Tiburcio Arellanos, we need hardly state what the reader has no doubt already divined—that this young man was in reality no other than Fabian, the last descendant of the Counts of Mediana. Cuchillo has already related how the English brig brought him to Guaymas. Left without a guide to enable him to discover his family— disinherited of his rich patrimonial estates—an orphan knowing nothing of his parents, here he was in a strange land, the possessor of nothing more than a horse and a hut of bamboos.
THE AFTERNOON RIDE.
When Cuchillo, after the interview just described, came forth from the hovel, the sun was no longer in the vertex of the heavens, but had commenced his downward course to the western horizon. The earth, burned up and dry as tinder, gave forth a thin vapoury mist, that here and there hung over the surface in condensed masses, giving that appearance known as the mirage. Limpid lakes presented themselves to the eye, where not a drop of water was known to exist—as if nature, to preserve a perfect harmony, offered these to the imagination in compensation for the absence of the precious fluid itself. Far off in the forest, could be heard at intervals the crackling of branches under the burning rays of the sun—just as if the woods were on fire. But the trees were beginning to open their leaves to the southern breeze that freshened as the hours passed on, and they appeared impatiently to await the twilight, when the night-dews would once more freshen their foliage.
Cuchillo gave a whistle, at which well-known signal his horse came galloping up to him. The poor beast appeared to suffer terribly from the thirst. His master, moved with pity, poured into a bowl a few drops of water from his skin bottle; and although it was scarce enough to moisten the animal's lips, it seemed to bring back the vigour of his spirit.
Cuchillo having saddled and bridled his horse, and buckled on a pair of huge spurs, called one of the attendants of Don Estevan. To this man he gave orders to have the pack of mules harnessed, as well as to collect the remuda to be sent on in advance—in order that the sleeping quarters for the night should be ready upon their arrival. The place where the travellers were to rest that night—as Cuchillo informed the domestic—was to be at the cistern known as La Poza.
"But La Poza is not on the route to Tubac!" objected the servant; "it lies out of the way and on the road leading to the Hacienda del Venado."
"You have nothing to do with the route," peremptorily answered Cuchillo, "your master intends spending some days at the Hacienda del Venado. Therefore do as I have ordered you."
The Hacienda del Venado was the most important estate between Arispe and the Indian frontier, and its proprietor had the reputation of being the most hospitable man in the whole province. It was, therefore, without repugnance that the attendants of Don Estevan heard this news from Cuchillo—since, although their route of march would be extended in making the detour by the Hacienda del Venado, they knew they would enjoy several days of pleasant repose at this hospitable mansion.
The man to whom Cuchillo had given his orders, immediately saddled his horse and set off to collect the remuda. He soon discovered the horses browsing in the woods near at hand, and collected, as usual, around the bell-mare.
As he approached, the troop bounded off in affright—just as wild horses would have done; but the active horseman was too quick for them, for already the running noose of his lazo was around the neck of one of them. The horse, perceiving that he was caught, and knowing well the lazo—whose power he had often felt—yielded without resistance, and permitted himself to be led quietly away. The capitansa (bell-mare) knew the signal and followed the horse of the servant, with all the others trooping at her heels.
Two of the freshest of the drove were left behind, for Don Estevan and the Senator. These would be enough to serve them as far as La Poza—the place of their intended night halt—which was only a few hours distant. The other horses, guided by the bell-mare, were taken on in advance, and the drove soon disappeared behind the cloud of dust thrown up by their hoofs.
Shortly after, the Senator made his appearance at the door of the hut where he had taken his siesta—a necessity almost imperious in these hot climates. At the same time, Don Estevan presented himself in the open air. The atmosphere, though a little fresher than when they had gone inside, was still sufficiently stifling to be disagreeable.
"Carramba!" cried the Senator, after inhaling a few mouthfuls of it, "it is fire, not air, one has to breathe here. If these hovels were not a complete nest of snakes and scorpions, I should prefer staying in them until night, rather than launch myself into this dreadful furnace."
After this doleful speech the Senator climbed reluctantly into his saddle, and he and Don Estevan took the route, riding side by side, as in the morning. Behind, at a few paces distance, followed Cuchillo and Baraja, and after these the little recua of mules with the other domestics.
For the first hour of their march the shade of the trees rendered the heat supportable, but soon the forest ended, and the road debouched upon the open plains that appeared interminable.
It is hardly possible to conceive a more dreary prospect than that presented by those arid plains of Northern Mexico—naked, white, and almost destitute of vegetation. Here and there at long distances on the route, may be seen a tall pole which denotes the presence of some artificial well-cistern; but as you draw near, the leathern buckets, by which the water is to be raised, show by their stiff contracted outlines that for a long time they have held no water, and that the well is dried up—a sad fortune for the traveller whose evil star has guided him into these deserts during the dry season, especially if at the end of his day's journey he reckons on a supply from these treacherous depositaries. If his canteen is not well filled, or if he is by any chance detained upon his route, his story is likely to be that of hundreds who have perished of thirst upon these plains, between a heaven and an earth that are equally unpitying.
"Is it true, then, Don Estevan," inquired the Senator, as he wiped the perspiration from his brow, "that you have been through this country before?"
"Certainly," replied Don Estevan; "and it is just because I have been here before that I am here now. But what brought me here formerly, and why I now return, is a secret I shall tell you presently. Let me say that it is a secret sufficient to turn a man's brain, provided he is not one with a bold, firm heart. Are you that man, senor Senator?" added the Spaniard, fixing his eyes upon his companion, with a calm regard.
The Senator made no reply, farther than by giving a slight shiver that was perceptible through his frame, and which denoted that he felt some apprehension as to the role he might be called upon to play.
The Spaniard did not fail to observe his uneasiness, as he resumed:
"Meanwhile, senor, let me ask you, are you decided to follow my advice, and restore your fortunes by some rich matrimonial alliance which I shall arrange for you?"
"Without doubt I am," replied the Senator, "though I can't see what interest that can be to you, Senor Don Estevan."
"That is my affair and my secret. I am not one of those who sell the skin of the bear before the animal is caught. It is enough for you to know, Don Vicente Tragaduros y Despilfarro, that I have a hundred thousand dollars at your disposal the moment you say the word—it only remains for you to hear my conditions, and subscribe to them."
"I don't say no," replied the Senator, "but I candidly avow that for the life of me I cannot think of any one possessing such an inheritance as you mention—not one in the whole province."
"Do you know the daughter of the rich landowner Augusta Pena—at whose hacienda, please God, we shall sleep to-morrow night?"
"Oh!" exclaimed the Senator, "the proprietor of the Hacienda del Venado? I have heard of her—her dowry should be a million if report speaks true; but what folly it would be for me to pretend—"
"Bah!" interrupted the Spaniard. "It is a fortress that well besieged may capitulate like any other."
"It is said that the daughter of Pena is pretty."
"You know her, then?" said the Senator, regarding his companion with an astonished look. "Perhaps," he added, "it is to the hacienda of Venado that you make those periodical and mysterious journeys, so much talked about at Arispe?"
"Ah! I understand you," said the Senator, turning a sly look upon his companion, "it was the beautiful eyes of the daughter that attracted you, the—?"
"You are mistaken. It was the father, who was simply the banker from whom, from time to time, I drew the funds necessary for my expenses at Arispe."
"Is that also the object of our present journey?"
"Partly," replied the Spaniard, "but not altogether—there is another object, which I will communicate to you hereafter."
"Well, senor," answered the Senator, "you are a mystery to me from head to foot; but I abandon myself blindly to your guidance."
"You do well," said Don Estevan, "and in all likelihood your sun, for a while eclipsed, will shine out again with more than its former splendour."
AN UNFORTUNATE TRAVELLER.
It was now near sunset; the travellers were still about two leagues from La Poza, and the desert plains were nearly passed. Some mezquite trees appeared in front thinly covering the calcareous soil, but the twilight sun began to render less visible the objects here and there scattered over the plain.
All at once the horse of Don Estevan came to a stand, and showed signs of affright. The steed of the Senator acted in a similar fashion, though neither of the two horsemen could perceive the cause of this strange behaviour.
"It is the body of some dead mule?" suggested the Mexican.
Don Estevan spurred his horse forward, despite the repugnance of the animal to advance; and a few paces further on, behind a clump of wild aloe plants, he perceived the body of a horse stretched out upon the sand. Such a sight in these dry plains is by no means uncommon; and the travellers would not have given a moment's thought to it, but for the fact that the horse in question appeared to be saddled and bridled. This circumstance indicated some extraordinary occurrence.
Cuchillo had meanwhile ridden forward to the spot.
"Ah!" said he, after glancing a moment at the dead horse, "the poor devil who has ridden him has met with a double accident: he has not only lost his horse, but also his water-bottle. See!"
The guide pointed to an object lying upon the ground by the shoulder of the fallen horse, and still attached by a strap to the saddle. It was a leathern water-bottle apparently broken and empty. In fact, its position proved that the horse, enfeebled by the heat and thirst, had fallen suddenly to the earth, and the bottle, hardened by the sun, and coming in contact with the animal's shoulder, had got crushed either by the fall, or in the struggle that succeeded it. A large fracture was visible in the side of the vessel, through which the water had escaped to the very last drop.
"We are likely enough by and by to stumble upon his owner:" suggested Cuchillo, while he examined the trappings of the dead horse, to see if there might be anything worth picking up. "Por Dios!" he continued, "this reminds me that I have the very devil's thirst myself," and as he said this, he raised his own bottle to his head, and swallowed some gulps from it.
The tracks of a man upon the sandy surface, indicated that the traveller had continued his route on foot; but the footmarks showed also, that he must have tottered rather than walked. They were unequally distant from each other, and wanted that distinctness of shape, that would have been exhibited by the footsteps of a man standing properly on his legs.
These points did not escape the keen eyes of Cuchillo, who was one of those individuals who could read such dumb signs with an unfailing certainty.
"Beyond a doubt," said he, taking another gulp from his bottle, "the traveller cannot be far off."
His conjecture proved correct. A few moments after, the body of a man was seen by the side of the path, lying upon the ground, and perfectly motionless. As if this individual had intended that his countenance should be hidden from the eyes of any one passing, a broad palm-leaf hat covered the whole of his face.
The costume of this traveller in distress, betrayed a certain degree of poverty. Besides the hat already mentioned, which appeared old and battered, a rusty-coloured Indian shirt, somewhat torn, and a pair of pantaloons of nankeen, with common filigree buttons, appeared to be his only garments. At least they were all that could be noticed in the obscure twilight.
"Benito," said Don Estevan, calling to one of his servants, "knock off with the butt of your lance the hat that covers this man's face—perhaps he is only asleep?"
Benito obeyed the order, and tossed aside the hat without dismounting; but the man stretched on the ground did not appear to know what had been done—at least he made not the slightest movement.
When the hat was removed, however, the darkness, which had suddenly increased, rendered it impossible to distinguish his features.
"Although it is not exactly your speciality, Senor Cuchillo," said Don Estevan, addressing himself to the outlaw, "if you will do an act of humanity in trying to save the life of this poor devil, you shall have half an ounce of gold if you succeed."
"Cospita! Senor Don Estevan," cried Cuchillo, "you surely mistake my character. I am the most humane of mortals—that is," continued he in an undertone, "when it is my interest to be so. You may ride forward then; and it will not be my fault, if I don't bring this poor fellow safe to our halting-place at La Poza."
In saying these words Cuchillo dismounted, and laying his hands upon the neck of his horse, cried out:
"Now, good Tordilla, don't budge an inch from this spot till I call for you."
The animal, pawing the sand, and champing his bit, appeared to comprehend the words of his master, and remained in the place where he had been left.
"Shall we leave one of the servants to assist you?" inquired the Senator, as they were riding off.
"No, thank you, Senor Don Vicente," responded Cuchillo, fearing that if any one was left he might expect some share in the promised demi-onza; "it will not be necessary."
And the cavalcade riding off, left the outlaw alone with the recumbent body.
Cuchillo approaching the body, bent down to examine the features, and see if there were any signs of life. At the first glance of that face the outlaw trembled.
"Tiburcio Arellanos, as I live!" he involuntarily muttered.
It was, in truth, the adopted son of his victim whom he saw before him.
"Yes—there is no mistake—it is he! Santa Virgen! if not dead he's not far off it," continued he, observing the mortal paleness of the young man's countenance.
A hellish thought at this moment arose in the mind of the outlaw. Perhaps the only man in all the world who shared with him that secret, which he himself had purchased by the crime of murder, was there before him—completely in his power. It only needed to finish him, if not already dead, and to report that he could not be saved. He was in the middle of the desert, under the shadow of night, where no eye could see, and no hand could hinder; why then should he not make his secret secure against every contingency of the future?
All the ferocious instincts of the villain were re-awakened; mechanically he drew the long knife from his boot, and held its point over the heart of the unconscious Tiburcio.
At that moment, a slight quivering of the limbs told that the latter still lived. The outlaw raised his arm, but still hesitated to strike the blow.
"It was just thus," reflected he, "that I stabbed the man he called his father—just in the same way, as he slept beside me, in full confidence of security. I see him now contesting with me for the life of this young fellow more than half gone. I feel at this moment the weight of his body upon my shoulders, just as I felt it when I carried him down to the river."
And the murderer, at these thoughts, in the middle of the darkness and solitude, cast around him a look that betrayed the terror with which the souvenir still inspired him.
That terror saved the life of Tiburcio; for the knife was thrust back into its singular scabbard, and the villain, seating himself beside the recumbent form, thrust his hand under the vest of the young man, and held it over his heart to try whether it was still beating.
In this attitude he remained for a short while—until satisfied that Tiburcio was yet alive. Then a bright thought seemed to startle him; for a voice had spoken to him from within, stronger than the voice of conscience. It was that of personal interest. Cuchillo knew the rare qualities of Tiburcio—his talents as a rastreador, or tracker—his daring prowess in Indian warfare; and after some consideration, he resolved to enrol him in the expedition of Don Estevan, to which he would no doubt prove of great value.
"That will be the best plan," said the outlaw, speaking in soliloquy. "What would his life be worth to me now?—Nothing; and if I wish to have it hereafter—why, then there will be no lack of opportunities. He cannot be otherwise than grateful for what I am going to do for him. But let me see how matters stand—of course it is thirst that is killing him—how lucky I have kept a little water in my canteen!"
He now opened the mouth of the dying man, and holding the neck of the leathern bottle to his lips, poured some drops down his throat. The water produced an almost instantaneous reanimation, and the young man opened his eyes, but soon closed them again.
"That shows he is coming round," muttered Cuchillo.
Twice or thrice he repeated the operation, each time doubling the dose of water. Finally, at the end of half an hour or so, Tiburcio was sufficiently recovered to be able to raise himself up, and to answer the questions put to him by the man who was, in reality, the preserver of his life.
Tiburcio Arellanos was still but a young man; but the sort of life he had led—solitary, and dependent on his own resources—had given to his judgment a precocious maturity. He therefore observed a degree of prudence in recounting to Cuchillo the death of his adopted mother, to which subject the outlaw had guided the conversation.
"During the twenty-four hours that I passed by the death-bed of my mother," said Tiburcio, "I quite forgot to attend to my horse; and after all was over I closed the door of the cottage, where I never wished to return, and I set out upon this journey. The poor animal, so long neglected, became feeble on the second day, and fell dead under me: and, to my misfortune, my water-bottle was broken in the fall, and the water spilled upon the sand. I remained on the spot till thirst brought on fever, and then I strayed away; and after wandering about, I know not how long, I fell, as my horse had done, expecting never more to rise."
"I comprehend all that," responded Cuchillo. "Well! it is astonishing how people will regret the death of parents, who do not leave them the slightest inheritance!"
Tiburcio could have told him, that on her death-bed his adopted mother had left him a royal, as well as a terrible legacy—the secret of the Golden Valley, and the vengeance of the murder of Marcos Arellanos. Both had been, confided to him—the golden secret upon the especial conditions that Tiburcio would, if necessary, spend the whole of his life in searching for the assassin.
Tiburcio appeared to take no notice of Cuchillo's last reflection, and perhaps his discretion proved the saving of his life: for had the outlaw been made sure that he was in possession of the secret of the Golden Valley, it is not likely he would have made any further efforts to save him, but the reverse.
"And is that a fact," continued Cuchillo, interrogatively, "that with the exception of a hut which you have abandoned, a horse which has dropped dead between your legs, and the garments you carry on your back, that Arellanos and his widow have left you nothing?"
"Nothing but the memory of their goodness to me, and a reverence for their name."
"Poor Arellanos! I was very sorry for him," said Cuchillo, whose hypocrisy had here committed him to an unguarded act of imprudence.
"You knew him then?" hastily inquired Tiburcio, with some show of surprise. "He never spoke to me of you!"
Cuchillo saw that he had made a mistake, and hastened to reply.
"No, I didn't know him personally. I have only heard him much spoken of as a most worthy man, and a famous gambusino. That is why I was sorry on hearing of his death. Was it not I who first apprised his widow of the unfortunate occurrence, having myself heard of it by chance?"
Notwithstanding the natural tone in which Cuchillo delivered this speech, he was one of those persons of such a sinister countenance, that Tiburcio could not help a certain feeling of suspicion while regarding it. But by little and little the feeling gave way, and the young man's thoughts taking another turn, he remained for some moments buried in a silent reverie. It was merely the result of his feebleness, though Cuchillo, ever ready to suspect evil, interpreted his silence as arising from a different cause.
Just then the horse of Cuchillo began to show evident signs of terror, and the instant after, with his hair standing on end, he came galloping up to his master as if to seek protection. It was the hour when the desert appears in all its nocturnal majesty. The howling of the jackals could be heard in the distance; but all at once a voice rising far above all the rest appeared to give them a signal to be silent. It was the voice of the American lion.
"Do you hear it?" inquired Cuchillo of his companion.
A howl equally loud, but of a different tone, was heard on the opposite side. "It is the puma and jaguar about to battle for the body of your horse, friend Tiburcio, and whichever one is conquered may take a fancy to revenge himself on us. Suppose you mount behind me, and let us be off?"
Tiburcio followed the advice; and notwithstanding the double load, the horse of Cuchillo galloped off like an arrow, impelled to such swift course by the growling of the fierce animals, that for a long time could be heard, as if they were following in the rear.
A STUMBLING HORSE.
Far along the route these sounds accompanied the two riders—that is, the wailing of the jackals, mingled with the more fearful utterance of the great feline denizens of the desert. All at once, however, these noises became stilled, as a sound of a far different nature indicated the presence of some human being interfering in this scene of the desert. It was the crack of a gun, but with that quick sharp report that distinguishes the detonation of the rifle.
"A shot!" exclaimed Tiburcio. "But who can be amusing himself by hunting at this time of night, and in the middle of such a desert?"
"Very likely one of those American trappers we see now and then at Arispe, where they come to sell their beaver skins. These fellows think as little of a puma or a jaguar as they do of a jackal."
No other noise was afterwards heard to break the imposing silence of the night. The stars were shining brightly in the blue heaven, and the breeze, that had now become much cooler, scarce made the slightest rustling as it passed through the branches of the iron-wood trees.
"Where are you taking me?" asked Tiburcio, after an interval of silence.
"To La Poza, where I have some companions who are to pass the night there. To-morrow, if you like, on to the hacienda of Venado."
"To the hacienda of Venado! that is just where I was going."
Had it been daylight, Cuchillo might have seen a blush suddenly redden the cheeks of the young man as he pronounced these words; for it was an affair of the heart, that in spite of all the efforts he had made to resist it, was attracting him to the hacienda de Venado. The object of his interest was no other than the daughter of the haciendado himself—the young heiress already spoken of.
"For what purpose were you going there?" inquired Cuchillo, in a careless tone.
This simple question was nevertheless difficult to be answered. His companion was not the man to whom the young gambusino could give his confidence. He hesitated before making reply.
"I am without resources," said he at length, "and I go to ask Don Augustin Pena if he will accept me in the capacity of one of his vaqueros."
"'Tis a poor business you wish to undertake, amigo. To expose your life forever for such paltry pay as you will get—to keep watch at night and run about all the day; exposed to the burning heat of the sun, and by night to the cold—for this is the lot of a vaquero."
"What can I do?" replied Tiburcio. "Besides, it is just the sort of life I have been accustomed to; have I not always been exposed to privations and the solitude of the desert plains? These torn calzoneras and well-worn jacket are all that are left me—since I have now no longer my poor horse. Better turn vaquero than be a beggar!"
"He knows nothing of the secret then," reflected Cuchillo, "since he is meditating on an employment of this nature." Then raising his voice:—"You are in truth, then, a complete orphan, amigo; and have no one to mourn for you if you were to die—except myself. Have you by chance heard anything of this grand expedition that is being organised at Tubac?"
"Become one of it then. To an expedition of this kind a resolute young fellow like you would be a valuable acquisition; and upon your part, an expert gambusino, such as I fancy you must be—from the school in which you have been taught—might make his fortune at a single stroke."
If he parry this thrust, muttered the outlaw to himself, it will be proof positive that he knows nothing about it.
Cuchillo was thus pursuing his investigation with a twofold object, sounding Tiburcio about the secret, while at the same time trying to attach him to the expedition by the hope of gain. But cunning as was the outlaw, he had to do with a party that was no simpleton. Tiburcio prudently remained silent.
"Although between ourselves," continued Cuchillo, "I can tell you that I have never been beyond Tubac, yet I am to be one of the guides of this expedition. Now what say you?"
"I have my reasons," replied Tiburcio, "not to engage in it without reflection. I therefore demand of you twenty-four hours to think it over, and then you shall have my answer."
The expedition, of which this was the first news Tiburcio had heard, might, in fact, ruin or favour his own projects—hence the uncertainty he felt, and which he contrived so cleverly to conceal by his discreet reserve.
"Very well," rejoined Cuchillo, "the thing will keep that long."
And with this the conversation was discontinued.
Cuchillo, joyed at being disembarrassed of his apprehension about the secret, began carelessly whistling while he spurred forward his horse. The greatest harmony continued between these two men, who, though they knew it not, had each a motive of the deadliest hatred one against the other. Suddenly, as they were thus riding along, the horse that carried them stumbled upon the left fore-leg, and almost came to the ground. On the instant Tiburcio leaped down, and with eyes flashing fire, cried out in a threatening tone to his astonished companion.
"You say you have never been beyond Tubac? where did you get this horse, Cuchillo?"
"What business of yours, where I got him?" answered the outlaw, surprised by a question to which his conscience gave an alarming significance, "and what has my horse to do with the interrogatory you have so discourteously put to me?"
"By the soul of Arellanos! I will know; or, if not—"
Cuchillo gave the spur to his horse, causing him to bound to one side— while at the same time he attempted to unbuckle the straps that fastened his carbine to the saddle; but Tiburcio sprang after, seized his hand, and held it while he repeated the question:—
"How long have you owned this horse?"
"There, now! what curiosity!" answered Cuchillo, with a forced smile, "still, since you are so eager to know—it is—it is about six weeks since I became his master; you may have seen me with him, perhaps?"
In truth it was the first time Tiburcio had seen Cuchillo with this horse—that, notwithstanding his bad habits of stumbling, was otherwise an excellent animal, and was only used by his master on grand occasions. For this very reason Tiburcio had not seen him before.
The ready lie of the outlaw dissipated, no doubt, certain suspicions that had arisen in the mind of the young man, for the latter let go the horseman's wrist, which up to this time he had held in his firm grasp.
"Pardon me!" said he, "for this rudeness; but allow me to ask you another question?"
"Ask it!" said Cuchillo, "since we are friends; in fact, among friends, one question less or more can make no difference."
"Who sold you this horse six weeks ago?"
"Por Dios, his owner, of course—a stranger, whom I did not know, but who had just arrived from a long journey."
Cuchillo repeated these words in a slow and drawling manner, as if to gain time for some hidden purpose.
"A stranger?" repeated Tiburcio; "pardon me! one more question?"
"Has the horse been stolen from you?" asked the outlaw in an ironical tone.
"No—but let us think no more of my folly—pardon me, senor!"
"I pardon you," answered Cuchillo, in a tone of magnanimity, "the more so," added he mentally, "that you will not go much further, you son of a hound!"
Tiburcio, unsuspecting, was no longer on his guard, and the outlaw, profiting by the darkness, had already detached his carbine from the saddle. In another moment, beyond doubt, he would have carried into execution his demoniac purpose, had it not been for the appearance of a horseman, who was coming at full gallop along the road. Besides the horse which he rode, the horseman led behind him another, saddled and bridled. He was evidently a messenger from Don Estevan.
"Ah! is it you, Senor Cuchillo?" he cried out, as he rode up.
"The devil!" grumbled the outlaw, at this ill-timed interruption. "Ah! is it you, Senor Benito?" he inquired, suddenly changing his tone.
"Yes. Well, have you saved the man? Don Estevan has sent me back to you with a gourd of fresh water, and a horse to bring him on."
"He is there," replied Cuchillo, pointing to Tiburcio, who stood at a little distance, "thanks to me he is sound and safe—until I have a chance of being once more alone with him," he muttered, in a tone not intended to be heard.
"Well, gentlemen," remarked the servant, "we had better go on—the camping place is not far from here—we can soon reach it."
Tiburcio leaped into the empty saddle, and the three galloped silently toward the place where the travellers had halted—the servant thinking only of reaching it as soon as possible, and going to rest—Cuchillo mentally cursing the interruption that had forced him to adjourn his project of vengeance—and Tiburcio vainly endeavouring to drive out of his mind the suspicion which this curious incident had aroused.
In this occupation the three rode on for about a quarter of an hour, until the gleam of fires ahead discovered the halting-place of the travellers at La Poza. Soon afterwards their camp itself was reached.
The place known by the name "La Poza" was the only one, within a circle of many leagues, where at this time of the year water could be found. There was here a natural cistern or well—partly nourished by a spring, and partly by rain from the skies. It was hollowed at the bottom of a little crater-shaped valley, only a few paces in circumference, the sloping side's of which served to conduct to the well the rain-water that fell around.
The ridges inclosing the little valley were crowned with trees of thick frondage, which, nourished by the evaporation of the water, appeared green and vigorous, and protected the cistern from the burning rays of the sun. The green grass that grew around, the cool shadow of the trees, and the freshness of the air, rendered the well of La Poza, in the middle of the desert, a delicious little oasis. Besides serving as excellent resting-place for travellers, it was a favourite resort of hunters, who used it as a stalking-ground for animals—elks and deer—as well as jaguars and other fierce beasts that in great numbers came to the well to drink.
At a short distance from the cistern of La Poza commenced a tract of thick forest through which ran the path leading to the Hacienda del Venado. Nearer to the edge of the little valley, upon the side of this path, the travellers had kindled an enormous fire, partly to defend themselves from the the cold night air, and partly to frighten off any jaguars or pumas that might be in the neighbourhood of the water.
Not far from this fire the servants had placed the camp-beds of the Senator and Don Estevan; and while a large saddle of mutton was being roasted for supper, a skin bottle of wine was cooling in the fresh water with which the trough had been filled.
After a painful day's march, it was an attractive spectacle which this scene presented to the eyes of the travellers.
"Mine! your halting-place, Tiburcio," said Cuchillo, as they rode into the camp, and speaking in a tone of pretended friendliness in order to conceal the real rancour which he felt. "Dismount here, while I go and report your arrival to our chief. It is Don Estevan de Arechiza himself under whose orders we are enrolled; so, too, may you be, if you desire it; and between ourselves, amigo, it is the best thing you can do."
Cuchillo fearing that his victim might escape him, now wished more than ever that he should join the expedition. He pointed out Don Estevan and the Senator seated on their camp-beds, and visible in the light of the great fire, while Tiburcio was not yet seen by them. Cuchillo himself advanced toward Don Estevan.
"I am desirous, Senor Don Estevan," said he, addressing himself to the Spaniard, "to say two words to your honour, with the permission of his excellency the Senator."
Don Estevan arose from his seat and made a sign to Cuchillo to accompany him into one of the dark alleys of the forest, the same by which the path entered that led to the hacienda.
"You could hardly guess, Senor Don Estevan, who is the man your generosity has saved—for I have brought him with me safe and sound, as you see?"
Without making answer, Don Estevan took from his purse the piece of gold he had promised, and handed it to Cuchillo.
"It is the young Tiburcio Arellanos to whom you have given life," continued the outlaw. "As for me I only followed the dictates of my heart; but it may be that we have both done a very foolish action."
"Why that?" asked the Spaniard. "This young man will be easily watched so long as he is near us; and I presume he is decided to be one of our expedition?"
"He has asked twenty-four hours to reflect upon it."
"Do you think he knows anything of—"
"I have my fears," replied Cuchillo, in a melancholy tone, little regarding the lie he was telling, and the purpose of which was to render the Spaniard suspicious of the man he had himself vowed to kill. "In any case," continued he, with a significant smile, "we have saved his life, and that will serve as tit for tat."
"What do you mean to say?"
"Only that my conscience assures me it will be perfectly tranquil if— if—Carramba!" added he, brusquely—"if I should send this young fellow to be broiled with his mother in the other world."
"God forbid that!" exclaimed the Spaniard, in a lively tone. "What need? Admit that he knows all: I shall be in command of a hundred men, and he altogether alone. What harm can the fellow do us. I have no uneasiness about him. I am satisfied, and so must you be."
"Oh! I am satisfied if you are," growled Cuchillo, like a dog whose master had hindered him from biting some one, "quite satisfied," he continued, "but perhaps hereafter—"
"I shall see this young man," said the Spaniard, interrupting him, and advancing in the direction where Tiburcio stood, while Cuchillo followed, talking to himself:
"What the devil possessed him to ask how long I had owned my horse? Let me see! the animal stumbled, I remember, and it was just then he dismounted and threatened me. I can't understand it, but I suspect what I do not understand."
When Arechiza and Cuchillo reached the camp, an excitement was observed among the horses, that gathered around the capitansa, at a short distance from the fire, and to all appearance in a state of extreme terror, were uttering a wild and continuous neighing. Some danger yet afar, but which the animals' instincts enabled them to perceive, was the cause of this sudden stampede.
"It is some jaguar they have scented," suggested one of the domestics.
"Bah!" replied another, "the jaguars attack only young foals—they wouldn't dare to assault a strong vigorous horse."
"Do you think so?" demanded the first speaker. "Ask Benito here, who, himself, lost a valuable animal taken by the jaguars."
Benito, hearing this reference to himself, advanced towards the two speakers.
"One day," he began, "or rather, one night just like this, I chanced to be at a distance from the Hacienda del Venado, where I was a vaquero at the time. I was in search of a strayed horse, and not finding him, had made up my mind to pass the night at the spring of Ojo da Agua. I tied my horse at a good distance off—where there was better grass—and I was sleeping, as a man sleeps after riding twenty leagues, when I was suddenly awakened by all the howlings and growlings of the devils. The moon shone so clear you might have fancied it daylight. All at once my horse came galloping toward me with the lazo hanging round his neck, which he had broken at the risk of hanging himself.
"'Here then,' said I, 'I shall now have two horses to go in search of instead of one.'
"I had scarce made this reflection, when I observed, under the light of the moon, a superb jaguar bounding after my horse. He scarce appeared to touch the ground, and each leap carried him forward twenty feet or more.
"I saw that my poor steed was lost. I listened with anxiety, but for a while heard nothing. At the end of a quarter of an hour, however, a terrible roar—"
The speaker paused, and stood trembling.
"Virgen Santa!" cried he, "that's it!" as the fearful cry of a jaguar at that moment echoed through the camp, succeeded by a deathlike stillness, as if both men and animals had been alike terrified into silence.
The sudden shock occasioned by the perception of a peril so proximate and imminent paralysed every tongue. Even the ex-herdsman himself was silent, and appeared to reflect what had best be done to avoid the danger.
At this instant the voice of Don Estevan broke the temporary silence that reigned within the camp.
"Get your weapons ready!" shouted he.
"It is useless, master," rejoined the old vaquero, whose experience among jaguars gave a certain authority to his words, "the best thing to be done, is to keep the fire ablaze."
And saying this, he flung an armful of fagots upon it, which, being as dry as tinder, at once caught flame—so as to illumine a large circle around the camp.
"If they are not choking with thirst," said Benito, "these demons of darkness will not dare come within the circle of the fire. But, indeed, they are often choking with thirst, and then—"
"Then!" interrupted one of the domestics, in a tone of anxiety.
"Then," continued the herdsman, "then they don't regard either light or fire; and if we are not determined to defend the water against their approach, we had better get out of their way altogether. These animals are always more thirsty than hungry."
"How when they have drunk?" asked Baraja, whose countenance, under the light of the fire, betrayed considerable uneasiness.
"Why, then they seek to appease their hunger."
At this moment a second cry from the jaguar was heard, but farther off than the first. This was some relief to the auditory of Benito, who, relying upon his theory, was satisfied that the animal was not yet at the extreme point of suffering from thirst. All of them preserved silence—the only sounds heard being the crackling of the dry sticks with which Baraja kept the fire profusely supplied.
"Gently there, Baraja! gently!" called out the vaquero, "if you consume our stock of firewood in that fashion, you will soon make an end of it, and, por Dios! amigo, you will have to go to the woods for a fresh supply."
"There! hold your hand," continued he, after a pause, "and try to make the fagots last as long as possible, else we may get in darkness and at the mercy of the tiger. He is sure to come back again in an hour or two, and far thirstier than before."
If Benito had desired to frighten his companions, he could not have succeeded better. The eyes of one and all of them were anxiously bent upon the heap of dried sticks that still remained by the fire, and which appeared scarcely sufficient to last for another hour. But there was something so earnest in the tone of the ex-herdsman, despite the jesting way in which he spoke, that told he was serious in what he had said.
Of course, Don Estevan had postponed the interview with Tiburcio; and the young man, still ignorant that it was to Don Estevan he really owed his life, did not think of approaching to offer him thanks. Moreover, he saw that the moment would be ill-timed to exchange compliments of courtesy with the chief of the expedition, and for this reason he remained standing where Cuchillo had left him.
Nevertheless Don Estevan could not hinder himself from casting an occasional glance in the direction where the young man stood—though through the obscurity he could make no exact observation of his features.
The silence continued. Don Estevan and the Senator remained seated on their camp-beds, carbine in hand, while Benito, surrounded by the other domestics, formed a group by the side of the fire. The horses had all approached within a few feet of their masters, where they stood trembling and breathing loudly from their spread nostrils. Their behaviour indicated an instinct on their part that the danger was not yet over.
Several minutes passed, in which no human voice broke the silence. In the midst of greatest perils there is something consolatory in the sound of a man's voice—something which makes the danger appear less; and as if struck by this idea, some one asked Benito to continue the narrative of his adventures.
"I have told you then," resumed the ex-herdsman, "that I saw the tiger springing after my horse, and that in the chase both disappeared from my sight. The moment after, the horse came galloping back; but I knew that it was his last gallop, as soon as by the light of the moon I saw the terrible rider that he carried. The jaguar was upon his back, flattened over his shoulders, with the neck of the poor horse fast between his jaws.
"They had not gone a dozen paces before I heard a crackling sound—as if some bone had been crushed—and on the instant I saw the horse stumble and fall. Both tiger and horse rolled over and over in a short but terrible struggle, and then my poor steed lay motionless.
"For safety I stole away from the dangerous proximity; but returning after daylight, I found only the half-stripped skeleton of a horse that had carried me for many a long year.
"And now, amigo," continued the ex-herdsman, turning to the man who had first spoken, "do you still think that the jaguar attacks only foals?"
No one made reply, but Benito's audience turned their glances outward from the fire, fearing that in the circle around they might see shining the eyes of one of these formidable animals.
Another interval of silence succeeded to the narrative of the vaquero. This was broken by the young man Tiburcio, who, used to the wild life of the plains and forests, was very little frightened by the presence of the jaguars.
"If you have a horse," said he, "you need not much fear the jaguar; he is sure to take your horse first. Here, we have twenty horses and only one tiger."
"The young man reasons well," rejoined Baraja, reassured by the observation of Tiburcio.
"Twenty horses for one tiger—yes," replied Benito; "but suppose the horses don't choose to remain here. Supposing, what is likely enough to happen, we have an estampeda—the horses will be off. Now the jaguar knows very well he cannot overcome a horse unless he does so in the first bound or two. I will not follow the horses then, but will stay by the water, and of course by us as well. Besides, the jaguars that hunt by these springs are likely enough to have tasted human flesh before now; and if so, they will not, as the young man affirms, prefer the flesh of a horse."
"Very consoling, that," interrupted Cuchillo.
Benito appeared to be a man fond of the most frightful suggestions, for not contented with what he had already said, he continued—
"If there be but one jaguar, then he will be satisfied with one of us, but in case he should chance to be accompanied by his female, then—"
"Then what, by all the devils?" demanded Cuchillo.
"Why, then—but I don't wish to frighten you."
"May thunder strike you! Speak out," cried Baraja, suffering at the suspense.
"Why, in that case," coolly added Benito, "the tiger would undoubtedly show his gallantry to his female by killing a pair of us."
"Carramba!" fervently exclaimed Baraja. "I pray the Lord that this tiger may be a bachelor," and as he said this he flung a fresh armful of fagots on the fire.
"Gently, amigo! gently," interrupted the ex-herdsman, lifting off some of the sticks again. "We have yet at least six hours of night, and these fagots will scarce serve to keep up the light for one. Gently, I say! We have still three chances of safety: the first that the jaguar may not be thirsty; the second, that he may content himself with one of our horses; and the third, that he may, as you have wished it, be a bachelor tiger."
There was no response, and another interval of silence succeeded. During this it was some consolation to the travellers to see the moon, which now, rising above the horizon, lit up the plains with her white beams, and flung her silvery effulgence over the trees. From the direction of the woods came the mournful notes of the great horned owl, and the sound of flapping wings, caused by the vampire bat, as it glided through the aisles of the forest. No other sounds appeared to indicate the presence of living thing except those made by the horses or the travellers themselves.
"Do you think," said Baraja, addressing himself to Benito, "that the jaguar is likely to return again? I have known these animals howl at night around my hut, and then go off altogether."
"Yes," replied Benito, "that may be when their drinking place is left free to them. Here we have intercepted their approach to the water. Besides, here are both men and horses—both food and drink in one place; it is not likely they have gone away from a spot that promises to furnish them with both. No, I warrant you, they are still in the neighbourhood."
At this moment the cry of the jaguar was heard once more, proving the correctness of Benito's judgment.
"There!" cried he, "just as I said; the beast is nearer too—no doubt his thirst is increasing—the more so that he is hindered from approaching the spring. Ha! do you hear that?"
This exclamation was caused by another roar of the jaguar, but evidently not the one that had been already frightening the travellers—for this cry came from the opposite side of the camp.
"Ave Maria!" screamed Baraja, in anguish, "the tiger has a wife!"
"You speak true," said Benito, "there are two of them, and they must be a male and female, since two male jaguars never hunt in company."
"Carrai!" exclaimed Cuchillo, "may the devil take me if ever I passed a night in the company of such a man as this old herdsman. He would frighten the hair off one's head if he could."
"After all," said Baraja, "I think there can't be much danger, so long as we have got the horses between us and these terrible brutes."
Unhappily, this chance of safety was not to exist much longer, for just then the jaguars recommenced their growling, both of them nearer than ever. The effect upon the horses was now exhibited in a complete estampeda,—for these animals, seeing they could no longer rely upon their masters for protection, preferred trusting to their heels, and one and all of them broke away in a wild gallop.
As this last chance of security was gone, the old vaquero, leaving the fire, approached the spot where Don Estevan and the Senator were seated, and thus addressed them:—
"Gentlemen," said he, "prudence requires that you will not remain so far from the rest of us. As you perceive there is danger on both sides, it will be best that we should all keep close together, and as near the fire as possible."
The affrighted look of the Senator offered a striking contrast to the countenance of Don Estevan, which still preserved its calm rigidity.
"It is good advice this faithful servant gives us," said Tragaduros, rising to do as Benito had suggested.
"Come, Benito," said Don Estevan, "these are nothing but hunter's stories you have been telling, and you wish to frighten these novices? Is it not so?"
"As I live, Senor Don Estevan, 'tis the truth!"
"There is a real danger, then?"
"Certain there is, my master!"
"Very well, in that case I shall remain where I am."
"Are you in earnest?" asked the frightened Tragaduros.
"Quite so—the duty of a leader is to protect his followers," said the Spaniard, proudly, "and that is what I mean to do. If the danger is only from the right and left as it appears to be—I shall guard the right here. There are two bullets in my gun, and with these and a sure eye, what care I for a jaguar? You, Senor Don Vicente, can take your stand on the left of the fire, and watch that side. If it appears prudent to you to keep near the men, do so."
This compromise appeared to the taste of Tragaduros, who had no idea of exposing the person of a man who was to be the future proprietor of a million of dollars dowry. He lost no time, therefore, in crossing over to the fire, and although he made a feint to keep watch on the opposite side from that guarded by Don Estevan, he took care to remain within a few feet of the group of attendants.
These dispositions had scarce been completed, when a formidable dialogue was struck up between the two fierce beasts that were approaching on opposite sides of the camp. Now they would utter a hoarse roaring, then a series of screams and yells, succeeded by a shrill mewing that resembled the caterwauling of cats—only louder and more terrific in its effect. Though Benito and Tiburcio knew that all these noises were caused by a single pair of tigers, the others imagined that not less than a dozen must be engaged in the frightful chorus.
The gun of the Senator shook in his hand—Baraja commended his soul to all the saints in the Spanish calendar—Cuchillo clutched his carbine, as if he would crush it between his fingers—while the chief himself coolly awaited the denouement of the drama.
THE TIGER HUNTERS.
By the light of the fire Don Estevan could be seen walking in the direction whence proceeded the cries of the jaguar that was approaching on the right. He appeared calm as if going out in search of a deer. Tiburcio, at the aspect of the Spanish chief, felt within him that exultation of spirit which danger produces in certain energetic natures; but his dagger was the only weapon he possessed.
He cast a glance at the double-barrelled gun which the Senator held in his hand, and of which the latter was likely to make a use more fatal to his companions than to the jaguar.
On his part the Senator cast an envious look upon the safe position which Tiburcio occupied—in the centre of the group formed by Benito and his companions. Tiburcio read the meaning of this look.
"Senor Senator," said he, "it is not proper that you should expose your life thus—a life valuable to the state. You have relatives—a noble family; as for me, if I should be killed, there is no one to care for me."
"The fact is," said the Senator, "if others set upon my life one half the value I put upon it myself, my death would cause a great deal of unhappiness."
"Well, senor, suppose we change places? You give me your gun, and permit me to place my body in front of you as a rampart against the claws of the jaguars."
This proposal was made at the moment when the two cavernous voices of the ferocious beasts were heard loudly answering to one another. Under the impression produced by the terrible dialogue, Tiburcio's offer was hastily accepted. The Senator took his place; while the young man, with sparkling eyes and firm step, advanced several paces in the direction of the forest whence came theories of the jaguar. There he halted to receive the attack that appeared inevitable.
Don Estevan and he appeared motionless as a pair of statues. The unequal reflection of the fire gleamed upon these two men—whom chance had thus strangely united—neither of whom might yield to the other in pride or courage.
The moment was becoming critical. The two jaguars were about to find enemies worthy of them.
The fire, now burnt down, threw out only a pale light, scarce strong enough to illumine the group that stood near its edge.
At this moment an incident occurred which was likely to cause a change in the situation of affairs. In the midst of an interval of silence—in which the very stillness itself increased the apprehension of the travellers—was heard the long lugubrious whine of a prairie wolf. Melancholy as was this sound, it was sweet in comparison with the cries of the more formidable animals, the jaguars.
"The prairie wolf to howl in the presence of the tiger!" muttered the ex-herdsman. "Carramba! there's something strange about that."
"But I have heard it said," rejoined Tiburcio, "that it is the habit of the prairie wolf to follow the jaguar when the latter is in search of prey?"
"That is true enough," replied Benito, "but the wolf never howls so near the tiger, till after the tiger has taken his prey and is busy devouring it. Then his howl is a humble prayer for the other to leave him something.
"This is strange," continued the vaquero, as the prairie wolf was heard to utter another long whine. "Hark! another!—yes—another prairie wolf and on the opposite side too!"
In fact, another plaintive whine, exactly resembling the first, both in strength and cadence, was heard from a point directly opposite.
"I repeat it," said Benito, "prairie wolves would never dare to betray themselves thus. I am greatly mistaken if it be not creatures of a different species that make this howling, and who don't care a straw for the jaguars."
"What creatures?" demanded Tiburcio.
"Human creatures!" answered the ex-herdsman. "American hunters from the north."
"Trappers do you mean?"
"Precisely. There are no people in these parts likely to be so fearless of the jaguar, and I am pretty sure that what appears to be the call of the prairie wolf is nothing else than a signal uttered by a brace of trappers. They are in pursuit of the jaguars; they have separated, and by these signals they acquaint one another of their whereabouts."
Meanwhile the trappers, if such they were, appeared to advance with considerable precaution; for although the party by the fire listened attentively, not the slightest noise could be heard—neither the cracking of a branch, nor the rustling of a leaf.
"Hilloa! you by the fire there!" all at once broke out from the midst of the darkness a loud rough voice, "we are approaching you. Don't be afraid; and don't fire your guns!"
The voice had a foreign accent, which partly confirmed the truth of the vaquero's conjecture, and the appearance of the speaker himself proved it to a certainty.
We shall not stay to describe the singular aspect of the new arrival— further than to say that he was a man of herculean stature, and accoutred in the most bizarre fashion. He appeared a sort of giant armed with a rifle—proportioned to his size—that is, having a barrel of thick heavy metal nearly six feet in length.
As he approached the group his sharp eye soon took in the different individuals that composed it, and rested with a satisfied look on the form of Tiburcio.
"The devil take that fire of yours!" he said abruptly, but in a tone of good-humour. "It has frightened away from us two of the most beautiful jaguars that ever roamed about these deserts."
"Frightened them away!" exclaimed Baraja. "Carramba! I hope that may be true!"
"Will you allow me to put the fire out?" inquired the new-comer.
"Put out the fire—our only safeguard!" cried the astonished Senator.
"Your only safeguard!" repeated the trapper, equally astonished, as he pointed with his finger around him. "What! eight men wanting a fire for a safeguard against two poor tigers! You are surely making game of me!"
"Who are you, sir?" demanded Don Estevan, in a haughty tone.
"A hunter—as you see."
"Hunter, of what?"
"My comrade and I trap the beaver, hunt the wolf, the tiger—or an Indian, if need be."
"Heaven has sent you then to deliver us from these fierce animals," said Cuchillo, showing himself in front.
"Not very likely," replied the trapper, whose first impression of the outlaw was evidently an unfavourable one. "Heaven I fancy had nothing to do with it. My comrade and I at about two leagues from here chanced upon a panther and two jaguars, quarrelling over the body of a dead horse."
"I re was mine," interrupted Tiburcio.
"Yours, young man!" continued the trapper, in a tone of rude cordiality. "Well, I am glad to see you here, for we thought that the owner of the horse might be no longer among the living. The panther we killed, but the two jaguars made off, and we tracked them hither to the spring, which your fire now hinders them from approaching. Therefore, if you wish to be rid of these beasts, the sooner you put out the fire the better; and you will see how soon we shall disembarrass you of their presence."
"And your comrade?" asked Don Estevan, struck with the idea of making a brace of valuable recruits. "Where is he?"
"He'll be here presently; but to the work, else we must leave you to get out of your scrape as you best can."
There was a certain authority in the tone and words of the trapper—a cool assurance that produced conviction—and upon his drawing near to put out the fire, Don Estevan did not offer to hinder him, but tacitly permitted him to have his way.
In a few seconds the burnt fagots were scattered about over the grass, and the cinders quenched by a few buckets of water drawn from the trough. This done the trapper uttered an imitation of the voice of the coyote; and before its echoes had died away, his companion stepped forward upon the ground.
Although the second trapper was by no means a man of low stature, alongside his companion he appeared only a pigmy. He was not less strangely accoutred, but in the absence of the firelight his costume was not sufficiently visible for its style to be distinguished. Of him and his dress we shall hereafter speak more particularly.
"At last your devilish fire is out," said he, as he came up, "for the want of wood, no doubt, which none of you dared to go fetch."
"No, that is not the reason," hastily replied the first trapper; "I got leave from these gentlemen to put it out—so that we may have an opportunity to rid them of the presence of the tigers."
"Hum!" murmured the Senator; "I fear we have done wrong in letting the fire be put out. Suppose you miss them?"
"Miss them! Por Dios! how?" cried the second trapper. "Caspita! If I had not been afraid to frighten off one of the beasts, I could have killed the other long ago. Several times I had him at the muzzle of my carbine, when the signal of my comrade hindered me from firing. Miss them indeed!"
"Never mind!" interrupted the great trapper; "we shall end the matter, I have no doubt, by convincing this gentleman."
"You already knew, then, that we were here?" said Baraja.
"Of course. We have been two hours involuntarily playing the spy upon you. Ah! I know a part of the country where travellers that take no more precautions than you would soon find their heads stripped of the skin. But come, Dormilon! to our work!"
"What if the jaguars come our way?" suggested the Senator, apprehensively.
"No fear of that," replied the trapper. "Their first care will be to satisfy their thirst, which your fire has hindered them from doing. You will hear them howling with joy, as soon as they perceive that the fire is gone out. It was the light shining upon the water that frightened them more than the presence of men. All they want now is to get a drink."
"But how do you intend to act?" inquired Don Estevan.
"How do we intend to act?" repeated the second trapper. "That is simple enough. We shall place ourselves in the cistern—the jaguars will come forward to its brink; and then, if we are only favoured by a blink of the moon, I'll answer for it that in the twinkling of an eye the brutes will neither feel hunger nor thirst."
"Ah, this appears very simple!" cried Cuchillo, who was in reality astonished at the simplicity of the plan.
"Simple as bidding 'good-bye' to you," humorously responded one of the trappers. "Listen there!—what did I tell you?"
Two loud roars, as if from a brazen trumpet, were heard at the moment. They appeared to proceed from the same point, proving that the jaguars had joined company; and, moreover, proclaimed the joy which the fierce creatures felt at the darkness being restored. This was further evident from their repeated sniffing of the air, like horses who afar off scent with delight the fresh emanations of the water.
At this the two trappers, leaving the party by the fire, betook themselves to the cistern. The moon, for a moment shining out, glanced upon the barrels of their long rifles; but the next moment they had disappeared behind the ridge that surrounded the spring.
No doubt it is a grand pleasure to witness the spectacle of a bull-fight, as the huge bull dashes into the ring, and, pierced by the tormenting bandrilleros, with a crest erect, and eyes flashing fire, bounds over the arena. But, if the spectators were not separated from the actors by an impassable barrier, the sight would have in it less of enjoyment than of terror. The combats between men and tigers—which the Romans used to enjoy—must have been a still more exciting spectacle; but who can doubt that, if the iron railing which separated the audience from the combatants had been removed, scarce one of the former would have remained in the circus to witness the sanguinary struggle?
Only a short space—not wider than a jaguar could have passed over in a single leap—here separated the spectators from the actors in the drama about to be enacted. Supposing, then, that one of the actors should fail in performing his part, and the spectators have to take his place? Here was a situation, exceptional, and fertile in emotions, which most of the travellers felt keenly at the moment.
Meanwhile the trappers had descended into the little crater-like valley of the spring, and there placed themselves in readiness, rifle in hand, to await the approach of their terrible adversaries. They were both upon their knees, back to back, in order that they could keep at the same time under view the whole circumference of the circle. Both had placed their knives in readiness, in case that, by any chance, they should either miss their aim, or—what would be almost as unlucky—only wound the enemy; for they well knew that a wounded jaguar is a more dangerous adversary than one that escapes altogether from the touch of the bullet.