"No," replied the latter, dolefully.
"I am sorry for that; those are little services that friends may render each other, and if I had the grief, as is very possible, of seeing you first scalped then murdered—"
Further conversation was interrupted by outcries which seemed drawing near to the camp. In spite of the terrifying words of the old shepherd, his sang froid in the greatest perils and his resolution full of consoling fatalism, sustained the more wavering courage of Baraja.
As he shuddered at the horrible sounds—which must be heard to be appreciated—he cast upon Benito a glance in order to catch from him a little of his philosophy. For the first time a cloud of sadness appeared on the ex-herdsman's brow, and his eyes looked as though tears stood in them. Baraja was struck by the change, and laid his head upon the old man's arm. Benito raised his head.
"I understand you," said he, "but man has his moments of weakness. I am like him who is called from his hearth by the sound of the trumpet at a time he least thought to quit it. Amidst those howls I hear from above the sound of the last trumpet calling me, and although I am old, it grieves me to go. I leave neither wife nor children to regret, nor those who would weep for me; but there is an old companion of my solitary life from whom I cannot separate without grief. It is at least a consolation for the Indian warrior to know that his war-horse will share his tomb, and to believe that he shall find him again in the land of spirits. How many times have we scoured the woods and the plains together. How often have we borne together heat, hunger, and thirst! This old and faithful friend is my horse, as you may have guessed. I give him to you, friend Baraja. Treat him kindly—love him as I love him, and he will love you as he loves me. His companion was killed by a tiger, and he will now be left alone."
So saying, the old man pointed to a noble courser, champing his bit proudly, among the other horses. He then went towards him, caressed him, and, this moment of weakness over, his countenance recovered its habitual serenity. As he recovered his calmness, he renewed his predictions, careless of the terror he excited in others.
"Listen!" said he to Baraja; "to recompense you for the care you will take of my old friend, I shall teach you, while there is still time, a verse of the psalm for the dying, that may serve you as—"
"Well!" said Baraja, as he did not go on, "what more terrifying things have you to say?"
Benito did not reply, but his companion felt him press his arm convulsively, and then the sight which struck Baraja was more terrible than any answer. The old man's eyes were rolling wildly, and he was vainly trying to stanch the blood which flowed from a wound made by an arrow that had just pierced his throat.
He fell, crying: "What is ordained must happen. No," added he, repulsing the assistance that Baraja was endeavouring to render him, "my hour is come—remember—my old friend—" and the flowing blood cut short his speech.
At that moment the best mounted among the Indians showed themselves in the moonlight. Travellers who have met only with civilised Indians can with difficulty form any idea of the savage tribes. Nothing less resembled those degenerate Indians than these unconquered sons of the desert; who—like the birds of prey, wheeling in the air before pouncing on their victims—rode howling around the camp. Their figures hideously marked with paint, were visible from time to time; their long hair streaming in the wind, their cloaks of skins floating in their rapid course, and their piercing cries of defiance and bravado, giving them the appearance of demons, to whom they have justly been compared.
There were few among the Mexicans who had not some revenge to take on these indefatigable spoilers, but none of them were animated by such deadly hatred as Pedro Diaz. The sight of his enemies produced on him the effect that scarlet does on a bull, and he could scarcely refrain from indulging in one of those exploits which had rendered his name formidable to their tribes. But it was necessary to set an example of discipline, and he curbed his impatience. Besides, the moment of attack could not be far off, and the superior position of the gold-seekers compensated for the inequality of their numbers.
After having assigned to each his post behind the intrenchments, Don Estevan placed on the rising ground, where his tent had stood, those of his men whose rifles carried farthest, or whose sight was the best, and the fires gave light enough for their aim. As for himself, his post was everywhere.
The piercing eyes of the Indians, and the reports of those who had preceded them had doubtless instructed them as to the position of the whites. For a moment an indecision seemed to reign among them, but the truce did not last long. After a short interval of silence, a hundred voices at once shrieked out the war-cry; the earth trembled under an avalanche of galloping horses; and amidst a shower of balls, stones, and arrows, the camp was surrounded on three sides by a disorderly multitude. But a well-sustained fire proceeded from the top of the hill.
Under this murderous discharge riderless horses were seen galloping over the plain, and riders disengaging themselves from their wounded steeds. Before long, however, the combat became one of hand to hand; the Mexicans behind their carts, the Indians trying to scale them.
Oroche, Baraja, and Pedro Diaz pressed one against the other, sometimes retiring to avoid the long lances of their enemies—sometimes advancing and striking in their turn—encouraging each other, and never pausing but to glance at their chief. As already stated, the report had vaguely spread that he knew the secret of the immense riches, and cupidity supplied to Oroche and Baraja the place of enthusiasm.
"Carramba!" cried Baraja, "a man possessing such a secret should be invulnerable."
"Immortal!" said Oroche, "or only die after—"
A blow from a hatchet on his head cut short his words. He fell to the ground, and but for the solidity of his hat, and the thickness of his hair, all had been over with him. His adversary, carried away by the violence of his own blow, placed his hand for support on the shafts of the cart which separated them. Diaz immediately seized the Indian's arm, and leaning on the nave of the wheel, dragged him towards him with such force that he fell off his horse into camp; and, almost before he touched the ground, the Mexican's sword severed his head from his body.
Useless now on their elevated position—for the melee was so thick that their shots might have been as fatal to friends as foes—the sharpshooters had come down and mingled with the other combatants.
In the corner of the intrenchments where they stood, Don Estevan and Cuchillo had to sustain an attack not less furious. The first, while he defended himself, yet cast an eye over the whole of the intrenchments; but it was with the greatest difficulty that amidst the tumult he could make heard his orders and advice. More than once his double-barrelled rifle of English make—and which he loaded and discharged with wonderful rapidity—stayed the knife or axe which was menacing one of his men—a feat which was greeted each time with loud hurrahs. He was, in a word, what the adventurers had seen him from the beginning of this dangerous campaign, the chief who thought of all, and the chief who feared nothing.
Accompanied by his horse, which followed his movements with the intelligence of a spaniel, Cuchillo stood behind the chief—as much out of the way as possible—with more prudence than bravery. He seemed to be following with an anxious eye the chances of attack and defence: when all at once he tottered as though struck by a mortal wound, and fell heavily behind the carts. This incident passed almost unperceived amidst the confusion—every one being in so much danger as to be able to think only of himself.
"There is a coward the less," said Don Estevan, coldly, while Cuchillo's horse drew near him with a terrified air.
For some minutes Cuchillo remained motionless; then, little by little, he raised his head and cast around him a glance which seemed undimmed by the approach of death. A few minutes after, he rose on his feet, like a man to whom death lends some strength at the last, and apparently, mortally hurt, his hand on his breast, as though endeavouring to retain the spark of life ready to escape, tottered backwards, and then fell again some way off. His horse followed him once more; and then, if every one had not been too much occupied, they might have seen the outlaw rolling over and over towards an open place in the intrenchments. He then stopped again; and finally glided under the cart wheels out of the camp.
There he rose upon his legs as firm as ever, while a smile of joy played over his lips. The darkness and the tumult favoured his manoeuvre. He silently unfastened the iron chains of two carts, and opened a passage. He whistled and his horse glided after him; in a second he was in the saddle, almost without touching the stirrup; when after a moment's thought, he spurred on the animal, who set off like the wind, and horse and rider soon disappeared in the darkness!
On both sides of the intrenchment corpses covered the ground; half burnt-out piles of wood cast their red light upon the bloody scenes of this struggle; the shouts of enemies, the repeated discharge of firearms, and the whistling of bullets followed each other uninterruptedly. The hideous figures of the Indians looked more hideous still in the strange light.
One point in the intrenchment had given way before the incessant attacks; and here, dead or wounded, its defenders had yielded to enemies who seemed to swarm from the ground. At this point there was an instant of horrible confusion. A pele mele of bodies interlaced, over which appeared the plumes of the Indian warriors. Soon, however, the line of the adventurers, broken for an instant, reformed before a group of Indians who were rushing like wild beasts into the middle of the camp.
Oroche and Baraja left the point which they were still defending, and found themselves face to face with their enemies, this time with nothing to separate them. Amidst the group of Indians, whose lances and hatchets fell indiscriminately upon horses, mules and men, the chief was recognisable by his vast height, the painting of his face and his great strength.
It was the second time that he had faced the whites since the commencement of the campaign, and his name was known to them.
"Here, Diaz," cried Baraja, "here is the Spotted Cat!"
At the name of Diaz, which had already reached him, the Indian chief looked round for him who bore it, with eyes which seemed to dart flames, and raised his lance to strike Diaz, when a blow from Oroche's knife wounded his horse. The Indian thrown to the ground, let fall his lance. Diaz seized it, and while the chief raised himself on one knee and endeavoured to draw his sword, the lance which he had dropped, pierced his naked breast, and came out between his shoulders. Although mortally wounded, the Indian uttered no cry, his eyes never lost their haughty menace, and his face expressed only rage.
"The Spotted Cat dies not so easily," said he, and with a vigorous hand he seized the wood of the lance still held by Diaz. A fierce struggle ensued, but at every effort of the Indian to draw Diaz towards him, and envelop him in a last deadly clasp, the murdering, lance pierced farther and farther. Soon his strength failed, and violently torn from his body the bloody weapon remained in the hands of Diaz. The Indian fell back, gave one glance of defiance, and then lay motionless upon the earth.
Their chief fallen, the others soon shared the same fate, while their companions vainly tried to force the line a second time. Victims of their temerity, the Indians, without asking for a mercy which they never showed, fell like their chief facing the enemy, and surrounded by the corpses of those who had preceded them in their journey to the land of spirits.
Of all the savages in the camp but one remained. He looked round him for a minute with eyes fierce as those of the hunted tiger; then, instead of seeking to hide his presence, he uttered anew his war-cry, but it was confounded with those from without—and profiting by a moment of confusion, during which the adventurers, attacked from without, left the breach almost clear—he caused his horse to leap over, and found himself once more among his own people.
Pedro Diaz alone saw him, and regretted his prey, but the implacable enemy of the Indians never indulged in sterile regrets. He was mounted on the war-horse presented to him by Don Augustin Pena. From his left hand hung by the sword-knot a long Toledo rapier, with the Spanish device:
Do not draw me without cause, Or sheathe me without honour.
The blade was red with blood. Diaz shaded his eyes with his right hand, and tried to pierce the distant obscurity. All at once he perceived at the end of the luminous zone projected by the fires, the man he was seeking. He was making furious evolutions on his horse, and uttering shouts of defiance. Diaz remembered the speech of the haciendado about the horse he had given him—"The Indian whom you pursue must be mounted on the wings of the wind if you do not catch him," and he resolved to make the attempt. The noble animal, excited by the spur, leaped over the intrenchments overthrown by the Indians, and the two were soon side by side. The Indian brandished his hatchet, Diaz his sword, and for some seconds there was a trial of agility, courage, and address. Each sustained his country's reputation, but the Indian's hatchet broke to pieces the sword of the Mexican. The two combatants then seized one another round the body and tried to drag each other from their horses, but like centaurs, each seemed to form a part of the animal he bestrode.
At last Diaz disengaged himself from his adversary's clasp, and backed his horse, still facing the Indian. Then, when he was a little way off, he caused his horse to rear so furiously that the animal seemed for a moment to be raised over the Indian. At the same moment Diaz lifted his right leg, and with a blow from the large heavy iron-bound stirrup, broke his adversary's skull, whom his horse carried away dead from the spot.
This last magnificent exploit seemed to end the battle; some arrows flew harmlessly around Diaz, who was welcomed back with shouts of triumph by his companions.
"Poor Benito!" cried Baraja; "may God rest his soul, I regret even his terrific histories."
"What is still more to be regretted," interrupted Oroche, "is the death of the illustrious Cuchillo, the guide of the expedition."
"Your ideas are still confused from the blow you received on your head," said Diaz, as he tried the flexibility of a new sword. "But for the illustrious Cuchillo, as you call him, we should not have lost to-night at least twenty brave comrades. Cuchillo unluckily died a day too late, and I cannot say 'God rest his soul.'"
Meanwhile the Indians were deliberating. The last exploit of Diaz, the death that so many of their party had met with in the camp, and those killed by the filing, had thinned their ranks.
The Indian never persists in a hopeless struggle: a singular mixture of prudence and contempt of life characterises this singular race, and prudence counselled them to retreat; they did so precipitately as they had attacked.
But the tactics of the white men were different; they were anxious to profit by a victory the fame of which would penetrate to the furthest end of the desert, and render their future more secure. Therefore an order to pursue the fugitives given by Don Estevan was received with acclamations. Twenty cavaliers instantly rushed forward, Pedro Diaz among the foremost. Sword in one hand, and lasso and bridle in the other, he was soon out of sight.
Those who remained behind, though nearly all more or less wounded, occupied themselves first with reconstructing the intrenchment in case of any new attack; then, overwhelmed with fatigue, hunger, and thirst, after clearing the camp of the dead bodies which encumbered it, they lay down on the earth, still wet with blood, to seek for repose.
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
AFTER THE FIGHT.
In the calm which succeeded to the noise of the combat, a single man rose slowly up, and by the light of a torch which he held, examined all the corpses lying at his feet, as if seeking to identify the livid or bloody faces of the dead. Sometimes the light fell on the strange paint of an Indian face, and the pale one of a white man, lying side by side in an eternal sleep; occasionally a deep groan proceeded from some one who was wounded, but the seeker did not appear to find what he sought.
All at once, amidst the silence, a weak voice attracted his attention, and he tried in the half-light to discover whence the sound proceeded. The feeble movement of a hand guided him, and he approached the dying man—in whom he immediately recognised Benito.
"Ah! it is you, my poor Benito?" said he, with a look of profound pity.
"Yes," replied the old shepherd, "it is old Benito, dying in the desert where he has nearly always lived. As for me—I know not who you are; my eyes are dim. Is Baraja living?"
"I trust so; he is now pursuing the Indians, and will return in time, I hope, to bid you a last adieu."
"I doubt it," replied Benito; "I wished to teach him a verse of the hymn for the dying. I can no longer remember it now. Do you not know something?"
"Not a word."
"Ah! I must do without it," said Benito, whose accustomed stoicism did not forsake him even at that moment. Then, in a still more feeble voice, he added, "I have bequeathed to Baraja an old companion—an old friend; whoever you may be, recommend him to observe my last request, to love him as I did."
"A brother doubtless."
"Better than that; my horse."
"I shall remind him—do not fear."
"Thank you," said the old man. "As for myself, I have finished my travels. The Indians did not kill me when they took me prisoner in my youth—now they have killed me in my old age without taking me prisoner. That—" he stopped, and then added some words in so low a tone that they did not reach the ear of the listener. He spoke no more; those were his last words, for death had abruptly ended his speech.
"He was a brave man—peace be with him!" said the speaker, who then continued his search, until at last, fatigued by its uselessness, he returned with an anxious look to his place, and after he had gone the silence of death seemed to pervade the camp.
Before long, however, a confused noise of voices and horses' feet indicated the return of the adventurers who had started in pursuit of the Indians, and by the doubtful light of the half extinct fires, they entered the camp.
The same man who had been recently inspecting the dead, went out to meet them. While some of them were dismounting to open a passage through the barricades, Pedro Diaz advanced towards him, a stream of blood flowing from a wound in his forehead.
"Senor Don Estevan," said he, "we have not been lucky in our pursuit. We have but wounded one or two of the Indians, and have lost one of our own men. However I bring you a prisoner; do you wish to interrogate him?"
So saying, Diaz detached his lasso from the saddle-bow, and pointed to a mass held in its noose. It was an Indian, who, pitilessly dragged along over the sand and stones, had left behind at every step pieces of flesh, and now scarcely retained any vestige of humanity.
"He was alive when I took him, however," cried Diaz, "but it is just like these dogs of Indians, he must have died in order not to tell anything."
Without replying to this ferocious jest, Don Estevan signed to Diaz to accompany him to a place where they might converse without being overheard. When the new-comers had lain down and silence reigned anew, Don Estevan began:
"Diaz," said he, "we are close on the end of our expedition: to-morrow, as I told you, we shall encamp at the foot of those mountains; but in order that success may crown our efforts, treason must not throw obstacles in our way. It is on this subject that I wish to consult you to-night. You have known Cuchillo long, but not so long as I have; and certainly, not as thoroughly. From his earliest youth he has always betrayed those to whom he appeared most devoted. I know not which of all the vices with which he is endowed has the ascendant; but in a word, the sinister look of his face is but a feeble reflection of the blackness of his soul. It was he who sold to me the secret of the rich and mysterious placer to which I am leading you—and of this secret he had made himself the sole master by murdering the friend who had freely confided it to him, and who thought to find him a faithful companion in his dangers.
"I have ever, therefore, kept a watchful eye over him. His disappearance for the last two days alarmed me, but it might have been the result of an accident common in these deserts. The attack, however, from which we have so narrowly escaped has confirmed my suspicions. He has advanced under our protection, until we have reached the place where he would, be able to seize a part of these immense treasures. He had need of auxiliaries in order to murder our sixty men, and the Indians who have attacked us were but his instruments."
"Indeed," replied Diaz, "his report seemed to me suspicious. But the simplest method will be to hold a court-martial, interrogate him, and if he be convicted of treason, let us shoot him at once."
"At the commencement of the attack, I assigned him a post near me, in order to watch him more easily. I saw him totter and then fall apparently mortally wounded, and I was glad to be rid of a traitor and a coward. But I have just turned over and examined all the dead, and Cuchillo is not amongst them. It is therefore urgent that without loss of time we should follow him; he cannot be far off. You are accustomed to this sort of expedition; we must, without delay, set off in pursuit of him, and execute prompt justice on a villain whose life must pay for his treachery."
Diaz appeared to reflect for a moment, and then said, "To trace him can neither be tedious nor difficult. Cuchillo must have gone towards the Golden Valley—therefore in that direction we must seek him."
"Go rest for an hour, for you must be worn out," said the chief. "Ah! Diaz, if all these men were like you, how easy our path would be—gold in one hand, and the sword in the other."
"I have only done my duty," said Diaz, simply.
"Say to our men that it is necessary for us to reconnoitre the environs of the camp, and tell the sentinels to keep strict watch until our return, and then we shall proceed towards the valley."
"Cuchillo must certainly be there, and we shall catch him either going or returning."
"We shall find him in the valley," said Don Estevan. "When you have seen it, you will find it a place that a man like Cuchillo could not make up his mind to leave."
Diaz departed to execute his orders, and Don Estevan caused his tent to be pitched again, that even in his absence his starry banner might float over the camp as a sign of his protective authority. This done, he threw himself on his couch, and slept the sleep of a soldier after a day of fighting and fatigue.
Little more than an hour after, Diaz stood before him, "Senor Don Estevan," said he, "all is prepared for starting."
The chief rose and found his horse awaiting him ready saddled.
"Diaz," said he, "ask the sentinels if Gayferos has returned."
Diaz questioned one of the men, who replied, "The poor fellow will probably never return. The Indians must have surprised and killed him before attacking us, and that probably was the cause of the firing that we heard in the afternoon."
"I fear it is but too certain that he has been murdered," replied Diaz; "but as for the firing that we heard, I believe that had a different origin."
Don Estevan now mounted his horse, and the two set off in, the direction of the mountains.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
While the Indians, united in council, were deliberating on the means of attacking the camp of the gold-seekers, let us see how the three men on the island were occupied.
It was about four o'clock, and the fog was beginning to rise slowly from the water. Willows and aspens grew on the shores of the river Gila, within rifle-range of the little island, and so near the water that their roots were in the river. The spaces between the trees were filled up by vigorous osier and other shoots; but just in front of the island was a large open space. This had been made by the troops of wild horses and buffaloes, that came down to drink at the river; and through this opening any one on the island could see clearly over the plain.
The little island had been formed originally by trees that had taken root in the bed of the river; other trees, some green and others without branches or foliage, had rested against these, and their roots had become interlaced. Since then, many summers and winters must have passed; and grasses and sedges, detached from the banks by the water, had filled up the interstices. Then the dust, brought there by the wind, had covered these with a crust of earth, and formed a kind of solid ground for the floating island. Plants had grown along the banks; the trunks of the willows had sent forth vigorous shoots, and, with the reeds, had surrounded the island with a fringe of verdure. The island was only a few feet in diameter; but a man lying, or even kneeling upon it, was completely hidden by the willow-shoots.
The sun was going down, and a little shade was thrown by the leaves and trees; in this shade was stretched the form of Fabian asleep. Bois-Rose seemed to be watching over his sleep, hastily taken after the fatigues of a long march, while Pepe refreshed himself by plunging in the water. While Fabian slumbers, we shall raise the veil by which the young Count hid from the eyes of his two friends his most secret and dearest thoughts.
After his fall into the torrent, Pepe had forgotten that the enemy on whom he had sworn vengeance was escaping, and both he and Bois-Rose had thought only of rendering prompt assistance to Fabian. On returning to consciousness, Fabian's first thought was to resume his interrupted pursuit. The acquisition of the Golden Valley, and even the remembrance of Dona Rosarita, were forgotten by the ardent wish of revenging his mother.
Pepe, on his side, was not the man to draw back from his vow; and as for Bois-Rose, his whole affections were centred in his two companions, and he would have followed them to the end of the world. Their first failure, far from discouraging them, did but excite their ardour; in hatred as in love, obstacles are always a powerful stimulant to vigorous minds. The pursuit had gradually presented a double object to Fabian; it brought him near to the Golden Valley in the desert; and he nourished a vague hope that the place pointed out to him was not the same as that which the expedition led by Antonio de Mediana proposed to conquer.
Fabian said to himself, that the daughter of Don Augustin doubtless only yielded obedience to the ambitious views of her father, and that it might yet be easy for him, noble and rich, to win the day against such a rival as Tragaduros.
Still, discouragement often seized upon Fabian; he loved the daughter of the haciendado with his whole soul; and the thought of owing her love only to the treasures that he might possess, distressed him. Moreover, he felt that the ardent and jealous affection of the Canadian, had founded on him the sole aim of his life, and that, like the eagle who carries away his young one and places it in an eyrie, inaccessible to the hand of man, Bois-Rose, who had forever quitted civilised life, wished to make of him his inseparable companion in the desert; and that, to disappoint the old man would be to throw a shadow over his whole future life. As yet, no confidence as to their future had been exchanged between them; but in face of a love that he believed hopeless, and of the ardent, though secret wishes of the man who now acted as a father to him, and who would half break his heart at a separation, Fabian had generously and silently sacrificed his tastes and hopes that would not die. He who had but to hold out his hand to seize the things that the whole world desires—riches, titles, and honours—was like one whose life tortured by an unhappy love, disclaiming the future, seeks within the cloister forgetfulness of the past. For Fabian de Mediana, the desert was the cloister; and his mother once revenged, it only remained to him to bury himself in it forever. Sad and inefficacious, as a remedy, would be solitude, with its mysterious voice, and the ardent contemplations that it awakens, for a passion so fondly awakened in the young heart of Fabian.
One single hope remained to him—that amidst the ever-renewed dangers of an adventurous life, the day was not far distant when his life would be cut short in some contest with the Indians, or in one of those desperate attempts that he meditated against the murderer of his mother. He had carefully hidden from the Canadian the love that he buried in the depths of his heart; and it was in the silence of the night that he dared to look into his own bosom. Then, like the light which shines in the horizon above great cities, and which the traveller contemplates with joy, a radiant and cherished image rose before his eyes in the desert, standing on that breach in the wall of the hacienda, where his last souvenirs carried him. But during the day, the heroic young man tried to hide under an apparent calm, the melancholy that devoured him. He smiled, with sad resignation, at those plans for the future which the Canadian sometimes enlarged on before him—he so happy in having found him, and who trembled to lose again his beloved Fabian, whose hand he hoped would one day close his eyes. The blind tenderness of Bois-Rose did not divine the abyss under the calm surface of the lake, but Pepe was rather more clear-sighted.
"Well," said Pepe, after a long silence, "the inhabitants of Madrid would pay dearly for such a stream of water in the Manzanares; but we have not the less lost a day which might have brought us nearer to the Golden Valley, and from which we cannot now be far distant."
"I allow that," replied Bois-Rose, "but the child," for so he called the vigorous young man before them, "is not so accustomed as we are to long marches, and though sixty leagues in twelve days is not very much for us, it begins to tell on him. But before he has been a year with us, he will be able to walk as far as ourselves."
Pepe could not help smiling at this answer, but the Canadian did not perceive it.
"See," said the Spaniard, pointing to Fabian, "how the poor lad has changed in a few days. For my part, at his age, I should have preferred the glance of a damsel and the Puerta del Sol at Madrid to all the magnificence of the desert. Fatigue alone has not produced this change in him. There is some secret which he does not tell us, but I will penetrate it one of these days," added Pepe mentally.
At these words the Canadian turned his head quickly towards his beloved child, but a smile of joy from Fabian chased away the sudden cloud from the brow of his adoptive father. Fabian indeed smiled; he was dreaming that he was on his knees before Rosarita, listening to the sweet voice of the young girl, who was recounting her anguish during his long absence, and that Bois-Rose stood behind them leaning on his rifle and blessing them both. Ah! it was only a dream.
The two hunters looked for a moment silently at the sleeper.
"There lies the last descendant of the Medianas," said Pepe, with a sigh.
"What care I for the Medianas and their powerful race?" replied the Canadian. "I know but Fabian. When I saved him, and attached myself to him as though he had been my own, did I ask about his ancestors?"
"You will wake him if you talk so loud," said Pepe; "your voice roars like a cataract."
"Why are you always recalling to me things that I do not wish to know, or rather wish to forget. I know that some years in the desert will accustom him—"
"You deceive yourself strangely, Bois-Rose, if you imagine that with the prospects that await him in Spain, and the rights that he can claim, this young man will consent to pass his whole life in the desert. It is good for us, but not for him."
"What! is not the desert preferable to cities?" cried the old sailor, who vainly tried to conceal from himself that Pepe was right. "I undertake to make him prefer a wandering life to a settled one. Is it not for movement, for fighting, and for the powerful emotions of the desert that man is born?"
"Certainly," said Pepe, gravely, "and that is just why the towns are deserted and the deserts peopled!"
"Do not jest, Pepe; I am speaking of serious things. While I leave Fabian free to follow his own inclinations, I shall make him love this captivating life. Is not this short sleep, snatched hastily between two dangers, preferable to what one tastes after a day of idle security in the towns. You yourself, Pepe—would you wish to return to your own country, since you have known the charms of a wandering life?"
"There is between the heir of the Medianas," replied Pepe, "and the old coast-guard man a great difference. To him will come a fine property, a great name, and a beautiful Gothic castle with towers like the cathedral at Burgos; while I should be sent to fish for mackerel at Ceuta—which is the most execrable life I know of and which I should have but one chance of escaping from—that of waking some fine morning, at Tunis or Tetuan, as a slave to our neighbours the Moors. I have here, it is true, the daily chance of being scalped or burnt alive by the Indians. Still the town is worse for me—but for Don Fabian—"
"Fabian has always lived in solitude, and will, I trust, prefer the calm of the desert to the tumult of cities. How solemn and silent is all around us! See here!" and he pointed to Fabian, "how the child sleeps, softly lulled by the murmur of the waters, and by the breeze in the willows. Look there, in the horizon at those fogs just coloured by the sun, and that boundless space where man wanders in his primitive liberty, like the birds in the air!"
The Spaniard shook his head doubtfully, although he partook the ideas of the Canadian, and like him felt the charm of this wandering life.
"Look," continued the old hunter, "at that troop of wild horses coming down to drink before going for the night to their distant pasturage. See how they approach in all the proud beauty that God gives to free animals—ardent eyes, open nostrils, and floating manes! Ah! I should almost like to awake Fabian in order that he might see and admire them."
"Let him sleep, Bois-Rose; perhaps his dreams show him more graceful forms than those horses of the desert—forms such as abound in our Spanish towns, in balconies or behind barred windows."
Bois-Rose sighed, as he added—
"Yet this is fine sight—how these noble beasts bound with joy at their liberty!"
"Yes, until they are chased by the Indians, and then they bound with terror!"
"There! now they are gone like the cloud driven by the wind!" continued the Canadian. "Now the scene changes. Look at that stag, who shows from time to time his shining eyes and black nose through the trees; he snuffs the wind, he listens. Ah! now he also approaches to drink. He has heard a noise, he raises his head; do not the drops that fall from his mouth look like liquid gold? I will wake the lad!"
"Let him sleep, I tell you; perhaps his dream now shows him black eyes and rosy lips, or some nymph sleeping on the banks of a clear stream."
The old Canadian sighed again.
"Is not the stag the emblem of independence?" said he.
"Yes, until the time when the wolves assemble to pursue and tear him to pieces. Perhaps he would have more chance of life in our royal parks. Everything to its time, Bois-Rose; old age loves silence, youth noise."
Bois-Rose still fought against the truth. It was the drop of gall that is found at the bottom of every cup of happiness; it is not permitted that there should be perfect felicity, for it would then be too painful to die; neither is unmixed misery allowed to mortals, or it would be painful to live. The Canadian hung his head and looked sad as he glanced at the sleeping youth, while Pepe put on his buffalo-skin buskins.
"Well! what did I tell you?" said he, presently; "do you not hear from afar those howlings—I mean those barkings, for the wolves have voices like dogs when they hunt the stags. Poor stag! he is, as you said, the emblem of life in the desert."
"Shall I wake Fabian now?" said Bois-Rose.
"Yes, certainly; for after a love dream a stag hunt is the thing most worthy of a nobleman like him, and he will rarely see such a one as this."
"He will see nothing like it in the towns," cried the Canadian, enchanted; "such scenes must make him love the desert."
And he shook the young man gently.
With head thrown back, to inhale more freely the air necessary to his lungs, the stag flew like an arrow along the plain. Behind him a hungry pack of wolves, a few white, but the greater number black, pursued him at full speed. The stag had an immense start, but on the sand heaps, almost lost in the horizon, the piercing eye of the hunter might distinguish other wolves watching. The noble animal either did not see, or else disdained them, for he flew straight towards them. As he neared them he halted a moment. Indeed, he found himself shut in by a circle of enemies, who constantly advanced upon him as he stopped to take breath. All at once he turned round, faced the other wolves, and tried one last effort to escape. But he could not now clear the solid masses that had formed around him, and he fell in the midst of them. Some rolled under his feet, and two or three were tossed in the air. Then, with a wolf hanging to his flanks, bleeding and with tongue protruding, the poor animal advanced to the edge of the water, in front of the three spectators of the strange chase.
"It is magnificent!" cried Fabian clapping his hands, and carried away by the hunter's enthusiasm, which for the time silences humanity in the heart of men.
"Is it not fine?" cried Bois-Rose, doubly pleased, happy at Fabian's pleasure, and at his own. "And we shall witness many such fine sights, my Fabian! here you see only the worst side of these American solitudes, but when you go with Pepe and me to the great rivers, and the great lakes of the north—"
"The animal has got rid of his enemy," interrupted Fabian, "he is about to spring into the river!"
The water bubbled after the leap of the stag, then a dozen times more as the wolves followed; then amidst the foam were visible the head of the stag, and those of the wolves who were pursuing him, howling with hunger, while the more timid ones ran along the banks uttering their lamentable howls. The stag had neared the island, when the wolves on the bank suddenly ceased their cries and fled precipitately away.
"What is that?" cried Pepe; "what causes this sudden panic?" but no sooner had he spoken than he cried again, "Hide yourselves, in God's name! the Indians are in chase also."
Other and more formidable hunters now appeared in their turn upon the arena. A dozen of the wild horses, which they had seen before, were now seen galloping wildly over the plain, while some Indians, mounted bareback on their horses (having taken their saddles off for greater speed), with their knees almost up to their chins, were pursuing the terrified animals. At first there were but three Indians visible; but one by one about twenty appeared, some armed with lances, and others brandishing their lassoes of plaited leather—all uttering those cries by which they express their joy or anger.
Pepe glanced at the Canadian as though to ask whether he had calculated these terrible chances when he wished to make Fabian share their adventurous career. For the first time, at such a crisis, the intrepid hunter looked deadly pale. An eloquent but sad glance was his reply to the Spaniard's mute interrogation.
"A too great affection in the heart of the bravest man," thought Pepe, "makes him tremble for him who he loves more than life; and adventurers like us should have no ties. There is Bois-Rose trembling like a woman!"
However, they felt almost certain that even the practiced eyes of the Indians could not discover them in their retreat; and the three men, after their first alarm had passed over, watched coolly the manoeuvres of the Indians. These continued to pursue the flying horses; the numberless obstacles so thickly strewn over the plain—the ravines, the hillocks, and the sharp-pointed cacti—could not stop them. Without slackening the impetuosity of their pace or turning aside from any obstacle, these horsemen cleared them with wonderful address. Bold rider as he was himself, Fabian looked with enthusiasm on the astonishing agility of these wild hunters, but the precautions which they were forced to take, in order to conceal themselves, made the three friends lose a part of this imposing spectacle.
The vast savannahs, late so deserted, were suddenly changed into a scene of tumult and confusion. The stag, returning to the bank, continued to fly, with the wolves still after him. The wild horses galloped before the Indians—whose howlings equalled that of the wolves—and described great circles to avoid the lance or the lasso, while numerous echoes repeated these various sounds.
The sight of Fabian, who followed with an ardent eye all these tumultuous evolutions, not appearing to disquiet himself about a danger which he now braved for the first time, deprived Bois-Rose of that confidence in himself which had brought him safe and sound out of perils apparently greater than this.
"Ah!" muttered he, "these are scenes which the inhabitants of cities can never see, it is only in the desert one can meet with them."
But his voice trembled in spite of himself; and he stopped, for he felt that he would have given a year of his life that Fabian had not been present. At this moment a new subject of apprehension added to his anguish.
The scene became more solemn; for a new actor, whose role was to be short though terrible, now appeared upon it. It was a man, whom by his dress the three recognised with terror as a white man like themselves. The unlucky man suddenly discovered in one of the evolutions of the chase, had become in his turn the exclusive object of pursuit. Wild horses, wolves, the stag, had all disappeared in the distant fog. There remained only the twenty Indians scattered over a circle, of which the white man occupied the centre. For an instant the friends could see him cast around him a glance of despair and anguish. But, excepting on the river-side, the Indians were everywhere. It was, therefore, in this direction that he must fly; and he turned his horse towards the opening opposite to the island. But his single moment of indecision had sufficed for the Indians to get near him.
"The unhappy man is lost, and no help for it," said Bois-Rose; "he is too late now to cross the river."
"But," said Fabian, "if we can save a Christian, shall we let him be murdered before our eyes?"
Pepe looked at Bois-Rose.
"I answer for your life before God," said the Canadian, solemnly, "if we are discovered we are but three against twenty. The life of three men— yours especially, Fabian—is more precious than that of one; we must let this unhappy man meet his fate."
"But intrenched as we are?" persisted Fabian.
"Intrenched! Do you call this frail rampart of osiers and reeds an intrenchment? Do you think these leaves are ball proof? And these Indians are but twenty now; but let one of our shots be fired at them, and you will soon see one hundred instead of twenty. May God pardon me if I am unfeeling, but it is necessary."
Fabian said no more; this last reason seemed conclusive, for, like his companions, he was ignorant that the rest of the Indians were at the camp of Don Estevan.
Meanwhile the white fled like a man the speed of whose horse is his last resource. Already they could see the terror depicted on his face, but just as he was about twenty feet from the river, the lasso of an Indian caught him, and the unlucky wretch, thrown violently from his saddle fell upon the sand.
AN INDIAN DIPLOMAT.
After the cries of triumph which announced the capture of the unlucky white man, there was a moment of profound silence. The men on the island exchanged looks of consternation and pity. "Thank God! they have not killed him!" said Fabian.
The prisoner indeed arose, although bruised with his fall, and one of the Indians disengaged him from the lasso. Bois-Rose and Pepe shook their heads.
"So much the worse for him, for his sufferings would now be over," said Pepe; "the silence of the Indians shows that each is considering what punishment to inflict. The capture of one white is more precious in their eyes than that of a whole troop of horses."
The Indians, still on horseback, surrounded the prisoner, who, casting around him a despairing glance, saw on every side only bronzed and hardened faces. Then the Indians began to deliberate.
Meanwhile, one who appeared to be the chief, and who was distinguished by his black plumes, jumped off his horse, and, throwing the bridle to one of the men, advanced towards the island. Having reached the bank, he seemed to seek for footsteps on the sand. Bois-Rose's heart beat violently, for this movement appeared to show some suspicion as to their presence.
"Can this wretch," whispered he to Pepe, "smell flesh like the ogres in the fairy tales?"
"Quien sabe—who knows?" replied the Spaniard, in the phrase which is the common answer of his native country.
But the sand trampled over by the wild horses who had come to drink, showed no traces of a human foot, and the Indian walked up the stream, still apparently seeking.
"The demon has some suspicion," said Bois-Rose; "and he will discover the traces that we left half-a-mile off when we entered the bed of the river to get at this island. I told you," added he, "that we should have entered two miles higher up; but neither you nor Fabian wished it, and like a fool, I yielded to you."
The deliberation as to the fate of the prisoner was now doubtless over; for cries of joy welcomed some proposition made by one of the Indians. But it was necessary to await the return and approbation of the chief, who was the man already known to us as the "Blackbird." He had continued his researches, and having reached the place where they had left the sand to enter the river, no longer doubted that the report brought to them had been correct; and having his own private objects, he determined to follow it. Once assured of the presence of the three whites, he returned to his men, listened gravely to the result of their deliberations, answered in a few words, and then advanced slowly towards the river—after having given an order to five of his men who set off at full gallop to execute it.
The aquatic plants were open in the sunshine; the breeze agitated the leaves of the osiers on the banks of the island, which was to all appearance as uninhabited as when the stream flowed only for the birds of heaven, and the buffaloes and wild horses of the plains. But an Indian could not be deceived by this apparent calm. The "Blackbird" made a speaking-trumpet of his hand, and cried in a language half Indian, half-Spanish—
"The white warriors of the north may show themselves; the 'Blackbird' is their friend. So, too, are the warriors he commands."
At these words, borne to them distinctly by the wind, the Canadian pressed the arm of Pepe; both understood the mixed dialect of the Indian.
"What shall we reply?" said he.
"Nothing," answered Pepe.
The breeze which murmured through the reeds was the only answer the Indian could hear.
He went on—
"The eagle may hide his track in the air from the eye of an Apache; the salmon in the stream leaves no trace behind him; but a white man who crosses the desert is neither a salmon nor an eagle."
"Nor a gosling," murmured Pepe; "and a gosling only betrays himself by trying to sing."
The Indian listened again, but hearing no sound, continued, without showing any signs of being discouraged, "The white warriors of the north are but three against twenty, and the red warriors engage their word to be friends and allies to them."
"Wagh!" said Bois-Rose, "for what perfidy has he need of us?"
"Let him go on, and we shall hear; he has not yet finished, or I am much mistaken!"
"When the white warriors know the intentions of the Blackbird, they will leave their hiding-place," continued he, "but they shall hear them. The white men of the north are the enemies of those of the south—their language, their religion is different. The Apaches hold in their toils a whole camp of southern warriors."
"So much the worse for the gold-seekers," said Bois-Rose.
"If the warriors of the north will join the Indians with their long rifles, they shall share the horses and the treasures of the men of the south; the Indians and the whites will dance together round the corpses of their enemies, and the ashes of their camp."
Bois-Rose and Pepe looked at each other in astonishment, and explained to Fabian the proposal made to them, but the fire of their eyes and their disdainful looks, showed that the noble trio had but one opinion on the subject—that of perishing rather than aiding the Indians to triumph even over their mortal enemies.
"Do you hear the miscreant," cried Bois-Rose, using in indignation an image fit for the Indians, "he takes jaguars far jackals. Ah! if Fabian were not here, a bullet would be my answer."
Meanwhile, the Indian feeling certain of the presence of the hunters in the island, began to lose patience—for the orders of the chiefs had been peremptory to attack the whites—but he, having his own opinions, wished to prove them right. He knew that the American or Canadian rifle never misses its aim, and three such allies seemed to him not to be despised. He therefore continued to speak:
"The buffalo of the prairies is not more easy to follow than the white man; the track of the buffalo tells the Indian his age, his size, and the time of his passing. There are behind the reeds of the floating island a man as strong as a bison, and taller than the tallest rifle, a warrior of mingled north and south blood, and a young warrior of the pure south, but the alliance of these two with the first, indicates that they are enemies of the southern whites—for the weakest ever seek the friendship of the strongest and espouse their cause."
"The sagacity of these dogs is admirable," said Bois-Rose.
"Because they flatter you," said Pepe, who seemed somewhat annoyed at what the Indian had said.
"I await for the answer of the whites," continued the Blackbird. "I hear only the sound of the river, and the wind which says to me, 'the whites imagine a thousand errors; they believe that the Indian has eyes behind his back, that the track of the bison is invisible, and that reeds are ball proof.' The Blackbird laughs at the words of the wind."
"Ah!" said Bois-Rose, "if we had entered but two miles higher up the river!"
"A friend disdained becomes a terrible enemy," continued the chief.
"We say something similar among us," muttered Pepe.
The Blackbird now signed to the captive to approach. The latter advanced, and the chief pointed out to him the little island, and said, "Can the rifle of the pale-face send a ball into the space between those bushes?"
But the prisoner had understood only the little Spanish mixed with the Indian dialect, and he remained mute and trembling. Then the Blackbird spoke to one of his warriors, who placed in the hands of the prisoner the rifle that he had taken from him, and by gestures made him understand what was wanted of him. The unlucky man tried to take aim, but terror caused him to shake in such a fashion that his rifle was unsteady in his hands.
"If the Indian has no better way than that to make us speak," said Pepe, "I will not say a word until to-morrow!"
The white man fired indeed, but the ball, directed by his trembling hands, fell into the water some distance from the island. The Blackbird glanced contemptuously at him, and then looked around him.
"Yes," said Pepe; "seek for balls and powder among the lances and lassoes of your warriors."
But as he finished this consoling reflection, the five men who had gone away, returned armed for combat, with rifles and quivers full of arrows. They had been to fetch the arms which they had laid down, in order to follow the wild horses more freely. Five others now went off.
"This looks bad," said Bois-Rose.
"Shall we attack them while they are but fifteen," said Pepe.
"No, let us remain silent; he still doubts whether we are here."
"As you like."
The Indian chief now took a rifle and advanced again to the bank.
"The hands of the Blackbird do not tremble like a leaf shaken by the wind," said he, pointing his rifle steadily towards the island. "But before firing, he will wait while he counts one hundred, for the answer of the whites who are hidden in the island."
"Get behind me, Fabian," said Bois-Rose.
"No, I stay here," said Fabian, decidedly. "I am younger, and it is my place to expose myself for you."
"Child! do you not see that my body exceeds yours six inches on every side, and your remaining in front is but presenting a double mark."
And without shaking a single one of the reeds around the island, he advanced and knelt before Fabian.
"Let him do it, Fabian," said Pepe. "Never had man a more noble buckler, than the heart of the giant which beats in fear for you."
The Indian chief, rifle in hand, listened as he counted, but excepting the murmur of the water, a profound silence reigned everywhere.
He fired at length, and the leaves of the trees flew into the air; but as the three hunters knelt in a row they did not present a large aim, and the ball passed at some little distance from them.
The Blackbird waited a minute and cried again: "The Indian was wrong, he acknowledges his error, he will seek for the white warriors elsewhere."
"Who believes that?" said Pepe; "he is more sure than ever. He is about to leave us alone for a few minutes, until he has finished with that poor devil yonder, which will not belong—since the death of a white is a spectacle which an Indian is always in a hurry to enjoy."
"But had we better not make some effort in favour of the unlucky man?" said Fabian.
"Some unexpected circumstances may come to our assistance," replied Bois-Rose. "Whatever Pepe says, the Indians may still doubt, but if we show ourselves, all is over. To accept an alliance with these Indians, even against Don Estevan de Arechiza, would be an unworthy cowardice. What can we do?" added he, sadly.
One fear tormented him; he had seen Fabian in danger when his blood was boiling with passion, but had he the calm courage which meets death coolly? Had he the stoical resignation of which he himself had given so many proofs? The Canadian took a sudden resolution.
"Listen, Fabian," said he; "can I speak to you the language of a man? Will the words which your ears will transmit to your heart not freeze it with terror?"
"Why doubt my courage?" replied Fabian in a tone of gentle reproach. "Whatever you say, I will hear without growing pale; whatever you do, I will do also, without trembling."
"Don Fabian speaks truly, Pepe; look at his eye," said the Canadian, pressing Fabian in his arms; then he continued solemnly: "Never were three men in greater peril than we are now; our enemies are seven times our number; when each of us has killed six of them, there would still remain a number equal to our own."
"We have done it before," said Pepe.
"And we shall do it again," cried Fabian.
"Good, my child," said Bois-Rose, "but whatever happens, these demons must not take us alive. See, Fabian!" added the old man, in a voice that he tried to keep firm while unsheathing a long knife, "if we were left without powder or ammunition at the mercy of these dogs, about to fall into their hands, and this poignard in my hand was our only chance, what would you say?"
"I would say, strike, father, and let us die together!"
"Yes, yes," cried the Canadian, looking with indescribable tenderness at him who called him father, "it will be one means of never being separated." And he held out to Fabian his hand trembling with emotion, which the latter kissed respectfully.
"Now," said Bois-Rose, "whatever happens we shall not be separated. God will do the rest, and we shall try to save this unlucky man."
"To work then!" said Fabian.
"Not yet, my child; let us see what these red demons are about to do."
Meanwhile the Indians had ranged themselves in two lines, and the white man was placed a little in advance of them.
"I see what they are going to do," said Bois-Rose, "they are going to try if the poor wretch's legs are better than his arms. They are about to chase him."
"How so?" said Fabian.
"They will place their captive a little in advance, then at a given signal he will run. Then all the Indians will run after him, lance and hatchet in hand. If the white is quick enough to reach the river before them, we will call to him to swim to us. Some shots will protect him, and he may reach here safe and sound. But if terror paralyses his limbs, as it did his hands just now, the foremost Indian will break his head with a blow from a hatchet. In any case we shall do our best."
At this moment the five other Indians returned armed from head to foot, and now joined the rest. Fabian looked with profound compassion at the unlucky white man, who with haggard eye, and features distorted by terror, waited in horrible anguish until the signal was given. But the Blackbird pointed to the bare feet of his warriors, and then to the leather buskins which protected the feet of the white man. They then saw the latter sit down and take them off slowly, as if to gain a few seconds.
"The demons!" cried Fabian.
"Hush!" said Bois-Rose, "do not by discovering yourself destroy the last chance of life for the poor wretch!"
Fabian shut his eyes so as not to witness the horrible scene about to take place. At length the white man rose to his feet, and the Indians stood devouring him with their looks, until the Blackbird clapped his hands together, and then the howlings which followed could only be compared to those of a troop of jaguars in pursuit of a deer. The unlucky captive ran with great swiftness, but his pursuers bounded after him like tigers. Thanks to the start which he had had, he cleared safely a part of the distance which separated him from the river, but the stones which cut his feet and the sharp thorns of the nopals soon caused him to slacken his pace, and one of the Indians rushed up and made a furious thrust at him with his lance. It passed between his arm and his body, and the Indian losing his equilibrium, fell on the sand.
Gayferos, for it was he, appeared to hesitate a moment whether he should pick up the lance which the Indian had let fall, but then rapidly continued his course. That instant's hesitation was fatal to him. All at once, amidst the cloud of dust raised by his feet, a hatchet shone over the head of the unfortunate Mexican, who was seen falling to the earth.
Bois-Rose was about to fire, but the fear of killing him whom he wished to defend, stopped his hand. For a single moment the wind cleared away the dust, and he fired, but it was too late, the Indian who fell under his ball was brandishing in his hand the scalp of the unhappy man. To this unexpected shot, the savages replied with howls, and then rushed away from what they believed to be only a corpse. Soon, however, they saw the man rise, with his head laid bare, who after straggling a few paces, fell again, while the blood flowed in torrents from his wounds.
"Ah!" cried Bois-Rose, "if there remains in him a spark of life—and people do not die only from scalping—we shall save him yet; I swear we shall!"
CHAPTER FORTY ONE.
As the Canadian uttered the generous oath, wrung from him by indignation, it seemed to him that a supplicating voice reached him. "Is not the poor wretch calling for aid?" And he raised his head from behind its shelter.
At sight of the fox-skin cap which covered the head of the giant, and of the long and heavy rifle which he raised like a willow wand, the Indians recognised one of their formidable northern enemies, and recoiled in astonishment—for the Blackbird alone had been instructed as to whom they were seeking. Bois-Rose, looking towards the shore now perceived the unlucky Gayferos stretching out his arms towards him, and feebly calling for help. The dying Indian still held the scalp in his clenched hand.
At this terrible spectacle the Canadian drew himself up to his full height. "Fire on these dogs!" cried he, "and remember—never let them take you alive."
So saying, he resolutely entered the water, and any other man would have had it up to his head, but the Canadian had all his shoulders above the surface.
"Do not fire till after me," said Pepe to Fabian; "my hand is surer than yours, and my Kentucky rifle carries twice as far as your Liege gun." And he held his rifle ready to fire at the slightest sign of hostility from the Indians.
Meanwhile, Bois-Rose still advanced, the water growing gradually shallower, when an Indian raised his rifle ready to fire on the intrepid hunter; but a bullet from Pepe stopped him, and he fell forward on his face.
"Now you, Don Fabian!" said Pepe, throwing himself on the ground to reload, after the American custom in such cases.
Fabian fired, but his rifle having a shorter range, the shot only drew from the Indian at whom he aimed a cry of rage. But Pepe had reloaded, and stood ready to fire again.
There was a moment's hesitation among the Indians, by which Bois-Rose profited to draw towards him the body of the unlucky Gayferos. He, clinging to his shoulders, had the presence of mind to leave his preserver's arms free; who, with his burden, again entered the water, going backwards. Then his rifle was heard, and an Indian's death-cry immediately followed. This valiant retreat, protected by Pepe and Fabian, awed the Indians, and some minutes after, Bois-Rose triumphantly placed the fainting Gayferos on the island.
"There are three of them settled for," said he, "and now we shall have a few minutes' truce. Well, Fabian, do you see the advantage of firing in file? You did not do badly for a beginner, and I can assure you that when you have a Kentucky rifle like us, you will be a good marksman." Then to Gayferos, "We came too late to save the skin of your head, my poor fellow, but console yourself, it is no such dreadful thing. I have many friends in the same condition, who are none the worse for it. Your life is saved—that is the great thing—and we shall endeavour to bind up your wounds."
Some strips torn from the shirt of Gayferos served to bind around his head a large mass of willow leaves crushed together and steeped in water, and concealed the hideous wound. The blood was then washed from his face.
"You see," said Bois-Rose, still clinging to the idea of keeping Fabian near him, "you must learn to know the habits of the desert, and of the Indians. The villains, who see, by the loss of three of their men, what stuff we are made of, have retired to concoct some stratagem. You hear how silent all is after so much noise?"
The desert, indeed, had recovered its silence, the leaves only trembled in the evening breeze, and the water began to display brilliant colours in the setting sun.
"Well, Pepe, they are but seventeen now!" continued Bois-Rose, in a tone of triumph.
"Oh! we may succeed, if they do not get reinforcements."
"That is a chance and a terrible one; but our lives are in God's hands," replied Bois-Rose. "Tell me, friend!" said he to Gayferos, "you probably belong to the camp of Don Estevan?"
"Do you know him then?" said the wounded man, in a feeble voice.
"Yes; and by what chance are you so far from the camp?"
The wounded man recounted how, by Don Estevan's orders, he had set off to seek for their lost guide, and that his evil star had brought him in contact with the Indians as they were hunting the wild horses.
"What is the name of your guide?"
Fabian and Bois-Rose glanced at each other.
"Yes," said the latter, "there is some probability that your suspicions about that white demon were correct, and that he is conducting the expedition to the Golden Valley; but, my child, if we escape these Indians, we are close to it; and once we are installed there, were they a hundred, we should succeed in defending ourselves."
This was whispered in Fabian's ear.
"One word more," said Bois-Rose to the wounded man, "and then we shall leave you to repose. How many men has Don Estevan with him?"
Bois-Rose now again bathed the head of the wounded Gayferos with cold water: and the unhappy man, refreshed for the moment, and weakened by loss of blood, fell into a lethargic sleep.
"Now," continued Bois-Rose, "let us endeavour to build up a rampart which shall be a little more ball and arrow-proof than this fringe of moving leaves and reeds. Did you count how many rifles the Indians had?"
"Seven, I believe," said Pepe.
"Then ten of them are less to be feared. They cannot attack us either on the right or the left—but perhaps they have made a detour to cross the river, and are about to place us between two fires."
The side of the islet opposite the shore on which the Indians had shown themselves was sufficiently defended by enormous roots, bristling like chevaux-de-frise; but the side where the attack was probably about to recommence was defended only by a thick row of reeds and osier-shoots.
Thanks to his great strength, Bois-Rose, aided by Pepe, succeeded in dragging from the end of the islet which faced the course of the stream, some large dry branches and fallen trunks of trees. A few minutes sufficed for the two skilful hunters to protect the feeble side with a rough but solid entrenchment, which would form a very good defence to the little garrison of the island.
"Do you see, Fabian," said Bois-Rose, "you'll be as safe behind these trunks of trees as in a stone fortress. You'll be exposed only to the balls that may be fired from the tops of the trees, but I shall take care that none of these redskins climb so high."
And quite happy at having raised a barrier between Fabian and death, he assigned him his post in the place most sheltered from the enemy.
"Did you remark," said he to Pepe, "how at every effort that we made to break a branch or disengage a block of wood, the island trembled to its foundation?"
"Yes," said Pepe, "one might think that it was about to be torn from its base and follow the course of the stream."
The Canadian then cautioned his two companions to be careful of their ammunition, gave Fabian some instructions as to taking aim, pressed him to his heart, squeezed the hand of his old comrade, and then the three stationed themselves at their several posts. The surface of the river, the tops of the aspens growing on the banks, the banks themselves and the reeds, were all objects of examination for the hunters, as the night was fast coming on.
"This is the hour when the demons of darkness lay their snares," said Bois-Rose, "when these human jaguars seek for their prey. It was of them that the Scriptures spoke."
No one replied to this speech, which was uttered rather as a soliloquy.
Meanwhile, the darkness was creeping on little by little, and the bushes which grew on the bank began to assume the fantastic forms given to objects by the uncertain twilight.
The green of the trees began to look black; but habit had given to Bois-Rose and to Pepe eyes as piercing as those of the Indians themselves, and nothing, with the vigilance they were exerting, could have deceived them.
"Pepe," whispered Bois-Rose, pointing to a tuft of osiers, "does it not seem to you that that bush has changed its form and grown larger?"
"Yes; it has changed its form!"
"See, Fabian! you have the piercing sight that I had at your age; does it not appear to you that at the left-hand side of that tuft of osiers the leaves no longer look natural?"
The young man pushed the reeds on one side, and gazed for a while attentively.
"I could swear it," said he, "but—" He stopped, and looked in another direction.
"Well! do you see anything?"
"I see, between that willow and the aspen, about ten feet from the tuft of osiers, a bush which certainly was not there just now."
"Ah! see what it is to live far from towns;—the least points of the landscape fix themselves in the memory, and become precious indications. You are born to live the life of a hunter, Fabian!"
Pepe levelled his rifle at the bush indicated by Fabian.
"Pepe understands it at once," said Bois-Rose; "he knows, like me, that the Indians have employed their time in cutting down branches to form a temporary shelter; but I think two of us at least may teach them a few stratagems that they do not yet know. Leave that bush to Fabian, it will be an easy mark for him; fire at the branches whose leaves are beginning to wither—there is an Indian behind them. Fire in the centre, Fabian!"
The two rifles were heard simultaneously, and the false bush fell, displaying a red body behind the leaves, while the branches which had been added were convulsively agitated. All three then threw themselves on the ground, and a discharge of balls immediately flew over their heads, covering them with leaves and broken branches, while the war-cry of the Indians sounded in their ears.
"If I do not deceive myself, they are now but fifteen," said Bois-Rose, as he quitted his horizontal posture, and knelt on the ground.
"Be still!" added he. "I see the leaves of an aspen trembling more than the wind alone could cause them to do. It is doubtless one of those fellows who has climbed up into the tree."
As he spoke, a bullet struck one of the trunks of which the islet was composed, and proved that he had guessed rightly.
"Wagh!" said the Canadian, "I must resort to a trick that will force him to show himself."
So saying, he took off his cap and coat, and placed them between the branches, where they could be seen. "Now," said he, "if I were fighting a white soldier, I would place myself by the side of my coat, for he would fire at the coat; with an Indian I shall stand behind it, for he will not be deceived in the same manner, and will aim to one side of it. Lie down, Fabian and Pepe, and in a minute you shall hear a bullet whistle either to the right or the left of the mark I have set up."
As Bois-Rose said this, he knelt down behind his coat, ready to fire at the aspen.
He was not wrong in his conjectures; in a moment, the balls of the Indians cut the leaves on each side of the coat, but without touching either of the three companions, who had placed themselves in a line.
"Ah," cried the Canadian, "there are whites who can fight the Indians with their own weapons; we shall presently have an enemy the less."
And saying this he fired into the aspen, out of which the body of an Indian was seen to fall, rolling from branch to branch like a fruit knocked from its stem.
At this feat of the Canadian, the savage howlings resounded with so much fury, that it required nerves of iron not to shudder at them. Gayferos himself, whom the firing had not roused, shook off his lethargy and murmured, in a trembling voice, "Virgen de los Dolores! Would not one say it was a band of tigers howling in the darkness?—Holy Virgin! have pity on me!"
"Thank her rather," interrupted the Canadian; "the knaves might deceive a novice like you, but not an old hunter like me. You have heard the jackals of an evening in the forest howl and answer each other as though there were hundreds of them, when there were but three or four. The Indians imitate the jackals, and I will answer for it there are not more that a dozen now behind those trees. Ah! if I could but get them to cross the water, not one of them should return to carry the news of their disaster."
Then, as if a sudden thought had flashed across his mind, he directed his companions to lie down on their backs—in which position they were protected by the trunks of the trees. "We are in safety as long as we lie thus," said he, "only keep your eye on the tops of the trees; it is from these only they can reach us. Fire only if you see them climb up, but otherwise remain motionless. The knaves will not willingly depart without our scalps, and must make up their minds at last to attack us."
This resolution of the hunter seemed to have been inspired by heaven, for scarcely had they laid down before a shower of balls and arrows tore to pieces the border of reeds, and broke the branches behind which they had been kneeling a minute before. Bois-Rose pulled down his coat and hat, as though he himself had fallen, and then the most profound silence reigned in the island, after this apparently murderous fire. Cries of triumph followed this silence, and then a second discharge of bullets and arrows.
"Is not that an Indian mounting the willow?" whispered Pepe.
"Yes, but let us risk his fire without stirring; lie all of us as if we were dead. Then he will go and tell his companions that he has counted the corpses of the palefaces."
In spite of the danger incurred by this stratagem, the proposition of Bois-Rose was accepted, and each remained motionless, watching, not without anxiety, the manoeuvres of the Indian. With extreme precaution the red warrior climbed from branch to branch, until he had reached a point from which he could overlook the whole islet.
There remained just sufficient daylight to observe his movements when the foliage itself did not hide them. When he had reached the desired height, the Indian, resting on a thick branch, advanced his head with precaution. The sight of the bodies extended on the ground appeared not to surprise him, and he now openly pointed his rifle towards them. This he did several times, apparently taking aim, but not one of the hunters stirred. Then the Indian uttered a cry of triumph. "The shark takes the bait," muttered Bois-Rose.
"I shall recognise this son of a dog," rejoined Pepe, "and if I do not repay him for the anxiety he has caused me, it is because the bullet he is about to send will prevent me."
"It is the Blackbird," said Bois-Rose, "he is both brave and dexterous— lie close!"
The Indian once more took aim, and then fired; a branch knocked from a tree just above Pepe, fell upon him and hurt his forehead. He stirred no more than the dead wood against which he leaned, but said, "Rascal of a redskin, I'll pay you for this before long."
Some drops of blood fell upon the face of the Canadian.
"Is any one wounded?" said he, with a shudder.
"A scratch, nothing more," said Pepe, "God be praised!"
Just then the Indian uttered a cry of joy, as he descended from the tree on which he had mounted, and the three friends again breathed freely.
And yet some doubt seemed to remain in the minds of the Indians, for a long and solemn silence followed the manoeuvre of their chief.
The sun had now set, the short twilight had passed away, night had come on, and the moon shone on the river, yet still the Indians did not stir.
"Our scalps tempt them, but they still hesitate to come and take them," said Pepe, who was becoming very tired of doing nothing.
"Patience!" whispered Bois-Rose, "the Indians are like the vultures, who dare not attack a body until it begins to decay. We may look out for them by-and-bye. Let us resume our position behind the reeds."
The hunters again quickly knelt down and continued to watch their enemies.
Before long an Indian showed himself very cautiously, another then joined him, and both approached with increasing confidence, followed by others, until Bois-Rose counted ten in the moonlight.
"They will cross the river in file, I expect," said he. "Fabian, you fire at the first, Pepe will aim at the centre, and I at the last but one. In that way they cannot all attack together. It will be a hand-to-hand struggle, but you, Fabian, while Pepe and I wait for them knife in hand, shall load our rifles and pass them to us. By the memory of your mother, I forbid you to fight with these wretches."
As the Canadian uttered these words, a tall Indian entered the river, followed by nine others. All advanced with the utmost caution; they might have been taken for the shades of warriors returned from the land of spirits.
CHAPTER FORTY TWO.
Death seemed to the eyes of the Indians to reign over the island—for the hunters held even their breath—and yet they advanced with the utmost care.
The foremost man, who was the "Blackbird" himself, had reached a place where the water began to be deep, as the last man was just leaving the bank. But just as Fabian was about to take aim against the chief, to the great regret of Pepe, the "Blackbird," either fearful of danger, or because a ray of moonlight gleaming on the rifles told him his enemy still lived dived suddenly under the water.
"Fire!" cried Bois-Rose, and immediately the last Indian of the file fell to rise no more, and two others appeared struggling in the water, and were quickly borne off by the stream. Pepe and Bois-Rose then threw their rifles behind them as agreed upon, for Fabian to reload, while they themselves stood upon the bank, knives in hand.
"The Apaches are still seven," shouted Bois-Rose, in a voice of thunder, anxious to finish the struggle, and feeling all his hatred of the Indians awakened within him, "will they dare to come and take the scalps of the whites?"
But the disappearance of their chief and the death of their comrades had disconcerted the Indians; they did not fly, but they remained undecided and motionless, as black rocks bathed by the shining waters of the river.
"Can the red warriors only scalp dead bodies?" added Pepe with a contemptuous laugh. "Are the Apaches like vultures who only attack the dead? Advance then, dogs, vultures, women without courage!" shouted he, at the sight of their enemies, who were now rapidly regaining the bank. Suddenly, however, he noticed a body floating on its back, whose bright eyes showed that it was not a corpse, as the extended arms and motionless body seemed to indicate.
"Don Fabian, my rifle! there is the 'Blackbird' pretending to be dead and floating down the stream."
Pepe took the rifle from Fabian, and aimed at the floating body, but not a muscle stirred. The hunter lowered his rifle. "I was wrong," said he, aloud, "the white men do not, like the Indians, waste their powder on dead bodies."
The body still floated, with outspread legs and extended arms. Pepe again raised his rifle and again lowered it. Then, when he thought that he had paid off anguish for anguish to the Indian chief, he fired, and the body floated no longer.
"Have you killed him?" asked Bois-Rose.
"No, I only wished to break his shoulder bone, that he may always have cause to remember the shudder he gave, and the treason he proposed to me. If he were dead, he would still float."
"You might have done better to have killed him. But what is to be done now? I hoped to finish with these demons, and now our work is still to be done. We cannot cross the river to attack them."
"It is the best thing we can do."
"With Fabian, I cannot decide to do it, or I should be now on the bank opposite, where you know as well as I do they still are breathing their infernal vengeance."
The Spaniard shrugged his shoulders with stoical resignation.
"Doubtless," said he, "but we must decide either to fly or to stay."
"Carramba!" continued he, "if we two were alone we would gain the opposite bank in a minute; the seven who are left would catch us no doubt, but we should come out of it, as we have out of more difficult situations."
"It would be better than to stay here like foxes in their hole."
"I agree: but Fabian! and the unlucky scalped man, whom we cannot abandon thus to the mercy of the wretches who have already treated him so cruelly. Let us wait at least until the moon has set, and darkness comes on."
And the old man hung his head with an air of discouragement—which made a painful impression on the Spaniard—raising it only to glance anxiously at the sky; where the moon held on her ordinary course over the starry blue.
"So be it," said Pepe; "but, stay! we killed first five Indians, then three, that makes eight; there should have been twelve left; why did we only count ten in the water? Depend upon it, the Blackbird has sent the two others to seek for reinforcements."
"It is possible: to remain here or to fly are both terrible."
For some time the hunters thus continued to deliberate; meanwhile the moonbeams began to fall more obliquely, and already a part of the tops of the trees were in shadow. More than an hour had elapsed since the attempt of the Indians, and Pepe, less absorbed than Bois-Rose, was watching anxiously.
"That cursed moon will never go down," said he, "and it seems to me that I hear something like the noise of feet in the water; the buffaloes do not come down to drink at this time of night."
So saying, he rose and leaning right and left, looked up and down the stream, but on each side extended an impenetrable veil of fog. The coolness of the American nights which succeeds the burning heat of the day, condenses thus in thick clouds the exhalations of the ground, and of the waters heated by the sun.
"I can see nothing but fog," said he.
Little by little the vague sounds died away, and the air recovered its habitual cairn and silence. The moon was fast going down, and all nature seemed sleeping, when the occupants of the island started up in terror.
From both sides of the river rose shouts so piercing that the banks echoed them long after the mouths that uttered them were closed. Henceforth flight was impossible; the Indians had encompassed the island.
"The moon may go down now," cried Pepe with rage. "Ah! with reason I feared the two absent men, and the noises that I heard; it was the Indians who were gaining the opposite bank. Who knows how many enemies we have around us now?"
"What matter," replied Bois-Rose gloomily, "whether there are one hundred vultures to tear our bodies, or a hundred Indians to howl round us when we are dead?"
"It is true that the number matters little in such circumstances, but it will be a day of triumph for them."
"Are you going to sing your death-song like them, who, when tied to the stake, recall the number of scalps they have taken?"
"And why not? it is a very good custom, it helps one to die like a hero, and to remember that you have lived like a man."
"Let us rather try to die like Christians," replied Bois-Rose.
Then drawing Fabian towards him, he said:
"I scarcely know, my beloved child, what I had dreamed of for you; I am half savage and half civilised, and my dreams partook of both. Sometimes I wished to restore you to the honours of this world—to your honours, your titles—and to add to them all the treasures of the Golden Valley. Then I dreamed only of the splendour of the desert, and its majestic harmonies, which lull a man to his rest, and entrance him at his waking. But I can truly say that the dominant idea in my mind was that of never quitting you. Must that be accomplished in death? So young, so brave, so handsome, must you meet the same fate as a man who would soon be useless in the world?"
"Who would love me when you were gone?" replied Fabian, in a voice which their terrible situation deprived neither of its sweetness nor firmness. "Before I met you, the grave had closed upon all I loved, and the sole living being who could replace them was—you. What have I to regret in this world?"