"The future, my child; the future into which youth longs to plunge, like the thirsty stag into the lake."
Distant firing now interrupted the melancholy reflections of the old hunter; the Indians were attacking the camp of Don Estevan. The reader knows the result.
Suddenly they heard a voice from the bank, saying, "Let the white men open their ears!"
"It is the 'Blackbird' again," cried Pepe. It was indeed he, supported by two Indians.
"Why should they open their ears?" answered Pepe.
"The whites laugh at the menaces of the 'Blackbird,' and despise his promises."
"Good!" said the Indian; "the whites are brave, and they will need all their bravery. The white men of the south are being attacked now; why are the men of the north not against them?"
"Because you are a bird of doleful plumage! because lions do not hunt with jackals, for jackals can only howl while the lion devours. Apply the compliment; it is a fine flower of Indian rhetoric," cried Pepe, exasperated.
"Good! the whites are like the conquered Indians, insulting his conqueror. But the eagle laughs at the words of the mocking-bird, and it is not to him that the eagle deigns to address himself."
"To whom then?" cried Pepe.
"To the giant, his brother, the eagle of the snowy mountains, who disdains to imitate the language of other birds."
"What do you want of him?" said Bois-Rose.
"The Indian would hear the northern warrior ask for life," replied the Blackbird.
"I have a different demand to make," said the Canadian.
"I listen," replied the Indian.
"If you will swear on the honour of a warrior, and on your father's bones, that you will spare my companions' lives, I shall cross the river alone without arms, and bring you my scalp on my head. That will tempt him," added Bois-Rose.
"Are you mad, Bois-Rose?" cried Pepe.
Fabian flew towards the Canadian: "At the first step you make towards the Indian, I shall kill you," cried he.
The old hunter felt his heart melt at the sound of the two voices that he loved so much. A short silence followed, then came the answer from the bank.
"The Blackbird wishes the white man to ask for life, and he asks for death. My wish is this, let the white man of the north quit his companions, and I swear on my father's bones, that his life shall be saved, but his alone; the other three must die."
Bois-Rose disdained to reply to this offer, and the Indian chief waited vainly for a refusal or an acceptance. Then he continued: "Until the hour of their death, the whites hear the voice of the Indian chief for the last time. My warriors surround the island and the river. Indian blood has been spilled and must be revenged; white blood must flow. But the Indian does not wish for this blood warmed by the ardour of the combat, he wishes for it frozen by terror, impoverished by hunger. He will take the whites living; then, when he holds them in his clutches, when they are like hungry dogs howling after a bone, he will see what men are like after fear and privation; he will make of their skin a saddle for his war-horse, and each of their scalps shall be suspended to his saddle, as a trophy of vengeance. My warriors shall surround the island for fifteen days and nights if necessary, in order to make capture of the white men."
After these terrible menaces the Indian disappeared behind the trees. But Pepe not willing that he should believe he had intimidated them, cried as coldly as anger would permit, "Dog, who can do nothing but bark, the whites despise your vain bravados. Jackal, unclean polecat, I despise you—I—I"—but rage prevented him from saying more, and he finished off by a gesture of contempt; then with a loud laugh he sat down, satisfied at having had the last word. As for Bois-Rose he saw in it all only the refusal of his heroic sacrifice.
"Ah!" sighed the generous old man, "I could have arranged it all; now it is too late."
The moon had gone down; the sound of distant firing had ceased, and the darkness made the three friends feel still more forcibly how easy it would have been to gain the opposite bank, carrying in their arms the wounded man. He, insensible to all that was passing, still slept heavily.
"Thus," said Pepe, first breaking silence, "we have fifteen days to live; it is true we have not much provision, but carramba! we shall fish for food and for amusement."
"Let us think," said Bois-Rose, "of employing usefully the hours before daylight."
"Parbleu! in escaping!"
"That is the question. You can swim, Fabian?"
"How else should. I have escaped from the Salto de Agua?"
"True! I believe that fear confuses my brain. Well! it would not be impossible, perhaps, to dig a hole in the middle of this island, and to slip through this opening into the water. The night is so dark, that if the Indians do not see us throw ourselves into the water, we might gain a place some way off with safety. Stay, I shall try an experiment." So saying, he detached, with some trouble, one of the trunks from the little island; and its knotty end looked not unlike a human head. This he placed carefully on the water, and soon it floated gently down the stream. The three friends followed its course anxiously; then, when it had disappeared, Bois-Rose said:
"You see, a prudent swimmer might pass in the same manner; not an Indian has noticed it."
"That is true; but who knows that their eyes cannot distinguish a man from a piece of wood?" said Pepe. "Besides, we have with with us a man who cannot swim."
The Spaniard pointed to the wounded man; who groaned in his sleep, as though his guardian angel warned him that there was a question of abandoning him to his enemies.
"What matter?" said Bois-Rose; "is his life worth that of the last of the Medianas?"
"No," replied the Spaniard; "and I, who half wanted a short time ago to abandon the poor wretch, think now I would be cowardly."
"Perhaps," added Fabian, "he has children, who would weep for their father."
"It would be a bad action, and would bring us ill luck," added Pepe.
All the superstitious tenderness of the Canadian awoke at these words, and he said—
"Well, then, Fabian, you are a good swimmer, follow this plan: Pepe and I will stay here and guard this man, and if we die here, it will be in the discharge of our duty, and with the joy of knowing you to be safe."
But Fabian shook his head.
"I care not for life without you; I shall stay," said he.
"What can be done then?"
"Let us think," said Pepe.
But it was unluckily one of those cases in which all human resources are vain, for it was one of those desperate situations from which a higher power alone could extricate them. In vain the fog thickened and the night grew darker; the resolution not to abandon the wounded man opposed an insurmountable obstacle to their escape, and before long the fires lighted by the Indians along each bank, threw a red light over the stream, and rendered this plan impracticable. Except for these fires, the most complete calm reigned, for no enemy was visible, no human voice troubled the silence of the night. However, the fog grew more and more dense, the stream disappeared from view, and even the fires looked only like pale and indistinct lights under the shadowy outline of the trees.
CHAPTER FORTY THREE.
A FEAT OF HERCULEAN STRENGTH.
Let us now glance at the spot occupied by the Blackbird. The fires lighted on the banks threw at first so strong a light that nothing could escape the eyes of the Indians, and a sentinel placed near each fire was charged to observe carefully all that passed on the island. Seated and leaning against the trunk of a tree, his broken shoulder bound up with strips of leather, the Blackbird only showed on his face an expression of satisfied ferocity; as for the suffering he was undergoing, he would have thought it unworthy of him to betray the least indication of it. His ardent eye was fixed continually on the spot where were the three men, whom he pictured to himself as full of anguish.
But as the fog grew thicker, first the opposite bank and then the island itself, became totally invisible. The Indian chief felt that it was necessary to redouble his surveillance. He ordered one man to cross the river, and another to walk along the bank, and exhorted every one to watchfulness.
"Go," said he, "and tell those of my warriors who are ordered to watch these Christians—whose skins and scalps shall serve as ornaments to our horses—that they must each have four ears, to replace the eyes that the fog has rendered useless. Tell them that their vigilance will merit their chief's gratitude; but that if they allow sleep to deaden their senses, the hatchet of the Blackbird will send them to sleep in the land of spirits."
The two messengers set off, and soon returned to tell the chief that he might rest satisfied that attention would be paid to his orders. Indeed, stimulated at once by their own hatred of the whites, and by the hope of a recompense—fearing if sleep surprised them, not so much the threatened punishment as the idea of awaking in the hunting-grounds of the land of spirits, bearing on their foreheads the mark of shame which accompanies the sentinel who gives way to sleep—the sentinels had redoubled their vigilance. There are few sounds that can escape the marvellous ears of an Indian, but on this occasion the fog made it difficult to hear as well as to see, and the strictest attention was necessary. With closed eyes and open ears, and standing up to chase away the heaviness that the silence of nature caused them to feel, the Indian warriors stood motionless near their fires, throwing on on from time to time some fagots to keep them ablaze.
Some time passed thus, during which the only sound heard was that of a distant fall in the river.
The Blackbird remained on the left bank, and the night air, as it inflamed his wounds, only excited his hatred the more. His face covered with hideous paint, and contracted by the pain—of which he disdained to make complaint—and his brilliant eyes, made him resemble one of the sanguinary idols of barbarous times. Little by little, however, in spite of himself, his eyes were weighed down by sleep, and an invincible drowsiness took possession of his spirit. Before long his sleep became so profound, that he did not hear the dry branches crackle under a moccasin, as an Indian of his tribe advanced towards him.
Straight and motionless as a bamboo stem, an Indian runner covered with blood and panting for breath, waited for some time until the chief, before whom he stood, should open his eyes and interrogate him. As the latter showed no signs of awaking, the runner resolved to announce his presence, and in a hollow, guttural voice, said—
"When the Blackbird shall open his eyes, he will hear from my mouth words which will chase sleep far from him."
The chief opened his eyes at the voice, and shook off his drowsiness with a violent effort. Ashamed at having been surprised asleep, he muttered:
"The Blackbird has lost much blood; he has lost so much that the next sun will not dry it on the ground, and his body is more feeble than his will."
"Man is made thus," rejoined the messenger, sententiously.
The Blackbird continued without noticing the reflection:
"It is some very important message doubtless, since the Spotted Cat has chosen the fleetest of his runners to carry it?"
"The Spotted Cat will send no more messengers," replied the Indian. "The lance of a white man has pierced his breast, and the chief now hunts with his fathers in the land of spirits."
"What matter! he died a conqueror? he saw, before he died, the white dogs dispersed over the plain?"
"He died conquered; and the Apaches had to fly after losing their chief and fifty of their renowned warriors."
In spite of his wound, and of the empire that an Indian should exercise over himself, the Blackbird started up at these words. However, he restrained himself, and replied gravely, though with trembling lips—
"Who, then, sends you to me, messenger of ill?"
"The warriors, who want a chief to repair their defeat. The Blackbird was but the chief of a tribe, he is now the chief of a whole people."
Satisfied pride shone in the eye of the Indian, at his augmented authority.
"If the rifles of the north had been joined to ours, the whites of the south would have been conquered." But as he recalled to mind the insulting manner in which the two hunters had rejected his proposal, his eyes darted forth flames of hatred, and pointing to his wound, he said, "What can a wounded chief do? His limbs refuse to carry him, and he can scarcely sit on his horse."
"We can tie him on; a chief is at once a head and an arm—if the arm be powerless the head will act, and the sight of their chief's blood will animate our warriors. The council fire was lighted anew after the defeat, and the warriors wait for the Blackbird to make his voice heard; his battle-horse is ready—let us go!"
"No," replied the Blackbird, "my warriors encompass, on each bank, the white hunters whom I wished to have for allies; now they are enemies; the ball of one of them has rendered useless for six moons, the arm that was so strong in combat; and were I offered the command of ten nations, I would refuse it, to await here the hour when the blood that I thirst for shall flow before my eyes."
The chief then recounted briefly the captivity of Gayferos, his deliverance by the Canadian, the rejection of his proposals and the vow of vengeance he had made.
The messenger listened gravely; he felt all the importance of making a new attack on the gold-seekers, at the moment when, delighted at their victory, they believed themselves safe, and he proposed to the Blackbird to leave some one behind in his place to watch the island; but the Blackbird was immovable.
"Well!" said the runner, "before long the sun will begin to rise; I shall wait until daylight to report to the Apaches that the Blackbird prefers his personal vengeance to the honour of the entire nation. By deferring my departure, I shall have retarded the moment when our warriors will have to regret the loss of the bravest among them."
"So be it," said the chief, in a grave tone, although much pleased by this adroit flattery, "but a messenger has need of repose after a battle followed by a long journey. Meanwhile, I would listen to the account of the combat in which the Spotted Cat lost his life."
The messenger sat down near the fire, with crossed legs, and with one elbow on his knee and his head leaning on his hand, after a few minutes' rest, gave a circumstantial account of the attack on the white camp— omitting no fact which might awaken the hatred of the Blackbird against the Mexican invaders.
This over, he laid down and slept, or seemed to sleep. But the tumultuous and contrary passions which struggled in the heart of the Blackbird—ambition on the one hand, and thirst for vengeance on the other—kept him awake without effort. In about an hour the runner half rose, and pushing back the cloak of skin which he had drawn over his head he perceived the Blackbird still sitting in the same attitude.
"The silence of the night has spoken to me," said he, "and I thought that a renowned chief like the Blackbird might, before the rising sun, have his enemies in his power and hear their death-song."
"My warriors cannot walk on the water as on the warpath," replied he; "the men of the north do not resemble those of the south, whose rifles are like reeds in their hands."
"The blood that the Blackbird has lost deceives his intellect and obscures his vision; if he shall permit it, I shall act for him, and to-morrow his vengeance will be complete."
"Do as you like; from whatever side vengeance comes, it will be agreeable to me."
"Enough. I shall soon bring here the three hunters, and him whose scalp they could not save."
So saying the messenger rose and was soon hidden by the fog from the eyes of the Blackbird.
On the island more generous emotions were felt. From the eyes of its occupants sleep had also fled—for if there be a moment in life, when the hearts of the bravest may fail them, it is when danger is terrible and inevitable, and when not even the last consolation of selling life dearly is possible to them. Watched by enemies whom they could not see, the hunters could not satisfy their rage by making their foes fall beneath their bullets as they had done the evening before. Besides, both Bois-Rose and Pepe knew too well the implacable obstinacy of the Indians to suppose that the Blackbird would permit his warriors to reply to their attacks; a soldier's death would have seemed too easy to him.
Oppressed by these sad thoughts, the three hunters spoke no more, but resigned themselves to their fate, rather than abandon the unlucky stranger by attempting to escape.
Fabian was as determined to die as the others. The habitual sadness of his spirit robbed death of its terrors, but still the ardour of his mind would have caused him to prefer a quicker death, weapon in hand, to the slow and ignominious one reserved for them. He was the first to break silence. The profound tranquillity that reigned on the banks was to the experienced eyes of the Canadian and Pepe only a certain indication of the invincible resolution of their enemies; but to Fabian it appeared reassuring—a blessing by which they ought to profit.
"All sleeps now around us," said he, "not only the Indians on the banks, but all that has life in the woods and in the desert—the river itself seems to be running slower! See! the reflections of the fires die away! would it not be the time to attempt a descent on the bank?"
"The Indians sleep!" interrupted Pepe, bitterly, "yes, like the water which seems stagnant, but none the less pursues its course. You could not take three steps in the river before the Indians would rush after you as you have often seen wolves rush after a stag. Have you nothing better to propose, Bois-Rose?"
"No," replied he as his hand sought that of Fabian, while with the other he pointed to the sick man, tossing restlessly on his couch of pain.
"But, in default of all other chance," said Fabian, "we should at least have that of dying with honour, side by side as we would wish. If we are victorious, we can then return to the aid of this unfortunate man. If we fall, God himself, when we appear before him, cannot reproach us with the sacrifice of his life, since we risked our own for the common good."
"No," replied Bois-Rose; "but let us still hope in that God, who re-united us by a miracle; what does not happen to-day, may to-morrow; we have time before us before our provisions fail. To attempt to take the bank now, would be to march to certain death. To die would be nothing, and we always hold that last resource in our own hands; but we might perhaps be made prisoners, and then I shudder to think of what would be our fate. Oh! my beloved Fabian, these Indians in their determination to take us alive give me at least the happiness of being yet a few days beside you."
Silence again resumed its reign; but as Bois-Rose thought of the terrible denouement he clutched convulsively at some of the trunks of the dead trees, and under his powerful grasp the islet trembled as though about to be torn from its base.
"Ah! the wretches! the demons!" cried Pepe, with a sudden explosion of rage. "Look yonder!"
A red light was piercing gradually through the veil of vapour which hung over the river, and seemed to advance and grow larger; but, strange to say, the fire floated on the water, and, intense as was the fog, the mass of flames dissipated it as the sun disperses the clouds. The three hunters had barely time to be astonished at this apparition, before they guessed its cause. A long course of life in the desert and its dangers had imparted to the Canadian a firmness which Pepe had not attained; therefore, instead of giving way to surprise, he remained perfectly calm. He knew that this was the only way to surmount any difficulty.
"Yes," said he, "I understand what it is as well as if the Indians had told me. You spoke once of foxes smoked out of their holes; now they want to burn us in ours."
The globe of fire which floated on the river advanced with alarming rapidity, and confirmed the words of Bois-Rose. Already amidst the water, reddened by the flame, the twigs of the willows were becoming distinct.
"It is a fire-ship," cried Pepe, "with which they want to set fire to our island."
"So much the better," cried Fabian; "better to fight against the fire than wait quietly for death."
"Yes," said Bois-Rose; "but fire is a terrible adversary and it fights for these demons."
The besieged could oppose nothing to the advancing flames; and they would soon devour the little island, leaving to its inmates no other chance of escape but by throwing themselves into the water—where the Indians could either kill them by rifle-shots, or take them alive, as they pleased.
Such had been the idea of the Indian messenger. By his order, the Apaches had cut down a tree with its leaves on, and a thick mass of wet grass interlaced in its branches formed a sort of foundation, on which they placed the branches of a pine tree; and after setting fire to this construction, they had sent it floating down the stream. As it approached, the crackling of the wood could be heard; and out of the black smoke which mixed with the fog arose a bright, clear flame.
Not far from the bank they could distinguish the form of an Indian. Pepe could not resist a sudden temptation. "Yon demon," cried he, "shall at least not live to exult over our death."
So saying, he fired and the plume of the Indian was seen to go down.
"Sad and tardy vengeance," remarked Bois-Rose; and as if, indeed, the Apaches disdained the efforts of a vanquished foe, the shore preserved its gloomy solitude, and not a single howl accompanied the last groans of the warrior.
"Never mind," cried Pepe, stamping his foot in his impotent fury; "I shall die more calmly, the greater number of those demons I have sent before me." And he looked round for some other victim.
Meanwhile Bois-Rose was calmly reconnoitring the burning mass, which, if it touched the island, would set fire to the dried trees which composed it.
"Well," cried Pepe, whose rage blinded his judgment, "it is useless to look at the fire; have you any method of making it deviate from its course?"
"Perhaps," replied the Canadian. Pepe began to whistle with an affected indifference.
"I see something that proves to me that the reasonings of the Indians are not always infallible; and if it were not that we shall receive a shower of balls, to force us to stay hidden while the islet takes fire, I should care as little for that burning raft as for a fire-fly in the air."
In constructing the floating fire, the Indians had calculated its thickness, so that the wet grass might be dried by the fire and become kindled about the time when it should touch the island. But the grass had been soaked in the water, and this had retarded its combustion; besides the large branches had not had time to inflame; it was only the smaller boughs and the leaves that were burning. This had not escaped the quick eye of the Canadian, who, advancing with a long stick in his hand, resolved to push it underwater; but just as he was about to risk this attempt, what he had predicted took place. A shower of balls and arrows flew towards them; though these shots seemed rather intended to terrify than to kill them.
"They are determined," said Bois-Rose, "only to take us alive!"
The fire almost touched the island, a few minutes and it would be alight, when with the rapidity of lightning, Bois-Rose glided into the water and disappeared. Shouts rose from each side of the river, when the Indians, as well as Fabian and Pepe, saw the floating mass tremble under his powerful grasp. The fire blazed up brightly for a moment, then the water hissed and the mass of flame was extinguished in foam, until darkness and fog once more spread their sombre covering over the river. The blackened tree, turned from its course, passed by the island, while, amidst the howls of the Indians Bois-Rose rejoined his friends. The whole island shook under his efforts to get back upon it.
"Howl at your ease," cried he, "you have not captured as yet; but," he added, in a more serious tone, "shall we be always as lucky?"
Indeed, although this danger was surmounted, how many remained to be conquered! Who could foresee what new stratagems the Indians might employ against them? These reflections damped their first feeling of triumph. All at once Pepe started up, crying out as he did so:
"Bois-Rose, Fabian, we are saved!"
"Saved!" said Bois-Rose, "what do you mean?"
"Did you not remark how a few hours ago the whole islet trembled under our hands when we tore away some branches to fortify ourselves with, and how you yourself made it shake just now? well, I thought once of making a raft, but now I believe we three can uproot the whole island and set it floating. The fog is thick, the night dark and to-morrow—"
"We shall be far from here!" cried Bois-Rose. "To work! to work! we have no time to spare, for the rising wind indicates the approach of morning, and the river does not run more than three knots an hour."
"So much the better, the movement will be less visible."
The brave Canadian grasped the hands of his comrades as he rose to his feet.
"What are you going to do?" said Fabian, "cannot we three uproot the island, as Pepe said?"
"Doubtless, Fabian, but we risk breaking, it in pieces, and our safety depends upon keeping it together. It is, perhaps, some large branch or root which holds it in its place. Many years must have elapsed since these trees were first driven here, and the water has probably rendered this branch or root very rotten—that is what I wish to find out."
At that moment the doleful screech of an owl interrupted them, and those plaintive cries troubling the silence of night, just as they were about to entertain some hope, sounded ominous in the ears of Pepe.
"Ah!" said he, sadly, all his superstition reviving, "the voice of the owl at this moment seems to me to announce no good fortune to us."
"The imitation is perfect, I allow," said Bois-Rose, "but you must not be thus deceived. It is an Indian sentinel who calls to his companions either to warn them to be watchful, or what is more like their diabolical spirit, to remind us that they are watching us. It is a kind of death-song with which they wish to regale us."
As he spoke, the same sound was repeated from the opposite bank with different modulations, confirming his words, but it sounded none the less terrible as it revealed all the perils and ambushes hidden by the darkness of the night.
"I have a great mind to call to them to roar more like tigers that they are."
"Do not; it would only enable them to know our exact position."
So saying, the Canadian entered the water with extreme care, while his comrades followed his movements with anxious eyes.
"Well," said Pepe, when Bois-Rose came to the surface to take breath, "are we firmly fixed?"
"All is well, I think," replied Bois-Rose, "I see at present but one thing that keeps the islet at anchor. Have patience a while."
"Take care not to get too far under," said Fabian, "or you may be caught in the roots and branches."
"Have no fear, child; a whale may sooner remain fixed to a fishing-boat which it can toss twenty feet into the air, than I under an islet that I could break to pieces with a blow."
The river closed again over his head, and a tolerably long space of time elapsed during which the presence of Bois-Rose was indicated only by the eddies formed round the islet, which now tottered on its foundation. His comrades felt that the giant was making a powerful effort, and Fabian's heart sank as he thought that he might be struggling with death; when a crash was heard under their feet, like that of a ship's timbers striking against a rock, and Bois-Rose reappeared above the surface, his hair streaming with water. With one bound he regained the island, which began to move slowly down the river. An enormous root, some depth in the water, had given way to the vigorous strength of the colossus, and the islet was set free.
"God be praised!" cried he, "the last obstacle is vanquished and we are afloat." As he spoke the island could be perceived advancing down stream, slowly it is true, but surely.
"Now," continued he, "our life rests in the hands of God. If the island floats down the middle of the stream we shall soon, thanks to the fog, be out of sight or reach of the Indians. Oh! my God," added he, fervently, "a few hours more of darkness and your creatures will be saved."
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR.
THE FLOATING ISLET.
The three men kept silence as they followed with anxious eyes the movement of the floating island. Day would soon break, but the freshness of the night, which always increases an hour or two before sunrise, had condensed more and more the vapours which rose from the water. The fires on the bank appeared only like stars, which grow pale in the heavens at the approach of dawn. From this source, therefore, they had little to fear; but another danger menaced the three hunters. The island followed the stream, but turned round as it went, and they feared that in this continual rotation it might deviate from the centre of the liver and strike on one of the banks on which the Indians were encamped.
Like the sailor who, with a heart full of anguish, follows the movements of his ship, almost disabled by the storm, and contemplates with terror the breakers into which he is perhaps destined to be driven, thus the three hunters—a prey to the most cruel anxiety—regarded in silence the uncertain progress of their island. When sometimes the border of osiers and reeds which surrounded the island trembled in the breeze which proceeded from one of the banks, it seemed then to be driven towards the opposite side. Sometimes it went straight along with the current, but in any event, the efforts of those who were on it could do nothing to direct it. Luckily the fog was so thick that the very trees which bordered the river were invisible.
"Courage," muttered Pepe; "as long as we cannot see the trees it is a sign that we are going on rightly. Ah! if God but favour us, many a howl will resound along these banks, now so peaceful, when at daybreak the Indians find neither the island nor those it sheltered."
"Yes," replied Bois-Rose, "it was a grand idea, Pepe; in the trouble of my mind I should not have thought of it, and yet it was such a simple thing."
"Simple ideas are always the last to present themselves," rejoined Pepe. "But do you know, Bois-Rose," added he, in a low voice, "it proves that in the desert it is imprudent to venture with one whom you love more than life, since fear for him takes away a man's senses. I tell you frankly, Bois-Rose, you have not been like yourself."
"It is true; I scarcely recognise myself," replied the Canadian, simply; "and yet—"
He did not finish, but fell into a profound reverie, during which, like a man whose body only is present, and his soul absent, he appeared no longer to watch the movements of the island. For the hunter who, during twenty years has lived the free life of the desert, to renounce this life seemed like death; but to renounce the society of Fabian, and the consolation of having his eyes closed by his adopted son, was still worse than death. Fabian and the desert were the two dominant affections of his life, and to abandon either seemed impossible.
His reverie, however, was soon interrupted by Pepe, who had for some minutes been casting uneasy glances towards one of the banks. Through the fog he fancied he could perceive the fantastic forms which trees appear to take in a mist. They looked like indistinct phantoms, covered with long draperies, hanging over the river.
"We are going wrong, Bois-Rose," said he, "are not those the tops of the willows on the bank?"
"It is true," cried Bois-Rose, rousing himself; "and by the fires being still visible it is evident how little progress we have made in the last half hour."
At that moment the island began to move more rapidly, and the trees became more distinct. The hunters looked anxiously at each other. One of the fires was more clearly seen, and they could even distinguish an Indian sentinel in his frightful battle-costume. The long mane of a bison covered his head, and above that waved a plume of feathers. Bois-Rose pointed him out to Pepe, but luckily the fog was so thick that the Indian, rendered himself visible by the fire, near which he stood, could not yet see the island. However, as if an instinct had warned him to be watchful, he raised his head and shook back the flowing hair which ornamented it.
"Can he have any suspicion?" said Bois-Rose.
"Ah! if a rifle made no more noise than an arrow, with what pleasure I should send that human buffalo to mount guard in another world," replied Pepe.
Just then they saw the Indian stick his lance in the ground, and leaning forward, shade his eyes with his hands so as to concentrate their power. A keen anxiety was in their hearts as they watched him. The ferocious warrior bending down like a wild beast ready to spring, his face half covered with the straggling hair, was hideous and terrible to look upon; but the fugitives would only have laughed at the spectacle had they not had so much to dread. All at once, the Apache after remaining a few minutes in this attentive attitude, walked towards the bank and disappeared from sight—for nothing was visible except in the circle of light thrown by the fire. It was a moment of intense anxiety for the fugitives, as the island continued to glide silently on.
"Has he seen us?" murmured Pepe.
"I fear so."
A doleful cry now caused them to start. It was repeated from the opposite side; it was the signal of the sentinels one to the other, but all became again silent. Bois-Rose uttered a murmur of relief, as he saw the man return to his former place and attitude. It was a false alarm.
Still the island continued to approach the bank.
"At this rate," said Bois-Rose, "in ten minutes we shall fall into the hands of the Indians. If we could but paddle a little with that great branch, we should soon be in the right direction again, but the noise, I fear, would betray us."
"Nevertheless," replied Pepe, "it is what we must do, it is better to run the chance of betraying ourselves, than be drifted into the hands of our enemies. But first, let us see if the current in which we now are, runs towards the bank. If it does, we must hesitate no longer, and although the branch of a tree is more noisy in the water than an oar, we must do our best to paddle in silence."
Pepe then gently broke off a piece of wood and placed it on the water, and leaning over the edge, he and Bois-Rose watched it anxiously. There was in that place a violent eddy, caused by some deep hole in the bed of the river. For a moment the wood turned round as though going to sink, then it took a direction opposite to the bank, towards which they were driving. Both uttered a stifled exclamation of joy, as their island also, after a moment's stoppage, began to float away from the shore, and the increasing thickness of the fog assured them that they were taking the right course.
About an hour passed thus, amidst poignant alternatives of fear and hope; then the bivouac fires were lost in the distance, and the fugitives perceived that they were nearly out of danger. Reassured by this belief Bois-Rose placed himself at one end of the islet, and paddled vigorously, until the raft, ceasing to gyrate, advanced more swiftly down the current, like a horse long abandoned to his own caprices, who feels at last the hand and spur of an able rider. Keeping where the water was deepest, they now proceeded at a considerable rate of speed, and began to think themselves entirely out of danger.
"Daylight will not be long in appearing," said Bois-Rose, "and we must now land and endeavour to get on faster; we shall go twice as fast on foot as on this island, which sails slower than a Dutch lugger."
"Well! land where you like, Bois-Rose, and we will follow. Let us wade down the stream a bit, so as to hide our traces from the Indians; and even if we have to carry the wounded man, we can manage two leagues an hour. Do you think, Don Fabian, that the Golden Valley is far off?"
"You saw the sun go down behind the foggy mountains which shut in this valley," replied Fabian. "It lies at their foot—we cannot be many hours' march from it."
Bois-Rose now gave to the island an oblique direction, and in about a quarter of an hour, it struck violently against the bank. While Pepe and Fabian jumped ashore, the Canadian took the wounded man in his arms, and laid him gently down. This awoke him, and opening his eyes and throwing round him an astonished glance, he murmured, "Virgen Santa! shall I again hear those frightful howls which troubled my sleep?"
"No, my lad, the Indians are far off now, and we are in safety. Thank God, who has permitted me to save all that are dear to me—my child Fabian and my old friend."
They then prepared to continue their course.
"If you are not able to walk," said Pepe to Gayferos, "we shall construct a kind of litter to carry you on. We have no time to lose if we wish to escape these wretches, who, as soon as daylight appears, will begin to chase us as eagerly as ever they chased a white enemy."
So great was the desire of Gayferos to escape, that he almost forgot the pain he was enduring, and declaring that he would follow his liberators as quickly as they could go themselves, he begged them to set off at once.
"We have some precautions to take first," said Bois-Rose; "rest a few minutes while we break to pieces and commit to the current this raft, which has been so useful to us. It is important the Indians should not trace us."
All three set to work, and already disjointed by the breaking of the root which held it, and by the shock it had received on touching the shore, the floating island opposed no great resistance to their efforts. The trunks of the trees which composed it, were torn asunder and pushed into the current—which carried them quickly away—and there soon remained no vestige of what it had taken years to construct. When the last branch had disappeared from their eyes, Bois-Rose and Pepe busied themselves in raising up the stalks of the plants, to efface the marks of their feet, and then all prepared to start. They first entered the water and walked along the edge, so as to leave no footmarks, and to lead the Indians to suppose that they had remained on the island. It was too fatiguing for them to walk very quickly; but, in about an hour, just as their wounded feet were about to force them to make halt, they arrived at the fork of two rivers which formed a delta. In this delta lay the Golden Valley. Daylight was just beginning to appear in the horizon, and a grey tint upon the sky was taking the place of darkness. Luckily the arm of the river that they had to cross was not deep, the mass of the water flowing in the opposite direction. This was fortunate, for the wounded man could not swim. Bois-Rose lifted him on his shoulders, and all three waded through the water, which scarcely reached to their knees. The chain of mountains was only about a league off, and after a short rest, all resumed their way with renewed ardour.
Soon the country changed its aspect. To the fine sand—for the triangle formed by the junction of the two rivers was inundated during part of the year—succeeded deep ruts, and then dry beds of streams, hollowed out by the torrents in the rainy season. Instead of the narrow border of willows and cotton-trees which shaded the deserted banks, green oaks rose up, and the landscape terminated in the line of the foggy mountains. All looked strange and imposing, and rarely had the foot of a white man pressed this desert clothed in its virgin wildness. Perhaps Marcos Arellanos and Cuchillo were the only white men who had ever wandered to this remote place. A vague sentiment of awe caused the hunters involuntarily to lower their voices before the supernatural charm of this austere landscape. Those hills, enveloped in mist—even when the plains shone with the blazing rays of the sun—seemed to hide some impenetrable mystery. It might be fancied that the invisible guardians of the treasures, the lords of the mountains according to Indian superstition, were hidden under this veil of eternal vapour.
CHAPTER FORTY FIVE.
THE FINGER OF GOD.
After a short journey, fatigue and suffering overcame the wounded man; and as it was imperative that he should not become acquainted with the situation of the Golden Valley, or even be made aware of its existence, Bois-Rose and Pepe resolved, now that he was in safety, to leave him for some hours and employ the time in reconnoitring the places described to Fabian by his adopted mother.
"Listen, my lad!" said Bois-Rose to Gayferos, "we have given you quite sufficient proofs of devotion, and now we must leave you for half or perhaps a whole day. We have some business in hand which requires three determined men; if this evening or to-morrow morning we are still alive, you shall see us return; if not, you know it will not be our fault. Here is water and dried meat, and twenty-four hours will soon pass."
It was not without regret that Gayferos consented to this separation; however, reassured by a new promise from the generous hunters, to whom he owed so much, he resigned himself to being left behind.
"I have one last word to say to you," said Bois-Rose. "If chance bring here any of the companions from whom you so unluckily separated, I exact from you, as the sole return for the service which we have rendered to you, that you will reveal to none of them our presence here. As for your own, you can account for it in any way you like."
Gayferos made the required promise, and they then took leave of him.
On the point of accomplishing one of his most ardent desires, that of enriching the child of his affection and adding immense treasures to his future fortune, Bois-Rose seemed to forget that it would raise an additional barrier between Fabian and himself.
Pepe, anxious to repair as far as possible the involuntary injury that he had caused to the Mediana family, walked along with an elastic step. Fabian alone did not seem happy, and after a quarter of an hour he stopped, saying that he needed rest. All three sat down on a little hillock, and Pepe, pointing to the mountains, cried, in a tone of gay reproach, "What! Don Fabian! does not the neighbourhood of those places, so fertile in gold, give new vigour to your limbs?"
"No," replied Fabian, "for I shall not go a step further in that direction till sunrise."
"Ah!" said Bois-Rose, "and why not?"
"Why? Because this is a cursed place—a place where he—whom before you I loved as a father—was assassinated; because a thousand dangers surround you, and I have already exposed you too much by making you espouse my cause."
"What are these dangers that we three together cannot brave? Can they be greater than what we have just passed through? And if it please Pepe and I to incur them for you, what then?"
"These dangers are of all kinds," replied Fabian, "why deceive oneself longer? Does not everything prove that Don Estevan knows also of the existence of the Golden Valley?"
"Well, and what do you conclude from that?"
"That three men cannot prevail against sixty."
"Listen, my child," replied Bois-Rose with some impatience, "it was before engaging in this enterprise that we should have made these reflections; now they are too late, and why do you not think to-day as you did yesterday?"
"Because yesterday I was blinded by passion; because affection has now taken its place; because I do not hope to-day what I hoped yesterday."
The contradictory passions which agitated his heart did not permit Fabian to explain more clearly to the Canadian the alternations of his wishes.
"Fabian," said Bois-Rose solemnly, "you have a holy but terrible duty to perform, and duty must be done; but who tells you that the expedition commanded by Don Estevan will take the same path as ourselves? And, if it does, so much the better; the murderer of your mother will fall into your hands."
"The guide conducting them," replied Fabian, seeking to hide his real sentiments, "can only be that miserable Cuchillo. Now, if I am not wrong, the valley must be known to him; in any case, we should await the return of daylight before entangling ourselves in a country we know nothing about, and in which these adventurers may prove enemies as formidable as the Indians. Do you not think so, Pepe?"
"Nearly all night, the wind has brought to our ears," replied he, "the sound of filing, which proves that the troop has been engaged with the Indians; it is not therefore probable that any one can be in advance of us. I must say that my opinion is, that we should without loss of time gain some place in the mountains where we may engage in a last inevitable struggle with our enemies; some well chosen spot where we can defend ourselves with a chance of success."
"It is this unequal struggle that I wish to avoid," replied Fabian, warmly. "As long as I could hope to overtake, before they readied Tubac, those whom Providence seemed to point out for my vengeance, and attack them while they were only five against three, I pursued them without reflection; as long as I could believe that this expedition had, like so many others, entered the desert only in search of some unknown spot, I followed them. But what has happened? After four days in which we took a different path, do we not find them near these mountains? Their aim is therefore the same as ours. Three men cannot fight against sixty; therefore God forbid that to further either my vengeance or my cupidity, I should sacrifice two generous friends whose lives are more precious to me than my own!"
"Child," cried Bois-Rose, "do you not see that every one is here for himself, and yet that our three interests are but one? When for the second time, God sent you to my arms, were we not already pursuing the man who was ruining your hopes, and had already assassinated your mother, and stolen your name? For ten years Pepe and I have been but one; the friends of one have been the friends of the other, and you are Pepe's son, because you are mine, Fabian my child; and thanks be to God that in serving our own cause we are also serving yours. Whatever happens, then we shall not take a step backwards."
"Besides," said Pepe, "do you count for nothing, Don Fabian, heaps of gold, and a whole life of abundance for an imaginary peril? for I repeat we must reach the valley first, and a day—an hour—in advance may enrich us forever; you see then that we are egotists trying to sacrifice you to our personal interest."
"Pepe is right," said Bois-Rose, "we want gold."
"What will you do with it?" asked Fabian, smiling.
"What will I do with it? the child asks what I will do with it!" cried Bois-Rose.
"Yes, I wish to know."
"What will I do with it?" replied the honest Canadian, whom this question embarrassed much, "parbleu—I will do—many things, I will give my rifle a golden barrel," cried he, triumphantly.
Pepe smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"You laugh," said Bois-Rose. "Do you think that when you finish off an Apache, a Sioux, or a Pawnee with a blow of your knife, it would not be grand to say to him, 'Dog, the ball that broke your head came from a rifle of solid gold!' Few hunters can say as much."
"I agree to that," said Fabian; then added he seriously, "No, my friends! Don Estevan escapes my vengeance, and the gold that I believe would be mine escapes me also, for it is surrounded by soldiers. What matters? have I not still, if I should become ambitious, the name and fortunes of my forefathers to reclaim? Are there not in Spain tribunals which dispense justice to all? God will do the rest, but I will not madly expose two noble lives. I do not speak of mine; young as I am, I have drunk the cup of bitterness to the dregs. You have done enough, and your generous subterfuges cannot impose upon me."
So saying, Fabian held out his hands to the two hunters, who pressed them in an affectionate grasp. The Canadian looked silently for a minute at the noble face of him whom he was proud to call his son, and then said:
"Fabian, my child, all my life has been passed on the sea or in deserts, but I have preserved sufficient remembrance of cities and their customs to know that justice is rather sold than given. This gold we shall employ in making of you what you were intended to be; this gold, will smooth all the obstacles against which your rightful cause might break down. Pepe can tell you, like me, that we shall gladly expose our lives in the hope of restoring to you the property of your ancestors, and the illustrious name that you are so worthy to bear."
"Yes," said Pepe, "I have told you that the early part of my life was not such as I should wish. It was a little the fault of the Spanish Government, which never paid me for my services; still it is a weight upon my heart. Often, I think sadly of my past life, but God always pardons the repentant sinner, and gives him opportunity of repentance. That day has arrived; my pardon is near, and it is but justice that I should assist in restoring to you what I helped to take away."
"Let us go on then!" said Bois-Rose, "God has hitherto shown us our path and will continue to aid us. If you stay, Fabian, we shall go alone."
So saying, the Canadian rose, and throwing his rifle over his shoulder began his march. Fabian was forced to yield, and all proceeded towards the mountains.
Daylight had not yet quite appeared when a new actor advanced in his turn towards the same scenes. He came alone; his horse in its impetuous course made the sand fly under his feet, and the rider, who was no other than Cuchillo, showed symptoms on his sinister countenance of some secret terror. His flight might not have been unobserved even in the tumult of action, or some of the Indians might have noticed his desertion, and hence his fears. But Cuchillo was not a man to undertake a bold stroke without calculating the chances. As a hunter wishing to take the lion's whelps, throws him some bait to distract his attention, so Cuchillo had delivered to the lords of the desert his companions as a prey. He had calculated that the struggle would last a great part of the night, and that conquered or conquering, the adventurers would not dare, during the following day, to leave their intrenchments. He would therefore have long hours before him in which to seize on some of the treasures of the Golden Valley, with which he would afterwards return to the protection of his companions, and when they all reached the place he could still claim his share as soldier and as guide. Pretexts would not fail him for this second absence, but he had forgotten to calculate on Don Estevan's suspicions concerning him. To conclude his bargain with him he had been forced to give such a precise account of the situation of the valley that Don Estevan could scarcely miss the right road. After Cuchillo, followed by his horse, had glided out from the camp he had ridden straight towards the mountains, and cupidity, the most blinding of passions, had closed his eyes to the danger of his plan.
His heart palpitating with alternate hopes and fears, he had advanced rapidly, and only stopped occasionally to listen to the vague murmurs of the desert. Then recognising the groundlessness of his apprehensions, he had continued his road with renewed ardour.
Sometimes also the aspect of the places he had seen before, awakened gloomy souvenirs. On that hillock, he had rested with Marcos Arellanos; that nopal had furnished them with refreshing fruit; they had both contemplated with mysterious terror the strange aspect of the Misty Mountains, and his horse in its rapid course carried the murderer to the spot where his victim had fallen beneath his blows! Then to the fear of enemies succeeded that inspired by conscience, which while it often sleeps by day, awakes and resumes its empire during the night. The bushes—the thorny nopals—rose before him like accusing phantoms, opposing his advance with extended arms; a cold perspiration stood on his brow, but cupidity, stronger than fear, spurred him on towards the valley, and he began to laugh at his own apprehensions.
"Phantoms," said he, "are like alcaldes, who never address poor devils like me; but let me only get one or two arrobas of gold, and I shall have so many masses said for the soul of Arellanos, that he will be glad to have met his death in such generous hands."
He laughed at this quaint conceit, and then rode on quickly. In a few minutes he stopped and listened again, but heard no noise save the loud breathing of his horse.
"I am alone," thought he; "those brutes whom I have guided are fighting to give me leisure to despoil the sands of some of that precious gold. Who is to prevent me presently, when daylight appears, from picking up as much as I can carry without betraying my secret? This time, it will not be as when along with Arellanos; I shall not have to fly from the Indians: they are busy. Afterwards I can come back with such of my companions as escape the Apaches. How many will remain to partake with me? Oh! the thought of these treasures makes the blood boil in my veins. Is it not gold that gives glory, pleasure, and every good of this world? our priests say its power extends even beyond the tomb!"
While Cuchillo was advancing blindly to where his destiny led him, Don Estevan and Pedro Diaz were also on their way. Although the hills were but six leagues from the camp, yet, uncertain of the time of his absence, Don Estevan had left orders to his people to await his return. The two advanced silently, full of desire for the gold, but equally desirous of intercepting the traitor. Two hours' quick riding had produced no result. Thanks to his advance, Cuchillo was invisible; and the darkness would have hidden his track even from the eye of an Indian.
"There is no doubt," said Pedro Diaz, breaking silence, "that the knave must have profited by the confusion to fly towards the valley, and seize on a part of the treasures which he has sold to us."
"That is not what I fear most," said Don Estevan. "If Cuchillo has not exaggerated the riches of the place, there will be plenty left for all of us. But now so near attaining that for which I have crossed the desert—after having left a position envied by all, to brave the dangers of an expedition like this—a vague fear of failing agitates me. The desert is like the sea, abounding in pirates, and the soul of Cuchillo is full of treason: it seems to me that the villain will be fatal to us."
Suddenly Diaz dismounted, and picked up off the sand a dark object; it was a kind of valise, which Diaz at once recognised as belonging to Cuchillo.
"This shows you, Senor," said he, "that we are in the right path, and that the coming day will bring us into the presence of the traitor."
"It shall then be his last treason," said Don Estevan; and they now rode silently on with the certainty that Cuchillo was before them.
Strange chain of coincidences! When the sun appeared in the horizon, the different actors in this drama, apparently drawn together by accident, but in truth impelled onwards by the hand of God, had met in the most inaccessible part of the great American desert.
CHAPTER FORTY SIX.
THE GOLDEN VALLEY.
The darkness was no longer that of midnight—the outlines of the different objects began to be visible, and the peaks of the hills looked like domes or fantastic turrets in the half-light. Detached from the mass of the mountains, a rock in the form of a truncated cone towered up like an outwork. A cascade fell noisily from an adjacent hill into a deep gulf below, and in front of the rock a row of willows and cotton-trees indicated the neighbourhood of a stream. Then the immense plain of the delta formed by the two arms of the Rio Gila (which from east to west cuts for itself a double passage through the chain of the Misty Mountains) displayed itself in all its sombre majesty. Such were the striking points of the landscape which opened before the travellers.
Soon the blue light of morning replaced the darkness, and the summits of the hills one by one became visible. On the top of the rock two pines could now be seen, their bending stems and dark foliage extending over the abyss. At their foot the skeleton of a horse, held up by hidden fastenings, showed upon his whitened bones the savage ornaments with which he had been embellished, and fragments of the saddle still rested upon his back. The increasing light soon shone on more sinister emblems: on posts raised in different places, and human scalps floating on them. These hideous trophies indicated the burial-place of an Indian warrior. In fact a renowned chief reposed there; and his spirit overlooked, like the genius of plunder, those plains where his war-cry had so often resounded, and which he had ridden over on that battle-horse whose bones were whitening by his tomb. Birds of prey flew over his grave, uttering their shrill cries, as if they would awaken him who slept there forever, and whose cold hand would no longer prepare for them their bloody feasts.
A few minutes later the horizon became tinted with pale rose-coloured clouds, and soon after, like the first spark of a fire, a ray of sunlight struck like a golden arrow on the thick fog, and floods of light inundated the depths of the valley. Day had come in all its glory, but wreaths of vapour still hung capriciously on the leaves of the trees or clung around the trunks. Soon were displayed wild precipices, with falls of water foaming down their sides; then deep defiles, at the entrance of which fantastic offerings of Indian superstition were suspended.
Above the tomb of the Indian chief rose the spray of the cascade, in which was reflected the colours of the rainbow; and lastly, a valley was visible, closed on one side by peaked rocks, from which hung long draperies of verdure, and on the other by a lake, whose waters were half-hidden by the aquatic plants on its surface: this was the Golden Valley.
At the first glance the whole scene only offered the sombre features of a wild nature; but the scrutinising eye would soon have divined the treasures concealed there. Nothing betrayed the presence of living things in that deserted place, when the three hunters made their appearance on the spot.
"If the devil has an abode anywhere on the earth," said Pepe, pointing to the mountains, "it must surely be among those wild denies!
"But if it be true," continued he, "that it is gold which is the cause of most crimes, it is more probable that the old fellow has chosen the Golden Valley for his abode, which contains, according to you, Don Fabian, enough to ruin an entire generation."
"You are right," said Fabian, who looked pale and grave, "it was here perhaps that the unlucky Marcos Arellanos was assassinated. Ah! if this place could speak, I should know the name of him whom I have sworn to pursue: but the wind and the rain have effaced the traces of the victim as well as those of the murderer."
"Patience, my child!" replied Bois-Rose; "I have never in the course of a long life known crime to go unpunished. Often we recover the traces that were believed to have been long effaced, and even solitude sometimes raises its voice against the guilty. If the assassin be not dead, cupidity will doubtless bring him again to this place, and before long; for no doubt he is one of those in the Mexican camp. Now, Fabian, shall we wait for the enemy here, or shall we fill our pockets with gold and return?"
"I know not what to decide," replied Fabian; "I came here almost against my will. I obey your wishes, or else a will stronger than either yours or mine. I feel that an invisible hand impels me on—as it did on that evening when, scarcely knowing what I did, I came and sat down by your fire. Why should I, who do not know what to do with this gold, risk my life to obtain it? I know not. I know only that here I am, with a sad heart and a soul filled with cruel uncertainty."
"Man is but the plaything of Providence, it is true," said Bois-Rose; "but as for the sadness you feel, the aspect of these places sufficiently accounts for it; and as for—"
A hoarse cry, that scarcely appeared human, interrupted the Canadian. It seemed to come from the Indian tomb, as if it were an accusing voice against the invaders of this abode of the dead. The three hunters glanced simultaneously towards the tomb, but no living creature was visible there. The eye of one of the birds of prey, that were sailing above the rock, could alone have told where the cry came from. The imposing solemnity of the place, the bloody souvenirs evoked by it in Fabian's mind, and the superstitious ones in that of Pepe, joined to the strange and mysterious sound, inspired in both a feeling akin to terror. There was something so inexplicable in the sound, that for a moment they doubted having heard it.
"Is it really the voice of a man?" said Bois-Rose, "or only one of those singular echoes which resound in these mountains?"
"If it were a human voice," asked Fabian, "where did it come from? it seemed to be above us, and yet I see no one on the top of the hill!"
"God send," said Pepe, crossing himself, "that in these mountains which abound in inexplicable noises, and where lightning shines under a calm sky, we have only men to fight against! But if the fog contained a legion of devils—if the valley really contains, as you say, several years' income of the king of Spain, please, Senor Don Fabian, to recall your recollections, and tell us if we are still far off it."
Fabian threw a glance around him; the landscape was just what had been so minutely described to him.
"We must be close to the spot," said he, "for it should be at the foot of the tomb of the Indian chief—and these ornaments indicate that the rock is the tomb. We have no time to lose. You and Bois-Rose walk around the rock, while I go and examine those cotton-trees and willows."
"I am suspicious of everything in this mysterious place," said Bois-Rose; "that cry indicates the presence of a human being; and whether white or red, he is to be feared. Before we separate, let me examine the sign."
All three bent on the ground eyes accustomed to read there as in an open book. The prints of a man's feet were visible on the sand, and one of them had trodden down the plants, whose stems were still gently rising up again one after the other.
"What did I tell you?" cried Bois-Rose. "Here are the tracks of a white man's feet, and I swear it is not ten minutes since he was here. These footmarks lead towards yonder cotton-trees."
"In any case he is alone," suggested Fabian.
All three were advancing towards the trees, when Bois-Rose halted.
"Let me go first," said he; "this hedge may hide the enemy. But no, the man who has left these footprints has only pulled open the vines and glanced through—he has not gone further in that direction."
So saying, Bois-Rose, in his turn, pulled aside the branches and the climbing network which was interwoven with them, and after a short examination, which had no particular result, he retired and left the branches to reclose of themselves. He then tried to follow the tracks but further on the ground became stony, and all traces disappeared.
"Let us go round this conical rock," suggested Bois-Rose.
"Come, Pepe; Fabian will wait here for us."
The two hunters strode off, and Fabian remained alone and pensive. This Golden Valley, of whose possession he had dreamt at that time when his heart nourished sweet hopes, was now near to him. What had been a dream was now a reality, and still he was more unhappy than at the time when hopeful love caused him to scoff at poverty. It is thus that happiness flies just as we are about to seize it. Sometimes in the silence of the forest, the traveller lends a greedy ear to the notes of the mocking-bird, and advances with precaution towards the place where, hidden under the foliage, the bird of the solitudes utters its sweet song. Vain hope! he advances, and the singer flies, his voice still as distant and himself as invisible as ever! Thus man often hears in the distance voices which sing to him of happiness; seduced by their charm he rushes toward them; but they fly at his approach; and his whole life is passed in pursuing, without ever reaching, the happiness promised by these delusive sounds.
For Fabian, happiness lay no longer in the Golden Valley. It existed nowhere. No voice now sang for him; he had no aim to pursue; no flying but charming image which he hoped to overtake. He was in one of those moods that God in His mercy makes rare in our lives—during which all is dark, as when at sea the light that guides the sailor becomes suddenly obscured.
He advanced mechanically towards the thick row of trees that formed an almost impenetrable hedge before him, but scarcely had he made a passage for himself when he stopped motionless with surprise. The sunlight shone on the stones thick as those on a beach, and discovered innumerable glancing objects. Any other than a gold-seeker might have been deceived by these stones, which looked like vitrifications at the foot of a volcano; but the practised eye of Fabian instantly recognised the virgin gold under its clayey envelope, as it is brought down by the torrents from the gold-producing mountains. Before his eyes lay the richest treasure that was ever displayed to the view of man.
If the breeze could have brought to the ears of the young Count of Mediana the accents of Rosarita's voice, when she recalled him back to the hacienda, he would gladly have quitted all these treasures to run towards her. But the breeze was mute, and there is in gold so irresistible an attraction that Fabian, in spite of his sadness, was for the moment fascinated.
However, the soul of Fabian was not one to be intoxicated by success; and after a few minutes of this enthusiasm, he called his two companions. They came at his call.
"Have you found him?" said Pepe.
"The treasure, but not the man. See!" added he, pushing aside the trees.
"What! those shining stones!"
"Are pure gold—treasures which God has hidden during centuries."
"My God!" exclaimed Pepe.
And with ardent eyes fixed upon the mass of riches before him, the ex-carabinier fell upon his knees. Passions long kept under seemed to rush back into his heart; a complete transformation took place in him, and the sinister expression of his face recalled to mind the hour of crime, when twenty years before he had bargained for the price of blood.
"Now," said Fabian, looking sadly at the gold, as he thought that all these riches were not worth to him a smile or look from her who had disdained him, "I understand how these two rivers, in their annual rise, and by their torrents that descend from the Misty Mountains, covering this narrow valley, bring down gold with them; the position of this valley is perhaps unique in all the world."
But the Spaniard heard him not. Riches—which the rough lesson he had received, and the life of independence and the savage happiness he had enjoyed, had taught him during the last ten years to disdain—suddenly resumed their terrible influence over his soul.
"You could not have imagined, could you, Pepe?" continued Fabian, "that so much gold could be collected in one place? I, who have been so long a gold-seeker, could not have imagined it, even after all I had heard."
Pepe did not reply; his eye wandered eagerly over the blocks of gold, and cast a strange glance on Fabian and on Bois-Rose. The hitter, standing in his favourite attitude, his arm resting on his rifle, amidst all these treasures, looked only at what was dearest to him—the young man restored to him by heaven. Pepe had before him, on one side, his old companion in danger—in a hundred different battles they had uttered their war-cry together, like those brothers in arms in ancient chivalric times, who fought always under the same banner—who shared cold, hunger, and thirst together.
On the other side, the young man, partly orphaned by his crime—a crime which had occasioned him remorse through so many years—the love and sole thought of his only friend in the world; and the demon of cupidity at his heart effaced all these souvenirs, and he already began to think—
A shudder passed through his frame as strange thoughts crossed his mind. A struggle took place within him, a struggle of the feelings of youth with the more noble ones developed by the life of nature, where man seems brought near to God; but this struggle was short: the old outlaw disappeared, and there remained only the man purified by repentance and solitude. Still kneeling on the ground, Pepe had closed his eyes, and a furtive tear, unperceived by his companions, stole from his eyes, and rolled down his bronzed cheeks.
"Senor Don Fabian de Mediana!" cried he, starting up, "you are now a rich and powerful lord, for all this gold belongs to you alone."
So saying, he advanced and bowed respectfully to Fabian, who appeared somewhat surprised by the manner of his salutation.
"God forbid," cried Fabian, "that you, who have shared the peril, should not share the treasure. What do you say, Bois-Rose? do you not rejoice to become in your old age rich and powerful?"
But Bois-Rose, unmoved before all the riches, contented himself with shaking his head, while a smile of tenderness for Fabian testified to the only interest that he took in that marvellous spectacle!
"I think like Pepe," said he, after a pause, "what could I do with this gold that the world covets? If it has for us an inestimable value, it is because it is to belong to you; the possession of the least of these stones would take away in our eyes from the value of the service we have rendered you. But the time for action has arrived; for certainly we are not alone in these solitudes."
Pepe now began to pull aside the branches, but scarcely had he entered the valley when the sound of a gun was distinctly heard. In a moment his voice reassured his anxious comrades.
"It is the devil," cried he, "forbidding us to encroach on his domains; but at all events it is a devil whose aim is not infallible."
Before entering the valley Bois-Rose and Fabian raised their eyes to the top of the hill, whence the shot as well as the voice had proceeded. But the remains of the fog at that moment covered the top of the rock, and all three rushed simultaneously towards the isolated mass where they believed their enemy to be hidden. The sides, although steep, were covered with brushwood, which rendered them easier to climb; but it was a dangerous attempt, for the fog prevented them from seeing what enemies were above. Fabian wished to go first, but the vigorous arm of the Canadian held him back, and meanwhile Pepe was half-way towards the summit. Bois-Rose followed, begging Fabian to keep behind him.
Pepe mounted boldly, undismayed by the foes that might be concealed behind that mass of vapour, and soon disappeared under the mist. A cry of triumph soon warned his friends that he had arrived in safety. Both hastened to join him, but found no one on the rock except Pepe himself! Just as, disappointed at their want of success, they were preparing to descend again, a sudden gust of wind drove off the fog, and allowed them to see to a distance. To the right and left the plain presented the most complete picture of the desert in its dreary sadness. They beheld arid steppes over which whirled clouds of sand, a burnt and sterile ground, everywhere silence, everywhere solitude. At some distance off two men on horseback were seen advancing towards the rock, but at the distance at which they were, it was impossible to distinguish either their dress or the colour of their skin.
"Must we sustain a new siege here?" said Bois-Rose. "Are these white men or Indians?"
"White or red, they are enemies," said Pepe.
While the three friends bent down, so as not to be observed, a man, until then invisible, cautiously entered the lake. He lifted with care the floating leaves of the water lilies, and forming of them a shelter over its head, remained motionless, and the surface of the lake soon after appeared as if undisturbed. This man was Cuchillo, the jackal, who, led by his evil destiny, had ventured to hunt on the ground of the lion.
CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN.
THE PUNISHMENT OF TANTALUS.
Cuchillo, after reaching the mountains, had halted. He had not forgotten the appearance of the place, and his heart trembled with fear and joy. After a few minutes he looked around him more calmly. It was then dark, and when he arrived at the rock, the damp vapours from the lake enveloped with a thick veil both the valley and the tomb. The sound of the waterfall put an end to his uncertainties; he remembered that it fell into a gulf close by the golden placer.
He had dismounted his horse, and sat down to wait for daylight; but scarcely had he done so when he bounded up as though bitten by a serpent. A fatal chance had led him to sit down on the very spot where he had struck Marcos Arellanos, and quick as lightning, every detail of the mortal struggle passed through his mind. However this feeling of terror was of short duration.
In that part of America, superstition has not established its empire as in the old countries of Europe, where the evening mists give to objects fantastic aspects, and tend naturally to reflections upon the supernatural. From this arises the sombre poesy of the north, which has peopled our land with ghosts and phantoms. In the American solitude people fear the living more than the dead, and Cuchillo had too much to fear from men to waste many thoughts upon the ghost of Arellanos, and he had soon quite banished the thought from his mind.
Although he felt nearly certain that no one had seen him leave the camp, or had followed him, he resolved to climb the rock and look out over the desert. The two pines, whose sombre verdure crowned the summit, appeared marvellously fit to shelter him from the eyes of the Indians should any be near. As he advanced, however, he could not resist taking a glance at the valley; for a sudden fear took possession of his mind: was it still untouched as he had left it?
One glance reassured him. Nothing was changed in the valley; there were still the heaps of the shining metal.
The traveller, devoured with thirst in the sandy desert, does not more gladly catch sight of the oasis at whose waters he desires to drink than did Cuchillo the sight of the gold gleaming through the leaves of the trees.
Any other man would have hastened to seize as much of it as he could carry, and make off with his booty. But with Cuchillo, cupidity was a passion carried to its utmost limits; and before seizing it, the outlaw wished to feast his eyes on the treasure of which he had dreamed for two years, and for which he would not hesitate to sacrifice the lives of all his companions. After some moments of ecstatic contemplation, Cuchillo led his horse forward by the bridle, and having tied him to a tree, in a defile where the animal would be hidden from all eyes, he himself mounted the rock.
Arrived there, he looked around to assure himself that he was alone. He was soon satisfied, for at that moment neither of the other two parties were visible. Assured by the silence that reigned around, he looked towards the cascade. The water, which seemed as it fell to form a curve of running silver, opened at one place, and displayed a block of gold, sparkling in the rays of the sun. The most enormous cocoanut that ever hung on a tree did not surpass this block in size. Continually washed by the spray of the cascade, this gold appeared in all its brilliance, as if ready to escape from the silica which held it, and thus perhaps for centuries this king's ransom had hung menacingly over the abyss!
At the sight of this block, which looked as though it might be seized by stretching out his hands, a thrill of joy passed through Cuchillo's heart; and hanging over the precipice with extended arms, he gave utterance to the cry which had been heard by the three hunters below.
Soon, however, a spectacle, that Cuchillo was far from expecting to witness, drew from him another cry, but this time of rage. He had seen a man, possessor like himself of the secret of the valley, treading with profane foot on the treasure that he had believed wholly his. Bois-Rose and Fabian were hidden behind the trees; and thinking that Pepe was alone, Cuchillo had fired at him, without taking time for a proper aim, and thus Pepe had escaped the ball that whistled past him.
It would be impossible to paint his rage and stupefaction, when hidden behind the pine trees, he saw two men join Pepe, especially when in one of them he recognised the terrible hunter whom he had seen engaged with the tigers at Poza, and in the other, Fabian, who had already twice escaped his vengeance. A mortal fear chilled his heart; he almost fell to the ground. Must he again fly from that Golden Valley, from which fate seemed always to drive him?
Lucky for Cuchillo, the fog had hidden him from his enemies, and by the time they had reached the top he had descended on the opposite side— after having just caught a glance of Don Estevan and his companion in the distance. Here was a fresh subject of fear and surprise for Cuchillo who, gliding like a serpent along the rocks, hid himself, as we have seen, amid the leaves of the water lilies, to await the denouement of this strange adventure. Hidden from all eyes, he held himself in readiness to profit by the approaching conflict between Don Estevan and Fabian, and a shudder of diabolical joy mingled with that caused by the gold; he was like the rapacious bird which awaits the issue of the battle to seize upon its prey. If the three hunters were victorious he had little he thought to fear from Fabian, who was still in his eyes Tiburcio Arellanos. The lower class of Mexicans think little of a blow with the dagger, and he hoped that the one he had given might be pardoned, if he were to throw the blame upon Don Estevan. If this last remained master of the field, he trusted to find some plausible excuse for his desertion. He decided therefore upon letting them begin the struggle, and then, at the decisive moment, should come to the assistance of the strongest.
While Cuchillo was endeavouring to console himself by these reasonings, Bois-Rose was able to distinguish the complexion of the new-comers.
"They are from the Mexican camp," said he.
"I foresaw," said Fabian, "that we should have the whole troop on our hands, and be caught like wild horses in a stockade."
"Hush!" said Bois-Rose, "and trust to me to protect you. Nothing yet shows that there are any others behind, and in any case we could not be better placed than on this rock; from here we might defy a whole tribe of savages. Besides, we do not yet know that they will stop here. Both of you crouch down. I shall watch them."
So saying, he lay flat down, hiding his head behind the stones which surrounded the top like turrets, but without losing sight of the horsemen. They began now to hear the sound of the horses' feet on the plain. The old hunter saw them stop and converse, but could not hear what they were saying.
"Why this halt, Diaz?" said Don Estevan, impatiently, "we have lost time enough already."
"Prudence exacts that we should look about us before proceeding. The knave may be hidden about here, as we have tracked him up to the rock; he may not be alone, and we have everything to fear from him."
Don Estevan made a gesture of disdain.
"Ah!" said Bois-Rose, in a low voice, "I recognise Don Estevan, or rather Don Antonio de Mediana, who is at last in our power."
"Don Antonio de Mediana! Is it possible? Are you sure?" cried Fabian.
"It is he, I tell you."
"Ah! now I see that it was the hand of God which brought me here. Shade of my mother, rejoice!" cried Fabian.
Pepe kept silence, but at the name of Don Antonio, hatred shone also in his glance. He raised his head, and his eye seemed to measure the distance between him and the object of his vengeance, but even the long rifle of Bois-Rose could scarcely reach them at such a range.
"Do not rise up, Pepe!" cautioned the Canadian; "you will be seen."
"Do you observe any others behind?" inquired Fabian.
"No one; from the point where the river divides to this place I see no living being; if," added he, after an instant's pause, "that black mass that I see floating on the river be only the trunk of a tree—but at any rate it is floating away from us."
"Never mind that," said Fabian, "describe to me the man who accompanies Don Antonio; perhaps I shall recognise him."
"He is tall and straight as a cane; and what a beautiful horse he rides!"
"A bay horse? and has he gold lace on his hat, and a fine face?"
"It is Pedro Diaz. Now it would be a cowardice not to show ourselves, when heaven sends us Don Antonio almost alone."
"Patience," said Pepe; "I am as interested as you are in not letting him escape, but haste may ruin all. When one has waited for twenty years, one may easily wait a few minutes longer. Are you sure they are alone, Bois-Rose?"
"The sand whirls down there, but it is only the wind that is stirring it. They are alone, and now they stop and look about them."
So saying, Bois-Rose rose slowly, like the eagle who agitates before completely unfolding his wings—those powerful wings the rapid flight of which will soon bring him down to the plain.