"Senor Don Estevan," said Pedro Diaz, "I think we should return to the camp."
Don Antonio hesitated a moment. The counsel was good, but it was too late to follow it.
From the top of the rock the three hunters watched their every movement.
"It is time," said Bois-Rose.
"I must take Don Antonio alive," said Fabian. "Arrange that, and I care for nothing else."
Bois-Rose now rose to his fall height, and uttered a cry which struck on the ears of the new-comers. They uttered an exclamation of surprise, which surprise was still further increased at sight of the gigantic Canadian upon the rock.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" cried a voice, which Fabian recognised as that of Don Antonio.
"I shall tell you," replied the hunter; "it will recall to you a truth— never contested either in my country or in the desert—that the ground belongs to the first occupants; we were here before you, and are the sole masters of this place. We therefore wish one of you to retire with a good grace, and the other to surrender himself, that we may teach him a second law of the desert, 'blood for blood.'"
"It is some anchorite whose brain is turned by solitude," said Pedro Diaz; "I shall terminate the conference with a bullet from my rifle."
"No!" cried Don Estevan, stopping him, "let us see first how far this folly will go. And which of us is it, friend," continued he, with an ironical air, "to whom you wish to teach this law?"
"To you," cried Fabian, rising.
"What! you here!" cried Don Estevan with mingled rage and surprise.
"And here am I, who have been following you for the last fortnight," said Pepe, "and who thanks God for the opportunity of paying off a debt of twenty years' standing."
"Who are you?" asked Don Estevan, trying to remember who it was, for years and difference of costume had altered the aspect of the old coast-guardsman.
"Pepe the Sleeper, who has not forgotten his residence at Ceuta."
At this name, which explained Fabian's words at the bridge of Salto de Agua, Don Estevan lost his air of contempt. A sudden presentiment seemed to warn him that his fortunes were waning, and he cast around him an anxious glance. The high rocks, which on one side shut in the valley, might protect him from the fire of his enemies; a short space only separated him from their foot, and prudence counselled him to fly there, but his pride forbade him.
"Well then!" cried he proudly after a pause, "revenge yourself on an enemy who disdains to fly."
"Have we not said that we wish to take you alive?" replied Pepe, coldly.
CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT.
THE KING-MAKER A CAPTIVE.
In the whole course of his adventurous life, Don Estevan had never been in such danger. The plain offered him no protection against the rifles of his enemies—two at least of whom had an infallible eye and steady aim—and who had also the advantage of an impregnable position, and turrets of rock behind which to intrench themselves. Don Estevan did not conceal from himself the extent of his danger; but neither did his courage give way.
"Let us have done with this trifling," cried the sonorous voice of Bois-Rose, whose generosity made him averse to profit by his advantages, and who scrupled always to shed blood if he could avoid it. "You have heard that we wish no harm to any but your chief, and you must make up your mind to let us take him. Retire then willingly, if you do not wish us to treat you as we intend to treat him."
"Never!" cried Diaz, "shall I commit such a cowardice? You are the first comers; so be it; we will yield the ground to you, but Don Estevan must be allowed to go with me."
"We refuse," cried Pepe; "we particularly want the man you call Don Estevan."
"Do not oppose the justice of God," added Fabian; "your cause is only that of man. We give you five minutes to reflect, after which our rifles and our good cause shall decide between us."
"You have but two minutes to decide," said Bois-Rose; "listen to me and avoid needless bloodshed."
Mediana kept silence and preserved his haughty air. Unshakable in his notions of chivalric honour, Pedro Diaz resolved to die with the chief, whose life he believed to be so precious to his country. He consulted Don Estevan by a look.
"Return to the camp," said the latter; "abandon to his fate a man henceforth useless to your cause, and come back to avenge my death."
Diaz was not to be moved, but gradually drew his horse close to Don Estevan, and when their knees touched, with his face still turned toward his enemies, he murmured, with scarcely a movement of his lips:
"Keep steady in your stirrups, have your horse ready, and let me act."
Don Estevan made signs with his hand as though to demand a truce; but he had taken a desperate determination.
"Bend down, Fabian; he is going to fire," cried Bois-Rose.
"Before my mother's murderer? Never!" cried Fabian. Quick as thought, the hand of the Canadian giant on his shoulder, forced him down. Don Estevan vainly sought for an aim for his double-barrelled piece. He could see nothing but the formidable rifle of Bois-Rose directed towards him, although in obedience to Fabian's wishes, Bois-Rose would not finish the combat by striking his foe to the ground.
With as much courage as agility, Diaz now jumped up behind Don Estevan on his horse, and throwing his arms around him to steady him after the shock, seized the bridle, turned the animal round, and galloped off, covering with his body, as with a buckler, the chief whose life he was willing to save at the expense of his own. While Fabian and Pepe rushed down the rock, at the risk of breaking their necks, Bois-Rose followed the movements of the horse glancing along the barrel of his rifle.
The two men appeared to make but one body: the back of the horse and the shoulders of Diaz were the only objects at which Bois-Rose could aim; only now and then the head of the animal was visible. To sacrifice Diaz would be a useless murder; and Don Estevan would still escape. A moment more and the fugitives would be out of range; but the Canadian was of that class of marksmen who lodge a ball in the eye of a beaver, that he may not injure its skin; and it was the horse he wished to aim at. For a single moment the head of the noble animal showed itself entirely—but that moment was sufficient; a shot was heard, and the two men and the death-stricken horse rolled over together on the ground.
Bruised by the violence of their fall, both men rose with difficulty; while, their poignards in their teeth, and their rifles in their hands, Fabian and Pepe advanced upon them. Bois-Rose followed with great gigantic strides, loading his rifle as he went. When he had finished, he again stopped.
Pedro Diaz, devoted to the last, rushed towards the gun which had fallen from Don Estevan's hands, picked it up, and returned it to him.
"Let us defend ourselves to the last!" cried he, drawing his long knife.
Don Estevan steadied himself and raised his piece, undecided for a moment whether to aim at Fabian or at Pepe; but Bois-Rose was watching, and a bullet from his rifle broke the weapon of the chief in his hands, just where the barrel joins the stock, and Don Estevan himself, losing his balance, fell forward on the sand.
"At last, after twenty years!" cried Pepe, rushing towards him, and placing his knee upon his breast.
Don Estevan vainly tried to resist; his arm, benumbed by the violence of the blow which had broken his gun, refused its service. In an instant Pepe had untied the woollen scarf which was wound several times round his body, and bound with it the limbs of his enemy. Diaz could offer no assistance, for he had himself to defend against the attacks of Fabian.
Fabian scarcely knew the Indian fighter; he had seen him only for a few hours at the Hacienda del Venado; but the generosity of his conduct had awakened in the heart of the young man a warm sympathy, and he wished to spare his life.
"Surrender, Diaz!" cried he, parrying a dagger blow slimed at him; but Diaz resolved not to yield, and for the few minutes during which Pepe was engaged in binding Don Estevan, there was a contest of skill and ability between him and Fabian. Too generous to use his rifle against a man who had but a dagger to defend himself with, Fabian tried only to disarm his adversary; but Diaz, blinded by rage, did not perceive the generous efforts of the young man, who, holding his rifle by the barrel, and using it as a club, tried to strike the arm which menaced him. But Fabian had to deal with an antagonist not less active and vigorous than himself. Bounding from right to left, Diaz avoided his blows, and just as Fabian believed he was about to succeed, he found himself striking in the air, and the knife menacing him afresh. Bois-Rose without waiting to reload, ran up to put an end to the struggle—in which Fabian's generosity placed him at a disadvantage—and Pepe, having fast bound his enemy, advanced also.
Thus menaced by three men, Diaz determined not to die without vengeance. He drew his arm back, and made a rapid thrust at Fabian; but the latter had been carefully watching the movement, and his rifle met the murdering weapon on its way. The dagger fell to the ground; and Pepe, seizing Diaz round the body just as Fabian struck him, cried, "Fool! must we kill you, then? If not, what shall we do with you?"
"What you have done to that noble gentleman," replied Diaz, pointing to Don Estevan.
"Do not ask to share his fate," said Pepe; "that man's days are numbered."
"Whatever his fate is to be, I wish to share it," cried Diaz, vainly trying to free himself. "I accept from you neither quarter nor mercy."
"Do not play with our anger!" said Pepe, whose passions were roused; "I am not in the habit of offering mercy twice."
"I know how to make him accept it," said Fabian, picking up the fallen knife. "Let him go, Pepe; with a man like Diaz, one can always come to terms."
Fabian's tone was so firm, that Pepe opened his arms and loosened the iron grasp in which the Mexican was bound.
"Here, Diaz," said Fabian, "take your weapon, and listen to me."
So saying, Fabian advanced and offered him his knife without any attempt at guarding himself. Diaz took the weapon, but his adversary had not presumed too far; at the heroic simplicity of Fabian his anger vanished on the instant.
"I listen," said he, flinging his knife to the ground.
"I knew it would be so," replied Fabian, with a smile. "You interposed unknowingly between crime and the just vengeance which pursued it. Do you know who is the man for whom you wish to expose your life? and who are those who have spared it? Do you know whether or not we have the right to demand from him, whom you doubtless know only as Don Estevan, a terrible account of the past? Reply honestly to the questions that I shall put to you, and then decide on which side justice lies."
Astonished at these words, Diaz listened in silence, and Fabian went on:
"If you had been born in a privileged class, heir to a great fortune; if a man had taken from you your fortune and your name, and reduced you to the rank of those who have to work for their daily bread, should you be the friend of that man?"
"No, I should be his enemy."
"If that man, to destroy the last souvenir of your birth, had murdered your mother, what would he deserve from you?"
"Blow for blow—blood for blood."
"If, after a long and difficult pursuit, fate had at last delivered the spoiler into your hands, what would you do?"
"I should think myself guilty towards God and man if I spared him."
"Well, then, Diaz," cried Fabian, "there is a man who has taken from me my name, my fortune, and murdered my mother; I have pursued this murderer and spoiler—fate has delivered him into my hands, and there he lies!"
A cloud passed over the eyes of Diaz at the sight of the chief whose doom was thus pronounced, for the sentiment of inexorable justice that God has implanted in the heart of man told him that Don Estevan merited his fate, if Fabian spoke truly. He sighed, but offered no reply.
While these events were taking place in the midst of the plain, the actors of the scene might have observed Cuchillo raise with precaution the leaves which covered his head, cast an eager glance on the Golden Valley, and then glide out of the lake. Covered with mud, and his garments streaming with water, they might have mistaken him for one of the evil spirits whom the Indians believed to dwell in these solitudes. But their attention was completely absorbed by what was taking place among themselves.
CHAPTER FORTY NINE.
THE TWO MEDIANAS FACE TO FACE.
Pedro Diaz speedily roused himself from the deep depression and astonishment which had for a moment overpowered him.
"According to the rules of war, I am your prisoner," said he, raising his head, "and I am anxious to know your decision concerning me."
"You are free, Diaz," replied Fabian, "free without conditions."
"Not so! not so!" said the Canadian, quickly interrupting him. "We must, on the contrary, impose a rigorous condition upon your liberty."
"What is it?" asked the adventurer.
"You have now, in common with us," replied Bois-Rose, "become possessed of a secret which we have long since known. I have my reasons for wishing that the knowledge of this secret should expire with those whose evil destiny makes them acquainted with it. You only," added the Canadian, "will be an exception to the rule, because a brave man like yourself should be a slave to his word. I demand, then, before restoring you your liberty, a promise upon your honour, never to reveal to human being, the existence of the Golden Valley."
"I never indulged any hope in acquiring this treasure," replied the noble adventurer, in a melancholy tone, "beyond that of the freedom and aggrandisement of my country. The sad fate which threatens the man, to whom I looked for the realisation of my hopes, proves to me that in both cases I have entertained a delusive dream. Even should all the riches of the Golden Valley remain forever buried in these deserts, what would it avail me now? I swear then, and you may rely upon my honour, that I shall never reveal its existence to a living soul. I shall try to forget that I have ever, for an instant, beheld it."
"It is well," said Bois-Rose, "you are now free to go."
"Not yet, with your permission," replied the prisoner. "In all that has taken place, there is a mystery which I do not seek to penetrate—but—"
"Carramba! it is very simple," answered Pepe. "This young man," said he, pointing to Fabian—
"Not yet, Pepe," replied the latter solemnly, making a sign to the hunter to postpone his explanations. "In the court of justice which is about to be convened—in the presence of the Supreme Judge (Fabian pointed to heaven), by the accusation as well as the defence, all will become clear to Diaz, if he will remain a short while with us. In the desert, time is precious; and we must prepare ourselves, by meditation and silence, for the terrible deed which we are now compelled to accomplish."
"I am most anxious to obtain permission to stay. I do not know if this man be innocent or guilty; but, I do know that he is the chief whom I have freely chosen; and I will remain with him to the last, ready to defend him against you at the cost of my own life, if he is innocent— ready to bow before the sentence which condemns him, if he is guilty."
"Be it so," rejoined Fabian. "You shall hear and judge for yourself."
"This man is of noble birth," continued Diaz, sadly, "and he lies yonder in the dust, bound like the meanest criminal."
"Unloose him, Diaz!" replied Fabian, "but do not endeavour to shield him from the vengeance which a son must claim for his mother's murderer. Require from him a promise that he will not attempt to escape; we shall rely upon you in this matter."
"I pledge my honour that he will not do so," said the adventurer, "nor would I assist him in the attempt." And Diaz, as he said this, proceeded towards Don Estevan.
In the mean time Fabian, oppressed by sad and anxious thoughts, seated himself at some distance, and appeared to deplore his unfortunate victory.
Pepe turned away his head, and for a while stood as if attentively observing the mists as they floated above the crests of the mountains.
Bois-Rose reclined in his usual attitude of repose, while his eyes, expressive of deep anxiety, were centred upon the young man, and his noble physiognomy seemed to reflect the clouds which gathered upon the brow of his beloved protege.
Meanwhile Diaz had rejoined the prostrate captive.
Who can guess how many conflicting thoughts crowded upon the mind of the Spanish nobleman, as he lay upon the ground? His expression retained as much pride as when in his more prosperous days he had imagined the possibility of conquering, and bestowing, a throne upon the deposed heir of the Spanish monarchy. At the sight of Diaz, who, he believed had abandoned his cause, an expression of deep melancholy came over his countenance.
"Do you come as an enemy, or a friend, Diaz?" said he. "Are you one of those who take a secret pleasure in contemplating the humiliation of the man whom, in the days of his prosperity, you, like others, would have flattered?"
"I am one of those who flatter only the fallen," replied Diaz, "and who are not offended by the bitterness of speech which is dictated by great misfortune."
As he uttered these words, which were confirmed by the dejection of his manner, Diaz hastened to remove the cords with which the captive's arms were bound.
"I have given my word that you will not endeavour to escape the fate, whatever it may be, which awaits you at the hands of these men, into whose power we have fallen by an unlucky chance. I believe you have not even thought of flight."
"And you are right, Diaz," replied Don Estevan; "but can you guess what fate these fellows have reserved for me?"
"They talk of a murder to be avenged, of an accusation, and a judgment."
"A judgment!" replied Don Antonio with a haughty and bitter smile, "they may assassinate, but they shall never judge me."
"In the former case, I shall die with you," said Diaz, simply, "in the latter—but of what use is it to speak of that which cannot be? you are innocent of the crime of which they accuse you?"
"I have a presentiment of the fate which awaits me," replied Don Estevan without answering the adventurer's interrogation. "A faithful subject will be lost to his king—Don Carlos the First. But you will carry on my work? you will restore the prosperity of Sonora. You will return to the Senator Tragaduros—he knows what he has to do, and you will support him?"
"Ah!" cried Diaz, sadly, "such a work cannot be attempted but by you. In your hands I might have proved a powerful instrument; without you I shall sink into insignificant obscurity. The hope of my country expires with you."
During this interval, Fabian and Bois-Rose had quitted the spot where the preceding scenes had so rapidly taken place. They had reached the base of the pyramid. It was there that the solemn assizes were to be held, in which Fabian and the Duke de Armada were about to act the parts of judge and criminal.
Pepe made a sign to Diaz; Don Estevan saw and understood it.
"It is not enough to have remained a prisoner," said Diaz, "you must meet your fate; the conquered must obey the conqueror—come!"
As Diaz ceased speaking, the Spanish nobleman, armed with the pride which never deserted him, approached the pyramid with a firm step. Pepe had rejoined his two companions.
Don Estevan's looks, as he advanced, displayed a dauntless composure equally removed from bravado or weakness—which won a glance of admiration from his three enemies—all of them excellent judges of courage.
Fabian rose and stepped forward to meet his noble prisoner. A few paces behind, Diaz also advanced—his head bowed low, and his mind oppressed by gloomy thoughts. Everything in the manner of the conquerors convinced him that, on this occasion, right would be on the side of power.
"My Lord of Mediana," said Fabian, as, with head uncovered, he paused a few steps in advance of the noble Spaniard who had approached him, "you perceive that I recognise you, and you also know who I am."
The Duke de Armada remained upright and motionless without responding to his nephew's courtesy.
"I am entitled to keep my head covered in the presence of the King of Spain; I shall use that privilege with you," he replied; "also I claim the right of remaining silent when I think proper, and shall now exercise that right if it please you."
Notwithstanding this haughty reply, the younger son of the Medianas could not but remember how he, a trembling and weeping child, had, twenty years before, in the castle of Elanchovi quailed beneath the glance of the man whom he now presumed to judge.
The timid eaglet had now become the eagle, which, in its turn, held the prey in its powerful talons.
The glances of the two Medianas crossed like two swords, and Diaz contemplated, with mingled astonishment and respect, the adopted son of the gambusino Arellanos, suddenly transformed and raised above the humble sphere in which he had for an instant known him.
The adventurer awaited the solution of this enigma. Fabian armed himself with a pride which equalled that of the Duke de Armada.
"As you will," said he, "yet it might be prudent to remember, that here the right claimed by power is not an empty boast."
"It is true," replied Don Antonio, who, notwithstanding his apparent resignation, trembled with rage and despair at the total failure of his hopes. "I ought not to forget that you are doubtless inclined to profit by this right. I shall answer your question then when I tell you that I am aware of but one fact concerning you, which is that some demon has inspired you continually to cast some impediment in the way of the object I pursue—I know—"
Here rage stifled his utterance.
The impetuous young man listened with a changing countenance to the words uttered by the assassin of his mother, and whom he even now suspected was the murderer of his adopted father.
Truly it is the heroism of moderation, at which those who do not know the slight value attached to human life in the deserts, cannot be sufficiently astonished—for here law cannot touch the offender—but the short space of time which had elapsed since Fabian joined Bois-Rose was sufficient, under the gentle influence of the old hunter, to calm his feelings immeasurably.
He was no longer the young man whose fiery passions were the instruments of a vengeance to which he yielded blindly. He had learnt that power should go hand in hand with justice, and may often be combined with mercy.
This was the secret of a moderation, hitherto so opposed to his temperament. It was not, however, difficult to trace, in the changing expression of his countenance, the efforts he had been compelled to make to impose a restraint upon his anger.
On his side, the Spanish noble concealed his passion under the mask of silence.
"So then," resumed Fabian, "you know nothing more of me? You are not acquainted either with my name or rank? I am nothing more to you than what I seem?"
"An assassin, perhaps!" replied Mediana, turning his back to Fabian to show that he did not wish to reply to his question.
During the dialogue which had taken place between these two men of the same blood, and of equally unconquerable nature, the wood-rangers had remained at some distance.
"Approach," said Fabian to the ex-carabinier, "and say," added he, with forced calmness, "what you know of me to this man whose lips have dared to apply to me a name which he only deserves."
If any doubt could still have remained upon Don Estevan's mind with regard to the intentions of those into whose hands he had fallen, that doubt must have disappeared when he beheld the gloomy air with which Pepe came forward in obedience to Fabian's command.
The visible exertion he made to repress the rancorous feelings which the sight of the Spanish noble aroused in him, filled the latter with a sad presentiment.
A shudder passed through the frame of Don Estevan, but he did not lower his eyes, and by the aid of his invincible pride, he waited with apparent calmness until Pepe began to speak.
"Carramba!" exclaimed the latter in a tone which he tried in vain to render agreeable. "It was certainly worth while to send me to catch sea-fish upon the borders of the Mediterranean, so that, at the end of my journey, I might, three thousand leagues from Spain, fall in with the nephew whose mother you murdered. I don't know whether Don Fabian de Mediana is inclined to pardon you, but for my part," added he, striking the ground with the butt end of his rifle, "I have sworn that I will not do so."
Fabian directed a haughty glance towards Pepe, as though to command his submission; then addressing himself to the Spaniard:
"My Lord of Mediana, you are not now in the presence of assassins, but of judges, and Pepe will not forget it."
"Before judges!" cried Don Antonio; "my peers only possess the right of judgment, and I do not recognise as such a malefactor escaped from jail and a beggarly usurper who has assumed a title to which he has no right. I do not acknowledge here any other Mediana than myself, and have therefore no reply to make."
"Nevertheless I must constitute myself your judge," said Fabian, "yet believe me I shall be an impartial one, since I take as a witness that God whose sun shines upon us, when I swear that I no longer entertain any feelings of animosity or hatred against you."
There was so much truth in the manner with which Fabian pronounced these words, that, for an instant, Don Estevan's countenance lost its expression of gloomy defiance, and was even lit up by a ray of hope, for the Duke de Armada recollected that he stood face to face with the heir for whom, in his pride, he had once mourned. It was therefore in a less severe tone that he asked—
"Of what crime am I then accused?"
"You are about to hear," replied Fabian.
On the frontiers of the America there exists a terrible law, yet it is not this clause alone which renders it so—"Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood." The application of this law is evident in all the ways of Providence, to those who observe the course of events here below. "He who kills by the sword shall perish by the sword," says the gospel.
But the law of the desert is terrible by reason of the majesty with which it is invested, or claims to be invested.
This law is terrible in common with all laws of blood, and the more so, since those who have recourse to it usurp a power which does not belong to them, inasmuch as the injured party constitutes himself judge of his own cause, and executes the sentence which he himself has pronounced.
Such is the so-called "Lynch law."
In the central parts of America, white men as well as Indians execute this law with cruel severity against each other. Civilised communities adopt it in a mitigated form as applied to capital punishment, but the untutored inhabitants of the desert continue to practise it with the same rigour which belonged to the first ages of mankind.
And may we not here make the remark, that the similitude of feeling on this point, between the white man and the savages, casts a stain upon the former which for his own honour he should endeavour to wipe out?
Society has provided laws for the protection of all men. The man who amongst us should assume the right of judgment, and take the law into his own hands, would thus violate it, and fall under the jurisdiction of those whom society has appointed to try, and to condemn.
We are not without a hope that at some future time, as civilisation advances, men will allow that they who deprive a culprit of that life which none can recall, commit an act of sacrilege in defiance of those divine laws which govern the universe and take precedence of all human decrees.
A time will come, we would fain believe, when our laws may spare the life of a guilty man, and suffer him to atone for his errors or his crimes by repentance. Such a law would respect the life which can never be restored; and while another exists which casts an irretrievable stain upon our honour, there would be a law of restoration capable of raising the man sanctified by repentance to the dignity which punishment would have prevented his attaining.
"There is more joy in heaven," says the gospel, "over a sinner who repents, than a righteous man made perfect." Why then are not human laws a counterpart of these divine decrees?
Now, however, liberty is the only boon which society confers upon him whose misfortunes or whose crimes have deprived him of it.
Misfortunes did we not say? Is there not in truth a law which assimilates the criminal with the upright though insolvent debtor, and compels him to the same fate in prison?
So much for this subject. Let us now return to the lynch law of the desert. It was before a tribunal without appeal, and in the presence of self-constituted judges, that Don Antonio de Mediana was about to appear. A court assembled in a city, with all its imposing adjuncts, could not have surpassed in solemnity the assizes which at this moment were convoked in the desert, where three men represented human justice armed with all its terrors!
We have described the singular and fantastic aspect presented by the spot, in which this scene was to be enacted. In truth, the sombre mountains, veiled in mist, the mysterious subterranean sounds, the long tufts of human hair agitated by every breath of wind, the skeleton of the Indian horse exposed to view, all combined to endue the place with a strange unearthly appearance in the eyes of the prisoner, so that he almost believed himself under the influence of some horrible dream.
One might have imagined himself suddenly transported into the middle ages, in the midst of some secret society, where previous to the admission of the candidate, were displayed all the terrors of the earth, as a means of proving his courage.
All this however was here a fearful reality.
Fabian pointed out to the Duke de Armada, one of the flat stones, resembling tombstones, which were strewed over the plain, and seated himself upon another so as to form with the Canadian and his companion a triangle, in which he occupied the most prominent position.
"It is not becoming for the criminal to sit in the presence of the judges," said the Spanish noble, with a bitter smile, "I shall therefore remain standing."
Fabian made no reply.
He waited until Diaz, the only disinterested witness in this court of justice, had chosen a convenient place.
The adventurer remained at some distance from the actors in the scene, yet sufficiently near to see and hear all that passed.
"You are about to be told," said he, "of what crime you are accused. You are to look upon me as the judge who presides at your trial, and who will either condemn or acquit you."
Having thus spoken he paused to consider.
"It will first be necessary to establish the identity of the criminal. Are you in truth," he continued, "that Don Antonio, whom men here call the Count de Mediana?"
"No," replied the Spaniard in a firm voice.
"Who are you then?" continued Fabian, in a mingled tone of astonishment and regret, for he repudiated the idea that a Mediana would have recourse to a cowardly subterfuge.
"I was the Count de Mediana," replied the prisoner, with a haughty smile, "until by my sword I acquired other titles. At present I am known in Spain as the Duke de Armada. It is the name I shall transmit to the descendant of my line, whom I may choose as my adopted son."
The latter phrase, incidentally spoken by the prisoner, proved in the sequel his sole means of defence.
"Right," said Fabian, "the Duke de Armada shall hear of what crime Don Antonio de Mediana is accused. Speak Bois-Rose! tell us what you know, and nothing more."
The rough and energetic countenance of the gigantic descendant of the Norman race, as he stood motionless beside them, his carbine supported on his broad shoulder, was expressive of such calm integrity, that his appearance alone banished all idea of perjury. Bois-Rose drew himself up, slowly removed his fur cap, and in doing so discovered his fine open brow to the gaze of all.
"I will only speak of what I know," said he.
"On a foggy night, in the month of November, 1808, I was a sailor on board a French smuggling-vessel called the Albatros.
"We had landed according to a plan formed with the captain of the carabiniers of Elanchovi, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. I will not relate to you," and here Pepe could not repress a smile, "how we were fired upon, and repulsed from the shore where we had landed as friends. It is sufficient for you to know that when we again reached our vessel, I was attracted by the screams of a child, which seemed to come from the depths of the ocean.
"These cries proceeded from a boat which had been abandoned.
"I pushed out towards it at the risk of my own life, since a brisk fire was opened upon our ship.
"In this boat I found a lady murdered, and lying in her blood. She was quite dead, and close to her was a little child who appeared to be dying.
"I picked up the child—that child is now the man before us; his name is Fabian.
"I took the child with me, and left the murdered lady in the boat. I do not know who committed the crime, and have nothing further to say."
As he finished speaking, Bois-Rose again covered his head, and seated himself in silence.
A mournful silence followed this declaration.
Fabian lowered his flashing eyes for an instant to the ground, then raised them, calm and cold, to the face of the ex-carabinier, whose turn had now come to speak.
Fabian was prepared to act his terrible part, and the countenance as well as the attitude of the young man, though clothed in rags, expressed the nobility which characterised an ancient race, as well as the collected coolness of a judge. He cast an authoritative glance towards Pepe, and the half savage trapper was compelled to submit to it in silence.
Pepe at length rose, and advanced a few paces, by his manner showing a determination only to utter that which his conscience approved.
"I understand you, Count Mediana," said he, addressing himself to Fabian, who alone in his eyes had the right to assume this title. "I will try to forget that the man here present is the same who caused me to spend so many long years among the refuse of mankind at Ceuta. When I appear before God He may require of me the words I have spoken, but I should again repeat them, nor regret that they had ever been uttered."
Fabian made a gesture of approbation.
"One night in the month of November, 1808," said he, "when I belonged to the Royal Carabiniers in the service of Spain, I was on duty upon the coast of Elanchovi, where three men disembarked from the open sea upon the beach.
"Our captain had sold to one of them the right of landing in a forbidden spot.
"I reproach myself with having been this man's accomplice, and receiving from him the price of culpable neglect of my duty.
"The following day it was discovered that the Countess Mediana and her young son had left the castle during the night.
"The Countess was murdered—the young Count was never seen again.
"A short time after, his uncle appeared at Elanchovi and claimed his nephew's fortune and titles. All was given up to him, and I, who believed that I had only sold my services to favour an intrigue or an affair of smuggling, found that I had been the accomplice of a murderer.
"I upbraided the present Count Mediana before witnesses, and accused him of this crime. Five years' imprisonment at Ceuta was the reward of my presumption.
"Here before another and more righteous tribunal, and in the presence of God who is my witness, I again accuse the man before me. I declare him to be the murderer of the Countess, and the usurper of her son's titles. He was one of the three men, who, during the night entered by escalade the chateau which Don Fabian's mother never again beheld.
"Let the murderer refute the charge. I have done."
"You hear him?" said Fabian, "what have you to say in your defence?"
A violent struggle between his conscience and his pride took place in Mediana's breast.
Pride however triumphed.
"Nothing," replied Don Antonio.
"Nothing!" answered Fabian, "but you do not perhaps know what a terrible duty I have to fulfil?"
"I can imagine it."
"And I," cried Fabian passionately, "shall not flinch in accomplishing it. Yet, though my mother's blood cries out for vengeance, should you refute the charge, I would bless you still. Swear to me then, in the name of Mediana, which we bear in common, by your honour and the salvation of your soul, that you are innocent, and I shall be too happy to believe you."
Then, oppressed with an intolerable anguish, Fabian awaited his reply.
But, gloomy and inflexible as the fallen archangel, Mediana was silent.
At this moment Diaz advanced towards the judges and the prisoner.
"I have listened," said he, "with the utmost attention to your accusation again Don Estevan de Arechiza, whom I also know to be the Duke de Armada; may I express my thoughts freely?"
"Speak!" said Fabian.
"One point seems to me doubtful. I do not know whether the crime you attribute to this noble cavalier was committed by him; but, admitting that to be the case, have you any right to condemn him? In accordance with the laws of our frontier, where no court may be held, it is only the nearest relatives of the victim who are entitled to claim the blood of the murderer.
"Don Tiburcio's youth was passed in this country. I knew him as the adopted son of Marcos Arellanos.
"Who can prove that Tiburcio Arellanos is the son of the murdered lady?
"How, after so many years, can it be possible for this hunter, formerly a sailor, to recognise in the midst of these solitudes, the young man, whom as a child he beheld only for an instant on a foggy night?"
"Answer, Bois-Rose," said Fabian, coldly.
The Canadian again rose.
"I ought, in the first place, to state," said the old hunter, "that it was not only for a few moments on a foggy night that I saw the child in question. During the space of two years, after having saved him from certain death, I kept him on board the vessel in which I was a sailor.
"The features of his son could not be more deeply impressed upon the memory of a father than those of that child were on mine.
"How then can you affirm that it is impossible I should recognise him?
"When you are travelling in the desert, where there is no beaten track, are you not guided by the course of streams, by the character of the trees, by the conformation of their trunks, by the growth of the moss which clothes them, and by the stars of heaven? and when at another season, or even twenty years afterwards, should the rains have swelled the streams, or the sun have dried them up, should the once naked trees be clothed with leaves, should their trunks have expanded, and moss covered their roots, even should the north star have changed its position in the heavens, and you again beheld it, would you not recognise both star and stream?"
"Doubtless," replied Diaz, "the man who has experience in the desert, is seldom deceived."
"When you meet a stranger in the forest, who answers you with the cry of a bird or the voice of an animal, which is to serve as a rallying signal to you or your friends, do you not immediately say, 'This man is one of us'?"
"Well, then; I recognise the child in the grown man, just as you recognise the small shrub in the tall tree; or the stream that once murmured softly in the roaring and swollen torrent of to-day. I know this child again by a mode of speech, which twenty years have scarcely altered."
"Is not this meeting a somewhat strange coincidence?" interrupted Diaz, now almost convinced of the Canadian's veracity.
"God," cried Bois-Rose, solemnly, "who commands the breeze to waft across the desert the fertilising seeds of the male palm to the female date-tree—God, who confides to the wind which destroys, to the devastating torrent, or to the bird of passage, the grain which is to be deposited a thousand miles from the plant that produced it—is he not also able to send upon the same path two human beings made in his image?"
Diaz was silent a moment; then having nothing more to advance in contradiction to the Canadian's truthful words whose honest manner of speech carried with it an irresistible conviction, he turned towards Pepe:
"Did you," said he, "also recognise in Arellanos' adopted child, the Countess de Mediana's son!"
"It would be impossible for any one who ever saw his mother long to mistake him. Enough! let the Duke de Armada contradict me."
Don Antonio, too proud to utter a falsehood, could not deny the truth without degrading himself in the eyes of his accusers, unless he destroyed the only means of defence to which his pride and the secret wish of his heart allowed him to have recourse.
"It is true," said he, "that this man is of my own blood. I cannot deny it without polluting my lips with a lie, and an untruth is the offspring of cowardice."
Diaz inclined his head, regained his seat, and was silent.
"You have heard," said Fabian, "that I am indeed the son of the woman, whom this man murdered; therefore I claim the right of avenging her. What then do the laws of the desert decree?"
"Eye for eye," said Bois-Rose.
"Tooth for tooth," added Pepe.
"Blood for blood," continued Fabian; "a death for a death!"
Then he rose, and addressing Don Antonio in measured accents, said: "You have shed blood and committed murder. It shall therefore be done to you as you have done to others. God commanded it to be so."
Fabian drew his poignard from its sheath. The sun was shedding his first rays upon the scene, and every object cast a long shadow upon the ground.
A bright flash shot from the naked blade which the younger Mediana held in his hand.
Fabian buried its point in the sand.
The shadow of the poignard far exceeded its length.
"The sun," he said, "shall determine how many moments you have to live. When the shadow disappears you shall appear before God, and my mother will be avenged."
A deathlike silence succeeded Fabian's last words, who, overcome with long suppressed emotions, fell, rather than seated himself upon the stone.
Bois-Rose and Pepe both retained their seats. The judges and the criminal were alike motionless.
Diaz perceived that all was over, but he did not wish, to take any part in the execution of the sentence.
He approached the Duke de Armada, knelt down before him, took his hand and raised it to his lips.
"I will pray for the salvation of your soul," said he in a low tone. "Do you release me from my oath?"
"Yes," replied Don Antonio, in a firm voice; "go, and may God bless you for your fidelity!"
The noble adventurer retired in silence.
His horse had remained at some short distance.
Diaz soon reached it, and holding the bridle in his hands, walked slowly towards the spot where the river forked.
In the mean time the sun followed its eternal course—the shadows gradually contracted—the black vultures flew in circles above the heads of the four actors in the terrible drama the last scene of which was now drawing near. From the depths of the Misty Mountains, shrouded in vapour, might be heard, at intervals, dull rumbling sounds, like thunder, followed by distant explosions.
Pale, but resigned, the unfortunate Count de Mediana remained standing. Buried in deep reverie, he did not appear to notice the continually decreasing shadow.
All exterior objects vanished from his sight. His thoughts were divided between the past which no longer concerned him, and the future he was about to enter.
However, pride still struggled within him, and he maintained an obstinate silence.
"My Lord Count," said Fabian, who was willing to try a last chance, "in five minutes the poignard will have ceased to cast a shadow."
"I have nothing to say of the past," replied Don Antonio. "I must now think only of the future of my race. Do not, therefore, misjudge the sense of the words I am about to speak. Whatever may be the form in which it may come, death has no power to terrify me."
"I am listening," said Fabian gently.
"You are very young, Fabian," continued Mediana, "and the thought of the blood that has been shed will therefore be so much the longer a burthen to you."
Fabian's countenance revealed the anguish of his feelings.
"Why then so soon pollute a life which is scarcely begun? Why refuse to follow a course which the unlooked-for favour of Providence opens to you? Here you are poor, and without connections. God restores you to your family, and, at the same moment, confers wealth upon you. The inheritance of your race has not been squandered by me. I have for twenty years borne the name of Mediana, at the head of the Spanish nobles, and I am ready to restore it to you with all the honours I have conferred upon it. Accept then a fortune which I joyfully restore to you, for the isolation of my life is burthensome to me; but do not purchase it by a crime, for which an imaginary act of justice cannot absolve you, and which you will repent to your last hour."
Fabian replied, "A judge who presides at his tribunal must not listen to the voice of nature. Supported by his conscience, and the service he renders to society, he may pity the criminal, though his duty requires that he shall condemn him. In this solitude, these two men and myself represent human justice. Refute the crime attributed to you, Don Antonio, and I shall be the happiest of us two; for though I shudder to accuse you, I cannot escape the fatal mission which heaven has imposed upon me."
"Consider well, Fabian, and remember that it not pardon, but oblivion, for which I sue. Thanks to that oblivion, it rests with you to become, in my adopted son, the princely heir of the house of Mediana. After my death my title will expire."
As he listened to these words the young man became deadly pale; but spurning in his heart the temptation held out to him, Fabian closed his ears to that voice which offered him so large a share of the riches of this world, as though he had but heard the light whispers of the breeze amid the foliage of the trees.
"Oh, Count Mediana, why did you kill my mother?" cried Fabian, covering his face with his hands; then, glancing towards the poignard planted in the sand, "My lord of Armada," he added, solemnly, "the poignard is without a shadow!"
Don Antonio trembled in spite of himself, as he then recalled the prophetic threat, which twenty years before the Countess de Mediana had compelled him to hear.
"Perhaps," she had said, "the God whom you blaspheme will ordain, that in the heart of a desert, untrodden by the foot of man, you shall find an accuser, a witness, a judge, and an executioner."
Accuser, witness, and judge were all before him, but who was to be the executioner? However, nothing was wanting for the accomplishment of the dreadful prophecy.
A noise of branches, suddenly torn apart, was heard at this moment.
The moment after, a man emerged from the brushwood, his habiliments dripping with water and soiled with mud. It was Cuchillo.
The bandit advanced with an air of imperturbable coolness, though he appeared to limp slightly.
Not one of the four men, so deeply absorbed in their own terrible reflections, showed any astonishment at his presence.
"Carramba! you expected me then?" he cried; "and yet I persisted in prolonging the most disagreeable bath I have ever taken, for fear of causing you all a surprise, for which my self-love might have suffered," (Cuchillo did not allude to his excursion in the mountains); "but the water of this lake is so icy that rather than perish with cold, I would have run a greater risk than meeting with old friends."
"Added to this I felt a wound in my leg reopen. It was received some time since, in fact, long ago, in my youth.
"Senor Don Estevan, Don Tiburcio, I am your very humble servant."
A profound silence succeeded these words. Cuchillo began to feel that he was acting the part of the hare, who takes refuge in the teeth of the hounds; but he endeavoured by a great show of assurance to make the best of a position which was more than precarious.
The old hunter alone glanced towards Fabian, as though to ask what motive this man, with his impudent and sinister manner, and his beard covered with greenish mud, could offer for thus intruding himself upon them.
"It is Cuchillo," said Fabian, answering Bois-Rose's look.
"Cuchillo, your unworthy servant," continued the bandit, "who has been a witness to your prowess, most worthy hunter of tigers. Decidedly," thought Cuchillo, "my presence, is not so obnoxious to them as I should have supposed."
Then feeling his assurance redoubled at the reception he had met with, which though cold and silent as that with which every new-comer is received in the house of death, still gave him courage to say, observing the severe expression on every face:
"Pardon me, gentlemen! I observe you have business in hand, and I am perhaps intruding; I will retire. There are moments when one does not like to be disturbed: I know it by experience."
Saying these words, Cuchillo showed his intention of crossing a second time the green inclosure of the valley of gold, when Bois-Rose's rough voice arrested him.
"Stay here, as you value the salvation of your soul, master Cuchillo," said the hunter.
"The giant may have heard of my intellectual resources," thought Cuchillo. "They have need of me. After all, I would rather go shares with them than get nothing; but without doubt this Golden Valley is bewitched. You allow, master hunter," he continued, addressing the Canadian, and feigning a surprise he did not feel at the aspect of his chief, "I have a—"
An imperious gesture from Fabian cut short Cuchillo's demand.
"Silence!" he said, "do not distract the last thought of a Christian who is about to die."
We have said that a poignard planted in the ground no longer cast a shadow.
"My lord of Mediana," added Fabian, "I ask you once again, by the name we bear, by your honour, and the salvation of your soul, are you innocent of my mother's murder?"
To this lofty interrogation, Don Antonio replied without relaxing his haughty demeanour—
"I have nothing to say, to my peers alone I allow the right of judgment. Let my fate and yours be accomplished."
"God sees and hears me," said Fabian. Then taking Cuchillo aside: "A solemn sentence has been passed upon this man," said he to him. "We, as the instruments of human justice in this desert, command you to be his executioner. The treasures contained in this valley will remunerate you for undertaking this terrible duty. May you never commit a more iniquitous act!"
"One cannot live through forty years without having a few little peccadilloes on one's conscience, Don Tiburcio. However, I shall not the less object to being an executioner; and I am proud to know that my talents are estimated at their real value. You promise, then, that all the gold of this valley shall be mine?"
"All—without excepting the smallest particle."
"Carramba! notwithstanding my well-known scruples, it is a good price, therefore I shall not hesitate; and if at the same time there is any other little favour you require of me, do not distress yourself—it shall be done cheaply."
That which has been previously said explains Cuchillo's unexpected appearance.
The outlaw, concealed upon the borders of the neighbouring lake, had escaped through the prologue which preceded the fearful drama in which he was about to perform a part. Taking all things into consideration, he saw that matters were turning out better than he had expected.
However he could not disguise from himself the fact that there was a certain amount of danger in his becoming the executioner of a man who was aware of all his crimes, and who could, by a single word, surrender him him to the implacable justice enforced in these solitudes.
He was aware that to gain the promised recompense, and to prevent Don Antonio from speaking, it would be necessary first to deceive him, and he found means to whisper in the ear of the prisoner—
"Fear nothing—I am on your side."
The spectators of this terrible scene maintained a profound silence, under a feeling of awe experienced by each of them.
A deep dejection of spirit had, in Don Fabian's case, succeeded the energetic exercise of his will, and his face, bowed towards the earth, was as pale and as livid as that of the man upon whom he had pronounced sentence of death.
Bois-Rose—whom the frequent dangers which belonged to the life of a sailor and a hunter, had rendered callous to the physical horror with which one man looks upon the destruction of his fellow—appeared completely absorbed in the contemplations of this young man, whom he loved as a son, and whose dejected attitude showed the depth of his grief.
Pepe, on his side, endeavoured to conceal under an impenetrable mask the tumultuous feeling resulting from his now satisfied vengeance. He, as well as his two companions, remained silent.
Cuchillo alone—whose sanguinary and vindictive nature would have led him to accept gratuitously the odious office of executor—could scarcely conceal his delight at the thoughts of the enormous sum he was to receive for the wicked service.
But in this case, for once in his life, Cuchillo was to assist in an apparently legal proceeding.
"Carramba!" he ejaculated, taking Pepe's carbine from him, and at the same time making a sign to Don Antonio; "this is an affair for which even the judge of Arispe himself would be sorry to grant me absolution."
He advanced towards Don Antonio.
Pale, but with flashing eyes; uncertain whether in Cuchillo he beheld a saviour or an executioner, Don Estevan did not stir.
"It was foretold that I should die in a desert; I am, what you are pleased to call, convicted and condemned. God has reserved forme the infinite disgrace of dying by the hand of this man. I forgive you, Fabian; but may not this bandit prove as fatal to your life, as he will be to that of your father's brother, as he was—"
A cry from Cuchillo—a cry of alarm, here interrupted the Duke de Armada.
"To arms! To arms! yonder come the Indians!" cried he.
Fabian, Bois-Rose, and Pepe rushed to seize their rifles.
Cuchillo took advantage of this short instant, and sprang towards Don Antonio. The latter with his neck stretched forward, was also examining the wide extent of the plain, when Cuchillo twice plunged the poignard into his throat.
The unfortunate Mediana fell to the ground, vomiting forth torrents of blood.
A smile relaxed Cuchillo's lips: Don Antonio had carried out of the world the secret which he dreaded.
CHAPTER FIFTY ONE.
THE JUDGMENT OF GOD.
An instant of stupor succeeded to the murder so suddenly accomplished. Don Antonio did not stir; Fabian seemed to forget that the bandit had only hastened the execution of the sentence which he himself had pronounced.
"Wretch!" cried he, rushing towards Cuchillo, with the barrel of his carbine in his hand, as though he did not deign to raise its butt against the executioner.
"There, there!" said Cuchillo, drawing back, whilst Pepe, more ready to acquit Don Antonio's murderer, interposed between them; "you are as quick and passionate as a fighting-cock, and ready every instant to sport your horns, like a young bull. The Indians are too busy elsewhere to trouble themselves about us. It was a stratagem of war, to enable me more speedily to render you the signal service required of me. Do not therefore be ungrateful; for, why not admit it? you were just now a nephew, most unsufferably encumbered with an uncle; you are noble, you are generous; you would have regretted all your life that you had not pardoned that uncle? By cutting the matter short for you, I have taken the remorse upon myself; and so the affair is ended."
"The rascal knows what he is about, undoubtedly," remarked the ex-carabinier.
"Yes," replied Cuchillo, evidently flattered, "I pride myself upon being no fool, and upon having some notion of the scruples of conscience. I have taken your doubts upon mine. When I take a fancy to people, I sacrifice myself for them. It is a fault of mine. When I saw, Don Tiburcio, that you had so generously pardoned me the blow—the scratch I inflicted upon you—I did my best to deserve it: the rest must be settled between me and my conscience."
"Ah!" sighed Fabian, "I hoped yet to have been able to pardon him."
"Why trouble yourself about it?" said the ex-carabinier. "Pardon your mother's murderer, Don Fabian! it would have been cowardice! To kill a man who cannot defend himself, is, I grant, almost a crime, even after five years' imprisonment. Our friend Cuchillo has saved us the embarrassment of choosing: that is his affair. What do you say, Bois-Rose?"
"With proofs such as those we possess, the tribunal of a city would have condemned the assassin to atone for his crime; and Indian justice could not have done less. It was God's will that you should be spared the necessity of shedding the blood of a white man. I say as you do, Pepe, it is Cuchillo's affair."
Fabian inclined his head, without speaking, in acquiescence to the old hunter's verdict—as though in his own heart he could not determine, amidst such conflicting thoughts, whether he ought to rejoice, or to grieve over this unexpected catastrophe.
Nevertheless, a shade of bitter regret overspread his countenance; but accustomed, as well as his two companions, to scenes of blood, he assented, though with a sigh, to their inexorable logic.
In the mean time, Cuchillo had regained all his audacity, things were turning out well for him.
He cast a glance of satisfied hatred upon the corpse of him who could never more speak, and muttered in a low voice:
"Why trouble one's self about human destiny?—for twenty years past, my life has depended upon nothing more than the absence of a tree."
Then addressing himself to Fabian:
"It is, then, agreed, that I have rendered you a great service. Ah! Don Tiburcio, you must resolve to remain in my debt. I think generously of furnishing you with the means of discharging it. There is immense wealth yonder; therefore it would not do for you to recall a promise given to him who, for your sake, was not afraid—for the first time, let me tell you—to come to an open rupture with his conscience."
Cuchillo, who, notwithstanding the promise Fabian had made—to satisfy his cupidity by the possession of the gold,—knew that to make a promise, and to keep one, are two different things. He waited the reply with anxiety.
"It is true; the price of blood is yours," said Fabian to the bandit.
Cuchillo assumed an indignant air.
"Well, you will be magnificently recompensed," continued the young man, contemptuously; "but it shall never be said that I shared it with you:— the gold of this place is yours."
"All?" cried Cuchillo, who could not believe his ears.
"Have I not said so?"
"You are mad!" exclaimed Pepe and Bois-Rose, simultaneously, "the fellow would have killed him for nothing!"
"You are a god!" cried Cuchillo; "and you estimate my scruples at their real value. What! all this gold?"
"All, including the smallest particle," answered Fabian, solemnly: "I shall have nothing in common with you—not even this gold."
And he made a sign to Cuchillo to leave the ground.
The bandit, instead of passing through the hedge of cotton-trees, took the road to the Misty Mountains, towards the spot where his horse was fastened.
A few minutes afterwards he returned with his serape in his hand. He drew aside the interlacing branches which shut in the valley, and soon disappeared from Fabian's sight. The sun, in the midst of his course, poured down a flood of light, causing the gold spread over the surface of the valley to shoot forth innumerable rays.
A shudder passed though Cuchillo's veins, as he once more beheld it.
His heart beat quick at the sight of this mass of wealth. He resembled the tiger which falling upon a sheepfold cannot determine which victim to choose. He encompassed with a haggard glance the treasures spread at his feet; and little was wanting to induce him, in his transports of joy, to roll himself in these floods of gold.
Soon, however, restored to calmer thoughts, he spread his mantle on the sand; and as he saw the impossibility of carrying away all the riches exposed to his view, he cast around him a glance of observation.
In the meantime, Diaz, seated at some distance on the plain, had not lost a single detail of this melancholy scene.
He had seen Cuchillo suddenly appear, he had imagined the part he would be required to fulfil, he heard the bandit's cry of false alarm, and even the bloody catastrophe of the drama had not been unseen by him.
Until then he had remained motionless in his place, mourning over the death of his chief, and the hopes which that death had destroyed.
Cuchillo had disappeared from their sight, when the three hunters saw Diaz rise and approach them.
He advanced with slow steps, like the justice of God, whose instrument he was about to become.
His arm was passed through his horse's bridle; and his face, clouded by grief, was turned downwards.
The adventurer cast a look full of sadness upon the Duke de Armada lying in his blood; death had not effaced from that countenance its look of unalterable pride.
"I do not blame you," said he; "in your place I should have done the same thing. How much Indian blood have I also not spilt to satisfy my vengeance!"
"It is holy bread," interrupted Bois-Rose, passing his hand through his thick grey hair, and directing a sympathetic glance toward the adventurer. "Pepe and I can say that, for our part—"
"I do not blame you, friends, but I grieve because I have seen this man, of such noble courage, fall almost before my eyes; a man who held in his hand the destiny of Sonora. I grieve that the glory of my country expires with him."
"He was, as you say, a man of noble courage, but with a heart of stone. May God save his soul!"
A convulsive grief agitated Don Fabian's breast. Diaz continued the Duke de Armada's funeral oration.
"He and I had dreamed of the freedom of a noble province and days of splendour. Neither he, nor I, nor others, will ever now behold them shine. Ah! why was not I killed instead of him? No one would have known that I had ceased, to exist, and one champion less would not have compromised the cause we served; but the death of our chief ruins it forever. The treasure which is said to be accumulated here might have aided us in restoring Sonora; for you do not, perhaps, know that near to this spot—"
"We know it," interrupted Fabian.
"Well," continued Diaz, "I will think no more about this immense treasure. I have always preferred the life of an Indian, killed by my own hands, to a sack of gold dust."
This common feeling of hatred towards the Indians still further added to the sympathy which Bois-Rose had felt for the disinterestedness and courage shown by Diaz.
"We have failed at the onset," continued Diaz, in a tone of great bitterness, "and all this through the fault of a traitor whom I wish to deliver up to your justice—not because he deceived us, but because he has destroyed the instrument which God was willing to grant, in order to make my country a powerful kingdom."
"What do you say?" cried Fabian; "is it Cuchillo of whom you speak?"
"The traitor who twice attempted your life—the first time at the Hacienda del Venado, the second in the neighbouring forest—is the one who conducted us to this valley of gold."
"It was then Cuchillo who told you the secret. I was almost sure of it—but are you also certain?"
"As certain as I am that I shall one day appear before God. Poor Don Estevan related to me how the existence and position of the treasure became known to Cuchillo; it was in assassinating his associate who had first discovered it.
"And now if you decide that this man who has twice attempted your life deserves exemplary punishment, you have only to determine upon it."
As he finished these words, Pedro Diaz tightened his horse's girths, and prepared to depart.
"One word more!" cried Fabian, "has Cuchillo long possessed this grey horse, which, as you may be aware, has a habit of stumbling?"
"More than two years, from what I have heard."
This last scene had escaped the bandit's observation, the thicket of cotton-trees concealing it from his sight; besides, he was too much absorbed in the contemplation of his treasures to turn his eyes away from them.
Seated upon the sand, he was crouched down amidst the innumerable pieces of gold which surrounded him, and he had already begun to pile up upon his serape all those he had chosen, when Diaz finished his terrible revelation.
"Ah! it is a fearful and fatal day," said Fabian, in whose mind the latter part of this revelation left no room for doubt. "What ought I do with this man? You, who both know what he has done with my adopted father, Pepe—Bois-Rose—advise me, for my strength and resolution are coming to an end. I have experienced too many emotions for one day."
"Does the vile wretch, who cut your father's throat, deserve more consideration than the noble gentleman, who murdered your mother, my son?" answered the Canadian, resolutely.
"Whether it be your adopted father or any others who have been his victims, this brigand is worthy of death," added Diaz, as he mounted upon his saddle, "and I abandon him to your justice."
"It is with regret that I see you depart," said Bois-Rose to the adventurer, "a man who like yourself is a bitter enemy to the Indians, would have been a companion whose society I should have appreciated."
"My duty recalls me to the camp, which I quitted under the influence of Don Estevan's unhappy star," replied the adventurer, "but there are two things I shall never forget; they are, the conduct of generous enemies; and the oath I have taken never to reveal to a living creature the existence of this Golden Valley."
As he finished these words, the loyal Diaz quickly withdrew, reflecting upon the means of reconciling his respect for his word, with the care and safety of the expedition entrusted to him by its leader, previous to his death.
The three friends speedily lost sight of him.
The sun shone out, and, glancing down from the Golden Valley, discovered Cuchillo, greedily bending over his treasures, and the three hunters holding council amongst themselves respecting him.
Fabian had listened in silence to Bois-Rose's advice, as well as that given by Diaz previous to his departure; and he only waited the counsel of the old carabinier.
"You have taken," said the latter, in his turn, "a vow, from which nothing ought to release you; the wife of Arellanos received it from you on her death-bed; you have her husband's murderer in your power; there is nothing here to deny it."
Then, observing a look of anxious indecision in Fabian's countenance, he added, with that bitter irony which formed a part of his character; "But after all, if this duty is so repugnant to you, I shall undertake it; for not having the least ill will against Cuchillo, I can bang him without a scruple. You will see, Fabian, that the knave will not testify any surprise at what I am going to tell him. Fellows who have such a face as Cuchillo's expect to be hung every day."
As he concluded this judicious reflection, Pepe approached the green hedge, which separated them from the outlaw.
The latter, unconscious of all that had taken place around him—dazzled, blinded, by the golden rays, which reflected the sun's light over the surface of the valley—had heard and seen nothing.
With fingers doubled up, he was busied rummaging amongst the sand with the eagerness of a famished jackal disinterring a corpse.
"Master Cuchillo! a word, if you please," cried Pepe, drawing aside the branches of the cotton shrubs; "Master Cuchillo!"
But Cuchillo did not hear.
It was only when he had been called three times that he turned around, and discovered his excited countenance to the carabinier—after having, by a spontaneous movement of suspicion, thrown a corner of his mantle over the gold he had collected.
"Master Cuchillo," resumed Pepe, "I heard you a little while ago give utterance to a philosophical maxim, which gave me the highest opinion of your character."
"Come!" said Cuchillo to himself, wiping the sweat from his forehead, "here is someone else who requires my services. These gentry are becoming imprudent, but, por Dios! they pay handsomely."
"A philosophical maxim?" said he, throwing away disdainfully, a handful of sand, the contents of which would elsewhere have rejoiced a gold-seeker. "What is it? I utter many, and of the best kind; philosophy is my strong point."
Pepe, on one side of the hedge, resting upon his rifle, in a superb attitude of nonchalance, and the most imperturbable sangfroid, and Cuchillo, on the other side, with his head stretched across the green inclosure of the little valley, looked very much like two country neighbours, for the moment chatting familiarly together.
No one, on seeing them thus, would have suspected the terrible catastrophe which was to follow this pacific intercourse. The countenance of the ex-carabinier, only exhibited a gracious smile.
"You spoke truth," replied Pepe. "What signifies human destiny; for twenty years past you say you have owed your life to the absence of a tree?"
"It is true," affirmed Cuchillo, in an absent tone, "for a long time I preferred shrubs, but lately I have become reconciled to large trees."
"And yet it is still one of my favourite maxims, that a wise man must pass over many little inconveniences."
"True. And now I think of it," added Pepe, carelessly, "there are on the summit of yonder steep hill, two magnificent pine trees which project over the abyss, and which, twenty years ago, might have caused you very serious anxiety."
"I do not deny it; but at present I am as easy about it as if they were only cactus plants."
"Indeed!" repeated Cuchillo, with some impatience. "So then, you did me the honour to speak of me, and to what purpose?"
"Oh! a simple remark. My two companions and myself had some reasons for suspecting that amongst these mountains a certain valley of gold was to be found; but nevertheless, it was only after long seeking that we found it. You also know it now, and even better than ourselves, since unhesitatingly, and without losing an instant, you have appropriated to yourself, between what you call a heap and what you have already collected, carramba—enough to build a church to your patron saint."
Cuchillo, at the recollection of the imprudence he had been guilty of, and at this indirect attack, felt his legs give way under him.
"It is certainly my intention not to employ this gold to any other purpose than a godly one," said he, concealing his anguish as well as he could. "As to the knowledge of this wonderful valley, it is to—it is to chance that I owe it."
"Chance always comes to the assistance of virtue," replied Pepe, coldly. "Well, in your place, I should not, nevertheless, be without anxiety touching the vicinity of those two pine trees."
"What do you mean?" cried Cuchillo, turning pale.
"Nothing—unless this may prove to you one of those trifling inconveniences, about which you just now said a man should not trouble himself. Por Dios! you have enough booty to render a king jealous."
"But I acquired this gold legitimately—I committed no murder to obtain it. What I did was not worthless. The devil! I am not in the habit of killing for nothing," cried Cuchillo, exasperated, and who, mistaking the carabinier's intentions, saw only in his alarming innuendoes regret at his defrauded cupidity.
Like the sailor, who, overtaken by a storm, throws a part of his cargo overboard to save the rest, Cuchillo resolved with a sigh, to shun, by means of a sacrifice, the danger with which he was threatened.
"I again repeat to you," said he, in a low voice, "chance alone gave me a knowledge of this treasure; but I don't wish to be selfish. It is my intention to give you a share. Listen," he continued, "there is in a certain place, a block of gold of inestimable value; honest fellows should understand one another, and this block shall be yours. Ah! your share will be better than mine."
"I hope so," said Pepe; "and in what place have you reserved me my portion?"
"Up yonder!" said Cuchillo, indicating the summit of the pyramid.
"Up yonder, near the pine trees? Ah, master Cuchillo, how glad I am to find that you have not taken my foolish little joke amiss, and that these trees do not affect you any more than if they were cactus plants! Between ourselves, Don Tiburcio, whom you perceive to be deeply absorbed, is only regretting in reality the enormous sum he has given you, for a service which he could equally well have performed himself."
"An enormous sum! it was but a very fair price, and at any rate I should have lost it," cried Cuchillo, recovering all his habitual impudence of manner, on seeing the change that had taken place in the conduct and tone of the ex-carabinier.
"Agreed," continued the latter; "but in truth, he may have repented of the bargain; and I must avow that if he commanded me to blow your brains out, in order to get rid of you, I should be compelled to obey him. Allow me, then, to call him here so as to restore his confidence; or, better still, come and show me the portion, which your munificence destines for me. Afterwards we each go our own way; and notwithstanding all you have said about it, the share assigned to you will surpass all your expectations."
"Let us set off then," resumed Cuchillo, happy to see a negotiation—the probable result of which began to cause him serious uneasiness— terminate so satisfactorily for him and, casting a glance of passionate tenderness upon a heap of gold which he had piled up upon his wrapper, he set off towards the summit of the pyramid. He had scarcely reached it, when, upon Pepe's invitation, Fabian and Bois-Rose began to ascend the steep on the other side.
"No one can escape his fate," said Pepe to Fabian, "and I had already proved to you that the rascal would testify no astonishment. Be that as it may remember that you have sworn to avenge the death of your adopted father, and that in these deserts you ought to shame the justice of cities, where such crimes go unpunished. To show mercy towards such a knave is an outrage to society! Bois-Rose! I shall need the assistance of your arm."
The Canadian hunter, by a glance, interrogated him, for whom his blind devotion knew no bounds.
"Marcos Arellanos craved pardon and did not obtain it," said Fabian, no longer undecided, "and as this man did to others, so let it be done to him."
And these three inexorable men seated themselves solemnly upon the summit of the pyramid, where Cuchillo already awaited them. At sight of the severe aspect of those whom he had inwardly so many reasons to dread, Cuchillo felt all his apprehensions renewed. He endeavoured, however, to recover his assurance.
"Do you see," said he, pointing out behind the sheet of water, whose majestic torrent foamed beside them, "the spot where the block of gold sheds forth its dazzling rays?"
But the eyes of his judges did not turn in the direction he indicated. Fabian rose slowly; his look caused the blood to curdle in the veins of the outlaw.
"Cuchillo!" said he, "you saved me from dying of thirst, and you have not done this for one who is ungrateful. I have forgiven you the stab with which you wounded me at the Hacienda del Venado. I have pardoned another attempt you made near El Salto de Agua; also the shot which you only could have fired upon us from the summit of this pyramid. I might, in short, have forgiven every attempt you have made to take away a life you once saved; and with having pardoned you, I have even recompensed you, as a king does not recompense the executioner of his justice."
"I do not deny it; but this worthy hunter, who has informed me with a great deal of circumspection upon the delicate subject you wish to touch upon, ought also to inform you how reasonable he found me in the matter."
"I have forgiven you," continued Fabian, "but there is one crime, amongst others, from which your own conscience ought not to absolve you."
"There is a perfect understanding between my conscience and myself," resumed Cuchillo, with a graciously sinister smile, "but it seems to me that we are getting away from our subject."
"That friend whom you assassinated in such a cowardly manner—"
"Disputed with me the profits of a booty, and faith, the consumption of brandy was very considerable," interrupted Cuchillo. "But permit me—"
"Do not pretend to misunderstand me!" cried Fabian, irritated by the knave's impudence.
Cuchillo collected his thoughts.
"If you allude to Tio Tomas, it is an affair which was never very well understood, but—"
Fabian opened his lips to form a distinct accusation with reference to the assassination of Arellanos, when Pepe broke in—
"I should be curious," he said, "to learn the real facts concerning Tio Tomas: perhaps Master Cuchillo has not sufficient leisure to recollect himself, which would be a pity."
"I hold it necessary," continued Cuchillo, flattered at the compliment, "to prove that men own such a susceptible conscience as mine; here then are the facts—My friend Tio Tomas had a nephew impatient to inherit his uncle's fortune; I received a hundred dollars from the nephew to hasten the moment of his inheritance. It was very little for such a capital will.
"It was so little that I gave Tio Tomas warning, and received two hundred dollars to prevent his nephew becoming his heir. I committed a fault in—despatching the nephew without giving him warning, as I ought to have done, perhaps. It was then I felt how inconvenient a quarrelsome conscience like mine may become. I seized upon the only means of composition which was left me. The nephew's money was a continual remorse to me, and I resolved to get rid of it."
"Of the money?"
"And you despatched the uncle as well?" cried Pepe.
"From that time my conscience had but little to reproach me with. I had gained three hundred dollars by the most ingenious integrity."
Cuchillo was yet smiling, when Fabian exclaimed—
"Were you paid for assassinating Marcos Arellanos?"
At this astounding accusation a livid paleness overspread Cuchillo's features.
He could no longer disguise from himself the fate that awaited him.
The bandage which covered his eyes fell suddenly; and to the flattering delusions with which he had deceived himself succeeded a formidable reality.
"Marcos Arellanos!" he stammered out in a weak voice, "who told you that? I did not kill him!"
Fabian smiled bitterly.
"Who tells the shepherd," he cried, "where the den of the jaguar is to be found that devours his sheep?
"Who tells the vaquero where the horse that he pursues has taken refuge?
"To the Indian, the enemy he seeks?
"To the gold-seeker the ore, concealed by God?
"The surface of the lake only does not preserve the trace of the bird which flies over its waters, nor the form of the cloud which it reflects; but the earth, with its herbs and mosses, reveals to us sons of the desert, the print of the jaguar's foot as well as the horse's hoof and the Indian's track; do you not know it, even as I do?"
"I did not kill Arellanos," repeated the assassin.
"You did kill him; you cut his throat near to our common country; you threw his corpse into the river; the earth revealed it to me—since I noticed the defect in the horse you rode, as well as the wound in your leg, which you received in the struggle."
"Pardon, Don Tiburcio?" cried Cuchillo, overwhelmed by the sudden revelation of these facts, to which God alone had been witness. "Take back all the gold you gave me, but spare my life; and to show my gratitude, I will kill all your enemies everywhere, and always at a sign from you—for nothing—even my father, if you command me; but in the name of the all-powerful God, spare my life—spare me my life!" he continued, crawling forward and clutching at Fabian's knees.
"Arellanos also craved for mercy; did you listen to him?" said Fabian, turning away.
"But when I killed him, it was that I might possess all this gold myself. Now I restore it all for my life—what can you want more?" he continued, while he resisted Pepe's efforts, who was trying to prevent him from kissing Fabian's feet.
With features distorted by excess of terror, a whitish foam upon his lips, his eyes starting from his head, yet seeing nothing, Cuchillo still sued for mercy, as he endeavoured to crawl towards Fabian. He had by continued efforts reached the edge of the platform. Behind his head, the sheet of water fell foaming downwards.
"Mercy, mercy!" he cried, "in the name of your mother—for Dona Rosarita's sake, who loves you, for I know that she loves you—I heard—"
"What?" cried Fabian, in his turn rushing towards Cuchillo, but the question expired upon his lips.
Spurned along the earth by the carabinier's foot Cuchillo with head and arms stretched back was hurled into the abyss!
"What have you done, Pepe?" exclaimed Fabian.
"The wretch," said the ex-carabinier, "was not worth the cord which might have hung him, nor the bullet that would have sent him out of the world."
A piercing cry,—a cry which rose from the abyss—which drowned their voices and was heard above the roar of the cascade, caused Fabian to stretch his head forward and withdraw it again in horror. Hanging to the branches of a shrub which bent beneath his weight, and which scarce adhering to the sides of the rock, was fast giving way, Cuchillo hung over the abyss, howling forth his terror and anguish.
"Help!" he shouted, in a voice despairing as the damned. "Help! if you are human beings—help!"
The three friends exchanged a glance of unutterable meaning, as each one wiped the sweat from his brow.
Suddenly the bandit's voice grew faint, and amidst horrible bursts of laughter, like the shrieks of a lunatic, were heard the last inarticulate words that escaped his lips.
A moment after, and the noise of the cascade alone broke the silence of the desert. The abyss had swallowed up him whose life had been a long tissue of crime.
CHAPTER FIFTY TWO.
THE MAN OF THE RED KERCHIEF.
Six months have elapsed since the three hunters, without deigning to carry with them a single grain of the treasures of the valley of gold, directed their steps, following the course of the Rio Gila, to the plains of Texas. The rainy had succeeded to the dry season, without anything being known of their fate, or of the expedition commanded by Don Estevan de Arechiza.
Diaz was no more, having carried with him to the tomb the secret of the wonderful valley—and Gayferos had followed his three liberators. What had become of these intrepid hunters who had willingly encountered fatigues, privations and dangers, instead of returning to civilised life? Were they as rich and powerful as they might have been? Had the desert claimed these three noble spirits, as it has done so many others? Like the monk, who seeks in the silence of cloister forgetfulness of the world's vain show, had Fabian in the sublimity of solitude been able to forget the woman who loved him, and who secretly hoped for and expected his return?
What we are about to relate will answer these questions.
One sultry afternoon, two men, mounted and armed to the teeth, pursued the lonely road which leads from the utmost confines of the province of Sonora to the Presidio of Tubac. Their costume, the coarse equipment of their steeds, and the beauty of the latter, formed on the whole a striking contrast and seemed to indicate subalterns despatched by some rich proprietor, either to carry or to seek information.
The first was clothed in leather from head to foot, like the vaquero of some noble hacienda. The second, dark and bearded like a Moor, though less simply attired than his companion, did not appear to be of much greater consideration.
At the end of a journey of some days the white houses of the Presidio began to appear in the distance. The two cavaliers had probably exhausted every subject of conversation, for they trotted on in silence.
The scanty vegetation which covered the plains they were crossing was again becoming parched by the sun, after the winter rains; and the dry grass harboured innumerable grasshoppers whose shrill note was heard incessantly, mingled with the scorching breath of the south wind. The foliage of the Peruvian trees drooped languidly over the burning sand, like the willows upon the banks of a stream.
The two cavaliers arrived at the entrance of the Presidio just as the church clock sounded the evening angelus.
Tubac was then a village with two cross streets, its houses built of cement, with only a few windows in the front, as is the custom in places exposed to the sudden excursions of the Indians. Strong movable barriers, formed by trunks of trees, protected the four approaches to the village; and a piece of the artillery of the country, raised upon its carriage, was erected behind each of these barriers.
Previous to following the new-comers into the Presidio, we must relate an incident which, insignificant in itself, nevertheless acquired some importance in the heart of a solitary village of Tubac.
During the space of a fortnight a mysterious personage—inasmuch as he was unknown to the inhabitants of the Presidio—had frequently, and for a short time, appeared there. He was a man of about forty years of age, thin, but rough and vigorous in appearance, whose countenance seemed to tell of dangers overcome, but whose speech was as rare as his physiognomy was expressive. He replied shortly to any questions addressed to him; but, on the other hand, he asked a great many, and appeared particularly anxious to know what was passing at the Hacienda del Venado.
Some of the inhabitants of the Presidency knew the rich proprietor very well by repute, but few amongst them—or, one might rather say, none of them—were so thoroughly acquainted with Don Augustin Pena, as to be capable of answering the questions of the stranger.
Everybody in Tubac remembered the gold-seekers' expedition which had set out six months previously; and according to some vague replies given by the mysterious personage, it was suspected that he knew more upon the matter than he chose to reveal. He had, he pretended, encountered in the deserts of the Apache country, a troop commanded by Don Estevan in a very critical position, and he had reason for believing that they must have fought a last and terrible engagement with the Indians, from the result of which he augured no good.