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Title: The Bee Hunters - A Tale of Adventure
Author: Aimard, Gustave, 1818-1883
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE BEE HUNTERS

A TALE OF ADVENTURE

BY

GUSTAVE AIMARD


AUTHOR OF "STONEHEART," "SMUGGLER CHIEF," ETC., ETC.


LONDON:

CHARLES HENRY CLARKE, 13 PATERNOSTER ROW.

1865



CONTENTS.


      I.   A MEETING IN THE FAR WEST
     II.   IN THE FOREST
    III.   THE CALLI
     IV.   SUPERFICIAL REMARKS
      V.   CONFIDENTIAL CHAT
     VI.   THE JOURNEY
    VII.   THE SKIRMISH
   VIII.   THE PUEBLO (THE TOWN)
     IX.   DOÑA HERMOSA
      X.   EL AS DE COPAS (THE ACE OF HEARTS)
     XI.   THE RANCHO
    XII.   THE REDSKINS
   XIII.   THE MIDNIGHT MEETING
    XIV.   DON ESTEVAN DIAZ
     XV.   DON GUZMAN DE RIBERA
    XVI.   THE POST HOUSE IN THE PAMPAS
   XVII.   A DELICATE FEDERAL ATTENTION
  XVIII.   TREACHERY
    XIX.   THE END OF THE STORY



CHAPTER I.

A MEETING IN THE FAR WEST.


Since the discovery of the goldfields in California and on the
Fraser River, North America has entered into a phase of such active
transformation, civilisation has advanced with such giant strides,
that only one region is still extant--a region of which very little
is known--where the poet, or the dreamer who delights in surrounding
himself with the glories of nature, can revel in the grandeur and
majesty, which are the great characteristics of the mysterious
savannahs.

It is the only country, nowadays, where such men can sate themselves
with the contemplation of those immense oceans of alternate verdure and
sand, which spread themselves out in striking contrast, yet wonderful
harmony,--expanding, boundless, solemn, silent, and threatening, under
the eye of the omnipotent Creator.

This region, in which the sound of the squatter's axe has not yet
roused the slumbering echoes, is called the Far West.

Here the Indians still reign as masters, tracing paths on rapid
mustangs, as untamed as their riders, through the vast solitudes, whose
mysteries are known only to themselves; hunting the bison and wild
horse, waging war with each other, or pursuing with deadly enmity, the
white hunters and trappers daring enough to venture into this last
formidable refuge of the redskins.

On the 27th July, 1858, about three hours before sunset, a cavalier,
mounted on a magnificent mustang, was carelessly following the banks of
the Rio Bermejo, a tributary of the Rio Grande del Norte, into which
it falls after a course of from seventy to eighty leagues across the
desert.

This cavalier, clad in the leather dress worn by Mexican hunters, was,
as far as one could judge, a man not more than thirty years of age,
of tall and well-knit frame, and graceful in manner and action. His
face was proud and determined; and his hardy features, stamped with
an expression of frankness and good nature, inspired, at first sight,
respect and sympathy.

His blue eyes, soft and mild as a woman's; the thick curls of blonde
hair, which escaped in masses from under the brim of his cap of vicuña
skin, and wantoned in disorder on his shoulders; the sallowish white
of his skin, very different from the olive tint, approaching to bronze,
peculiar to the Mexicans,--all these would lead one to surmise that he
had not first seen the light under the hot sun of Spanish America.

This man, who was to all appearance so peaceable and so little to be
dreaded, concealed, under a slightly effeminate exterior, a courage
which nothing could daunt, nor even startle: the delicate and almost
diaphanous skin of his white hands, with their rosy nails, served as a
covering to nerves of steel.

At the moment of which we speak this personage seemed to be half-asleep
in his saddle, and allowed his mustang to choose his own pace; and the
beast, profiting by a liberty to which he was not accustomed, nibbled
off with the tips of his lips the blades of sun-dried grass he met with
on his road.

The place where our cavalier found himself was a plain of tolerable
extent, cut into two nearly equal parts by the Rio Bermejo, whose banks
were steep, and here and there strewn with bare, gray rocks.

This plain was enclosed between two chains of hills, rising to right
and left in successive undulations, until they formed at the horizon
high peaks covered with snow, on which the purple splendours of sunset
were playing.

However, in spite of the real or pretended somnolence of the cavalier,
his eyes half opened occasionally and, without turning his head,
he cast a searching glance around him, but betrayed no symptom of
apprehension, which nevertheless would have been quite pardonable in a
district where the jaguar is the least formidable of man's enemies.

The traveller, or hunter,--for as yet we do not know who he
is,--continued his road at a pace which became more and more slow and
careless; he was on the point of passing at about a hundred yards'
distance from a rock which rose like a solitary watchtower on the bank
of the Rio Bermejo, when, from behind the mass, where he had probably
lain in ambuscade, there half emerged a man, armed with an American
rifle.

This individual for a moment examined the traveller with the minutest
attention: then, levelling his rifle, he pressed the trigger, and fired.

The cavalier, bounding in his saddle, and uttering a suppressed scream,
flung up his arms, lost his stirrups, and rolled on the turf, where,
after a few convulsive movements, he remained motionless.

The horse, in alarm, reared, lashed out wildly with his heels, and
started off at full speed in the direction of the woods scattered over
the hills, in the midst of which he soon disappeared.

Having thus cleverly knocked over his man, the assassin dropped the
butt of his weapon on the ground, and, doffing his cap of vicuña skin,
dried his forehead, while he murmured expressions of gratified vanity.

"_¡Canarios!_ This time I don't think my marauding friend will come to
life again; I must have broken his backbone for him. What a glorious
shot! What will those fools say who wanted to make me believe at the
venta that he was a sorcerer, who could not be hit without putting a
silver ball into my rifle, if they could see him now, stretched out in
that way? Capital! I have loyally earned my hundred piastres. It's not
bad luck. I had lots of trouble in succeeding. May the holy Virgin be
blessed for the protection she has deigned to grant me! I will take
care not to be ungrateful to her for it."

All the time he was muttering thus, the worthy fellow was reloading his
rifle with the most scrupulous care.

"Well," continued he, seating himself on a clod of turf, "I am knocked
up with having had to watch so long. Suppose I were to go and convince
myself of his death? By Heaven, no; he might still be breathing, and
treat me to a thrust of the knife. I'm no such fool. I prefer sitting
here in peace, and smoking a cigarette. If, within an hour, he has not
stirred, all will be over, and then I'll run the risk. And indeed I'm
in no sort of hurry," he added, with a sinister smile.

Upon that, with an air of the greatest coolness, he took the tobacco
from his pouch, twisted a _pajillo_ (straw cigarette), lit it, and
commenced smoking with immense _sangfroid_, never ceasing to watch, out
of the corner of his eye, the corpse lying a few yards from him.

Let us profit by this moment of respite to make the reader a little
better acquainted with this interesting personage.

He was a man a little below the average height, but the breadth of
his shoulders and bigness of his limbs showed him to be endowed with
immense muscular power; his forehead was low and receding like that
of a wild beast; his nose, long and hooked, bent down over a mouth
immense in size, but with thin lips, and garnished with long pointed
and irregular teeth; gray eyes, with squinting pupils, stamped his
physiognomy with a sinister expression.

The man was dressed in a hunter's garb, similar to that of the
cavalier. _Calzoneras_ (loose trousers) of leather, bound about at
the hips with a _faja_, or sash of silk, and falling as low as the
knee, were fastened under _botas vaqueras_ (heavy boots), intended to
preserve the legs. A kind of half-jacket, half-blouse, also of leather,
covered the upper part of his body, which garment, open in front like
a shirt, had sleeves reaching to the elbow; a _machete_ or straight
sword, passed without sheath through an iron ring, hung on his left
hip; and a game bag, apparently well supplied was slung to his right
side by a strip of bison hide worn across the shoulder; a _zarapé_, or
Indian blanket, motley with brilliant colours, lay on the earth beside
him.

In the meanwhile time was passing; an hour and a half had already
elapsed without our friend, who smoked cigarette after cigarette,
appearing to be able to decide upon going to convince himself of the
death of him on whom he had treacherously drawn trigger from behind the
rock.

During all this time, the cavalier, after he fell, had preserved
the most complete immobility; attentively watched by the assassin,
the latter had not been able to perceive the slightest motion. The
_zopilotes_ (turkey buzzards) and the condors, in all probability
attracted by the scent of the corpse, were beginning to circle in wide
rings over it, uttering their rough and discordant cries; the sun, on
the point of disappearing, had assumed the shape of a globe of fire on
the edge of the horizon. It became necessary to act.

The assassin rose, greatly against his will.

"Pooh!" he murmured, "The man must be dead enough by this time, or
if not his soul has turned to ashes in his heart. Let's go and look.
Nevertheless, as prudence is the mother of safety, let us be prudent."

And in accordance with this reasoning, he drew from his garter the
sharp-pointed knife which every Mexican carries for the purpose of
cutting the thong if an enemy happens to cast the lasso round his neck.
Having tried the spring of the blade against a stone, and convinced
himself that the point was not broken, he made up his mind, at last,
to approach the body, still lying motionless on the spot where it had
fallen. But in the American deserts there is an axiom the justice of
which is acknowledged by all. It is this: That the shortest road from
one point to another is a curve. Our friend took good care to put it in
practice on this occasion. Instead of advancing straight to the object
of his visit, he made a long circuit, drawing nearer little by little,
stealing along softly, stopping at intervals to examine the body, and
ready to fly at the slightest movement he might see, and with his knife
ready to strike.

But these precautions were useless; the corpse preserved the immobility
of a statue, and our man stopped almost within reach without
discovering a single thing to betray an atom of life in the unhappy
wretch stretched upon the ground before him.

The murderer crossed his arms over his chest, and contemplated the
body, whose face was turned to the ground.

"By my faith, he is dead indeed. It is a pity; for he was a formidable
fellow. I should never have dared to attack him face to face. But a
man must stick to his word. I had been paid; I was bound to fulfil my
engagement. Curious! I see no blood! Pooh! It is a case of internal
bleeding. So much the better for him, for his sufferings will have been
less. However, to make doubly sure, I'll plant my knife between his two
shoulders: in that way I shall be sure of my bird, although there is no
danger of his coming to life again. You see, one must not deceive those
who pay us; a man must stick to his word."

After this soliloquy he knelt down, bent over the body, supporting
himself by one hand on its shoulders, and lifted his knife; but
suddenly, by a movement of unexampled rapidity, the supposed corpse
rose with a bound like a jaguar, and oversetting the stupefied
assassin, seized him by the throat, pinned him to the earth, planted
his knee on his chest, and deprived him of his knife before his brains
could render an account of what was happening.

"Hulloa, _compadre!_" (comrade) said the cavalier in a jeering tone;
"One moment, if you please, _¡cuerpo de Cristo!_"

All this passed in much less time than we have taken to write it.

However, sudden and unexpected as the attack had been, the other
was too much accustomed to strange vicissitudes in somewhat similar
situations not to recover his presence of mind almost immediately.

"Well, comrade," resumed the cavalier, "what have you got to say to all
this?"

"I?" replied the other, with a sneer; "_¡Caray!_ I say the game has
been well played."

"Then it is one you are acquainted with?"

"A little," was the modest reply.

"I have been a little sharper than you."

"Yes, sharper; yet I certainly thought I had killed you. Curious," he
continued, as if talking to himself, "the others were right; it is
I who have been a fool. I will take a silver ball next time; it is
surer."

"What are you saying?"

"Nothing."

"Pardon me, you did say something."

"Are you very anxious to know?"

"Apparently, since I have asked the question."

"Very well. I said I would take a silver bullet next time."

"What for?"

"Why, to kill you."

"To kill me? Go to; you are a fool! Do you fancy I will let you escape?"

"I do not fancy anything of the kind, the more so as you could not do
anything worse."

"Because you would kill me?"

"By Heavens! Yes, as soon as possible."

"Then you hate me?"

"I? Not the least in the world."

"Well, then, if not, what is your motive?"

"Confound it! A man must stick to his word."

The cavalier cast a long look upon him, shaking his head the while with
a thoughtful air.

"H'm," said he, at last, "promise me not to attempt to escape if I
leave you free for a time."

"I promise, with so much the more pleasure, since I am obliged to
confess that I find myself in a most fatiguing posture, and am very
anxious to change it."

"Rise," said the cavalier, helping him up.

The other did not wait for the mandate to be repeated: in an instant he
was on his legs.

"Ah," he replied, with a grunt of satisfaction, "liberty is a blessing!"

"Is it not? Now shall we talk a little?"

"I desire nothing better, _caballero_. I can only be the gainer by your
conversation," replied the other, bowing, with an insinuating smile.

The two enemies placed themselves side by side, as if nothing
extraordinary had happened between them.

This is one of the distinctive traits of Mexican character: murder
amongst these people has grown so thoroughly into a habit, that it
never astonishes anyone; and it often happens that the man just escaped
falling a victim to an ambuscade, does not scruple to press the hand
extended by his would-be assassin, foreseeing that someday or other he
too will be called on to play in his turn the part of murderer.

In the present circumstances it was certainly not this consideration
which induced the cavalier to act as he was doing. He had a powerful
motive, with which we shall become acquainted presently; for, in spite
of his feigned indifference, it was only with a sentiment of lively
disgust that he seated himself beside the bandit.

As to the latter, we feel ourselves bound in justice to state that he
had only one feeling of regret--the shame of having missed his blow;
but he promised himself, _in petto_, to take his revenge as soon as
possible, and this time to take such sure precautions that he must
succeed.

"What are you thinking of?" demanded the cavalier, all of a sudden.

"I? On my honour, nothing," was the ingenuous reply.

"You would deceive me. I know what you are thinking of at this very
moment."

"Oh, as for that, permit me to tell you--"

"You were thinking of killing me," said the cavalier, interrupting him
abruptly.

The other returned no answer; he contented himself with muttering
between his teeth--

"What a devil! He reads the most hidden thoughts. One is not safe
beside him."

"Will you answer honestly, and frankly, the questions I am about to put
to you?" resumed the cavalier, after a time.

"Yes; as well as lies in my power."

"That is to say, just so far as your interest does not lead you to lie."

"Confound it, señor, no one likes to make war upon oneself! No one
ought to force me to speak ill of myself."

"You are right. Who are you?"

"Señor," replied the other, raising himself proudly, "I have the
honour to be a Mexican, My mother was an Opata Indian; my father a
_caballero_ (gentleman) of Guadalupe."

"Very well; but I learn nothing from this about yourself."

"Alas, señor!" was the reply, given in that whining tone the Mexicans
know so well how to adopt, "I have been unfortunate."

"Oh, you have met with misfortunes! Well, pardon me once more. You have
forgotten to mention your name."

"It is a very obscure one, señor; but since you desire to know it, here
it is: I am called Tonillo el Zapote--at your service, señor."

"Thanks, Señor Zapote. Now proceed; I am listening."

"I have followed many trades in my day. I have been by turns _lepero_
(vagabond), muleteer, husbandman, soldier. Unhappily, I am of a quick
temper: when I am in a passion, my hand is very ready."

"And heavy," said the cavalier, with a smile.

"It is all the same; so much so, that I have had the misfortune to
_bleed_ five or six individuals who had the imprudence to pick a
quarrel with me. The _Juez de letras_ (magistrate) was annoyed; and
under the pretence that I was guilty of six murders, he asserted I
deserved the garotte; so, seeing my fellow citizens misapprehended
me--that society would not appreciate me at my real value--I took
refuge in the desert, and turned hunter."

"Of men?" interrupted the cavalier in a tone of sarcasm.

"By Heavens! Señor, times are hard: the Gringos pay twenty dollars for
a scalp. It is a pretty sum; and, on my honour, particularly so when
want presses. But I never have recourse to these means except in the
direst extremity."

"It is well. And now tell me, do you know me?"

"Very well by report; personally, not at all."

"Have you any reasons for hating me?"

"I have already the honour to tell you--none."

"In that case, why have you attempted to assassinate me?"

"I, señor?" cried he, showing signs of the utmost astonishment; "I
assassinate you? Never!",

"What, fool!" exclaimed the cavalier, lowering his brows, "Dare you
maintain such an imposture? Four times have I served as a target to
your rifle. You have drawn trigger upon me this very day, and--"

"Oh! By your leave, señor," said El Zapote with warmth, "that is quite
a different thing. True, I fired at you; it is even likely I shall fire
at you again; but never, as I hoped for Paradise, have I dreamed of
assassinating you. For shame!--I, a _caballero_! How could you form so
bad an opinion of me, señor?"

"Then what was your intention in firing at me?"

"To kill you, señor; nothing more."

"Then in this case murder is not assassination?"

"Not in the slightest degree, señor; this was business."

"What! Business?--The rogue will make me go mad, upon my soul!"

"By Heaven, señor, an honest man must stick to his word."

"If it is to kill me?"

"Exactly so," answered El Zapote. "You can understand that, under the
conditions, I was compelled to keep my engagement."

There was a moment of silence; evidently the reasoning did not seem so
conclusive to the cavalier as to the _lepero_.

Then said the former:

"Enough; let us have done with this."

"I ask no better of your seigneurie."

"You acknowledge, I suppose, that you are in my power?"

"It would be difficult to assert the contrary."

"Good! As, according to your own confession you have fired on me with
the evident intention of killing me--"

"I cannot deny it, señor."

"In killing you, now you are in my power, I should only be making use
of reprisals?"

"That is perfectly true, _caballero_, I must even confess that you
could not possibly have a stronger reason for doing so."

His companion gazed at him in surprise.

"Then you are content to die?" said he.

"Let us understand each other," replied the _lepero_ with avidity.
"I am not at all content. On the contrary, I only know that I am a
thorough gambler, that is all. I played; I lost; I have to pay. It is
reasonable."

The cavalier seemed to reflect.

"And if, instead of planting my knife in your throat, even as you
yourself acknowledge I have the right to do--"

El Zapote made a sign of assent.

"I were to restore you to liberty," continued the cavalier, "leaving
you the power of acting according to your own impulse?"

The bandit shook his head sorrowfully.

"I repeat," he said, "that I would kill you. A man must stick to his
word. I cannot betray the confidence of my employers; it would ruin my
reputation."

The cavalier burst out laughing.

"I suppose you have been well paid for this undertaking?" said he.

"Not a great deal; but want makes many things be done. I have received
a hundred piastres."

"No more?" exclaimed the stranger, with a gesture of disdain; "It is
very little; I thought myself worth more than that."

"A great deal more, particularly as the undertaking was difficult; but
next time I will take a silver bullet."

"You are an idiot, comrade. You will not kill me the next, any more
than you did the other times. Think of what has occurred up to today.
I have already heard your balls whistle four times about my ears: that
annoyed me. At last I wished to find out who you were: you see I have
succeeded."

"It is the truth. Now, after all, were you not aware of my being close
to you?"

The cavalier shrugged his shoulders.

"I will not even demand of you," he said, "the name of him who has
ordered you to compass my death. Here, take your knife, and begone. I
despise you too much to fear you. Adieu!"

Speaking thus, the cavalier rose, and dismissed the bandit with a
gesture full of majesty and disdain.

The _lepero_ remained an instant motionless, then bowed profoundly
before his generous adversary.

"Thanks, your worship," said he, in a voice exhibiting some emotion;
"you are better than I. Never mind; I will prove to you that I am not
the scoundrel you fancy me, and that there is still something within me
which has not been utterly corrupted."

The cavalier's only answer was to turn his back upon him, with a shrug
of the shoulders.

The _lepero_ gazed after his retiring form with a look of which his
savage features would have seemed incapable: a mixture of sorrow and
gratitude impressed on his countenance a stamp very different to their
customary expression.

"He does not believe me," he muttered--we have already seen that he had
a decided taste for soliloquy--"he does not believe me. Why, indeed,
should he trust my words? It is sad; but an honest man must stick to
his word, and I will prove to him that he does not yet know me. Let me
begone."

Comforting himself with these words, the bandit returned to the rock
behind which he had originally hidden; there he picked up his rifle,
then from the other side of the rock he brought his horse, which he had
concealed in a hollow, replaced the bridle, and departed at a gallop,
after casting a glance behind him, and murmuring, in a tone of sincere
admiration:

"_¡Caray!_ What a tremendous fellow! What natural power! What a pity it
would be to knock him over like an antelope, from behind a bush! _¡Viva
Dios!_ That shall not happen, if I can hinder it, on the honour of a
Zapote."

He forded the Rio Bermejo, and speedily disappeared amongst the tall
grasses that bordered the opposite bank.

As soon as the unknown had assured himself of the _lepero's_ departure,
he began to calculate the time by the enormously lengthened shadows of
the trees; and, after looking about him attentively, gave a whistle,
sharp and prolonged, which, although restrained, was nevertheless
repeated by all the echoes of the river, so powerful was its tone.

At the end of a few seconds a distant neighing made itself audible,
followed almost immediately after by the sound of precipitate
galloping, resembling the rolling of distant thunder.

Little by little the sound grew nearer, the branches crashed, the
underwood was violently dashed aside, and the unknown's mustang made
his appearance on the skirt of a wood at a little distance.

When there, the noble animal paused, snuffed the air vigorously,
turning his head and neck in all directions; then starting off, with a
thousand capers he made the best of his way, till he halted before his
master, and gazed upon him with eyes full of intelligence.

The latter patted him gently, talking to him in a caressing voice;
then, having made quite sure that the _lepero_ was gone, and that he
was assuredly alone, he readjusted the trappings of his horse, which
had become slightly disordered, vaulted into the saddle and in his turn
departed.

But instead of continuing to follow the course of the Rio Bermejo, he
turned his back upon it, and rode in the direction of the mountains.

The bearing of the unknown had undergone a complete change; it was no
longer the man whom we formerly presented to our readers, half asleep,
swaying in the saddle, and leaving his horse to wander at leisure.
No; now he held himself firm and upright on his mustang, with limbs
closely pressing its flanks; his face was overcast with dark shades
of thought; his glances wandered about as if they would pierce the
mysteries of the thick forest with which he was surrounded; with head
slightly bent forward, he listened with strained attention to the most
trifling noise; and his rifle, placed across the saddlebow, had the
lock exactly under his right hand, in such a fashion that he could fire
instantaneously, if circumstances required.

One might have said, so suddenly had the man changed, that the strange
scene to which we have just introduced our reader was for him only one
of those thousand accidents, without consequences, to which his desert
life exposed him, but that now he was preparing to battle with dangers
which might really prove serious.



CHAPTER II.

IN THE FOREST.


The unknown had struck into a dense forest, the last skirts of which
dwindled away close to the banks of the Rio Bermejo.

American forests have little resemblance to those of the Old World: in
the former, the trees shoot up hap-hazard, crossing and interlacing
each other, and sometimes leaving large spaces completely open, strewn
with dead trees, uprooted, and piled on each other in the strangest
manner.

Some trees, partially or wholly withered, show in their hollow remnants
of the strong and fruitful soil; others, equally ancient, are supported
by the entangled creepers, which, in process of time, have almost
attained the size of their former props--the diversity of foliage
forming here the most agreeable contrast; others, concealing within
their hollow trunks a hotbed, formed from the remains of their leaves
and half-dead branches, which has promoted the germination of the seed
that fell from them, seem to promise an indemnification for the loss of
the parent trees in the saplings they nourish.

One could imagine that nature had determined to put beyond the ravages
of time some of these old trees, when sinking under the weight of ages,
by clothing them in a mantle of gray moss, which hangs in long festoons
from the topmost branches to the ground. This moss, called _barbe
d'Espagnol_, gives to the trees a most fantastic aspect.

The ground of these forests, formed from the remains of trees falling,
in successive generations, for centuries, is most eccentric: sometimes
raising itself in the shape of a mountain, to descend suddenly into
a muddy swamp, peopled by hideous alligators wallowing in the green
slime, and by millions of mosquitoes swarming amidst the fetid vapours
exhaled, sometimes extending itself endlessly in plains of a monotony
and regularity truly depressing.

Rivers, without a name, traverse these unknown deserts, bearing nothing
on their silent waters save the black swans, which let themselves
carelessly float down the currents; while rosy flamingoes, posted
along the banks, fish philosophically for their dinners, with eyes
half-closed and sanctimonious air.

Even where the view seems most contracted, sudden clearings sometimes
open out prospects picturesque in the extreme and deliciously
fortuitous.

Incessant noises, nameless sounds, make themselves heard without
a break in these mysterious regions--the grand voices of the
solitude--the solemn hymn of the invisible world, created by the
Almighty.

In the bosom of these redoubtable forests the wild beasts and reptiles,
which abound in Mexico, find refuge; here and there one meets with
paths incessantly trodden for centuries by jaguars and bisons, and
which, after countless meanderings, all debouch on unknown drinking
holes.

Woe to the daring mortal who, without a guide ventures to tempt the
inextricable mazes of these immense seas of verdure! After ineffable
tortures, he succumbs, and falls a prey to the savage beasts. How
many hardy pioneers have died thus, without the possibility of the
veil being lifted which shrouds their miserable end! Their blanched
bones, discovered at the foot of some tree, alone can teach those who
come upon them that on that spot men have died, a prey to infinite
suffering, and that the same fate, perchance, awaits the finders.

The stranger must have been the constant guest of the forest into which
he had so audaciously plunged at the moment when the sun, quitting the
horizon, had left the earth to darkness--darkness rendered still denser
in the covert, in which the light even at midday could only struggle in
at intervals through the tufted branches.

Bending a little forward, eye and ear on the watch, the unknown
advanced as rapidly as the nature of the ground under his horse's hoofs
would let him, following unhesitatingly the capricious deviations of a
wild animal's path, whose traces were scarcely discoverable amidst the
tall grasses which strove continually to efface it.

He had already ridden for several hours without having slackened the
pace of his horse, plunging deeper and deeper into the forest.

He had forded several rivers, scaled many a steep ravine, hearing at a
short distance, on right and left, the hoarse growlings of the jaguar
and the mocking wailing of the tiger cat, which seemed to follow him
with their menacing yells.

Taking no heed of roar or tumult, he continued his route, although the
forest assumed a more dreary aspect at every step.

The bushes and trees of low growth had disappeared, to make room for
gigantic mahogany trees, century old cork trees, and the acajou, whose
sombre branches formed a vaulted roof of green eighty feet above his
head. The path had grown wider, and stretched, in a gentle incline,
towards a hillock of moderate height, entirely free from trees.

Arrived at the base of the hillock, the stranger halted; then, without
dismounting, cast a searching glance on all around.

The stillness of death pervaded everything; the howling of the wild
beasts was lost in the distance; no noise was audible, save that caused
by a slender stream of water, which, trickling through the crevices of
a rock, fell from a height of three or four yards into a natural basin.

The sky, of the deepest blue, was spangled with an infinite number
of brilliant stars; and the moon, sailing amidst a sea of whitish
clouds, cast her silvery rays in profusion on the hillock, whose sides,
fantastically lighted up, formed a striking contrast with the rest of
the landscape, merged, as it was, in the deepest obscurity.

During several minutes the unknown remained motionless as a statue,
listening to the faintest sound, ready to fire at the slightest
appearance of danger.

Convinced, at last, that all around was peaceful, and that nothing
unusual disturbed the silence of the solitude, he prepared to dismount,
when suddenly his horse threw up his head, laid back his ears, and
snorted loudly.

A moment more, and a violent crashing was heard among the underwood; a
noble moose deer rose from amidst the bushes, and, bounding to within a
short distance from the cavalier, rapidly traversed the path, tossing
his antlers in terror, and vanished in the darkness.

For a time the noise of its headlong course resounded over the dry
leaves, crushed under its feet in the constantly increasing speed of
its flight.

The cavalier, with a scarcely perceptible motion of the hand, backed
his horse gradually to the foot of the hillock, with his head always
turned in the direction of the forest, like a vidette who retires
before a superior force.

As soon as he reached the spot he had selected, the unknown leaped
lightly to the ground; and, making a rampart of his horse's body,
levelled his rifle, steadied the barrel across the saddle, and waited
patiently.

He had not to wait long: after a while the tread of several persons was
heard approaching his place of ambush.

Most likely the unknown had already divined who these persons might be,
even before he saw them; for he quitted his temporary shelter, passed
his arm through his horse's reins, and, uncocking his rifle, let the
butt drop on the ground, with every symptom of complete security, while
a smile of indefinable expression played about his lips.

At last the branches parted, and five persons appeared on the scene.

Of these five persons, four were men; two of them supported the
tottering form of a woman, whom they almost carried in their arms. And,
what was most wonderful in these regions, the strangers, whom it was
easy to recognise as white men by their dress and the colour of their
skin, had no horses with them.

They continued to advance without being aware of the presence of the
unknown, who, still motionless, marked their approach with mingled pity
and sadness.

Suddenly one of the strangers happened to lift his eyes.

"Praise be to God!" cried he, in Mexican, with lively satisfaction;
"We are saved. Here is a human being at last."

The five stopped. The one who had first observed the unknown came
rapidly towards him, and exclaimed, with a graceful inclination:

"Caballero, I entreat you to grant, what is seldom refused in the
wilderness, aid and protection."

The unknown, before he replied, threw a searching look at the speaker.

The latter was a man of some fifty years; his manner was polished, his
features noble, although his hair was growing white about his temples;
his figure, upright and compact, had no more bent an inch, nor his
black eyes lost a particle of their fire, than if he had been only
thirty. His rich dress and the ease of his manner clearly proved him to
belong to the highest grade of Mexican society.

"You have committed two grave errors in as many minutes, caballero,"
answered the unknown: "the first, in approaching me without precaution;
the second, in demanding aid and protection without knowing who I am."

"I do not understand you, señor," replied the stranger, with
astonishment. "Do not all men owe mutual assistance to each other?"

"In the civilised world it may be so," said the unknown, with a sneer;
"but in the wilderness, the sight of a man always forebodes danger: we
are savages here."

The stranger recoiled in astonishment.

"And thus," said be, "you would leave your fellow creatures to perish
in these horrible solitudes without stretching forth a hand to help
them?"

"My fellow creatures!" cried the unknown, with biting irony; "My fellow
creatures are the wild beasts of the prairie. What have I in common
with you men of towns and cities, natural enemies of every being that
breathes the pure air of liberty? There is nothing in common between
you and me. Begone, and weary me no more."

"Be it so," was the stranger's haughty answer. "I would not importune
you much longer; were it only a question of myself, I would not have
uttered a single prayer to you. Life is not so dear to me, that I
should seek to prolong it on terms repugnant to my honour; but it is
not a question of myself alone; here is a female, still almost a child,
my daughter who is in want of prompt assistance, and will die if it is
not rendered."

The unknown made no reply; he had turned away, as if reluctant to carry
on any further conversation.

The stranger slowly rejoined his companions, who had halted at the edge
of the forest.

"Well?" he asked uneasily.

"The señorita has fainted," sorrowfully replied one of the men.

The stranger uttered an exclamation of grief. He remained for some
moments fixing his eyes on the girl, with an indescribable expression
of despair.

All of a sudden he turned abruptly, and rushed towards the unknown.

The latter had mounted, and was on the point of retiring.

"Stop!" called the stranger.

"What is it you want with me?" replied the unknown once more. Then
he added fiercely, "Let me begone; and thank God that our unforeseen
meeting in this forest has not been productive of graver consequences
to you."

The menace contained in these enigmatical words disturbed the stranger
in spite of himself. However, he would not be discouraged.

"It is impossible," he resumed vehemently, "that you can be as cruel as
you wish us to believe. You are too young for all feeling to have died
out of your heart."

The unknown laughed strangely.

"I have no heart," he said.

"I implore you, in the name of your mother, not to abandon us!"

"I have no mother."

"Then I beseech you in the name of the being you love most upon earth,
whoever that may be."

"I love no one."

"No one?" repeated the stranger, shuddering; "Then I pity you, for you
must be most unhappy."

The unknown trembled; a feverish glow stole over his face; but soon
recovering himself, he exclaimed:

"Now let me go."

"No; not before I learn who you are."

"Who I am! Have I not already told you? A wild beast; a being with only
the semblance of humanity, with a hatred towards all men which nothing
can ever appease. Pray to God you may never again encounter me on your
path. I am like the raven--the sight of me foretells evil. Adieu!"

"Adieu!" murmured the stranger; "And may God have mercy on you, and not
visit your cruelty upon you!"

Just at this moment a voice, feeble, but in its sad modulations
sweet and melodious as the notes of the _centzontle_, the American
nightingale, rose through the stillness.

"My father, my dear father!" it uttered. "Where are you? Do not abandon
me."

"I am here, I am here," exclaimed the stranger tenderly, as he turned
quickly to run to her who thus called him.

A cloud passed over the face of the unknown at the sound of these
melodious accents; his blue eye flashed like the lightning. He placed
his hand on his heart, trembling as if he had received an electric
shock.

After a short hesitation, he forced his horse to make a sudden bound
forward, and placing his hand on the stranger's shoulder:

"Whose voice is that?" he asked in singular accents.

"The voice of my daughter, who is dying, and calls me."

"Dying?" stammered the unknown, strangely moved. "She!"

"My father, my father!" repeated the girl in a voice which grew weaker
and weaker.

The unknown raised himself to his full height; his face assumed an
expression of indomitable energy.

"She shall not die!" said he in a low voice. "Come!"

They rejoined the group.

The young girl was stretched upon the ground, with her eyes closed, her
face pale as a corpse; the feeble gasps of her breathing alone evincing
that life had not completely left her.

The persons surrounding her watched her in profound sadness, while
tears rolled silently down their bronzed cheeks.

"Oh!" cried the father, falling on his knees beside the young girl,
seizing her hand and covering it with kisses, while his face was
inundated with tears; "My fortune--my life--to him who will save my
cherished child!"

The unknown had dismounted, and observed the girl with sombre and
pensive eye. At last, after several minutes of this mute contemplation,
he turned towards the stranger.

"What ails this girl?" he asked abruptly.

"Alas! An incurable ailment: she has been bitten by a grass snake."

The unknown frowned till his eyebrows nearly met together.

"Then she is lost indeed," said his deep voice.

"Lost! O Heavens! My daughter, my dearest daughter!"

"Yes; unless--" then, arousing himself: "How long is it since she was
bitten?"

"Scarcely an hour."

The face of the unknown lighted up. He remained silent for a moment,
during which the bystanders anxiously bent towards him, awaiting with
impatience the opinion he would probably pronounce.

"Scarcely an hour?" said he at last. "Then she may be saved."

The stranger uttered a sigh of joy.

"You will answer for it?" he cried.

"I?" returned the unknown, shrugging; his shoulders; "I will answer for
nothing, except that I will attempt impossibilities for the chance of
restoring her to you."

"Oh, save her, save her!" eagerly exclaimed the father; "And, whoever
you may be, I will bless you."

"It matters not to me what you may do. I do not try to save this girl
for your sake; and, whatever may be the motives inducing me, I exempt
you from all feelings of gratitude."

"You may possibly harbour such thoughts; but for myself--"

"Enough," rudely broke in the unknown; "we have already lost too much
time in idle words; let us make haste, if we would not be too late."

All were silent.

The unknown looked around.

We have already said that the strangers had halted at the edge of the
forest; over their heads the last trees of the covert expanded their
mighty branches.

Approaching the trees, the unknown examined them carefully, apparently
in search of something he could not find.

All of a sudden, he uttered a cry of joy; and, unsheathing the long
knife fastened to his right knee, he cut a branch from a creeper, and
returned to the strangers, who were anxiously watching his proceedings.

"Here," said he to one of the party, who looked like a _peon_ (a serf),
"strip all the leaves from this branch, and pound them. Be quick; every
second is worth a century to her whom we wish to save."

The _peon_ set himself actively to the allotted task.

Then the unknown turned to the father:

"In what part of the body has this child been bitten?"

"A little below the left ankle."

"Has she much courage?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Answer! Time presses."

"The poor child is quite worn out; she is very weak."

"Then we must hesitate no longer; the operation must be performed."

"An operation!" cried the stranger, affrighted.

"Would you rather she should die?"

"Is this operation indispensable?"

"It is: we have already lost too much time."

"Then perform it. God grant you may succeed!"

The girl's leg was horribly swollen; the part round the serpent's bite,
terribly tumefied, was already taking a greenish hue.

"Alas," muttered the unknown, "there is not a moment to spare. Hold the
child so that she cannot stir while I perform the operation."

In these last words the voice of the unknown had assumed such an accent
of command, that the strangers obeyed without hesitation.

The former seated himself on the ground, took the limb of the girl
upon his knee, and made his preparations. Luckily the moon shone at
this moment so clearly, that her vivid rays flooded the landscape, and
everything was almost as visible as in broad daylight.

When the girl had first felt the bite, she had immediately, and happily
for herself, torn off her silk stocking. The unknown grasped the blade
of his knife an inch from the point, and, lowering his brow with
terrible determination, buried the point in the wound, and made a
cruciform incision about six lines deep, and more than an inch long.

The poor child must have felt terrible anguish; for she gave utterance
to a dreadful scream, and twisted herself about nervously.

"Hold her tight, _cuerpo de Cristo!_" shouted the unknown in a voice of
thunder, while with admirable coolness and skill he pressed the lips
of the wound, so as to force out the black and decomposing blood it
contained; "And now the leaves--the leaves!"

The _peon_ ran up.

The unknown took the leaves, parted asunder the lips of the wound,
and gently, carefully expressed their juice on the palpitating flesh.
Making a kind of plaster of the same leaves, he applied it to the
wound, tied it down firmly with a bandage, placed the foot carefully on
the ground, and rose.

As soon as a certain quantity of the sap of the creeper had fallen
upon the wound, the girl had seemed to experience a sensation of great
relief; the nervous spasms began to abate; she closed her eyes; and
finally she leaned back without attempting to struggle any longer with
the persons who held her in their arms.

"You may leave her now," whispered the unknown; "she is asleep."

In fact, the regular though feeble breathing of the patient proved her
to be plunged in a profound slumber.

"God be praised!" exclaimed the poor father, clasping his hands in
ecstasy; "Then she is really saved?"

"She is," answered the unknown leisurely; "bating unforeseen accidents,
she has nothing more to fear."

"But what is the extraordinary remedy you have employed to obtain such
a happy result?"

The unknown smiled with disdain, and did not seem willing to reply;
however, after a short hesitation, yielding perhaps to that secret
vanity which induces us all to make a parade of our wisdom, he decided
upon giving the information demanded.

"The pettiest things astonish you fellows who dwell in cities," said he
ironically; "the man who has passed his whole life in the wilderness
knows many things of which the inhabitants of your brilliant towns
are ignorant, although, with the sole aim of humiliating, they take
pleasure in parading their false science before us poor savages.
Nature hides not the secret of her mysterious harmonics from him who
ceaselessly pries into the darkness of night and the brightness of
day, with a patience beyond proof, without suffering himself to be
discouraged by failure. The sublime Architect, when he had created
this immense universe, did not let it fall from his omnipotent hands
until it had been made perfect, nor till the amount of good should
counterbalance everywhere the amount of evil--placing, so to say, the
antidote side by side with the poison."

The stranger listened with increasing surprise to the words of this
man, whose real character was an enigma to him, and who at every
moment showed himself in lights diametrically opposed, and under forms
entirely distinct.

"But," continued the unknown, "pride and presumption make man blind.
Accustomed to make all things bear upon himself, imagining that all
existence has been specially created for his convenience, he takes no
pains to study the secrets of nature further than they seem to have a
direct influence on his personal welfare, not caring to make inquiry
into her simplest actions. So, for instance, the region in which we
now are, being low and marshy, is naturally infested with reptiles,
which are so much the more dangerous and to be dreaded, because they
are half-calcined and rendered furious by the rays of a torrid sun.
Therefore provident nature has produced in abundance throughout
these same regions a creeper called _mikania_--the one I have just
used--which is an infallible remedy for the bites of serpents."

"I cannot doubt it, after having witnessed its efficacy; but how
were the virtues of this creeper discovered?" said the stranger,
involuntarily interested in the highest degree.

"A hunter of the woods," continued the unknown, with a certain
self-complacency, "observed that the black falcon, better known as
the _guaco_, a bird which feeds chiefly upon reptiles, takes special
delight in exterminating serpents. This hunter had also observed that
if, during the struggle, the serpent contrived to wound the _guaco_,
the latter immediately retired from the combat, and flying to the
_mikania_, tore off a few leaves, which it bruised in its beak. It
afterwards returned to the fight more resolute than ever, until it had
vanquished its redoubtable enemy. The hunter was an astute man, and of
great experience; one who knew that animals, being devoid of reason,
are more especially under the providence of God, and that all their
actions proceed from laws laid down at the beginning. After mature
reflection, he resolved to test his experience upon himself."

"And did he execute his project?" cried the stranger.

"He did. He let a coral snake bite him, the deadliest of all; but,
thanks to the _mikania_, the bite proved as harmless to him as the
prick of a thorn. That is the manner in which this precious remedy was
discovered. But," added the unknown, suddenly changing his tone, "I
have complied with your wishes in bringing help to your daughter; she
is safe. Adieu! I may stay no longer."

"You must not go before you have told me your name."

"What good will this pertinacity do you?"

"I wish to embalm the name in my memory as that of a man to whom I have
vowed a gratitude which will only end with my life."

"You are mad!" rudely answered the unknown. "It is useless to pronounce
to you a name which you will very likely learn but too soon."

"Let it be so; I will not persist, nor ask the reasons which compel
you to act thus. I will not seek to learn it in despite of you; but,
if you refuse to teach me your name, you cannot prevent my making you
acquainted with my own--I am called Don Pedro de Luna. Although until
today I have never penetrated thus far into the prairies, my residence
is not very far off. I am proprietor of the Hacienda de las Norias
de San Antonio, close to the frontiers of the Despoblado, near the
_embouchure_ of the Rio San Pedro."

"I know the Hacienda de las Norias de San Antonio. Its owner ought to
belong to the happy ones of earth, according to the opinion of those
who dwell in cities. So much the better: if it does belong to you, I do
not envy riches with which I should not know what to do. Now, you have
nothing more to say, have you? Well, then, adieu!"

"What! Adieu! You will leave us?"

"Certainly; do you think I intend to remain all night with you?"

"I hoped, at least, you would not leave unfinished the work you have
undertaken."

"I do not understand you; caballero."

"Will you abandon us thus? Will you leave my daughter in her present
state, lost in the wilderness, without the means of escape,--in the
depths of this forest, which has been so nearly fatal to her?"

The unknown frowned several times, then cast a stolen look on the girl.
A violent struggle seemed to commence in his bosom; he remained silent
for several minutes, uncertain how to decide. At last he raised his
head.

"Listen," said he in a constrained voice; "I have never learnt to lie.
At a short distance I have a _jacal_ (hovel), as you would call the
miserable _calli_ (cottage) which shelters me; but, believe me, it is
better for you to remain here than to follow me there."

"And why?" said the stranger, surprised.

"I have no explanation to give you, and I will not lie. I only repeat:
believe me, and remain here. Nevertheless, if you persist in following
me, I will not oppose it; I will be your faithful guide."

"Danger menace us under your roof? I will not stop on such an
hypothesis: hospitality is sacred in the prairies."

"Perhaps so; I will neither answer yes nor no. Do you decide; only make
your resolve quickly, for I am in haste to have the matter decided."

Don Pedro de Luna threw a sorrowful look at his daughter; then
addressing the unknown--

"Whatever may happen," said he, "I will follow you. My daughter cannot
stay here; you have done too much for her not to wish to save her. I
confide in you; show me the way."

"Agreed," replied the unknown laconically. "I have warned you; take
care you are on your guard."



CHAPTER III.

THE CALLI.


Much as the unknown had hesitated in offering shelter to Don Pedro
de Luna and his daughter,--and we know in what terms the offer had
been finally made,--he showed himself equally anxious, as soon as
his decision was made, to quit that part of the forest where the
scene passed which we have recorded in our preceding chapter. His
eyes wandered about continually with a disquietude he took no pains
to conceal. He turned his head repeatedly towards the hillock, as if
he expected to see some horrible apparition suddenly rising from its
summit.

In the state the girl was in, to awaken her would have been to commit
a grave imprudence, seriously compromising her health. In accordance
with orders delivered in a dry tone by the unknown, the _peones_ of Don
Pedro, and the _hacendero_ himself, hastened to cut down some branches,
in order to fashion a litter, which they covered with dry leaves. Over
these they spread their _zarapés_, of which they deprived themselves in
order to make a softer couch for their young mistress.

These preparations finished, the girl was raised with great
precaution, and gently placed upon the litter.

Of the three men who accompanied Don Pedro, two were _peones_, or
domestic Indians; the third was the _capataz_ (bailiff) of the
_hacendero_.

The _capataz_ was an individual of about five feet eight, with broad
shoulders, and legs bowed by the constant habit of riding. He was
extraordinarily thin; but one could truly say of him, he was nothing
but muscle and sinew. His strength was wonderful. This man, called
Luciano Pedralva, was devoted, body and soul, to his master, whom, and
his family, he and his had served for nearly two centuries.

His features, bronzed by the vicissitudes of the weather, although
not striking, had an expression of intelligence and astuteness, to
which his eyes, black and well opened, added an appearance of energy
and courage beyond the common. Don Pedro de Luna had the greatest
confidence in this man, whom he considered more in the light of a
friend than a servitor.

When the girl had been placed upon the litter, the _peones_ lifted it;
while Don Pedro and the _capataz_ placed themselves one on the right,
the other on the left of the patient, in order to guard her from the
branches of trees and creepers.

At a mute sign from the unknown, who had remounted, the little troop
leisurely began its march.

Instead of reentering the forest, the unknown continued to advance
towards the hillock, the base of which was speedily attained. A narrow
pathway serpentined along its side in an incline sufficiently gentle.
The little troop entered upon it without hesitation.

They ascended in this manner fur some minutes, following ten or a dozen
yards behind the unknown, who rode on in front by himself. Suddenly, on
arriving at an angle of the road, round which their guide had already
disappeared, a whistle rent the air, so sharp that the Mexicans halted
involuntarily, not knowing whether to advance or retreat.

"What is the meaning of this?" murmured Don Pedro anxiously.

"Treachery, without a doubt," said the _capataz_ casting his eyes
searchingly around.

But all remained quiet about them; no change was perceptible in the
landscape, which looked as lonely as ever.

Nevertheless, in a few minutes, more whistling, similar to the first
they had heard, was audible in different directions at the same lime,
answering evidently to a signal which had been made.

At that moment the unknown reappeared; his face pale, his gestures
constrained, and a prey to the most vivid emotion.

"It is you who have willed this," said he; "I wash my hands of what may
happen."

"Tell us, at all events, what peril threatens us," replied Don Pedro,
in agitation.

"Ah!" said the other, in a voice of subdued passion,

"Do I know it myself? And what would it aid you to know? Would you be
the less lost for that? You refused to believe me. Now, pray to God to
help you; for never danger threatened you more terrible than that which
hangs over your head!"

"But why these perpetual reservations? Be frank; we are men, _vive
Dios_, and, great as the peril may be, we shall know how to meet it
bravely."

"You are mad! Can one man oppose a hundred? You will fall, I tell you;
but it is to yourself alone you must address your reproaches; it is
yourself who have persisted in braving the _Tigercat_ in his lair."

"Alas," cried the _hacendero_ in accents of horror, "what name is that
you have uttered?"

"The name of the man in whose clutches you are at this very moment."

"What! the Tigercat? That redoubtable bandit, whose numberless crimes
have shocked the land for so long; that man who seems endowed with
a diabolical power to accomplish the atrocious deeds with which he
incessantly sullies himself;--is that monster near us?"

"He is; and I warn you to be prudent, for perhaps he hears you at this
moment, although invisible to your eyes and mine."

"What do I care?" energetically exclaimed Don Pedro. "Away with
caution, since we are once in the power of this demon; he is a man
devoid of pity, and my life is no longer my own."

"What do you know about it, Señor Don Pedro de Luna?" answered a
mocking voice.

The _hacendero_ trembled, and recoiled a step, uttering a stifled cry.

The Tigercat, bounding with the agility of the animal from which he
took his name, had leaped upon the summit of an elevated rock which
overhung the pathway some distance off, and now dropped lightly on the
ground two paces from Don Pedro.

There was an instant of terrible silence. The two men, thus placed face
to face, their eyes flashing, their lips compressed with rage, examined
each other with ardent curiosity. It was the first time the _hacendero_
had seen the terrible partisan, the fame of whose thirst for blood had
reached the most ignorant villagers in the land, and who for thirty
years had spread terror over the Mexican frontiers.

We will give, in a few words, the portrait of this man, who is destined
to play an important part in our history.

The Tigercat was a species of Colossus, six feet high; his broad
shoulders and limbs, from which the muscles stood out in marble
rigidity, showed that, though long past the prime of life, his strength
still existed in all its integrity; his long locks, white as the snows
on Coatepec, fell in disorder on his shoulders, and mingled with the
grizzly beard that covered his breast. His forehead was broad and
open; he had the eye of the eagle, under the brows of the lion; his
whole person offered, in a word, a complete type of the man of the
desert,--grand, strong, majestic, and implacable. Although his skin was
stained by every inclemency of weather till it had almost acquired the
colour of brick, it was nevertheless easy to recognise, in the clearly
defined lines of his face, that this man belonged to the race of whites.

His dress lay midway between that of the Mexican and of the redskin;
for although he wore the _zarapé_, his mitasses, in two pieces, worked
with hairs attached here and there, and his moccasins of different
colours, embroidered with porcupine quills and ornamented with glass
beads and hawks' bells, showed his preference for the Indians, to whose
customs, by the by, he seemed to have entirely adapted his mode of life.

A large scalping knife, a hatchet, a bullet bag, and powder horn, were
slung from a girdle of wild beast's skin, drawn tightly above his hips.

One thing must not be forgotten,--a singularity in a white man,--a
white-headed eagle's plume was placed above his right ear, as if this
man arrogated to himself the dignity of chief of an Indian tribe.

Lastly, he held in his hand a magnificent American rifle, damaskeened,
and most skilfully inlaid with silver.

Such is the physical portrait of the man to whom white hunters and
redskins had given the name of Tigercat; a name he deserved in every
respect, if hearsay had not belied him, and if only half the stories
reported of him were true.

As to the character of this strange being, we will abstain from
dwelling upon it for the present. We are persuaded the scenes which
follow will enable us to appreciate it correctly.

Although struck with surprise at the apparition--as sudden as it was
unexpected--of the dreaded freebooter, Don Pedro was not long in
recalling his presence of mind.

"You appear to know me much better than I know you," replied he coolly;
"but if half the things I have heard reported about you be true, I can
only expect, on your part, treatment similar to that which all unhappy
persons encounter who fall into your hands."

The Tigercat smiled sarcastically.

"And do you not dread this treatment?" he asked.

"For myself, personally, no!" answered Don Pedro disdainfully.

"But," continued the freebooter, with a glance towards the wounded
lady, "for the young girl?"

The _hacendero_ trembled; a livid pallor overspread his features.

"You cannot mean what you are saying," was his answer; "for the honour
of humanity, I will not think so. The Apaches themselves, fierce as
they are, feel their rage vanish before the feebleness of woman."

"Have I not among the dwellers in cities the reputation of being
fiercer than the fierce Apaches,--even than the very beasts?"

"Let us end this," replied Don Pedro haughtily; "since I have been fool
enough, in spite of repeated warnings, to place myself in your hands,
dispose of me as you think fit; but deliver me from the torture I
undergo in conversing with you."

The Tigercat frowned; he struck the ground forcibly with the butt of
his rifle, muttering some unintelligible words; but, by an extreme
effort of his will, his features instantaneously resumed their habitual
imperturbability, every trace of emotion vanished from his voice, and
he answered, in the calmest tone:

"In beginning the conversation, about which you seem to care so little,
_caballero_, I said to you, 'What do you know about it?'"

"Well?" said the _hacendero_, surprised and overcome, in spite of his
efforts, by the strange change in the dreaded speaker.

"Well," replied the latter, "I repeat the phrase, not, as you may
suppose, in mockery, but simply to elicit your frank opinion of me."

"That opinion can be of little value to you, I presume."

"More than you may imagine. But why these words? Answer me!"

The _hacendero_ remained mute for a time. The Tigercat, his eyes fixed
steadily upon him, watched him attentively.

As to the hunter who had been almost forced to consent to serve Don
Pedro de Luna as guide, his astonishment was extreme. Believing himself
to be thoroughly acquainted with the character of the freebooter, he
could not understand the scene at all, and inwardly asked himself what
this feigned courtesy of the Tigercat would end in.

Don Pedro himself argued quite differently on the bandit's sentiments;
right or wrong, he fancied he had perceived an accent of sad sincerity
in the tone in which the last words had been addressed to him.

"Since you absolutely desire it," said he, "I will reply frankly: I
believe your heart to be not so cruel as you would have it supposed;
and I imagine that this conviction, which you inwardly possess, makes
you extremely unhappy; for, notwithstanding the barbarous acts with
which they reproach you, other crimes have entered your thoughts,
before the execution of which you have recoiled, in spite of the
pitiless ferocity they attribute to you."

The Tigercat seemed about to speak.

"Do not interrupt me," continued the _hacendero_ hastily; "I know that
I am treading upon a volcano; but you have my promise to speak frankly,
and, willing or not willing, you must hear me to the end. Most of
mankind are the architects of their own fortunes in this world; you
have not escaped the common lot. Gifted with an energetic character,
with vivid passions, you have not sought to overcome these passions;
you have suffered yourself to be overcome by them, and thus, fall
after fall, you have reached that depth in which you are now lost; and
yet all good feeling is not utterly dead in you."

A smile of contempt flickered over the lips of the old man.

"Do not smile at me," the _hacendero_ went on; "the very question you
have put proves my assertion. Leading in the wilderness the life of
the plundering savage, hating society, which has cast you off, you
still hanker after the opinion the world forms of you. And why? Because
that sentiment of justice, which God has planted in the hearts of all,
revolts in you at the universal reprobation heaped upon your name. It
has roused your shame. The man who can still be ashamed of himself,
criminal as he may be, is very close to repentance; for the voice that
cries aloud in his heart is the voice of awakening remorse."

Although Don Pedro had ceased speaking for some time, the Tigercat
still seemed to be listening to his words; but suddenly lifting his
head proudly, he cast a mocking glance around him, and burst into a
laugh, dry and hard as that which Goethe ascribes to Mephistopheles.

This laugh cut the _hacendero_ to the heart. He comprehended that the
evil instincts of the freebooter had resumed their sway over the better
thoughts which, for a moment, had seemed to assert their mastery.

After this bout of laughter, the countenance of the Tigercat resumed
its usual rigid immobility.

"Good!" cried he in a tone of apparent glee, which did by no means
deceive Don Pedro; "I expected a sermon, and find I was not mistaken.
Well, at the risk of sinking in your estimation,--or, to speak more
truly, in order to flatter your self-esteem by leaving you in the
belief that you judge my feelings correctly,--I decree that you and
your followers return to your Hacienda de las Norias de San Antonio,
not only without the loss of a hair, but even as partakers of my
hospitality. Does not this decision astonish you? You were far from
expecting it."

"Not so; it is exactly what I anticipated."

"Indeed!" said he, with astonishment; "Then if I offer you the
hospitality of my _calli_, you will accept it?"

"And why not, if the offer is made in good faith?"

"Then come without fear; I pledge you my word that you nor yours need
fear any injury on my part."

"I follow you," said Don Pedro.

But the unknown had watched with increasing anxiety the erratic course
of this conversation, and advancing abruptly in front of, and extending
his arms towards, the _hacendero_--

"Stop, as you value your life!" he cried in a voice trembling with
secret emotion. "Stop! Do not let yourself be deceived by the assumed
benevolence of this man; he is spreading a snare for you; his offer
conceals a treason."

The Tigercat drew himself up to his full height, stared disdainfully
at the speaker, and replied, in an accent of supreme majesty:

"Your senses wander, boy; this man runs no risk in confiding in me.
Granted that there are many things I do not respect in this world,
still there is at least one which I have always respected, and have
suffered no one to doubt,--my word,--my word, which I have given to
this _caballero_. Come! Let us pass; the young woman whom you have
succoured so opportunely is not yet out of danger; her state demands
attentions which are beyond your power to afford."

The unknown trembled; his dark-blue eyes flashed, his lips parted as if
to answer; but he remained silent, and retired a few paces, knitting
his brow in concentrated passion.

"Moreover," imperturbably continued the freebooter, "whatever force
may lie at your disposal in other parts of the wilderness, you know
that here I am all-powerful, and that here my will is law. Leave me to
act as I please. Do not force me to measures I should abhor; for if I
raised but a finger I could tame your fool's pride."

"I know," said the young man, "that I am powerless; but beware how you
treat these strangers, who placed themselves under my protection; for I
shall know how to take my revenge."

"Yes, yes," said the Tigercat drearily; "I know you would not hesitate
to revenge yourself even on me, if you fancied you had a cause. But I
care not; I am master here."

"I shall follow you even into your haunt; think not I intend to desert
these strangers now they are in your hands."

"As you please; I do not forbid you to accompany them; on the contrary,
I should regret your leaving them."

The unknown held his peace, smiling disdainfully.

"Come," resumed the Tigercat, turning to the _hacendero_.

The troop began again to ascend the hillock, following in the footsteps
of the old freebooter, close to whom rode their former guide.

After some turnings and windings in the path, of more or less
abruptness, some of which caused the Mexicans no little difficulty, the
Tigercat turned towards the _hacendero_, and addressed him in a voice
perfectly free from embarrassment:

"I beg you to excuse my guiding you over such villainous roads;
unfortunately they are the only ones leading to my dwelling. It is at
hand; in a few minutes we shall be there."

"But I see no traces of habitation," replied Don Pedro, vainly,
scanning the country in all directions.

"True," said the Tigercat, with a smile; "nevertheless, we are hardly
an hundred paces from the end of our journey; and I can assure you the
abode to which I am leading you would harbour a hundred times our
present numbers."

"I have not much idea where this dwelling is to be found, unless it be
subterranean, as I begin to suspect."

"You have almost guessed it. The place I inhabit, if not subterranean
in the strict sense of the word, is at least a dwelling covered by the
ground. Few have entered it to leave it again safe and sound, as you
shall."

"So much the worse," retorted roundly the _hacendero;_ "so much the
worse for them--and for you."

The Tigercat frowned, but immediately replied, in the light and
careless tone he had affected for the last few minutes:

"Look you, I will clear up this mystery. Listen; the story is
interesting enough. When the Aztecs quitted Azlin, which signifies
'the country of herons,' to conquer Anahuac, or 'the country between
the waters,' their peregrinations were long, extending over several
centuries. Disheartened at times by long travel, they halted, founded
cities, in which they installed themselves as if they never intended
to abandon the place they had chosen; and, perhaps with the object
of leaving behind them ineffaceable traces of their passage through
the wild countries they traversed, they constructed pyramids. Hence
the numerous ruins littering the soil of Mexico, and the _teocalis_
one meets with occasionally,--last and mournful vestiges of a people
that has disappeared. These _teocalis_ built on a system of incredible
solidity far from crumbling under the strenuous embrace of time, have
ended in becoming a part of the ground which supported them, and so
completely, that there is often difficulty in recognising them. I can
give you no better proof of my assertion than what you have now before
you. The elevation you are now ascending is not, as you might suppose,
a hill caused by some perturbation of the earth,--it is an Aztec
_teocali_."

"A _teocali!_" exclaimed Don Pedro, in astonishment.

"It is, indeed," continued the freebooter; "but so many centuries have
elapsed since the day it was built, that, thanks to the vegetable
matter incessantly conveyed by the winds, nature has apparently resumed
her rights, and the Aztec watchtower has become a green hill. You are
doubtless aware that the _teocalis_ are hollow?"

"I am aware of it," answered the _hacendero_.

"It is in the interior of this one I have fixed my dwelling. See, we
have reached it. Allow me to show you the way into it."

In fact, the travellers had arrived at a kind of coarse portal--a
Cyclopean construction--which gave admittance to a subterranean
building, in which a profound obscurity prevailed, forbidding any
estimate of its dimensions.

The Tigercat stopped, and gave a peculiar whistle. Immediately a
dazzling light broke forth from the interior, and illuminated it in all
its vastness.

"Let us enter," said the freebooter, preceding his companions.

Without hesitation Don Pedro prepared to follow, after making a sign to
his attendants, warning them to conceal their rising fears.

For a moment the unknown found himself, so to speak, alone with the
_hacendero_, and bending swiftly down, whispered softly in his ear, "Be
prudent; you are entering the tiger's den."

Saying this, he rapidly left them, as he feared the freebooter might
perceive that he was giving a last word of warning to the stranger.

But, good or bad, the advice came too late: hesitation would have been
folly, for flight was impossible.

On all sides, on every jutting rock, appeared as by enchantment, the
dark shadows of a host of persons, who had started up around the
strangers without their understanding whence they came, so stealthy had
been their approach.

The Mexicans entered, then, although not without feelings of dread,
into the terrible cavern, whose mouth opened yawning before them. The
building was vast, the walls were lofty.

After proceeding for about ten minutes, the Mexicans found themselves
in a species of rotunda, in the centre of which a huge brazier was
flaming; four long corridors crossed the rotunda at right angles. The
Tigercat, still followed by the travellers, entered one of these. He
stopped on reaching a door formed of a reed hurdle.

"Make yourselves at home," said he; "your lodgings consists of two
chambers, which have no communication with the rest of the cave. By my
orders you will be supplied with food, with wood to make a fire, and
torches of ocote to give you light."

"I thank you for these attentions," replied Don Pedro. "I had little
reason to expect them."

"And why not? Do you think that I do not know how to practise Mexican
hospitality, in its fullest extent, whenever it suits me?"

"Sir!" said the _hacendero_, with a gesture of deprecation.

"Silence!" said the bandit, interrupting him; "You are my guests for
the night. Sleep in peace; nothing shall disturb your rest. In an hour
I will send you a potion for the lady to drink. We shall meet again
tomorrow." And, bowing with an ease and courtesy little expected by
Don Pedro from such a man, the Tigercat took his leave and quitted the
chamber.

For a few seconds the step resounded under the dark vault of the
corridor; then it was silenced. The travellers were alone, and the
_hacendero_ determined to investigate the chambers prepared for them.



CHAPTER IV.

SUPERFICIAL REMARKS.


The _haciendas_ of Spanish America were never feudal tenures,
whatever certain badly informed authors may assert, but simply large
agricultural holdings, as their name clearly indicates.

These _haciendas_, scattered over Mexico at great distances from each
other, and surrounded by vast stretches of country, for the greater
part uninhabited, are generally situated on the top of abruptly rising
hills, in positions easy of defence.

As the _hacienda_, properly so called,--_i.e._ the habitation of the
proprietor of the estate,--forms the nucleus of the colony, and, in
addition to the barns and stables, contains also the out houses, the
lodgings of the _peones_, and, above all, the chapel, its walls are
high, massive, and surrounded by a ditch, so as to put it out of danger
from a _coup-de-main._

These numerous _haciendas_ frequently maintain from six to seven
hundred individuals of all trades, the lands belonging to a farm of
this description being often of greater extent than a whole province in
France.

They are the wholesale breeding places of the wild horses and cattle
that graze at freedom in the prairies, watched over at a distance by
_peones vaqueros_ as untamed as themselves.

The Hacienda de las Norias de San Antonio--_i.e._ St. Anthony's
Wells--rose gracefully from the summit of a hill covered with thick
groves of mahogany, Peru trees and _mesquites_, forming a belt of
evergreen foliage, the palish green of which contrasted agreeably with
the dead white of the lofty walls, crowned with _almenas_, a kind of
battlement intended to announce the nobility of the proprietor of the
holding.

In fact, Don Pedro de Luna was what is called a _cristiano viejo_ (old
Christian), and descended in a direct line from the first Spanish
conquerors, without a single drop of Indian blood having been infused
into the veins of his ancestors. So, although after the Declaration of
Independence the ancient customs began to fall into disuse, Don Pedro
de Luna was proud of his nobility, and clung to the _almenas_ as marks
of distinction which only noblemen were allowed to adopt in the time of
the Spanish rule.

Since the period when, in the suite of that genial adventurer, Fernando
Cortez, a Lopez de Luna had first put foot in America, the fortunes of
this family, very poor and much reduced at that time--for Don Lopez
literally possessed nothing but his cloak and sword,--the fortunes
of this family, we say, had taken an incredible flight upwards, and
entered on a career of prosperity that nothing in time's course could
trammel. Thus Don Pedro de Luna, the actual representative of this
ancient house, was in the enjoyment of wealth, the amount of which
it would certainly have puzzled him to state,--wealth which had been
increased still more by the property of Don Antonio de Luna, his elder
brother, who had disappeared more than twenty-five years after events
to which we shall have to revert, and who it was supposed had perished
miserably in the mysterious wilderness in the neighbourhood of the
_hacienda_. It was likely that he had fallen a victim to the horrible
pangs of hunger, or more probably into the hands of the Apaches, those
implacable enemies of the whites, on whom they ceaselessly wage an
inveterate war.

In short Don Pedro was the sole representative of his name, and his
fortune was immense. No one who has not visited the interior of Mexico
can figure to himself the riches buried in these almost unknown
regions, where certain land owners, if they would only take the trouble
to put their affairs in order, would find themselves five or six times
more wealthy than the greatest capitalists of the old world.

Now, although everything seemed to smile on the opulent _hacendero_,
and although, to the world that looks beyond the surface, he seemed
to enjoy, with every appearance of reason, an unalloyed happiness,
nevertheless the deep wrinkles channelled in the forehead of Don Pedro,
the mournful severity of his face, and his gaze often turned to heaven
with an expression of sombre despair, might give rise to the surmise
that the life all thought so happy was secretly agitated by a profound
sorrow, which the years, as they rolled on, augmented instead of
solacing.

And what was the sorrow? What storms had troubled the course of a life
so calm on the surface?

The Mexicans are the most forgetful people on earth. This certainly
arises from the nature of their climate, which is incessantly
distracted by the most frightful cataclysms. The Mexican, whose life is
passed on a volcano, who feels the soil incessantly trembling under his
feet, only cares to live for today. For him yesterday no longer exists;
tomorrow he may never see the sun rise; today is his all, for today is
his own.

The inhabitants of the Hacienda de las Norias, incessantly exposed to
the inroads of their redoubtable neighbours the redskins, constantly
occupied in defending themselves from their attacks and depredations,
were still more forgetful than the rest of their countrymen of a past
in which they took no interest.

The secret of Don Pedro's grief, if really such a secret existed, was,
therefore, confined pretty nearly to his own breast; and as he never
complained,--never made allusion to the earlier years of his life,
--surmise was impossible, and the ignorance of everyone on the subject
complete.

One single being had the privilege of smoothing the anxious brow of
the _hacendero_, and of bringing a languid and fleeting smile to his
lips.

It was his daughter. Doña Hermosa at sixteen was dazzlingly beautiful.
The jet black arches of her brow, finely traced as with a pencil,
enhanced the beauty of a forehead not too high and of a creamy white.
Her large eyes, blue and pensive, contrasted harmoniously with hair of
ebon hue, which curled about the delicate neck, and on which the sweet
jasmines died away with pleasure.

Short, like all Spanish women of her race, her figure was slender but
well knit. No smaller feet had ever pressed in the dance the greensward
of Mexico; no more delicate hand ever ransacked the dahlias of a
garden. Her walk, easy, like that of all Creoles, was a serpentine
and undulating motion, full of grace and of _salero_, as they say in
Andalusia.

This exquisite girl scattered mirth and joy over the _hacienda_,
whose echoes from morning to night repeated lovingly the melodious
modulations of her pellucid notes, the pure and fresh qualities of
which made the birds die of envy as they hid themselves under the
foliage of the _puerta_ (open court).

Don Pedro idolised his daughter; he felt for her that passionate and
boundless affection the immense power of which can only be understood
by those who are fathers in the true sense of the word.

Hermosa, brought up at the _hacienda_, had only paid a few short
visits, at long intervals, to the great centers of the Mexican
Confederation. Their manners were entirely strange to her. Accustomed
to lead the free and untrammelled life of a bird, and to express her
thoughts aloud, her frankness and innocent simplicity were extreme,
while her sweetness of temper made her adored by all the inhabitants of
the _hacienda_, over whose welfare she watched with constant care.

Nevertheless, owing to the peculiar kind of education she had
received,--exposed on this distant frontier to the frequent sound of
the frightful war whoop of the redskins, and to be present during
horrible scenes of carnage,--she had accustomed herself from an early
age to look perils in the face, if not coldly, at all events with a
courage and strength of mind scarcely to be expected in so delicate a
child.

In conclusion, the influence she exercised over all who approached her
was incomprehensible: it was impossible to know her without loving her,
or without feeling a wish to lay down one's life for her.

On several occasions, in the attacks made on the _hacienda_ by those
ferocious plunderers of the desert the Apaches and Comanches, some
wounded Indians had fallen into the hands of the Mexicans. Doña
Hermosa, far from suffering these wretches to be maltreated, had
ordered every care to be taken of them, and restored them to liberty as
soon as their wounds were healed.

From this course of action it resulted that the redskins by degrees
renounced their attacks upon the _hacienda_, and that the girl,
attended by only one man--with whom we shall soon make the reader
acquainted--unconcernedly took long rides in the wilderness, and
often, carried away by the ardour of the chase, rambled off to a great
distance from the _hacienda;_ while the Indians who saw her pass not
only abstained from injuring her, but laid no obstacles in her way. On
the contrary, these primitive beings, having conceived a superstitious
veneration for her, contrived, while remaining out of sight themselves,
to remove from her path any dangers she might otherwise have
encountered.

The redskins, with that natural tone of poetry which distinguishes
them, had called her "the White Butterfly," so light and fragile did
she seem to them as she bounded like a frightened fawn through the tall
prairie grasses, which hardly bent under her weight.

One of her most favourite resting places in these excursions was a
_rancho_, (a farm) seven or eight miles from the _hacienda._ The
_rancho_, built in a charming situation and surrounded by fields well
looked after and carefully cultivated, was inhabited by a woman of
fifty and her son, a tall and handsome man of twenty-five or twenty-six
with a proud eye and a warm heart, named Estevan Diaz. Na Manuela, as
they called the old woman, and Estevan had an affection for the girl
which knew no bounds. Manuela had nursed Hermosa when an infant, and
the foster mother almost looked upon her young mistress as her own
child, so deep was the love she bore her. The woman belonged to a class
of domestics, now unhappily extinct in Europe, who form, as it were
a part of the family, and are looked upon by their masters more as
friends than servants.

It was under Estevan's escort that Hermosa took those long rides of
which we spoke above. These continual _têtes-à-têtes_ between a girl of
sixteen and a man of twenty-five, which in our hypocritical and prudish
world would be considered compromising, seemed very natural to the
inhabitants of the _hacienda._ They knew the profound respect and loyal
affection which bound Estevan to his mistress, whom he had dandled
on his knees when a child, and whose first steps he had supported.
Hermosa, who was as laughing, playful, and teasing as most girls of her
age, took very great pleasure in being with Estevan, whom she could
torment and plague to her heart's delight without his ever attempting
to turn restive at the capricious vagaries of his young mistress. Did
he not endure all her caprices with a patience beyond praise?

Don Pedro manifested an affectionate esteem for Manuela and her son. He
had great confidence in both, and for the last two years had entrusted
Estevan with the important post of _major-domo_--a post he shared, as
far as the land was concerned, with Luciano Pedralva, who, however, was
placed under his orders.

Thus Estevan Diaz and his mother were, next to the proprietor, the
persons of greatest account at the _hacienda_, where they were treated
with infinite respect, not only on account of the post they occupied,
but also for the sake of their character, which was duly appreciated by
all.

The Mexican _hacenderos_, whose properties are of immense extent, have
a practice at certain times of the year of making a progress through
their estates, in order to cast over their holding that "eye of the
master" which, according to the favourite saying in Southern America,
makes the crops ripen and the cattle fatten. Don Pedro never failed
to undertake these tours, on which he was anxiously expected by the
inferior persons in his employ, and by the _peones_ of the _haciendas_,
to whom the casual presence of their master brought some temporary
alleviation of their miserable lives.

In Mexico slavery, abolished in principle by the Declaration of
Independence, no longer exists by right; but it exists _de facto_
through the whole extent of the Confederation; and the following is
the adroit manner in which the law is eluded by the rich owners of
the soil:--Every _hacienda_ necessarily employs a great number of
individuals as _peones, vaqueros, tigreros,_ (herdsmen, hunters), &c.
All these people are _Indios mansos_, or civilized Indians--that is to
say, they have been baptised, and practise, after their own fashion, a
religion they will not take the trouble to understand, and which they
mix up with most absurd and ridiculous customs derived from their old
creeds.

Brutalised by misery, the _peones_ hire themselves, at very moderate
wages, to the _hacenderos_, for the sake of satisfying their two
chief vices,--gambling and drunkenness. But as Indians are the most
thriftless beings in creation, their petty wages never suffice to feed
and clothe them; and every day they are liable to die of hunger, if
they cannot contrive to procure the ordinary necessaries of life from
some source independent of their pay. It is when they have reached this
climax that the rich proprietors trap them.

The _capataz_ and _major-domo_ keep in every _hacienda_, by order of
their master, stores filled with clothing, arms, household utensils,
and so forth, which are open to the _peones_, who pawn their labour for
the needful articles advanced to them; the prices of the articles being
always ten times their value.

It follows, from this simple combination, that the poor devils of
_peones_ not only never touch an infinitesimal fraction of the nominal
wages allotted to them, but find themselves always on the debit side
of the _hacendero's_ balance sheet; and in a few months owe sums they
could not possibly pay off in a lifetime. As the law is positive in
these cases, the _peones_ are compelled to remain in the service
of their masters until, by their labour, this debt is liquidated.
Unfortunately for them, their necessities are so imperious at all
times, their position so precarious, that, after a life spent in
incessant toil, the _peones_ die insolvent. They have lived as slaves,
fatally, _adscripti glebæ_, shamelessly worked, without mercy, down
to their latest sigh, by men whom their sweat and their labour have
enriched tenfold.

Doña Hermosa, good natured, as girls usually are when brought up in
the bosom of their families, generally accompanied her father in these
annual progresses, and pleased herself by leaving bounteous marks of
her welcome visit with the poor _peones_.

This year, as in the preceding ones, she had attended Don Pedro de
Luna, signalizing her visit to each _rancho_ by relieving, in some way
or other, the infirm, the old, and the children.

About forty-eight hours before the day on which our story commences,
Don Pedro had left a silver mine he was working some leagues off in
the desert, and set off for Las Norias de San Antonio. When he had got
within twenty leagues of the _hacienda_, he felt convinced that his
escort was not needed so near his own property, and sent forward Don
Estevan and the armed retainers to announce his return, keeping with
him only the _capataz_, Luciano Pedralva, and three or four _peones_.

Don Estevan had tried to dissuade his master from remaining in the
desert almost single-handed, pointing out to him that the Indian
frontiers were infested by freebooters and marauders of the vilest
kind, who, skulking among the thickets, would be upon the watch for an
opportunity of attacking his little band; but, by a singular fatality,
Don Pedro, convinced that he had nothing to fear from these vagabonds,
who had never exhibited signs of hostility towards him, had insisted on
the _major-domo's_ departure, and the latter had been forced to obey,
although with reluctance.

The escort rode off; the _hacendero_ quietly continued his road,
chatting with his daughter, and laughing at the sinister presentiments
clouding the face of the _major-domo_ when he took leave of his master.

The day slipped away without anything happening to confirm the
misgivings of Don Estevan; no accident interrupting the monotonous
regularity of the march; no suspicious sign excited the fears of the
travellers. The desert was at peace; as far as the eye could reach,
nothing was to be seen but some straggling herds of elks and antelopes,
browsing on the tall and tufted grasses of the prairie.

At sunset Don Pedro and his companions had reached the outskirts of an
immense virgin forest, part of which they would have to cross to reach
the _hacienda_, now about a dozen leagues off.

The _hacendero_ resolved to encamp for the night at the edge of the
covert, hoping to reach Las Norias early on the morrow, before the
great heat of the day set in.

In a short time everything was arranged; a hut of branches was put
together for Doña Hermosa; fires were lit, and the horses securely
tethered, to prevent their straying during the night.

The travellers supped gaily; after which everyone laid down to sleep as
comfortably as he could manage.

However, the _capataz_, a man trained to Indian artifices, thought it
prudent not to neglect a single precaution to secure the repose of
his companions. He placed a sentry, to whom he recommended the utmost
vigilance, and saddled his horse, with the intention of making a
reconnaissance round the camp.

Don Pedro, already half asleep, raised his head, and asked Don
Luciano what he intended to do. When the _capataz_ had explained, the
_hacendero_ burst out laughing, and peremptorily ordered him to leave
his horse to feed in peace, and to lay himself down by the fire, in
order to be ready to resume the journey at break of day. The _capataz_
shook his head, but obeyed; he could not understand the conduct of his
master, who was usually so prudent and circumspect.

The truth was, that Don Pedro, impelled by one of those inexplicable
fatalities which, without apparent reason, often make the most
intelligent blind, was convinced that he had nothing to fear so
near his home, and almost on his own territory, from the rovers and
marauders of the frontiers, who would think twice before they attacked
a man of his importance, having the means in his power to make them pay
dearly for any attempt upon his person. Nevertheless, the _capataz_,
agitated by a secret uneasiness, which kept him awake in spite of
his efforts to sleep, determined to keep good watch during the night,
notwithstanding the injunctions of his master.

As soon as he saw Don Pedro decidedly asleep, he rose softly, took his
rifle, and crept stealthily towards the forest to reconnoitre; but he
had scarcely quitted the circle of light formed by the watch fire, and
advanced a few paces into the covert, than he was suddenly and rudely
seized by invisible hands, thrown on the ground, gagged, and bound with
cords; and with such expedition, that he could neither use his arms nor
utter a cry of warning to his companions.

But, in strange contrariety to the tragical usages of the prairie, the
persons who had so abruptly mastered the _capataz_ subjected him to no
ill usage, contenting themselves with binding him firmly, so as to put
the possibility of the slightest resistance out of the question, and
leaving him stretched upon the ground.

"My poor mistress!" sighed the worthy fellow as he fell, without
indulging a thought for himself.

He remained in this position for a length of time, listening greedily
to every sound in the desert, expecting every instant to hear cries
of distress from Don Pedro and Doña Hermosa. But not a cry was heard:
nothing disturbed the calm of the wilderness, over which the silence of
death seemed brooding.

At last, after twenty or twenty-five minutes, someone threw a _zarapé_
over his face, most likely with the intention of preventing any
recognition of his assailants; he was lifted from the ground with a
certain degree of precaution, and two men carried him in their arms to
some considerable distance.

The situation became more complicated every moment. In vain the
_capataz_ racked his mind to divine the intentions of his captors. The
latter uttered not a word, and glided over the ground with light and
noiseless steps, as if they were spectres. The generality of Mexicans
are fatalists. The _capataz_, recognizing the futility of a struggle,
philosophically consoled himself for what had happened, and patiently
awaited the result of this singular scene.

He had not long to wait for the issue. His unknown captors, having
probably reached the intended spot, halted and laid the _capataz_ on
the ground, after which everything round him grew calm and silent again.

At the end of several minutes he determined on an attempt to recover
his liberty, and made a desperate effort to break his bonds. But here
again a fresh surprise was reserved for him: the cords which bound him,
and which were so fast a minute before, broke after a slight resistance.

The _capataz's_ first impulse was to lift the _zarapé_ which covered
his face, and free himself from the gag. He next looked about him to
reconnoitre, and to find out what had become of his companions, and
uttered a cry of astonishment and fright on seeing Doña Hermosa, her
father, and the _peones_ stretched on the ground close by, gagged as he
had been, and their heads muffled in _zarapés_.

The _capataz_ hastened to the relief of his mistress and Don Pedro,
after which he severed the cords which bound the _peones_.

The place to which the travellers had been transported by their
invisible aggressors was completely dissimilar to the site chosen for
the camp. They were in the midst of a thick forest, where at an immense
height above their heads, the gigantic trees formed a green vault,
almost impenetrable to the light of day. The horses and baggage of the
travellers had vanished. Their position was frightful, deserted as they
were in the virgin forest without provisions or horses. Every hope of
safety was gone, and a terrible death, after horrible sufferings stared
them in the face.

It is impossible to describe the despair of Don Pedro. He acknowledged,
when it was too late, the folly of his conduct. He fixed his weeping
eyes on his daughter with an expression of unspeakable tenderness
and sorrow, accusing himself as the sole cause of the evil that had
overwhelmed them. Doña Hermosa was the only one who did not give way
to despair in these critical circumstances. After trying to raise the
courage of her father by tender and consoling words, she was the first
to speak of quitting the place and endeavouring to find the road they
had lost.

The courage which sparkled in the eye of the daughter reanimated the
energy of her father and the rest. If she did not succeed in reviving
hope in their breasts, at all events she aroused in them sufficient
spirit to encounter the necessary struggle before them. The final words
of this young creature put a stop to all hesitation, and completed the
happy reaction she had excited in their minds.

"Our friends," said she, "on finding we do not arrive, will suspect
our misfortune, and devote themselves immediately to a search for us.
Don Estevan, to whom all the secrets of the wilderness are known, will
infallibly recover our trail. Our position, therefore, is far from
desperate. Let us not abandon ourselves, if we do not wish God to
abandon us. Let us go: soon I hope we shall find our way out of the
forest, and see the sun once more."

So they began their march.

Unfortunately it is impossible to find the right direction in a virgin
forest, unless we are well acquainted with the localities,--the
forests, where all the trees are alike, where there is no visible
horizon, and where the only available knowledge is the instinct of the
brute, not the reason of man. Thus the travellers wandered at random
the whole day long, always turning, without knowing it, in the same
circle, travelling far without advancing, and vainly seeking to find a
road which was not in existence.

Don Pedro endeavoured to discover a reason why the men who had
stolen their horses should have abandoned them in this inextricable
labyrinth; why they had been thus callously condemned to an agonising
death; and who the enemy might be who had cruelly conceived a plan of
such atrocious revenge. But the _hacendero_ racked his brains in vain
for even a surmise. His mind suggested no one on whom suspicion could
rest as the probable author of this unqualified crime.

All the morning the travellers continued their devious course: the sun
went down, the day gave way to night, and they were still toiling on,
wandering mechanically without any fixed direction, now to the right,
now to the left; struggling on more in the endeavour to escape from
their thoughts by physical fatigue, than in the hope of emerging from
the forest--their horrible prison.

Doña Hermosa uttered no complaint. Cool and resolute, she pushed
forward with a firm step, encouraging her companions by voice and
gesture, and still finding spirit enough to chide and shame them for
their want of perseverance.

All of a sudden she uttered a cry of pain. She had been bitten by a
snake. This fresh misfortune, which should have apparently completed
the travellers' despair, on the contrary, excited them to such a pitch,
that they forgot all else, except how to think for and to save her whom
they called their guardian angel.

But human strength has limits, beyond which it may not go. The
travellers, overcome by fatigue and their poignant emotions during
their wanderings, and convinced, besides, of the inutility of their
efforts, were on the point of yielding to their despair, when God
placed them suddenly face to face with the hunter.



CHAPTER V.

CONFIDENTIAL CHAT.


After conducting his guests to the compartment of the _teocali_ which
he had appointed for them, the Tigercat retraced his steps, and turned
in the direction of a sufficiently ample excavation, which served for
his own particular abode.

The old man walked at a slow pace, with his head raised, and his brow
wrinkled under the tension of mighty thoughts. The flame of the torch
he held in his right hand played capriciously over his countenance,
revealing a strange expression on his features, where hate, joy, and
uneasiness reflected themselves by turns.

When he arrived at his _cuarto_ (bedchamber),--if it is right to give
the name chamber to a kind of hole ten feet square by seven feet high,
which contained as furniture a few skulls of the bison dispersed here
and there, with a handful of maize-straw negligently thrown into a
corner, and serving, no doubt, as couch for the inhabitants of this
sorry refuge,--the Tigercat fixed his _ocote_ torch in a bracket of
iron made fast to the wall, crossed his arms on his breast, lifted his
eyes with an air of defiance, and muttered the words:

"At last!"

Doubtless these words summed up in his thoughts a long series of dark
and bold combinations.

After pronouncing these words, the old man cast a searching glance
around him, as if he dreaded having been overheard. A mocking smile
passed across his pale lips; he sat down on a bison's skull, and,
burying his face in his hands, plunged into profound meditation.

A long time elapsed before he changed his position. At last, a slight
noise fell on his ear: he lifted his head with a start, and turned
towards the entrance to his cell.

"Come in!" he shouted. "I have waited for you with impatience."

"I think not!" replied a powerful voice; and the young hunter appeared
at the threshold, where he stopped, holding his head erect, and looking
proud and daring.

A shade crossed the forehead of the Tigercat.

"Ah, ha!" cried he, with pretended gaiety. "In truth, I was not
expecting you, _muchacho_ (boy); but never mind; you are welcome."

"Is that wish truly in your thoughts at this moment?" sneered the other.

"And why should it not be in my thoughts? Am I in the habit of
disguising them?"

"It is a useful habit under particular circumstances."

"A truth I do not deny; but not in this case. Come in; sit down, and
let us talk."

"I comply," answered the hunter, taking a few steps forward,
"particularly as I have to demand an explanation from you."

The Tigercat frowned, and replied, with rising and ill-suppressed anger:

"Is it to me you speak thus? Have you forgotten who I am?"

"I forget nothing that I ought to remember," concisely replied the
other.

"Boy! Have you forgotten that I am your father?"

"My father! Who will prove it?"

"You are over-venturesome," cried the old man in ire.

"After all," said the hunter scornfully, "it is nothing to me whether
you be my father or not. What does it matter? Have you not told me a
thousand times over, that bonds of relationship do not exist in nature;
that they are only a factitious sentiment, invented by human egotism
for the profit of the petty exigencies of debased society? Here, we are
only two men, equals in strength and courage; of whom the one comes to
demand from the other a clear and unvarnished explanation."

While the hunter was speaking, the old man fixed upon him a look which
flashed fire from under his half-closed eyelids. When he ceased, the
Tigercat smiled ironically.

"The wolf's cub feels he is cutting his teeth, and wants to bite his
fosterer."

"He will devour him without hesitation, if it be needful," fiercely
replied the hunter, as he let the butt end of the heavy rifle he
carried in his hand fall violently on the ground.

Instead of being lashed into a fury by a menace uttered so
peremptorily, the Tigercat suddenly became calm. His austere features
lighted up with an expression of good nature which rarely visited them.
Clapping his large hands together gaily, he exclaimed, with an air of
lively satisfaction:

"Well roared, my lion's whelp! _¡Vive Dios!_ You deserve your name,
Stoneheart! The more I see of you, the more I love you. I am proud of
you, _muchacho;_ for you are my handiwork, and I congratulate myself on
my success in producing so complete a monster. Go on as you have begun,
my son: I prophesy, you will go far."

The tone in which these words were pronounced by the Tigercat clearly
proved that they were in reality the unreserved expression of his
thoughts.

Stoneheart--for at last we know the name of this man--listened to his
father with a shrug of his shoulders, and an affectation of disdain.
When the latter ceased, the son replied as follows:

"Will you listen to me or not?"

"Certainly, my darling child. Speak! Tell me what frets you."

"Seek not to dupe me, gray-haired demon. I know your hellish malignity,
and your unmatchable knavery."

"You are complimentary, _muchacho._"

"Answer frankly and categorically the questions I will put to you!"

"Bah, Bah! Go on, go on. What are you afraid of?"

"Of nothing, I tell you; but my time is short: I have no leisure to
follow you through all the Indian circumlocutions it may be your
pleasure to invent. That is why I listen to nothing but the plain
truth."

"I cannot bind myself to that until I hear the questions you wish to
put."

"Take heed, father! If you deceive me, I shall find it out, and then--"

"And then?" repeated the old man mockingly.

"May the devil take my soul, if I do not plant my bowie knife between
your two shoulders."

"You forget that two can play at that game."

"So much the better; it will be a strife and I prefer it."

"You are not fastidious. But proceed; speak, or may the pestilence
stifle you! I am listening. I, too, have no more time to lose than you."

Stoneheart, who up to this moment had been standing erect in the middle
of the cell, seated himself on a bison's skull, and rested his rifle
across his knees.

"Did you not expect to see Zopilote when I burst into your cell?"

"I did expect Zopilote: you have guessed it, _muchacho._"

"Having finished, with his assistance, the ruffianly deeds of yesterday
and today, you two are anxious to concoct the treason you meditate
tomorrow."

"On my soul, _muchacho_, you are incomprehensible!"

"The devil I am! Then your apprehension is dull today."

"Perhaps it is: but oblige me by explaining your meaning."

"I will; however, attempt no denial: only a few minutes ago I learned
the whole story through the gossiping of the very men who were with
you."

"If you know all, why do you come here to question me?"

"In the first place, to ascertain if they spoke truly."

"They could not speak more truly: you see, I am frank."

"Then you really did surprise these travellers in their sleep?"

"Yes, _muchacho_, like a litter of prairie dogs in their earth."

"You stole their horses and baggage?"

"In good truth, I did all that."

"Afterwards, you had them carried into the thick of the forest, to die
a frightful death?"

"I did have them carried to the forest; but not, as you pretend to
believe, for the purpose of leaving them to starve."

"For what other purpose, then? I cannot suppose it was with the
intention of effacing all traces of the robbery. You care little about
such precautions, and do not stick at a knife thrust."

"Admirably reasoned, _muchacho_. I had no intention to do these
travellers the least harm in the world."

"Then what did you want from them? I cannot understand your conduct. It
is marvellous."

"Confess that it mystifies you, my son."

"It does; but will you explain?"

"That depends upon circumstances. But now promise, in your turn, to
answer a single question."

"One? I will answer it. Ask; I am listening."

"What do you think of Doña Hermosa? Has she not beautiful eyes! One
would think she had stolen a piece of the sky, they are so blue."

At this home-thrust Stoneheart recoiled; a sudden flush tinted his
features.

"Why do you ask me?" said he hesitatingly.

"What does that matter? Answer, as you have promised."

"I have scarcely looked at her," he replied, with increasing
embarrassment.

"You lie, my son: you have looked at her often enough; or young men
in these days are changed from what they were in my time--which I can
hardly believe." "Well, then, I have; and I care not who knows it,"
said Stoneheart, in a voice in which embarrassment was mingled with ill
humour. "I have looked at Doña Hermosa, if that is her name, and have
found her beautiful. Are you satisfied?"

"Almost. Has this charming creature had no other effect upon you?"

"I am not bound to answer you, father: that is a second question."

"You are right; nevertheless, I know what your reply would be. I can
dispense with it."

Stoneheart turned away his head to escape the searching look of the
Tigercat.

"But now," said he, after a momentary silence, "let us return to your
explanation."

"You are an ingrate, who will not understand. Have you not already
discovered that all this business has been undertaken for your sake
alone?"

Stoneheart started with surprise.

"For my sake? Is there anything in common between this girl and me? You
are laughing at me!"

"Not in the least; on the contrary, I am speaking seriously."

"Even if you do, I confess I am still in the dark."

"Aha! You are laughing now at my expense. Throughout the whole of this
comedy I assign you a capital part to play: I make you interesting; I
introduce you as the deliverer; are you still in the dark?"

"I myself assumed the character which you say you assigned me; I
adopted it myself, alone, without any interference of yours."

"Do you believe that, my son?" said the bandit, with a grin.

Stoneheart, not thinking it necessary to insist on this point, answered:

"I will admit that you may have arranged all that happened; but
what are your intentions towards the travellers now they are in the
_teocali?_"

"On my honour, _muchacho_, I confess that it is not settled yet; it
depends entirely on yourself."

"On me?" stammered the other.

"Yes; on my honour. Reflect; decide what you wish me to do: I give you
my word that I will conform to your wishes."

"Will you swear so, father,--solemnly swear?"

"Oh, yes. You see, I am very accommodating."

"It is exactly this pliancy, so foreign to your character and habits,
which makes me tremble."

"Folly! What more unjust suspicion! It happens one day that I remember
I am man; that it is my duty to succour my fellow creatures: and you
give me no credit for it!"

"_¡Caspita!_ How could it be otherwise? Your intrigues are so dark,
the means you employ are so utterly at variance with common usage in
similar cases, that, in spite of my knowledge of your character, the
real object of your machinations perpetually eludes me."

The visage of the Tigercat lighted up once more with a smile of
triumph; but he repressed it immediately, and assumed a look of
paternal benevolence.

"In spite of all you say," he answered, "my object in this case is so
plain that a child might see it."

"Then I must be an idiot, for I cannot divine it; on which account, I
must beg you to explain your wishes frankly."

"To make you adore the little one, _¡vive Cristo!_"

"Me!" exclaimed the hunter, astounded at the proposition, and purple
with blushes.

"And whom else, if not you?--unless it were myself."

"No, no," said the other, shaking his head mournfully; "that is
impossible: everything separates us. You have forgotten who she is; you
have forgotten what I am--I, Stoneheart, the man whose name, pronounced
to an inhabitant of the borders, makes him thrill with terror. No; it
is the dream of a fool: a love like that would be monstrous. I repeat,
it is impossible."

The Tigercat coolly shrugged his shoulders.

"My son," said he, "you have yet much to learn concerning that
many-sided being, that graceful compound of angel and devil, that
whimsical mixture of all good qualities and all vices, the world calls
woman. Be quite sure, my son, that since the time of mother Eve, woman
has never changed; there are the same treasons, the same perfidies,
still the same feline nature of the tiger, mingled with the no less
tortuous ways of the serpent. Woman must be quelled by the bold, or
she will busy herself with the hope of quelling him; she will always
despise the man for whom, in her secret heart, she feels no fear, and
for whom she entertains no involuntary respect. Your chances of winning
the heart of Hermosa, and installing yourself therein as master, are
numberless; you are proscribed, and your name is a name of terror. Oh,
my boy, love lives upon contrasts, knows no disparities, and despises
the barrier raised by human vanity. The man most sure to succeed with
a woman is precisely the only one whom, in the eyes of the world, she
ought to repel the most."

"Enough of this theme!" cried the hunter violently; "Your horrible
theories have already troubled my soul, and harrowed my heart. Let us
stop this conversation, of which I am weary. Again, I ask, what are
your intentions towards your prisoners?"

"I repeat, that it depends entirely upon yourself; they are in your
hands."

"If that be the case, they shall not stay long in your hideous lair;
tomorrow, at daybreak, they shall go."

"Just what I wish, my son."

"I myself will be their guide. You will restore everything you have
taken from them--horses and baggage."

"You shall restore them yourself; you can easily invent a story for
returning what belongs to them which shall not compromise me."

"Compromise you!" sneered Stoneheart.

"By our Lady," replied the Tigercat, with a hideous smile, "I stick to
the only good deed of my life; I will not lose the credit of it."

"Then all is agreed between us; you will not break your word to me?"

"Rest in peace; I will not break it."

"Then, good-bye, till tomorrow. I go to make everything ready."

"Good night, my son. Do not take that trouble; I take it upon myself."

And the two men separated.

The Tigercat listened attentively to the sound of his son's footsteps
as they died away in the distance. When silence was completely
re-established, he shook his head more than once with a preoccupied air.

"Love makes him shrewd," he murmured in a suppressed voice. "I will not
leave him leisure to divine my plans, or, at the moment it is within my
reach, he would frustrate the vengeance I have been so many years in
preparing."

Instead of retiring to his couch, the old man seized the torch, and
went forth from his cell.

In the meanwhile, in spite of the fears naturally caused by their
precarious position in the midst of people whose ferocious looks and
brutal manners spoke little in their favour, the travellers had passed
the night in tranquillity. No sound of evil augury had disturbed
their repose; and, worn out by fatigue, and wearied with the various
emotions of this day of misfortunes, after a short conversation, they
settled themselves to sleep.

Doña Hermosa, on waking at daybreak, found herself perfectly free from
the sufferings of the preceding day. Thanks to the remedy applied by
the hunter to the wound, the place where she was bitten, now the venom
was expressed, began to heal; she felt sufficient strength to resume
her journey on horseback, and would be able to travel without too
much fatigue. These good news dispersed the clouds which obscured the
forehead of the _hacendero_, and he awaited, with lively impatience,
the meeting with his host, which he had no doubt would not be long
deferred. In fact, as soon as the Tigercat supposed that those to whom
he had afforded shelter were awake, he presented himself before them to
inquire how they had passed the night.

The _hacendero_ thanked him warmly, assured him they were quite well,
and that Doña Hermosa herself felt almost restored to health.

"So much the better," replied the Tigercat, casting a glance of fire at
the girl. "It were a pity so charming a creature should perish in such
a miserable manner. And now, what are your intentions? Be not offended
at this question; I shall be happy to keep you at my side; and the
longer you remain here, the greater my pleasure."

"Thanks for your gracious offer," said Don Pedro; "unfortunately,
I dare not accept it: they will be uneasy on our account at the
_hacienda_, and I must hasten in person to put an end to their alarm."

"You are right. Then you intend to depart?"

"As soon as I can; unhappily, I have no horses for the few leagues of
the journey. I must put your hospitality still further to the test,
although I hardly know how to thank you for what you have done already,
by requesting you to sell me the animals I require to return home;
at the same time, I would also crave a guide, to lead us through the
forest which had nearly proved our tomb, and to put us once more on our
right road. You see, _caballero_, that I make great demands on your
courtesy."

"You only ask of me what is your right, señor; I will exert myself to
fulfil your wishes. But how did it happen that you found yourself on
foot in the virgin forest, so far from any habitations?"

The _hacendero_ cast a furtive glance over the speaker; but the
features of the latter continued immovable. Don Pedro then recounted
all the details of the strange attack of which he had been the victim.

The Tigercat listened calmly, without interrupting him, saying, as soon
as the recital was finished:

"All this seems very incomprehensible. I am annoyed at not having
received this information yesterday evening. It is very late, now;
but leave me to do what I can. Perhaps I may be able to cause your
lost property to be restored to you; at all events I will furnish you
with the means of reaching your _hacienda_. Entertain no fears on that
score. I presume you would not like to leave this place before you have
broken your fast; you can begin your journey as soon after breakfast as
you please. I must leave you for a short time, to give the necessary
orders for your departure. Excuse me. In an hour's time you shall hear
from me again."

Having said this, he retired; leaving the travellers in astonishment,
and perplexed as to his true character so easily did this man vary both
manner and language.

An hour and a half passed over without Don Pedro receiving any news
of his host. At the end of that time an Indian appeared, and without
uttering a word, made a sign to the travellers to follow him. They
obeyed without hesitation.

After following him for some minutes, they found themselves on the
summit of the _teocali_ which the evening before, under the silver rays
of the moon, they had taken for a hill.

From this elevation the travellers commanded an immense extent of
horizon, and enjoyed a magnificent landscape, still partially veiled
by the mists of morning, but illumined here and there by the dazzling
sunbeams, which produced the most striking effects amongst this chaos
of trees and mountains intersecting the boundless prairies.

The morning repast was prepared on a mound of turf, covered over with
the large leaves of the mahogany.

The Tigercat standing by the mound, was waiting for his guests. Some
redskins, few in number, and scattered here and there about the
platform, all armed, and in their war paint, were walking about with
seeming indifference, and taking no apparent note of the presence of
the strangers.

"I have preferred to have the meal served here," said the Tigercat,
"where you can enjoy the magnificent prospect."

Don Pedro thanked him; and, at his repeated invitation, sat down by the
mound with his daughter and Don Luciano. The _peones_ ate by themselves.

The repast was frugal. It consisted of fritters, with red pepper,
_tasajo_ (sun-dried beef), a few slices of venison, and rolls made
of maize flour, the whole washed down with _eau de smilax_ and
_pulque_,--a spirit prepared from a species of aloe. It was a true
hunter's meal.

"Eat and drink," said the Tigercat; "you have a long journey before
you."

"Will you not honour us by partaking of the repast you have gallantly
offered us?" said Don Pedro, seeing that the old man continued standing.

"You must excuse me, _caballero_," replied the Tigercat civilly, but
peremptorily. "I broke my fast long ago."

"Indeed!" said the _hacendero_, not content with the answer; "Then, at
least, you will consent to empty this horn of _pulque_ to my health."

"It grieves me to refuse you, señor; but it is impossible!" and he
bowed.

These repeated refusals caused a sudden coolness between the guests
and their host, in spite of the apparent graciousness of the old man's
hospitality,--for the Americans of New Spain resemble the Arabs in
this, that they only consent to eat and drink with those towards whom
their intentions are friendly.

A vague suspicion crossed the mind of Don Pedro; and he looked
inquiringly at his host, but could see nothing in the smiling face of
the old man to justify his apprehension.

The repast was eaten silently. At its termination, Doña Hermosa, after
thanking the Tigercat for his profuse hospitality, asked him if, before
she left, she could not see the hunter who had rendered her such
invaluable service the evening before.

"He is absent at present, señorita,--absent in your service; but I
expect him to return immediately."

The doña was about to ask for an explanation of these words, when a
sound, resembling distant thunder, arose in the forest, and grew louder
and louder every minute.

"And here," continued the Tigercat, "comes the very man whom you
desired to see; he will be with you directly. The noise you hear is
caused by the galloping of the horses he brings with him."



CHAPTER VI.

THE JOURNEY.


In a very short time after the occurrences related in the preceding
chapter, the travellers saw a tolerably numerous troop of riders emerge
from the forest.

Stoneheart rode at their head, and Don Pedro discovered, with feelings
of lively satisfaction, that the horses and mules so audaciously stolen
from him were in the rear of the troop.

"Ha!" said he, "The robbers have been compelled to disgorge their prey."

"It would appear so," answered the old man, with a scarcely perceptible
smile.

Meanwhile, the hunter had halted the troop at a little distance from
the _teocali._ He himself had dismounted, and was now coming towards
the travellers. He soon reached them.

"I perceive that you have succeeded in your enterprise," the Tigercat
said to him in a tone of raillery.

"I have," answered the hunter laconically, and turning from him.

"I am rejoiced at this circumstance," resumed the old man, addressing
Don Pedro; "thanks to it, you will reach your home on your own horses,
and without the loss of anything belonging to you."

"How shall I ever repay all the obligations I owe you, señor?" said the
_hacendero_, with great emotion.

"By not thanking me for them: my conduct towards you has been very
simple, and solely dictated by the interest I took in your unlucky
position."

Although nothing could be more evident than the Tigercat's intention
to make a courteous answer, his words were uttered with such a hissing
accent, his voice was so ironical, and his tone so sarcastic, that the
effect produced was quite contrary to what he intended. Without exactly
comprehending the reason, Don Pedro felt he had met with an insult
instead of a compliment.

"Let us end this," said Stoneheart abruptly. "The sun is already
high; and it is time to set out, if you would cross the forest before
nightfall."

"In all sincerity," said the Tigercat, "notwithstanding the chagrin I
feel at seeing you depart, it is my duty to warn you that, if nothing
detains you here, you will do well to commence your journey."

Don Pedro and his companions rose, and, accompanied by the two hunters,
descended into the plain.

During the words which had been exchanged on the _teocali_, the mounted
Indians had disappeared, leaving the animals of the Mexicans at the
place where they had first halted.

The _hacendero_, before he mounted, turned his head several times in
the direction in which the Indian's had vanished.

"What are you looking for?" asked the old man, uneasy at this repeated
movement.

"You will excuse me," answered Don Pedro; "but I am afraid to enter
without a guide into that pathless forest; and I do not see the one you
were good enough to promise me."

"Nevertheless he stands before you, señor," said the Tigercat, pointing
to the hunter.

"Yes," said the latter, looking defiantly at the old man, "it is I who
am to be your guide; and I give you my sacred word, that in despite of
savages, be they beasts or men, I will conduct you in safety to your
_hacienda._"

The Tigercat made no answer to these words, which were evidently spoken
for his behoof; he contented himself by shrugging his shoulders, while
an indefinable expression settled on his mocking lips.

"Oh!" said the _hacendero_, "We have indeed nothing to fear if you are
to be our guide, señor; the generosity of your late conduct is a sure
guarantee for the future."

"Let us go," said the hunter briefly, "we have already lost too much
time."

The travellers mounted without replying.

"Adieu! And good luck," said the Tigercat, when he saw them ready to
start.

"One word, if you please, caballero," exclaimed the _hacendero_, bowing
slightly to his host.

"Speak, señor," said the latter; "is there any further service I can
render you?"

"No," replied the Mexican; "I owe you too many favours already; only,
before I leave you, perhaps forever, I wish to tell you, without
desiring to pry too closely into the motives which prompted your
actions towards me, your conduct has apparently been so cordial and
noble, that I must try to express to you the extent of my gratitude.
Whatever may happen, señor, and until evident proof to the contrary, I
consider myself indebted to you; and if occasion offers, I shall know
how to cancel the debt I owe you."

And before the Tigercat, stupefied by this adieu, which proved that
the _hacendero_ was not quite his dupe, had recovered, the Mexican
had given both spurs to his horse, and galloped off to rejoin his
companions who had already advanced some little way.

The old man remained motionless, his eyes fixed on the travellers,
until they had finally disappeared within the forest; then he regained
the _teocali_, muttering in a low voice:

"Has he foreseen my purpose? No, it is impossible; but his suspicion is
aroused, and I must have been less prudent than my wont."

In the meantime the travellers had entered upon the forest, under the
guidance of Stoneheart, who rode alone in advance, with drooping head,
and apparently plunged in sombre thought.

For two hours they progressed without exchanging a word. The hunter
rode on as if he were alone, without troubling himself in the least
about those who followed him; without even turning his head in their
direction, to see whether they were behind him.

This behaviour only moderately astonished the _hacendero_, who,
recollecting the manner in which he had made acquaintance with the
hunter the day before, was expecting a certain oddness of character on
his part. Nevertheless, he was hurt by the coldness and indifference
displayed by the man whose good will he had sought to conciliate. So
he made no attempt to engage him to break the silence and become more
sociable.

A little before midday the travellers reached a tolerably large
clearing, in the centre of which there gushed forth, from the fissures
of a rock, which rose to a grand height in the form of a pyramid, a
spring of water, as clear and limpid as crystal, which ran off in a
narrow stream through thick tufts of gladiolus.

This clearing, shaded by a leafy vault of gigantic trees surrounding
it, offered a delicious spot for repose to the weary travellers.

"We will wait here until the greatest heat of the day is over," said
the guide, breaking silence for the first time since they had left the
_teocali._

"Content," said the _hacendero_, smiling; "indeed, you could not have
chosen a fitter spot."

"One of the baggage mules carries food and other refreshment, of which
you may avail yourself, if you choose; they have been provided for your
use."

"And you--will you not join us?" asked the _hacendero_.

"I am neither hungry nor thirsty; do not trouble yourself about me;
other duties claim my attention."

Thinking it useless to insist, Don Pedro dismounted, lifted his
daughter from her saddle, and placed her on the turf beside the brook.
The horses were tethered, and all settled themselves to snatch a few
moments of repose.

Stoneheart, after silently helping the _peones_ to unload the mule
which carried the provisions, and spreading them out before Don Pedro
and his daughter, absented himself with hasty strides, and was soon
lost in the forest.

"What a strange fellow!" said the _capataz_, while doing honour to the
food before him.

"His conduct is incomprehensible," answered Don Pedro.

"But I believe him honest, in spite of his rough manner," said Doña
Hermosa; "up to the present his proceedings towards us have been
irreproachable."

"Very true," said her father; "yet he seems to display a coldness
which, I confess, makes me uneasy."

"It is impossible to think ill of a man who, in spite of all, has shown
us nothing but kindness hitherto," replied Doña Hermosa, with a certain
degree of warmth of manner; "we owe him our lives, especially myself,
whom he saved from a certain and horrible death."

"Very true, my daughter; yet all this is most difficult to account for."

"Not the least in the world, father: this man, accustomed to live
amongst Indians, has unconsciously adopted their sententiousness, and
the reserve of their manners. What you consider coldness, is probably
no more than bashfulness in the presence of a class of persons he is
not accustomed to; and his want of knowledge of our habits prevents his
speaking."

"It is not impossible that you may be right, my child; however, I
intend to ease my mind of this anxiety; and I will not leave him till I
have made an effort to loosen his tongue."

"Why should you distress him, father? We cannot exact anything from
him, beyond leading us in safety to the _hacienda._ Let him do as he
likes, if he only fulfils the promise he made us."

"All very well, señorita," objected the _capataz_; "but you must
confess that we should be seriously at a loss if he takes it into his
head not to come back."

"That supposition is inadmissible, Don Luciano: his horse is feeding
with ours; besides, for what purpose should he commit such an
unwarrantable treason."

"This man, in spite of the whiteness of his skin, is more an Indian
than an individual of our colour; and, right or wrong, señorita, I
distrust the redskins amazingly."

"Moreover," added Don Pedro, "I cannot see what urgent business could
induce him to leave us all alone, and to plunge into the forest."

"Who can tell, father?" said the girl shrewdly; "It may be he is gone
to do us some further service."

"At all events, señorita," resumed the _capataz_, "I see one thing
very clearly, which is, that if this man does not come back again, our
position is still more frightful than it was yesterday, for then we had
our rifles. Today we are completely without weapons, and incapable of
defending ourselves if attacked by man or beast."

"It is too true," cried the _hacendero_, turning pale; "our arms were
taken from us while we slept. I never thought of them before. What can
be the meaning of all this? Have we again fallen into a snare, and is
this man really a traitor?"

"No, my father," replied the girl, with spirit; "he is innocent; I am
sure of it. You will soon acknowledge the injustice of your suspicions."

"God grant it!" said Don Pedro, with a sigh.

At this moment a sharp and prolonged whistle was heard at a distance.
At the sound the hunter's horse, which had been browsing peaceably,
pricked up his ears, and darting in the direction whence the whistle
was heard, gave a neigh of pleasure, and galloped off into the forest.

"What did I tell you, señorita?" cried the _capataz_. "Do you believe
me now?"

"No," she replied energetically; "I do not believe this man to be a
traitor. Strong as appearances may be against him, you will soon see
the injustice of your suspicions."

"For this once, my daughter, I concur with Don Luciano; it is evident
that, for reasons of his own the miscreant has abandoned us."

His daughter shook her head, but said nothing.

The _hacendero_ continued:

"What shall we do? We must decide upon something or other; we cannot
stop here and wait for night."

"It is my opinion," said the _capataz_, "that we have no other
alternative than to leave this place directly. Who knows whether the
wretch is not preparing to swoop down upon us this very moment, at the
head of a band of robbers like himself?"

"Yes; but where are we to go? None of us knows the road," interposed
the _hacendero_.

"Horses have an infallible instinct which never fails to direct them to
inhabited places. Let us throw the reins on their necks, and leave them
to choose their road."

"It is a chance we might try; it might succeed. Let us set to work
without delay."

"Father! In the name of Heaven," entreated Doña Hermosa, "Think of what
you are about to do. Do not act with a precipitation you would soon
regret. Wait a little while yet; it is scarcely midday, and an hour
more or less is of little importance."

"I will not wait a minute, not a second!" violently exclaimed the
_hacendero_, rising to his feet. "Here, _muchachos!_ Saddle the horses
quickly; we will be off."

The _peones_ hastened to obey.

"Be careful, father," said the girl; "I hear the sound of a horse's
hoofs in the thicket; our guide is returning."

The convictions of the _hacendero_ were shaken by his daughter's
earnest appeal. He dropped on the turf again, making a sign to his
companion to do the like.

Doña Hermosa had not deceived herself. The noise she had heard was
certainly the step--not perhaps of a horse, for it was slow and
heavy, but at all events of an animal of great size. It was obviously
approaching.

"Perhaps it is a grizzly bear," muttered the _hacendero_.

"Or a jaguar in search of prey," added the _capataz_ in a low voice.

The anxiety of the travellers was intense. Abandoned in the forest,
without arms to defend themselves, it was clear that they were lost if
a wild beast should really attack them; for flight was impossible, as
they knew not where to fly to.

"You are mistaken," said Doña Hermosa, who alone had preserved her
presence of mind; "no danger threatens us. Look! The horses continue
feeding without showing the least alarm."

"You are right," said Don Pedro; "they would have perceived the scent
of a wild beast--have been mad with fear, and taken to flight before
this."

Suddenly the bushes parted, and the hunter made his appearance, leading
his horse by the bridle.

"I was sure of it," cried Doña Hermosa in triumph; while her father and
the _capataz_ cast down their eyes, blushing for shame.

The features of the hunter were as cold and impassive as they had
been when he quitted the clearing, only their expression was more
sombre. His horse carried on his back a heavy bundle, oblong in shape,
carefully corded, and wrapped up in buffalo hide.

"You must excuse me for having left you," he said in a voice that
sounded rather sadly; "I only perceived, when it was too late, that
you had been deprived of your weapons,--at least I suppose that to be
the case; for you cannot have forgotten to take them when you left the
_teocali_; and as it is more than probable you will have to defend
yourselves before you leave the wilderness, I have been to find arms
for you."

"Is that the reason why you left us?"

"Why I left you!" he answered quietly. "I brought you to this place
because a few paces off I have one of those _caches_ (hiding places)
which we hunters fashion, here and there in the desert, to serve us in
time of need. But," he added in a bitter tone, "it has been discovered
and pillaged. On that account I whistled for my horse, whose help had
become indispensable; for I was obliged to go to another _cache_ at
some distance. If it had not been for this mishap, I should have been
back at least half an hour ago."

This explanation was given by the hunter without emphasis, and in the
tone of a man conscious he was merely relating a simple fact.

He unloaded his horse, and opened the bale. It contained five American
rifles, knives, straight swords called _machetes_, powder, balls, and
hatchets.

"Arm yourselves. The rifles are good; they will not fail you when the
time to use them arrives."

The Mexicans did not wait to be asked twice; they were soon armed to
the teeth.

"Now, at least," said the hunter, "you can defend yourselves like men,
instead of letting yourselves be butchered like deer."

"Ah," sighed Doña Hermosa, "I was convinced he would act like this."

"Thanks, señorita," was his response; "thanks for your trust in me."

While he spoke these words, his features became animated, and his eyes
flashed; but he soon resumed the impassiveness of marble.

"I promised to conduct you in safety to your home," he said, "and I
will do so."

"Is there any danger to be feared?" inquired Don Pedro.

"There is always danger," he replied bitterly, "in the desert more than
elsewhere."

"Are we threatened with treachery?"

"Ask me no questions; I will not reply to them. Listen to my words, and
profit by them. If you wish to preserve your scalps, you must place
implicit confidence in me, whatever I may do, and obey me, without fear
or hesitation, in everything I may order. All I shall do will be done
with but one aim--your safety. Do you consent to these conditions?"

"We do," exclaimed Doña Hermosa fervently; "we will not doubt your
loyalty, and will act entirely according to your council."

"I swear it," said the _hacendero_.

"It is well; now I will be answerable for everything. Put aside all
anxiety. Do not speak to me; I have need to collect my thoughts."

Bowing carelessly, he betook himself to a little distance, and seated
himself at the foot of a tree.

In the meantime the curiosity of the Mexicans was strongly excited.
They comprehended that serious danger was impending, and that the
hunter was planning means to avert it; but now that they had excellent
weapons, horns full of powder, and balls, they looked at their position
in a new light, and, although their anxiety was still great, they did
not despair of being able to escape from the snares laid for their
feet.

The hunter, after remaining motionless as a statue for nearly half an
hour, raised his head, calculated the time by the shadows of the trees,
and said, rising with some impetuosity,

"To horse; it is time to go."

The horses were soon saddled, and the travellers in their seats.

"You will march in Indian file," continued the hunter; "follow exactly
in my steps."

Instead of advancing in the direction he had taken hitherto, he rode
his horse into the rivulet, the course of which he followed until
he reached a spot where two other brooks contributed their waters.
Stoneheart chose the left hand brook, and followed its windings. The
Mexicans closely imitated this manoeuvre, riding in Indian file--the
head of each horse at the crupper of the one in front of him.

The heat was stifling in the covert, where the circulation of the air,
impeded by the foliage, was scarcely perceptible. The deepest calm
prevailed through the forest; the birds, nestled under the leaves, had
ceased their songs; and nothing was heard but the monotonous humming of
innumerable myriads of mosquitoes hovering about the marshes.

In the meantime the brook they were following increased by degrees till
it assumed the character of a river. Here and there, already, black
_chicots_ (trees uprooted and carried down by the rivers, often forming
serious obstacles to navigation) began to make their appearance, on
which rosy flamingoes and herons stood on one leg; the banks right and
left became steeper, and the horses for some time past had been obliged
to swim.

This unknown river, whose blue waters had never reflected anything
but the azure of the skies and the green dome formed by the trees
capriciously bending over its banks, presented to the eye a grand and
majestic sight, impressing the mind with a kind of melancholy calm and
religious awe.

The travellers, silent as phantoms, continued their journey, swimming
slowly down the middle of the river, close at the heels of their guide,
whose eagle glance explored its banks. Arriving at a place where an
immense rock rose like a solitary watchtower, and formed an immense
vault overhanging the stream, Stoneheart slipped from his horse, whose
bridle he gave to Don Pedro, and swam under the arch, making a sign to
the others to pursue their course. He soon reappeared in one of those
Indian canoes which are built of birch bark, detached by means of
boiling water, and whose lightness is unequalled. With a few strokes
of the paddle he reached the travellers; the latter climbed into the
canoe, and their horses, relieved from the weight of their riders, were
able to swim with greater ease.

Doña Hermosa was very glad of the change. Still suffering from her
wound, she began to feel much difficulty in keeping her seat on her
horse, although she exerted herself to the utmost to conceal her
fatigue. But the quick eye of the hunter had noticed her lassitude, and
he had brought the canoe for her relief.

They still continued to advance in this manner for nearly an hour,
without any occurrence to disturb their tranquillity or make them
suspect the vicinity of an enemy. At last they reached a turn of the
river where the banks rose, for a considerable space, to a prodigious
height, and hemmed in the stream between two walls of rock terminating
in peaks. In the centre of the river arose a block of grayish granite,
about sixty yards in circumference, and towards it the hunter guided
the canoe. The Mexicans, at first astonished at this manoeuvre, were
not long before they comprehended it; for, when close in upon the rock,
they discovered that one of its faces sloped down in a gentle incline,
and in this face there yawned the mouth of a cavern.

The canoe touched the ground; the travellers disembarked, and hastened
to bring the horses to land: the poor animals were spent with fatigue.

"Come," said the hunter, shouldering the canoe; and the Mexicans
followed him.

The cavern was spacious, and seemed to extend under water to a great
distance. The horses were stabled in a corner, and supplied with
provender.

"Here," said the hunter, "we are as much in safety as it is possible
to be in the desert. If nothing comes to trouble us, we will pass the
night here, in order to give our horses the rest of which they stand
so much in need. You can light a fire without hesitation; the fissures
in the rock, which afford you light, will divide the smoke, and render
it invisible. Although I believe I have hidden our trail from those in
pursuit of us, it is still incumbent on me to make a reconnaissance
outside. Be not uneasy; present or absent, I watch over you. I will
return in an hour. But take heed not to show yourselves; in the virgin
forest, who can tell what eyes may be upon him? Adieu for a time."

He went out, leaving his companions a prey to anxiety, which was
the more lively because, although well aware that some great danger
threatened, they could not foresee either whence or in what manner it
would fall on them, and because they were completely at the mercy of
a man whose character and ultimate intentions it was impossible to
divine.



CHAPTER VII.

THE SKIRMISH.


Nature has rights she always enforces: whatever the anxiety of the
Mexicans, the fatigues they had endured during the whole of that
long day made them feel the imperious necessity of recruiting their
strength; so, after a few gloomy reflections on their critical and
almost desperate situation, Don Pedro ordered the _peones_ to light a
fire and prepare the evening meal.

Men whose physical faculties are more frequently called into exertion
than their minds, never forget to eat and sleep, whatever situation
chance may place them in; appetite and sleep never fail them. The
reason is simple: constantly exposed to Titanic struggles with man or
the elements, their natural forces must be maintained in an equal ratio
with the efforts they have to make to surmount the obstacles which
oppose, or the perils which threaten them.

The meal was sad and silent; the Mexicans were too deeply impressed by
the approach of night, the time habitually chosen by the redskins for
their attacks, to care for exchanging many words.

The hunter's absence was protracted; already, for more than two hours,
the sun had disappeared behind the high mountaintops; thick darkness
enveloped the earth as with a shroud; not a star twinkled in the sky;
and great black clouds coursed through space, completely veiling the
orb of the moon.

The _hacendero_ would not resign to any other the duty of watching
over the common safety. Lying face downwards on the platform, so
that he might not be visible if an unseen enemy were lying in wait,
he anxiously scanned the dark line of the water. At his side lay the
_capataz_, who, equally with himself, had no wish to attempt a repose
which he knew to be impossible.

The high cliffs of the banks were bare and deserted; only at one place,
where the shore was accessible, they saw black shapes moving for a few
seconds, with hoarse and angry growls, and then disappearing. These
black forms were evidently wild animals, slaking their thirst in the
river before repairing to their layers.

"Come!" suddenly exclaimed a deep and determined voice in the ear of
the Mexican.

Don Pedro turned round, repressing a cry of astonishment; the hunter
stood by him, leaning on his rifle.

The three men entered the cavern. The remains of the fire which had
been lighted for the evening meal diffused light enough to distinguish
objects.

"You are very late," said the _hacendero_.

"I have traversed six leagues since I left you," replied the hunter;
"but that is no matter. A man, whose name you need not know at present,
has resolved to prevent your reaching the _hacienda._ A party of
Apaches is on our trail. All my precautions have not availed to conceal
our tracks from these cunning demons, whose piercing eyes would detect
in the air the trail of the eagle's flight. They are encamped close by;
they are preparing rafts and canoes to attack you."

"Are there many of them?" inquired the _hacendero_.

"No; not above a score at most, of whom only six or seven are armed
with rifles; the rest have but bows and lances. Knowing you to be
without arms, or at least believing so, they count upon carrying you
off without striking a blow."

"Who is the man who is so inveterate against us?"

"What is that to you? He is a strange and mysterious being, whose life
is one continual round of dark conspiracies; his mind is an abyss which
no one has dared to sound, the depths of which even he himself, who
fears nothing in the world, would dread to fathom. But enough of him.
You are to be attacked in two hours; three chances of escape from the
fate prepared for you are open to you."

"And what are these chances?" said the _hacendero_.

"The first is, to remain here, await the attack, and make a vigorous
resistance. The Apaches, alarmed at finding armed and on their guard
the men whom they hoped to surprise weaponless and defenceless, may
lose courage, and retreat."

Doña Hermosa, aroused by the sound of voices, had approached, and was
listening attentively.

The _hacendero_ shook his head. "The chance seems hazardous," he said;
"for if our enemies succeeded in setting foot on the rock, they would
overpower us by dint of numbers, and make themselves masters of our
persons."

"That would most probably be the case," said the hunter, coolly.

"Let us hear the second chance; the one already proposed seems
impracticable."

"This rock communicates, by a subterraneous passage under the bed of
the river, with another rock, a good distance from the place where
we now are. I will lead you to that rock; when we get there, we will
embark in the canoe; having reached the opposite bank of the river, we
will mount, and trust our safety to the speed of our horses."

"I should prefer this chance, if our horses were not so worn out that a
night flight across the wilderness would be almost an impossibility."

"The redskins know as well as I do all the outlets from the rock on
which we have taken refuge. Most likely they have already guarded the
passage by which we might hope to escape."

"Alas!" said the _hacendero_, sorrowfully, "With all your good
intention to help us, the chances you propose are against us."

"I know it; unfortunately, it does not depend upon me to make them
otherwise."

"And lastly," resumed Don Pedro, with much resignation, "what is the
third chance?"

"I am afraid you will find the last more desperate than the other two.
It is a rash and dangerous undertaking, which might perhaps offer a
hope of success if we had not with us a woman, whom we must not expose
to one peril in order to save her from another."

"Then it is useless to name it," said the _hacendero_, with a mournful
look at his daughter.

"You are wrong, father," said Doña Hermosa, with much animation; "let
us hear, at least, what this chance is. Perhaps it is the only good
one. Explain, señor," continued she, addressing the hunter. "After all
you have done for us, we should be ungrateful not to listen to your
counsel. I am convinced that what you hesitate to propose, for my sake,
is the only means of safety open to us."

"That may be," answered the hunter; "but I repeat, señorita, that the
means are impracticable--you being with us."

The girl drew herself up, a gay smile played about her rosy lips, and,
commencing her speech in a voice slightly ironical, she said:

"You surely think me very weak and pusillanimous, señor, since you dare
not speak out. I am but a woman, it is true, and feeble, as we all are;
but I think I have proved to you, in the few hours during which we have
travelled together, that my heart is above vulgar fears; and that if
my physical strength is not equal to my moral energy, my will triumphs
over my woman's weakness, and makes me superior to circumstances, let
them be what they will."

Stoneheart listened attentively to the beautiful girl. The mask of
impassiveness which covered his features melted away at the sound of
that melodious voice, and a deep blush suffused his face.

"Pardon me, señorita," he said in a voice which the secret feelings
agitating him caused to waver; "I was wrong; I will speak out."

"Good!" said she, with a pleasant smile; "I knew what your answer would
be."

"The Apaches," began the hunter, "are encamped, as I have told you, at
a short distance from the bank of the river. Certain that they will
not be molested, they keep no watch; they sleep, drink the firewater,
and await the time for attacking you. We are six men, well armed and
determined; we know that our safety depends on the success of our
expedition. Let us land on the island, surprise the redskins, and fall
on them boldly. Perhaps we may succeed in opening ourselves a passage,
and in that case we shall be saved, for they will not pursue us after
they have been defeated. This is my proposal."

There was a long silence; it was Doña Hermosa who broke it.

"You were wrong in hesitating to acquaint us with this project," said
she, fervently; "it is the only one practicable. It is better to meet
danger halfway than to tremble in cowardly expectation of its advent.
Let us go! Let us go! We have not a minute to lose."

"Daughter," exclaimed Don Pedro, "you are mad! Remember, we are going
to expose ourselves to almost certain death."

"Be it so, my father," she replied, with feverish energy; "our fate is
in the hands of God, whose protection has been so evident thus far,
that I believe He will not abandon us now."

"The señorita is right," cried the _capataz_; "let us smoke these
demons out of their lair. This hunter, to whom I make my most humble
apologies for having suspected his loyalty for an instant, will supply
us with the means of arriving, without being discovered, at the camp of
the Apaches."

"I can but do my best," said the hunter modestly.

"Let us go, then, since needs must," said the _hacendero_, with a sigh.

The _peones_, who had not mingled in the conversation, seized their
rifles with an air of determination which proved them resolved to do
their duty.

"Follow me," said the hunter, lighting a torch of _ocote_ wood, to show
the way.

Without another word, the Mexicans plunged into the depth of the
cavern, taking with them the horses whose strength had been thoroughly
recruited by their rest of so many hours.

They continued pushing their way through the subterranean passage.
Overhead they heard the dull and ceaseless noise of the waters;
thousands of night birds, dazzled by the unwonted light of the torch,
awoke from their slumbers, and wheeled around, uttering mournful and
discordant cries.

At the end of half an hour's rapid march, the hunter halted.

"Wait for me here," he said, and passed on rapidly, after delivering
the torch to the _capataz_.

Shortly after, he returned.

"Come," said he, "all goes well."

They followed him anew. Suddenly a fresh, cool breeze met their faces,
and through the obscurity before them they saw two or three points of
light glittering. They had reached the other rock.

"We must now redouble our caution," said the hunter; "those points
of light you see shining through the mist are the campfires of the
Apaches. Their ear is fine; the least noise would betray our presence."

The canoe was launched again; the Mexicans embarked, the _capataz_, at
the stern of the frail bark, holding the reins of the horses, which
followed swimming.

Crossing occupied only a few minutes, and the canoe soon grated against
the sandy beach.

Nothing could be better than the place chosen by the hunter. A high
rock threw over the water, to a considerable distance, so dark a
shadow, that it was impossible to distinguish the travellers ten paces
off.

The forest, scarcely twenty yards from the shore, offered, amongst its
thickets, immediate protection to the fugitives.

"The señorita will remain here, with one _peon_ to guard the horses,"
said the hunter; "we others will attempt the surprise."

"Not so," exclaimed the girl resolutely. "I want no one here. You would
miss the man you wish to leave with me. Give me a pistol, to defend
myself in case of attack, and go."

"Nevertheless, señorita--"

"It is my will," she peremptorily exclaimed. "Go, and God be with you!"

The _hacendero_ convulsively pressed his daughter to his bosom.

"Courage, my father!" she cried, while she embraced him; "Courage; all
will end well."

She took a pistol from him, and left him, waving her adieu.

The hunter for the last time warned his companions to be cautious; and
the men set off, following his exact footsteps in the forest.

After marching half an hour in Indian file, they saw the fires of the
Apaches glimmering close by.

At a sign from the hunter, the Mexicans threw themselves on the
ground, and began to crawl forward in silence, advancing with extreme
precaution inch by inch, their ears on the watch, and ready to fire at
the first suspicious movement of the enemy.

But nothing stirred: most of the Apaches slept, plunged, as Stoneheart
had asserted, in the brutal drunkenness caused by the abuse of the
firewater.

Only three or four warriors, easily recognised as chiefs by the vulture
plumes they wore in their hair, were squatting around the fire, smoking
with the mechanical gravity characteristic of the Indian.

By the hunter's order, the Mexicans slowly arose, and each man
sheltered himself behind the trunk of a tree.

"I leave you here," whispered Stoneheart. "I am going to enter the
camp. Keep still as death; and, whatever may happen, do not fire before
you see me throw my cap on the ground."

He disappeared among the underwood.

From the spot where the travellers were hidden, they could easily see
all that took place in the camp of the redskins, and even hear what was
said; for only a few yards separated them from the fire round which the
_sachems_ crouched.

With bodies ensconced behind the trees, their fingers on the triggers
of their rifles, their eyes fixed in feverish impatience on the camp,
the Mexicans awaited the signal to give fire.

The few minutes preceding a night attack are very solemn. A man left
alone with his thoughts on such an occasion, about to risk his life
in pitiless strife, however brave he may be, feels himself seized by
an instinctive dread, which sends a cold shudder thrilling through
his frame. In that supreme hour he sees his whole life pass, as in
a dream, with giddy rapidity before him, and the most abiding and
predominant sensation is the thought of that which is to happen beyond
the grave,--the dread unknown.

Some ten minutes had elapsed since the departure of the hunter, when
a slight noise was heard in the brushwood on the opposite side of the
camp to that where the Mexicans lay in ambush.

The Apache chiefs turned their heads negligently, the bushes parted,
and Stoneheart made his appearance in the circle of light caused by the
watch fires.

The hunter slowly approached the chiefs. When close to them, he
stopped, and bowed ceremoniously, but without speaking.

The _sachems_ returned the salute with the innate good breeding of the
redskins.

"My brother is welcome," said a chief. "Will he sit by the council
fire?"

"No," said the hunter; "my time is short."

"My brother is prudent," resumed the chief; "he has abandoned the
palefaces, because he knows that the Tigercat has delivered them over
to the barbed arrows of the Apache warriors."

"I have not abandoned the palefaces: my brother deceives himself. I
have sworn to defend them; I will do so."

"That is against the orders of the Tigercat."

"I take no orders from him. I hate treachery. I will not let the
redskin braves accomplish what they meditate."

"Oh!" grunted the _sachem;_ "My brother lifts his voice very high. I
have heard the hawk mock at the eagle, but a blow of its mighty wing
crushed the hawk to powder."

"A truce to sarcasm, chief. You are one of the most renowned braves
of your tribe, and cannot consent to become the agent of an infamous
treachery. The Tigercat has received these travellers in his _calli;_
he has treated them with hospitality. Is not hospitality sacred in the
desert?"

The Apache burst into a laugh.

"The Tigercat is a great chief; he would neither eat nor drink with the
palefaces."

"It is an unworthy artifice."

"The palefaces are thievish dogs. The Apaches will take their scalps."

"Wretch!" cried the hunter; "I too am a paleface. Come and take my
scalp."

And, rapid as thought, he cast on the ground the cap of fur which
covered his head, and at the same instant precipitated himself on the
Indian chief, and plunged his knife into his heart.

Five shots were heard simultaneously with this action, and the
remaining chiefs sitting round the fire rolled to the ground in their
death agony.

The _sachems_ were the only Indians with rifles.

"Forward! Forward!" shouted the hunter; and seizing his rifle by the
muzzle, he hurled himself into the midst of the panic-stricken Apaches.

The Mexicans after their first fire, rushed into the camp to reinforce
the guide.

Then a terrible struggle commenced--six men against fifteen--a struggle
all the more fierce and desperate because each man knew he could expect
no mercy.

Happily for themselves, the whites were armed with pistols. These they
discharged point-blank in the face of their opponents, attacking them
afterwards with the sabre.

The Indians had been so completely surprised--they had so little
expected to have to sustain such a vigorous onslaught from men who
seemed to have emerged from the earth, and whose numbers they were far
from suspecting--that half of them had been killed before the rest
could recover from their fright, or attempt serious resistance. When at
last they essayed an organised defence, it was too late. The Mexicans
pressed them so hard, that a longer resistance was impossible.

"Hold!" shouted the hunter.

Whites and redskins lowered their arms at once.

The hunter continued: "Warriors of the Apaches, throw down your arms!"

They obeyed; and at a signal from the guide, the Mexicans bound their
opponents without further difficulty.

As soon as the redskins acknowledged their defeat, they awaited, with
complete apathy and their usual fatalism, the doom their victors might
think fit to impose upon them.

Out of twenty Apache braves, only eight remained alive: the rest had
fallen.

"At sunrise," said the hunter, "I will come and release you from your
bonds. Till then, stir not! I pardon once; never a second time."

The Mexicans collected all the arms, freed all the horses tethered at
one side of the camp, drove them into the forest, where they were soon
lost to sight, and left the Apaches.

"And now," exclaimed the hunter, "let us return to the señorita."

"But," enquired Don Pedro, "is it really your intention to restore
these men to liberty?"

"Assuredly. Would you have me leave them to be devoured by wild beasts?"

"It would be no great misfortune," answered the rancorous _capataz_.

"Are they not men, like ourselves?"

"They are so little like ourselves, that it is hardly worth mention,"
said the _capataz_.

"And will you really dare to place yourself in the power of these
ferocious beings, exasperated as they are by defeat?" asked the
_hacendero_. "Do you not fear they will assassinate you?"

"These men!" replied the hunter in disdain; "They would not dare."

Don Pedro could not repress his amazement.

"The redskins are the most vindictive of men," said he.

"True," was the reply; "but I am not a man in their eyes."

"What then?"

"An evil spirit," murmured the hunter in a hoarse whisper.

By this time they had reached the place where they had left their
horses.

The noise of the combat had extended itself to the spot where Doña
Hermosa was waiting; but that courageous girl, far from suffering
herself to be overcome by the very natural fear she experienced,
understood the importance of the post confided to her, and remained
firmly on her guard, a pistol in each hand, attentively listening to
every sound in the forest, ready to defend herself, and resolute to die
sooner than fall into the hands of the Indians.

Her father having explained to her what had occurred, they began their
journey at the best speed of their horses.

The whole night passed without slackening their pace. At sunrise they
had cleared the forest, and there lay the bare wilderness, extending to
the horizon.

They continued their route for two more hours, when they halted.

The hunter addressed them: "We must part here." He spoke in a firm,
voice, yet unable completely to conceal the feeling of sorrow which
pervaded him.

"So soon!" said the girl naively

"Thanks for that expression of regret, señorita; but I must go. You are
but a few miles from your _hacienda:_ the road is easy; my help is no
longer needful."

"We must not part thus, señor," said the _hacendero_, holding out his
hand; "I owe you too many obligations."

"Forget them, _caballero_," vehemently exclaimed the young hunter;
"forget me too: we must never meet again. You return to civilised life,
I to the desert. Our roads are far apart; for your sake and for mine,
pray that we never again stand face to face. Only," he added, lifting
his eyes to the señorita, "I carry with me a memory of you which can
never be effaced. And now, farewell! Yonder are the _vaqueros_ of your
_hacienda_ approaching to meet you. You are in safety."

He bent his head to his saddlebow, tuned his horse, and began to gallop
away. But, looking back, he perceived Doña Hermosa riding after him.

"Stay," she exclaimed.

He obeyed mechanically.

"Look," said she, presenting to him a slender gold ring; "of all my
possessions, I value this ring the most; it belonged to my mother whom
I never knew. Keep it in memory of me, señor."

The señorita rode off, leaving the ring in his hand without giving him
time to reply.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE PUEBLO (THE TOWN).


After the Spanish rule had been firmly established in the New
World, the government, to hold the Indians, in cheek, constructed
fortified posts, at certain distances, on the extreme limits of their
possessions. These posts were called _presidios_, and were peopled by
criminals of every degree of whom it was deemed prudent to clear the
mother country. The _presidio_ of San Lucar, on the Rio Bermejo, was
one of the first established.

At the epoch of the foundation of this _presidio_, the post consisted
solely of a fort built on the north bank, on a steep cliff which
commands the river, the plains to the south, and the surrounding
country.

It is square in form, built with very thick walls of hewn stone, and
flanked by three bastions,--two on the river, to east and west, the
third in the plain.

The interior contains the chapel, priest's house and the powder
magazine; on the other sides are the old dwelling places of the
prisoners, spacious buildings for the commandant, the treasurer, and
officers of the garrison, and likewise a small hospital.

All these buildings, only one story high, were finished off with
flat Italian roofs. Outside, the government had also constructed vast
granaries, a bakery, a mill, two workshops for saddlers and carpenters,
and two _ranchos_ appropriated to the horses and cattle.

In these days the fort is almost in ruins the walls, for want of
repair, are crumbling in all directions; only the dwellings are kept in
tolerable condition.

The _presidio_ of San Lucar is divided into three sections,--two to
the north, the third to the south of the river.

Its general aspect is melancholy. A few sparse trees grow here and
there, in close contiguity to the river, manifesting, by their want
of vitality, how ungrateful is the soil from which they draw their
existence. The roads are covered with a pulverulent sand, throwing up
clouds of dust at the least motion in the atmosphere.

Three days after the events recorded in our last chapter, at about
two o'clock in the afternoon, five or six _vaqueros_ and _leperos_
were seated at a table in the drinking room of a _pulquería_ (a public
house) of New San Lucar, which is situated on the south bank of the
river, and disputed vehemently, while they emptied, at long draughts,
the _pulque_ in the cups which circulated among them.

"_¡Canarios!_" exclaimed a tall and meagre fellow, with the mien and
air of a brazen-faced scoundrel, "Are we not free men? If Señor Don
Louis Pedrosa, our governor, persist in fleecing us in this fashion,
the Tigercat is not too far off for a man to come to an understanding
with him. Though he chooses to be an Indian chief today, he is a white
man without alloy, and a _caballero_ to the tips of his fingers."

"_¡Calla la voz!_ be silent, Pablito!" said another; "You had better
swallow your words with your _pulque_ than utter such folly."

"I will speak!" said Pablito, who was washing the inside of his throat
more than the others.

"Do you not know that invisible eyes are watching us from the shade,
and that ears are open to gather up our words, and profit by them?"

"There you are again," replied the first speaker: "always in fear,
Carlocho! I have no more respect for a spy than for an old _cuarta_"
(hag).

"Pablito!" exclaimed the other, placing his finger on his lips.

"What! Am I not right? Why does Don Louis bear us so much malice?"

"You are wrong," interrupted a third, with a laugh. "Don Louis, on the
contrary, is only too fond of you so he always keeps you under his
thumb."

"This devil of a _verado_ has a wit fit for such a rascal as he,"
roared Pablito, with shouts of laughter.

"Well, after us the end of the world."

"In the meantime let us drink," said the _verado_.

"Good! Let us drink, and drown care. Have we not Don Fernando Carril
to help us when our purses run dry?"

"Another name which ought to have stuck in your throat," said Carlocho,
striking the table in his irritation with his fist. "Can you never hold
your tongue, cursed dog?"

Pablito frowned, and, looking angrily across the table, exclaimed: "Do
you pretend to give me a lesson, _amigo? ¡Canarios!_ You begin to put
my blood up."

"A lesson? And why not, when you deserve it?" replied the other,
without stirring. "_Caray_ these two hours you have been drinking like
a sponge; you are full as a vat, and talk as wildly as an old woman.
Hold your tongue, or go to sleep."

"_Mil rayos_," growled Pablito, sticking his knife violently into the
table; "You shall answer for this!"

"_¡Vive Dios!_ A blood-letting will do you good. My hand itches to give
you a _navajada_ (a stroke with a knife) across your hideous snout."

"Hideous snout, did you say?" and Pablito threw himself upon Carlocho,
who awaited his onset firmly.

The other _vaqueros_ and _leperos_ threw themselves between the pair,
to prevent the meeting.

"¡Halloa, _caballeros!_" cried the _pulquero_ (innkeeper), thinking it
necessary to interfere. "Peace! in the name of God or the devil! No
quarrels in my house: if you wish for satisfaction, the street is free."

"The _pulquero_ is right!" screamed Pablito. "Come, if you are a man!"

"Gladly!" cried Carlocho; and the two _vaqueros_ rushed into the street.

As to the worthy _pulquero_, he stood at his door, his hands in the
pockets of his _calzoneras_ (loose trousers), and whistled a _jarana_
(a dance tune), while expecting the fight.

Pablito and Carlocho wrapped the left arm in the _zarapé_ for a shield,
took off their hats and saluted with much affectation, drew their long
knives from their girdles, and, without exchanging a word, stood on
their guard with remarkable coolness.

In this kind of duel--the only one, by the by, known in
Mexico--satisfaction consists in slashing the adversary in the face.
A blow delivered below the girdle would be considered a piece of
treachery unworthy of a true _caballero._

The two opponents, firmly planted with legs apart, bodies inclined, and
heads thrown back, watched each other fixedly, in order to forestall a
movement, parry a blow, or inflict a wound. The rest of the _vaqueros_,
with their delicate maize cigarettes in their mouths, looked on
composedly, and applauded every adroit thrust or parry.

The fight was continued for some minutes, with equal success on
either side, when Pablito, whose sight was most likely obfuscated by
his copious potations, came to the parry a second too late, and felt
the point of Carlocho's knife rip the skin of his face from chin to
forehead.

"Bravo! Bravo!" exclaimed all the _vaqueros_ at once. "Well hit!"

The combatants, flattered by this approbation, stepped away from each
other, bowed to the spectators, sheathed their knives, saluted one
another with exquisite courtesy, and having first shaken hands, went
into the _pulquería_ once more.

The _vaqueros_ are a peculiar race of men, whose ways and manners are
quite distinct from the customs known in Europe. Those of San Lucar
may serve as a type. Born on the Indian frontiers they have contracted
sanguinary habits, and their disregard of life is remarkable.
Inveterate gamblers, the cards are never out of their hands; and play
is a fruitful source of quarrels, in which the knife is constantly
called into requisition. Careless of the future, little heedful of
present trouble, and enduring physical suffering hardily, they look
upon death with as much contempt as on life, and recoil before no
danger.

These men--who often abandon their families in order to live a life
of greater license among the savage hordes of the desert; who, in
shear wantonness, spill the blood of their fellow creatures; who are
implacable in their hate--these men are capable of ardent friendship,
and of extraordinary devotedness and self-denial. Their character
presents a curious mixture of good and evil, of unbridled vice and
sterling qualities. They are at one and the same time idle, gamblers,
quarrelsome, drunkards, ferocious, brave to rashness and devoted heart
and soul to a friend, or the patron of their choice. From infancy blood
runs like water from their hands during the period of the _matanza
del ganado_ (slaughtering the cattle); and this familiarity with the
crimson stains hardens them to the sight of human gore. Lastly, their
jokes are as coarse as their habits, the threat of using the knife on
quite frivolous occasions being the most delicate and the most common.

While the _vaqueros_, reseated at the table in the _pulquería_, were
pouring libations to their reconciliation, and drowning the remembrance
of the petty incident in floods of _pulque_ and _mezcal_ (a coarse kind
of brandy), a man entered, muffled in the folds of a thick cloak, and
with the wide brim of his hat pulled over his eyes. Approaching the
table without uttering a word, he cast a look of seeming indifference
around, lighted a cigarette at the brazier, and struck three blows upon
it with a large piastre he held between his fingers.

The noise, which appeared to be a signal, startled the three
_vaqueros_. They dropped the noisy conversation they were engaged in,
as if suddenly struck by an electric shock, and became as still as
death. Pablito and Carlocho began to tremble, seeking all the while to
discover the features of the new arrival under the folds of his cloak;
while the _verado_ turned his head on one side to hide his crafty
smiles.

The stranger cast his half-consumed cigar into the brazier, and
retired from the filthy room in the same silence in which he came.

An instant later, Pablito, who was stanching his bleeding cheek,
and Carlocho, making a pretence of important business, quitted the
_pulquería_. The _verado_ glided along the wall to the door, and
followed at their heels.

"Holloa!" muttered the _pulquero_, "Here are three _pícaros_
(villains), who seem to be concocting some devil's job, in which more
broken heads than _duros_ (dollars) are to be gained. _¡Caray!_ That is
their lookout."

The remaining _vaqueros_, completely absorbed in a game at _monte_,
and bending over their cards, appeared scarcely to have noticed the
departure of their comrades.

At some little distance from the _pulquería_ the stranger looked back.
The two _vaqueros_ were walking close behind him, talking carelessly,
as if they were two idlers strolling along. The _verado_ was not to be
seen.

The stranger went on his way again, after making a scarcely perceptible
sign to the two men, and pursued a road which, in a gentle curve,
gradually retired from the river, and led, little by little, into the
fields. At the exit from the _pueblo_ this road took a sharp angle, and
narrowed suddenly into a path, which lost itself in the plain among
many more.

Just at the bend in the road, a cavalier, trotting hurriedly in the
direction of the _presidio_, passed close to the three men; but,
immersed in their thoughts, neither stranger nor _vaqueros_ took
notice of him. As to the cavalier, he darted a rapid and piercing look
at them, and gradually slackened his horse's speed, which he stopped
altogether a few yards further on.

"God forgive me!" he said to himself; that is Don Fernando Carril, or
else the devil in flesh and bone. That fool, Zapote, has missed him
again, then! What business can he have out here, in company with those
two bandits, who look like agents of Satan? May I never be Torribio
Quiroga if I don't find out, and if I do not put myself on their traces.

Señor Don Torribio Quiroga was an individual of not more than
thirty-five, with a rather stout figure, under the middle height. But
to make up for it, the squareness of his shoulders, and thick-set
limbs, gave unmistakable evidence of great muscular power. Little grey
eyes, lively, and sparkling with malice and audacity, lit up a face
which was perhaps somewhat vulgar. He was dressed in the costume of all
Mexicans of a certain rank.

He dismounted, and looked about for somebody to hold his horse,
but could see no one; for, at San Lucar, and especially in the new
_pueblo_, it was almost a miracle to meet two persons passing through
the streets at the same time. He stamped in anger, threw the reins over
his arm, and led his horse to the _pulquería_ whence the _vaqueros_ had
come, confiding him to the care of the landlord.

Having carefully completed this duty--for the Mexican's dearest friend
is his horse--Don Torribio retraced his steps with the most minute
precaution, like a man who wishes to see without himself being seen.

The _vaqueros_ had gained considerably upon him, and disappeared behind
a hillock of shifting sand just at the moment when he turned the angle
of the lane: however, he soon saw them again as they were toiling up a
steep and rough path leading to a clump of trees, which by chance or
some caprice of nature had shot up among the arid sands.

Sure of finding them now, Don Torribio began to walk more slowly, and
lit a cigar, to keep himself in countenance in case of surprise, or to
prevent any casual suspicion of his intentions. Luckily, the _vaqueros_
never looked back once, but entered the wood close upon the heels of
the man recognised by Don Torribio as Don Fernando Carril.

When, in his turn, Don Torribio arrived at the margin of the wood, he
took good care not to walk straight into it. He first made a slight
_détour_ to the right; then, bending down to the ground, he commenced
crawling on hands and knees, taking special care to avoid any noise
that might excite the attention of the _vaqueros_.

The sound of voices soon reached him. Gently raising his head, he
perceived, in a small clearing close at hand, the figures of the three
men, who had stopped, and were engaged in a lively conversation. He
rose from the ground, and hid himself behind a maple tree.

Don Fernando Carril had dropped his cloak, leaning with his shoulders
against a tree, and, with his legs crossed, he was listening with
visible impatience to what Pablito was saying.

The hands of Don Fernando were small, and delicately gloved; his feet,
showing the nobility of his blood by their diminutive size, were
encased in varnished boots,--a luxury unheard of in these distant
regions. His costume, of amazing richness, was absolutely identical in
shape with that of the _vaqueros_. A diamond of immense value fastened
the collar of his shirt; and his _zarapé_ was worth more than five
hundred piastres. For the present, we will conclude the portrait here.

Two years before our narrative commences, Don Fernando Carril had
arrived at San Lucar, knowing nobody; and everyone had asked, Who
is he? Where does he come from? Whence does he derive his riches?
And where do his estates lie? Don Fernando bought a _hacienda_ a few
leagues from San Lucar. Under pretence of defending it against the
Indians, he fortified it, surrounded it with palisades and a moat,
and furnished it with two small pieces of cannon. In this way he had
kept his doings secret, and curiosity at bay. Although he never opened
his _hacienda_ to receive a guest, he was himself received by the
first inhabitants of San Lucar, whom he visited most assiduously, till
suddenly, to the great amazement of all, he disappeared for several
months.

The ladies missed their practice in smiles and ogling, the men their
occupation of contriving adroit questions to entrap Don Fernando.
Don Louis Pedrosa, whose post as governor gave him a right to be
inquisitive, could not help feeling uneasy about the stranger; but,
wearied with conjecture, he was obliged to trust to time, which, sooner
or later, reveals all mysteries. Nothing more was known of the man who
was standing in the clearing, listening to Pablito.

"Enough!" said this personage, interrupting Pablito, in a fit of
passion; "You are a dog, and a dog's son."

"Señor!" exclaimed the latter.

"I feel inclined to crush you, wretch!"

"A threat! And to me!" shouted the _vaquero_ white with fury, and
unsheathing his knife.

Don Fernando seized the man's fist with his gloved hand, and gave it
such a sudden and violent wrench, that the _vaquero_ dropped his weapon
with a groan.

"Down on your knees, and ask for pardon!" the don went on, hurling the
wretch to the ground.

"No! I will die first!"

"Begone! You are a brute beast!"

The _vaquero_ staggered as he rose; his eyes were bloodshot, his lips
blue; his whole body trembled. He picked up his knife, and approached
Don Fernando, who stood there with folded arms.

"It is true; yes, I am a brute beast; but, nevertheless, I am devoted
to you. Forgive me, or kill me, but do not bid me begone."

"Go! I tell you."

"And you have no more to say to me?"

"It is my last word; vex me no more."

"Your last word to me? Then I go--to the devil!" And he raised his
weapon to kill himself.

Don Fernando arrested the stroke. "I forgive you," said he: "but, if
you still wish to remain in my service, be mute as a corpse."

The _vaquero_ fell at his feet, and covered with kisses the hand
extended to him. It was like a dog licking the hand of the master who
has beaten him.

Carlocho had taken no part in this scene, but remained a calm and
unmoved spectator.

"What charm has this mysterious stranger," muttered Don Torribio behind
his maple, "to make himself beloved like this?"

After a short silence, Don Fernando again spoke.

"I know you are devoted to me. I have great confidence in your
fidelity; but you are a drunkard, and drink is an evil counsellor."

"I will drink no more," replied the _vaquero_.

Don Fernando smiled in disdain.

"Drink, but do not drown your reason. Drunkenness such as yours lets
fall words for which there is no remedy,--words more murderous than
the dagger. It is not the master, it is the friend who speaks to you.
Can I count on you both?"

"You can."

"I leave this place for a few days; you will remain in the
neighbourhood. At a short distance from the _pueblo_ is the Hacienda de
las Norias de San Antonio; do you know it?"

"Who does not know Don Pedro de Luna?"

"Watch that _hacienda_ carefully, both without and within. If anything
extraordinary befalls Don Pedro or his daughter, Doña Hermosa, one of
you will come and acquaint me with it. You know where to find me?"

The men bowed their heads.

"Will you execute all my orders, however incomprehensible, with
promptitude and accuracy?"

"We swear so, master."

"Good! One word more; attach to yourselves as many _vaqueros_ as you
can; strive to gather together a body of men to be depended on. Do this
without exciting suspicion; she never sleeps with both eyes closed.
Stay! I remember! Put no faith in the _verado;_ he is a traitor--a spy
upon me, in the service of the Tigercat."

"Shall we kill him?" coolly asked Carlocho.

"It might be, prudent; only rid yourselves of him quietly."

The two _vaqueros_ looked at each other furtively.

Don Fernando seemed not to remark what happened.

"Do you want money?" he asked.

"No, master; we have still some."

"Nevertheless, take this as well: better to have too much than too
little."

He placed in the hands of Carlocho a long netted purse, across the
meshes of which a goodly number of gold pieces glittered.

"Now, Pablito, my horse."

The _vaquero_ led from the recesses of the wood a magnificent charger.
Don Fernando vaulted into the saddle.

"Remember," said he, "prudence and fidelity; one indiscretion would
cost you your lives."

He waved his hand to the _vaqueros_, gave his horse the spur, and rode
off in the direction of the _presidio_. The two men resumed the road to
the _pueblo._

When they were a good way off, the brushwood at one corner of the
clearing began to shake, and a human head slowly emerged, the face
blanched with terror.

The head was succeeded by the body of the _verado_ who had risen to
his feet, his knife in one hand, a pistol in the other, and now looked
about him with his hair standing on end.

"_¡Canarios!_" he cried in a low tone; "rid themselves of me quietly!
We shall see! we shall see, _¡Santa Virgen del Pilar!_ What demons!
Aha! I was right to listen."

"It is the only way to hear," said a mocking voice.

"Who goes there?" roared the _verado_, as he jumped to one side.

"A friend," replied Don Torribio, leaving his hiding place and
advancing into the open.

"What! You, Señor Don Torribio Quiroga? You are welcome. Then you
listened too?"

"_¡Cuerpo de Cristo!_ Didn't I listen! I think I have profited by it,
to get edifying news about Don Fernando."

"Since you overheard the conversation, what do you think of it?"

"This _caballero_ seems to me a black villain enough; but we will
thwart his infamous plans."

"God grant we may!" muttered the _verado_, with a sigh.

"And now, what are your own intentions?"

"Mine! I swear I do not know. I know nothing, except that my head
swims. Did you hear? They want to rid themselves of me quietly! In my
opinion, they are the greatest wretches in the prairie."

"Pooh! I have known them a long time; they give me very little
uneasiness."

"And I, on the contrary, am very uneasy."

"What the devil! You are not dead yet!"

"_¡Vive Dios!_ I am little better off; I am literally between death and
the devil."

"How can you be afraid--you, the most daring hunter of the jaguar I
know?"

"A jaguar is but a jaguar, after all; one can talk reason to him with
a ball. But these two _birbones_ (rascals), whom Don Fernando has
maliciously set upon my trail, are veritable demons, without faith
or law, who would bleed their own fathers for a small measure of
_pulque._" ("To bleed" is the common Mexican expression for "to stab.")

"True; but time presses. For reasons with which I need not acquaint
you, I take enormous interest in Don Pedro de Luna, and more in his
lovely daughter. Don Fernando Carril, as we have just learnt, is
concocting some infernal plot against this family. I mean to frustrate
it. Will you assist me? Two men can do a great deal, if they work with
a will."

"Do you propose a partnership with me, Don Torribio?"

"Call it what you will; but answer promptly."

"In that case, sincerity for sincerity, Don Torribio. This morning
I would have refused your proposal: tonight I accept it; for I have
done with soft-heartedness. My position is completely changed. Rid
themselves of me quietly! _¡Vive Dios!_ I will have my revenge. I am
yours, as my knife is to the sheath. I am yours, body and soul, on the
word of a _vaquero_."

"I see we shall easily come to an understanding."

"Say, rather, we understand each other already."

"Good! But we must be cautious, if we wish to succeed: the game we
are about to chase is wily. Do you know a _lepero_ named Tonillo el
Zapote?"

"Know Tonillo! He is my bosom friend."

"So much the better. This Tonillo is a resolute fellow, on whom one can
fearlessly depend."

"That is holy truth. Moreover, he is a _caballero_ of excellent
principle."

"He is: find him out, and bring him one hour after sunset to the
Callejou de las Minas" (the pass of the mines).

"It shall be done; I understand perfectly. We will be there."

"And then, we three will arrange our counterplot."

"Yes; and set your heart at rest. We will find a way to deliver you
from this man, who wishes to rid himself of me quietly."

"That seems to lie heavily on your mind."

"_¡Caray!_ Just put yourself in my place. After all, the longest liver
will see. Don Fernando has not got quite so far with me as he fancies."

"Then you will bring Tonillo?"

"Were I to bring him by force, we would both be there."

"Now, we have nothing more to do than to go about our separate affairs."

"Which road do you take?"

"I am going direct to the _hacienda_ of Don Pedro."

"Listen to me, Don Torribio: do not broach this matter to him."

"What is your reason for saying so, _verado?_"

"Because Don Pedro, excellent man and perfect _caballero_ as he is,
has old-fashioned ideas, and would probably attempt to dissuade you
from your plan."

"Perhaps you may be right; he had better know nothing of the service I
wish to render him."

"It will be better. Now Don Torribio, good-bye till evening."

"Good-bye; and good luck!"

The two men separated. Don Torribio Quiroga ran hastily down the road
leading to the _pueblo_, to regain his horse from the _pulquero_; while
the _verado_, whose horse had been hidden somewhere about, jumped into
the saddle, and galloped off in a fury still muttering between his
teeth:

"Rid themselves of me quietly! Was there ever such an idea? But we
shall see. _¡Mil rayos!_" (a thousand thunders).



CHAPTER IX.

DOÑA HERMOSA.


Stoneheart was not mistaken in declaring that the dust, rising far away
in the desert, was caused by the servants of the _hacienda_; in fact,
the hunter had scarcely left the persons he was guiding, when the cloud
of sand was blown away by the breeze, disclosing a numerous party of
_vaqueros_ and _peones_, well armed, who were approaching at the top of
their speed.

Two horses' length in front galloped Don Estevan Diaz, chiding his
companions, and urging them to increase their pace.

The two parties soon met, and mingled with each other.

Estevan Diaz, as Don Pedro had foreseen, had grown anxious at his
master's lengthened absence. Fearing lest some accident might have
occurred, he had assembled all the most resolute men belonging to the
_hacienda_, and placing himself at their head, commenced his search at
once, scouring the wilderness in all directions.

But had it not been for the lucky chance which led to the meeting with
Stoneheart, in the very moment when the strength and courage of the
little party were oozing away together, it is probable that the search
would have been without result, and another mournful and horrible
tragedy registered in the annals of the prairies.

The joy of Don Estevan and his party was great at recognising those
whom they had scarcely hoped to see again, and the whole company gaily
took the road to the _hacienda_, where they arrived in safety a couple
of hours later.

Doña Hermosa retired to her apartment as soon as she had dismounted,
excusing herself on account of the fatigue she had endured.

She reached her cool maiden chamber, which looked so calm and pleasant,
cast a glance of delight at the cherished appurtenances, and then threw
herself with a feeling of instinctive gratitude, at the knees of the
Virgin, whose image, crowned with flowers, was placed in a corner of
the chamber, and seemed to watch over her.

Her prayer addressed to the Virgin was long, very long. For more than
an hour she remained on her knees, murmuring words which none save God
could hear.

At last she rose, slowly, and as it were with reluctance, made a final
sign of the cross, and, traversing the room, cast herself on a couch,
where she nestled in a flood of drapery, like the Bengali in its bed of
moss.

Then she gave herself up to thought.

What power could thus profoundly occupy the mind, hitherto so gay and
cheerful, of this young creature, whose life from infancy had been
one unbroken succession of gentle joys,--for whom the sky had had no
cloud, the past no regrets, and the future no apprehensions Why did she
frown so heavily, tracing, on her pure forehead, lines at first hardly
perceptible, but deepening with her deepening thoughts?

None could tell. Hermosa herself could not, perhaps, have given an
explanation.

This was the reason: without accounting to herself for the change she
was undergoing, Hermosa awoke as from a long slumber; her heart beat
more quickly, her blood coursed more rapidly in her veins, a flood of
unknown thoughts rushed from her heart to her brain, making it whirl.
In one word, the girl felt she had become a woman.

A vague uneasiness without apparent cause, a feverish irritability,
agitated her by turns; sometimes a stifled sob would rend her bosom,
and a burning tear show like a pearl on her eyelashes; then her purple
lips would part under the influence of a charming smile, the reflection
of thoughts she could not define, beseeching her to drive them away,
and return to the calm and heedless joys she was losing forever.

"Yes!" she cried suddenly, bounding from her couch with the grace of a
startled fawn; "Yes: I will discover who he is."

Hermosa had involuntarily allowed the key of the riddle to escape her.
Possessed by the spirit whose voice was evoking her inward agitation,
she loved--or at least Love was on the point of revealing himself to
her.

Scarcely had she uttered the words we have reported, than she blushed
deeply, and, urged by a charming impulse of maiden modesty, ran to draw
before the image of the Virgin the curtain used to conceal it.

The Virgin, the habitual confidante of the girl, was not to know the
secrets of the woman. Full of holy fervour, Hermosa had immediately
seized upon this delicate distinction; perhaps she mistrusted herself;
perhaps the feeling which had been so suddenly and violently awakened
in her heart did not seem pure enough to be confided, with all its
longings and desires, to her at whose feet she had hitherto deposited
all her hopes and aspirations.

Feeling calmer after this action, which, in her superstitious
ignorance, she fancied would shroud her from the piercing eye of her
heavenly protectress, Doña Hermosa regained her couch, and touched a
silver bell standing beside her. At the sound, the door softly opened
half way, and the arch face of a charming _chola_ (maid) appeared at
the opening with a look of inquiry.

"Come in, _chica_" (girl), said her mistress, making a sign for her to
approach.

The _chola_, a slim maiden, of lithe figure, and whose skin was
slightly tawny, like that of all half-breeds kneeled gracefully at
the feet of her mistress, fixed her great black eyes upon her, and
smilingly asked what she wanted.

"Nothing," was the evasive answer, "only to see and talk to you a
little."

"How glad I am!" said the girl, passionately clasping her hands
together; "It is so long since I have seen you, _niña_" (a term of
endearment).

"Did my absence distress you much, Clarita?"

"What a question to ask, señorita! Do I not love you like a sister? Do
they not say you have been in great danger?"

"Who says that?" asked Hermosa carelessly.

"Everyone; they talk of nothing but your adventures in the prairie. All
the _peones_ have left their work to hear the news; the _hacienda_ is
in an uproar."

"Indeed!"

"For the two whole days of your absence, we did not know what saint to
commend you to; I vowed a gold ring to my good patroness Santa Clara."

"Thank you," said she, with a smile.

"But you should only have seen Don Estevan! He would not be comforted;
the poor fellow was like a madman, accusing himself as the cause of all
that had happened: he tore his hair, asserting that he ought to have
disobeyed your father, and to have remained with you in defiance of his
orders."

"Poor Estevan!" said the lady, whose thoughts were elsewhere, and who
began to get weary of the chattering of her maid; "Poor Estevan! He
loves me like a brother."

"Yes, he does; so he has sworn by his head that such a thing shall not
happen to you again, and that from henceforth he will never lose sight
of you."

"Was he really in such alarm about me?"

"You cannot imagine how dreadfully frightened he was, particularly as
they said you had fallen into the hands of the most ferocious robber in
the prairie."

"Yet, I can assure you, _chica_, that the man who gave us shelter
overwhelmed us with civility and attention."

"Exactly what your father says; but Don Estevan maintains he has known
this man for a long time; that his kindness was feigned, and intended
to conceal some monstrous treachery."

Doña Hermosa had suddenly become thoughtful.

"Don Estevan has gone mad," she said; "his friendship for me bewilders
his brains; I am sure he is mistaken. But you remind me that I escaped
from him the moment after my arrival without offering him a word of
thanks. I must make reparation for this involuntary forgetfulness; is
he still in the _hacienda?_"

"I think he is, señorita."

"Go and find out, and ask him to come here, if he has not gone already."

The maid rose and left her.

"As he knows him," said Hermosa, as soon as she was alone, "I will
make him speak, and teach me what I want to learn."

So she awaited impatiently the return of her messenger.

The latter seemed to have divined the anxiety of her mistress, and made
such haste to execute her commission that scarcely ten minutes elapsed
before she announced Don Estevan.

We have already said that Don Estevan was a handsome man; he had the
heart of a lion, the eye of an eagle; his carriage full of grace and
suppleness, betrayed his race. He entered, saluting the lady with a
winning familiarity authorised by his long and intimate connection with
one whom he had known from her cradle.

"Dear Estevan," said she, stretching out her hand gaily, "how happy I
am to see you! Sit down here and let us talk."

"Yes; let us have some chat," answered Don Estevan, gladly entering
into the spirit of Hermosa's gaiety.

"Give Estevan a chair, _chica_, and then go; I do not want you any
longer."

The maid obeyed without replying.

"What a number of things I have to tell you, my friend!" resumed the
doña. "But first excuse me for running away from you. My sole thought
was to be alone, and put my ideas into a little order."

"I can easily understand that, dear Hermosa."

"Then you are not angry with me, Estevan?"

"Not the least in the world, I assure you."

"Are you quite sure?" said she, pouting half seriously.

"Do not talk about it anymore, my dear child; one cannot encounter such
dangers as you have been exposed to without feeling their effect upon
the mind for a long time afterwards."

"But it is all over now, believe me; yet, between ourselves, my dear
Estevan, these dangers have not been so great as your affection for me
led you to suppose."

The other shook his head in token of his want of conviction, and
replied:

"On the contrary, _niña_, these dangers have been much more serious
than you choose to believe."

"No, they were not Estevan; the people we met treated us with the most
cordial hospitality."

"I admit it; but will reply with one question."

"Ask it; and I will answer it, if I can."

"Do you know the name of the man who treated you with this cordial
hospitality?" And he laid considerable stress on the last words.

"I confess that I not only do not know it, but that I did not even take
the pains to ask him."

"You were wrong, señorita: for he would have answered that his name was
'the Tigercat.'"

"The Tigercat!" she exclaimed, turning deadly pale; "The execrable
miscreant who for years has spread terror over the frontiers! You are
wrong, Estevan; it could not be he."

"No, señorita, I am not wrong; I know the truth of my assertion. I can
have no doubt, after what I have gathered from your father."

"But how did it happen that this man should have received us so kindly,
and that he should have profited by the accident which placed us in his
power?"

"No one can penetrate into the dark windings of that man's heart.
Besides, who can prove he was not laying a snare for you? Were you not
pursued by the redskins?"

"We were; but we escaped from them, thanks to the devotion of our
guide." And she spoke with a little uncertainty of voice.

"You are right again," said Don Estevan ironically "But the guide
himself--do you know who he is?"

"He constantly refused to tell us his name, in spite of the pressing
entreaties of my father."

"He had good reasons for doing so, _niña;_ the name would have filled
you with horror."

"Then who and what is this man?"

"He is the son of the Tigercat; he is called Stoneheart."

Hermosa recoiled with instinctive terror, and hid her face in her hands.

"It is impossible," she cried: "this man cannot be a monster; this man
who proved himself so faithful, so loyal--who saved my life, too."

"What!" exclaimed Don Estevan: "He saved your life?"

"Have you not heard it? Has not my father told you the story?"

"No; Don Pedro did not say anything about it."

"Then I will tell you, Estevan; for whatever this man may be, I must
render him justice. I owe it to him, to him alone, that I did not die
in horrible agony."

"In the name of Heaven, explain yourself, Hermosa."

"While we were wandering in the forest, a prey to despair," she
replied, in extreme agitation--"while we were expecting the death that
could not be long in coming,--I felt my foot bitten by a snake of
the most venomous kind. At first I overcame my pain, in order not to
increase the discouragement of my companions."

"How well I recognise your strength and courage there, _niña!_"

"Let me continue," said she, with a sad smile. "The pain soon became so
piercing, that my strength failed me, in spite of my courage. At that
moment God sent to our aid, him whom you call Stoneheart. The first
thought of that man was to help me."

"It is wonderful!" said Don Estevan Diaz.

"By the use of some sort of leaf, he managed to neutralise the effect
of the poison, so that, shortly after having been bitten, I felt no
pain from the wound, and am quite recovered today. Can you now deny
that I owe him my life?"

"No," said he frankly; "for he saved you indeed. Yet for what purpose?
That is what puzzles me."

"For the sake of saving me,--for humanity's sake; his after conduct
sufficiently proves it. It is to him alone we owe our subsequent escape
from the Apaches, who were on our trail."

"All you say, _niña_, appears like an incomprehensible dream; I do not
know whether I am asleep or awake while I listen to you."

"But has this man really been guilty of the infamous actions which
excite your indignation?"

Estevan Diaz did not answer: he seemed embarrassed; and there was a
short silence.

"I will be frank with you, Hermosa," said he, at last. "It is necessary
that you should know who your deliverer is. I will tell you all I
know of him myself; and perhaps this knowledge may be useful to you
hereafter, should fate ever again bring you into the presence of this
extraordinary man."

"I am listening attentively; proceed."

"Be on your guard, Hermosa; do not let the impulse of your heart
carry you away too far; do not expose yourself to future heartache.
Stoneheart is, as I told you, the son of the Tigercat. I need tell you
nothing about his father; that monster with a human face has built up
for himself an infamous notoriety, too well known for me to enter into
its details. The infamy of the father has reflected on the son, and
enveloped him in a halo of murder and rapine which makes him almost
as much dreaded as his father. However, in justice to the man, I must
confess that, although he is accused of a thousand evil deeds and
odious crimes, it has been impossible hitherto to obtain positive proof
of any accusation preferred against him. All they say of him is wrapped
up in impenetrable mystery; yet everyone relates the most horrible
tales of him, although nobody can speak with certainty as to the truth
of one of them."

"They are not true," said Hermosa.

"Do not be too eager to pronounce him innocent, _niña;_ recollect that
a modicum of truth is to be found at the bottom of every suspicion;
and, strictly speaking, this man's trade would of itself suffice as
proof against him, and bear testimony to his natural ferocity."

"I cannot understand you, Estevan. What dreadful trade is it?"

"Stoneheart is a bee-hunter."

"A bee-hunter!" she exclaimed, with a burst of laughter. "Truly there
is nothing offensive in that?"

"The word is pleasant to the ear; the trade itself one of the most
inoffensive; but the bees, those advanced sentinels of civilisation,
who, in proportion as the whites push forward in America, bury
themselves deeper in the prairies, and take refuge in more inaccessible
wildernesses, require a special organism in the men who hunt them,--a
heart of bronze in a body of steel, a fortitude beyond proof,
indomitable courage, and unswerving will."

"Excuse me for the interruption, Estevan; but in all you have told me,
there seems nothing that is not highly honourable to the men who devote
themselves to this perilous trade."

"Your observation would be just, if these men--half savages from the
life they lead, ceaselessly exposed to most serious danger, constantly
obliged to strive, in defence of their lives, against the wild beast
and the redskin, by whom they are perpetually threatened--had not
contracted, perhaps in spite of themselves, the habit of shedding
blood; a habit of such cold-blooded cruelty, in a word, that they set
no value on human life,--kill a man with the same indifference as they
smoke the bees from the tree, and often, for mere pastime, fire on the
approaching stranger, white or redskin. For this reason, the Indians
dread them more than the fiercest animals, and, unless they happen to
be in force, fly before a bee-hunter with more terror and precipitation
than from the grizzly bear, that redoubtable inhabitant of our American
forests. Believe me, _niña_, I am not exaggerating. It results from
what I have related, that when these men reappear upon the frontiers,
their arrival creates a general panic; for their road is a bloody one,
marked by the corpses of those whom they have slain under the most
frivolous pretexts. In one word, _niña_, the bee-hunters are completely
beyond the pale of humanity,--beings with all the vices of whites and
redskins, and without the virtues of either: both races abjure and
repudiate them with horror."

"Estevan," gravely replied Doña Hermosa, "I have listened seriously to
what you have said. I thank you; but, in my opinion, it proves nothing
either for or against the person about whom I questioned you. I grant
you that the bee-hunters maybe semi-savages, of profound cruelty; yet,
are there no noble and loyal hearts, no generous spirits, among them?
You have spoken of the rule; who will tell me that Stoneheart is not
the exception? His conduct compels me to think so. I am only a young,
ignorant, and inexperienced girl; but were I bidden to open my heart,
and speak frankly, I should answer: 'My friend, this man, condemned
from infancy to a life of shame and trial, has striven valiantly
against the current which was dragging him away, and the force of
bad example assailing him on every side. Son of a criminal father,
associated, against his will, with bandits to whom every restraint
is an abomination, and by whom every sentiment of honour has been
trodden under foot, this man, far from imitating their actions,--far
from burning, pillaging and assassinating as they do,--has preferred
to adopt a career of perpetual peril. His heart has remained pure; and
when chance offered him an opportunity of doing a good deed, he seized
it eagerly and gladly.' This is what I should say to you, Estevan,--and
if, like me, you had studied this strange man for two whole days,
you would be of my opinion,--which is, that he is more to be pitied
than blamed; for, placed among ferocious brutes, he has retained his
humanity."

Don Estevan remained for a time lost in thought; then he turned towards
the girl, took her hand, pressed it in his own, and looked at her with
tender compassion.

"I pity and admire you, Hermosa. You are just what I thought you--I,
who have watched the development of your character from your infancy.
The woman fulfils all the promise held out by the child and the girl.
Your heart is noble, your sentiments are exalted; you are indeed
perfect--a chosen soul. I do not blame you for following the impulse of
your heart--you are only obeying the instinct for good or evil which
sways you in spite of yourself; but, alas! Dear child, I am your elder
brother, and my experience is larger than your own. To me, the horizon
seems to be clouding over. Without prejudging what the future may be
preparing for us, let me prefer one entreaty."

"An entreaty! You, Estevan! Oh, speak; I shall be so happy to do
anything to please you."

"Thanks, Hermosa; but the entreaty has no connection with myself--it
concerns you alone."

"So much the greater reason for my granting it," she said with a
gracious smile.

"Listen, child: the events of the last two days have completely
changed your life, and feelings have germinated in your mind of which
you ignored the existence until now. You have always placed entire
confidence in me: I demand the continuance of that confidence. My only
desire is to see you happy; all my thoughts, all my actions, tend to
that goal. Never believe that I dream of betraying you or thwarting
your projects. If I am tenacious on this point, it is to aid you with
my counsel and experience; it is to save you even from yourself; to
insure your escape from the snares which the future may lay for your
innocent frankness. Do you promise what I entreat?"

"Yes," she replied, without hesitation, and looking firmly in his face;
"I promise, Estevan, my brother--for you are in truth a brother to
me--whatever may happen, I will have no secrets from you."

"I thank you, Hermosa," said the young man, rising, "I hope soon to
prove myself worthy of the name of brother. Come tomorrow, in the
afternoon, to my mother's _rancho_ (farmhouse); I shall be there, and
most likely able to clear up certain matters which are so obscure
today."

"What do you mean?" cried she, in great agitation.

"Nothing at present, dear child; leave me to take my own measures."

"What are your projects? What do you intend to do? Oh, do not attach
more importance to my words than I attach to them myself. Involuntarily
I have been constrained to utter words from which you would be wrong to
draw conclusions--"

"Be calm, Hermosa," said he, interrupting her, with a smile. "I
have drawn no conclusion derogatory to you from our conversation. I
understand that you have avowed an immense amount of gratitude to the
man who saved your life. I see it would make you happy to know that
this man is not unworthy of the feelings he has inspired. I draw no
other conclusion."

"It is exactly what I feel, Estevan; and I think the wish natural, and
one to which no blame can be attached."

"Certainly, my dear child. I do not blame the feeling in the least;
only, as I am a man, and can do many things interdicted to a woman, I
will try if I can lift the mysterious, veil which conceals the life of
your liberator, so as to tell you positively whether he is or is not
worthy of the interest you take in him."

"Do that, Estevan, and I will thank you from the bottom of my heart."

The young man only replied by a smile to this passionate outbreak: he
saluted Hermosa, and retired.

As soon as he was gone, she hid her face in her hands and burst into
tears. Did she regret the confidence into which she had been led, or
was she afraid of herself? Only women can decide the question, and only
Spanish-American women, who are so impressionable, and through whose
veins rushes the lava of their native volcanoes.

Don Fernando Carril, as we have already related, after his conversation
with the _vaqueros_, had taken, at a gallop the route to the _pueblo;_
but when he was within a hundred yards of the first houses, he
slackened his pace to a walk, and cast glances right and left, as if in
the expectation of meeting some person he wished to see. But if such
were his thoughts, it seemed as if he were doomed to disappointment;
for the road was completely deserted in all directions as far as his
eye could reach.



CHAPTER X.

EL AS DE COPAS (THE ACE OF HEARTS).


Don Fernando checked his steed, and remained motionless as an
equestrian statue on a marble pedestal.

"He will not come," he muttered, after a while.

"Can he have deceived me?--It is impossible."

Casting, as a last hope, one more look around him, he dropped the
reins, but seized them again an instant later with a suddenness which
made his horse perform a curvette and wince with pain. Don Fernando had
just seen two cavaliers advancing towards him--one approaching from the
_pueblo_, the other riding down the road he had himself taken.

"Come, come, it is all right," he said to himself; "This one is Don
Torribio Quiroga. But who is this other cavalier?" he added, turning to
the man who had just left the _pueblo_.

He frowned, seemed to hesitate for an instant, but soon formed his
decision, smiled ironically, and saying half-aloud, "It is better as
it is," made his horse execute a traverse, and placed himself exactly
across the middle of the road, so as to bar the passage completely.

The two arrivals, who greedily watched all his motions, took good note
of the hostile appearance of Don Fernando's position: neither seemed to
feel alarm, and both advanced at the same speed as before. The cavalier
coming from the _pueblo_ was much nearer Don Fernando than Don Torribio
was, and was soon close to him.

Mexicans, of all ranks and however little education, have an
instinctive knowledge of social decorum, which never deceives them, and
a refined politeness which would astonish the inhabitants of the Old
World.

As soon as Don Fernando found the stranger within reach of his voice,
he slightly altered the position of his horse, doffed his hat, and
said, with a low bow:

"Señor _caballero_, permit me to ask you a question."

"_Caballero_," replied the stranger, with no less politeness, "it will
be an honour to me."

"My name is Don Fernando Carril."

"And mine, Don Estevan Diaz."

"Señor Don Estevan, I am happy to make your acquaintance. Would you
throw away ten minutes in my company?"

"Señor Don Fernando, however pressed for time I might be, I would stop
to enjoy your society."

"You are excessively kind; accept my thanks. I will explain in half a
dozen words. The _caballero_ who is approaching is Señor--"

"Don Torribio Quiroga," interposed Don Estevan; "I know him."

"So much the better; the matter is simplified. That honourable
personage, as I found out by a strange chance is my bitter enemy."

"That is a pity."

"It is; but what shall I say? He is so thoroughly my enemy, that he has
tried four times to have me assassinated; has made me serve as a target
to banditti."

"It is grievous. He plays an evil game with you, Don Fernando."

"The very reflection I made myself; so, as I wish to have done with
him, I have resolved to offer him the means of getting out of the
scrape."

"It is the act of a true _caballero_."

"_¡Caray!_ I can fancy how furious he will be. I am charmed at your
consenting to be witness of the transaction."

"With pleasure, _caballero_."

"A thousand thanks; I will gladly return the compliment. But here is
our man."

Don Torribio had continued to advance during this short conversation,
and was now only a short distance from the speakers.

"_¡Válgame Dios!_" he cried gaily; "If I do not mistake, it is my
admirable friend, Don Fernando Carril, whom I have the good fortune to
meet."

"Himself, my dear friend; and as happy as you can be at the chance
which has thrown us together."

"_¡Vive Dios!_ Since I have got you, I will not let you go; we will
ride together as far as the _pueblo_."

"I should like it, Don Torribio; but first of all, with your
permission, I have a few words to say which may upset that plan."

"Speak then, señor; you can only utter words I shall be happy to hear
in Don Estevan's presence."

"In fact, Don Fernando has requested me to be present at the
conversation," said the latter.

"Nothing could be better! Let us hear, señor."

"Suppose we dismount," said Don Estevan; "the conversation may be a
long one."

"Well observed, _caballero_," replied Don Fernando; "I know a grotto
where we shall be quite at our ease. It is close at hand."

"Let us go there at once," said Don Torribio.

The three cavaliers left the beaten track, took a turn to the right,
and directed their steps towards a little wood of plane trees and
mahoganies, which stood at a short distance.

Anyone who had seen them thus, riding side by side, chatting and
smiling to each other, would have incontestably believed them to be
intimate friends, delighted at having met. However it was, nothing of
the kind, as our readers will soon see.

Exactly as Don Fernando had predicted, they soon gained the wood, and
found the natural grotto of which he had spoken.

The grotto was in the side of a hill of no great elevation, and its
proportions were scanty enough. Carpeted with verdure inside and out,
it was a charming place of repose for passing away the stifling heat of
the sun at midday.

The cavaliers dismounted, took the bridle from their horses, leaving
them to graze at will. They entered the grotto, and inhaled with
ineffable delight the freshness caused by a slender stream of water
which ran between its banks with a melancholy murmur, forming a
pleasant contrast with the burning atmosphere to which they were
recently exposed. They threw their _zarapés_ on the ground, stretched
themselves out comfortably, and lit their maize _pajillos_ (cigarettes).

"I am greatly obliged to you, Don Fernando, for thinking of this
delicious retreat," said Don Torribio; "now, if it is your pleasure to
speak, it will be an honour to me to listen."

"Señor Don Torribio, you really overwhelm me by so much courtesy.
Heaven bear witness, that if I were not your most implacable enemy, I
could be your dearest friend."

"Alas!" said Don Torribio, "Heaven has disposed otherwise."

"I know it, my good señor, and regret it with all my soul."

"Not more than I do, I swear."

"Well, as that is the case, we must act accordingly,"

"Alas! That is just what I mean to do."

"I thought so. Then, in your interest and mine, I have resolved to make
an end of it."

"I do not exactly see how we can get at that result, unless one of us
consents to kill the other."

"I presume this hatred of yours has cost you a round sum of money?"

"Four hundred piastres, which the rascals have stolen from me, as you
are still alive; to say nothing of two hundred others I propose to
present to a _pícaro_ who has sworn to kill you tonight."

"It is perfectly distressing! If this goes on, you will ruin yourself."

Don Torribio sighed, but made no reply.

Don Fernando resumed, while he threw away his cigarette and occupied
himself in rolling another:

"For my part, señor, I confess that, in spite of the lamentable
clumsiness of the people you employ, I begin to be tired of serving as
a target at moments when I least expect it."

"I can understand that; it must be very disagreeable."

"It is. Well, then, wishing to reconcile our mutual interests, and
to put an end to it, once for all, I have racked my brains until I
think I have hit on a method of arranging these matters to our mutual
satisfaction."

"Well, let us hear this method; I know you to be a man of imagination,
Don Fernando. It is doubtless ingenious."

"Oh, no; on the contrary, it is quite simple. Do you ever play?"

"So seldom, that it is hardly worth mentioning."

"Precisely the case with me. This is the proposal I have to make: it is
evident you will not succeed in assassinating me."

"Do you think so, señor?" said Don Torribio, still smiling.

"I am sure of it, else you would have succeeded already."

"I will admit it: what, then, do you propose?"

"This: we will have a game at cards--the first to whom _el as de copas_
(the ace of hearts) falls shall win, and be master over the life of his
opponent, who shall be bound to blow out his brains as he sits there."

"Not so bad; the idea is ingenious."

"And why not señor?--It is just like a common game, only the loser
cannot have his revenge. Now, where are the cards?"

It was then discovered that these three gallant _caballeros_, who never
played, had each a pack of cards in his pocket. They produced them
with such spontaneousness, that all three could not help bursting into
Homeric laughter.

We have already said, somewhere, that in Mexico the passion for
gambling is carried beyond the verge of madness; so that the facility
with which Don Torribio accepted the game proposed by his foe has
nothing in it to astonish those who know the character of those
strange Mexicans, who carry everything to extremes, and for whom
anything unexpected and extraordinary has always an irresistible
attraction.

"One moment, señores," said Don Estevan, who had hitherto listened
without joining in the conversation; "perhaps there might still be
another way."

"What other?" exclaimed Don Fernando and Don Torribio, turning briskly
to him.

"Is your mutual hatred so great, that in reality it can only be
satisfied by the death of one or the other?"

"It is," said Don Torribio hoarsely.

Don Fernando merely replied by a nod.

"In that case," continued Don Estevan, "instead of having recourse to
blind chance, why cannot you fight it out with each other?"

Both men made a gesture of disdain.

"What!" exclaimed Don Torribio, "Fight like wretched _leperos_, at the
risk of disfiguring or crippling ourselves, which would be worse than
death! No! I will never consent to that."

"Nor I; it is better that chance shall decide."

"As you please, _caballeros_; do as you like."

"But," said Don Torribio, "who is to deal?"

"The devil!" said Don Fernando; "that is a good remark: I never thought
of that."

"I will, if you have no objection," said Don Estevan; "and so much
the more readily, as my friendship for both of you señores, makes me
perfectly disinterested."

"It will do," said Don Torribio; "only, to avoid all cause for dispute,
you must choose at hap-hazard the pack you are to use."

"Very well: place the three packs under a hat; I will take the first I
touch."

"That will do. What a pity you did not think of this game sooner, Don
Fernando!"

"What could I do, señor?--I have only just hit upon the idea."

Don Estevan rose and left the grotto, to afford the two foes every
facility for arranging the three packs under the hat. He was very soon
recalled.

"So," said he, "you are determined to play out this game?"

"We are, they replied."

"You swear, by all the world holds most holy, and whichever of you it
may be whom fortune favours, to submit yourselves to the fiat of fate
in all its entirety?"

"We swear, Don Estevan, by the word of _caballeros_."

"Enough, señores," he replied, passing his Hand under the hat and
drawing out a pack of cards. "And now recommend your souls to God; for
a few minutes hence, one of you will be in his presence."

The two men crossed themselves devoutly, and fixed their eyes anxiously
on the pack of cards.

Don Estevan shuffled the cards with the greatest care, and then made
each of the adversaries cut them in turn.

"Attention, señores," said he; "I am going to begin."

The two, negligently leaning on their elbows, smoked their _pajillos_
with a perfect assumption of indifference, which was only belied by the
flashing of their eyes.

Meanwhile the cards continued to fall on the _zarapé_: Don Estevan held
only about a dozen more in his hand, when he paused.

"_Caballeros_," said he, "for the last time--reflect."

"Go on, go on!" cried Don Torribio excitedly; "the first card belongs
to me."

"Look at it," said Don Estevan, turning it up.

"Oh," said Don Fernando, throwing away his cigarette, "_el as de
copas_. Look, Don Torribio; it is curious. _¡Vive Dios!_ you can
reproach no one; you are the author of your own death."

Don Torribio made a violent gesture, which he repressed immediately,
and resumed the tone of affected civility which had characterised the
conversation.

"Upon my honour, it is true," said he. "I must confess, Don Fernando, I
have no chance with you in anything."

"I am quite in despair, dear Don Torribio."

"Never mind; it was a capital game; I never felt so interested."

"Nor I either. Unfortunately, I cannot give you your revenge."

"Right! And now I must pay my debt."

Don Fernando bowed without answering.

"Be quite easy, dear señor; I will only keep you waiting such time as
is absolutely necessary. If I could have foreseen this, I would have
brought my pistols."

"I have brought mine; they are perfectly at your service."

"Then pray be kind enough to lend me one."

Don Fernando rose, took a pistol from his holsters, and offered them to
Don Torribio.

"It is primed and loaded; the trigger is a little stiff."

"What a capital man of business you are, Don Fernando! You provide for
everything; no detail escapes you."

"My traveller's habits, Don Torribio,--nothing more."

Don Torribio took the pistol and cocked it.

"Señores," said he, "I beg you not to leave my body to the mercy of the
wild beasts; it would distress me dreadfully to become their food when
I am dead."

"Set your mind at rest, dear señor; we will carry you home across your
own horse. We should be in despair if the body of so accomplished a
_caballero_ were thus profaned."

"That is all I have to request of you, señores; now accept my thanks,
and farewell."

After this he cast one last look around him, and coolly placed the
muzzle of the pistol against his right temple.

Don Fernando suddenly arrested his hand.

"I have one remark to make," he said.

"Upon my honour, you are only just in time," said Don Torribio, without
exhibiting emotion: "two seconds more, and it would have been too late.
But let us hear this remark. Is it of much interest?"

"You yourself shall judge. You have lost your life fairly to me."

"As fairly as possible."

"Well, then, it belongs to me. You are dead; I have the right of
disposing of you as I think fit."

"I cannot deny it. You will observe that I am ready to pay my losses
like a _caballero_."

"I render you full justice, dear señor; therefore if I allow you to
live for the present, you are bound to kill yourself at my first
requisition, and to employ the life I leave you (which I could deprive
you of at this very moment) solely in my interest, and at my good
pleasure."

"Then you offer me a bargain?" said Don Torribio.

"Yes, you have hit the word; it is a bargain."

"H'm!" said Don Torribio; "That requires consideration. What would you
do, if you were in my place, Don Estevan?"

"I?" replied he; "I would accept without hesitation. Life is so
beautiful, take it all in all, it is best to enjoy it as long as
possible."

"There is something true about what you say; but recollect I should
become Don Fernando's slave as I could only employ my life in his
service, and should be bound to kill myself whenever he gives the
word."

"True; but Don Fernando is a _caballero_ who will only exact this
sacrifice in so far as to protect his own life."

"I will even go further," broke in Don Fernando; "I will limit the
duration of our bargain to ten years. If by that time Don Torribio is
not dead, he will again enter upon his rights in all their plenitude,
and can dispose of his life after his own fashion."

"That really touches me to the heart! You are a perfect _caballero_,
señor; and I accept the life you offer me so gracefully. A thousand
thanks!" added he, uncocking the pistol. "I have no further use for
this weapon."

"One thing more, Don Torribio. As no one can read the future, you will
not object to have this bond drawn up in writing?"

"Certainly not; but where shall we get the paper?"

"I think I can find the writing materials in my _alforjas_."

"How right I was in pronouncing you a perfect man of business, whom
nothing escapes, dear señor!"

Don Fernando, without answering, went to fetch his _alforjas_, a kind
of double pocket, which is fastened behind the saddle, to hold the
necessary articles for travelling, and used throughout the whole of
Spanish America instead of the common European valise.

Don Fernando took out pens, ink, and paper, and laid them in order
before Don Torribio.

"Now," said he, "write as I shall dictate."

"Proceed, my dear señor; I will write."

Don Fernando began:

"I, the undersigned, Don Torribio Quiroga y Carvajal y Flores del
Cerro, acknowledge that I have fairly lost my life to Don Fernando
Carril, in a game played with the aforesaid señor; I acknowledge that
the life belongs henceforth to Don Fernando, who shall have the right
to dispose of it as he thinks fit, without my having power to raise
objection in any case, or to refuse obedience to the orders he may give
me, whether they be to kill myself before his eyes, or to risk in any
perilous adventure the life I have lost, and which I acknowledge to
hold only at his pleasure. I farther acknowledge that all sentiments
of hatred to the aforesaid Don Fernando Carril are extinguished in my
heart, and that I will never seek to injure him directly or indirectly.
I enter into this bond for the space of ten years, beginning from the
day on which this deed is signed; it being formally stipulated by
me, that at the end of the aforesaid ten years I shall resume all my
rights in full, with the entire possession of my life, and that from
thenceforth I shall not be responsible to Don Fernando Carril for any
account of it."

"Written and signed by me, this 17th March 18--, and subscribed, as
witness, by Señor Don Estevan Diaz y Morelos."

"Now," said Don Fernando, "sign: pass the paper to Don Estevan, for his
signature; then give it to me." Don Torribio signed with the greatest
good humour, added a tremendous flourish to his signature, and gave the
pen to Don Estevan, who affixed his name without making the slightest
objection to this strange arrangement.

When all this was over, Don Torribio scattered a little sand over the
paper, to dry the ink, folded it neatly in four, and placed it in the
hands of Don Fernando, who read it attentively, and put it in his bosom.

"There, that is finished," said Don Torribio. "Now señor, if you have
no commands for me, I ask your permission to retire."

"I should be distressed to detain you longer, _caballero_; go where
your engagements call you; may they be pleasant ones!"

"Thanks for the wish, though I fear it will scarcely be fulfilled; I
have had bad luck for some time past."

He saluted the others once more, put the bridle on his horse, and
departed at a gallop.

"Do you really intend to demand the execution of this bond?" asked Don
Estevan, as soon as he found himself alone with Don Fernando.

"Most certainly," replied the other; "you forget that this man is my
mortal foe. But I must leave you, Don Estevan; I must be today at Las
Norias de San Antonio, and it is growing late."

"Are you going to the _hacienda_ of Don Pedro de Luna?"

"Not exactly to the _hacienda_, but to the neighbourhood."

"Then we can ride together; for I, too, am going in that direction."

"You," said he, looking at him inquisitively.

"I am the _major-domo_ of the _hacienda_," replied Don Estevan.

The two men left the grotto, and mounted their horses. Don Fernando
rode pensively by the side of his companion, only replying in
monosyllables.



CHAPTER XI.

THE RANCHO.


The road the two men had to travel together was tolerably long. Don
Estevan would not have been sorry to shorten it by talking to Don
Fernando, particularly as the manner in which he had made acquaintance
with the latter, and the light in which he had shown himself, excited
the curiosity of the former in the highest degree. Unfortunately,
Don Fernando did not seem in the least inclined to keep up the
conversation; and, in spite of all his efforts, the _major-domo_ found
himself obliged to conform to his companion's state of mind, and
imitate his taciturnity.

They had already left the village a long way behind them, and were
cantering along the undulating banks of the Rio Bermejo, when they
heard, at a short distance in front of them, the sound of a horse at
full gallop. We say, they heard; for, shortly after leaving the grotto,
the sun had finally disappeared below the horizon, and there had been a
sudden transition from the glorious light of day to thick darkness.

In Mexico, where there is no police, or, at all events, only a nominal
one, every man is obliged to take care of himself. Two men, meeting on
a road after nightfall, cannot accost each other without the greatest
precaution, nor approach each other until fully assured they have
nothing to fear.

"Keep your distance!" shouted Don Fernando, as soon as he thought the
person approaching was within reach of his voice.

"And why so? You know you have nothing to fear from me," answered
somebody; the sound caused by the horse's hoofs ceasing at the same
time, denoting that the rider had halted.

"I know that voice," said the Mexican.

"And the man, too, Señor Don Fernando, for it is not very long since we
met; I am El Zapote."

"Aha!" laughed Don Fernando; "Is it you, Tonillo? Come on, _muchacho_."

The latter rode up directly.

"What the devil are you doing on this road, at this hour of the night?"

"I am coming from a rendezvous, and returning to the pueblo."

"I fancy that rendezvous has been a slippery affair."

"You insult me, Don Fernando. I am an honourable man."

"I have no doubt of it. Moreover, your affairs are not mine; and I do
not choose to be mixed up with them. Come, adieu, Tonillo."

"A moment if you please. Since I have been lucky enough to meet you,
grant me five minutes: I was going to look for you."

"You! Is it a case like the last? I thought you had had enough of that
speculation, which hardly succeeds with me."

"Here is the matter in two words, Don Fernando. After what happened the
other day, I considered that I owed you my life, and, consequently,
had not full liberty of action where you are concerned. But you know,
señor, I am a _caballero_; and as an honest man can but stick to his
word, I resolved to see the person who had paid me to kill you, and
return him the money. It was hard to disburse so large a sum; but I did
not hesitate. One may well say, a good action always brings its own
recompense."

"You ought to know that better than anyone else," laughed Don Fernando.

"You laugh! Very well; judge for yourself. I sought this person, whose
name it is needless to mention."

"So much the more so, as I know it already."

"You do? Very well, then. This morning a _caballero_, one of my
friends, gave me notice that the person in question also wished to
speak to me. All was working wonderfully. But guess my amazement when,
just as I was going to refund the money and throw up my engagement,
this personage announced to me that he had been reconciled to you, that
you were the best friends, and begged me to keep the hundred piastres
as an indemnification for the damage he had caused me."

"Was it this person, then, whom you went to meet tonight?"

"The same. I have only just left him."

"Very well: go on, _compadre_" (comrade).

"Well, _caballero_, since this affair has ended in a manner honourable
to me, as I flatter myself, I am at liberty to follow my own
inclinations, and am quite at your service, if you will do me the
honour to employ me."

"I will not say no; perhaps in a day or two I may find a use for your
services."

"You will not repent having employed me, señor. You will be always sure
to find me at--"

"Not a word on that subject," said Don Fernando, interrupting him
suddenly; "when the time comes, I shall find you."

"As you please, señor. Now permit me to take leave of you and this
honourable _caballero_, your friend."

"Adieu, Zapote. A happy journey."

The _lepero_ joyfully took to his road again.

"Señor," said Don Estevan, as soon as the latter had gone, "in a short
time we shall reach the _rancho_ (farmhouse) I inhabit with my mother;
it would glad me to offer you shelter for the night."

"Thanks for your courtesy, which I gratefully accept. Is the _rancho_
far from Las Norias?"

"Hardly a league. Were it daylight, you would be able to see from hence
the tall walls of the _hacienda._ Permit me to be your guide on the
road to my poor dwelling."

The cavaliers then bent to the left, entering a broad path lined with
aloes. Very soon the barking of several watchdogs, and two or three
specks of light which twinkled through the darkness, apprised them
that it would not be long before they reached the end of their tedious
journey. In fact, after riding some ten minutes longer, they found
themselves in front of a house, small, but apparently comfortable,
under the _zaguán_ (veranda) of which several persons, provided with
torches, seemed to be expecting their arrival.

They stopped before the porch, dismounted, gave their horses to a
_peon_, who led them away, and entered the dwelling, Don Estevan
preceding his guest in order to do the honours of his house.

They found themselves in a chamber of good dimensions, furnished with
sundry chairs, a few armchairs, and a massive table, on which the
cloth was laid for several persons. The whitewashed walls of the room
were adorned with prints, frightfully coloured, representing the four
seasons, the five quarters of the globe, &c.

A woman, no longer young, dressed with a certain degree of refinement,
and whose features, although marked by age, still preserved traces of
great beauty, stood in the middle of the room.

"Mother," said Don Estevan, bowing respectfully before her, "permit me
to present to you Don Fernando Carril, an honourable _caballero_, who
consents to be our guest tonight."

"He is welcome," answered Doña Manuela, with a gracious smile; "this
house and all that is in it is at his disposal."

"Many thanks, señora, for this kind reception."

At first sight of the stranger Doña Manuela had begun to tremble,
and had scarcely repressed an exclamation of surprise. The sound of
his voice struck her no less, and she cast a profoundly scrutinising
look over him; but after a moment she shook her head gently, as if
mistrusting the thought which had arisen.

"Be seated, señor," she said, pointing to the table with great
cordiality; "the supper shall be served directly. Your long ride will
have sharpened your appetite, and will make the frugality of the viands
less distasteful."

In fact, the meal was frugal, consisting of beans with red pepper, beef
dried in the sun, a fowl boiled in rice, rolls of maize, with _pulque_
and _mezcal_ to drink With great pleasure Doña Manuela watched the
viands disappear with which she loaded their plates. She encouraged
them by all the means in her power to satisfy their hunger.

When supper was over, they passed into an inner chamber, more
comfortably furnished, which appeared to be the reception room.

The conversation, which had naturally been rather languid at dinner,
now, little by little, grew more animated, and soon reached, thanks to
the efforts of Doña Manuela, that tone of pleasant familiarity which
banishes every constraint, and doubles the charms of familiar chat.

Don Fernando seemed to enter with all his heart into the desultory
conversation, which leaped without ceasing from one subject to another;
listening with complacency to the long stories of Doña Manuela, and
answering with apparent rankness the questions she asked him.

"Are you a _costeño_" (an inhabitant of the sea border), "or a _tierras
a dentro_" (one of those who dwell inland), "_caballero?_" the good
dame suddenly asked her guest.

"By my faith, señora," replied he, laughing, "I confess I feel some
difficulty in replying."

"Why so, señor?"

"For the simple reason that I have no idea where I was born."

"But you are _hijo del país_" (literally, a son of the country),--"a
Mexican, at all events?"

"Everything leads me to think so, señora; but I would not swear it."

"That is very singular. Does not your family reside in the province?"

A shadow crossed the face of Don Fernando. "No, señora," he replied
dryly.

The mistress of the house perceived she had touched a tender chord, and
hastened to turn the conversation.

"Of course you know Don Pedro de Luna?"

"Very little, señora; accident threw us together once. It is true the
circumstances were too singular for him to forget them easily; but it
remains to be seen whether I ever set foot in his _hacienda._"

"You are wrong, _caballero_; Don Pedro is a _cristiano Viejo_" (an old
Christian, i.e. a descendant of the early conquerors), "who exercises
hospitality after the fashion of old times: nothing makes him happier
than to practise it."

"Most unfortunately, important affairs call me to some distance, and I
fear I shall have no time to stop at his _hacienda._"

"Forgive the question," said Don Estevan; "but have you really the
intention of entering the prairie?"

"Why do you ask, _caballero?_"

"Because we are here on the extreme Indian frontier; and unless you
retrace your steps, it is only towards the wilderness you can bend
them."

"Well, then, it is my intention to go into the desert."

Don Estevan made a gesture of surprise.

"Forgive my pertinacity," said he; "but without doubt you must be
acquainted with the desert you intend to enter?"

"By your leave, señor, I am thoroughly acquainted with it."

"And knowing its dangers, dare you enter it alone?"

"I thought I had given you a proof today," said he, with an indefinable
smile, "that I dare many things."

"Yes, yes; I know your courage carries you on to rashness: but what you
would undertake is worse than temerity--it is madness!"

"Madness, señor! The word is too strong. Can a resolute man, well armed
and mounted, have anything to fear from the Indians?"

"If you had nothing to do but defend yourself against Indians and
wild beasts. I should be somewhat in your way of thinking, señor: a
determined white can make head against twenty redskins. But how will
you escape from the Tigercat?"

"From the Tigercat? Excuse me, _caballero_, but I do not understand you
at all."

"I will soon explain, señor. The Tigercat is a white. This man, from
reasons unknown to all, has joined the Apaches, has become one of their
chiefs, and sworn implacable hatred to all men of his own colour."

"I have heard vaguely of the man you mention; but, after all, he is the
only one of his race among the Indians. Redoubtable as he may be, he is
not invulnerable, I suppose; and a brave man might kill him."

"Unfortunately you are mistaken, _caballero_; this man is not the only
one of his race among the Indians; other bandits of his class are with
him."

"Yes," cried Doña Manuela; "his son among the rest, who, they say, is
as fierce a bandit as his father."

"Mother, that is only a surmise. If you come to proof, nothing can be
affirmed against Stoneheart."

"Who is the man of whom you speak?"

"His son, as people say; but one cannot be sure of it."

"And you call this man Stoneheart?"

"Yes, señor. For my own part, I know several instances of his
generosity, which indicate, on the contrary, a heart in its right
place, and an ardent spirit capable of noble deeds."

A slight blush overspread the face of Don Fernando.

"Let us return to the Tigercat," said he. "What have I to dread from
this man?"

"Everything. Concealed in the prairie, like a hideous _zopilote_
(vulture) on its point of rock, this wretch pounces upon the caravans,
whatever their strength, and pillages them; he murders in cold blood
the solitary travellers whom their evil destiny delivers into his
hands: his nets are stretched with such cruel skill, that none may
escape him. Listen to me, _caballero_: give up this journey, or you are
a lost man."

"I thank you for your advice, which, I know, is prompted by the
interest you take in me; nevertheless, I cannot follow it. But it is
too late; allow me to retire. I observed a hammock under the _zaguán_,
in which I could pass the night admirably."

"I will give orders to have my son's chamber prepared for you."

"I could not allow anyone to be disturbed on my account, señora; I am
an old traveller. Moreover, the night is already far gone. I swear you
would disoblige me by forcing me to accept the chamber of Don Estevan."

"Do as you think proper, _caballero_. A guest is one sent from God;
he ought to be master in the house he inhabits, as long as he chooses
to honour it with his presence. May the Lord watch over your repose
and bless your slumbers! My son shall show you the _corral_ (outhouse)
where your horse has been stabled, in case you should wish to depart
before the household is awake."

"Many thanks, once more, señorita. I hope to pay my respects to you
before I go."

Having exchanged a few more compliments with his hostess, Don Fernando
rose and left the room, accompanied by Don Estevan. The wish he
expressed, to sleep in a hammock under the _zaguán_, was not at all
extraordinary, and perfectly in accordance with the customs of a
country where the nights, by their beauty and freshness, compensate the
inhabitants for the overpowering heat of the day.

The American _ranchos_ all have a porch, formed by four, and often six
columns, outside the house, and which support an _azotea_ (flat roof).
In the large space between these columns, which are placed on either
side of the main entrance, hammocks are slung, in which the owners of
the dwellings themselves often pass the night, preferring to sleep
in the open air rather than endure the torrid heat which literally
converts into a stove the interior of the houses.

Don Estevan led his guest to the _corral_, explained to him the
mechanism of the lock, asked if he could be of any further service,
wished him good night, and retired into the house, leaving the door
open, so that Don Fernando might enter if he thought fit.

Doña Manuela awaited her son's return in the apartment where he had
left her. The old lady seemed restless.

"Well," she asked, immediately her son made his appearance, "what do
you think of this man, Estevan?"

"I, mother!" he answered, looking astonished; "What can I think of him?
I saw him today for the first time."

The old señora shook her head impatiently.

"You have been side by side for many hours; such a long _tête-à-tête_
should have given you an opportunity of studying and forming an opinion
of him."

"That man, my dear mother, during the short time I have been with
him, has appeared under so many different aspects, that it has been
altogether an impossibility, I will not say to form an opinion, but
even to gain a ray of light by means of which I could direct my study
of him. I believe his to be a strong nature, full of nerve, capable of
good or evil, accordingly as he follows the impulse of his heart or the
calculations of his egotism. At San Lucar everyone seems to dread him
instinctively,--for nothing ostensible in his conduct justifies the
repulsion he inspires; no one can say positively who he is: his life is
an impenetrable mystery."

"Estevan," said his mother, placing her hand heavily on his arm,
as if to lend force to the words she was about to utter, "a secret
presentiment warns me that the presence of this man in these parts
presages great misfortune. I cannot explain why. The moment he entered,
his features recalled a confused recollection of events that happened
long ago. I saw in his face points of resemblance with that of a
person dead, alas! How long?" She sighed. "When he spoke, the tone
of his voice sounded mournfully on my ear; for the voice completed
the likeness I had found in his face. Whoever this man may be, I am
convinced there is trouble, perhaps danger, in store for us. I am old,
my son; I have much experience; and, you know, one is seldom mistaken
at my age. Presentiments come from God; we must have faith in them.
Watch that man's doings as long as he remains here. I could wish you
had never brought him under our roof."

"What could I do, mother? Hospitality is a duty from which no one
should shrink."

"I do not reproach you, Estevan; you have acted according to your
conscience."

"God grant that you delude yourself, mother! After all, whatever the
man's intentions may be, if he seeks to injure us, as you suppose, we
can but countermine his machinations."

"No, Estevan; it is not exactly for ourselves I fear."

"For whom, then, mother?"

"Cannot you understand me?" said she, with, a mournful smile.

"_¡Vive Dios,_ mother! Let him beware. But no, it is impossible.
Nevertheless, I will go to the _hacienda_ at daybreak, and put Don
Pedro on his guard."

"Do not say a word to them, Estevan; but watch over them like a
faithful friend."

"Yes, mother, you are right," said Estevan, who had suddenly become
thoughtful. "I will surround Hermosa with a vigilant protection, so
secret that no one shall suspect it. I swear it, _¡vive Dios!_ I would
a thousand times rather die under the most atrocious torture, than see
her exposed anew to dangers like those of the last few days. And now,
mother, give me your blessing, and let me go."

"Go, my son; and God protect you!"

Don Estevan bent respectfully before his mother, and retired; but
before seeking repose, he made a minute examination of the house, and
did not extinguish his lamp till after he had convinced himself that
all was in perfect order.

As soon as Don Estevan had left him, Don Fernando threw himself into
the hammock, and closed his eyes. The night was calm and beautiful; the
stars studded the heavens with an infinite number of diamonds; the moon
spread her silver rays over the landscape; at intervals, the prolonged
baying of the watchdogs mingled with the abrupter bark of the _coyotes_
(prairie-wolves), whose sinister forms were often perceptible in the
distance, the transparency of the atmosphere permitting remote objects
to be easily distinguished.

All slept, or seemed to sleep.

Suddenly Don Fernando raised his head, and peered cautiously over
the edge of his hammock. Thoroughly convinced that silence reigned
throughout the house, he slipped to the ground; after carefully
listening, and prying into the darkness in all directions, he placed on
his head the accoutrements of his horse, and turned his steps towards
the _corral_.

Opening the door noiselessly, he whistled gently. At the signal, the
horse raised his head, and walked up to his master, who was holding the
door half open.

The latter caught him by the mane, caressed him playfully, and then
saddled and bridled him with the dexterity and speed only acquired by
constant habit. The task over, his master wrapped his hoofs in four
pieces of sheepskin, to deaden the sound of his steps, vaulted into the
saddle, and bending over the neck of the noble brute: "Santiago!" cried
he, "now is the time to prove your mettle."

The horse, as if he understood his master, dashed off into the
darkness, and took the direction of the river at the top of his speed.

Meanwhile the greatest silence pervaded the _rancho_, none of the
inhabitants of which seemed to be aware of this sudden flight.



CHAPTER XII.

THE REDSKINS.


We must now return to the Far West.

On the banks of the Rio Grande del Norte, about ten leagues' distance
from the _presidio_ of San Lucar stood the _atepelt_, or temporary
village, of Des Venados.

The _atepelt_, a simple camp, like most of the Indian villages,
consisted of about a hundred _callis_, or huts, irregularly grouped
near each other.

Each _calli_ was built of about a dozen stakes driven into the ground,
four or five feet high at the sides, and six or seven in the centre,
with an aperture towards the east, for the master of the _calli_ to
throw water in the direction of the rising sun--a ceremony by which
the Indians conjure the Wacondah to befriend their families during the
course of the day just breaking.

These _callis_ were covered with bison hides sewn together, with a hole
in the centre to admit the exit of the smoke of the fires kindled in
the interior,--fires which equal in number the wives of the owner, each
wife having a right to a fire of her own.

The hides which formed the outer walls were carefully dressed,
and painted of divers colours; the painting, by its extravagance,
enlivening the aspect of the _atepelt._

The lances of the fighting men were planted upright in the ground in
front of the entrance to the _calli._ These light lances, made of
flexible reed, sixteen or eighteen feet long, and armed at one end with
a long grooved iron, forged by the Indians themselves, are the most
redoubtable weapons of the Apaches.

The liveliest joy seemed to animate the _atepelt._ In some _callis_ the
women were spinning the wool of their flocks with their spindles; in
others they wove those _zarapés_, so renowned for their fineness and
the perfection of the work, at looms of primitive simplicity.

The young people of the tribe, assembled in the centre of the
_atepelt_,--a large open space,--were playing at _milt_ (an Indian word
signifying "arrow") a singular game, to which the Indians are greatly
addicted.

The players trace a large circle on the ground, into which they step,
arranging themselves in two opposite rows. The leader of one row,
holding a ball filled with air in the right hand, the leader of the
other in the left, they throw their balls backwards with a motion which
brings them in front again. The left leg is then lifted, the ball
caught and hurled at the opposite player, whose body it must touch,
under penalty of losing a point. A thousand extravagant contortions
ensue on the part of the latter, in order to avoid the ball: he stoops,
he rises, bends himself backwards or forwards, jumps up where he
stands, or bounds to one side. If the ball quits the ring, the first
player loses two points and runs after it; if, on the contrary, the
second is struck, he must seize the ball and throw it back at his
opponent, whom it must hit, or he loses a point. The next in order, at
the opposite side of the ring, begins the game again; and so on, till
the close of the sport.

One can understand what shouts of laughter arise from the grotesque
attitudes into which the players fall as the game goes on.

Other Indians of riper age, were gravely playing with curious packs
of cards, made of squares of hide, coarsely painted with figures of
different animals.

In a _calli_ larger and better painted than the other huts of the
_atepelt_--the dwelling of the _sachem_, or principal chief, whose
lances, ornamented at the foot with pieces of skin-dyed red, were the
distinguishing badge of power--three men, crouched round the embers
of a fire, were, talking, heedless of the uproar without. They were
the Tigercat, the Zopilote, and the _amantzin_, or the sorcerer of the
tribe.

The Zopilote was a half-breed, who had taken refuge with the Apaches
long ago, and been adopted by them. This man, every way worthy of the
name he bore, was a wretch whose cold and malignant cruelty revolted
the very Indians, who are themselves not delicate in matters of this
kind. The Tigercat had made this ferocious miscreant, who was devoted
to him, prime-minister of his vengeance, and the docile instrument
of his will. His latest wife, to whom he had been married a year,
had given birth to a boy that morning--hence the rejoicings of the
Indians; and he had come to take the orders of the Tigercat--the great
chief of the tribe--with respect to the ceremonies usual on the like
occasions.

The Zopilote left the _calli_, to which he speedily returned, followed
by his wives and all his friends, one of whom held the infant in his
arms. The Tigercat, placing himself between the Zopilote and the
_amantzin_ at the head of the party, led them towards the Rio Grande
del Norte.

The procession halted on the bank of the river; the _amantzin_ took
a little water in the hollow of his hand, and threw it into the
air, muttering a prayer to _the Master of the life of men._ He next
proceeded to _the great medicine;_ that is, the newborn child, wrapped
in his woollen swaddling bands, was five times plunged into the waters
of the river, while the _amantzin_ repeated, in a loud voice:

"Master of life, look upon this young warrior with favourable eye;
remove from him all evil influences; protect him, Wacondah!"

At the termination of this part of the ceremony, the procession
returned to the _atepelt_, and arranged itself in a circle in front
of the Zopilote's _calli_, at the entrance of which lay a young
mare on her back, with her four feet tied together. A new _zarapé_
was stretched under the belly of the animal, on which relations and
friends deposited, one after the other, the gifts intended for the
child--spurs, arms, and clothing. The Tigercat, out of friendship for
the Zopilote, had consented to act as godfather to the infant. He
placed it in the midst of the various gifts which filled the _zarapé_.

Then the Zopilote seized his scalping knife, opened at one slash the
flanks of the mare, tore out the heart, and gave it, bleeding as it
was, to the Tigercat, who made a cross with it on the forehead of the
child, addressing him thus:

"Young warrior of the tribe of Apache-Bisons, be brave and cunning. I
name thee _Mixcoatzin_--Cloud-Serpent."

The father took the child, and the chief, raising the bleeding heart
above his head, shouted thrice:

"Long live the Cloud-Serpent!"

The cry was enthusiastically repeated by the bystanders. The _amantzin_
then commended the child to the Spirit of Evil, praying him to make the
young warrior brave, eloquent, and cunning; terminating his prayer in
these words, which found an ardent response in the hearts of all those
fierce beings:

"Above all, may he never be a slave!"

Thus terminated the ceremony: every religious rite had been performed.
The poor mare, the victim of this stupid superstition, was cut into
pieces; a great fire was kindled; friends and relations took their
seats at a feast, which was intended to last until nothing was left of
the mare.

The Zopilote was about to seat himself, and feast with the others;
but, at a sign from the Tigercat, he followed the great chief to
his _calli_, where they once more took their seats by the fire. The
_amantzin_ was also with them.

The Tigercat waved his band to his wives, who left the _calli_, and
after a short meditation, spoke as follows:

"I trust my brothers, and my heart opens before them like a
_chirimoya_" (a kind of American pear), "to show them my secret
thoughts: I have sorrowed for many days."

"My father sorrows for his son Stoneheart," said the _amantzin._

"No; I care not where he is now; I can find him again when I want
him. But I have a secret mission to confide to a safe man. Till this
morning, I hesitated to open my heart to you."

"Let my father speak; his sons listen."

"To hesitate longer would be to compromise things sacred. You will to
horse, Zopilote; I have no words for you: you know where I send you.
Induce these men to aid our enterprise; it will be a notable service."

"I will do it. Do I go at once?"

"Without delay."

"In ten minutes I shall be far hence;" and, saluting the chiefs, he
went out.

A few minutes later, the sound of a horse's hoofs fading away in the
distance announced his departure.

Tigercat gave a sigh of satisfaction.

"Let my brother, the _amantzin_ open his ears," said he. "I am about
to leave the _atepelt_, I hope to be back tonight; but my absence may
be for two or three days. I leave my brother in my stead and place;
he will command the warriors, and will forbid them to go far from the
village, or approach the frontiers of the palefaces. It is important
that the Gachupinos (Mexicans) should not learn that we are so near
them; to do so would mar our plan. Does my brother understand?"

"The Tigercat has no forked tongue; the words breathed from his mouth
are clear. His son understands."

"Good. I can go in peace: my brother will watch over the tribe."

"I will obey the orders of my father. If he is absent many suns, he
will not have to reproach his son."

"Ugh! My son's words lift the skin that covered my heart and filled it
with sorrow. The Master of Life watch over him! I go."

"Ugh! My brother is a sage warrior. The Wacondah will protect him on
his road; he will succeed."

The two men gravely saluted each other. The _amantzin_ remained by the
fire; the chief departed.

It is probable that, if the old _sachem_ had remarked the expression of
knavish hate on the face of the sorcerer at the moment they parted, he
would not have quitted the village.

As the Tigercat threw himself into the saddle with a lightness hardly
to be expected at his years, the sun disappeared behind the mountains,
and night enveloped the prairie.

The old man, without seeming to care for the darkness, pressed his
horse with his knees, gave him his head, and galloped off.

The sorcerer, with bent person and head stretched forward, listened
anxiously to the lessening sound of the chief's rapid course. When all
was still again, he raised himself erect, a smile of triumph played
across his thin and livid lips, and he uttered triumphantly the words,
"At last!"--a summary of the thoughts secreted in his heart.

Then he arose, left the _calli_, seated himself a few paces from it,
crossed his arms over his chest, and chanted, in a deep bass and a
mournful and monotonous rhythm, the Apache lament, beginning with the
following verse, which we reproduce as a specimen of the language of
this barbarous people:

"El mebin ni tlacaelantey
Tuz apan Pilco payentzin
Ancu maguida coaltzin
Ay guinchey ni polio menchey."

[I have lost my _tlacaelantey_ in the country of Pilco. Oh, murderous
knives, which have changed him into shades and flies!]

As the sorcerer went on with his song, his voice became by degrees
louder and more confident. In a short time, warriors, wrapped in their
bison robes, issued from several of the huts, and, with furtive steps,
approached the sorcerer, and entered the _calli._ At the close of the
lament, the sorcerer rose, ascertained that no other person was coming
towards him, that no laggard was loitering at his call, and in his turn
entered the _calli_, to join those whom he had convoked thus singularly.

There were twenty men in all; they stood silent and motionless, like
bronze statues, round the fire, whose flames, revived by the draught
caused by their entrance, threw sinister shadows over their stern and
determined features. The _amantzin_ placed himself in the midst, and
said:

"Let my brothers sit at the council fire."

The warriors squatted down in a circle.

The sorcerer then took from the hands of the _hachesto_, or public
crier, the great calumet, the bowl of which was of red clay, and the
tube six feet long, of aloes wood, garnished with feathers and hawks'
bells. He filled it with a washed tobacco, called _morriche_, which
is never used except upon great occasions, lighted it with a medicine
stick, and having drawn a long breath of more than a minute, and
discharged the smoke through mouth and nose, presented the calumet
to the warrior on his right. The latter followed his example; and
the calumet passed thus from hand to hand, till it returned to the
_amantzin._

The latter shook the ashes into the fire, muttering, in a low voice, a
few unintelligible words; after which, be restored the calumet to the
_hachesto_, who went out to watch, in order to ensure secrecy to the
deliberations of the council.

There was a long silence; the profoundest calm brooded over the
village; no sound disturbed the tranquillity of the _atepelt;_ and one
might have thought oneself a hundred leagues from a human dwelling.

At length the _amantzin_ rose, cast a searching look over the assembly,
and spoke.

"Let my brothers open their ears," he said in measured tones. "The
spirit of the Master of Life has entered into my body; it is he
who dictates the words which spring from my lips. Chiefs of the
Bison-Apaches! The spirit of your ancestors has ceased to animate your
souls. You are no longer the terrible warriors, who declared war,
without truce or mercy, against the palefaces--those cowards, and
hateful despoilers of your hunting grounds; you are only antelopes, who
fly with faltering feet from the distant sound of an _erupha_ (gun) of
the palefaces; you are old women, to whom the _Yorris_ (Spanish) give
their petticoats; your blood no longer runs bright in your veins,
and a skin stretches over your heart and covers it completely. You,
formerly so brave and terrible, have made yourselves the coward slaves
of a dog of a paleface, who chases you like frightened rabbits, and
holds you trembling under his eye. Thus speaks the Master of Life. What
do you answer, warriors of the Apaches?"

He ceased, and waited for one of the chiefs to take up the word. During
this insulting speech, a tremor of indignation agitated the Indians; it
was only by great efforts they obtained the mastery over their passion.
But when the _amantzin_ ceased, a chief rose.

"Is the sorcerer of the Apaches-Bisons mad," said he in a voice of
thunder, "that he should speak thus to the chiefs of his nation? He who
counts the foxes' tails attached to our heels will see if we are women,
and if the courage of our ancestors is dead in our hearts. What if the
Tigercat is a paleface?--His heart is Apache. The Tigercat is wise; he
has seen many things; the counsels he gives are good."

The _amantzin_ smiled with disdain.

"My brother the White-Eagle speaks well; it is not for me to answer
him."

He struck his hands thrice. A warrior appeared.

"Let my brother," said the _amantzin_ to him, "tell the council the
mission with which he was charged by the Tigercat."

The redskin advanced to the circle, and bowed low before the chiefs,
who were all gazing at him.

"The Tigercat," spoke a deep and mournful voice, "had ordered the
Black-Falcon to form an ambush with twenty warriors on the path of the
palefaces, whom Stoneheart pretended to guide to their big stone huts.
The Black-Falcon followed the palefaces a long time in the prairie.
Their trail was clear; they had no arms; nothing seemed more easy than
to seize them. An hour before the time fixed for the attack, Stoneheart
appeared alone in the camp of the warriors. The Black-Falcon received
him with the signs of friendship and praise, because he had abandoned
the _Yorris._ But Stoneheart replied, that Tigercat forbade the attack
on the palefaces, and, throwing himself on the Black-Falcon, thrust
the knife into his heart; while the _Yorris_, who had stolen upon the
camp, surprised the warriors, and massacred them with _eruphas_ given
by Tigercat himself. This treachery was done to put Black-Falcon out of
his path, whose fame he envied. Twenty warriors followed the war path;
six returned with me to the _atepelt:_ the others have been slain by
the Tigercat. I have said."

This astonishing revelation created a stern silence of amazement and
rage. It was the calm that harbours the tempest. The chiefs looked from
one to the other with eyes of wrath.

Of all races, the redskins are the most remarkable for the rapidity
with which their moods change, and are most easily led away by feelings
of rage. The _amantzin_ was aware of this; therefore he was sure of
his triumph, after the terrible impression made by the recital of the
warrior.

"Ugh!" said he, "What do my brothers think now of the counsels of the
Tigercat? Does the White-Eagle still think he has the heart of an
Apache? Who will avenge the death of the Black-Falcon?"

Most of the chiefs rose at once, brandishing their scalping knives.

"The Tigercat is a thieving dog, and a coward!" they shouted. "The
Apache warriors will tie his scalp to their girdles."

Only two or three of the _sachems_ attempted to protest; they knew the
_amantzin's_ inveterate and long-standing hatred of Tigercat; they knew
the knavish character of the sorcerer; and suspected that, in this
affair, the truth had been disguised and garbled in order to serve the
vengeance of the man who had vowed the death of a foe whom he would
never dare to face openly.

But the voices of these chiefs were soon stifled by the clamorous
ire of the other Indians. Renouncing, for the present, a useless
discussion, they withdrew from the circle, and grouped themselves in
a corner of the _calli_, resolved to remain the impassive, if not
indifferent, witnesses of the resolutions to be taken by the council.

The Indians are grown-up children, who lash themselves into fury with
the sound of their own words and, when excited by their passions,
forget all prudence and moderation.

However, in the present case, although they felt the fiercest desire
to avenge themselves on the Tigercat,--whom at this moment they
hated so much the more because they had loved and respected him so
highly,--although the most violent measures were proposed against him,
still it was not without some degree of hesitation that they proceeded
to act against their aged chief. The reason was simple enough: these
primitive beings recognised only one kind of superiority,--that of
brute strength; and the Tigercat, in spite of his great age, enjoyed
among them a reputation for strength and courage, too well established
for them not to look forward with a certain degree of fear to the
consequences of the action they meditated.

The _amantzin_ tried in vain, by all the means in his power, to
convince them how easy it would be to seize Tigercat on his return
to the village. The sorcerer's project was excellent; if the chiefs
chose to avail themselves of it, it would be impossible to fail. The
plan was this: the Apaches were to feign ignorance of the death of
the Black-Falcon; they were to receive him on his return with the
greatest protestations of joy, in order to lull the suspicions he
might entertain, and seize him while he slept; they were to bind him
securely, and tie him to the torture stake. One sees that the plan was
extremely simple; but the Apaches would not listen to it, so great was
the dread they felt for their foe.

Finally, after a discussion which lasted the greater part of the night,
it was definitely settled that the tribe should strike their camp, and
bury themselves in the desert, without troubling themselves with any
further thought of their old leader.

But just at that moment the dissentient chiefs who, up to that time,
had taken no part in what was going on, left the corner of the _calli_
to which they had retired, and one of them, called Fire-Eye, taking
up the word in the name of his companions, observed that those of the
_sachems_ who wished to depart might do so, but could not impose their
will on others; that the tribe had no great chief legally chosen; that
each was at liberty to act as he pleased; and that, as for themselves,
they were resolved not to repay with black ingratitude the eminent
services the Tigercat had rendered the tribe for many years past; and
they would not quit the village before his return.

This determination gave great anxiety to the _amantzin_, who vainly
sought to overcome it: the chiefs would listen to nothing, and adhered
firmly to their determination.

At sunrise, by order of the sorcerer, who already acted from that time
forward as if he was the recognised grand chief of the tribe, the
_hachesto_ summoned the warriors to the open space of the village,
by the ark of the first man, and orders were given to the women to
pull down the _callis_, and harness and load the dogs, that they
might depart as soon as possible. The order was promptly executed;
the pickets were drawn, the bison hides folded, household utensils
carefully packed, and placed on sledges, to be drawn by the dogs.

But the dissentient chiefs had not been idle on their side: they had
managed to win over to their opinion several renowned warriors of the
people, so that only about three-quarters of the tribe prepared to
emigrate, while the other quarter remained stoical spectators of the
arrangements for travel which were going on before them.

At last the _hachesto_, at the order of the _amantzin_, gave the signal
to march.

Then a long line of sledges drawn by dogs, and of women laden with
children, quitted the village, escorted by a numerous band of warriors,
and was soon winding its way, like a great serpent, through the prairie.

When their brothers had disappeared in the depths of the wilderness,
the warriors who had remained faithful to the Tigercat assembled to
deliberate on the measures to be taken until his return.



CHAPTER XIII.

THE MIDNIGHT MEETING.


In the meantime Don Fernando Carril, bending over his horse's mane, was
gliding through the night like a phantom.

Thanks to the precaution he had taken of wrapping pieces of sheepskin
round the hoofs of the horse, he passed on silently and rapidly as the
spectre-horseman of the German ballad, making the frightened packs of
_coyotes_ fly before his career.

Gradually he neared the banks of the river, which he forded without
slackening his speed; inciting his steed by voice and gesture, and
throwing sharp glances to right and left, before and behind him.

His flight lasted full three hours, during which the Mexican never
allowed his favourite a moment's respite to fetch his breath and rest
his tired limbs.

But when at last he arrived at a spot on the narrow river, where it
rolled its muddy waters between low banks lined with tufted cotton
trees, he alighted in a thick coppice, and, having convinced himself he
was alone, plucked a handful of grass, and rubbed his horse down with
that care, and solicitude of which those alone are capable whose lives
may at any moment depend on the speed of their faithful and devoted
companion. Then taking off the bridle, and leaving him to graze on
the tall and abundant grasses, the Mexican spread his _zarapé_ on the
ground, and closed his eyes.

Nothing troubled the silence of the night; no sound arose in the
desert. Don Fernando lay motionless as a corpse, his eyes still closed,
and his head supported by his left arm; and thus he lay for two hours.

Did he sleep? Did he wake? None could say. Suddenly the hooting of an
owl arose on the air. In an instant Don Fernando half-raised himself,
bent his head forward, and listened, with his eyes fixed on the heavens.

It was deep in the night; the stars were shedding on the earth their
obscure and doubtful light; nothing foretold the approach of day.

It was scarcely two o'clock in the morning; the owl is the first bird
to announce the approach of the sun, but owls do not proclaim the day
three hours before it breaks. Notwithstanding the perfection of the
imitation, the Mexican hesitated. Soon a second hoot, followed by
a third, dispersed the doubts of Don Fernando; he rose, and thrice
repeated the cry of the water hawk.

A similar cry issued immediately from the opposite bank of the river.

Don Fernando bridled his horse, cast his _zarapé_ over his shoulders,
examined his weapons to ensure their efficacy, flung himself into the
saddle without touching stirrup, and crossed the river.

A short distance in front of him lay an islet, covered with poplars
and cotton trees, towards which he bent his steps. The approach to
the islet was easy; the horse, recruited by his two hours' rest, swam
strongly, and touched the ground nearly in a straight line from the
spot where he had plunged in.

Scarcely had the Mexican reached the land, when a rider emerged from
the thicket, and halting some twenty paces off, exclaimed, in a loud
voice, and an accent of great discontent:

"You were late in replying to my signal. I was on the point of leaving."

"Perhaps it would have been better had you done so," sharply replied
Don Fernando.

"Aha!" said the other mockingly, "Does the wind blow from that quarter?"

"Never mind whence it blows, if I do not sail before it. I am here;
what do you want with me? Be short; for I have no time to give you."

"_¡Vive Dios!_ Something very interesting must entice you to the place
whence you came, if you are so anxious to be there again."

"Listen, Tigercat," roundly and sharply replied the Mexican; "if you
have summoned me here so urgently merely to chafe and laugh at me, it
is useless to stay longer; so, adieu!"

As he said this, Don Fernando turned as if to retire and quit the
island.

The Tigercat--for his interlocutor was no other than that extraordinary
personage--quickly seized a pistol, and cocked it.

"_¡Rayo de Dios!_" said he; "if you stir a foot, I will blow your
brains out!"

"Pooh!" replied the other, with a sneer; "What should I be doing in the
meanwhile? A truce to threats, or I kill you like a dog."

With action as prompt as the Tigercat's, he too had drawn a pistol,
cocked, and presented it at his opponent.

"You would not dare to do it."

"You know I dare all," said the Mexican.

"We have lost time enough; let us proceed to business," said the old
man, alighting from his horse.

"Well, let us proceed to business. What is it you want with me?"
replied Don Fernando, also dismounting.

"Why have you deceived and turned against me, instead of serving me, as
you are bound?"

"I was bound to nothing with you; on the contrary, I roundly refused
the mission which you persisted in forcing upon me."

"Could you not have remained neuter, and allowed these people to fall
into my hands again?"

"No; my honour compelled me to defend them."

"Your honour!" burst out the Tigercat, with a cynical laugh.

The Mexican was confused: he frowned, but recovered himself, and
continued:

"Hospitality is sacred in the prairie; its rights are indefeasible. The
people I guided had placed themselves, of their own accord, under my
protection: to abandon, or refuse to defend them, would have been to
betray them. You yourself would have done as I did."

"It is useless to recur any more to this, or to discuss a deed that is
done. Why did you not return to me?"

"Because I preferred to stay at San Lucar."

"Yes; civilized life is sure to attract you; I can understand that this
double part you are playing, at your own risk and peril, has charms for
you. Don Fernando Carril is received with open arms in the circles of
the highest Mexican society. But believe me, boy, you had better take
heed lest your adventurous spirit lead you into some false steps, from
which not all the courage of Stoneheart could save you."

"I did not come here to listen to sermons."

"True; but it is my duty to read you the sermons you did not come to
hear. As long as I remain in the desert, I will not lose sight of
you for a moment. I know all your doings; I am ignorant of nothing
regarding you."

"And why have you surrounded me with spies?" said Don Fernando
haughtily.

"In order to know if I could still repose the same confidence in you."

"And what have you learned from your spies?"

"Nothing but what is satisfactory; only I insist on knowing how we
stand towards each other."

"Do not your spies make you aware of my slightest doings?"

"Yes, of all that concerns you personally: thus I know you have not yet
ventured to present yourself to Don Pedro de Luna;" and he sneered.

"True; but I intend to see him tomorrow."

The Tigercat shrugged his shoulders in disdain.

"Let us speak of more serious matters," said he. "How do we stand?"

"I have followed your instructions in everything. For two years, since
the time I first made my appearance in San Lucar, I have lost no single
opportunity of forming connections, which will, I hope be of service to
you later on. Although my appearance at the _pueblo_ is rare, and my
visits are short, I still think I have attained the object you proposed
to yourself when you gave me my orders. The mystery with which I
surround myself has been of more use to me than I dared to hope. I have
attached to myself the greater number of the _vaqueros_ and _leperos_
in the _presidio_--gallows birds, but I can count upon them; they are
devoted to me. These fellows only know me as Don Fernando Carril."

"Ah, I know all that," said the Tigercat.

"You do?" said the Mexican, looking at the old man with a glance of
anger.

"Have I not told you I never left you out of my sight?"

"Yes--as far as my personal affairs are concerned."

"Well, the hour is come to gather the harvest we have sown among these
villains. They will serve me better against their countrymen than
the redskins in whom I dare not place perfect confidence. They are
acquainted with Spanish tactics, and accustomed to firearms. Now that
your part with the _pícaros_ is over, I shall begin to play mine. I
must enter into direct relation with them."

"As you please; I thank you for releasing me from the responsibility
of an affair the object of which you have never thought fit to confide
to me. I shall be glad to procure you the means of treating personally
with the rascals I have engaged in your service."

"I understand your longings to be free, and approve them the more,
since it was I who first inspired you with the wish to become better
acquainted with the charming daughter of Don Pedro de Luna."

"Not a word of her," said Don Fernando fiercely. "If, up to the present
time, I have consented to be guided by you, and to obey your orders
without discussing them, the time has now come to place the question
clearly and categorically before us, so that no misunderstanding may
arise between us in the future. It is this reason alone which had
weight enough to bring me tonight in answer to your summons."

The Tigercat looked at the Mexican long and fixedly; then he replied:

"Speak, then, madman, who do not see the gulf which yawns at your feet:
speak; I listen."

Don Fernando remained some time lost in thought, leaning against the
knotted trunk of a poplar, and with his eyes cast on the ground.

"Tigercat," said he at length, "I know not who you are, nor the motives
which have induced you to renounce civilisation, to take refuge in
the desert, and adopt the life of the Indian; I do not wish to know
them. Every man is responsible for his own actions, and must render an
account of them to his own conscience. As to myself, never has a word
from your mouth taught me in what place I was born, or to what family
I belong. Although you brought me up--although, as far back as my
memory carries me, I have seen no one belonging to me but yourself--yet
I cannot think you are my father. Had I been your son, or even only
a distant relative, it is evident my training would have been widely
different to that which I received at your express commands."

"What are those words your bold lips utter?--How dare you venture
to fling reproaches at me?" said the old man, bursting into a fit of
passion.

"Interrupt me not, Tigercat; let me open my thoughts to you entirely,"
sadly replied the Mexican. "I do not reproach you; but from the time
when, under the name of Don Fernando Carril, you forced me into the
whirl of civilised life, in spite of myself, and no doubt in spite of
you, I have learned two things, and my eyes have been opened. I have
comprehended the meaning of two words, the significance of which was
unknown to me till then. These two words have changed not only my
character, but the light in which I used to look at things; for, with a
purpose I cannot divine, you applied yourself from my infancy to foster
every evil sentiment germinating within me, while you carefully stifled
the few good qualities which my heart might haply have possessed, had
it not been for the system you adopted. In a word, I have now arrived
at the knowledge of good and evil. I know all your efforts have been
exerted to make me a human wild beast. Have you succeeded? The future
shall show. To judge by the feelings that are surging in my heart
while I speak to you, you have not reached the result you aimed at;
be that as it may, I am no longer your slave. I have served too long
as the instrument in your hands of deeds whose aim I cannot see. You
have yourself taught me that family bonds do not exist in nature;
that they are absurd prejudices, trammels invented by civilisation;
that no man has a right to impose his will as law on others; that the
real man is he who walks free through life, unincumbered by relation
or friend, recognising no master but his own desires. Well, then, I
will now put in practice these precepts you have so long and steadily
inculcated. What matters to me whether I be Don Fernando Carril, or
Stoneheart the Bee-hunter? Following the law laid down by yourself, and
elevating ingratitude into a virtue, I take back my own free liberty
and independence of you, recognising no claim of yours to influence my
life for good or for evil, and assuming from henceforth the right to
walk after my own impulses, whatever may happen in consequence of my
resolve."

"Go, my child," said the Tigercat, with his mocking sneer; "go, act as
you think fit; but, in spite of all your efforts, you will soon come
back to me; for say what you will, you belong to me, and will soon
know it. But it does not rouse my ire to hear you speak thus; it is
not you who speak--it is love. I am very old, Fernando, but not so old
as to have lost all recollections of my youth. Love has mastered your
heart; when he has utterly burnt it up, you will return to the desert;
for then you will have learnt what that life is into which you, poor,
ignorant child, are just plunging. You will have learnt that life in
this world is but a feather blown hither and thither by every varying
breeze; and that at the breath of love, the man who thinks himself the
strongest becomes more feeble than the weakest and most wretched of
created beings. But let us break off: it is your will to be free; be
so. First of all, however, you have to render me an account of the
mission with which I charged you."

"I will do so. Present yourself to the _vaqueros_ in my name; this
diamond"--and he drew one from his finger--"will be your passport. They
have been warned: show it to them, and they will obey you as they would
myself."

"Where do these men meet?"

"You will find most of them at a low _pulquería_ in the new Pueblo de
San Lucar. But do you really intend to venture within the _presidio?_"

"Assuredly. Now, one word more: can I count upon you when the hour for
action arrives?"

"You can, if what you purpose is right."

"Aha! You are already beginning to impose conditions."

"Have I not told you so?--Or shall I remain neuter?"

"No; I have need of you. You will, I suppose, inhabit the house you
bought? Every day a trusty person shall inform you of the course of
events; and when the proper moment comes, I know you will be with me."

"Perhaps I may; but happen what will, do not depend too much upon it."

"I do depend upon it, nevertheless, and I will tell you why. At present
you are under the impulse of love, and naturally your reasoning
succumbs to the influence of the passion that masters you. But before
a month is over, see what will inevitably happen. Either you will
succeed,--and satiety, following on the heels of sated passion, will
make you glad to return to the wilderness,--or you will fail, and
jealousy and wounded pride will inspire the lust for vengeance, and you
will seize with joy the opportunity I shall offer you to glut it."

"I see clearly that very shortly we shall not understand each other at
all," said the Mexican with a melancholy smile. "You always reason from
your evil passions, so great is your hatred of men, and the contempt
you feel for the human race; while I only listen to my good feelings,
and suffer myself to be guided by them."

"Well, well, child; I give you a month to finish your caterwauling.
That time passed, we will resume our conversation. Adieu."

"Adieu. Are you bound for the _presidio?_"

"No; I return to my village, where, too, I have a little matter of
business; for, unless I am mistaken, curious things have happened since
I left it."

"Do you dread a revolt there against your power?"

"I do not dread, I wish it," was the enigmatical answer.

The old man then bid the Mexican farewell, mounted his horse, and rode
into the thicket.

Don Fernando stood there some time, plunged in serious thought,
listening mechanically to the sound of the horse's hoofs as they died
away in the distance. When he could no longer hear them, he turned his
head in the direction Tigercat had taken.

"Go," said he hoarsely; "go, savage, in the belief that I have not
discovered your project. I will dig a mine under your feet to explode
and crush you. I will foil your attempt. I would dare more than man
dares to baffle your machinations. It is three o'clock," he continued,
after looking at the sky, from which the stars were fading out; "I
shall have time."

He called his horse and mounted, took the direction of Don Estevan's
_rancho_, and recommenced his headlong course across the wilderness.

The horse, fresh from his long rest, stretched himself out freely; and
daylight was just beginning to appear when they reached the _rancho._

Don Fernando gave a sigh of satisfaction. All was quiet about the
dwelling; all the inhabitants seemed wrapped in repose. The secret of
his nocturnal excursion was safe.

He unsaddled his horse, groomed him carefully,--so as to leave no signs
of his ride,--and led him to the _corral_, where he carefully divested
his hoofs of the pieces of sheepskin, turned him in, closed the door,
and softly returned to the zaguán.

Just as he was about to climb into his hammock, he observed a man, who,
leaning against the doorpost with his legs crossed, was calmly smoking
his _pajillo._

Don Fernando recoiled on recognising his host; it was, in fact, Estevan
Diaz.

The latter, without the slightest semblance of surprise, took the
cigarette from his mouth, blew out an enormous mouthful of smoke, and
addressed his guest in a tone of the most polished courtesy.

"You must be greatly fatigued with your long ride tonight, _caballero._
Will you have anything to restore you?"

Don Fernando, horrified at the coolness with which this was uttered,
hesitated for a moment.

"How am I to understand you, _caballero?_" said he.

"How?" said the other. "Pooh! What is the use of dissembling? I assure
you, it is useless to attempt to blind me: I know all."

"You know all! What do you know?" replied the Mexican, anxious to
ascertain how far Don Estevan was acquainted with what had occurred.

"I know," replied the _major-domo_, "that you rose, that you saddled
your horse, and that you went to meet one of your friends who was
waiting for you at the Isle de los Pavos."

"What!" cried Don Fernando, scarcely repressing his rage; "You dared to
follow me?"

"_¡Vive Dios!_ I should think so; it is my way of thinking to fancy
that a man who has been all day long on horseback does not take
another ride through the whole of the following night for mere
pleasure, particularly in a country like this, which, dangerous enough
by daylight, is doubly so when night has fallen. Moreover, I am
inquisitive by nature--"

"You are a spy!" broke in Don Fernando, in a fury.

"Fie, _caballero!_ What a strange expression you use! I a spy! No,
no; only as the simplest way of learning what I wanted to know was to
listen, I listened."

"Then you were present at the conversation on the Isle de los Pavos?"

"I will not deny it, caballero; indeed, I was very close to you."

"And heard everything that was said there?"

"To be sure; yes, very nearly all," replied Don Estevan, still smiling.

Don Fernando threw himself upon the _major-domo_, but was stopped by
him with a strength the former hardly expected to meet with.

Don Estevan continued, in the same placid tone in which he had hitherto
spoken:

"_¡Cuerpo de Cristo!_ you are my guest. Wait a little; we shall have
time to finish this matter here, after, if it must be."

The Mexican, overwhelmed by these words, stepped back from him, crossed
his arms, and, looking him full in the face, replied, "I will wait."



CHAPTER XIV.

DON ESTEVAN DIAZ.


For some little time the two men stood thus face to face, looking at
each other with the dogged resolution of two duellists who are watching
an opportunity to close.

The eyes of Don Estevan, whose face was in other respects impassive,
betrayed a sorrow which he could not dissemble.

Don Fernando, with folded arms, his head erect, his forehead frowning,
and his lips livid with the fury that boiled within him, waited for the
words that were to fall from Don Estevan's mouth, in order to decide
whether he should attack him at once, or pretend to be satisfied with
the excuses the latter would probably utter.

By degrees the darkness had become less palpable: the sky decked itself
in iris colours, the horizon grew red, the sun, although not yet
visible, gave tokens that it would not be long ere he rose, to replace
with floods of dazzling light the pale rays of the few stars still
visible in the profound blue of heaven.

A thousand pungent odours rose from the earth; and the morning breeze,
passing over the foliage of the trees, made it tremble and murmur,
while it twisted the mists hanging over the river into the most
fantastic folds.

At length Don Estevan, to whom the pause was becoming as embarrassing
as it was to the other, determined to break the silence.

"I will be frank with you, _caballero_," said he. "I heard everything
that passed in your conversation with the Tigercat; not a word escaped
me. This will show you that I know all, and am aware that Don Fernando
Carril and Stoneheart are one and the same person."

"Yes," said the Mexican, bitterly, "I see you are an excellent spy. You
have chosen a sorry trade, _caballero._"

"Who can tell? Perhaps, before we have finished our conversation, you
may be of a different opinion, señor."

"I doubt it. But allow me to remark, that you have a singular mode of
showing hospitality towards the guests God sends you."

"Let me explain first; then, after you have heard what I have to tell
you, I shall be ready, _caballero_, to give you the satisfaction you
demand--if you still insist on it."

"Speak, then; and let us finish this somehow or other," replied
Don Fernando impatiently. "The sun has already risen; I hear them
moving and talking in the _rancho;_ the people will soon make their
appearance, and hinder, by their presence, any explanation between us."

"You are right; we must settle this; and as I have as little
inclination to be interrupted as you, follow me. What I have to say is
too long to be spoken here."

Don Fernando complied. They entered the corral, and saddled their
horses.

"Now mount and be off," said Don Estevan, as he vaulted into the
saddle; "there is plenty of room for talk in the desert."

The plan proposed was very acceptable to the Mexican, as it gave him
freedom of action, and the means of hurling consummate vengeance at
the head of the _major-domo_, if the latter wished, as he fancied, to
betray him.

It was a splendid morning: a dazzling sun showered down his hot rays in
profusion over the country, making the stones glitter like diamonds;
the birds warbled gaily among the leaves; _vaqueros_ and _peones_ began
to disperse themselves in all directions, urging on to the pasturage
the horses and cattle of the _hacienda;_ the landscape increased in
beauty every moment, and bore a smiling aspect, very different to the
one it wore under the terrors of darkness.

The two men rode on for an hour, when they came to a half-ruined and
uninhabited _rancho_, which, covered with climbing plants, and almost
hidden under their leaves and flowers, offered an excellent refuge
from the heat; for, though the day was still young, the sultriness of
the air was overpowering.

"Let us stop here," said Don Estevan, breaking silence for the first
time since they left his home; "we shall scarcely find a fitter place."

"Stop, if it suits you," said Don Fernando, carelessly; "to me all
places are alike, provided you give me the explanation I demand; only,
let it be short and frank."

"Frank it shall be, I give you my honour; short I cannot say, for I
have a long and sad tale to relate."

"To me? And for what purpose, pray? Must I hear it? Tell me only--"

"Most surely," said Don Estevan, as he dismounted, "what I have to say
will touch you very nearly. You will shortly see the proof."

Don Fernando shrugged his shoulders, and alighted in his turn.

"You are mad, _Dios me libre_," (God forgive me), said he. "Since
you overheard our conversation so clearly, you must know that I am
a foreigner, and anything that occurs in this country can be but of
slight importance to me."

"_¿Quién sabe?_" (Who can tell?) replied Don Estevan, sententiously,
throwing himself on the floor of the _rancho_ with great content.

Don Fernando followed his example, his curiosity beginning to get the
better of him.

When the two men were comfortably stretched opposite each other, Don
Estevan turned his face to the Mexican:

"I am going to talk of Doña Hermosa," said he of a sudden.

Surprised by these words, the Mexican blushed deeply. He tried in vain
to conceal his emotion.

"Ah!" said he in a stifled voice, "Doña Hermosa! You mean the daughter
of Don Luna?"

"The same. In a word, the very girl you saved a few days ago."

"Why recur to that event? Everyone else in my place would have done the
same."

"It may be so. I do not wish to appear sceptical, but I think you are
mistaken there. However, that is not our question. I say, you saved
Doña Hermosa from a frightful death. At the first impulse, yielding to
your feelings of pride, you left her abruptly, determined to return
to the desert, never again to see the face of her who would have
overwhelmed you with gratitude."

Don Fernando, astonished and galled at finding his feelings so well
understood, briskly interrupted the speaker.

"To our business, if it so please you, _caballero_," he said sharply;
"it is better to begin your explanation at once than launch out into
suppositions which may be very ingenious, but have the one fault of
being erroneous."

"Look, Don Fernando," replied the other, "you will try in vain to
lead me on a false trail; so all denial is useless. You are young and
handsome. Passing your life among savages, you are utterly ignorant
of the great key to human passions. You could not see Doña Hermosa
with impunity. As soon as you saw her, your heart trembled; new ideas
developed themselves; and, forgetting all else, despising every other
consideration, you have retained only one object, one desire,--that of
seeing this girl, who appeared to you as a dream, and brought trouble
into a heart so calm before. You have longed to see her, if only for a
minute--for a second."

"You are right," cried Don Fernando, carried away by the force of
truth; "I feel all you describe. I would joyfully give my life to see
but a corner of her _rebozo_ (veil). But why is it so? I seek in vain
to understand it."

"It is what you would never understand if I did not come to
your aid. A man brought up like you, beyond the pale of social
considerations,--whose life as yet has only been one long strife
with the imperious necessity of each day; who has never employed his
physical powers except in the cares of the chase or the struggles of
war,--your moral faculties lay dormant within you; you were ignorant
of their power. Love brought about the transformation, the effects of
which are now confounding you. You love Doña Hermosa."

"Do you think so?" said he simply. "Is this what is called love? In
that case," he added, speaking more to himself than to Don Estevan,
"its pains are cruel."

The latter looked at him with a mingling of pity and sorrow, and
continued:

"I followed you last night because your actions seemed suspicious, and
a vague fear led me to distrust you. Concealed in a bush only a yard or
two from the spot where you were talking to the Tigercat, I overheard
all you said. I changed my opinion of you; I recognised--forgive me if
I speak frankly--that you were better than report would make you, and
that it would be wrong to take you for such a man as the one you spoke
to. The peremptory manner with which you repulsed his insinuations
proved that you have a heart. Upon that I determined to support you in
the strife for which you are preparing against this man, who has ever
been your evil genius, and whose pernicious influence has so malignly
brooded over your youth. These are the reasons why I have spoken thus;
these the reasons why I brought you here for an explanation. Now, here
is my hand; will you take it? It is that of a friend and brother."

Don Fernando rose, and eagerly seizing the hand so frankly held out to
him, pressed it again and again.

"Thanks," said he; "thanks, and forgive me. Truly I am, as you say, a
savage, taking offence at every trifle. I did not recognise your noble
character."

"Do not say a word on that subject. Listen to me: I do not know whence
my idea springs, but I suspect that the Tigercat is the implacable
enemy of Don Pedro de Luna; his purpose is to make you the instrument
of some devilish attempt upon the family at the _hacienda._"

"It is just what I thought myself," said Don Fernando. "The Tigercat's
strange conduct during the time they were his guests, and the deception
practised upon them, which would have been successful but for my
intervention, roused my suspicions. You yourself heard last night the
obloquy he heaped on me. Let him beware."

"Let us not be too precipitate," said Don Estevan; "we cannot be too
prudent. On the contrary, let us leave the Tigercat to develop his
schemes, that we may check them the more readily."

"That, perhaps, would be the better plan. He is going to San Lucar
shortly: it will be easy to watch all his steps and counteract his
projects. Although this man is subtle, and his cunning and knavery
astute, I swear to God I will be no less wily than he."

"More so, as I shall be in the background to support you, and be at
your side in the hour of need."

"It is Doña Hermosa who must be specially guarded."

"Alas, Don Estevan, how happy you will be in having it in your power to
watch over her hourly."

"Nonsense, my friend; I hope to take you to her in the course of an
hour or two."

"Can such a thing be possible?" cried Don Fernando, rapturously.

"Of course it can; particularly as you ought to be placed on a certain
footing of intimacy with those at the _hacienda_, that we may the
better mislead the Tigercat. Have you forgotten his sarcasms and
insinuations apropos of the love he fancies you feel for the charming
girl,--the love he boasts of having instigated himself, by throwing her
into your way without your suspecting it?"

"True; the man has certainly some hideous project concerning her."

"Be not alarmed; with God's help, we will checkmate him. Now, two words
more. Do you really believe this wretch to be your father? The question
is one of more importance than you imagine."

Don Fernando became restless; his forehead clouded over with thought;
he remained some time in profound meditation. At last he raised his hat
and replied:

"I have often asked myself the question you have propounded without
ever coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, I am almost
certain he is not my father; I cannot be his son. His conduct towards
me, the cruel care with which he inspired me with thoughts of evil,
and developed in me all the bad instincts of nature,--prove to me that,
if any relationship exists between us, it can only be a distant one.
It is not to be imagined that a father could take absolute pleasure in
thus perverting his own son. Nature revolts so utterly against such a
proposition, that the mind cannot accept it. On the other hand, I have
always felt for this man a secret repulsion and invincible dislike
approaching to hatred. This repulsion increased instead of diminishing
with time, a rapture became daily more imminent, and only a pretext was
wanting to bring it about. This pretext has been unconsciously found
by the Tigercat; and now I am hugging myself with joy at finding my
freedom restored, and myself eased of the heavy burden of subjection
which weighed me down so long."

"I am quite of your opinion; the man cannot be your father. We shall
shortly find that we are right in our conviction; and this moral
certainty will allow us to take any measures we please to counteract
and foil his machinations."

"In what way do you intend to introduce me to Doña Hermosa, my friend?"

"I will tell you directly. But first I must relate a long and mournful
tale, requisite for you to know in all its details, lest, in your
intercourse with Don Pedro, you should unwittingly touch upon a wound
still secretly bleeding in his heart. This dark and mysterious affair
happened long ago. I was hardly born at the time of its occurrence;
yet my mother has so often told me the details, that they present
themselves to my memory as if I had been an actor in the terrible
drama. Listen attentively, my good friend. Who knows whether God,
who has inspired me with the wish to tell you the tale, may not have
reserved for you the elucidation of its mysteries."

"Does this tale relate to Doña Hermosa?"

"Indirectly it does. Doña Hermosa was not born at the time, and her
father did not inhabit the _hacienda_, which he purchased subsequently.
At that time the family lived in retirement at a town in the Banda
Oriental; for you must know that Don Pedro de Luna is not a Mexican,
and the name by which you know him is not his; at least he has only
adopted it, the name belonging to the original branch of his family in
Mexico. He did not assume it till after the occurrence of the events
I am about to relate, when he came to settle here, having bought Las
Norias de San Antonio from his relations, who, established for many
years in Mexico, only occasionally, and at long intervals, paid a visit
of a few days to this distant _hacienda._ The people at San Lucar, and
the other inhabitants of the province, knowing Don Pedro de Luna under
no other name, imagined it was really that person who had chosen to
retire to his estate. My master, when he came here, cared the less to
disabuse them, as, when he bought the _hacienda_, he had stipulated
with his relations for the right to bear their name. The latter
naturally found nothing extraordinary in this; and now that, after
a lapse of twenty years, Don Pedro, by the death of his relations,
has become the head of the family, this borrowed name has become
effectually his own, and none can dispute his right to bear it."

"You excite my curiosity to the utmost; and I wait with impatience for
the beginning of your tale."

The two men seated themselves as comfortably as they could in the
_rancho;_ and Don Estevan Diaz, without farther digression, commenced
his long-deferred story. He spoke the whole day long, and when night
fell was still speaking.

Don Fernando, his eyes eagerly fixed on the narrator, his heart
palpitating, and his eyebrows compressed, listened with liveliest
interest to the tale, the strange events of which, as they were
unrolled before him, made him shudder with emotions of mingled rage and
horror.

Taking Don Estevan's place, we will ourselves recount to the reader
this mournful history.



CHAPTER XV.

DON GUZMAN DE RIBERA.


In the year 1515 Juan Diaz de Solis discovered the Rio de la Plata,--a
discovery which cost him his life.

According to Herrera, this river to which Solis had first given his own
name, took the one it now bears from the fact that the first silver
brought from America was shipped at this point for Spain.

In 1535 Don Pedro de Mendoza, appointed _adelantado_, or governor
general, of the country between the Rio de la Plata and the Straits of
Magellan, founded on the right bank of the river, opposite the mouth
of the Uruguay, a town called at first Nuestra Señora de Buenos Aires;
later, La Trinidad de Buenos Aires; and finally, Buenos Aires,--a name
it has since retained.

The history of this town would be a curious study, full of interesting
particulars, as from its earliest days it seems stamped with the seal
of fatality.

One should read, in the narrative of Ulrich Schmidel, a German
adventurer, and one of the original founders of Buenos Aires, to what
depths of misery the wretched conquerors of the country were reduced:
how they were constrained by famine to devour the dead bodies of their
companions, who had been killed by the Corendian Indians, whom their
exactions and cruelties had driven to exasperation; and who, believing
the white men who had landed amongst them in such an extraordinary way
to be evil genii, had sworn their extermination.

The destiny of this town is a singular one, condemned, as it has been,
to an unceasing strife, sometimes with enemies from without, at others,
with more formidable foes from within; and which, in spite of these
ceaseless struggles, is still one of the richest and most flourishing
cities of Spanish America.

Like all the towns founded by the Castilian adventurers in the New
World, Buenos Aires is placed in a lovely situation. Its streets are
broad, laid out by rule and line; the houses are well built, with a
garden to each, thus affording a pleasant prospect. It contains many
public buildings, among which we may name the Bazaar de la Recoba. At
intervals vast squares occur, well furnished with magnificent shops,
which give it an appearance of life and prosperity unhappily too rare
in this unfortunate country, so long distracted by civil wars.

Taking an immense leap backwards, we will now introduce our readers
to Buenos Aires at a time about twenty years previous to the period
to which our story belongs. It is ten o'clock in the night of one of
the last; days of September 1839, _i.e._ at the time the tyranny of
that extraordinary man who, for twenty years, subjected the Argentine
provinces to a yoke of iron, had reached its climax.

Nobody in these days could imagine the hideous tyranny which the
Government of Rosas inflicted on this beautiful country, nor the
frightful system of terrorism organized by the Dictator from one
extremity to the other of the Banda Oriental.

Although it was only ten o'clock, as we said above, a deathlike silence
hovered over the town. All the shops were shut, all the streets dark
and deserted, save when, at long intervals, they were traversed by
strong patrols, whose heavy footsteps resounded on the pavement; or
by a few solitary _serenos_ (watchmen), who, in fear and trembling,
shambled through their duty as guardians of the night.

The inhabitants, shut up in their dwellings, had timidly extinguished
their lights, for fear of exciting the suspicions of a police ever
ready to take offence, and had sought a temporary refuge in slumber
from the evils of the day.

On this particular night Buenos Aires was more desolate-looking than
usual. The wind had blown, in a storm from the Pampas during the whole
of the day, and filled the atmosphere with an icy chill. Large vivid
clouds, laden with electricity, were moving heavily through the sky;
and the hoarse rumbling of distant thunder, and the nearer and nearer
approaching flashes of lightning, gave warning that a fearful storm
was on the point of breaking over the city.

Nearly in the centre of the Calle Santa Trinidad, one of the finest
streets in the city, which it traverses almost from end to end, a
feeble light, placed behind the muslin curtain of a window on the
ground floor, twinkled, like a star in a dark sky, through the tufted
branches of some trees planted in front of a noble mansion.

This light seemed to be a blot upon the universal obscurity; for every
patrol that passed, every _sereno_ whom chance brought to the spot,
could not refrain from pausing, and observing it with an expression
of anger and ill-dissembled fear: after which they would resume their
march, the soldiers growling, in a tone of ill humour boding no good:

"There is that traitor, Don Guzman de Ribera, hatching some new
conspiracy against his Excellency the Dictator."

The others saying, in a tone of subdued pity:

"Don Guzman will go on till he gets himself arrested some day."

It is into this house, and into the room itself where the light is
shining, which gave rise to so many surmises, that we will introduce
our readers.

After having crossed the garden and cleared the _zaguán_, we find on
our right hand a massive door of walnut, fastened simply by a latch,
on lifting which we enter a large room, well lighted by three windows
opening on the street.

The furniture of this apartment was of the greatest simplicity. The
whitewashed walls were decorated with a few of those abominable
coloured prints which the trade of Paris has exported into all regions
of the globe, and which are supposed to represent the death of
Poniatowski, the seasons, &c. The inevitable Soufleto's piano--which
in all Spanish-American houses one sees thrust forward into the most
conspicuous place, but which is happily beginning to be replaced by the
Alexandre harmonium--a dozen chairs, a round table covered with a green
cloth, two armchairs, and a clock with alabaster columns, on a pier
table, completed the inventory.

In this room a man, dressed in a travelling costume, with _poncho_
(cloak) and _polenas_ (boots), was striding up and down, casting
impatient and restless looks at the clock every time he passed the
table.

Sometimes he paused, lifted the curtain of a window, and tried to
pierce the obscurity of night and see into the street; but in vain; the
darkness was too great for him to distinguish objects. Sometimes he
listened attentively, as if amongst the noises of the town the breeze
had brought him the distant echo of a sound significant to him; then
he resumed, with a gesture of ill humour and increasing agitation, the
walk he had so often interrupted.

This man was Don Guzman de Ribera.

Belonging to one of the best families in the country, and descending
in a direct line from the first conquerors, Don Guzman, when still
very young, had served a rude apprenticeship in arms under his father.
During the war of independence, as aide-de-camp to San Martin, he had
followed that general when he crossed the Cordilleras at the head of
his army, and revolutionised Chili and Peru.

Since that period he had served continually, sometimes under one chief,
sometimes under another; always striving, to the best of his ability,
to avoid ranging himself under a flag hostile to the true interests
of his country--a difficult task amidst those perpetual convulsions
caused by the petty ambition of men without real importance, who were
contending for power amongst themselves. Nevertheless, thanks to his
dexterity, and still more to the uprightness of his character, Don
Guzman had managed to keep himself stainless: yet two years previously,
suspected by Rosas, to whom his ideas of true liberality were odious,
he had retired from the service, and settled himself at home.

Don Guzman, a true soldier in the most honourable acceptation of the
word, although never ostensibly meddling with politics, was greatly
dreaded by the Dictator, on account of the influence his loyal and
resolute character gave him over his countrymen, who felt for him
a sympathy so profound, and a devotedness so complete, that more
than once General Rosas, a man of few scruples, had been forced to
relinquish the idea of ridding himself, by exile or worse means, of a
man whose seclusion and noble pride seemed to cast a shadow over the
actions of the Dictator.

At the moment we bring him before our readers, Don Guzman had just
reached his fortieth year; but notwithstanding the countless fatigues
he had undergone, and which had only hardened him, age seemed to have
taken no hold of his vigorous organism.

His tall and muscular figure was as upright, the expression of his
face as full of calm intelligence, his eye as brilliant as ever. A few
silver threads among his hair, and one or two wrinkles, written on his
forehead more by thought than by time, were the only signs that he had
already attained middle age.

The clock had struck half past ten some minutes ago, when several rude
blows were struck on the door, making Don Guzman tremble.

He stopped and listened.

A lively altercation appeared to be taking place under the _zaguán_
of the house. Unfortunately, the room being too far from the porch,
Don Guzman could only hear a confused uproar, without being able to
distinguish the sounds. But in a short time the noise ceased, the door
of the room was opened, and a domestic entered. We must suppose him to
be a confidential servant, judging by the manner in which his master
spoke to him.

"Well, Diego, what is it? What is the meaning of all this noise at such
an hour?"

The servant approached his master before he answered, and bowing,
whispered in his ear: "Don Diego Pedrosa."

"He!" said the master, frowning. "Is he alone?"

"I do not think he has more than two or three soldiers with him."

"Which means," said Don Guzman, looking more and more gloomy--

"That he has another score or two concealed close at hand."

"What does the man want with me? It is hardly the hour for a visit.
Don Bernardo is scarcely so intimate with me," he added, with a bitter
smile, "that he would act with so little ceremony towards me without an
urgent reason."

"Exactly what I did myself the honour to remark to him, your
Excellency."

"And he persists?"

"Yes, Excellency. He tells me he has business of the utmost importance
to communicate."

Don Guzman strode up and down with a pensive air.

"Listen, Diego," said he, at last; "see that the servants arm
themselves quietly, and be ready at the first signal; but act
prudently, so as to avoid suspicion."

"Trust me, Excellency," said the old servitor, with a smile of
intelligence.

For thirty years Diego had been in the service of the Ribera family;
many a time had he given his master proof of his boundless attachment.

"Ah, well," replied Don Guzman good humouredly; "I know pretty well
what you can do."

"And the horses?" continued the servant.

"Let them stay where they are."

"Even if we are to be off directly?" said Diego, in amazement.

"We shall be off so much the sooner, _muchacho_," said the don,
whispering to his servant, "if they do not think we have seen their
trap and are about to throw dust in their eyes."

Diego nodded.

"And Don Bernardo?" he asked.

"Admit him. I had rather know the worst at once."

"Is it quite prudent for your Excellency to see this man alone?"

"No fear, Diego; he is not so terrible as you think. Are my pistols in
my _poncho?_"

The old servant, probably tranquillised by these words, left the room
without replying; but returned almost immediately, showing in a man
of about thirty, dressed in the uniform of a staff officer of the
Argentine army.

At sight of the stranger, Don Guzman smiled pleasantly, and advancing
a few steps towards him, said:

"You are welcome, Colonel Pedrosa"--he made a sign to Diego to
retire--"although the hour is rather late for a visit. I am delighted
to see you. Pray be seated."

"Your Excellency will excuse me, on account of the business which
brings me here," replied the colonel, with a polished bow.

Here Diego, obeying the reiterated signs of his master, left the room,
although much against his will.

The two men, seated face to face, looked at each other much like two
duellists about to cross their blades.

Don Diego was a handsome man, of slender and upright figure, all
whose movements betrayed his noble birth, and were marked by the most
consummate elegance.

His face, a perfect oval, was embellished by two large black and
sparkling eyes, from which, when he grew excited, fire seemed to flash,
possessing an electric power so potent, that few could support their
dazzling effulgence. His straight nose, with its open and flexible
nostrils; his well-formed mouth, with its astute and sarcastic outline,
and its set of brilliant teeth, surmounted by an ebon and well-trimmed
moustache; his open forehead, and his complexion slightly tanned by
exposure to the sun,--gave to his face, which was encircled by long
silky curls of magnificent black hair,--a haughty and commanding
expression, inspiring an instinctive repulsion by its frigid energy.

His bands, ensconced in admirably fitting gloves, and his varnished
boots, were of wonderfully small size,--in fact, his whole person was a
type of his race.

Such was the personage who, at eleven o'clock at night, knocked at
Don Guzman's door, and insisted on admittance, under the pretext of
important business. As for his moral qualities, the progress of our
story will exhibit them so perfectly, that it would be useless to enter
into the details at present.

However, as the silence between these two personages threatened to
prolong itself indefinitely, Don Guzman, in his quality of host,
thought it incumbent on him to put an end to a situation which began to
be embarrassing to both; so he broke it.

Bowing with courtesy, he said:

"_Caballero_, I am waiting for what you may please to communicate to
me. It grows late."

"Aha! You wish to get rid of me," said the colonel, with a sardonic
smile. "Is that what you wish me to understand?"

"It is always my aim to make my speech so clear and open, colonel,
that there may be no possibility of my words bearing a double
interpretation."

Don Bernardo's cheeks, which had flushed up when Don Guzman spoke,
resumed their natural colour, and assuming a tone of pleasantry, he
said:

"Look you, Don Guzman; we will put away all idea of sparring with each
other. I have a great desire to serve you."

"Me!" said Don Guzman, with a look of ironical amazement; "Are you
quite sure of that?"

"If we continue in this strain, _caballero_, we shall only envenom our
discussion, without coming to an understanding."

"Alas, colonel, we live in an era (and you know it better than most
men) in which the most innocent actions are so often made to look
like guilt, that no one dares to take a step or hazard a word without
dreading to excite the suspicions of a power that broods darkly over us
all. How can I put faith in the words you have just spoken, when your
whole conduct towards me has hitherto been that of an inveterate enemy?"

"Allow me to waive for the present the discussion of the question
whether I have acted for or in opposition to your interests. The day
will come, _caballero_--at least I hope so--when you will judge me
according to my deserts. My present hope is, that you will lay aside
all prejudice as regards the step I am now taking."

"If that be the case, have the goodness to explain your intentions,
that I may act accordingly."

"Certainly, _caballero._ I have just left Palermo."

"Palermo, indeed!" said Don Guzman, shuddering imperceptibly.

"I have; and do you know what they are doing at Palermo tonight?"

"By my faith, I confess I trouble myself very little about the
Dictator, especially when he is busy at his _quinta_ (country house).
They are dancing, or otherwise amusing themselves there, I suppose?"

"Quite right: they are dancing and amusing themselves."

"By heavens!" said the other, "I did not think I was so good a diviner."

"Well, you have guessed a part of their occupation, but not the whole."

"The devil! You puzzle one," replied Don Guzman laughing sardonically.
"I do not see too clearly what his Excellency can have to do beyond
dancing, unless he amuses himself with signing warrants against the
suspected. His Excellency is endowed with great capabilities for
business."

"This time you have divined the whole, _caballero_," said the colonel,
without appearing to notice the ironical tone of the speaker.

"And amongst these warrants there is, I dare say, one which concerns me
more particularly."

"Precisely so," replied the colonel, with a bland smile.

"Very good. What follows is quite simple: you are charged to put it in
execution."

"Just so," said the colonel coolly.

"I would have laid a hundred to one on it! And this warrants enjoins
you--"

"To put you under arrest, _caballero._"

No sooner had the colonel uttered these words with the most charming
indifference, than Don Guzman was standing before him, a pistol in each
hand.

"By heavens!" said he resolutely, "Such an order is easier given than
executed when the person to be arrested is Don Guzman de Ribera!"

The colonel had not stirred; he had remained lounging in his armchair,
in the attitude of a man quite at home with his host. He made a sign to
the _caballero_ to be seated again.

"You are quite mistaken," said he coolly. "Nothing would have been
easier for me than to execute the warrant, if I had any intention to
carry it out, especially as you yourself have furnished me with the
means."

"I!" said Don Guzman.

"Yourself: you are a resolute man; you would have resisted it, as you
have just proved. Now, what would have happened? I should have killed
you. General Rosas, in spite of the interest he feels for you, has not
absolutely ordered me to take you alive."

The reasoning was brutal, but perfectly logical. Don Guzman bowed his
head: he felt he was in this man's power.

"Nevertheless, you are my foe," he said.

"¿Quién sabe?" (who can tell?) "Señor, in times such as we live in, no
one can say who is friend or who is foe."

"But finally, what are your intentions?" exclaimed Don Guzman, in a
state of nervous excitement, increased by the necessity of dissembling
the fury that was raging in his mind.

"I will tell you; but I beg you will not interrupt me. We have
already lost much time--which is valuable just now, more especially
to yourself, as you ought to know. At the very moment when I came to
disturb you, you were giving orders to your confidential servant Diego
to get ready your horses."

"Indeed!" said Don Guzman.

"It is the fact. You were only deferring your flight till the arrival
of a certain _guacho_" (Mexican inhabitant of the prairies) "to guide
you through the Pampas."

"Do you know that too?"

"We know everything. As for the rest, judge for yourself. Your brother,
Don Leoncio de Ribera, a refugee with his family for many years in
Chili, is to arrive this very night within a few leagues of Buenos
Aires. You have been advised of his coming for some days. It was your
intention to repair to the Hacienda del Pico, where he was to expect
you; then to introduce him surreptitiously into the city, where you
have prepared what you fancied would be a safe hiding place for him. Is
this the whole, or have I forgotten any minor particulars?"

Don Guzman covered his face with his hands, discouraged,
thunderstricken by what he had just heard.

A horrible gulf yawned before his eyes. If Rosas was master of his
secret--and that he was, the revelations of the colonel left no room to
doubt--his death and that of his brother had been sworn by the ruthless
Dictator. Hope would have been a folly.

"Good God!" cried he; "My brother--my poor brother!"

The colonel seemed to enjoy for a moment the effect produced by his
words; then he resumed, in a quiet and insinuating manner:

"Calm yourself, Don Guzman; all is not yet lost. The details I have
mentioned, and which you thought such a profound secret, are known to
me alone. The order for your arrest does not come into execution before
sunrise tomorrow. The stop I have taken should prove to you that I have
no wish to make an unfair use of the advantage chance has placed in my
hands."

"But again I say, What is your intention? In the name of the devil,
what are you?"

"What am I?--Your enemy. My intention?--To save you."

Don Guzman did not reply. A prey to the most violent emotion, his
whole body trembled with agitation. The colonel shrugged his shoulders
impatiently.

"Let us understand each other," said he. "You wait in vain for the
_guacho_ on whom you reckoned: he is dead."

"Dead!" cried Don Guzman, struck with astonishment.

"The man," continued Don Bernardo, "was a traitor. He had hardly
entered Buenos Aires, before he attempted to make money by the sale of
the secret confided to him by your brother. Chance would have it that
he should apply to me, in preference to anyone else, on account of the
hatred I seemed to entertain for your family."

"That you seemed to entertain!" bitterly repeated Don Guzman.

"Yes, that I seemed to entertain," Don Bernardo went on, laying great
stress upon the words. "In short, this man revealed everything. I paid
him well, and let him go."

"What an imprudence!" exclaimed Don Guzman, highly interested.

"Was it not?" said the colonel quickly. "But what could I do? For the
first moment I was so thunderstruck by the news, that I did not think
of detaining the fellow. I was on the point of sending in search of
him, when I heard an uproar in the street. I inquired the cause; I
confess I was not quite satisfied with what was told me. It appears
that the fool had hardly put foot in the street before he began to
quarrel with another _pícaro_ of his own kind; that the latter, in a
fit of impatience, had given him a _navaja_" (a cut with the knife)
"across his belly, and, luckily for you, killed him outright. It is
miraculous, is it not?"

The colonel had related this strange tale with the same negligent
indifference he had exhibited during the whole meeting, and which he
had not dropped for an instant. Don Guzman cast a penetrating glance at
him, which he bore with the greatest unconcern. Then all irresolution
seemed to vanish. He raised himself to his full height, and made a
courteous inclination to Don Bernardo.

"Excuse me, colonel," said he fervently, "for having mistaken your
character; but up to this day everything seemed to justify my conduct;
only, in the name of Heaven, if you are my foe--if you have a hate to
satisfy--take your revenge on me--on me alone--and spare my brother,
against whom you can have no cause for animosity."

Don Bernardo frowned, but replied quickly:

"_Caballero_, order your servants to bring round your horses; I myself
will escort you out of the city. You could not possibly quit it without
me; you are so thoroughly surrounded by spies. You have nothing to fear
from the men who are with me; they are trusty and faithful, and I chose
them on purpose. Besides, they shall leave us a few paces hence."

Don Guzman hesitated for a while. He watched Don Bernardo with anxious
eyes. At last he seemed to have formed his resolve; for he rose, and
said, looking the colonel full in the face:

"No; whatever may happen, I will not take your advice."

The colonel suppressed his feeling of dissatisfaction.

"Are you mad?" said he; "Remember--"

Don Guzman interrupted him:

"My decision is made," said he dryly. "I will not leave this room
without a perfect knowledge of the reason of this strange conduct on
your part. I have tried to overcome it, but a secret presentiment
assures me that you are still my foe; and if you now utter a feigned
wish to serve me, colonel, it is only with the purpose of carrying out
some diabolical plan against me and mine."

"Beware, _caballero_! When I came here, my purpose was friendly. Your
obstinacy will compel me to break off a colloquy which we can never
resume. I have but one thing to add: whatever the reason for my actions
may be, I have only one wish--to save you. This is the sole explanation
I have the right to give."

"But that will not suffice, _caballero._"

"And why, if it please you?" said the colonel haughtily.

"Because matters have occurred between you and a certain member of my
family which give me a right to look upon any intentions of yours as
hostile."

The colonel trembled; a livid pallor stole over his countenance.

"Indeed!" said he hoarsely. "So you know that, Señor Don Guzman?"

"I will answer you in the exact words in which you replied to me a few
minutes ago; I know all!"

Don Bernardo cast down his eyes, and clenched his hands in concentrated
rage.

There was silence for a time.

Just at this moment a _sereno_ passed through the street, paused close
to the walls of the house, and cried, in a cracked and drunken voice,
the hour of the night:

"_¡Ave, María purísima! Las doce han dado y sereno!_" ("Hail, purest
Mary! Twelve o'clock, and a fine night!")

Then his heavy step was heard as he went on his rounds, until it
gradually died away in the distance.

The two men shuddered, thus suddenly aroused from their preoccupation.

"Midnight already!" muttered Ribera in a tone of mingled regret and
anxiety.

"Let us end this," resolutely exclaimed Don Bernardo. "Since nothing
will convince you of the honesty of my intentions; since you exact from
me revelations which concern myself alone--"

"And one other person," supplied Don Guzman.

"I will admit it," continued the colonel impatiently.

"Well, are you satisfied now? It is solely because I know I shall meet
this person at the Hacienda del Pico, that I wish to accompany you. I
must have an interview. Do you understand me now?"

"Yes; I understand you perfectly."

"Then what are your objections?"

"You are deceiving yourself, _caballero_," answered Don Guzman coolly.

"Oh! This time I swear you are mistaken."

"Then I shall go alone!--That is all."

"Beware, once more!" said the colonel; "My patience is exhausted."

"And mine, colonel! Yes, I repeat, I scorn your threats! Do what you
think fit, _caballero._ God will aid me."

At these words a disdainful smile passed over the lips of the colonel;
he rose, and planted himself before Don Guzman, who was standing in the
middle of the room.

"Are those your last words, señor?" said he.

"The last."

"Your blood be upon your own head! It is you who have willed it so,"
shouted the colonel, casting on him a glance of fury.

And without taking any further notice of his foe, who remained
apparently cold and impassive, he turned to leave the chamber, a prey
to the most violent emotion.

Don Guzman, profiting by this movement of the colonel, dexterously
threw off his _poncho_, cast it over the head of Don Bernardo, muffling
him up in it in such a manner that he was bound and gagged before he
could attempt to defend himself.

"For one trump a higher!" laughed Don Ribera.

"As you are determined to go with me, you shall, but in a different
fashion to what you expected."

For answer, the colonel made a vain but desperate effort to free
himself from his bonds.

"And now for the others!" exclaimed Don Guzman, with a triumphant look
at his enemy, who was rolling on the floor in a paroxysm of impotent
rage.

Five minutes later, the few soldiers who had been left in the _zaguán_
were disarmed by the servants, bound with cords they had themselves
brought for a far different purpose, and deposited on the steps of the
neighbouring cathedral, where they were left to their fate.

As to the colonel, the old soldier, who had just shown so much presence
of mind, had no idea as he had said himself, of leaving him behind. On
the contrary, he had weighty reasons for taking him with him in the
hazardous adventure he was about to undertake. So, as soon as he was on
horseback, he threw his prisoner across the pummel of his saddle, and
left the house attended by several trusty servants, well mounted, and
armed to the teeth.

"Speed! Speed!" he cried, as soon as the door was closed. "Who knows
but that this traitor may have sold us beforehand?"

The little party started at a gallop, and traversed the city--deserted
at that time of night--with the speed of a storm wind.

But as soon as the riders reached the commencement of the suburbs,
they gradually slackened their pace, and finally halted, at a sign from
Don Guzman.

That gentleman had totally forgotten one thing, and a very important
one. It was, that during the time the city was suffering under the rule
of Rosas, it was under martial law; and consequently, after a certain
hour, it was impossible to pass out without the watchword, which was
changed every night, and given by the Dictator himself. It was an
embarrassing situation. Don Guzman's looks fell upon the prisoner in
front of him; for a single moment he thought of liberating his head,
and demanding the watchword, which he would certainly know. But another
moment's reflection made him relinquish the idea of trusting to a man
to whom he had just offered a mortal insult, and who would certainly
embrace the first opportunity that offered for revenge. He determined,
therefore, to trust to audacity, and act according to circumstances.
Consequently, having warned his servants to look to their arms, and
be in readiness to use them at his first signal, he gave the order to
advance.

They had ridden a few hundred paces farther, when they heard the sound
of a musket being cocked, followed immediately by the words, "Who goes
there?" lustily halloaed.

Luckily, the night was intensely dark. The moment for audacity had come.

Don Guzman responded, in a sharp and firm voice:

"Colonel Pedrosa! _¡Ronde mashorca!_"[1]

"Where are you going?" said the sentry.

"To Palermo," replied Ribera, "by orders of the well-beloved General
Rosas."

"Pass!" said the sentry.

The little party was swallowed up in the jaws of the ponderous gate; it
galloped through, and was soon lost in the darkness.

Thanks to his audacity, Don Guzman had escaped from utmost peril.

The _serenos_ were chanting the half-hour after midnight when the
travellers left the last houses of Buenos Aires behind them.



[1] The "mashorca rounds,"--a nickname given to the bodyguards of the
Dictator; literally, "more gallows."



CHAPTER XVI.

THE POST HOUSE IN THE PAMPAS.


The Pampas are the _Steppes_ of South America, with this difference,
that these immense plains, which extend from Buenos Aires, as far as
San Luis de Mendoza, to the foot of the Cordilleras, are clothed with
a thick carpet of long grass, undulating with the softest breath of
the wind, and are intersected by numerous water courses, some of great
magnitude, which cut it up in every direction.

The aspect of the Pampas is desperately monotonous and mournful. There
is neither wood nor mountain; not a single break of ground to form an
oasis of sand or granite, on which to rest the eye in the midst of this
ocean of green.

Only two roads traverse the Pampas, and connect the Atlantic with the
Pacific.

The first leads to Chili, passing by Mendoza; the second to Peru, by
Tucumen and Salta.

These vast solitudes are infested by two races of men, perpetually at
war with each other: the Indian Bravos, or Pampas, and the Guachos.

The Guachos, a caste peculiar to the Argentine provinces, are not to be
met elsewhere.

These men, charged with the supervision of the wild cattle and horses
which range at large through the whole extent of these wide plains,
are, for the most part, whites by race; but, crossed in blood with the
aborigines for many years, they have in time become almost as barbarous
as the Indians themselves, from whom they have learnt their cunning and
cruelty.

They live on horseback, lie in the bare sun, support themselves on the
flesh of their beasts when unlucky in the chase, and only approach the
towns and _haciendas_ for the purpose of exchanging their skins, their
_ñandú_ (the ostrich of the Pampas) plumes, and furs, for spirits,
silver spurs, powder, knifes, and the cloths of gaudy colours with
which they delight to adorn their persons.

The true Centaurs of the New World, as rapid as the Tartar riders of
the _Steppes_ of Siberia, they transport themselves with prodigious
speed from one extremity of the Banda Oriental to the other. They
recognise no law beyond the whim of the moment; no master but their
will. For the most part, they do not know the proprietor who employs
them, and whom they only see at rare intervals.

The Guachos are almost as much to be dreaded as the Indians by
travellers, who dare not venture upon the Pampas except in considerable
numbers, so as to afford mutual protection against the aggressions to
which they are constantly exposed, either from Indians or from the wild
beasts.

The caravans are usually composed of fifteen, or even twenty, wagons,
or _galeras_, drawn by six or eight oxen apiece. Their drivers,
crouching under the hide covering of the _galeras_, urge them on with
long goads, slung over their heads, with which they can easily reach
the leading oxen of the team.

A _capataz_, or _major-domo_,--a resolute man, thoroughly acquainted
with the Pampas,--commands the caravan, having under his orders some
thirty _peones_, who, like himself, are mounted, and gallop around the
convoy, watch the relief cattle, and, in case of attack, defend the
travellers of every age whom they escort.

Nothing can be seen at once so picturesque and sad as the aspect the
caravans present as they extend themselves in a long serpentine line
over the Pampas, advancing at a slow and regular pace along roads full
of quagmires, over which the immense _galeras_ roll, groaning on their
croaking and massive wheels, tottering with indescribable swayings and
joltings along ruts, out of which the oxen, lowing and stretching their
smoking nostrils to the ground, can hardly drag them.

Ofttimes these heavy caravans are passed by _arrieros_ (muleteers),
whose _recua_ (string of mules) trots gaily on, to the tinkling
of a silver bell attached to the neck of the _yegua madrina_ (the
leading mule), and to the sound of "_Arrea, mulos_" (Get on mules),
incessantly repeated, in all notes of the gamut, by the _arriero_ chief
and his _peones_ who gallop about the mules to prevent their straying
to right or left.

When night comes, the muleteers and ox drivers find precarious shelter
in the post houses--a kind of _tambas_ or _caravanseries_, built, at
considerable distances apart, in the Pampas. The _galeras_, detached
from the oxen, are ranged in single file; the burdens of the mules are
piled up in a circle; then, if the _corral_ (stables) be full, if there
be many travellers at the post house, beasts and men encamp together,
and spend the night under the open sky,--a mode of sleeping which is no
hardship in a country where cold is almost unknown. Then commence, by
the fantastic light of the bivouac fires, the long tales of the Pampas,
interspersed with joyous bursts of laughter, with songs, and words of
love uttered in whispers.

Yet it is rare for the night to pass over without a quarrel of some
sort arising between the muleteers and the drivers, who are by nature
jealous of each other, and enemies by profession. Then blood flows, the
consequence of a _navajada_ or two; for the knife always plays a too
active part among these men, whom no fear of consequences restrains in
their unbridled frenzy.

Now, on the night of the day on which our story begins, the last
post house on the Portillo road, when you leave the Pampas, going to
Buenos Aires, was overfilled with travellers. Two numerous _recuas de
mulas_ (strings of mules), which a month before had crossed the Alto
de Cumbre, and encamped on the Rio de la Cucoa, close to the Inca's
Bridge, one of the most singular natural curiosities in the country,
had lighted their fires before the post house, close to two or three
convoys of _galeras_, whose oxen were quietly lying in the interior of
the circle formed by the wagons.

The post house was a building of considerable extent, constructed
of _adobas_ (sundried bricks.) The entrance was furnished with a
portico--a species of peristyle formed of the trunks of four large
trees, planted in the ground in lieu of pillars, and supporting a
veranda broad enough to afford shelter from the piercing rays of the
sun.

In the interior of the _toldo_, as they call these miserable hovels,
resounded the songs and laughter of the drivers and muleteers, mingling
with the notes of a _vihuela_ (Spanish guitar), scraped with the
knuckles of the hand in a manner sufficient to drive one to despair,
and with the sharp and clamorous outcry of the postmaster, whose
squeaking voice strove in vain to quell the uproar, and regulate the
disorder.

Just at this moment the rapid gallop of many horses was heard; and two
parties of riders, coming from points diametrically opposite, stopped,
as with one accord, before the porch of the _toldo_, after passing with
great dexterity through the encampments before the post house, the
approaches to which were vastly obstructed by the _galeras_.

The first of these parties, consisting of only six riders, came from
the direction of Mendoza; the second from the opposite side, from the
heart of the Pampas: the latter comprised some thirty individuals at
least.

The unexpected arrival of the newcomers stopped, as by enchantment, the
clamour which the _ranchero_, or owner of the house, had been unable to
still, and a sudden silence seized on the company, which had been so
joyously uproarious a few minutes before.

The muleteers and drivers glided like shadows out of the house, and,
with furtive steps, regained their respective encampments, exchanging
uneasy looks amongst themselves; so that the room was empty in a
twinkling, and the _ranchero_ was able to come forward and receive the
guests who had arrived so unexpectedly. But he had scarcely reached the
threshold, and cast a glance outside, when a mortal pallor overspread
his visage, a convulsive shudder shook his frame, and his tones were
almost unintelligible, as he managed to stutter forth the essential
phrase of welcome in South America; "_¡Ave, María purísima!_" (Hail,
purest Mary!)

"_¡Sin pecado concebida!_" (immaculately conceived) answered the rough
voice of a tall cavalier, with harsh features and a ferocious eye, who
seemed to be the leader of the more numerous party.

We must observe that the second party appeared in some degree to share
the terror felt by the inhabitants of the post house; and having
perceived the others before their own presence was remarked, the six
cavaliers had prudently reined in their horses, and thrown themselves
into the shade as far as possible, being little desirous, in all
probability, of being inadvertently seen by the dangerous fellow
travellers amongst whom chance or ill luck had unfortunately thrown
them.

Now, who were these persons, the sight of whom sufficed of itself to
inspire a general panic and womanly consternation in the breasts of the
hardy explorers of the wilderness--of men whose life was a perpetual
struggle against the wild beasts, and who had so often confronted death
without blenching, that they almost fancied they were beyond his grasp?

At the time in which this story happens, the hateful and bloody tyranny
of that half-breed--that Nero who had nothing belonging to humanity
but its semblance, that ignorant and brutal _guacho_, that man-faced
tiger, in a word, Don Juan Manuel de Rosas--which had so long crushed
the Argentine provinces, was still all-powerful; and these men were
_federales_, hired assassins of that butcher in cold blood, whose name
is now damned by the execration of the world; in short, they were
members of that horrible _restauradora_ (regeneratory) society, better
known under the name of _mashorca_ (_mashorca_ signifies literally
"more gallows"), which for several years filled all Buenos Aires with
mourning. Constrained by public indignation, the Dictator, later on,
had made a pretence of dissolving this society; but he did nothing
of the sort, in reality; and up to the final fall of the unclean
tyrant, it existed _de facto_, and at the slightest sign of its master
scattered murder, violation, and fire through the length and breadth of
the confederation.

The reader can now understand the terror which seized upon the careless
and peaceable travellers assembled in the _toldo_, at the appearance of
the ominous uniforms of these hired ruffians, to whom pity was unknown.

Compelled by one of these instinctive presentiments which are seldom
fallacious, they felt that some misfortune threatened them. They crept
out with slouching heads, and hiding themselves behind their bales,
began to shudder in the darkness, without attempting to prepare for
resistance, which they knew would be futile.

In the meantime, the _colorados_, or _federales_, had dismounted, and
entered the _rancho_, marching on their toes, on account of their
enormous spur rowels, and allowing their heavy iron scabbards to trail
beside them: The clang made by these in their contact with the flooring
seemed a sound of evil augury to the terrified listeners.

"Halloa!" cried the leader, in a harsh voice; "_¡rayo de Dios!_ What
does this mean, _Caballeros?_ Does our arrival banish all pleasure from
this dwelling?"

The _ranchero_ multiplied his obeisances till he addled his brains with
bowing, and twisted his shapeless hat in both hands without finding
a word to say. At the bottom of his heart, this worthy man, who was
acquainted with the expeditious habits of his unwelcome guests, had the
greatest dread of being hanged forthwith; a thought which by no means
helped him to recover his presence of mind, and the coolness required
by circumstances.

The large room was barely lighted by a single smoky candle, shedding
a yellow and doubtful light. The _colorado_, coming from the open,
his eyes still clouded with the thick darkness on the Pampas, had
not been able to distinguish objects at first; but as soon as he had
got accustomed to the semi-obscurity which reigned around him, and
perceived that, with the exception of the _ranchero_, the place was
empty, he frowned, and stamped on the ground in ire.

"_¡Válgame Dios!_" he exclaimed, looking furiously at the poor devil
perspiring with fear before him, "Have I fallen unawares into a nest
of serpents? Is this miserable hut the meeting place of _salvajes
unitarios?_ Answer, wretch, or I will have your tongue torn out and
thrown to the dogs!"

The post master grew green with fear when he heard this menace,--a
threat he well knew these men capable of executing. He was still more
frightened at the expression _salvajes unitarios_, an epithet used to
designate the enemies of Rosas, and generally the prelude to a massacre.

"Señor General," cried he, with an heroic effort to utter a few words.

"I am not a general," broke in the _colorado_ in a somewhat smoother
tone, for his pride was secretly flattered by the sonorous title;
"I am not a general yet, though I hope to be one someday. I am only
_teniente_ (lieutenant), which is already a pretty step; so call me
nothing else for the present. Now, go on."

"Señor _Teniente,_" replied the _ranchero_, a little comforted, "there
is nobody here except good friends of the well beloved General Rosas;
we are all federals."

"Ha! I doubt that," said the terrible lieutenant. "You are too close to
Monte Video to be thorough Rosistas."

We must state here that throughout the Argentine provinces there was
only one town which had the noble courage to oppose itself to the
savage tyranny of the ruthless Dictator. This town, whose devotion to
the sacred cause of liberty has made it celebrated throughout both the
Old and New Worlds, is Monte Video. Resolute to perish, if it must be,
in the holy cause it bad embraced, it heroically sustained a siege of
nine years against the troops of Rosas, whose impotent efforts were
repeatedly shattered against its walls.

"Señor _Teniente_," replied the _ranchero_ obsequiously, "the people
who meet here are solely _arrieros_ and wagoners, who are only
passers-by, and never meddle with politics."

This explanation, which the postmaster thought most adroit, had no
influence on the _colorado._

"_¡Vive Dios!_" he cried, with haughty voice, "We will see; and woe to
the traitor I discover! Luco," he continued addressing his _cabo_, or
corporal, "just step and rouse up those brute beasts, and bring them
hither. If any sleep too soundly, stir them up with the point of the
sabre; it will exhilarate them and induce them to move more quickly."

The _cabo_ gave a malicious grin, and went out immediately to execute
his orders.

The lieutenant, after addressing a few more questions of minor
importance to the _ranchero_, at last thought fit to seat himself
on the bench which ran round the room, and, to enliven the time of
the corporal's absence, set himself to consume the liquor and food
assiduously placed before him by the host, who was swearing to himself
all the while at being obliged to find drink gratis for so many. He
knew well that, though the consumption of liquors by the soldiers would
be enormous, he would never see the colour of their money, and might
think himself happy if he escaped without other damage.

The soldiers, except five or six who remained without in charge of the
horses, seated themselves by their officer, and followed his example in
drinking like sponges.

The corporal's task was easier than he expected, for the poor devils of
muleteers and drivers had overheard the peremptory order of the leader.
Comprehending that resistance would not only be useless, but make their
situation worse, they obeyed their officer's orders with resignation,
and came back again into the room, attempting to hide their fright with
ill-counterfeited smiles.

"Aha!" cried the lieutenant; "I knew we should find some malcontents
here,--ay, good people?"

The peasants multiplied their excuses and protestations, to which the
lieutenant listened with the greatest indifference, taking all the
while short sips from an enormous goblet, filled to the brim with
_refino de Catalonia_, the strongest spirit known.

"There, that will do," said he at last, making the steel scabbard of
his sword rattle against the bench; "let us reconnoitre a little; and
first of all, for whom are you, in the devil's name?"

The travellers, terrified by this demonstration, answered the question
by hastening to shout at the top of their voices, and with an
enthusiasm the more demonstrative the less it was real:

"_Viva el benemérito General Rosas, Viva el libertador, Vivan los
federales, Mueren los salvajes unitarios. A degüello, a degüello con
ellos._"[1]

These well-known federal cries, which served as rallying calls in their
bloody expeditions, dispelled the doubts of the officer. He deigned to
smile; but it was a tiger's smile, exposing the white fangs ready to
bite.

"_Bravos, Bravos_," he cried: "that is right at all events. These are
true Rosistas. Come, _ranchero, trago de aguardiente_" (a draught of
brandy) "for these worthy people. I intend to treat them."

The _ranchero_ could have easily dispensed with this factitious
generosity of the officer, the cost of which he well knew he should
have to pay out of his own pocket. However, he executed the order,
hiding the chagrin he felt under the most gracious air he could assume.
The cries and protestations of federalism were renewed with redoubled
ardour: the brandy circulated, and joy seemed to have reached a climax.

The lieutenant next took a guitar, which happened to lie beside him.

"Come, _muchachos_," said he; "a _zambacueca_" (a Mexican dance).
"_Voto a Dios_, Room for the dance."

There was no refusing. Whatever the secret fears of those present,
the gracious invitation of the _colorado_ was so neatly put, that they
were obliged to take heart of grace, as the saying is, and play their
parts to the end. It was the best plan to resign themselves to their
lot. They were in the claws of the tiger, who might devour them at any
moment if the fancy seized him.

The middle of the room was cleared; the dancers, male and female, took
their places, their eyes fixed on the officer, in expectation of his
signal.

They had not long to wait; as soon as the lieutenant saw his victims
prepared, he swallowed an enormous bumper of _refino_, and set himself
to rattle on the guitar with his knuckles; while he sang, or rather
screeched, in a shaky voice, the gay _zambacueca_ so well known in the
Argentine provinces, and which begins with the following charming verse:

    "Para que vas y vienes,
    Vienes y vas.
    Si otros andar menos,
    Consiguen más?"[2]

It has been truly said that the Spaniards are excessively fond of
dancing; but in this, as in many other matters, the South Americans
have left them far behind They have carried this passion to such a
pitch, that it reaches the limits of folly. The scene we are about to
describe will prove the truth of our assertion.

These very men, who had only consented to dance because, as one may
say, the knife was at their throats, and were still under the influence
of extreme terror, had scarcely heard for a few minutes the groaning
chords of the guitar, and the words which marked the time, than they
immediately forgot their precarious position, and gave themselves up
heart and soul, in a sort of savage frenzy, to their favourite pastime.

Those who at first had prudently kept themselves within bounds, in
consequence of their anxiety, were soon fascinated by the bounds of the
dancers, and leaped and stamped, howling, like the others, with all the
strength of their lungs.

Thus at the close of a few minutes all constraint had vanished, and the
noise had again grown as deafening, and the uproar as stunning, as it
had been when the federals arrived.

Meanwhile the corporal had diligently carried out the orders he had
received from his superior; but, as we said above, the muleteers and
wagoners, having accidentally stopped in front of the _rancho_, and
then entered the room of their own accord, had materially lightened
his task. But that worthy officer, zealous in the performance of his
duty, had taken half a dozen soldiers with him, and scoured the several
encampments, passing the blades of their swords between the bales,
looking into the insides of the _galeras,_--in a word, ferreting
about everywhere, with the sagacity of an old bloodhound which it is
impossible to baffle.

Persuaded at last, after the most minute search, that all those whom
he thus looked after had entered the _rancho_, he determined to follow
them. But the uproar he heard inside convincing him that all was going
right, for the time at least, he changed his mind, and dismissing the
soldiers who were with him, and who desired nothing better than to join
the merriment, remained outside.

As soon as he found himself alone, the corporal's whole demeanour
changed. He first satisfied himself that no indiscreet eye observed his
motions; he then rolled a cigarette between his fingers, lit it, and,
walking backwards and forwards with the air of an idler enjoying his
leisure, gradually increased his distance from the porch.

After some ten minutes of this manoeuvring, which bore no bad
resemblance to a ship tacking against a contrary breeze in her
endeavours to get away from her port, he found he had passed beyond the
wagoners' camps, and was so far from the _rancho_, that, thanks to the
obscurity of the night, it was impossible to see him from thence. He
immediately stopped, looked once more round him, and threw the lighted
cigar in the air.

The light _pajillo_ described a brilliant parabola against the sky, and
then fell to the ground, when the corporal extinguished it with his
foot.

At the same moment a slender line of fire sparkled in the obscurity a
little way off.

"Good," growled the corporal; "see what it is to be prudent."

A second time he scanned the neighbourhood narrowly; then, reassured by
the obscurity which reigned around, he resolutely turned aside into the
darkness, humming under his breath these three verses of a song well
known in the Pampas:

"O Libertad preciosa No comparado al oro Ni al bien mayor de la
espaciosa tierra."[3]

Directly, a voice, low as a whisper, took up the subsequent verses:

"Más rica y más gozosa Que el más precioso tesoro."[4]

At this response, which he doubtless expected, the corporal stopped
short. He struck the end of his scabbard on the ground, rested himself
on the hilt, and said aloud, as if talking to himself:

"I should like to know why the _ñandús_ (ostriches) have so suddenly
taken themselves off into the Pampas?"

"Because," answered the voice which had continued the song, "they
smelt the odour of dead bodies."

"That may be true," said the corporal, without seeming astonished at
the answer which came so oddly; "but then the _condors_ would come down
from the Cordilleras."

"It is already twenty-one days since they passed the Alto de Cumbre."

"The sunset yesterday was red."

"His rays reflected the light of the conflagrations caused by the
_mashorca_," said the voice again.

The corporal hesitated no longer.

"Approach, Don Leoncio," cried he; "you and your companions."

"We are here, Luco;" and the corporal was immediately surrounded by six
persons, armed to the teeth.

It is useless to say that these men were the six persons who an
hour before had arrived at the post house simultaneously with the
_colorados_, and whom prudence had induced to remain concealed.

The dancing and shouting in the _rancho_ still went on. The merriment
was gradually growing into a gigantic orgy.

Consequently the strangers were sure they should not be disturbed.
Moreover, although the moon had now risen, and gave a certain amount
of light, the little group, sheltered by the wagons behind which they
stood, was in no danger of discovery; while, thanks to its position,
nobody could leave the _rancho_, without being seen directly by those
composing it.

We will profit by the moonbeams to depict in a few words these fresh
personages; a task made more easy by the fact that they had dismounted,
and were holding their horses by the bridles.

We said they were six in number: the first three were evidently
_peones_; but their heavy silver spurs, their _tirador_, or girdle
of embroidered velvet, their beautifully chased weapons, their rich
_ponchos_ of fine Bolivian vicuña wool, and, above all, the respectful
familiarity which they used towards their masters, indicated that they
had earned for themselves a certain degree of consideration.

These _peones_ were, in fact, not only servants, but friends; humble
ones, it is true, but devoted ones, tried many a time in scenes of
frightful danger.

Of the masters, two were men of about thirty-five, in all the vigour of
their age and strength. Their dress, similar in cut to that of their
servants, was only distinguished from it by the superior richness and
fineness of its texture.

The foremost was a tall and well-built person, with graceful manners
and elegant gestures. The outline of his face was proud and decided,
and his hardy features expressed a kindness and frankness which, at
first sight, won the sympathy and regard of all.

His name was Don Leoncio de Ribera.

His companion, of the same size and figure, and endowed with the same
manners, formed, nevertheless, a perfect contrast to Don Leoncio.

His soft blue eyes; the thick curls of blonde hair, which escaped in
large masses from under his Panama hat, and flowed in disorder on his
shoulders; the cream-coloured skin, which contrasted with the olive
and slightly bronzed complexion of Don Leoncio,--seemed to indicate
that he was not born under the burning sun of South America. Yet this
cavalier could proudly claim, even more than the latter, the quality
of a veritable _hijo del país_[5] since he descended in a direct line
from the brave and unhappy Tupac Amaru, the last Inca, so basely
assassinated by the Spaniards.

He was called Manco Amaru, Diego de Solis y Villas Reales; and we beg
our reader's pardon for this litany of names.

Don Diego de Solis concealed the courage of the lion under the
effeminacy of a woman, and nerves of steel under the skin of his soft
white hands.

As to the third cavalier, who kept himself modestly retired behind the
others, he had wrapped himself up so carefully in the voluminous folds
of his _poncho_, and the rim of his hat was so well pulled down over
his countenance, that is was impossible to distinguish any part of him
except two large black eyes, which flashed forth flames of fire. His
small size, delicate limbs, and a certain soft smoothness about his
movements, would lead one to suppose that he was still a youth, if this
masculine attire did not conceal a woman, which seemed more probable.

However that may be, no sooner did the corporal find himself in the
presence of the persons we have described, than there was a complete
metamorphosis in his whole appearance. His rough and fierce demeanour
was exchanged for a flattering obsequiousness, denoting complete
devotedness; and his countenance lost its mocking expression, to take
that of decided pleasure.

Don Leoncio had difficulty in moderating the outbursts of foolish joy
to which the soldier gave vent, with the unconstraint of a man who at
length enjoys a happiness he has long been vainly expecting.

"There, there, Luco," said he; "be calm. You see it is I. There,
there; be moderate, _muchacho_ this is not the time for outpourings of
affection."

"It is true, _mi amo_" (my master); "but I am so happy to see you again
after such a length of time," and he brushed away the tears which
rolled down his bronzed cheeks.

Don Leoncio felt deeply moved by the affection of his old servant, and
replied:

"Thanks, Luco; you are indeed a good and trusty fellow."

"And yet, in spite of the happiness I feel in seeing you once more,
I wish you had not returned at such an unlucky moment. _Mi amo_, the
times are bad; the tyrant is more powerful than ever in Buenos Aires."

"I know. Unfortunately, I could not postpone my journey, in spite of
the perils to which I should be exposed."

"_¡Válgame Dios_, señor! This is a terrible life we are now leading."

"What is to be done? We must all take our share of the unavoidable. Are
my orders fulfilled?"

"Yes, all, _mi amo:_ your brother is forewarned. Unluckily, I could not
go myself to inform him: I was forced to send a _guacho_, of whom I
knew little. But do not be uneasy, señor; your brother will not fail to
be here in a few hours."

"Good; but you seem to have come here in considerable numbers."

"Alas, it could not be helped; I am so spied after, _mi amo._ I was
obliged to use the most extraordinary efforts to induce the lieutenant
to bring so few."

"We had very nearly run into his arms."

"Yes; and I was in a dreadful fright at the moment, for I had
recognised you already, señor: God knows what would have happened had
you met."

"And now, is this lieutenant to be trusted?"

Luco shook his head sorrowfully.

"He! _Mi amo_, take heed. He is one of the most ferocious
_mashorqueras_ of that evil dog Rosas."

"The devil he is!" said Don Leoncio, with a troubled look. "I fear, my
poor Luco, your too great confidence has led us into a hornet's nest,
out of which we shall have some trouble to escape safe and sound."

"It is a difficult case--I will not attempt to deny it. You must be
very cautious, and let no one strike your trail. The principal thing is
to gain time."

"True," said Don Leoncio, plunging into a reverie.

"How many are there of you?" said Don Diego, mixing in the conversation
for the first time.

"Thirty-five, counting the lieutenant, señor; but he is a devil
incarnate, and counts for four at least."

"Pooh!" replied Don Diego carelessly, while he stroked his blonde
moustache; "we are seven when we count you, my good fellow."

"Who is this lieutenant?"

"Don Torribio, formerly a _guacho._"

"Oh," said Don Leoncio, disgusted, "Torribio _Degüello!_" (literally,
Torribio the Butcher).

"_¡Voto a brios!_" replied Don Diego; "How I should like to plant my
knee on the breast of that wretch! Well, what are we to do?"

"You forget who is with us," said Don Leoncio, quickly, casting a
glance at the motionless figure behind.

"It is true," said the young man; "I am mad. Forgive me, friend; we
cannot be too cautious."

"It is lucky," observed Luco, "that you have not brought Doña Antonia
with you. Poor dear niña! she would die here, were she exposed to the
devils in whose midst we are."

All of a sudden before Don Leoncio had time to reply, a horrible
clamour arose in the _rancho_, several shots were heard, and a score of
men and women, frantic with fear, rushed into the open with shouts of
terror, and dispersed in all directions.

"Hide yourselves!" cried Luco. "Good God! What can this mean? I will be
back directly; but, for God's sake, do not let them see you. Farewell
for a time! I must go and see what is the matter."

Leaving Don Leoncio and his companions in dreadful anxiety, the
corporal ran towards the house, where the tumult was increasing every
minute.



[1] "Long live the well-beloved General Rosas! Long live the liberator!
Long live the federals! Death to the unitarian savages! Slay them! Slay
them!"

[2] These words will hardly bear translation Their general meaning is
this: Why do you go and return, return and go; if others go less far,
they gain more by it.

[3] "O precious Liberty! One cannot compare you to gold nor to the
greatest riches in the spacious world."

[4] "More rich and more cherished than the most precious treasure."

[5] Child of the country; a very common expression in South America.



CHAPTER XVII.

A DELICATE FEDERAL ATTENTION.


We will run before the corporal, in order to explain to the reader what
had happened in the _rancho._

At first everything went off well. After the first moment of distrust
and fear, the muleteers and wagoners, involuntarily submitting to the
influence of their favourite pastime, had utterly forgotten their
apprehensions, and fraternised with the soldiers. The _aguardiente_
went round uninterruptedly from one end of the room to the other; the
merriment increased in proportion to the draughts, which, by frequent
repetition, began to heat the brains of the drinkers, among whom the
first symptoms of drunkenness were showing themselves here and here.

Nevertheless the lieutenant, Don Torribio, his eyes sparkling and his
countenance excited, continued to sing, to torture the guitar, and
specially to drink, without any signs of meditated evil; and perhaps
all might have ended well, but for an incident which suddenly changed
the aspect of things, and turned a scene of joy into a spectacle of
terror.

One of the best and most brilliant dancers of the _zambacueca_ was a
young muleteer of from twenty to twenty-five, with fine and intelligent
features, well-knit figure, and easy manner, who distinguished
himself greatly by the lightness and grace of his dancing. The women
crowded round him, cast the most killing looks at him, and applauded
extravagantly the eccentric steps it was his pleasure to execute.

Among these females were two, both girls of sixteen, radiant with the
beauty peculiar to South America, and which finds no equivalent in
Europe. The black eyes, shaded by long silken lashes; the mouth, with
lips red as the fruit of the _chirimoya_ (Mexican pear); the face,
slightly bronzed by the heat of a tropical sun, over which fell the
long tresses of bluish-black hair; the rounded figure, supple and
slender; the wavy movements, full of inimitable grace; all these charms
united constituted that intoxicating and voluptuous kind of beauty,
which it is impossible to analyse, but of which the most frigid mortal
cannot resist the magnetic influence and fascinating spell.

These two females made themselves conspicuous by the exuberant praises
they showered on the object of their predilection. The latter, we
must do him the justice to say, seemed to take very little notice of
the enthusiasm he excited. He was a good fellow, whose heart, if not
his head, was perfectly free; who danced for dancing's sake, because
it pleased him, and because the rough life he led rarely afforded an
opportunity for enjoying his favourite amusement; moreover, he was
totally indifferent about inspiring either one or the other of his
admirers with any kind of passion whatever. The two latter, although
with a woman's innate instinct they understood his indifference, and
were secretly hurt at it, nevertheless continued to lavish on him the
most passionate expressions of admiration of which the Spanish language
is capable, as a means of evincing the interest they took in his
proceedings.

These demonstrations grew at last so lively and pointed, that the
greater number of the men present--who would each, in his secret
heart, have given a good deal for the preference of either of these
beautiful creatures--began, as is generally the case, to hate the
muleteer for the indifference he displayed, and to upbraid him for
serious want of politeness and unpardonable ignorance of good manners,
in showing no gratitude for such enthusiastic praise.

The muleteer, embarrassed by the position in which he had involuntarily
been placed while he was only laudably endeavouring to amuse
himself, and compelled, as we may say, by his companions' murmurs of
disapprobation, to re-establish his impugned reputation for courtesy,
decided on finding some means or other of withdrawing honourably from
his disagreeable situation, and with that purpose determined to ask the
two girls to dance with him one after the other.

Full of these good intentions, as soon as the lieutenant--who had
temporarily interrupted his inharmonious strumming to help himself
to an immense goblet of _aguardiente_--began to rattle a fresh
_zambacueca_ on his guitar, the _arriero_ advanced with a smile on his
lips, and graciously saluted the two girls.

"Señorita," said he, to the one who chance to bed nearest, "will you
make me happy by dancing this _zambacueca_ with your humble servant?"

The girl, all rosy with delight at what she imagined the preference
of the handsome dancer, was coming forward with outstretched hand,
and beginning to reply, when suddenly her companion, who had turned
pale on hearing the _arriero's_ invitation, bounded between them like
a tigress, and, with trembling lips and flaming eyes, confronted the
young couple.

"You shall not dance together!" she cried in menacing tones.

The spectators of this extraordinary and unexpected scene recoiled in
amazement: they were unable to comprehend this sudden burst of anger.
The two would-be dancers exchanged looks of astonishment.

The situation grew intolerable, and the _arriero_ determined to put an
end to it.

The second girl was still standing right in front of him, her figure
slightly thrown back, and firmly planted on her feet, her head erect,
her cheeks inflamed, her nostrils quivering like those of a wild beast,
and her arm extended in an attitude of menace and defiance.

The _arriero_ took a step forward, and made a very respectful bow to
the damsel.

"Señorita," said he, "allow me to remark--"

"_Calle Vd. la boca_" (hold your tongue), "Don Pablo!" she angrily
exclaimed, interrupting him in the middle of his speech; "I have
nothing to say against you; but look at this _chola sin vergüenza_"
(shameless hussy), "who, knowing you to be the best dancer in the
_rancho_, wants to monopolise you for her own benefit."

On hearing the insult her companion had thus boldly cast in her teeth,
the other damsel hastily shook off Don Pablo, and placed herself face
to face before her assailant.

"You lie, Manonga!" cried she: "It is jealousy that made you utter
these words; you are furious at the preference with which this
_caballero_ honours me."

"I!" said the other disdainfully; "You are a fool, Clarita; I care no
more for the _caballero_ than for a sour orange."

"Indeed!" sneered Clarita; "Then, pray what may be the reason of this
sudden fury?"

"Because," sharply retorted Manonga, "I have known you for a long time;
you want a lesson, and I am going to give you one."

"You, indeed!" said the other, shrugging her shoulders; "Take care lest
you get one yourself!"

"_Ojalá_; add another word, and, by my soul, I will knife you!"

"Pooh! you don't even know how to handle a navaja" (knife).

"_A ver;_" (we will see), shouted Manonga, beside herself with rage;
and, bounding back, she drew a knife from her bosom, wrapped her
_rebozo_ (veil) round her left arm, and threw herself on guard.

"_A ver;_" screamed Clarita, echoing the words, and taking up her
position with the same celerity as her adversary.

A duel between the two girls was imminent.

Don Pablo, the innocent cause of this combat, had several times vainly
tried to mediate between the two females. Neither one nor the other
would listen to his speech, nor attend to his remonstrances. When
matters had reached this point, he wanted to make a fresh effort: but
this time he was more sharply repulsed than before; for the bystanders,
interested in the dispute, and infinitely attracted by the longing
to see a duel with knives between two women, turned against him, and
peremptorily bade him be quiet, and leave the _niñas_ (darlings) to
amuse themselves as they thought fit.

The _arriero_, thoroughly satisfied that he could wash his hands of the
consequences, and whose good nature alone had induced him to attempt
to prevent an explosion, saw that his mediation was looked upon with
an unfavourable eye, so thought he had said his say; and, folding his
arms, prepared to be, if not an indifferent, at least a disinterested
spectator of the coming struggle.

It was, indeed, a singular and striking spectacle to see, in this dimly
lighted room, amidst the crowd of strange costumes, these two girls,
fiercely and resolutely standing two paces apart, ready to come to
knife thrusts, while the music and the dance continued as if nothing
was the matter, while the _aguardiente_ was poured forth in floods, and
while the merriest and maddest songs were shouted out around them.

"_¡Vaya pués!_" (now for the sport!) cried Clarita: "With how many
inches do we fight, _querida?_" (my darling).

"With the whole length of the blade, _alma mía_" (my soul), answered
Manonga; "I mean to leave my handwriting on your face!"

"Ah, _puñaladas!_ We shall see. Are you ready, my dear?"

"As soon as you like, my pet!"

A ring was formed round the damsels, who, with bodies bent forward,
left arms extended, and eye watching eye, waited, with feline
impatience, for a propitious moment to rush upon each other.

They seemed well matched, both being young, active, and full of nerve.
The _connoisseurs_ in those matters, of whom there were many in the
attentive crowd of bystanders, could form no opinion on the result of
the combat, which threatened, for the matter of that, to be desperate,
such flashes of ire sparkled from the wild eyes of the duellists.

After a moment or two of hesitation, or more properly speaking of
gathering themselves up, Clarita and Manonga began to clack their
tongues against their palates, producing a series of sharp smacking
sounds; their blue gleaming knives glittered, and they darted upon each
other.

But if the attack was lively, the defence and the parry was not less
so. Both simultaneously bounded back, and fell into guard again. Each
stroke had told; the battle had begun bravely, and either combatant had
her face furrowed by a bleeding double cut. Neither one nor the other
had predicted falsely: each bore the handwriting of the other on her
countenance. The bystanders trembled with joy and admiration: never
before had they been spectators of such a splendid _navajada._

After taking breath for a while, the damsels were preparing to
recommence the fight, this time with the determined purpose of making
the bout decisive, when, all of a sudden, the ranks of the onlookers
were shouldered right and left, and a man resolutely thrust himself
between the two adversaries, and confronted them with a look of scorn.

"Hearken, _demonios!_" he cried in a sharp tone, and with accents of
indescribable mockery.

The two women lowered their knives, and stood motionless, with eyes
abashed, but head erect, their foreheads frowning, and preserving their
attitude--the haughty expression of two foes who long to tear each
other to pieces, and unwillingly succumb to commands, which they dare
not disobey, though they curse them.

In spite of the deafening uproar the federalist lieutenant made with
his guitar, he could not help hearing, at last, what was going on in
the room. At the first impulse, he had placed his hand on the pistols
which hung at his girdle; but an instant afterwards his anger grew, not
calm, but cold and concentrated, instead of furious.

Don Torribio had risen from his seat, left the bench on which he sat
enthroned, and furtively approached the combatants. He had attentively
watched the different phases of the fight, and when he thought proper
to interfere, had suddenly interposed between the duellists.

The soldiers had silently advanced behind their officer; they were now
close at his heels, their hands on their weapons, ready for action at
the first signal, foreseeing that Don Torribio's interference in this
quarrel would speedily bring about another, in which they would have to
take part.

Intuitively, the ring formed by the _arrieros_ and wagoners had
extended itself, and a large space was left open in the middle of the
room. The two girls stood in the centre of the circle, knife in hand;
and the lieutenant, with his arms crossed, amused himself by examining
them narrowly, with a cynical sneer on his lips.

"Holloa, my chickens!" said he; "What! Are you ruffling your feathers
for a cock? Is there only one on the perch? _¡Rayo de Dios!_ What
splendid St. Andrew's crosses you have dug in each other's faces! Are
you both mad for love of this _pícaro?_" (ragamuffin).

Neither spoke; and the lieutenant continued his sarcastic speech:

"But where is this valiant champion, who lets the women fight for him?
Does his modesty make him hide himself?"

Don Pablo came forward, looked the lieutenant straight in the face, and
answered firmly: "Here I am."

"Aha!" said Don Torribio, staring at him for some time; "You are in
truth a handsome fellow. I do not wonder at their passion for you."

The _arriero_ remained mute, fully understanding the irony of the
compliment.

"There, _niñas_," the lieutenant went on speaking to the damsels,
"which of you is the chosen one of this breaker of hearts? _¡Mil
rayos!_ Speak out!"

There was an interval of silence.

"Oh, that is it!" resumed Don Torribio; "You do not exactly know. Come,
young fellow, do you speak, and tell me which of the two you prefer."

"I have no preference for either," said the _arriero_ coolly.

"_¡Caramba!_" exclaimed the lieutenant, with pretended admiration;
"_que gusto_" (what good taste.) "So I am to understand you love them
both alike?"

"No; you are mistaken, señor. I love neither one nor the other."

"_¡Rayas pués!_ That is a puzzler; and yet you let them fight for you.
That is conduct worthy of chastisement, my master! As that is the
case, I shall reconcile you two señoritas, and give a lesson to the
discourteous _caballero_ who flouts at the power of your black eyes.
Upon my soul, such an insult calls for vengeance."

The spectators of the scene felt their hearts sink within them, while
the soldiers laughed and jested among themselves.

On pronouncing his last words, the lieutenant drew a pistol from
his belt, cocked it, and presented the muzzle at the breast of the
_arriero_, who, motionless as ever, had made no gesture to escape the
fate that threatened him.

But the two girls were roused. With the velocity of thought, they both
at once threw themselves before him.

Manonga felt her breast pierced by the ball. "Alas!" she cried; "You
despise me! What does it matter? I die for you! Clarita, I forgive you!"

Don Pablo bounded over the body of the luckless wretch, whose dying
eyes still sought his, and threw himself, knife in hand, on the
lieutenant. The latter hurled his heavy pistol at his head; but the
_arriero_ avoided the weapon, seized the officer round the body, and
a deadly fray began. Clarita, with flaming eyes, eagerly watched the
struggle between the two, ready to interfere as soon as an opportunity
offered in favour of her beloved.

The bystanders were horrified; the dread inspired by the soldiers was
so great, that although many more in number, and all armed, they dared
not go to the assistance of their comrade.

In the meantime, the soldiers, more than half-drunk, seeing their
officer struggling with a stranger, unsheathed their swords, and struck
right and left among the crowd, shouting out their dreaded cry:

"_¡A degüello! ¡A degüello! los salvajes unitarios_" (Death, death to
the savage Unitarians!)

Then ensued a scene of horror in the room, which was crowded with human
beings.

The _arrieros_, pursued by the soldiers, who were pitilessly cutting
them down, and calling to each other to slay, thronged towards the door
to escape impending death. The disorder was at its height; all wanted
to escape at once through the too narrow outlet. Made selfish by fear,
and in the blind instinct of self-preservation, they stifled each other
against the walls, crushed each other underfoot, and struck blindly
with their knives, in order to hew themselves a passage through the
human barrier that checked them.

Fear, when self-preservation is uppermost, makes man more cruel and
cowardly than the wild beasts. That hideous egotism, which lurks at
the bottom of the human heart, starts up when its bonds are suddenly
broken. Man has then neither parents nor friends; he is deaf to every
prayer; and, shutting his eyes, plunges forward with the blind and
stupid ferocity of the maddened bull.

Blood soon flowed in torrents, and the victims increased in number,
while the fury grew no less; nor did the assailed attempt to defend
themselves.

At last the barrier gave way, and the wretches rushed out of doors,
flying straight on, without knowing whither, in the sole thought of
escaping from the butchery.

At this moment the corporal entered the room. A lamentable spectacle
met his eyes: the floor was strewn with dead bodies, and wounded men
weltering in their blood.

But he could not restrain a cry of horror when his eyes fell on Don
Torribio. The lieutenant was tying the head of Don Pablo, which he had
hacked off with his sword, to the long tresses of the fainting Clarita.
The officer had been slightly wounded by the girl in the hip and arm,
and blood was flowing from his garments.

"There," said he, having finished to his satisfaction the knot that
bound Clarita's tresses to the long locks of the _arriero;_ "since she
loves him so dearly, when she comes to herself she can admire him at
leisure, he is all her own now; no one will take him from her."

Then he looked for a time at the pale and fainting girl, with an
expression of lust impossible to describe.

"Pooh!" said he, with a shrug of the shoulders; "Why should I? Let us
wait till she opens her eyes. I shall have plenty of time to make love
to her; and I want to enjoy her surprise when she wakes up."

And without another look at his victims, he set himself to help his
soldiers in the massacre.

The first step he took, he encountered Luco.

"Halloa!" cried he; "where have you been, while we have been cutting
up the _salvajes unitarios?_ God take me! Here you come quietly; your
sword in the sheath, and not a drop of blood on your clothes! What is
the meaning of this conduct, comrade? Are you turned traitor, too, by
chance?"

At this accusation the corporal feigned immense indignation. He
frowned, bit his lip, and drew his sword, which he brandished
menacingly.

"What words are those, lieutenant?" cried he. "Do you address such
an insult to me? Do you call me, the most devoted partisan of our
well-beloved General Rosas, a _salvaje unitario? ¡Vive Dios!_"

"Come, come; calm yourself," answered the lieutenant, who, like all men
of his calibre, was as cowardly as he was cruel, and was intimidated by
the pretended anger of the corporal; "I did not mean to insult you! I
know you are to be trusted."

"It is well you say so," replied Luco; "for I have no mind to listen
patiently to unjust reproach."

"Lose no more time in talking," said a soldier, interfering; "_¡rayo de
Dios!_ I have a capital idea."

"What is it?" asked Don Torribio. "Out with it, Eusebio, or it will
blow you up."

The soldier laughed.

"This old hovel," said he, "is full of forage. Let us set fire to it,
and roast in the flames all the _salvajes unitarios_ who are here."

"_¡Vive Dios!_" cried Don Torribio, in high glee; "that is a capital
idea. We will set about it at once. The general will be pleased enough
when he knows we have rid him so expeditiously of a harbour for
his enemies. Two of you arrange the straw properly, while we mount
and chase those rascals back here. Not a soul of these _malvados_
(malicious rogues) shall escape the punishment he richly deserves."

The lieutenant then signed to the soldiers to leave.

"I," said Luco, "will keep the door, so that no one inside can come
out."

"That will do, my good fellow," answered Don Torribio. "Ah!" he added
suddenly, as his eye fell on the poor girl extended on the floor, with
the head of him she loved tied to her tresses; "here Eusebio! do not
forget to place two or three bundles of straw under that sweet child.
The dirty floor is a hard couch for her, and I want her to sleep
sweetly."

He left the room, grinning like a demon.

He had scarcely got outside, before the corporal, without uttering a
word, raised his sword, and, with one blow, cleft Eusebio to the chine.
The wretch fell without a cry, like an ox that is slaughtered.

The second soldier who was present exhibited no signs of emotion.

"That was a pretty blow, Luco," said he, twisting his long gray
moustache; "but are you not a little too precipitate?"

The corporal made him a sign to be silent, and, peering out of doors,
listened attentively. A cry, low as the softest breath of the wind, met
his ear.

"No Muñoz," he answered, "I am not too hasty; for there is the signal."

Then, putting the first finger of each hand into his mouth, he gave a
whistle, so sharp and prolonged, that those present crouched against
the walls, and trembled with fear, not knowing what new evil this
portentous signal might bring upon them.

"_¡Sangre de Cristo!_" cried Luco, addressing the terrified _arrieros_,
crouching on the floor, "Are you going to stay here and be massacred
like stupid ostriches? Take courage _caray!_ seize your weapons, and
range yourselves by the side of those who have come to save you!"

The poor devils shook their heads in despair. Terror had deprived
them of all energy, and they were incapable of organizing the least
resistance.

The shouting of the soldiery was heard on every side, as they excited
each other in their human chase; and each moment, wretches who had been
hunted up from all corners, rushed in to seek a precarious refuge in
the room whence they had escaped a few minutes previously.

Don Torribio, almost certain that he had driven all his game into the
net, signalled to his soldiers to leave off, and ordered them to enter
the _rancho._

All of a sudden the galloping of several horses was heard; six
cavaliers rode fiercely up, and ranged themselves in battle array
before the door of the house.

The lieutenant started when he saw them, went to his horse, and made as
if he would mount.

"Who are you, _caballeros?_" said he in menacing tones; "And how dare
you dispute my passage?"

"You shall soon know, Don Torribio the Butcher," said a voice, whose
mocking accent made the lieutenant turn pale.



CHAPTER XVIII.

TREACHERY.


There is one remark which has been often made. It is this: That,
generally speaking, men who delight to dabble in gore--who
unhesitatingly commit the most atrocious cruelties, and exercise their
powers in exciting the terror they love to inspire--are cowards; and
when they happen to meet with effective resistance, their cowardice
falls to a baseness beyond comparison. Jackals and hyenas are ferocious
and cowardly; men are jackals and hyenas--the thing is explained.

At the answer of the leader of the strangers, the _mashorqueras_ became
convulsed with terror. They comprehended that they were face to face
with resolute foes, without having it in their power to retreat an
inch. They crowded close to each other, and fixed their eyes in fright
and amazement on the six men who, sitting calmly and impassively before
them, bid them defiance.

Don Torribio alone felt no fear. The man was a savage brute, whom
the smell of blood intoxicated, and who could only breathe freely
in an atmosphere of carnage. Crossing his arms and raising his head
defiantly, he answered the words of the unknown with a long laugh of
contempt; then, turning to his terror-stricken soldiers:

"Will you suffer yourselves to be intimidated by six men?" he cried.
"Come, my children; face about. _¡Vive Dios!_ these _pícaros_ dare not
stand against us."

The soldiers, aroused by the tones of the voice they had so long
obeyed, and ashamed of their hesitation, fell in as well as they could,
and formed a line in front of the _rancho._ The lieutenant, putting
spurs to his horse, made him execute a _demivolte_, and resolutely
placed himself at the head of his troop. The strangers, notwithstanding
the inequality of numbers, did not hesitate a moment, but charged
the federalists sword and pistol in hand. Don Torribio received them
bravely without retreating a foot. Having discharged their pistols,
they took to the sword, and in an instant the _mêlée_ grew terrible. In
spite of their prodigies of valour and gigantic efforts, the strangers
would, in all probability, have had the worst of it, when suddenly
Corporal Luco, who had remained spectator of the fight, with four or
five of his comrades, made his horse bound to the front, and, instead
of ranging himself on the side of the federalists, attacked them
vigorously in flank, and came with his comrades to place himself beside
Don Leoncio.

This defection of a party of his soldiers raised Don Torribio's ire
to seething point--the more so, as the _mashorqueras_, not knowing
to what cause to attribute the strange conduct of the corporal and
his comrades, began to suspect treason, to lose courage, and to reply
but feebly to the blows of the assailants; who, seeing them falter,
redoubled their efforts for victory.

The _arrieros_ and wagoners, having in some measure recovered from
their fright, and seeing the favourable opportunity of avenging the
insults and villainies the hirelings of Rosas had so long heaped
upon them, armed themselves with anything that fell in their way,
and, burning to make up for lost time, rushed headforemost on their
ferocious enemies.

But at this very moment loud cries reached their ears. Some forty
mounted men entered at full gallop the zone of light proceeding from
the post house, and, deploying with amazing dexterity and despatch,
surrounded the _rancho_ on all sides.

The riders who had galloped up so opportunely for the assailants and so
inopportunely for the _colorados_, were Don Guzman de Ribera and his
_peones_.

Having left Buenos Aires several hours ago, they ought long before this
to have reached the _rancho_, which lay on the road they had to follow
in order to get to the _hacienda_ where Don Guzman hoped to meet his
brother. But at a little distance from the town, Don Bernardo Pedrosa
had managed somehow or other to cut his bonds; he slipped off the horse
on which he had been placed, threw himself among the tall grasses, and
disappeared before anyone suspected his flight.

Don Guzman had lost a good deal of time in marching for the fugitive,
whose traces he could not find, and had only abandoned the pursuit
when convinced that all his efforts to recover his prisoner were in
vain. Recalling his _peones_, who were scattered right and left, he had
resumed the road to the _hacienda_, feeling extremely uneasy for the
consequences of his prisoner's escape; for he knew Don Bernardo too
well to suppose for an instant that he would not strain every nerve to
avenge the insult he had met with at his hands.

When Don Guzman was still about half a league from the _rancho_, some
fugitives, escaped from the massacre, had run blindly among his men,
and warned him of what was going on. Without suspecting how important
these news might be to himself, his natural generosity excited the wish
to assist, if possible, the persons engaged in this terrible affray;
so Don Guzman, well acquainted with the ferocity of the Buenos-Airean
tyrant ruffians, had increased the pace of his horses, and galloped in
to aid the unfortunate people in their contest with the _mashorqueras._
His unexpected arrival decided the affair.

The lieutenant, finding flight impossible, retired step by step,
fighting like a lion, and withdrew all his men into the _rancho_,
himself remaining last in order to secure their retreat.

Don Torribio--the Butcher, as he was called--scorned to ask quarter.
He himself had never granted it to a soul. The extremity to which he
found himself reduced, far from diminishing his courage, had increased
it tenfold. Feeling his last hour was come--that no human aid could
save him--he resolved to fight to the last breath, and sell his life as
dearly as possible.

The _mashorqueras_, following the example of their leader, drew fresh
courage from the depths of their despair, and once within the _rancho_,
busied themselves in fortifying it, so as to carry on the strife as
long as they could, and to fall after an heroic resistance.

The doors and windows were barricaded with the utmost care; holes were
knocked in the walls; and the ruffians, half-intoxicated with previous
and still-continued libations, waited firmly for the attack, determined
to die bravely in the assault their enemies would soon make on the
_rancho._

However contrary to their expectations, a long time elapsed without
their adversaries commencing the attack. This suspension of
hostilities, which was incomprehensible,--for they were ignorant of all
that was going on outside,--gave them great uneasiness, and made the
bravest of them tremble.

Man is so constituted that, however firmly he may have made up his
mind to face death--however convinced he may be that his last hour is
come--however prepared for the struggle, the consequences of which he
knows and accepts beforehand--if that final struggle is delayed, his
resolution fades, the fever that sustained him dies out, and he begins
to fear, not death, for that he knows to be inevitable, but the agonies
which he fancies may precede death. He creates a thousand sinister
chimeras; and the unknown danger which threatens him, without his being
able to divine how or whence it will come, appears to him a thousand
times more terrible than that which he was prepared to face bravely and
with a resolute heart.

The _mashorqueras_ vainly sought, in copious draughts of _aguardiente_,
a remedy for the wild terror which gradually overcame them. The
mournful silence which reigned around them, the obscurity, wrapping
them up as in a shroud, and the forced inaction to which they were
condemned, concurred, in spite of their efforts, to increase the
invincible terror that had seized upon them. The lieutenant alone
preserved his ferocious energy, and awaited patiently the striking of
the hour for his last battle.

Let us see what was passing among the assailants, and what had
occasioned the delay in the assault.

Don Guzman de Ribera, as soon as the soldiers had shut themselves up in
the _rancho_, wished to know, before he finished with the latter, who
the persons were to whom his providential arrival had done such good
service.

It was not long before his curiosity was satisfied; his brother Don
Leoncio, who had recognised him from the first, rushed forward to
offer his thanks.

The two brothers, who had been so long separated, threw themselves
into each other's arms with tears of joy, and for some time forgot
everything but themselves in the unexpected happiness of meeting.

When the first shock of their sudden reunion was over, Don Guzman took
his brother's hand, and, leading him apart, uttered the single word,
"Well?" with a smile which was intended to be gay.

"She is here," said Don Leoncio, trying to stifle a sigh.

"Did she consent to come?"

"It was she who wished it."

"That is indeed astonishing," said Don Guzman.

"Why so? Doña Antonia is one of those rare spirits who never recoil
before an obligation, however hard it may be, when they know that
honour binds them."

"True. Well, be it so; it is perhaps better as it is and that she is
with you."

"Have you forgotten, brother, what occurred exactly a year ago today,
at sunrise, between you and me, when, in a moment of folly, I confessed
to you my love for Doña Antonia de Solis?"

"What is the good of recurring to it, brother? We are reconciled now,
thank God; and I hope nothing may happen to separate us again."

"Do not hope so, brother," replied Don Leoncio in melancholy accents.

"What do you mean, brother? My wife--"

"Your wife has never ceased to be worthy of you; you will go and see
her?"

Don Guzman hesitated.

"No," said he, at length; "not now; let us first finish with these
rascals; then I will give myself up to happiness."

"Let it be so," said Don Leoncio, rejoiced.

Two persons now made their appearance; they were Don Diego de Solis,
and Doña Antonia, his sister, and the wife of Don Guzman.

On seeing his wife, who had been compelled to withdraw from Buenos
Aires in order to escape from the pursuit of Don Bernardo Pedrosa, Don
Guzman, notwithstanding his resolve not to make himself known to her
for the present, could not resist the temptation of pressing her to his
heart.

The lady uttered a cry of joy on finding herself once more in her
husband's arms.

Don Leoncio, a few months after the confession he had made to his
brother, seemed to have forgotten his passion, and had espoused the
second sister of Don Diego de Solis, four months prior to the day the
events of which we are now recording.

So when Don Guzman was forced into a temporary separation from his
wife, he had not hesitated to confide her to his brother, convinced
that the latter's love for Doña Antonia had changed into honourable and
lasting friendship.

"Why have you returned?" said Don Guzman, kissing his wife.

"It was necessary," she replied in a low voice, and suppressing a
gesture of fear; "my sister herself recommended me to do so."

"It was very imprudent, my darling."

"Oh! I have no fears at your side. Will you not embrace your son, too?"

"Have you brought him with you?"

"I will not leave you again, whatever may happen." Then, bending to her
husband's ear she whispered: "Your brother is as much in love with me
as ever; his wife discovered his passion for me, and it is she and Don
Diego who advised my return, as my position was growing intolerable."

Don Guzman's eyes flashed fire.

"They did well," said he; "but silence: my brother is watching us."

In fact, Don Leoncio, uneasy at this conversation apart, had guessed,
with the intuition peculiar to the guilty, that he was the subject of
their discussion, and exhibited signs of restlessness which all his
efforts could not conceal. At last, unable to bear the suspense any
longer, he approached his brother, and said to him curtly:

"What are we to do now?"

"Whatever you please," answered Don Guzman, who had been disagreeably
affected by the sound of his voice after what his wife had told him.

Don Leoncio perceived the aversion his brother felt for him; he bit his
lips, but dissembled his resentment.

"It is for you to decide," said he, "since it is you who have rescued
us."

"I am at your service, brother. Don Diego," he continued, turning to
the young man, "I trust my wife to your care. We shall most likely
commence the assault at once. She and her infant must not be exposed to
danger."

"Set your heart at rest: I will be answerable for them," said Diego,
pressing his hand.

Before he left her, Doña Antonia threw herself once more on her
husband's breast.

"Beware!" she whispered in his ear; "Don Leoncio is meditating treason
against you."

"He would not dare!" firmly replied Don Guzman.

"Go; and fear not."

The lady, only half-consoled, followed her brother, and the two soon
disappeared behind the bales and wagons.

The two brothers were left alone, and there was a long silence between
them.

Don Guzman, with his arms crossed, and his head bent down, was in deep
meditation.

Don Leoncio was watching his brother intently, with a strange
expression on his countenance, and a sardonic smile on his lips.

At last Don Guzman raised his head.

"Enough of this," he said, "it has lasted too long." Don Leoncio
started: he fancied these words were addressed to him; but his brother
continued:

"Before attacking these ruffians we must summon them to surrender."

"Can you think of such a thing, brother. These men are _mashorqueras!_"

"So much the greater reason to prove to them that we are not rascals of
their own kind, and that we practise the laws of warfare, which they
glory in setting at nought."

"I submit, brother; although I know we are only losing valuable time."

Don Leoncio immediately ordered torches of resinous wood to be lighted,
so that the besieged might clearly see him; and, tying his handkerchief
to the point of his sword, resolutely advanced towards the _rancho._

When Don Torribio saw the light of the torches, he comprehended that
the assailants wished to enter into communication with him, and
unbarred a window, holding himself in readiness for the parley.

As soon as Don Leoncio got within a pace or two of the door, he halted.

"Flag of truce!" said he.

A window was thrown open, at which the burly figure of the lieutenant
made its appearance.

"What is it you want?" he replied, carelessly leaning his elbows on the
windowsill.

"We demand that you surrender," said Don Leoncio.

"Do you, really?" said Don Torribio, bursting into a laugh; "And why do
you want us to surrender?"

"Because all resistance is futile."

"You think so, do you?" replied the officer, with another laugh; "Try
and dislodge us, and see what it will cost you!"

"Much less than you think."

"Pooh! I should be glad to know how."

"Enough! Will you surrender, or not?"

"It is ridiculous! May the devil embrace me, if you know with whom you
have to deal! Do we ever demand quarter--we, _mashorqueras?_ If we
surrender, you will kill us, that is all. What is the good of it?"

"Then you are determined not to listen to terms?"

"Upon my soul, this is growing too tiresome!"

"You are resolved to defend yourself to the last?"

"_Canarios_, comrade! I should think so; tooth and nail. I will not
stay any longer. Be off!"

"Well, we shall have you all soon."

"Try it, _compadre;_ try it. In the meantime, as your conversation has
little attraction for me, I shall take the liberty of breaking it off.
Good luck!"

Saying this, he closed the window abruptly.

Don Leoncio turned to his brother, who had advanced to his side.

"Did I not tell you so?" said he, with a shrug; "Was I mistaken?"

"No; I admit it. Now, having saved our honour, we can act as we please."

Don Guzman leaned towards his brother, and spoke a few words in his
ear; the latter smiled, and left him.

The _peones, arrieros_, and wagoners were posted behind the _galeras_,
so as to be sheltered from the balls of the besieged. There they
awaited the signal for the assault.

Don Leoncio busied himself during all this time in heaping dry grass
and branches around the _rancho._ When sufficient had been collected,
he set fire to it, and his men cast their burning torches on the roof.

The fire, fed by the wind, soon extended itself; and in a very short
time the _rancho_ was enveloped in flames.

The besieged gave vent to a cry of horror; the besiegers replied by a
shout of triumph.

After all, the _mashorqueras_ had no reason to complain; it was meted
to them as they would have meted to others: they were undergoing the
_lex talionis._

In the meanwhile, the position of the besieged grew intolerable.
Blinded by the smoke and scorched by the fire, which ran up the walls
in long tongues of flame, calcining as they licked them, a sortie
became inevitable, if they would not be burnt alive.

The lieutenant ordered the door to be unfastened: he opened it
suddenly, and threw himself, followed by his men, into the thickest
ranks of the assailants.

The latter opened their ranks to receive them, then closed in upon
them, and surrounded them with a circle of steel.

At the moment when the last morsel of wall crashed into the fiery
furnace, the last _mashorquera_ fell, with his head cloven to the
chine. All had fallen around Don Torribio, who had fought to the last
moment with the desperate frenzy which makes a man almost invincible.

The sun rose in his majesty, illumining the savage depths of the Pampas.

The _arrieros_ and wagoners, cowed by the night's work, and dreading
the consequences, hastened to span the oxen to the heavy _galeras_, and
load their mules. Anxious to quit the place, they were soon dispersing
in all directions. Don Guzman and his _peones_ remained masters of the
field.

Soon after the attack commenced, Don Guzman was surprised that he did
not see his brother near him; but he did not attach much importance to
the fact, being more seriously occupied with other matters. Now, when
the affray was over, he burned with desire to see his wife. He was
amazed that Don Diego had not brought her to him as soon as all danger
for her was over.

But he was not very anxious. Don Diego had probably not wished to
expose the lady to the horror of crossing the field of battle, and
soiling her feet with the blood in which the earth was soaked. He
applauded his delicacy, and waited a few minutes, during which he
repaired the disorder of his dress, and removed the traces of the
combat.

At last he determined to look for his wife, whose long absence began to
make him very uneasy.

Corporal Luco, as anxious as himself, undertook to guide him; he had a
faint recollection of seeing Don Diego, accompanied by Doña Antonia,
the nurse, and two or three more, going in the direction of a hollow in
the ground at a little distance.

All of a sudden, the two men uttered a shout of sorrow, and recoiled in
horror from the dreadful spectacle before their eyes.

Don Diego was lying on the ground, his chest pierced through and
through. He was dead; and close to him Doña Antonia and the nurse were
lying senseless. The nurse was Corporal Luco's wife.

Don Guzman fell on his knees beside his wife; he then perceived a
paper, which she was clutching convulsively in her right hand.

The unhappy man had great difficulty in releasing it from her grasp;
some words were written on it. Don Guzman cast his eyes over the lines,
and threw himself on the ground with an agonising cry of despair.

The paper contained these words:

"Brother,--You have deprived me of the woman I love; I deprive you of
your son: we are quits."

"DON LEONCIO DE RIBERA."

No doubts were possible after reading this: Don Leoncio was really the
author of this odious abduction. He had contrived this horrible piece
of treachery while his brother was coming, in all his confidence, to
meet him. With an incredible refinement of wickedness, and in order to
enjoy his revenge to the utmost, he had delayed the stroke, with the
determination to make it fall on his brother's head like a thunderbolt.

For a long time, Don Guzman remained crouching on the Pampas, holding
in his arms the lifeless body of his wife, whom he tried in vain to
resuscitate. He lay there, absorbed in doubts, and trembling; seeing
nothing; hearing nothing; lamenting the death of his wife; deprived of
his child.

He was suddenly roused by a heavy stroke on his shoulder. He raised his
head. A man was standing before him, with a smile on his lips.

"Don Guzman de Ribera," said he, with a mocking salutation, "you are my
prisoner."

It was Don Bernardo Pedrosa, with a numerous escort of soldiers.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE END OF THE STORY.


Here Don Estevan paused in his recital.

"All this is frightful!" exclaimed Don Fernando, in accents of mingled
anger and pity.

"It is not all," replied the other.

"But what connection has this horrible story with Don Pedro de Luna?"

"Did I not tell you when I first began that the history was his?"

"You did; but, carried away by the dreadful incidents of your
narrative, I lost sight of the personages. My whole mind was so
excited, that I fancied myself a spectator of the scenes that passed
before me with such giddy rapidity, and did not recollect that one of
the actors was so close to us. But how does it happen that you are so
well acquainted with the details of this miserable tragedy?"

"I have heard them told many and many a day, from infancy till now
that I am a man. My father was the Corporal Luco, whom you have seen
so devoted to the Ribera family. My poor mother was the nurse, and I
am foster brother to Don Guzman's child; for we were born about the
same date, and my mother, who was brought up in the family, was very
anxious to nurse us both, insisting that, in imbibing the same milk as
my young master, my devotion to him would be endless. Alas! God has
decided otherwise; he is dead."

"Who can tell?" said Don Fernando, with gentle pity; "Perhaps he may
make his appearance again some day."

"Alas! We have no longer any hope. More than twenty years have elapsed
since the frightful catastrophe, and during all that time no efforts,
however active, have sufficed to lift a corner of the mysterious veil
which conceals the fate of the poor child."

"His poor mother must have suffered dreadfully."

"She went mad. But the sun is rapidly sinking to the horizon, and night
will be here before two hours have passed. Let me finish my tale, by
telling you what happened after the arrest of Don Guzman."

"Go on, my friend; I am anxious to know the end of this dark story."

Don Guzman replied by a smile of contempt to the summons of Colonel
Bernardo Pedrosa. He raised his wife in his arms, and prepared to
follow his enemy. Notwithstanding his hatred of Don Guzman, Don
Bernardo was a man of the world; the misery which overwhelmed the man
he had so long persecuted touched his heart. His pity was aroused, and
on his way back to Buenos Aires he showed the greatest consideration,
treating him with all the respect his unhappy position demanded.

The Dictator was furious at the massacre of his hirelings. Rejoiced at
finding a plausible pretext to free himself from a man whom, on account
of his great reputation and influence amongst the highest classes of
society, he had hitherto dreaded to attack, Rosas determined to make a
terrible example of him. Rudely separated from his wife, the prisoner
was cast into one of those horrible dungeons in which the tyrant's
victims languished, awaiting the tortures he prepared for them.

But the Dictator's vengeance was not destined to be as complete as he
hoped. The French and English consuls, moved by pity for the miserable
state to which Doña Antonia was reduced, made energetic remonstrances
to the tyrant, and even went several times to Palermo to hunt up the
savage in his lair In short, by dint of prayers and menaces, they
obtained the release of the poor woman, and her restoration to her
family; Rosas gnashing his teeth and foaming with rage when he granted
the favour. But he did not dare to brave the consuls, and felt his want
of power to cope with them. Thanks to this beneficent intervention, and
the mighty power they exercised in her behalf, Doña Antonia, at least,
escaped the tortures the tyrant was preparing to inflict.

As to Don Guzman, all attempts in his favour were unsuccessful. Rosas
not only refused to release him, but even to mitigate the terrible
treatment to which he was ordered to be subjected in prison.

Unfortunately, Don Guzman was guilty in the eye of the law. The consuls
could take no official steps and were obliged to desist, for fear of
exasperating the tiger to heap greater injuries on the man in whom they
took such lively interest.

Six months had elapsed since Don Guzman was arrested. Thanks to the
care with which Doña Antonia was surrounded, she recovered her reason.
But her position was thereby rendered worse; for she was now able to
appreciate her calamity to its fullest extent. She comprehended how
great was her misfortune; and her despair reduced her to such utter
prostration, that her life was in danger.

While this was going on, the rumour was spread abroad that Don Guzman,
who had seemed forgotten in his dungeon, was to be brought up for
judgment, and shortly to appear before a court martial.

Rosas eagerly seized the opportunity of giving all publicity to a trial
for high treason, hoping to make men forget the murders committed
in his name, in the interest of the discussion which would arise
concerning the trial.

The report was soon officially confirmed; the day was named on which
Don Guzman was to appear before his judges.

But there is one person of whom we have not spoken for some time, and
to whom we must now recur,--no other than Corporal Luco.

The worthy corporal, when he saw the _arrieros_ and wagoners go off,
and that Don Leoncio had abandoned his brother with the greater number
of _peones_, did not attempt to deceive himself as to his own position.
A traitor and deserter, the least that could happen to him would be to
be shot. So when, by the first rays of the rising sun, he saw a cloud
of dust rising afar off in the Pampas, he concluded that soldiers
must be hidden by it; that these soldiers were coming to avenge their
comrades, whom he, Luco, had helped to slay with so much good will; and
that if they caught him, they would instantly shoot him. The prospect
was not pleasant to the corporal; at the same time he loved his master,
and could not resolve to leave him. He was thus in great perplexity,
and unable to come to a decision, though time pressed.

Luckily his wife came to the rescue, and made him comprehend that any
attempt, in Don Guzman's present state, to induce him to fly must fail;
that, after all, it was better to preserve his freedom, in order to use
it hereafter to obtain his master's; and lastly, that he too, Luco, was
a father, who ought to save his life for his child's sake.

All these reasons conquered the corporal's hesitation. He seized one
horse, his wife another; and both vanished on one side, while the
soldiers came up on the other.

When he arrived at Buenos Aires, a bright idea struck him. Excepting
Muñoz and three other soldiers who had taken his part and fought with
him against their former comrades, all the _mashorqueras_ had been
slain. Not one remained to accuse the corporal of the treason of which
he felt himself guilty. Muñoz, whom he encountered strutting before
the gates of Buenos Aires waiting for his arrival, banished all his
scruples.

Taking up his part directly, the worthy corporal accompanied by his
confederates, went straight to his colonel, to whom he told his
own version of what had happened at the _rancho_, launching out in
invectives and threats of vengeance against Don Guzman, for whom he
expressed the utmost abhorrence.

His artifice succeeded beyond his expectations. The colonel charmed
with his conduct, and trusting to his tale, made him a sergeant, and
gave the corporal's stripe to Muñoz. The brave _colorados_ overwhelmed
the colonel with thanks and protestations of devotion to Rosas, and
retired, laughing in their sleeve.

Luco managed so well during the six months before Don Guzman's trial,
and gave such convincing proofs of his attachment to the cause of
the Dictator, that the latter, deceived in turn, although, like all
other tyrants, he made a virtue of distrust, reposed the greatest
confidence in him; and when the sergeant asked to command the guard
which was to take charge of Don Guzman during the trial, not the least
objection was made. This was exactly what the sergeant wanted: all his
machinations during these six months tended to this one aim; so, when
the day for the trial was named, he prepared his batteries, and kept
himself ready for action when the critical moment should come. Luco
had sworn to save his master; and what the sergeant once resolved, he
carried out, let the consequences be what they would.

Unhappily, the greatest obstacles in the way of the sergeant under
these circumstances came from Don Guzman himself. The prisoner wished
to die. For a long time Luco racked his brain in vain attempts at
finding some means to persuade him to relinquish the feeling. To all
his arguments Don Guzman replied, that his cup was full; that life was
a burden to him; and that death was the only good he could henceforth
look for.

The sergeant shook his head, and retired, perfectly convinced of the
fallacy of the arguments. At length he arrived one day at the dungeon,
and opened the door with a countenance so radiant with joy, that his
master could not help remarking it, and asking what had made him so
happy.

"Ah," replied the sergeant, "at last I have found out the way to
convince you."

"You are dreadfully tenacious of your plan to save me," said Don
Guzman, with a mournful smile.

"More so than ever, _¡canarios!_ This time there will be no doubt
about your compliance. In two days you shall judge for yourself."

"So much the better," said Don Guzman, sighing; "it will be over the
sooner."

"Good! We are not so badly off for friends as you think, señor--amongst
others, the French and English consuls. There is a fine French schooner
in the harbour, which only waits for your presence on board to sail
directly."

"Then she runs the risk of never leaving Buenos Aires."

"Pooh! pooh! I am of a different opinion--I think quite the contrary.
I have come to an understanding with the French consul. The day after
tomorrow the schooner will set sail: she will send a boat to fetch you,
and will hug the coast till you come. Once under the protection of the
French flag, who will dare to touch you?"

"For the last time, listen to me, Luco," said Don Guzman firmly: "I
will not--understand me--I will not be saved. I intend that the infamy
of my death shall cover the Dictator with confusion. I thank you for
your devotion, my good old servant; but I demand that you cease to
compromise yourself by your efforts for me. Let us speak no more of it."

"Then," said the sergeant, "your mind is quite made up? Nothing can
change your determination?"

"Alas! One single person might have that influence over me; but that
person is in ignorance of all that happens around her. Happily
for her, she has lost her reason, and with reason her memory--that
incurable cancer of a broken heart."

The sergeant smiled, and, opening his uniform produced a letter from
his breast, and, without a word, handed it to Don Guzman.

"What is this, Luco?" said the latter, as he hesitated to take the
letter.

"Read it, _mi amo_," replied the sergeant. "I wanted to give you a
complete surprise; but you are so obstinate, I am obliged to deploy my
forces."

Don Guzman opened the letter with trembling hands, and rapidly ran
through it.

"Almighty Father!" he exclaimed, "Is it possible? Doña Antonia has
recovered her reason, and bids me live!"

"Will you obey this time, _mi amo?_"

"Do what you will, Luco; I will obey you in all things. Oh, how I wish
to live now!"

"_¡Cuerpo de Cristo!_ You shall live, _mi amo_. I swear it to you."

With this consoling promise, Luco quitted the prison.

The day of Guzman's trial arrived at last. The Dictator, who knew how
much sympathy the prisoner excited, considered it prudent to make
a grand military display on the occasion. The city was literally
crammed with troops, the precautions being taken more for the purpose
of intimidating the friends of the prisoner, than as precautionary
measures against an escape, which he deemed impossible.

The French schooner, as Luco had predicted, sent a boat's crew ashore,
on the pretence of closing the agent's accounts; she then weighed
anchor, and stood on and off in the river expecting her boat.

The detachment detailed to escort the prisoner was strong, and composed
entirely of _colorados_, Rosa's most devoted troops. It was placed
under the command of Colonel Don Bernardo de Pedrosa; the special
platoon in charge of the prisoner was under the orders of Sergeant Luco
and Corporal Muñoz.

Twenty minutes before the specified time for commencing the march
to the court, Luco entered his master's dungeon, and had a final
conversation with him. He then gave him two pairs of pistols and a
poniard, and left him, saying;

"Remember _mi amo_, to keep quite quiet till you hear the words, never
mind from whom: 'To the devil with the sun! It blinds one!'--that is
your signal."

"Make yourself easy; I will not forget. Remember your promise to kill
me, rather than to let me fall again into the hands of the tyrant."

"Enough, _mi amo._ Pray God to help us; we stand in great need of Him."

"Farewell, Luco: you are right; I will pray."

The two men parted, not to meet again till the decisive moment.

However, the sergeant grew more anxious as that moment approached.
The formidable preparations of the Dictator raised his secret
apprehensions. But he gave no signs of his perturbation, for fear of
discouraging his accomplices; on the contrary, he affected an air of
perfect confidence, though he kept grumbling under his moustache:
"Never mind, it will be a hard tussle; we shall have plenty of firing."

Soon after, the clock of the cabildo (court of justice) struck ten. The
drum called the soldiers to arms; the gossips in the street stretched
their heads forward, murmuring an "Ah!" of satisfaction: all eyes were
fixed on the prison.

They had not long to wait. At the close of a few minutes, the prison
door opened, and the prisoner came forth. His face was pale, calm, and
stamped with indomitable resolution. He marched quietly in the middle
of a dozen soldiers commanded by Sergeant Luco. The latter, as if
wishing to be specially careful of his prisoner, strode on his right,
Muñoz on his left, almost side by side with Don Guzman.

The platoon was preceded by a strong detachment of _colorados_, at the
head of which curveted Colonel Don Bernardo de Pedrosa on a magnificent
coal-black stallion; in rear of the prisoner there was a second
detachment, as strong as the one in advance. The procession advanced
slowly between two mournful and silent crowds of people, who were with
difficulty kept down by two lines of sentries.

It was one of those magnificent spring mornings which South America
alone has the privilege of producing. The fresh breeze from the Pampas,
laden with odoriferous scents, rustled in the leaves and branches of
the gardens attached to the houses, and cooled the air heated by the
beams of the tropical sun.

The procession still continued its march. In spite of the danger
which lay in any exhibition of sympathy for the prisoner, the crowd
respectfully uncovered as he passed. He, calm and dignified as at
the moment he quitted the prison, marched on, his hat in his hand,
saluting, right and left, the people who were not afraid of testifying
their respect.

Two-thirds of the road had already been travelled; a few minutes more,
and the prisoner would reach the tribunal, when, in the Calle de la
Federación, several spectators, no doubt too rudely pushed back by
the soldiers lining the road, resisted the pressure to which they
were subjected, drove back the sentries, and, for a moment, almost
broke their line. As the procession approached, this tumult gradually
increased: cries, recriminations, and threats were bandied about with
the vivacity and rapidity peculiar to the races of the South, until
what seemed at first sight to be a squabble of no importance, began to
assume the dimensions of a veritable riot.

Don Bernardo, uneasy at the noise he heard, left the head of the
escort, and came galloping back to ascertain what was going on, and to
pacify the tumult.

Unluckily, the popular feeling had risen with so much rapidity, that
at several points the ranks had been broken, the soldiers isolated,
and--how it happened no one could say--disarmed, with unexampled
celerity, by persons of whom they had no knowledge. In short the
procession was cut in two.

Don Bernardo saw at a glance the gravity of the situation. Making way,
with considerable difficulty, through the crowd, he rode up to the
sergeant, who, cool and imperturbable, still stuck to his prisoner.

"Aha!" said the colonel, with a sigh of satisfaction, "Take me good
care of the prisoner. Close up! I fear you will be obliged to open a
passage by main force."

"We will open one, do not you be alarmed, colonel. But to the devil
with the sun! It blinds one."

The moment he uttered these words, a soldier who was close at hand
seized the colonel's leg, and threw him from his horse on the ground.
In the same instant, Luco caught hold of the bridle, while Don Guzman,
rapid as thought vaulted into the saddle.

What we have related took place so suddenly, and the whole was done so
adroitly, that Don Bernardo, completely confounded, was nailed to the
ground by a bayonet before he could comprehend what was happening: it
is even probable that he died without guessing the cause of the riot.

In the meantime, the twelve riders of the platoon had closed around
their ex-prisoner, and started at full speed through the thickest of
the throng.

Then a curious thing occurred: these inquisitive gapers, who were an
instant before so crowded and compact that they had broken through the
line of soldiery, open right and left before the fugitives, shouted
their joy at their success, and, the moment they had passed, closed up
the breach they had themselves made, and again presented an impassable
human barrier to the rearguard, which vainly strove to break it.

Armed men seemed to start suddenly out of the ground, gave the soldiers
back blow for blow, and offered a resistance sufficiently energetic to
allow time for the fugitives to secure their safety.

Then, suddenly as if by enchantment, these menacing crowds, which had
so lately disputed the ground, retreated, melted away, in some manner
or another; and that so speedily, that when the soldiers, recovered
from their surprise, were prepared for a vigorous defence, there was no
one in front of them: the insurgents had disappeared, without leaving
any traces behind them.

This audacious affray might almost have passed for a dream, were it not
that, on one side, the prisoner had escaped, and, that on the other,
Colonel Pedrosa, and five or six soldiers, lay weltering in their blood
on the ground; proving the reality of the daring _coup-de-main_ which
had been executed with such remarkable audacity and success.

Don Guzman and his companions found refuge in the boat which was
waiting for them. Five minutes later, they were on board the French
ship; and when pursuit was ordered, the schooner could only be seen on
the horizon, like a halcyon's wing balanced on the breeze.

On board the schooner Don Guzman found his wife. The schooner sailed
for Veracruz.

We have already related the decision which Don Guzman had made, and in
what manner he carried it out.

In order to insure the success of the researches he was about to make
to find his son, and to secure his own tranquillity, Don Guzman, on
setting foot in Mexico, resigned his own name for that of Don Pedro de
Luna, to which he had a right, and under which we shall still continue
to designate him.[1] He hoped by these means to escape the persecutions
of Don Leoncio, whose hatred, still unsatiated by the abduction of the
child, might possibly lead him to attempt to add his brother as another
victim.

Don Guzman's calculations were correct, or seemed so. Since his
departure from Buenos Aires, he had never heard of his brother: no one
knew what had become of him, nor whether he were alive or dead.

Five years after his arrival at the _hacienda_, a fresh misfortune
overtook the poor exile. Doña Antonia, who had never completely
recovered the shock to her mind, the consequences of the terrible
occurrences in the Pampas, and whose health had always languished
since, had expired in his arms, after giving birth to a daughter.

This daughter was the charming girl whom we have presented to our
readers under the name of Doña Hermosa.

From that time forth, Don Pedro concentrated his affections on this
delicate creature, the only bond which attached him to an existence
which might have been so happy, and which, struck by the cold breath of
adversity, had suddenly become so miserable.

Of all those who had accompanied him into exile, he alone remained. All
the rest were dead: he had seen them sink, one after another, into the
tomb. Manuela, Luco's wife, the confidante of her master's sorrows, was
charged with the education of his daughter; a charge she executed with
care and devotion beyond praise.

Such was the tale related by the _major-domo._ In order that the reader
may fully understand the events recorded in subsequent chapters,
it is necessary to remind him that Doña Hermosa was sixteen at the
commencement of our story, and that four years intervened between the
retirement of Don Pedro to the Hacienda de las Norias and the birth
of his daughter. Consequently twenty years had elapsed since the
occurrence of the circumstances narrated by Don Estevan Diaz.


[1] See "Stoneheart," the companion volume.

THE END.





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