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   Chapter 2 “ No.2

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 20283

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


I'll be with you in a minute, folks."

To appreciate the accent which the American station agent laid on "folks" it is necessary that one should have been marooned for a couple of years in a ramshackle Mexican station with only a chocolate-skinned henchman, or mozo, for companion. It asserted at once welcome and patriotic feeling.

"You know this isn't the old United States," he added, hurrying by. "These greasers are the limit. Close one eye for half a minute and when you open it again it's a cinch you'll find the other gone. If they'd just swipe each other's baggage it wouldn't be so bad. But they steal their own, then sue the company for the loss. Here, you sons of burros, drop that!" with which he dived headlong into the midst of the free fight that a crowd of cargadores, or porters, were waging over the up train baggage.

Taking warning, the two returned to their own baggage. As they waited, talking, these two closest of friends offered a fairly startling contrast. In the case of Seyd, a graduate in mining of California University, years of study and strain had tooled his face till his aggressive nose stood boldly out above hollowed cheeks and black-gray eyes. A trifle over medium height, the hundred and sixty pounds he ought to have carried had been reduced a good ten pounds by years of prospecting in Mexico and Arizona. This loss of flesh, however, had been more than made up by a corresponding gain in muscle. Moving a few paces around the baggage, he exhibited the easy, steady movement that comes from the perfect co-ordination of nerve and muscle. His feet seemed first to feel, then to take hold of the ground. In fact, his entire appearance conveyed the impression of force under perfect control, ready to be turned loose in any direction.

Shorter than Seyd by nearly half a foot, Billy Thornton, on the other hand, was red where the other was dark, loquacious instead of thoughtful. From his fiery shock of red hair and undergrowths of red stubble to his slangy college utterance he proved the theory of the attraction of opposites. Bosom friends at college, it had always been understood between them that when either got his "hunch" the other should be called in to share it. And as the luck-in the shape of a rich copper mine-had come first to Seyd, he had immediately wired for Billy. They were talking it over, as they so often before had done, when the agent returned.

"Why-you're the fellow that was down here last fall, ain't you?" he asked, offering his hand. "Didn't recognize you at first. You don't mean to say that you have denounced-"

"-The Santa Gertrudis prospect?" Seyd nodded. "He means the opposition I told you we might expect." He answered Billy's look of inquiry.

"Opposition!" The agent spluttered. "That's one word for it. But since you're so consarnedly cool about it, mister, let me tell you that this makes the eleventh time that mine has been denounced, and so far nobody has succeeded in holding it." Looking at Billy, probably as being the more impressionable, he ran on: "The first five were Mex and as there were no pesky foreign consuls to complicate the case with bothersome inquiries, they simply vanished. One by one they came, hit the trail out there in a cloud of dust, and were never seen again.

"After them came the Dutchman, a big fat fellow, obstinate as one of his own mules, and a scrapper. For a while it looked as though he'd make good-might have, perhaps, if he hadn't taken to using his dynamite box for a pillow. You see, his peons used to steal the sticks to fish, and so many of them blew themselves into kingdom come that he was always running shy on labor. So, as I say, he used the box for a pillow till it went off one night and distributed him all over the Barranca de Guerrero. Just how it came about of course nobody knew, nor cared, and they never did find a piece big enough to warrant an inquest. It just went as accidental, and he'd scarcely, so to say, stopped raining before a Frenchman jumped the claim. But he only lasted for a couple of days, landed back here within a week, and jumped the up train without a word.

"Last came the English Johnnies, two of 'em, the real 'haw, haw' boys; no end of style to them and their outfit. As they had hosts of friends up Mexico City, it would never have done to use harsh measures. But if the Johnnies had influence of one sort, Don Luis-he's the landowner, you know-had it to burn of another. Not only did he gain a general's commission during the revolutionary wars, but he's also a member of the Mexican Congress, so close to the government that he needs only to wink to get what he wants. So just about the time the Johnnies had finished development work and begun to deliver ore out here at the railroad-presto! freights went up, prices went down, till they'd wiped out the last cent of profit. Out go the Johnnies-enter you." With real earnestness he concluded: "Of course, there's nothing I'd like better than to have you for neighbors. It ain't so damn lively here. But I'd hate to see you killed. Take my advice, and quit."

He had addressed himself principally to Billy. But instead of discouragement, impish delight illumined the latter's freckles.

"A full-sized general with the whole Mexican government behind him? Bully! I never expected anything half so good. But, say! If the mine is so rich why don't the old cock work it himself instead of leaving it to be denounced by any old tramp?"

"Because he don't have to. He has more money now than he ever can use. He is worth half a million in cattle alone. And he's your old-fashioned sort that hate the very thought of change. By the way, he just left on the up train, him and his niece."

"What, the girl with the dog?" Billy yelled it. "Didn't you see-no, you were in the baggage-room. Well, he's our dearest friend-presented Seyd here with all of his horses, cattle, lands, and friends. A bit of a mining claim ought not to cut much ice in an order like that."

"You met them?" The agent shook his head, however, after he had heard the particulars. "Don't count much on Spanish courtesies. They go no deeper than the skin. Nice girl, the niece, more like us than Mex, and she ain't full-blood, for matter of that. Her grandfather was Irish, a free lance that fought with Diaz during the French war. His son by a Mexican wife married Don Luis's sister, and when he died she and her daughter came to keep the old fellow's house, for he's been a widower these twenty years. Like most of the sprigs of the best Mexican families, she was educated in Europe, so she speaks three languages-English, French, and Spanish. Yes, they're nice people from the old Don down, but lordy! how he hates us gringos. He'll repay you for the life of the dog-perhaps by saving you alive for a month? But after that-take my advice, and git."

While he was talking, Seyd had listened with quiet interest. Now he put in, "We will-just as quickly as we can hire men and burros to pack our stuff out to the mine."

"Well, if you will-you will." Having thus divested himself of responsibility, the agent continued: "And here's where your troubles begin. Though donkey-drivers are as thick as fleas in this town, I doubt whether you can hire one to go to Santa Gertrudis."

"But the Englishmen?" Seyd questioned. "They must have had help."

"Brought their entire outfit down with them from Mexico City."

After Seyd's rejection of his offer the hacendado had entered into conversation with a ranchero at the other end of the platform, and, glancing a little regretfully in his direction, Seyd asked, "Do you know him?"

The agent nodded. "Sebastien Rocha? Yes, he's a nephew to the General."

"He offered to get me mules."

"He did! Why, man alive! he hates gringos worse than-worse than I hate Mexicans. He offered you help? I doubt he'll do it when he knows where you're going." In a last attempt at dissuasion he added, "But if he doesn't I can't see how you can win out with rates and prices at the same mark that wiped out the Johnnies."

"That's our business." Seyd laughed. Then, warmed by the honest fellow's undoubted anxiety, he said, "Do you remember any consignment of brick that ever came to this station?"

"Sure, three car loads, billed to the Dutchman. But what has that to do-"

"Just this-that the man had the right idea. Though the mine is the richest copper proposition I have ever seen-besides carrying gold values sufficient to cover smelting expenses-it would never pay, as you say, to ship it out at present prices. But once smelted down into copper matte there's a fortune in it, as the Dutchman knew. He had already laid out the foundation of an old-style Welsh smelter, and, though it isn't very big, we propose to make it stake us to a modern plant."

"So that's your game!" The agent whistled.

"That's our game," Billy confirmed. "If dear cousin over there can only be persuaded to furnish the mules we will do the rest. Go ask him, Bob."

Seyd hesitated. "I'm afraid that I turned him down rather roughly. Let's try first ourselves."

For the last half hour their baggage had formed a center of interest for the porters, mule-drivers, and hackmen who formed the bulk of the crowd, and the snap of the agent's fingers brought a score of them running. Each tried to make his calling and election sure by seizing a piece of baggage. In ten seconds the pile was dissolved and was flowing off in as many different directions when Seyd's answer to a question brought all to a sudden halt.

"To the mina Santa Gertrudis."

Crash! the kit of mining tools dropped from the shoulder of the muleteer who had asked the question, and it had no more than touched earth before it was buried under the other pieces.

"I told you so," the agent commented, and was going on when a voice spoke in from their rear.

"What is the trouble, se?ors?"

The hacendado had approached unnoticed, and, turning quickly, Seyd met for the third time the equivocal look, now lightened by a touch of amusement. Suppressing a recurrence of irritation he answered, quietly: "We wish to go to

the hacienda San Nicolas, se?or, upon which we have denounced the mining claim known as the Santa Gertrudis. For some reason no one of these men will hire. Perhaps you can tell why?"

"Now your fat's in the fire," the agent muttered.

Whether or no he had overheard Seyd's answer to the muleteer, the man's dark face gave no sign. "Quien sabe? Ask their blood brother, the burro. One would have little to do and time to waste if he attempted to plumb a mule-driver's superstitions. Ola, Carlos."

While he was talking the crowd had continued to back away, but it stopped now and stood staring, for all the world like a herd of frightened cattle. The big muleteer who had led the retreat returned on a shuffling run, and as he stood before the hacendado, sombrero in hand, Seyd saw the fear in his face.

"This fellow sometimes works for me. You will need"-he paused, overlooking the baggage-"three burros and two riding-mules. He has only two. Ola, Mattias!" When a second muleteer had come with the same breathless haste he gave the quiet order, "You will take these se?ors to Santa Gertrudis."

Bowing slightly, he had walked away before Seyd could lay hands on enough Spanish to state his obligation, and as, pausing, he then looked back his face once more changed, expressing knowledge and sarcastic amusement at the mixed feelings behind Seyd's halting thanks. His bow, returning the customary answer, was more than half shrug.

"It is nothing."

* * *

"One moment, se?or!"

The burrors having departed with their loads, Seyd and Billy were mounting to follow when the hacendado called to them from the platform. "To-night, of course, you will stay in Chilpancin. But to-morrow? By which trail do you travel?" When Seyd answered he added a word of counsel: "I thought so. Most strangers take that way. But there is a shorter by many miles. Instruct your drivers to take the old trail down the Barranca."

Thanking him, they rode on.

In accordance with the mysterious and immutable law which places all Mexican cities at least a mile from the railroad, they traveled nearly half an hour before sighting, across a barranca, the town cuddled in a hollow beneath the opposite hills. Under the rich light of the waning sun the variegated color of its walls, houses, churches, merged in warm gold, glowed like a topaz in the setting of the dark hills. Paved with river cobbles and crooked as a dog's hind leg, a street fell steeply down into the barranca from whose black depths uprose the low roar of rushing waters. Entering upon it, while still within sound of a freight engine puffing upgrade to the station, they dropped back four hundred years into the midst of a life that differed but little from that of the Aztecs under the Montezumas.

On both sides of the street one-story adobes flamed in all the colors of the rainbow-roses, purples, umber, greens-a vivid alternation which was toned only by the weathered gray of heavy doors and massive oaken grills across the windows. At the tinkle of their bells there would come a flash of Spanish eyes in the cool dusk behind the windows, and a pretty face would emerge from deep shadow to fade again before Billy's smile. The peons and hooded women on the narrow causeways were equally reserved. They either passed without according them notice or returned to their glances a stolid stare. Theirs were the dark, impenetrable faces of old Mexico.

While they were climbing at a snail's pace the opposite hill, dusk fell over the town, but presently, riding out of a black alley into the main plaza, they emerged on a scene that caused even the matter-of-fact Billy to exclaim in wonder. On all four sides hundreds of torches blossomed in the dusk, toning with soft rich lights the vivid adobes, tinting the cold white blankets and garments of the hucksters who squatted by their displays-guavas and pineapples, cocoanuts, mangoes, alligator pears, and other fruits of the tropics which shared the same straw mat with cabbage, squash, onions, and other familiar produce of the cold North. In accordance with the shrewd policy that has always kept the Roman Church in close touch with its world, the booths extended to the very doors of a stone church which occupied one side of the square, and the heavy odors of fried garlic mingled with the breath of incense that floated out through the wide doors.

A religious fiesta was in full blast, and they had to turn the mules to avoid the stream of worshipers who shuffled across the square, up the stone steps, and the length of the paved aisles to the great altar which blazed with the light of a thousand candles. Looking, as they rode past, they saw a peon-whose spotless blanket shone whiter by contrast with the scarlet serape which had fallen backward across his calves-erect on his knees, arms extended in a rigid cross, a figure of deathless adoration before the Virgin. It required only the brazen storm of bells that just then broke overhead to complete the atmosphere of savage medievalism. The worshipers might easily have been the first Aztec converts crawling before the superior altars of the Spanish conquerors' God.

Seyd, always thoughtful and sensitive to impression, felt the influence of the scene, and the feeling deepened as their mules struck hollow echoes in the vaulted passage of the hotel whose iron-studded gates, barred windows, yard-thick walls all bespoke a life which had not yet progressed beyond the era of sieges. A runway led down into a wide courtyard and to the stables which lay under a tiled gallery, the hotel proper, for the cell-like sleeping-rooms used by the better class opened upon it.

But the real life of the place surged in the patio, or courtyard, below, and, after they had dined on rice, eggs, and beans, or frijoles, Billy and Seyd perched on the balustrade of the gallery to watch its ebb and flow. Into the great stone inclosure muleteers of Tepic, freighters of Guadalajara, potters of Cuernavaca and Taxco, pilgrims to the far shrines, and their first cousins in dirt and importunity, the beggars, had poured from three main lines of travel, and they were so crowded that it was difficult to find space among the mule panniers, crates, and bundles for their tiny cooking-fires. On occasion a face, plump and darkly pretty, would bloom out of the dusk as a woman fanned the charcoal under her clay cooking-pots. Again, a leaping flame would illumine a hawk face, deeply bronzed and heavily mustached, or lend a deeper dye to the scarlet of some sleeper's serape. In its rich somber color the scene made a picture that would have been loved by Rembrandt. Just as it had done for centuries before the great master was born to his brush, the scene changed and mingled, ebbed and flowed, while its units passed among the fires, exchanging the gossip of the trails. The hum of it rose to the gallery like the low roar of a distant torrent, but out of it Seyd was able to catch and translate isolated scraps.

"Take not thy aguardiente to El Quiss, amigo. The administrador-I tell it to my ruth, since I was well skinned by him-is a thief of the nether world. He would flay a flea for the hide and fat."

"Ola, Carlos! The jefe [chief of police] of San Pedro is keeping an eye for thy return ever since he bought the last load of charcoal."

"The swine! Is it my fault that he expects good oak burning for the price of soft ceiba?"

One remark caused Seyd to prick his ears, for it was addressed to one of their own muleteers. "Where go the gringos, amigo? To Santa Gertrudis? And thou art driving for them? Hombre, hast thou so little regard for thy neck?"

The answer was lost in the sudden braying of a burro in the stables underneath, but the voice of the questioner, a strident tenor, rose over all. "An order from Don Sebastien? Carambar-r-r-r-a! And you go by the old trail down the Barranca? But, hombre! It is-" The voice lowered so that Seyd could not hear.

Imagining that the talk bore merely on the condition of the trail, he dismissed it from his mind and returned to his study of the crowd, permitting his gaze to wander here, there, wherever the incessant movement brought to the surface some bit of color or trait of life. In this he obeyed a natural instinct. Endowed with a temperament nicely balanced between the philosophical and the practical, he had taken an auxiliary course in "letters" along with his mining for the sole purpose of broadening his viewpoint and widening his touch with life. Indeed, he had bent his profession to the same end, using it as a means to travel and study, in which he differed altogether from Billy, who was the mining engineer in every dimension. Where Billy saw only the externals, humors, and absurdities, and the picturesqueness of that teeming life, Seyd's subtle intelligence took hold of the primordial feeling under it all. Contributing only an occasional answer to the other's chatter, he bathed in the atmosphere and absorbed the wild medievalism of it while reviewing in thought the events of the day. The girl and her dog, her uncle the General, Don Sebastien the hacendado-the latter was in his mind when the sudden leaping of a fire at the far end of the patio revealed his face.

"Look!" But in the moment Seyd grasped Billy's arm the blaze fell. "I thought I saw him-that fellow, Sebastien-talking to Carlos, our mule-driver."

"Well, why not?" Billy answered. "I gathered that he lives far out. Like ourselves, probably too far to start out to-night."

"Of course." Seyd nodded. "He just happened to be in my mind. Only why should he be in talk with our mule-driver?"

"Search me." Billy shrugged. "But if he was, it is easy to prove it. There's Carlos now. Call him up here."

The muleteer, when questioned a minute later, shook his head. "No, se?or, Don Sebastien is not here. He rode out at sunset, is now leagues away on the trail."

If he were lying, his brown stolid face gave no sign; and, having given him his orders for next day, Seyd returned to his study of the crowd. He had forgotten the incident by the time Billy dragged him away to bed.

* * *

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