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   Chapter 3 “ No.3

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 15989

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


If we are on the road at daybreak we shall reach the Barranca early in the afternoon," Seyd had said, commenting on his order to the mule-driver. But, fagged out by the day's hot travel, they did not awaken until a slender beam of light stole between the iron window bars and laid a golden finger across Billy's eyes.

"We shall have to hustle now." Seyd concluded a diatribe on the Mexican mozo in general while they were dressing. "For you must see the Barranca by daylight. Without its naked savagery it is as big and grand as the Colorado Ca?on. Besides, if this trail is as dizzy a proposition as the one I went by on the last trip, I'd rather not tackle it after dark."

It would have been just as well, however, had they taken their time, for after breakfast came Carlos with a tale of cast-off shoes. It was Paz and Luz, the mules the se?ors were riding! And having roundly cursed the memory of the fool wife who had been induced by an apparently innocent colthood to bestow names of beauty like Peace and Light upon such misbegotten devils, Carlos further informed them:

"Never were there such ungrateful brutes, se?ors. Not content with the good barley I had just fed him, Paz it is that takes a piece out of Padre Celso's arm one fine day and so gets me cursed with candle and Book. And the curse sticks, se?ors, working itself out by means of this devil of a light who, within one week, chooses the fat belly of the jefe of Tehultepec as a cushion for his heels. A year's earnings that trick cost me, not to mention the prettiest set of blue stripes that ever warmed a cold back. Neither is there a tree between San Blas and the Arroyo Grande that they have not used to scrape off a load. But this shall be the end. They shall feel the knife in their throats at the end of this trip." In the mean time would the se?ors be pleased to wait for an hour?

There being no other choice, the se?ors would, and, returning to their last night's perch on the balustrade, they watched the patio disgorge its dark life upon the street. Shining in over the low-tiled roofs, the sunlight struck and was thrown back by the massive golden walls on the opposite side in a flood that set fire to brilliant serapes, illumined silver buttons, filled the whole place with light and cheer. Not to mention their interest in the saddling and packing of the loads-to which some refractory mule contributed an occasional humorous touch-a comedy was invariably enacted between the fat landlord and the departing travelers, for only after an altercation which always required the witness of all the saints to the reasonableness of his charges were the gates swung open. With much haggling and confusion of crackling oaths they went out, one by one, cargadores and peons, beggars and pilgrims, the tinkling mule trains with their quaint freights, and not until the last hoof struck on the cobbles did Seyd think to look at his watch.

"Nine o'clock. What has become of those-"

Fortunately they arrived at that moment with Paz and Luz, the damned and foredoomed, and a quarter of an hour thereafter their bells tinkled pleasantly in the scrub oak and copal which first climbed with the trail up a ravine behind the town and then led on through fields where corn grew, by some green miracle thrusting stout green stalks between the stones.

Though it was still quite early in the day, heat waves trembled all over the land. The somnolent hum of insect life, the whisper of a light wind in the corn, were alike conducive to sleep. Before they had been riding an hour both began to yawn. The sibilant hiss of the muleteers urging the mules grew fainter in Seyd's ears, and, though he was conscious in a dim way that the trail had led out from the fields and was falling, falling, falling downhill through growths of cactus and mimosa into the copal woods, he drowsed on till an exclamation from Billy aroused him to a grisly sight-the dozen and odd mummies whose withered limbs clicked in the breeze as they swung by the neck from the wide boughs of a banyan.

"Bandidos, se?or, thieves and cutthroats." The bigger of the two muleteers answered Seyd's question. "They were hanged by Don Sebastien."

"Why, that's our friend back at the station." Billy commented on Seyd's translation. "I'm sure that was the name the agent gave him."

"Si, se?or," the mule-driver confirmed the impression. "And these are but the tithe of those that he hanged. For years the whole of this country was overrun with bandidos who took advantage of the absence of the principal men at the wars to rob and murder at will. They were levying regular tolls on the rancheros and hacendados when Don Sebastien returned from his schooling. Though only a lad of two and twenty, he began by hanging the bandits' messenger in the gates of his hacienda, an act that all thought would end by the wiping of the very memory of the place from the face of the earth. But instead of waiting to be attacked Don Sebastien took the stoutest of his peons and went out after the thieves. And he kept after them all that winter, the following summer, into the next year. No trail was too long, wet, or weary if he could mark its end with a brigand swinging under a tree. Here, there, everywhere within a hundred miles of his hacienda of El Quiss he hanged them by twos and threes and left them to swing in the wind, and it speaks for the fear in which he came to be held that no man, father, mother, sister, or lover dared to cut one down. Scarce a cross trail in this country that lacks its warning, and through his rigor it came to pass that you, se?ors, might now leave your purses on the open highway where a dozen years ago you would surely have left your lives. No man would dare touch-"

"-Except Don Sebastien," Seyd put in, laughing.

But the man returned only a stare. "What use would he have of purses, se?or, that has so many of his own?"

"Perhaps to give to the Church." But he stopped laughing, surprised by the sudden cloud that spread on the man's face.

"Never! Though he has a church on his own hacienda, Don Sebastien never crosses its threshold. And Mattias, here, can tell you of the talk he gives to the priest."

"Si! si!" In his eagerness to share the limelight the fellow almost shook off his head. "It is, see you, that I am delivering a mule load of charcoal at El Quiss on the very day that Don Sebastien hires the priest. You are to see him, as I did, sitting on the gallery above the courtyard puffing his cigar in such wise-was there ever such irreverence!-that the smoke rises in the face of the padre who stands before him. And his voice comes ringing down to where Miguel, the steward, is trying to beat me down a peso on the price of the charcoal. 'I have builded you a church, and for performing the offices I shall pay you one hundred silver pesos the month, for, though I did not feel, myself, any need of your mutterings, they serve to keep my people quiet. Over them you shall exercise the usual authorities, and you may come and go at will through the hacienda-all but one place. If after this hour I find that your foot has touched my threshold I'll hang you in its gates.' Thus he spoke, se?or, and he would have done it-to a priest quicker than a bandit, for of the two it is hard to tell that which he hates the most."

"Hum!" Billy coughed when Seyd had translated. Jerking his thumb at the grisly witnesses to the tale's truth, he commented: "I now begin to understand the general respect for our friend. A man who does things like that is entitled to some consideration. Let us be thankful for pump guns and automatics. If this had been the day of the old muzzle-loader I'm darned if I'd have tackled your hunch."

In the next hour the red-tiled colored adobe hamlets of the small farmers began to give place to the jacals of the country, flimsy huts with sides of cane stalks and grass-thatched. Then the trail passed out from the eternal succession of corn and maguey fiel

ds into wastes of volcanic scoria, where it began presently to climb mountains, for no apparent reason except to fall dizzily into shallow valleys which were sparsely timbered with copal and other soft woods. In one valley they came upon an Aztec ruin. A huge parallelogram in shape, it was more than half buried and so overgrown with brush and creepers that they would have passed without notice if the trail had not happened to run along the face of one wall. Looking closely, Seyd first observed a monstrous squat figure in bas-relief, one of dozens which were interwoven into an intricate design; then, riding along, he saw frightfully distorted faces peering out from behind a green veil of creepers. Broad and fat, long and thin, some were stretched in a wide grin, others thrust out tongues in ribald mockery. Here the eyes of one were distorted in a painful squint. There a slant upturn of tight-drawn lids revealed the quintessence of priestly cruelty. Another was grossly lewd. Through anger, violence, lust, fear, the expressions ran the gamut of passion to its death in the cold face of the god whose enormous image formed the corner. The oblong ears, triangular eyes and nose, parallel lips, were such as a child loves to draw on a slate, yet on that enormous scale their mathematical lines somehow conveyed an impression of absolute force. The Sphynx-like calm of the face stirred Seyd's imagination with pictures of captives led to the Aztec altars. Even practical Billy was moved to remark:

"Those old chaps couldn't have been very nice neighbors."

"No; and they are the lineal ancestors of the neighbors we shall have presently." Later the thought was to recur under conditions that would lend it enormous force. He forgot it in the moment of utterance, saying, as he glanced at his watch: "We have been doing pretty well. At this rate we'll make the Barranca quite early."

He had failed to allow, however, for the demon which, usually content with the complete possession of Paz and Luz, suddenly entered into the burros and sent them flying downhill through a grove of trees. Entering on one side fully loaded, they emerged at the other naked, and by the time they were rounded up and reloaded Seyd had to recast his schedule.

"We'll be lucky if we make it now in daylight. We may have to camp at the top."

Repeated in Spanish, the latter suggestion drew vigorous headshakes from both muleteers. Carlos made answer. "No, se?or, at this time of the year one would perish of the cold, and there is an inn in the Barranca with the finest of accommodations. The trail? It is nothing! A peso for every time I have traveled it by night would buy me a rancho-and Paz and Luz, devils as they are, could travel it blindfold." And whether, as Billy suggested, they were afraid of missing their usual communion with the fleas in the inn stables, both he and Mattias began to hustle the mules with oaths, hissings, whip-crackings. They kept after them so hard that the train trotted out of a forest of upland pi?on upon the rim of a great valley a full half hour before sundown.

Though prepared by Seyd's descriptions for something unusually fine, Billy's blue eyes opened to the limit, and he sat silent upon his mule, staring, altogether bereft of his usual loquacity. From their feet the land broke suddenly and fell into purple depths from which dark hills uplifted ruddy peaks into the blaze of the setting sun. The Barranca was so deep, so vast in scale, that he grew dizzy in following with his eye the tiny zigzag of the trail down, down, till it was lost in blue haze through which even the giant ceibas and tall cedars showed like microscopic plants. Across the valley, miles away, naked mountains tossed and tumbled, seamed, scarred, gashed by slide and quake, sterile and desolate, as on the far day that some world convulsion raised them out of the sea.

"Drunk! drunk!" Billy breathed, at last. "Nature gone on a jag. Drunken mountains loose in a crazy world. The whole earth is turned on edge. Hold me, Bob, before I fall in. How deep do you call this bit of a hole?"

"About five thousand feet down to the floor. It falls off a thousand and more in a few miles to the coast. You see, we are still in touch with the old Pacific. Can't be more than thirty miles or so down to the sea."

"The dear old pond. Isn't that pine on the other side?"

"Sure. An American company is taking out millions of feet, a hundred or so miles farther up. That's a great old tree, and quite particular about the company it keeps. Look how sharply it draws the line along the slope, lifting its skirts from the contamination of the tropics. That spark of green in the far distance is sugar cane-two thousand acres of it on the General's hacienda of San Nicolas. And you see the gash over there, all yellow and green, about three thousand feet down from the top-that is us, se?or, the mina Santa Gertrudis. And that reminds me-we'll have to be moving if we are to make the inn before midnight. Vaminos, Carlos."

But the muleteer shook his head. "After you, se?or, for if these devils should take to running again, not in six months should we fish your baggage out of the ca?ons."

Leading down the trail, which zigzagged along the faces of a V-shaped wall, Seyd perceived, as he thought, the soundness of the argument, for at the first turn a stone from his mule's foot dropped five hundred feet plumb before rebounding into greater depths, and at no place did the width of the path allow an unnecessary inch for the swing of the packs. Deceived by the succession of stairways through which the trail dropped down to the thin thread that marked its course along the bottoms, Billy objected:

"Three hours, you say? Looks to me as though we could make it in one."

"Less than that-if your mule should happen to slip and take it sideways. Let me see-allowing a thousand feet to a bump, about fourteen seconds ought to distribute you nicely among the bottom trees. But if you elect to follow me around the eight or nine miles of trail you cannot see, it will take the full three hours."

Even while he was speaking the ruddy fires on the valley hills were suddenly extinguished, only the stark peaks on the other side lifted like yellow torches in the last blaze. One by one these also went out, and another hour found them journeying in gloom that was intensified rather than lightened by the section of moon which achieved a precarious balance on the rim above. In darkness and silence that was broken only by the scrape of hoofs and rattle of displaced stones they followed down and down and down, until Billy presently came under a singular hallucination. Repeatedly he put out his hand to repel the rock wall that seemed to be animated with a desire to crowd him off into the ca?on, and because of this pardonable nervousness he endured a real trial that would have drawn a quick protest from Seyd-to wit, the senseless way in which the muleteers were driving their beasts on his heels. Twice he rapped a rough nose that tried to force its way in between him and the wall, and he breathed more easily when an easier grade permitted them to draw ahead on a gentle trot.

Accustomed, on his part, to leave all to his beast, Seyd rode with a loose bridle, lost in thought, his mind busy with mining plans. And thus it was that when Paz suddenly stopped, snorting, at the end of a trot which had carried them well ahead of the train around a rock wall, he almost went over her head. Recovering quickly, he was about to drive in the spurs; and a man of slower intuitions would surely have done it. With him, however, action invariably preceded thought, from instincts almost as acute as those which had brought the mule to a stop. Dismounting, he stepped ahead. Then, to the horror of Billy, who heard the burros slipping and sliding as they came round the wall on a trot, his voice came back.

"Hold on, there! A slide has carried away the trail!"

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