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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 13367

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Although he had always doubted the phenomenon, Billy's hair stood on end, and when, in the face of Seyd's shouts in Spanish to stop, the burros still came on he felt his cap move.

"Billy!" Seyd's command rang out sharply. "Dismount and lie down. It's our only chance."

In that tense moment, however, Mr. William Thornton, assayer and metallurgist, had done an amount of thinking that would have required many minutes of his leisure. He was already on the ground, and as he lay there, arms wrapped over the back of his head as a protection against the sharp hoofs that would presently grind his face in the dust, uncomfortable expectation gave birth to inspiration. As Seyd also braced himself for the shock there came the scratch of a match, and Billy's red head flashed out in relief against the belly of the leading burro as it upreared in fright at the blaze. In the same moment a second blunt head shoved itself like a wedge between the first burro and the wall, and as the gray body shot off sideways into the chasm Seyd saw first the others sliding in a desperate effort to stop, and behind them the mule whips swinging to drive them on. As under a flashlight it all flamed out and vanished.

In the short time required for Billy to strike a second match Seyd's mind registered an astonishing number of impressions. A hoarse yell, a sudden scurry of departing hoofs, and Billy's hysterical profanity formed merely the background of a sequence that flashed back over the events of the day. The scraps of muleteers' talk the night before, the runaway, and other minor delays, the drivers' refusal to camp on the rim, their insistence that he and Billy should take the lead, all fused in a belief which he expressed as the second match flaring up showed the trail empty of life between themselves and the next turn.

"It's a frame-up! They knew of the slide. They had it fixed to run us off in the dark."

"But where are they now?" Billy gazed down into the dark void. "Surely they didn't all go over."

"No such luck. The burros bolted back on them, and they just legged it out of the way. Listen!" A scurry of hoofs sounded on the level above. "There they go, and it's up to us to keep them going. Back your mule up and turn. If we don't give them the run of their lives we'll deserve all they tried to give us."

And run they did. Overtaking the burros just as they began to slow down, Seyd slipped ahead, struck a match close to the tail of the last, and so precipitated the cavalcade once more upon the sweating drivers. Whereafter, they took turns and kept the frightened beasts on a breathless trot up the heartbreaking grades. Under the flare of a match they sometimes caught a glimpse of the muleteers shuffling ahead on a tired run. Occasionally their sobbing breath rose over the scrape of the hoofs. But first one riding, then the other, they hustled them on without mercy till the train opened at last upon the plateau above.

"Now, then! Run them down!" Seyd shouted; but as he swung his mule out to go by the burros he almost ran into a horseman who had just reined his beast to one side of the trail.

"It is you, se?or?"

Here on the top the light of the stars helped out the weak moon, and, though the man's face was in shadow, Seyd recognized the upright, graceful figure. "Come to see if the job is done." He thought it while answering aloud, "As you perceive, se?or."

"Not until long after you left did I hear of the break in the trail, and I have ridden hard-used up one horse and half killed this poor beast. But no matter so long as I am in time."

"Hypocrite!" Seyd thought again. A little nonplussed, however, by the tone of assurance, he gave his thought lighter expression. "You would not have been if these fellows had had their way."

"Caramba, se?or! Why?"

If his surprise were assumed it was certainly remarkably well done. While Seyd was telling of their narrow escape he sat his horse, silent but attentive. With the last word he burst into a fury of action. Uttering a Spanish oath, he drove in the spurs and rode his rearing horse straight at the mule-drivers, who had turned on Billy with drawn knives, lashing them with his heavy quirt over face, head, shoulders. Five minutes later his whip was still cutting the air with a shrill whistle, and, richly as the fellows deserved it, Seyd and Billy shuddered at the pitiless flogging. Strangest to them of all, the men endured this without attempt at flight or resistance. They stood, their arms shielding their faces, whimpering like beaten hounds.

It was their abject submissiveness that injected a touch of doubt into Billy's comment. "It looks, after all, as though they had done it themselves."

Seyd shrugged. "Perhaps; in any case we have no proof."

"Now, blind swine, that will serve for a while!" Sebastien's cold voice broke in. "Off with you and build a fire, then stake out the mules." Seyd's suspicion gave a little more before his quiet assurance. "You will have to stay here till morning, se?ors, for it is many miles along the rim to the other trail. Unfortunately, it was your supply mule that went into the ca?on, so you must needs go hungry. However, we have a proverb, 'A warm fire helps the empty belly,' and to-morrow you will be able to recover your goods."

Neither did his expression, as presently revealed by the fire, offer evidence for doubt. As he stood looking down at the blaze Seyd was vividly reminded of the Aztec god, for its cold stone face was not more inscrutable than this quiet brown mask. Its inscrutability provoked him to ask a sudden question.

"Did I not see you at the hotel last night?"

But the sudden challenge produced only an indifferent shrug. "Perhaps. I was there."

He did look up at Billy's vigorous comment on his answer as translated by Seyd: "Then why didn't he show himself this morning? Goodness knows we left late enough."

He even asked, "What does he say?" And the sense having been softened in translation to an expression of mild wonder at his non-appearance, he quietly replied, "I do not doubt that the se?or's departure was fraught with enormous significance for the country at large, but not being informed of it, there was no reason for me to cut my sleep."

Though the smile which marked his appreciation of the blush that drowned out Billy's freckles when Seyd translated was so slight as to be almost imperceptible, it yet increased his anger. "The dago!" he growled. "I'd punch his head for five cents Mex. The gall of him! Standing there poking fun at us after we have just missed death at the hands of his brigands. And you really think that he planned it all?"

"L

ooks like it. He chose the men, the trail. Was seen last night at the hotel. Appears now at the psychological moment. Any jury would-"

"-Pronounce me guilty. They would be mistaken, sir."

Utterly confounded at the interruption which was delivered in fluent English-so surprised, indeed, that Billy glanced around to make sure that nobody else had spoken-they stared at him across the fire in red confusion. When Seyd at last found his tongue he could only stammer the obvious question, "You speak English?"

"As you perceive, sir." As he returned Seyd his phrase of a few minutes before not even a twinkle betrayed his knowledge of their ridiculous situation.

Nor was one needed to increase Billy's anger. "Then why don't you speak it?" he roughly blurted.

Ignoring the question, the man went on addressing Seyd. "In accordance with the foolish custom that aims to make poor foreigners out of good Mexicans I received my education at a boarding-school in the city of Manchester, England."

Manchester, England! Center of the Lancashire cotton trade, inner shrine of commerce! Commercial essence exuded from the very name; it smelled to heaven of tin and rosin. Imagination faltered, nay, refused even to attempt to establish a relation between its prosiness and this romantic figure with a face cast in the image of the stone gods! Above all, a Manchester boarding-school! Seyd almost gasped. For to his knowledge of "fags" and "bullies," "form rows," "cribs and crams," and education by external application, gained by the perusal of Tom Brown's School Days, he had added the later, savagely impish realism of Kipling's Stalky.

And he knew what a living hell the life must have been to a high-strung Mexican youth. "Well!" he breathed at last. "I don't envy you the experience. I'm told that the English schoolboy isn't particularly sensitive or nice in his-his treatment of-"

"-Half-castes. Don't avoid the word. We Mexicans are proud of our Aztec blood. They did not love me, but I tell you, se?or, that their dislike for me was as milk to fire compared with mine for them, and they left me alone after a couple had felt my knife. How I hated them-the conceited lackeys of masters as much as the bullocks of boys and their ox-like fathers. How they lectured me, the lackeys, for my 'cowardice' in using a knife-the cowardice of one small boy pitted against a hundred impish devils. But they were never able to blind me with their fustian ideals. Even then I could see through their sham morality, hypocritical humanity, insufferable conceit.

"'England is the workshop of the world!' They dinned it into us. In furtherance of the ideal they fouled the air with coal smoke, herded their men and women from the open farms into slums and brothels, and as they have done by their own so would they like to do for the world-make it one huge factory set in a slum." He had spoken all through with great heat. Glancing for the first time at Billy, he finished, more quietly, "That is why I do not speak English-because I hate both them and their tongue."

Now Billy's conception of John Bull and his island had been principally formed on the perfervid "tail-twisting" of the common-school histories, and Seyd, whose views had been corrected by wider reading, had to smile at his emphatic indorsement. "I'm with you. No English, please, in mine."

Even Sebastien smiled. "No, you are American-from our viewpoint, much worse. Just as sordid as the stupid English, you are quicker-witted, therefore more to be feared, and you stand forever at our gates, ready to force your commerce and ideas upon us. But much as we hate you, loath as we are to have you come among us, I would still have you to believe that this business was accidental. I, at least, did not plan your death."

"Then you do not speak for them?" Seyd glanced at the muleteers, now crouching over a second small fire they had built for themselves.

"Quien sabe?" Sebastien shrugged his shoulders. "They would think little of it. But what can you do? You have no proof. And I will see to it that they play you no more tricks."

Walking over, he kicked first one, then the other, in the small of the back. "Up, swine!" And while they stood shivering before them he gave them their orders-first to recover the baggage, then to convey the se?ors in safety to their mine. "Fail me in one thing," he concluded, with a frightful threat, "and I will pluck out your eyes and turn you out on the road."

Turning his back on them, he walked over to the horses, and had mounted before Seyd realized his intent. "You are not going?" he asked.

"Yes, it is only five leagues back to the hacienda where I left my own horse."

"First let me thank you."

Not seeing the touch of the spur that had caused the beast to rear suddenly, he imagined it shied at his outstretched hand. While curbing its plungings the other answered: "It is nothing. You owe me nothing. I came to repair a mistake and arrived too late. Adios!" And swinging the fighting beast out of the firelight into the dusk he galloped off, leaving Seyd standing with hand outstretched.

Returning to the fire, he passed close to the muleteers, whose faces, looking after him, expressed a curious mixture of dislike, suspicion, fear. Observing it, Billy laughed. "Our friend's football practice over there rather inclines me to favor his theories. I've seen a few walking-delegates in my time that I'd like to place under him. I'll bet you there are no labor troubles in his cosmos. Fancy a system that trains men to put your enemies away without so much as a wink. I call it ideal."

"Yes." Seyd laughed. "I have so much respect for it that I propose to keep watch and watch on the off chance of an attempt on our throats. If you'll just settle down for a snooze I'll take the first trick."

His laughter, however, covered feeling that had been deeply stirred by the events of the day. After Billy had curled up close to the fire his glance went over to the muleteers, who lay, heads muffled in their scarlet serapes, beside their own fire. Their very quiet stimulated thoughts which passed back through the medievalism of the "conquest" and the savagery of the Aztecs to the dim time that saw the erection of the temple they had passed that day. Stimulated by the distant roar of waters, the complaint of the wind in the trees, and the voices of night that rose out of the valley's black void, his fancies grew and possessed him until he saw his own civilization as a flash in the dark space of the ages. So absorbed was he that Billy's interruption came as a surprise.

"I've slept four hours. Time for your snooze."

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