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   Chapter 5 “ No.5

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 11011

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Phe-ew!" Looking up from a treatise on bricklaying as applied to the building of furnaces, Billy pitched a stone at Seyd, who was experimenting with a batch of lime fresh drawn from a kiln of their own burning. "I'd always imagined bricklaying to be a mere matter of plumb and trowel, but this darned craft has more crinkles to it than the differential calculus. This fellow makes me dizzy with his talk of ties and courses, flues, draughts, cornering, slopes, and arches."

Leaning on his hoe, Seyd wiped his wet brow. "I'm finding out a few things myself. I'd always sort of envied a hod-carrier. But now I know that the humble 'mort' puts more foot-pounds of energy into his work than the average horse. As a remedy for dizziness caused by overstudy, mixing mortar has no equal. Come and spell me with this hoe."

"'And the last state of that man was worse than the first,'" Billy groaned. "Can't we hire a single solitary peon, Seyd?"

More eloquently than words, Seyd's shrug testified to the sullen boycott which had been maintained against them for the past three weeks. On the morning of their arrival at the mine, while the fear of Sebastien Rocha still lay heavy upon him, Carlos had been half bullied, half persuaded into the sale of Paz and Luz at a price which raised him almost to the status of a ranchero. But that single transaction summed up their dealings with the natives. No man had answered their call for laborers at wages which must have appeared as wealth to a peon. The charcoal-burners who drove their burros past the mine every day returned to their greetings either muttered curses or black stares. They were as stubborn in their cold obstinacy as the face of the temple god. Indeed, in these days the stony face of the image had become inseparably associated in Seyd's mind with the determined opposition that had routed his predecessors and now aimed to oust him. He saw it even in the soft, round faces of the children who peeped at him from the doorways of cane huts, a somber look, centuries old in its stubborn dullness.

Not that he and Billy were in the least discouraged. Once convinced that labor was not to be obtained, they had stripped and pitched in. In one month they rebuilt the adobe dwelling which had been somewhat shattered by the Dutchman's hurried exit, dug a lime kiln, and hauled the wood and stone for the first burning. They had completed the laying out of the smelter foundation, filling in odd moments by picking for the first charge the choicest ore from the hundreds of tons that the Englishmen had unwisely mined before they ran head-on into the hostile combination of freights and prices.

This last had been an inspiriting labor, for so rich were the values which the ore carried that after a trial assay Billy had danced all over the place beating an old pan. It is doubtful whether young men ever had better prospects; and so, knowing that Billy's present pessimism arose from a strong disinclination for physical labor in the hot sun, Seyd merely grinned. Sitting down on a pile of brick, he mopped his face and stared out over the valley.

Situated, as the mine was, on a wide bench which gave pause to the earth's dizzy plunge from the rim three thousand feet above, Seyd sat at the meeting-place of temperate and tropic zones. A hundred feet below-just where they had climbed the stiff trail out of the jungle that flooded the valley with its fecund life-a group of cocoanut palms stood disputing the downward rush of the pine, and all along the bench pi?on and copal, upland growths, shouldered cedars and ceibas, the tropical giants. While these battled above for light and room there came, writhing snake-like up from the tropics, creepers and climbers, vines and twining plants, to engage the ferns and bracken, the pine's green allies. A plague of orchids here attacked the copal, wreathing trunk and limb in sickly flame. The bracken there overswept the riotous tropical life. All along the borderland the battle raged, here following a charge of the pine down a cool ravine, there mounting with the tropic growths to a sunlit slope. But in the valley below the tropics ruled clear down to the brilliant green of the San Nicolas cane fields.

"By the way"-Seyd spoke as his eye fell on these-"Don Luis is back from Mexico City. The hunchbacked charcoal-burner told me as he went past this morning."

"The deuce he did!" Of all the black looks that came their way that of the cripple was the most vindictive. "You must have him hypnotized."

"You wouldn't think so if you had heard his accent. 'El General is again at San Nicolas,' just as though he were sentencing me to hang. Nevertheless, the news comes pat. I think it would be good policy for me to run down and pay the denunciation taxes before we begin work on the smelter. No, I don't apprehend any trouble. Your Mexican hasn't much stomach for litigation, and no doubt the old fellow feels quite safe in his pull with the metals companies and railroads. But while he is still in the mind we had better pay the money and complete title. If he once gets wind of the smelter-"

"Just so." Billy threw down the hoe. "While you dress I'll saddle up a mule-if you will please say to which demon you prefer to intrust your precious neck. Light began the day by kicking me through the side of the stable. She needs chastening. But then Peace dined on my arm yesterday. It's Peace for yours, and I only hope you get it."

"Hum!" he coughed when, half an hour lat

er, Seyd emerged shaved, bathed, and clad in immaculate white. "Is this magnificence altogether for el General, or did Caliban drop some word of our niece? Really, old chap, you look fine. If I were the se?orita I'd go for you myself."

Though Seyd laughed, yet the instant he passed out of sight he fell into frowning thought which was evidently related to the letter he pulled out and reread while he rode down the steep grades. Written in a characterless round hand, it covered so many pages that he was halfway down before, after tearing it in shreds, he tossed it to the winds. Its destruction, however, did not seem to change his mood. He let Peace take her own way until, having slipped, slid, and tobogganed on tense haunches down the last grade, she felt able to assert her individuality by attempting to rub him off against a tree. Next she attempted the immolation of a fat brown baby that was rolling with a nest of young pigs in the dust outside a hut; and thereafter her performances were so varied that he was simply compelled to take some notice of the sights and sounds of the trail.

Not the least remarkable were the frequent and familiar scowls of the people he met. Various in expression, they ranged between the copious curses of the fat se?ora whose pacing-mule was driven by Peace off the trail, and the snarling malice of occasional muleteers; but, undisturbed, he pursued his inquiries for laborers at every chance.

"No, se?or, we do not desire work."

The stereotyped answer merely stimulated the quiet persistence which formed the basis of his character, and he continued to ask at the village which raised graceful palm roofs out of a jungle clearing, at the ranchos which now began to cover the valley with a green checker of maize fields, and at scattered huts, half hidden by the rich foliage of palms and bananas. It was while he was questioning a peon who was hulling rice with a wooden pole and churn arrangement that the subdued hostility broke out in open demonstration.

The trail here ran between a fence of split poles, which inclosed the peon's corn and frijoles, and the steep bank of a dry creek bed, so that only a few feet leeway was left for the train of burros which came trotting out of the jungle behind him. In single file they could have passed, but looking around he saw they were coming three abreast.

Had he chosen, there was time to make the end of the fence. But he had seen behind the train the sparkling, beady eyes of Caliban, the hunchback, and the dark grins of two of his fellows. Flushing with quick anger, he backed Peace against the fence, leaned forward over her neck, and slashed with his whip at the leading beasts. Checked by this, they would have fallen back to single file but for the whips behind that bit out hair and hide and drove them on in a huddled mass.

It seemed for a few seconds that he would be crushed. That he escaped injury was simply due to the hereditary hate between the mule and the ass which suddenly turned Peace into a raging fiend. While her chisel teeth slit ragged hides her other and busier end beat a devil's tattoo on resounding ribs and filled the air with flying charcoal. Yet even her demoniac energies had their limitations. If she held the ground for herself and master she could not preserve the inviolability of his white trousers, which emerged sadly smudged from the fray. It is a pity she could not. Little things always cause the greatest trouble, and but for the smudges the incident would probably have closed with Seyd's challenge:

"Can't you be content with half the road?"

His patience even survived their insolent grins. Not until the hunchback in passing emitted a hoarse chuckle as he surveyed the smudges did Seyd's temper burst its bonds. Swinging his whip then with all his might, he laid it across the crooked shoulders once, twice, thrice, before the fellow sprang, snarling, out of reach. The others, who had already passed, came leaping back at his cry, knives flashing as they ran, and though they stopped under the sudden frown of a Colt's automatic, they did not retire, but stood, fingering their knives, muttering curses.

A little sorry on his part for the anger which had turned the sullen hostility into open feud, Seyd faced them, puzzled just what to do. It was too late to give way, for that would expose him to future insult. Yet if, taking the initiative, he should happen to kill a man, he knew enough of the quality of justice as dealt out by the Mexican courts to realize the danger.

While he debated, the puzzle was almost solved by the peon rice-huller, who came stealing up from behind the fence. Not until the man had swung his heavy pestle and was tiptoeing to his blow did Seyd divine the reason for the glances that were passing behind him. Looking quickly, he caught the glint of polished hardwood in the tail of his eye; then, without a pause for thought, he dropped flat on the rump of the mule, and not a second too soon, for, raising the hair on his brow as it passed, the club smashed down through the top rail of the fence. In falling backward his weight on the bridle brought Peace scurrying a few paces to the rear. When he snapped upright again the fourth enemy was also under his gun.

But what to do? The puzzle still remained-to be solved by another, for just then came a sudden beat of hoofs, and from behind a bamboo thicket galloped first the Siberian wolf hound, then the girl he had met at the train.

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