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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 29975

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


So silently did the girl come that the charcoal-burners were forced to jump aside, and, springing in the wrong direction, the hunchback was bowled over by the beast of the mozo who rode at her back.

"Why, se?or!" she exclaimed, reining in. Then taking in the knives, pistol, broken club, she asked, "They attacked you? Tomas!"

Her Spanish was too rapid for Seyd's ear, but it was easy to gather its tenor from the results. With a certain complaisance Seyd looked on while his enemies scattered on a run that was diversified by uncouth leaps as the mozo's whip bit on tender places.

"He struck at you?" She broke in on the rice-huller's voluble plea that never, never would he have raised a finger against the se?or had he known him for a friend of hers! "Then he, too, shall be flogged."

"I would not wish-" Seyd began.

But she interrupted him: "You were going toward San Nicolas? Then I shall turn and ride with you." Anticipating his protest, she added, "I had already ridden beyond my usual distance."

Very willingly he fell in at her side, and they rode on till they met the mozo returning, hot and flushed, from the pursuit. He was keen as a blooded hound; it required only her backward nod to send him darting along the trail, and just about the time they overtook the charcoal-burners a sudden yelling in their rear told that the account of the rice-huller was in course of settlement.

Passing his late enemies, Seyd could not but wonder at their transformation. With the exception of the hunchback, in whose beady eyes still lurked subdued ferocity, all were sobbing, and even he broke into deprecatory whinings. Having read his Prescott, Seyd knew something of the rigid Aztec caste systems from which Mexican peonage was derived. Now, viewing their abjectness, he was able to apprehend, almost with the vividness of experience, the ages of unspeakable cruelty that had given birth to their fear. But that which astonished him still more was the indifference with which the girl had ordered the flogging.

Such glimpses of her face as he was able to steal while they rode did not aid him much. It was impossible to imagine anything more typically modern than the delicately chiseled features lit with a vivid intelligence which seemed to pulse and glow in the soft shadow beneath her hat. And when from her face his glance fell to her smart riding-suit of tan linen he was completely at sea.

Curiosity dictated his comment: "Your justice is certainly swift. Really I am afraid that I was the aggressor. At least I struck first."

"But not without cause." She glanced at his smudged clothes. "Tell me about it." And when he had finished she commented: "Just as I thought. And these are dangerous men. They would have killed you without a qualm. In the days that Don Sebastien was clearing the country of bandits he counted that hunchback one of his best men."

"Yet he whined like a puppy under your man's whip."

Smiling at his wonder, she went on to state the very terms of his puzzle. "You do not know them-the combination of ferocity and subservience that goes with their blood. In the old days he who raised his hand against the superior caste was put to death by torture, and, though, thank God, those wicked days are past, the effect remains. They are obedient, usually, as trained hounds, but just as dangerous to a stranger. If I had not ordered them flogged they would have taken it as license to kill you at their leisure."

"Now I realize the depth of my obligation."

He spoke a little dryly, and she leaped to his meaning with a quickness that greatly advanced her in his secret classification. "I have hurt your pride. You will pardon me. I had forgotten the unconquerable valor of the gringos."

"Oh, come!" he pleaded.

She stopped laughing. "Really, I did not doubt your courage. But do not imagine for one moment that they would attack you again in the open. A knife in the dark, a shot from a bush, that is their method, and if you should happen to kill one, even in self defense, gringos are not so well beloved in Guerrero but that some one would be found to swear it a murder. Be advised, and go carefully."

"I surely will." He was going on to thank her when she cut him off with the usual "It is nothing." Whereupon, respect for her intuition was added to the classification which was beginning to bewilder him by its scope and variety.

In fact, he could not look her way nor could she speak without some physical trait or mental quality being added to the catalogue. Now it was the quivering sensitiveness of her mouth, an unsuspected archness, the astonishing range of feeling revealed by her large dark eyes. Looking down upon the charcoal-burners, they had gleamed like black diamonds; in talking, their soft glow waxed and waned. Sometimes-but this was omitted from the classification because it only occurred when his head was turned-a merry twinkle illumined a furtive smile. Taken in all its play and sparkle, her face expressed a lively sensibility altogether foreign to his experience of women.

After a short silence she took up the subject again. "But I am giving you a terrible impression of our people. It is only in moments of passion that the old Aztec crops out. At other times they are kind, pleasant, generous. Neither are we the cruel taskmasters that some foreign books and papers portray us. You would not believe how angry they make me-the angrier because I have a strain of your blood in my own veins. My grandfather, you know, was Irish. It was from him I learned your speech."

The last bit of information was almost superfluous, for from no other source could she have obtained the pure lilting quality that makes the Dublin speech the finest English in the world. To it she had added an individual charm, the measured cadence and soft accent of her native Spanish, delivered in a low contralto that had in it a little break. Her laugh punctuated its flow as she came to her conclusion.

"But you will soon be able to see for yourself what terrible people we are."

He obtained one glimpse within the next mile. He had already noted the passing of the last wild jungle. From fields of maize which alternated with sunburned fields of maguey they now rode into an avenue that led on through green cane. Rising far above their heads, the cane marched with them for a half mile, then suddenly opened out around a primitive wooden sugar mill. Under the thatched roof of an open hut half-nude women were stirring boiling syrup in open pans, and at the sight of Francesca one of them came running out to the trail.

"Her baby is to be christened next Sunday," the girl told him as they rode on. "She was breaking her heart because she had no robe. But now she is happy, for I have promised to ask the good mama to lend her mine, which she has treasured all these years."

Soon afterward as they turned out of the cane into a new planting they almost ran down her uncle, who had come out to inspect the work. Only his quick use of the spur averted a collision, and as his own spirited roan sprang sideways Seyd noted with admiration that despite his bulk and age horse and man moved as one. If surprised at the sight of his niece in such company, the old man did not reveal it by so much as the lift of a brow. It was difficult even to perceive the twinkle in his eyes that lightened his chiding.

"Ola, Francesca! If there be no respect for thy own pretty neck, at least have pity on my old bones. It is you, se?or? Welcome to San Nicolas."

Neither did Seyd's explanation of his business abate his brown impassivity. If assumed, his ponderous effort at recollection was wonderfully realistic. "Ah, si! Santa Gertrudis? If I remember aright, it was denounced before. Yes, yes, by several-but they had no good fortune. Still, you may fare better. Paulo, the administrador, will attend to the business."

With a wave of the hand, courteous in its very indifference, he put the matter out of his province and displayed no further interest until the girl told of the attack on Seyd. Then he glanced up quickly from under frowning brows.

"You had them whipped? Bueno! The rascals must be taught not to molest travelers. And now we shall ride on that the se?or may break his fast. And thou, too, wicked one, will be late. As thou knowest, it is the only fault the good mother sees in thee."

"Would that it totaled my sins," she laughed. "To escape another black mark I shall have to gallop. Ola! for a race!"

As from a light touch of the spur her beast launched out and away, the roan reared and tried to follow, and while he curbed it back to a walk the old man's heavy face lit up with pleasure. "She rides well. I have not a vaquero with a better seat. But go thou, Tomas, lest she come to a harm. And you, se?or, will follow?"

With a vivid picture of the figure Peace would cut in a race occupying the forefront of his mind it did not take Seyd long to choose. After the girl had passed from sight behind a clump of tamarinds he took note, as they rode along, of the peons who were laying the field out in shallow ditches wherein others were planting long shoots of seed cane. To his practical engineer's eye the hand-digging seemed so slow and laborious that he could not refrain from a comment.

"It seems to me that a good steel plow would do the work much cheaper."

"Cheaper? Perhaps." After a heavy pause, during which he took secret note of Seyd out of the corner of his eye, the old man went on: "To do a thing at less cost in labor and time seems to be the only thing that you Yankees consider. But cheapness is sometimes dearly purchased. Come! Suppose that I put myself under the seven devils of haste that continually drive you. What would become of these, my people? Who would employ them? It is true that theirs is not a great wage-perhaps, after all, totals less than the cost of your steel plow and a capable man to run it. We pay only three and a half cents for each ditch, in our currency, and a man must dig twelve a day. If he digs less he gets nothing.

"That does not seem just to you?" He read Seyd's surprise. "It would if you knew them. Grown children without responsibility or sense of duty are they. If left free to come and go, they would dig one, two, three ditches, enough and no more than would supply them with cigarros and aguardiente, and our work would never be done. As it is, they dig the full twelve, and have money for other necessities.

"The wage seems small?" Again he read Seyd's mind. "Yet it is all that we can afford, nor does it have to cover the cost of living. Each man has his patch of maize and frijoles, and a run for his chickens and pigs. Then the river teems with fish, the jungle with small game. His wage goes only for drink and cigarros, or, if there be sufficient left over, to buy a dress for his woman. They are perfectly content." Slightly lifting his heavy brows, he finished, looking straight at Seyd: "I am an old Mexican hacendado, yet I have traveled in your country and Europe. Tell me, se?or, can as much be said of your poor?"

Now, in preparing a thesis for one of his social-science courses, Seyd had studied the wage scale of the cotton industry, and so knew that, ridiculously small as this peon wage appeared at the first glance, it actually exceeded that paid to women and children in Southern cotton factories. In their case, moreover, the pittance had to meet every expense.

He did not hesitate to answer. "I should say that your peons were better off, providing the conditions, as you state them, are general."

"And they are, se?or, except in the south tropics, where any kind of labor is murder. But here? It is as you see; and why disturb it by the introduction of Yankee methods?"

Pausing, he looked again at Seyd, and whether through secret pleasure at his concession or because he merely enjoyed the pleasure of speaking out that which would have been dangerous if let fall in the presence of a countryman, he presently went on: "Therefore it is that I do not stand with Porfirio Diaz in his commercial policies. He is a great man. Who should know it better than I that fought with or against him in a dozen campaigns. And he has given us peace-thirty years of slow, warm peace. Yet sometimes I question its value. In the old time, to be sure, we cut each other's throats on occasion. In the mean time we were warmer friends. And war prevented the land from being swamped by the millions that overrun your older countries, the teeming millions that will presently swarm like the locusts over your own United States. As I say, se?or, I am only an old Mexican hacendado, but I have looked upon it all and seen that where war breeds men, civilization produces only mice. If I be allowed my choice give me the bright sword of war in preference to the starvation and pestilence that thins out your poor."

Concluding, he looked down, interrogatively, as though expecting a contradiction. But though, after all, his argument was merely a restatement of the time-worn Malthusianism, coming out of the mouth of one who had strenuously applied it during forty years of internecine war, it carried force. Maintaining silence, Seyd stole occasional glances at the massive brown face and the heavy figure moving in stately rhythm with the slow trot of his horse, while his memory flashed over tale after tale that Peters, the station agent, had told him when he was out the other day to the railroad-tales of bravery, hardy adventures, all performed amidst the inconceivable cruelties of the revolutionary wars. Even had he been certain that the eventual peopling of the earth's vacant places would not force a return to at least a revised Malthusianism, it was not for his youth to match theories with age. When he did speak it was on another subject.

"I have been riding all morning on your land. I suppose it extends as far in the other direction?"

"A trifle." A deprecatory wave of the strong brown hand lent emphasis to the phrase. "A trifle, se?or, by comparison with the original grant to our ancestor from Cortes. 'From the rim of the Barranca de Guerrero on both sides, and as far up and down from a given point as a man may ride in a day,' so the deed ran. Being shrewd as he was valiant, my forefather had his Indians blaze a trail in both directions before he essayed the running. A hundred and fifty miles he made of it when he started-not bad riding without a trail. But it is mostly gone by family division, or it has been forfeited by those who threw in their luck on the wrong side of a revolution. Now is there left only a paltry hundred or so thousands of acres-and this!"

For the first time pronounced feeling made itself felt through his massive reserve, and looking over the view that had suddenly opened, Seyd did not wonder at the note of pride. After leaving the cane they had plunged through green skirts of willow to the river that s

plit the wide valley in equal halves, and from the shallow ford they now rode out on a grassy plateau that ran for miles along low lateral hills. Dotted with tamarinds, banyans, and the tall ceibas which held huge leafy umbrellas over panting cattle, it formed a perfect foreground for the hacienda, whose chrome-yellow buildings lay like a band of sunlight along the foot of the hill. The thick adobe walls that bound stables, cottages, and outbuildings into a great square gave the impression of a fortified town, castled by the house, which rose tier on tier up the face of the hill.

When they rode through the great gateway of the lower courtyard the interior view proved equally arresting. Mounting after Don Luis up successive flights of stone steps, they came to the upper courtyard, wherein was concentrated every element of tropical beauty-wide corridors, massive chrome pillars, time-stained arches, luxurious foliage. From the tiled roof above a vine poured in cataracts of living green so dense that only vigorous pruning had kept it from shutting off all light from the rooms behind. Left alone, it would quickly have smothered out the palms, orchids, rare tropical plants that made of the courtyard a vivid garden.

"They call it the sin verguenza." While he was admiring the creeper Francesca had joined them from behind. "Shameless, you know, for it climbs 'upstairs, downstairs,' nor respects even the privacy of 'my lady's chamber.' Thanks to the good legs of my beast, I escaped a scolding. Sit here where the vines do not obstruct the view."

If Seyd had been told a few minutes before that anything could have become her more than the tan riding-suit he would have refused to believe. But now by the evidence of his own eyes he was forced to admit the added charm of a simple batiste, whose fluffy whiteness accentuated her girlishness. The mad gallop had toned her usual clear pallor with a touch of color, and as she looked down, pinning a flower on her breast, he noted the perfect curve of her head.

"Room for a good brain there," he thought, while answering her observation. "It is beautiful. But don't you find it a little dull here-after Mexico City?"

"No." She shook her head with vigor. "Of course, I like the balls and parties, yet I am always glad to return to my horses and dogs and-though it is wicked to put them in the same category-my babies. There are always at least three mothers impatiently awaiting my return to consult me upon names. I am godmother to no less than seven small Francescas."

"I never should have thought it. You must have begun-"

"-Very young? Yes, I was only fifteen, so my first godchild is now seven. That reminds me-she is waiting below to repeat her catechism. There is just time-if you would like it."

"I would be delighted. So the position is not without its duties?"

"I should think not." Her eyes lit with a touch of indignation. "I hold the baby at the christening after helping to make the robe. When they are big enough I teach them their catechism. You could not imagine the weight of my responsibilities, and I believe that I am much more concerned for their behavior than their mothers. If any of them were to do anything really wicked"-her little shudder was genuine-"I should feel dreadfully ashamed. But they are really very good-as you shall judge for yourself. Francesca!" As, with a soft patter of chubby feet, a small girl emerged from a far corner, she added with archness that was chastened by real concern, "Now you must not dare to say that she isn't perfect."

In one sense the caution was needed. After a brave answer to the question "Who is thy Creator, Francesca?" the child displayed a slight uncertainty as to the origin of light, added a week or two to the "days of creation," and became hopelessly mixed as to the specific quantities of the "Trinity"-wherein, after all, she was no worse than the theologians who have burned each other up, in both senses, in furious disputes over the same question. But better, far better than letter perfection, was the simple awe of the small brown face and the devotion of the lisping voice which followed the tutor's gentle prompting.

"Fine! fine!" Seyd applauded a last valorous attack on the Ten Commandments, and the small scholar ran off clutching a silver coin, just so much the richer for his heretical presence. As he rose to follow his hostess inside he added, "If all the Francescas are equal to sample, the next generation of San Nicolas husbands will undoubtedly rise up and call you blessed."

"Now you are laughing at me," she protested. "Though that might be truly said of my mother. She is a saint for good works. But come, or I shall yet earn my scolding. And let me warn you to take care of your heart. All of the caballeros fall in love with mother."

It was quite believable. While seated in the dining-room, a vaulted chamber cool as a crypt in spite of the sunblaze outside, a room which would have seated an army of retainers, he observed the se?ora with the satisfaction that even a stranger may feel in the promise a handsome mother holds out to her girls. In addition to the sweetness of her eyes and her tenderly tranquil expression she had retained her youthful contour. She exhibited the miracle of middle age achieved without fat or stiffness. In her scarf and black lace she was maturely beautiful. Waving away his apologies for the intrusion, she was anxiously solicitous for his wants through the meal. Yet he noticed that in taking his leave an hour later she did not ask him to call again.

Up to that moment there had been no further mention of his business. But as he stood hesitating, loath to introduce it, Don Luis relieved his embarrassment. "Now you would see the administrador? I am sorry, se?or, but it seems that he is away at Chilpancin about the sale of cattle. But if you will intrust your moneys to Francesca she will see to the business and have the papers sent out to the mine."

Neither did Francesca, when saying good-by, ask him to return. But, conscious that with all their kind hospitality they still regarded him as an intruder, Seyd was neither offended nor surprised. He was even a little astonished when Don Luis stated his intention of riding with him as far as the cane.

Until they came to the ford they rode in silence. Though only a few inches deep at this season, the river's wide bed proclaimed it one of those torrential streams which rise from a trickle to a flood in very few hours, and when he remarked upon it Don Luis assented with his heavy nod.

"Si, it is very treacherous. One night during the last rains it rose fifty feet and swept down the valley miles wide, bearing on its yellow bosom cattle, houses, sheep, and pigs, and it drowned not a few of our people. And each year the floods go higher. Why? Because of the cursed lust that would mint the whole world into dollars. Year by year your Yankee companies are stripping the pine from the upper valley, and, though I have spoken with Porfirio Diaz about it, he is mad for commerce. He would see the whole state of Guerrero submerged before he revoked one charter. And they even try to make me a party to it. 'General, if you will grant us a concession to do this, that, the other? If you will only allow us to run a branch line into your pine we can make big money-guarantee you half a million pesos.' When I am in Mexico your Yankee promoters swarm round me like hungry dogs. But never have I listened, nor ever will!"

He struck the pommel of his saddle a heavy blow, then looked his surprise as Seyd spoke. "I should not think that you would. I understand your feelings."

"You do? Caramba! Then you are the first Yankee that ever did. In return for your sympathy let me offer you advice. You are not the first man to denounce on my land, nor is Santa Gertrudis the only location. Yankees, English, French, Germans, they have come, denounced claims here and there, but no man has ever held one. No man ever will. Already you have tasted the bitter hostility of my people, and were I to nod not even the American Ambassador could save you alive. And this is only the beginning. Let me return your money? Mexico is one great mine. Anywhere you can kick the soil and uncover a fortune."

"But none like the Santa Gertrudis." Seyd smiled. "Of course, I feel it's pretty raw for me to force in on your land; but, knowing that if I don't some other will, I shall have to refuse. As for the opposition-that is all in the day's work." He finished, offering his hand. "But I hope this won't prevent us from being good neighbors?"

Shaking his massive head, Don Luis reined in his horse. "No, se?or, we can never be that. But next to a good friend I count a hearty enemy, and you may depend upon me for that."

With a courteous wave of the hand he rode off; and, watching him go at a stately canter, Seyd muttered, "Enemy or friend, you are a fine old chap."

* * *

"You are surely a fine old chap."

Retracing his path through the long succession of farm, jungle, and fields, Seyd repeated it, and as he rode along he saw things in a new light. As he passed through one village at sundown the entire population was filing into church, the peons in clean blankets, their women in decent black. The next hamlet was in the throes of a fiesta. Girls in white, garlanded with flaming flowers, were dancing the eternal jig of the country with their brown swains. And these two functions, church and baile, marked the bounds of their simple life. A plenty of rice and frijoles, a peso or two for clothing, were all that they asked or needed.

While prospecting in the Sierra Madres Seyd had drawn many a comparison between the happy indolence of the peon and the worry, strain, strife to live up to a standard just beyond income that obtains in American life. Because the peon had time to think his simple thoughts, listen to bird song and the music of babbling streams, to watch the splendors of sunrise and sunset over purple valleys, Seyd's suffrage had often gone to him. Observing this pastoral life in its tropical setting of palms and jungle, the opinion grew into a strong conviction.

"The old fellow's right!" he ejaculated, riding out of the last village into the jungle proper. "We have nothing to give his people, and we'd surely kill all they have."

Though the profusion of foliage which made of the trail one long green tunnel prevented him from seeing it, he was now riding along at the foot of the Barranca wall. Its deep shadow already filled the jungle with a twilight that thickened into night as he rode. But, knowing that whatever her faults of temperament Peace could be trusted to fetch her own stable, he left her to take her own way while he pursued his thoughts. While the siren whistle of beetles, chatter of chickicuillotes-wild hens of the jungle-deafened his ears, he tried to bring the crowding impressions of the day into some kind of order-no easy task when a fire-eating old general and a typical Mexican mother had to be reconciled in thought with a young girl who possessed the face of a Celt, eyes of a Spaniard, vivacity of a Frenchwoman, and American intelligence.

Next he fell to speculating upon the causes which had kept her single at an age that, according to Mexican standards, placed her hopelessly upon the shelf, and he found the answer in the gossip of the American station agent on his last trip out to the railroad. "She could have had her cousin Sebastien any time, and there were others around these parts. But once let a high-strung girl like her get a glimpse of the outside world and no common hacendado can ever hope to tie her shoestring. They say she has had other chances-attachés of foreign legations in Mexico City. But she turned 'em down-I don't know why, unless it's ideals." With a humorous twinkle the agent had added: "Bad things, ideals-always in the way. If you happen to have any in stock give 'em to the first beggar you meet along the road. Hers are keeping San Nicolas and El Quiss from reuniting, but she don't seem to care."

"A fine girl-the man will be lucky that gets her." Seyd now re-expressed the agent's homely verdict. "If it wasn't-" He stopped short, with a savage laugh. "You darned fool! mooning over a girl who would turn up her pretty nose at any gringo, much more one that has forced himself in on her uncle's land. Your business is to get a fortune out of the mine, and do it quick. And even if it wasn't-"

The thought was never finished, for the last few minutes had brought him out into the starlight at the foot of the Barranca wall, and as Peace gathered herself for the scramble upward the jungle lit up with a sudden flash. Before Seyd's ears caught the report he felt his left shoulder clutched, as it were, by a red-hot hand. The next second he was almost thrown by the mule's sudden plunge-fortunately, for otherwise the bullet that came out of a second flash would have smashed through his brain.

"Muzzle-loaders!" In the moment he lay on the mule's neck he divined it from the thick explosion. Then the thought, "It will take them a minute to reload," followed a quick calculation, "They'll catch me again on the first turn."

With him action always sprang of subconscious processes which were quicker than thought, and while he crouched on her neck and Peace took the turn on a scrambling gallop he turned loose with both of his Colts, aiming at the spot from which the flashes had come. And the sequel proved his judgment. This time a single flash announced the bullet which grazed the mule's rump just as she shot into a patch of woodland.

"Reckon I made one of you sick," he interpreted the single shot.

The burning smart of his wound and the treachery of the attack had loosed within him a fury of anger. Reining in, he felt his shoulder. The bullet had plowed a furrow in the flesh of the upper arm, but, muttering "I guess it's bled about all it's going to," he first tied the mule to a tree, then slid the "reloads" into his guns.

It would have been foolish to expose himself in the open trail under the clear starlight. Resisting the savage impulse which urged him to close quarters, he crawled back to the edge of the timber and again turned loose his guns, searching the jungle below with a swinging muzzle. Time and again he did it, thanking his stars whenever he reloaded for the forethought which had caused Billy to slip an extra box of cartridges into the holsters, and not until only one charge was left did he pause to listen.

Whether or no it was the firing that had frightened even the night birds into temporary quiet, not even a twig stirred in the darkness below. He caught only the distant whooping which told that Billy had heard, and as this drew nearer with astonishing quickness Seyd rose and went back to his mule.

"Coming downhill hell for leather!" he muttered. "If I don't hurry he'll break his neck."

* * *

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