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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 17213

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


One afternoon about a week later Mr. William Thornton was to be seen mixing mortar for the bricks he was laying on the smelter foundation. Rising almost sheer from the edge of the bench behind him, the Barranca wall shut off the western breeze, and from its face the fierce sunblaze was reflected in quivering waves of heat. Coming out from an early lunch he had noted that the thermometer registered ninety in the shade, and he was now ready to swear that with one more degree he himself would be able to supply all the moisture required for the operation.

While working he cast occasional glances toward the house; and when, the mortar being mixed, he began to lay brick he used the trowel with care lest its clink should awaken Seyd. For though the blood loss from a severed artery had left him quite weak, he had obstinately refused to stop work. To-day he had even balked at the suggestion of a siesta until Billy had lain down himself. As soon as Seyd fell asleep Billy had slipped out, and when he now paused to listen the concern in his look passed into sudden attention as the clink of a shod hoof rose up from the trail below.

Five minutes passed before he heard it again, and in the mean time his actions bespoke an intelligent appreciation of the needs of the case. Picking up a Winchester which leaned against a tree, he crouched behind his bricks, and while training it on the point where the trail emerged on the bench a ferocious scowl overshadowed his sunburn.

"If we played it your way I'd brown you the second your nose shows," he muttered as the hoofbeats grew louder. "Thank your musty old saints that we don't. Ah! Eh? Well!"

The interjections respectively fitted the wolf hound, her young mistress, and the mozo, as they appeared in the order named. As only Billy's head showed over the bricks, and both were on the same color scheme, he was practically invisible; and, reining up her beast, the girl allowed her curious gaze to wander around the bench from the gaping hole where the drift ran into the vein over the adobe hut and foundation-just missing Billy's head-to the blue-green piles of copper ore.

"So this is the mina!" Her tone denoted disappointment. "Good heavens! Tomas, is this the wealth the gringos seek? What an ado over a pile of stones! I should think Don Luis would be thankful to have them carted away."

She had spoken in Spanish, but when, having shed his arsenal under cover of the bricks, Billy rose and came forward, she addressed him in English. "Mr. Thornton, is it not? We have brought the papers from the administrador-at least, Tomas has. I am playing truant. Though it is only fifteen miles from here to San Nicolas, this is the first time that I have seen the place. Where is Mr. Seyd?"

Now than Billy, was there never a young man more naturally chivalrous. Usually a locomotive could not have dragged from him a single word calculated to shock or offend a girl. But in his confusion at finding an expected enemy changed into a charming friend he let slip the naked truth. "He was shot-returning from your place."

"Se?or! He-he is not-dead?"

There was no mistaking her concern. Sorry for his abruptness, Billy plunged to reassure her. "No! no! Only wounded."

"Is he-much hurt?"

It occurred to Billy that a flesh wound was, after all, rather a small price for such solicitude. But where a touch of jealousy might have caused another to make light of Seyd's wound, his natural unselfishness made him paint it in darker colors. "The bullet cut an artery, and he's pretty weak from loss of blood. Yet he won't lay off. I had to trick him into a siesta to-day. I'll go call him."

But she raised a protesting hand. "No! no! Let him sleep. You can give him the papers. Tell him when he awakes that he will hear from us again."

With a smile which caused Billy additional regret for his lack of wounds she rode off at a pace which filled him with anxiety for her neck. Until he caught a glimpse of her, foreshortened to a dot on the trail far below, he stood watching. Then, muttering "I'll bet Seyd will raise Cain when he awakes," he went back to his work.

Nor was he mistaken, for when Seyd came out, yawning and stretching, an hour or so later, the last vestige of sleep was burned up by the sudden flash of his eyes. "You darned chump! Do we have visitors so often that you let me sleep on like a rotten log?"

Neither was he appeased by Billy's answer, delivered with an irritating grin: "Why should she wish to see you when I was around? A pallid wretch who has to make three tries to cast a shadow!"

"He has, has he?" Seyd growled. "Well, I'm solid enough to punch your fat head."

The atmosphere having thus been cleared, he commented: "Went off to tell the General, eh? I wonder how he'll take it?"

"Shouldn't imagine he'd shed any tears-unless at their poor shooting. Well, we'll see!"

And see they did, for as they sat at lunch on the second day thereafter a yell followed by the crack of a whip brought them out just in time to see Caliban, the charcoal-burner, and the peon rice-huller coming on a shuffling run ahead of Tomas. The bloody bandages which bound the head of one and the leg of the other testified to Seyd's shooting, just as their glazed eyes and painful pantings told of the merciless run ahead of the mozo. It required only the hempen halter which each wore around his neck to complete the picture of misery.

"These be they that attacked you, se?or?" While the rice-huller squirmed under a sudden cut of his whip the mozo went on: "This son of a devil was found nursing a wound in his hut, and he told on the other. Don Luis sends them with his compliments to be hanged at your leisure. If it please you to have it done now-there is an excellent tree."

Too surprised to answer, Seyd and Billy stood staring at each other until, taking silence for consent, the mozo began to herd his charges toward the said tree. "Here!" Seyd called him back. "This is kind of Don Luis, and you will please convey to him our thanks. It is very thoughtful of you to pick out such a fine tree, but, while we are sure that they would look very nice upon it, it is not the habit with our people to hang save for a killing, and I, as you see, am alive."

The mozo's dark brows rose to the eaves of his hair. "But of what use, se?or, to hang after the killing? Will the death of the murderer bring the murdered to life? But hang him in good season and you will have no murder. And this is a good tree, low, with strong, wide branches ordained for the purpose. See you! One throw of the rope, a pull, a knot-'tis done, easily as drinking, and they are out of your way."

It was good logic; but, while admitting it, Seyd still pleaded his foolish national custom.

Though his bent brows still protested against such squeamishness, the mozo politely submitted. "Bueno! it is for you to say. I leave them at your will to cure or kill."

"Now, what shall we do?" Seyd consulted Billy. "If we send them back the old Don will surely hang them."

"Well, what if he does? I'm sure that I don't care a whoop-" He paused, then suddenly exclaimed: "Are we crazy? Here we have been chasing labor all over the valley, and now that it is offered us free we turn up noses. Keep them, you bet! Put it into Spanish as quickly as you can."

Smiling, the mozo nodded comprehension. "As you say, se?or, a live slave is better than a dead thief. They are at your orders to kill by rope or work."

Though it was scarcely his thought, Seyd allowed it to go at that. Throwing the ends of the halters to Billy, the mozo concluded his mission. "It remains only to say that Don Luis will have you come to San Nicolas till your wound is cured."

"Fine!" Billy enthusiastically commented, when the invitation was translated. "I've said all along that you ought to lay off. Go down for a week. By the time you come back I'll have these chaps beautifully broken."

"And you unable to speak a word of Spanish-not to mention the risk to your throat?" Seyd shook his head. "Besides, the old fellow made no bones of his feelings the other day. The invitation is merely in reparation for what he considers a violation of his hospitality. If it wasn't-My place is here."

Accordingly, the mozo carried back to San Nicolas a note which, if not penned in the best Spanish, yet caught its grave courtesy so cleverly that its perusal at the dinner table caused Francesca to pause and listen, drew an approving smile from the se?ora, and produced from Don Luis his heavy nod.

"The young man is a fine caballero.

Your ordinary gringo would have saddled himself upon us for three months, and we should have been worn to skeletons by his parrot chatter. As he lets us off so easily, I must ride up to the mine and warn those rascals to play him no tricks."

* * *

Meanwhile Seyd and Billy had been giving the disposition of the said rascals considerable thought. After the mozo left, Billy cut the halters from around their necks and brought them food and drink from the house. But whether or no they considered this fair front as being assumed to emphasize future tortures the two kept their sullen silence.

"If we have to stand guard all the time we'd be better without them," Billy doubted.

"Yes," Seyd acquiesced. "Unless we can find some incentive. I wonder if they have families." When the two returned nods to his questions he continued, hopefully: "There we have it. Your Mexican peon takes homesickness worse than a Swiss. If we offer them a fair wage while the smelter is building I think they'll prove faithful. At least we can try."

To an experienced eye-the mozo's, for instance-the sudden brightening of the dark faces might have meant something else than relief. At first Caliban seemed to find the good news impossible. But presently, setting it down as another idiocy of the foolish gringos, his incredulity vanished. In one hour he and the rice-huller were transformed from sullen foes to eager servants. Indeed, what with their willing work that afternoon and next morning, the smelter foundation had risen a full yard by the time that Don Luis came riding up to the bench.

Looking up from a blue print of the foundation, Seyd saw him coming at the heavy trot which combined military stiffness with vaquero ease, and noting the keen glance with which he swept the bench the thought flashed upon him, "Now the cat's out of the bag!" He did not, however, try to smuggle the animal in again. When, greetings over, Don Luis turned a curious eye on the foundation he answered the unspoken question. "A smelter, se?or."

"A smelter?" For once the old fellow's massive self possession showed slight disturbance. "I thought-"

"That it took a fortune to build one." Seyd filled in his pause. "It does-to put in a modern plant." While he went on explaining that this was merely an old-style Welch furnace of small capacity he felt the constraint under the old man's quiet, and was thereby stimulated to a mischievous addition. "You see, the freight rates on crude ore from this point are prohibitive, but one can make good money by smelting it down into copper matte."

"A good plan, se?or." Like a tremor on a brown pool, his disquiet passed. "And how long will it be in the building?"

"We had calculated on four months. But with the help you so kindly sent us we can do it now in two."

He could not altogether repress a mischievous twinkle. But Don Luis gave no sign. "Bueno! It was for this that I came-to read these rascals their lesson." Menacing the peons with a weighty forefinger, he went on: "Now, listen, hombres! Since it has pleased the se?or to save you alive, see that you repay his mercy with faithful labor. If there be any failure, tricks, or night flittings, remember that there is never a rabbit hole in all Mexico but where Luis Garcia can find you."

Emphasizing the threat with another shake of his finger, he turned and went on with quiet indifference to comment upon the scenery. "A beautiful spot. Once I had thought to build here, but one cannot live on the edge of a cliff, and San Nicolas has its charm. Is it true that we cannot tempt you to come down? The se?ora begs that you reconsider."

But he nodded his appreciation of Seyd's reasons. "Si, si, a man's place is with his work-and I have stayed too long. There is business forward at Chilpancin, and even now I should be miles on the way."

"Will you not stay for lunch?" Seyd protested.

But replying that he had already lunched at a ranch in the valley, the old man rode away on his usual heavy lope. "You see," Seyd commented, watching him go, "it is all right for me to accept his invitation, but he will not eat of our bread."

"Well, I don't blame him," Billy answered. "I'd feel sore myself if I were he. But, say, we're getting quite gay up here. Regular social whirl. I wonder who's next? We only need mamma to complete the family."

The remark was prophetic, for, while the se?ora did not herself brave the Barranca steeps, only two days thereafter Francesca and the mozo reappeared driving before them a mule whose panniers were crammed with eggs and cheese, butter and honey, fruit, both fresh and preserved, also a full stock of bandages, liniments, curative simples, and home-made cordials. While unpacking them on the table in their house the girl laughingly explained that if Seyd would not come to be cured the cures must needs come to him.

"This is a wash for the wound." She patted a large fat jug. "This other is to be taken every hour. Of this liquor you must take a glass at bed-time. Those pills must be swallowed when you rise. This"-noting Billy's furtive grin, she finished with a laugh-"you will not have room for more. Give the rest to Mr. Thornton. But under pain of the good mamma's severest displeasure I am to see you drink at least two cups of this soup."

"You shall if you stay to lunch," Seyd said. "Billy makes gorgeous biscuit, and they'll go finely with the honey."

"If you can eat bacon-we have only that and a few canned things," Billy added, a little dubiously, and would have extended the list of shortcomings only that she broke in:

"Just what I like. I'm tired of Mexican cooking, and I am dreadfully hungry."

That this was no idle assertion she presently proved, and while she ate of their rough food with the appetite of perfect health their acquaintance progressed with the leaps and bounds natural to youth. Before the end of the meal she had drawn Billy completely out of his painful bashfulness, and he was telling her with great pride of his beautiful sister while she contemplated her photograph with head held delicately askew.

"Yes, she's fair," he told her, adding with great pride, "but not a bit like me."

"The most wonderful hair!" Seyd volunteered. "Darkest Titian above a skin of milk."

"Oh, you make me envious!" she cried, with real feeling. "I love red hair. Luisa Zuluaga, my schoolmate in Brussels, had it combined with great black Spanish eyes. She got her colors from an Irish great grandfather who came over a century ago to coin pesos for the Mexican mint. Now, why couldn't I have had them?"

Observing the fine-spun cloud that flew like a dark mist around the ivory face, Seyd could not find it in his heart to blame her grandfather, and, if good taste debarred him from saying it, the belief was nevertheless expressed through the permitted language of the eyes. Perhaps this accounted for the suddenness with which her long dark lashes swept down over certain mischievous lights.

Any but an expert in feminine psychology might indeed have found himself puzzled by certain phases of her manner. Its sympathy, addressing Billy, would give place to a slight reserve with Seyd, then this would melt and give place to unaffected friendliness. Occasionally, too, she offered all the witchery of her smiles, yet the hypothetical expert would never have suspected her of coquetry. The feeling was far too mischievous for the fencing of sex. Its key was to be found in the thought that passed in her mind. "'Almost pretty enough to marry,' you said. The trouble is that my girlish beauty is in inverse ratio to my future fatness. What a pity!"

Yet this little touch of pique was never sufficiently pronounced to interfere with her real enjoyment. As for them-it was a golden occasion. If they ate little, they still feasted their eyes on the face that bloomed like a rich flower in the soft shadows of the adobe hut, their ears on her low laughter and soft woman's speech. They found it hard to believe when she sprang up with a little cry: "I have been here two hours! Now I have earned my scolding. The madre only let me come under a solemn promise to be back before sunset."

Had they been unaware of the principal concomitant in the charm of the hour, knowledge would have been forced upon them when she rode away, for, though the birds still sang and the hot sun poured a flood of light and heat down on the bench, somehow things looked and felt cold and gray.

And she? Going downgrade an afterglow of smiles lent force to her murmur: "Gringos or no, they are very nice."

* * *

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