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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 23530

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Living in the letter of his intention, Sebastien was up next morning and had covered ten miles of the trail before the sun rose over the Barranca wall. Early as it was, however, others were already abroad. The sudden increase in his family had obliged Seyd to make a journey out to the railroad for more provisions, and when Sebastien paused to breathe his beast halfway up the grade to the bench, a good glass would have shown him Light and Peace gingerly picking their way along the trail that had been built by Don Luis's orders around the slide on the opposite wall.

As usual, Sebastien's approach was announced by the ring of hoofs, but, imagining it to be some charcoal-burner, Billy, who was already at his bricks, did not look up till warned by Caliban's stealthy hiss. In his surprise he forgot to reply to Sebastien's greeting, and simply answered the other's question.

"Don Roberto? He is not here?"

"No, gone out to the railroad. Won't be back for three days."

"Caramba! After I had climbed these heights to see him!" Though his eyebrows and hands both testified to Sebastien's disappointment, a sharper eye than Billy's might have discerned the underlying satisfaction. Moreover, if he appeared merely inquisitively friendly during the hour he stayed to chat, not one minute was wasted. From the first question to his final comment on Billy's work, "You gringos are certainly a wonderful people," all was directed to one end.

"Yes, we usually get there," Billy modestly admitted, and his next words paved a lovely road for Sebastien to come to his purpose. "The building would go faster if I hadn't so many things to do. After laying bricks all day I have to turn in and cook, and, though it's pretty tough, there doesn't seem to be any way out of it. We tried both of the peons at the cooking and nearly died of the hash they served up."

"Tut! tut!" Sebastien was there with ready sympathy. "This is too bad. Soon you will be completely worn out." After a pause, during which he may be imagined as taking Billy's mental temperature, he said: "Bueno! I have it! I shall send you a cook-one than whom there is no finer in all this country."

If he had harbored any suspicions, Billy's beaming smile now wiped them out. "That's awfully good of you. Seyd will be ever so glad. When can we expect your cook?"

"To-morrow afternoon." Scenting hospitality in Billy's glance toward the hut, Sebastien hastily added, "That is, if I reach home to-night-to do which I shall have to be going." And refusing the offer of lunch which justified his premonition, he rode away, leaving Billy puffed up with pride.

"I rather think I turned that trick well," he congratulated himself. "Seyd couldn't have done it a bit better." Occasional fat chuckles emitted during the afternoon testified to his increasing opinion of his own diplomacy. But his rising pride did not attain its meridian until, midway of the following afternoon, a pretty brown girl came driving a burro up the trail.

Having anticipated a man cook, it required five minutes of vehement Spanish, helped out by a wealth of gesticulation, to convince Billy that the girl was not an estray from a neighboring hamlet, and while her dark eyes, white teeth, and shapely brown arms were engaged in explanation they wrought other work. By the time Billy was finally able to understand the fact he was hardly in condition to pass upon it.

It is only right to state that he had little time for reflection, for from the very beginning the girl took the direction of affairs into her own hands. Driving her burro over to the stable she unpacked a stone metate, or grinding-stone, a pestle, and a quantity of soaked corn. She turned the beast out to graze, then dropped at once on her knees and began grinding paste for the supper tortillas, or cakes. When, toward evening, Billy dropped in for a drink he found her mantle spread on his bed and certain articles of feminine wear depending from the nails which had hitherto been sacred to his own clothing.

Blushing furiously, he went out-without the drink. But, though his colors would have done credit to a girl, they were not to be weighed in the same balance with the green peppers stuffed with minced beef that she served at supper with the tortillas. While eating with an appetite born of a protracted canned diet it is to be feared that he fed just as ravenously on the atmosphere shed by her luxurious presence. When, after supper, he sat in the doorway and watched the blood-reds of the sunset flow through the valley he might, with his fiery stubble, have passed for some ancient Celt at the mouth of his cave. Not until he caught a second glimpse of the mantle while stealing a look at the girl washing up dishes did he return to his usual bashful self. Slipping quietly inside, he gathered up the blankets off Seyd's bed and carried them out to make his own couch under a tree.

This procedure on his part the girl watched with a certain astonishment which she vented on Caliban while giving him his breakfast next day. "I had thought differently of the gringos. Be they all like this one-"

"Give time, give time!" the hunchback advised. "Big fish are ever slow at the hook, but when they once rise-" The tortilla he used for illustration vanished at one gulp. "Wait till thou seest Don Roberto. There's a man! Of his own strength he threw a burro off the trail into the Barranca and so turned the train that would otherwise have driven him and the 'Red Head' into the ca?on. 'Tis so. The history of it was written by Don Sebastien's whip on the shoulders of Mattias and Carlos. And what of the magic that turned my bullet fired at twenty yards, then found me and Calixto in black jungle and shot us down from the high cliff? Si, chief of the other is he, so waste not thy freshness."

"Bah! am I a fool?" She elevated her nose.

This conversation undoubtedly explains the staidness of her demeanor that day. Not that it was necessary to keep Billy at his distance. Leaving his painful modesty out of the question, in his ignorance of the Mexican peon folk he placed her in his imagination on the same plane as a white girl, and as the color of a skin cuts no figure in the calculations of the little god, providing that it be fitted smoothly over a pretty body, she found favor in his sight. At work both the next and the following days he kept always an eye open for the flash of her white garments in the doorway. When, with the earthen jar on her head, she went to draw water from the spring his glance followed the swaying rhythms of her figure. If not actually in love by the time Don Luis and Francesca put in their appearance next morning, Billy was at least living a tropical idyl, one not a whit less beautiful because its object departed far from his ideal in all but her physical perfection.

The visit had been skilfully timed to miss lunch, and Billy was already back at his work. Crossing the bench, Don Luis's eye went instantly to the girl who had been drawn to the door by the sound of hoofbeats. But his expression gave no hint of his grim amusement. The keenest ear would have found it difficult to detect sarcasm in his remark.

"I see, se?or, that you have added to your family."

Also it need not be said that Francesca's woman's eye had summed at a glance the smooth oval face, rounded arms, shapely figure; yet their undeniable comeliness brought no pleasure to her expression. If Billy had overlooked Don Luis's sarcasm it was impossible to miss her scorn.

"A capable housekeeper-if one may judge from her looks-and quite at home. You are to be congratulated, Mr. Thornton."

Looking up in quick surprise, Billy noticed the absence of the sympathy that she had shown him during her last visit. Feeling the cold anger behind, and sadly puzzled, he was not sorry when, after a few minutes of strained talk, Don Luis asked to be shown the vein. Judging by his backward glance from the mouth of the tunnel, it would appear that he had coined the request to pave the way for that which happened the instant they disappeared. For, walking her beast over to the house, Francesca spoke to the girl.

"Thy name?"

"Carmelita, se?orita."

"Of what village?"

"Chilpancin-I am the daughter to Candelario, the maker of hair ropes."

Though she answered with the glib obsequiousness of her class, the appraising glance which swept Francesca from head to heel carried a mute challenge and conveyed her full knowledge that a battle was pitched such as women fight all the world over. Neither could Francesca's patrician feeling smother equal recognition. It was revealed in her next question.

"How long hast thou been in this employment?"

The girl paused. Then, whether it was due to Sebastien's tutoring or her own malice, she gave answer. "Eight days, se?orita."

"Who hired thee?"

Downcast lashes hid the sudden sparkle of cunning. "Don Roberto." But they lifted in time for her to catch the sudden hardening of Francesca's face.

"Then see that thou renderest good service, for these be friends of ours."

As beforesaid, neither the cold patronage of the one nor the sullen obsequiousness of the other could hide the issue from either. Francesca's calm, as she turned her beast, did not deceive. Malicious understanding flashed out as the girl called after, "Si, he shall have the best of service."

Returning to the smelter, Francesca began to talk to Caliban, yet while questioning him concerning his new employment she could not be unconscious of Carmelita lolling in the doorway, hands on shapely hips, an attitude gracefully indolent and powerfully suggestive of possession. Perhaps it was her acute consciousness of it which injected an extra chill a few minutes later into her refusal of Billy's invitation to dismount and rest. His suggestion that Seyd was likely to arrive any moment drew a still more decided shake of the head. Moreover meeting Seyd as they rode downgrade she passed with the slightest nods, nor even looked back to see if her uncle were following.

Doubtless because he felt that he could well afford it, Don Luis did stop, and before riding on he once more threatened Calixto, the rice-huller, who was with Seyd. "This fellow-he still gives good service?" His courtesy, however, did not remove the chill of Francesca's snub. Hurt and wondering, Seyd passed on up to the bench-to have his eyes opened the instant that he saw the girl in the doorway. When, after dismounting, he walked across to where Billy was at work on the foundation, her big dark eyes took him in from tip to toe in a flashing embrace. She studied him while he stood there talking.

"What is she doing here?"

He cut off Billy's welcome with the sharp question, and while listening to explanations his gray eyes drew into points of black. In the middle of it he burst out, "You don't mean to say that you fell for it as easily as that?"

"Fell for what?"

Billy's round eyes merely added to his irritation. "You chump! didn't you see the trap?"

"The trap?"

"Yes, trap! T-r-a-p, trap! Got it into your fat head? Don't you see that you have catalogued us with the San Nicolas people as a pair of blackguards forever? Oh, you fat head!"

That was not all. While he stormed on, saying things that he would willingly have taken back a minute later, every bit of its usual mercurial humor drained out of Billy's face. Over Seyd's shoulder he could see the girl in the doorway. A certain dark expectancy in her glance told that she knew herself to be the bone of contention. As a doe might watch the conflict of two bucks in the forest, she looked on, and, meeting Billy's eye, her glance touched off his anger.

"Stop that!" he suddenly yelled. "S

top it or I'll hand you one! I will, for sure! What do I care for your San Nicolas people? I didn't come down here to do a social stunt, and why should the opinions of a lot of greasers cut any ice? Let 'em go hang. The girl looks all right to me."

"All right! You innocent!" Shaking with anger, Seyd turned and spoke to Caliban, who was mixing mortar close by. "As I thought! If half he says is true her reputation would hang a cat."

But Billy's jaw only set the harder. While he might easily have been persuaded out of his idyl, he was not to be driven. Out of pure obstinacy he growled: "What of it? I reckon her morals won't spoil the food. She's proved she can cook, and that is all I want. She's going to stay."

"She's not."

"She is."

For a pause they eyed each other. Though their friendship had survived, nay, had been cemented by many a quarrel, never before had a disagreement gone such lengths.

"Look here, Billy." Seyd spoke more mildly. "This won't do. She's got to go."

"Not till you've shown me-not now," he hastily added, as Seyd began to strip. "I'd hate to hit a cripple, and-"

"Come on."

But, ducking a swing, Billy gave ground, genuine concern on his face. "No, no, old man! You are still weak. Let it go for another week. That left fin of yours-"

Landing at that precise moment on his ear, however, the member in question proved its convalescence and ended the argument by toppling him sideways. Up in a second, he closed, and for the next ten minutes they went at it, clinching and breaking, jabbing and hooking, with an energy and science that would have filled the respective souls of a moralist and a prize-fighter with disgust and delight. Avoiding both of these extreme viewpoints, the account may very well be given in the terms used by Caliban in describing the affair next day to one of his compa?eros, a charcoal-burner.

"Like mad bulls they go at it, grappling and tearing, each striking the other so that the thud of their blows raise the echoes. It is in the very beginning that the Red Cabeza fells Don Roberto, but instead of splitting his head with the spade that stands close by-was ever such folly!-he helps him up from the ground. I then think it the finish, but no, they go at it again, hailing blows in the face hard as the kick of a mule, and so it continues for a time with only pauses to catch their breath. I am beginning to wonder will it ever come to an end when-crack! sharp as the snap of thy whip and so swift that I do not see the blow, it comes. The Red Cabeza lies there quietly on the ground. Believe it or not, Pedro, he is knocked senseless by a blow of the hand."

The immediate consequences may also be left to Caliban. "Their quarrel, as I have said, is over Carmelita, the dove of Chilpancin, and I now expect to see Don Roberto take her for his own. That she is of the same mind is proven when she comes running with her knife for him to finish up the Red Cabeza. But again, no! who shall understand these gringos?-he gives her the sharpest of looks.

"'Vamos!' He shouts it with such anger that she stumbles and falls, running back to the house. Also she makes such a quick packing that she is driving her burro out to the trail before the Red Cabeza comes to his senses."

Billy's eyes, indeed, opened on the departing flash of her garments. "You didn't lose much time," he commented, with a quizzical glance upward. "Well, to the victor the spoils-or the rejection thereof. That was a peach of a punch-the bum left, too, wasn't it?" The old merry look flashing out again from the blood and bruises, he asked: "How'll you trade? In exchange for one admission from you I'm willing to grant you're right."

"Shoot!" Seyd grinned.

"Would you have been as careful of the proprieties if the se?orita were out of the case?"

Smiling, Seyd raised doubtful shoulders. "Quien sabe, se?or?"

"Ahem!" Billy coughed. "Now you justify the continuance of my wretched existence. All the same, while it may be correct in theory your darned morality is mighty uncomfortable practice. That girl could cook. The next time you fall in love please-"

"Now, what are you talking about?"

"What have I done?"

Before his look of hopeless surprise Seyd's anger faded. "I beg your pardon. Of course you didn't know, but-I'm already married."

"You?"

"Me." With grim sarcasm he added, "And you know that it is against the law of both God and man for a married man to fall in love."

Feeling dimly that something was expected of him, but debarred from congratulations by the other's irony, Billy floundered, bringing several attempts at speech to a lame conclusion. "When-when did it-happen?"

"Happen? That's it." Seyd jumped at the word. "It happened in New Mexico three years ago when I was down there 'experting' the Calumet group. She was the daughter of a mine foreman, pretty and neat as a grouse in the fall, but of the hopelessly common type. I don't have to describe her. You've seen them, in pairs, swinging their skirts along the boardwalks of any small town, their eyes on every man and a burst of giggles always on tap. I should never have paid her any serious attention if several of her admirers hadn't done me the honor of getting jealous. Until one big lout warned me to leave her alone under penalty of broken bones it was never more than a mild flirtation, but after that I went deeper-so deep that it was soon impossible for me to withdraw. At least, I thought it was then, though I have since come to regard my marriage with her almost as a crime. You see, I thought it would break her heart, but in less than a week after the marriage I discovered that she was nothing but a bundle of small vanities bound up in a pretty skin, that she hadn't a thought above the money and position she expected to gain through me. And how she changed! As a girl she was soft, fluffy, and innocent as a kitten, but one by one her small vanities and frivolities developed into appetites and passions, and I awoke to the fact that she was altogether animal-a beautiful animal, prettier than ever in her young wifehood, but without the slightest capacity for intellectual or spiritual development.

"If that had been all-one can love a handsome horse or a dog, and I have seen women of as low a type to be lifted out of themselves by the strength of their love. But she was absolutely selfish-loved only herself. What made it even more unbearable, she was conceited with the supreme conceit of absolute ignorance that scorns all that is unknown to itself. She would try to impose her own inch-and-a-half notions of things upon me, and she did not hesitate to pit the scraps of knowledge she had picked up around the mines against my professional training. She was bound to remold me on her own crude model. Actual wickedness would have been easier to bear, and I can assure you that the third month of our married life found me absolutely miserable. Fortunately, I received a commission just then to 'expert' a group of Mexican mines, and, as she preferred civilization as it goes in New Mexico to the hardships of a trip through the Sonora desert, I left her behind. Later I came south on a prospecting trip through the Sierra Madres, and have never seen her since."

All through he had spoken with the furious vehemence of a man easing a load off his mind. Thrusting a letter into Billy's hand, he finished, walking away: "Read that-I got it at the station yesterday. It reveals more than I could tell you in the next twenty-four hours."

And it surely did. The stiff round hand, as much as the bald statement of want and desires, revealed a nature blind to all but its own ends. Every phrase was a cry or complaint. He had no business to go off and leave her alone! All her friends agreed that it was a "shame and a disgrace." But he needn't think that she would stand such treatment forever! He had better come home, and that at once! So far she hadn't tried to "better herself." But it wasn't for lack of the chance! There was a gentleman-no fresh dude or college guy, but a rich mining man, eminently respectable, who had shown a decided interest! He (Seyd) had better look out. Thus and so did the awkward hand run over many pages, and, while Billy's eye followed, his expression gradually settled in complete disgust.

"Hopelessly common! You poor chap," he muttered, looking after Seyd, who was now helping Caliban to arrange the goods as he carried them from the mules into the adobe. "To think that you have had this on your mind all this time!" After a moment's reflection he added, "But-married or unmarried, you are still in love."

Unaware of this frank opinion, Seyd went on arranging the stores. While working, the eager vehemence of his manner settled into heavy brooding, and it was not for some time that a cheerful flash indicated his arrival at some conclusion.

"I've got it!" he murmured. And turning so suddenly that Caliban dropped the package he was carrying in, he asked, "Hast thou any acquaintance at San Nicolas?"

Reassured that the strange gringo madness was not to be vented on him, the hunchback nodded. "One of the kitchen women is daughter to my sister."

He nodded again in answer to a second question as to whether his niece could convey certain information to the se?orita Francesca's ear?

"Si, there is always gossip moving among the women. It could be passed through Rosa, her maid."

For a man who had just taken offense at the very suggestion that he was in love Seyd's face expressed a surprising amount of satisfaction. A little sheepishly he now went on: "It must be that thou wouldst care to see thy relative? To-morrow is Sunday, and, as thy service has been good, it shall be a holiday, and thou shalt have a mule to ride to San Nicolas."

To tell the truth, the hunchback did not seem overjoyed at the prospect, at least not until Seyd tossed a silver peso on the table. "This is to buy thee meat and drink by the way, and if it be that thy niece can whisper-"

His beady eyes glittering with comprehension, the hunchback broke in, "That the dove flew at thy coming. She shall know it, se?or-also from whose hand she came hither."

The quickness with which the fellow leaped to his meaning was rather disconcerting, and Seyd blushed. But, commanding his guilty colors, he brazened it out. "But see! She is not to know that it proceeds from me."

"Si, se?or." The man's quick grin indicated an unearthly comprehension. "It will be a bit of gossip from the mouth of a muleteer."

It was at this juncture that Billy, who had just returned to work after washing the blood from his face, heard a cheerful whistling inside. When, an hour later, he went in to help with supper he found Seyd his usual cheerful self. Next morning his spirits were still higher, but did not attain their meridian until Caliban departed for San Nicolas, bravely attired in a gaudy suit which he had dug from some obscure corner of the stable. Toward evening, however, a touch of anxiety dampened his mood. It might almost have been regarded as premonitory of the news Caliban delivered in the dusk outside.

"The se?orita Francesca has gone to visit her mother's people at Cuernavaca. It is not known when she will return."

"Very well; thou hast done thy share," Seyd answered.

His quiet tone, however, did not deceive the hunchback. "Did I not say these gringos were a mad people?" he demanded of Calixto, showing two pesos by the light of the stable lantern. "He pays me a peso to bring him good news, and gives me two when I return with bad-and to think that I was minded to feed him lies. Truly, there is no knowing when to have them! 'Tis the truth serves best with fools and gringos."

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