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   Chapter 10 “ No.10

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 18714

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Done-at last!"

Sprawled on the flat of his back, with his curly head propped on his hands and his lime-eaten boots spread at a comfortable angle, Billy gazed upon their completed labor. The "well"-into which the liquid copper matte would presently be flowing-crucible, slag spout, blast pipes, or tuyeres, and canvas blowers, even the inclined way that led up to the platform over the loading trap, all were finished, and from the solid bed to the tip top of the brick chimney shaft Billy's vision embraced it all. Including the tons of charcoal that Caliban had burned and brought in from the woods, and the piles of ore which Seyd and Calixto had broken into smelting size with "spalling" hammers, all stood ready for the match that Seyd scratched while echoing Billy's observation.

"Done-at last!"

When the shavings and wood were fairly started under the mixed charge of charcoal and ore Seyd also lay down to watch the first smoke. Under the vigorous blast it quickly appeared-a thin blue spiral which waxed in volume and blackness. In thirty minutes it laid a sooty finger halfway across the Barranca above the hills, a sinister portent to the rancheros and peons, one that found a dark reflection in Don Luis's frown as he looked out from the upper patio of San Nicolas, far away.

Unconscious, however, of alien observation, Seyd watched the fluctuations of the black smoke with lazy enjoyment. He permitted his fancy to float with the waving pennon out over the valley down the river, where it set him aboard a log raft with his first shipment of copper matte and set him drifting down to the coast, where he could either sell to the United Metals Company or ship by sea to California smelters. There was nothing impractical about his musings. Independent of the gold values it carried, one smelting would transmute their thirty-dollar ore into copper matte worth a hundred and twenty dollars a ton. At a liberal estimate the extra twenty would pay expenses, and with a profit of a hundred dollars on an output of sixty or seventy a week during the two months before the rains, there was a small fortune in it. Next year they could both import their labor and put in a regular plant. Thereafter they would be in a position to deliver "blister" copper instead of matte to the market. Why, flaming under the breath of this first success, fancy leaped out to all sorts of possibilities, raised wharves, bunkers, storehouses in the jungle below, set a fleet of flat-bottomed sternwheelers on the river. And never was there such a river! He was traveling its long reaches in thought when fancy suddenly steered his argosy of dreams into the San Nicolas landing.

The next second he was sitting again in the shaded gallery of the upper patio, its flowers and bird song, sunshine and fountain splash in his eyes and ears. As on the other day, he watched Francesca bending over her godchild, and while he was contrasting her air of tender solicitude with the cold hauteur of her face a month ago he thought she looked up with a smile. He was answering it when the smiling eyes were wiped out by the intrusion of some unpleasant thought.

"You fool!" he chided himself. Then, sitting suddenly up, he smote Billy on the thigh with force that drew a yell of anguish. "It's a mint, boy! A blooming mint! I wouldn't trade my share for the best gold mine in Tonopah. Next year we'll put in a big plant-"

"Reverberatories with water jackets!" Billy enthusiastically took up the tale.

"Sure, and we'll build down on the flat by the river and deliver the ore by-"

"Gravity. Aerial cable-self-dumping buckets-"

"We'll refine our own matte-"

"Market our own copper and gold." His blue eyes shining, Billy ran on: "In five years we'll be rich, then for a rest and a trip. New York, London, Paris, with Nice and Monte Carlo thrown in. Europe in a touring-car, by golly! Egypt and the Pyramids! A steam yacht and a trip around the world! Hurray for us!"

"In the mean time"-Seyd led him gently back to earth-"remember, please, that this is your trick. Go and stoke up, or there'll be no Paris in yours."

And surely their days of ease lay a long way off. Long and hard as they had labored, the completion of the smelter merely marked the beginning of still more strenuous tasks. Upon them and the two peons would rest the entire weight of running the smelter at its full capacity. Besides the breaking of the ore, tapping of the slag, continuous firing, they would have to burn their own charcoal after the first supply ran out. Though they had spread the strain by dividing day and night into shifts, it would have been work enough for four times their number.

Seyd's first shift ended at twelve that night, but, though he sent Caliban off to his sleep, he himself sat up to wait for the first matte, which was due to come trickling from the spouts at any moment. Reclining his head, propped on his hand, he watched Billy and Calixto, both now of one color, each at his task, one working the blowers while the other dumped fresh ore and charcoal into the loading trap. At such times the blast would send a burst of flame high over the chimney top, lighting the house, stables, green ore mounds, showing ghostly trees beyond as under a calcium glare. Though the roar of the blast fell like a lullaby on his tired ears, excitement kept him awake till the first matte flowed in a red stream out of the tap.

"She'll go a hundred and fifty to the ton!" Billy exclaimed, after a careful examination of a cooled sample. Then, waving his hand at the huge ore mounds, he groaned: "What a shame that we hadn't enough labor and capital. We could have run it all through before the rains."

"Pig! Hog!" Seyd found a vent for his own surplus feelings by punching Billy in the chest. "Think how much worse off we should have been if we had had to mine it. Go down on your American knee bones and thank your lucky stars for the English Johnnies."

Still smiling, he lay again to watch the glowing matte as Billy ladled it out of the well. It was the culmination of their long labor, but he was too tired even to think, and, giving himself up to a dim luxurious feeling, he insensibly passed into sleep.

* * *

"Wake up, Bob, and go to bed. You still have four hours."

Only half aroused, he arose and stumbled across to the adobe, threw himself down on the bunk without waiting to remove even his boots, and fell into slumber at once so dead and dreamless that it seemed as if his head had no more than touched the pillow before Billy's voice again rang in his ear.

"Seven o'clock, Bob. I gave you an extra hour."

"Oh, quit your joshing." He murmured it, rolling over, and was again almost asleep when a sudden report, louder than thunder, but with a peculiar vibrant note, brought him swiftly to his feet. A second later the door banged to and stuck, but not before they had caught a glimpse of a huge cloud plume, densely yellow, shooting upward above the smelter.

During the moment required to wrench the door from its frame the adobe rocked under the concussion and scattered mud bricks, and there was a rain of stores from the shelves to the floor. It did not require Caliban's frightened yell on the outside, "Explosion! Una explosion, se?ores!" to tell them what had happened. The first glance, as they rushed out over the broken door, merely filled in the details of the vivid mental picture each had formed for himself. Hundreds of feet in mid air, the explosion cloud floated like a yellow balloon above the stump of a stack, the half-fused bricks of which were scattered over the bench. A cavity had been torn downward through the solid brick bed to the clay beneath, and, looking down into it, Seyd read the sign.

"Dynamite! What was the last thing you did?"

"Stoked up and sent Calixto to call Caliban while I came for you. Luckily for him that I did."

The charcoal piles were also leveled and spread over half an acre, and, walking to and fro, Seyd began to pick up and break the larger pieces. And it was only a few minutes before he called out: "Look here! Stick dynamite, broken in two and gummed over with charcoal dust-a bushel of it right here."

"Do you suppose-" Billy glanced toward the peons, who stood close by.

Seyd shook his head. "No, they had nothing to gain by it, and everything to lose. It was the easiest thing in the world for anybody to steal into the woods at night and slip a ton of this into the charcoal piles."

"Man, why didn't we think of it?" Billy groaned.

In moments of stress no two natures will express themselves in quite the same way. As they stood looking gloomily over the wreck big tears slowly forced themselves out of Billy's inflamed eyes and washed white runnels down the soot. Heartbroken, he looked up in sudden fright as Seyd burst out laughing.

"Bob! Bob!" he pleaded. "Have you gone crazy? Get a grip on yourself, there's a good fellow!"

But his pathetic anxiety merely caused Seyd to laugh the more. It was not that he was hysterical. Somehow the thought of the pain and travail, trouble, anxiety, and discomforts they had endured during the past three months touched his sense of humor.

"We have to allow that they made a pretty clean job," he said, wiping his eyes. "Let's be thankful that you were out of the way."

"Where are you

going?" Billy called out, as he began to walk away.

"To finish my sleep and catch up a few hours on all that I have lost in the last three months. Take a nap yourself."

"Oh, I couldn't."

He undoubtedly thought so, yet when Seyd came out again, having slept the clock round, it was to find Billy curled up and snoring hard under the shade of the palm mat that Caliban had stretched between him and the sun. "Quit your fooling," he broke in severely on Seyd's chaffing. "Don't you know that we are down to our last dollar?"

"Thirty-three dollars and sixty cents Mex," Seyd gravely corrected. Kicking a chunk of cooled matte, he added: "But we now have this. It ought to stake us for a new start."

Billy, however, was not to be so easily separated from his grief. "Where are you going to raise capital," he demanded, "with every spare dollar in California locked up in the Nevada gold fields? If this had happened a year ago, before the Tonopah rush, we might have done it. But now?" He shook a doleful head.

"Well-New York?"

"Worse and more of it. The New Yorkers want all the bacon for killing the pig. Might as well give them the mine at once. No, Bob, it's all off. We're done-cooked a lovely brown in our own grease. Why didn't we guard those piles! Who do you suppose did it? Don Luis?"

Seyd shrugged. "Quien sabe? Doesn't look like his style. Of one thing, however, we can be certain. Your common peon doesn't habitually walk around with dynamite in his jeans. If I was going to lay any money, I'd place it on your friend Sebastien. But we haven't any time to fool on detective work. The question is-what's to be done?"

It was no light problem. As Billy had said, every dollar of Western mining capital was invested in Nevada, and Mexican projects, however good, would have to wait till the new gold fields were completely exploited. A canvass of moneyed friends yielded no results, for, while the wreck lay there under their eyes to emphasize the possibility of similar future troubles, they could not but feel it to be a hazardous venture for any person of limited means. Night brought no conclusion. But, having slept on it again, they arose and began once more, unconscious of the fact that while they lay in the heavy shade of a wild fig tree, proposing, debating, rejecting various plans, the solution was fast approaching upon its own legs.

Obviously, neither of them recognized the solution in the person of Don Luis when, about the middle of the forenoon, his horse lifted him up over the edge of the grade. On the contrary, it is doubtful whether smiling fortune was ever met with a blacker scowl than Billy's. Growling, "He's come up for a huge gloat," he would undoubtedly have returned some insult to the old man's greeting but for Seyd's stealthy kick on the shins.

Prepared as he was by the reports that charcoal-burners had brought to San Nicolas, Don Luis's face expressed his utter astonishment at the extent of the ruin. "We but heard of it last night," he told them. "It was, I suppose, accidental? I understand that these furnaces-dynamite? Se?or?" He glanced with an interrogative frown at the peons asleep in the shade of the adobe. "It was not they?"

Reassured on that point, he nodded in confirmation of Seyd's statement that it would be foolish to hunt for the culprit. "As well try to single out a flea on a peon's dog. I warned you, se?or, to expect an enemy in every stone of the Barranca. It would have been well had you listened. But"-his eyes, hands, and shoulders expressed his acceptance of fate-"it is done. And now?"

"We shall rebuild-as soon as we can raise the money."

Turning to survey the destruction, Don Luis hid a sudden gleam that was evenly compounded of admiration and irritation. When he spoke again, shrewd calculation peered from his half-closed eyes. "This time you will build a larger-"

"-Plant?" Seyd supplied the word. "No."

"But I am told, se?or, that the larger the plant the greater the profits."

Seyd raised comical brows. "Fifty thousand dollars, se?or-gold?"

"A small sum to your rich American capitalists."

"But we are not capitalists. No, we shall have to get along with a small furnace."

The calculation deepened in the old man's brown eyes. After a pause, to their utter astonishment, it took form in words. "But if you could raise the money?"

"What's the use of talking; we can't."

"If I were to lend it to you?"

"You!" It was Billy who expressed their wonder. Seyd added, after a pause, "But we have no security to offer-that is, nothing but the mine."

"And if we ran away?" Billy suggested, grinning. "Took your money and never came back?"

For the first time in their acquaintance a touch of humor lightened the heavy bronzed face. "There are some in this valley, se?or, who might not count it too high a price. But as you say"-he bowed to Seyd-"the mine is security enough. Now that you have shown how, I might even work it myself. To put in a complete-"

"-Plant." Billy supplied the strange word.

"How long?"

"Between six and nine months. We should then require a little time to smelt some ore and realize. We could not-"

"Si, si!" In his impatience Don Luis relapsed into Spanish. "Si, one would not expect immediate repayment. Perhaps five thousand pesos at the end of a year-"

"Oh, we could do better than that. Ten thousand of a first payment, fifteen for the second, the remainder at a third with interest-"

"Interest? I had not thought of that." But he yielded to their insistence. "Very well, if you will have it! Shall we say five per-cent.? Bueno! You will, of course, have to make a trip to the United States to buy your material. If you will call at San Nicolas on your way the administrador will have letters prepared to my bankers in Ciudad, Mexico."

With a shrug that expressed relief at the conclusion he changed the subject. Riding forward to obtain a closer view of the furnace, he again clucked his surprise at the complete destruction, wagged a grave head over the half bushel of dynamite that the peons had picked out of the charcoal, curiously examined a piece of copper matte, lifting heavy brows over the statement of its values, then rode quietly away, leaving Seyd and Billy to recover as best they could from this fortunate stroke.

"Am I dreaming?" Billy's exclamation defined their mental condition. "Hit me, Bob. I want to make sure that I'm awake."

Convinced, he gasped with his first breath: "Fifty thousand dollars! By golly! Why, we can put in a complete outfit."

"Reverberatories with water jackets." Seyd took up the tale again. "We'll build down in the valley."

"Aerial cable-"

"-With iron self-dumping buckets-"

"-A flat-bottomed sternwheeler to-"

"-Take our copper down to the coast."

Blinded by the sudden light that had flashed out of their black despair they stood for some time looking out over the Barranca with shining eyes which saw a small mining town rising out of the jungle's tangles. It was fully ten minutes before Seyd came back to earth.

"I wonder what is behind all this? Seems rather funny that the old chap should come to our help?"

"Not knowing, can't say and don't care a darn! So far as I am concerned, at fifty thousand a throw he can be just as inconsistent as he jolly well likes."

"Nevertheless," Seyd mused, "I'd give three cents to know."

Meanwhile, Don Luis pursued his quiet way, now at a heavy canter, again on a stately trot, through the jungle out to the first village beyond the forks of the trail. As he passed the little fonda Sebastien Rocha rode out from a group of rancheros who stood drinking at the rough bar.

"They told me of the passing," he said, nodding backward. "And I waited. What news? Did the gringos go up with their furnace? No? Still they will now have their bellies full of Guerrero?"

But his face dropped at Don Luis's answer. "No, they are to build again."

"But I thought-was it not the agent at the station who said they had no money?"

"Neither had they." It was always difficult to read the massive face, but now it expressed just a shade of malicious amusement. "I have lent them fifty thousand pesos."

"Thou!" For once the man's usual cynical calm was completely disrupted. In his vast astonishment he whispered it: "Thou? Fifty thousand pesos?"

"Yo." Smiling slightly, he went on: "Now listen, Sebastien. Not to mention thy little attempt on their virtue, this is the third on their lives, and all badly bungled. So do not wonder that I thought it time to take them into my own hand. Now that they are there, let there be no mistake-the meddling finger is likely to be badly pinched. From this time-they are mine."

"But-why give them money?"

"To forestall others." Had he been there to hear, the following words would fully have answered Seyd's question. "The elder of these lads is no common man. By hook or by crook he would have raised a company-if he had to rope and tie down his men on the run. Then, instead of these two, we should have a dozen gringos, with Porfirio and his rurales to back up their charter. But do not fear."

From the cleared fields through which they were riding it was possible to see Santa Gertrudis, and, turning in his saddle, he extended his quirt toward its green scar.

"Do not fear."

* * *

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