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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 23043

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

It was in the middle of the rainy season. Stepping out of his office, where he had just added a few drops of Scotch to the water he was absorbing at every pore, the station agent came face to face with the engineer of the down train.

"Nine hours late?" The engineer gruffly repeated the other's comment. "We are lucky to be here at all. Besides being sopping wet, the wood we're burning is that dosey it'd make a fireproof curtain for hell. This kind of railroading don't suit my book, and I'm telling you that if they don't serve us out something pretty soon that smells like wood I know one fat engineer that will be missing on this line." Jerking his thumb at the lone passenger who had descended at the station, he added: "But for that chap we'd never have got through. When the track went out from under us at La Puente he pitched in and showed us no end of wrinkles. If you've got anything inside just give him a nip for me."

"Hullo, Mr. Seyd!" Coming face to face with the passenger after the train had gone on, the agent thrust out his hand. "What a pity you weren't on the other train. She was twenty hours late-in fact, only pulled out a couple of hours ago. Miss Francesca was aboard, and she just left."

"Not alone?"

The agent laughed. "Sure! She don't care. Three weeks ago she came galloping in through one of the heaviest rains and took the up train."

"So she has been home since I left?"

"Let me see-that's nigh on three months, isn't it? Sure, she came home just after you left."

With this bit of information lingering in the forefront of his mind Seyd, a little later, rode out from the station. Not that it engrossed, by any means, the whole of his thought. Even had he been free, the hard work and bitter disappointment of the first venture, and the equally hard thought and careful planning for the second during his long absence in the States, would have been sufficient to keep her in the background. If he had never happened to see Francesca again she would probably have lingered as an unusually pretty face in the gallery of his mind. While it was only natural that he should wonder if the news that he sent in by Caliban had ever reached her ear, it was merely a passing thought. His mind soon turned again to his plans. Up to the moment that, four hours later, he came slipping and sliding downhill upon her she was altogether out of his thought.

For that very reason his fresh senses leaped to take the picture she made standing in the gray sheeting rain beside her fallen horse, and through its very difference from either the tan riding habit or virginal batiste of his memory her loose waterproof with its capote hood helped to stamp this figure upon his brain. Before she said a word he had gone back to the feelings of four months ago.

The pelting rain had washed all but a few clay streaks off her coat. Touching them, she explained: "The poor beast fell under me. I fear it has broken a leg."

While speaking she offered her hand; and if that had not been sufficient, her friendly smile more than answered his speculation. Caliban's niece had certainly done her duty! Indeed, while he was stooping over the fallen animal a quick glance upward would have given him a look evenly compounded of mischief and remorse. It gave place to sudden sorrow when he spoke.

"It is broken, all right. There is only one thing to be done. If you will lead my horse around the shoulder of the hill I will put the poor thing out of its pain."

Her life had been cast too much in the open for her to be ignorant of the needs of the case. Nevertheless, he saw that her eyes were brimming as she led his horse away; and, remembering their black fire on the day that she had ordered the charcoal-burners flogged, he wondered. It would have been even harder to reconcile the two impressions had he seen the tears rolling down her cheeks when the muffled report of his pistol followed her around the hill. But she had wiped them away before he rejoined her. If the sensitive red mouth trembled, her voice was under control.

"No, I had not waited long," she answered his question. "You see, the poor creature lost a shoe earlier in the day, and I had to ride back to have it replaced. It would have been better had I stayed there."

For the moment he was puzzled. An hour ago he had ridden past the last habitation, a flimsy hut already overcrowded with the peon, his wife, their children, chickens, and pigs. All around them stretched wide wastes of volcanic rock and scrub. They were, as he knew, on the hacienda San Angel, but the buildings lay five leagues to the north. With hard riding he had expected to make the inn at the foot of the Barranca wall that night. She might do it by taking his horse. But if anything went wrong? She would be alone-all night-in the rain! He felt easier when she refused the offer of his beast.

"And leave you to walk? No, sir."

A second offer to walk by her side not only ran counter to the prejudice of a race of riders, but also aroused her sympathies. "I could never think of it!" After a moment of thought she propounded her own solution. "Your beast is strong. I have ridden double on an animal half his size. We will both ride."

Now, though Seyd had long ago grown to the sight of rancheros on their way to market in the embrace of their buxom brown wives, the suddenness of it made him gasp. But by a quick mounting he succeeded in hiding the rush of blood to his face. Also he managed to control his voice.

"Fine idea! Give me your hand."

Just touching his foot, she rose like a bird to the croup. When, as the horse moved on, she slid an arm around his waist his demoralization was full and complete. If he glanced down it was to see her fingers resting like small white butterflies on his raincoat. Did he look up, then a faint perfume of damp hair would come floating over his shoulder. He thrilled when her clasp tightened as the horse broke into a gentle trot, and was altogether in a bad way when her merry laugh restored order among his senses.

"Now we can play Rosa and Rosario on their way to market. It will be for you to grumble at prices while I rail at the government tax that puts woolens beyond the purse of a peon."

"I prefer to ask what brought you out in such weather." He returned her laugh. "A pretty pickle you would have been in if I had not come along."

He felt the vigorous shake of her head. "I should have walked back to the last hut, and an oxcart would have taken me in to the station."

"But then you would have been out all night."

"I should have loved it." Though he did not see the sudden blooming under her hood, he felt the unconscious squeeze which testified to the sincerity of her feeling. "I love them-the roar of the wind, black darkness, the beat of the rain in my face. Mother would have had me stay in Mexico till the rains were over, but when Don Luis wrote that the river was at flood nothing could hold me." He had thrilled under her unconscious pressure, but her conclusion proved an excellent corrective. "I am afraid that the site for your new buildings must be under water."

"How can that be?" He spoke quickly. "We are building well back from last year's mark, and Don Luis said that it was the highest known."

"But this year it has gone even higher-and all because of the Yankee companies that are stripping the upper valley of timber. There were great fires, too, last year which broke away from their servants and burned hundreds of miles of woods."

Her quiet answer went far to allay his sudden suspicion, but not his anxiety. He spoke of Billy. "It is over a month since he came out to the station for stores, and the agent told me that none of your people had seen him for weeks."

"But he has with him Angelo"-she gave Caliban his correct name-"and he, as I once told you, was counted Sebastien's best man in his war against the brigands. Though he may not show it to you, he is not ungrateful for the gift of his life. If food is to be had in the country, Mr. Thornton will not go lacking."

He spoke more cheerfully. "Then I don't care; though if the site is flooded we shall be thrown back at least three months with our work."

"And what is three months?" she added, laughing.

To him it was a great deal. Before paying over the loan Don Luis's lawyers had taken Seyd's signatures upon certain instruments which exhibited the General in the new light of a shrewd and conservative business man. Withal, having still plenty of time, he answered quite cheerfully when she turned the conversation with a question concerning his plans. Under the stimulation of her curiosity, which surprised him by its intelligence, he went into details, talking and answering her questions while the horse trudged steadily on into the darkening rain. If the trail had not suddenly faded out, night would have caught them unnoticed.

In that volcanic country, where for long stretches a hoof left no impression, the loss of a trail was a common experience, and, trusting to the instinct of the beast, Seyd gave it the rein. Left to its own devices, however, it gradually swerved from the beating rain and presently turned on to a cattle track which swung away into gum copal trees and scrub oak at an imperceptible angle. Had he been alone Seyd would have soon noticed the absence of the Aztec ruin. As it was, but not until an hour later, Francesca was the first to speak.

"That's so," he agreed, when she drew his attention. "We ought to have passed it long ago. The animal evidently picked up a wrong track coming out from the rocks." After a moment's reflection he said: "It would be worse than foolish to try to go back. We could never find the trail in this black rain. Better follow on and see where it will bring us." With a sudden remembrance of what it might mean to her, a young girl brought up in the rigid conventions of the country, he repentantly added: "I'm awfully sorry for you. I ought to be kicked for my carelessness."

"No, I have traveled this trail much oftener than you," she quietly protested. "If any one is blamed I should be the one."

Sitting there in black darkness, lost in those lonely volcanic hills, with the rain dashing in his face and the roar of the wind in his ears, he was prepared to appreciate her quiet answer. "You are a brick!" he exclaimed. "Nevertheless, I feel my guilt."

"Then you need not." She gave a little laugh. "Did I not say that I enjoyed being out at night in the rain?"

"And now the gods have called your bluff."

"Bluff?" She laughed again at the meaning of that rank Americanism. "It was no bluff, as you will presently see."

And see he did-during the long hour they spent splashing along in black darkness, up hill, down dale, fording swollen arroyos, through chaparral which tore at them with myriad claws and wet woods whose boughs lashed their faces. Up to the moment that the roof of a hut suddenly loomed out against the dim, dark sky she uttered no doubt or complaint. When, having tied his horse under the wide eaves, he lit a match inside, its flare revealed her face, quiet and serene.

Also it showed that which, while not nearly so interesting, had its immediate uses-a candle stuck in a tequila bottle; and its steadier flare presently helped them to another find-a chemisette and other garments of feminine wear, spotlessly clean and smoothly ironed, arranged on a string that ran over a bunk in one corner.

"The fiesta wear of our hostess,

" Francesca remarked. "How lucky! for I am drenched."

"And look at that pile of dry wood!" he exclaimed. "The gods are with us. I'll build a fire, then while I rub down the horse you can change. What's this?"

It was a rough sketch done with charcoal on the table. Two parallelograms with sticks for legs were in furious pursuit of certain horned squares which, in their turn, were in full flight toward a doll's house in the far corner.

"Oh, I know!" the girl cried, after a moment of study. "Here, in the wild country where they never see man, are raised the fighting bulls for the rings of Mexico. This hut belongs to a vaquero of San Angel, and this is an order, left in his absence, to drive the bulls into the hacienda." Laying her finger on a triangle which had evidently been added later, she continued, laughing: "This shows that his woman has gone with him. They were evidently called away unexpectedly, for she had already set the corn to soak in this olla for the supper tortillas. And the saints be praised! Here are dried beef, salt, and chilis. Now hurry the fire, and you shall see what a cook I am."

While he was building it in the center of the mud floor she made other finds-a cube of brown sugar, coffee, a cake of goat's cheese; and her little delighted exclamations over each discovery both amused him and proved how sincere was her acceptance of the situation. "She's a brick!" he told the horse, rubbing him down, outside, with wisps pulled out from the under side of the thatch. "Thoroughbred in blood and bone." As the animal had already experimented with the thatch and found it quite to its liking, the question of provender was settled. But in order that Francesca might have ample time to change, Seyd rubbed and rubbed and rubbed till a rattle of clay pots inside gave him leave to come in.

At the door he paused to admire the picture she made in the red glow of the fire. In place of the slender girl of the stylish raincoat a pretty peona raised velvet eyes from the stone metate on which she was vigorously rubbing soaked corn for the supper tortillas. By emphasizing some features and softening others strange attire always gives a new view of a woman. The sleeveless garment showed the round white arms and foreshortened and filled out her slender lines.

Glancing down at her arms, she confessed, with an uneasy wriggle: "I don't like it, though I wear décolleté every evening when we are in the city. But I shall soon get used to it."

Conscious of his admiring eyes, she found them employment in watching the tortillas. But, having grown accustomed to the new dress by the time supper was ready, she left him free to watch the white arms and small hands which hovered like butterflies over the clay pot. In the lack of all other utensils, they used bits of tortilla for spoons, dipping alternately into the pot which she had set between them; nor did he find the chili any the worse for its contact with the tortilla which had just taken an impression of her small teeth. It required only an after-dinner pipe, to which she graciously consented, to seal his content.

After the wet and fatigue of the trail the warmth and cheer of food and fire were extremely grateful, but not conducive to talk. While he sat watching the tobacco smoke curl up into the blackened peak of the roof she leaned, chin in her hands, elbows on crossed knees, studying the fire. Leaping out of red coal, an occasional flame set its reflection in her deep eyes, and as his gaze wandered from her around the rough jacal Seyd found it difficult to realize that it was indeed he, Robert Seyd, mining engineer of San Francisco, who sat there sharing food and fire with a girl, on the one hand scion of the Mexican aristocracy, descendant on the other of a line which ran back into the dim time of the Aztecs. The thought stirred the romance within him and helped to prolong his silence. It would have held him still longer if his musings had not been suddenly interrupted by her merry laugh.

"Si?" he inquired, looking suddenly up.

"I was thinking what they would say-my mother, Don Luis, the neighbors?"

"Horrible!" he agreed. "Your mother? What would she say?"

As the white hands flew up in a horrified gesture it was the se?ora herself. "Santa Maria Marissima!"

"And Don Luis?"

Her expression changed from laughter into sudden mischievous demureness. "His remarks, se?or, are not for me to repeat."

"Well-the neighbors?"

Once more her hands went up. "'Was it not that we always said it of that mad girl! Maria, thou shalt not speak with her again.'" Smiling, she added, "For you must know, se?or, that I have been held as a horrible example of the things a girl should not do since the days of my childhood."

"Like the devil in the old New England theology," he suggested, smiling, "you make more converts than the preacher?"

He had to explain before she understood. Then she laughed merrily. "Just so. What they would do were I to marry, die, or reform, I really cannot tell. It would leave a gap almost equal to the loss of the catechism." She finished with a mock sigh, "They will never appreciate me till I'm dead."

"Any present danger?"

The smiling mouth pursed demurely under his whimsical glance. "I am afraid not. You saw my performance at supper. I am the despair of my mother, who would have me more delicate and refined."


"No one wants me."

"Don Sebastien?"

It slipped out, and he was immediately sorry, but she only laughed. "Tut! tut! A cousin?"

Surveying him from under drooping lashes, a glance soft and warm as velvet, she added: "I will confess. There were others. Some too fat, some too thin, all too stupid, here at home. In Mexico they were triflers-or worse. But on the honor of a lone maid, se?or, never a man among them." With a sudden relapse into seriousness she repeated, "Among all of them-never a man." Though she was looking directly at him, her glance seemed to go on, fly to some further vision which, for one second, set its reflection in her eyes. Then her long silky lashes wiped it out. When they rose again it was over mischievous lights. "Never a man," with a change of accent.

"But he will come-some day," he teased.

"And go-after the fashion of dream men."

"And dream women."

For a while she studied him curiously. "Then she has not come?"

"Yes," he answered, with sudden impulse. "But-"

She softly filled the pause. "'But' and 'because' are woman's reasons."

"Unhappily, sometimes man's," he gravely answered; and, feeling, perhaps, that the conversation was drifting into unsafe latitudes, he rose and began to pull dry grass from the under side of the thatch. "For you," he exclaimed, with a glance at the bunk. "I knew you wouldn't care to sleep there."

Having arranged a thick layer at a safe distance from the fire, he gathered another armful, and was going outside when she called him back. "To make my bed," he answered her question.

"In the wet?"

"Oh, it isn't so bad-here under the eaves."

"Only an inch of water," she answered him, with pretty sarcasm; and, indicating certain small trickles that were coming through the cane siding, she gave him his orders. "You will sleep here-inside."

"But-" he began.

"Se?or, I said that you would sleep inside."

As a matter of fact, the "prospect" outside was not inviting, and his acquiescence lowered the quick colors his previous obstinacy had raised. She had already settled down on one elbow; and when, having arranged a bed on the opposite side of the fire, he lit a second pipe, she studied him through the smoke, wondering what pictures were responsible for his earnest gaze. But warmth and comfort presently produced their natural effect, and she began to nod. After a few shy, sleepy glances that showed him still staring moodily into the fire her head sank upon the white fullness of her doubled arm.

As a matter of fact, it was his wife's face that returned his steady gaze from a nest of red coal. Absorbed in bitter musings, he received the first intimation of Francesca's sleep from a sigh which caused him to start as though at the report of a gun. Then while the warm blood streamed through his drumming pulses, every sense vividly alive, he looked down upon her. With all the timid awe that Adam must have displayed when he awoke to the sight of Eve he studied this greatest of masculine experiences, a woman clad in the soft armor of sleep.

For some time his senses dwelt only on the fact, and gave him merely the soft sigh of her sleep, the play of firelight over the unconscious figure. But presently his mind began to work, to compare the broad forehead, oval contours, fine-cut nostrils, delicate chiseling of her features, with the common prettiness of his wife. Even the little foot and slender ankle, freed by relaxation from the jealous skirt, helped to emphasize differences wide as those between a hummingbird and a pouter pigeon. It had required the rigid selection of a thousand generations, the pre-eminence in strength and brains of a line of fighters to produce the one, just as the slacker choice of a commoner breed had created the other; and Seyd, whose own blood had come down through the clean channels of good Colonial stock, recognized the fact. As never before he was impressed with the fatuity of his chivalric rashness. While the firelight rose and fell he strained at the ties which stretched over mountains, desert, plains, binding him to the coarse woman in Albuquerque.

His sudden jerk forward was the physical equivalent of his mental strain. Though homely, even slangy, his mutter, "Your cake is baked, son. The sooner you let this girl know it the better," was none the less tragic. The thought was the last in his waking mind.

Before going to sleep he performed one last service. Noticing that she shivered under the wet breath of the night, he took off his coat, tiptoed across, and, after laying it softly across her shoulders, returned with equal caution. She did not stir or even change the slow rhythm of her breath, but he had no more than lain down before her eyes slowly opened. When his deep respirations told that he was fast asleep she rose on one elbow and looked at him across the fire.

In her turn, with glances shyly curious as those with which Eve, newly formed, may have eyed Adam still in "deep sleep," she noted the wide-spaced, deep-set eyes, strong nose, the ideality of the brows, the humorous puckers at the corners of his mouth. Though she did not analyze their individual meanings, the totality made a strong appeal to instinct and intuitions formed by the vast experience of the race. Her impression phrased itself in her murmur, "A wholesome face."

Only the cleft chin seemed to carry a special meaning. Surveying it, a gleam of mischief shot through the soft satisfaction of her look, and she murmured beneath her breath in Spanish, "Oh, fickle! fickle! Thy wife will need the sharpest of eyes."

The thought brought a little laugh, and for a minute thereafter she sat, a finger upon her lip, listening for a break in his breathing. When it did not come she rose slowly, stole like a mouse across the floor, and laid his coat, light as a feather, over his unprotected shoulders. Back again on her own couch, she looked across at him again; a glance na?ve in its enjoyment of the romantic impropriety of the entire proceeding. Then, curling up under her raincoat, she fell fast asleep.

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