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The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 16949

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Thoroughly fagged out by six weary nights on the train, Seyd slept like the dead, and did not awaken until a sudden clatter of pots aroused him to knowledge of a golden cobweb of light streaming in between the flimsy siding of the hut. Through the open doorway he obtained a glimpse of a bejeweled world, resonant with the song of birds. After informing him of these facts, his eyes reintroduced him to the young lady in the tan riding habit who had ousted the pretty peona of last night from her command over fire and dishes. The satisfying odor of hot coffee completed the verdict of his senses.

"Breakfast all ready? I must have slept like a log."

"You did." She laughed. "I rattled the dishes in vain. I was just about to throw something at you."

Now, his last waking thought had outlined a purpose to inform her at once of his marriage, and while they were eating breakfast it recurred again. But not with the same force. That which, when imbued with the sentimental values of firelight and silence, appeared necessary and right somehow appeared almost absurd when viewed in broad day. Checking sentiment, too, by its very friendliness, her manner did not invite confession.

"It would be impertinent," he concluded. "She has no personal interest in me."

If he had observed her only an hour earlier re-entering the jacal after a shivering exchange outside with the peona he might not have been quite so sure. Once or twice she had indulged in softer thought, whose key was to be found in her murmur just before she tried to awake him:

"Adios, Rosario."

Also the morning had brought its own problem to fill his mind. He could not but see that their appearance at the inn in the Barranca so early in the day would be a confession of their breach of the most rigid of Spanish conventions. But how to broach the subject without offense? Though he racked his brains while saddling the horse and, later, when it was carrying them double upon their way, he had come to no conclusion up to the moment that she settled it herself with a little cry.

"Now I know where I am." She was indicating an outcropping of rock on a sterile hillside. "We strayed miles away from our trail. We shall soon come to a path that leads past a rancho where I can borrow a horse."

Almost as they spoke the cattle track they had been following joined a trail, and shortly after she spoke again, laughing. "And now, Se?or Rosario, I must bid you good-by. This good beast has done nobly, but we shall gain time if one rides forward to the rancho and sends back a horse. Which shall it be?"

But he was already on the ground, hat in hand. "Rosa, adios."

Laughing, she rode on while he sat down on an outcropping of rock to wait, for he was not minded to wade through the wet grass and brush of some woods at the foot of the hill. Until she passed from sight he sat watching, then, feeling a little lazy, he fitted his angles into a sort of natural couch in the rock and fell to musing, reviewing again the incidents of the night. He had not intended to sleep. But what with the warmth and stillness, he presently passed quietly away, was still unconscious when the stroke of a hoof on a rock awoke him to the sight of two horsemen with a led beast.

"For me," he thought. Then, as he recognized Sebastien Rocha in the second horseman, he whistled his consternation. If the hacendado had not actually met Francesca he must surely have pumped the mozo dry, and now the sight of him, Seyd, would fully reveal their case!

"Now for a big fat row," he told himself. But, greatly to his surprise, Sebastien passed on with a nod, and presently turned from the trail, following their fresh hoof tracks over the hill. The mozo had already gone on to retrieve Francesca's saddle from the dead horse, and, irritated and alarmed, Seyd mounted the led beast and rode on at a gallop. But, quickly realizing that his further company was not likely to improve the girl's case, he presently pulled the beast back to a walk. Lost in frowning thought, he rode on slowly until, an hour later, there came a beat of galloping hoofs, and Sebastien rode up from behind.

His reiteration of the thought "Now for the row!" was colored by the way in which the hacendado's hand went to his holster. But Seyd's hand, which moved as quickly to his own gun, dropped, and he blushed crimson as the other held out his brier pipe.

"Merely this, se?or." He glanced meaningly at Seyd's gun. "For that you would have been too late. I could have shot you through the back. After this do not let your foolish Yankee pride stop you from looking behind."

Though both angry and alarmed, the cold impudence of it made Seyd laugh. "Yes? How did you resist the temptation?"

"It was a temptation." He gravely approved the word. "Your back made such a fine smooth mark. I could see the bullet splash in the center."

"Then why didn't you? Since you are so frank I don't mind saying that I believe that you already had a hand in at least one of three attempts on my life! Is it that you would prefer to have me blown up?"

"Like your predecessor, the Hollander?" Sebastien's shrug might have meant anything. "I have, of course, my preferences, and some day I shall have to decide in just which way I would wish you put to death. In passing the opportunity now you ought to feel complimented, for let me tell you that I would never leave any Mexican lips free to tell of your experiences last night."

The man's tone of quiet certainty robbed the words of extravagance; and, accustomed now to a life that out-melodramaed melodrama, Seyd knew better than to take them for jest. "That's very nice of you," he quietly answered, and as just then the trail narrowed to pass through a copal grove he added: "Forewarned is forearmed. Just to keep you out of temptation-will you please to go first?"

"With pleasure."

Faint though it was, the smile that loosened the firm mouth made it easier for Seyd to continue when they were riding once more side by side. "For the young lady's sake I am glad to have you take such a sensible view of an unavoidable situation. I take it that you were going the other way. If you can trust me-"

"Trust no one and you will never be deceived. If I had my way of it there would be an end to the girl's wild tricks. But since she will be abroad, what better escort could she have than her kinsman?"

"None," Seyd agreed. "I overtook her by accident, cared for her the best that I could; now she is in your hands."

Sebastien shook his head. "Not so swiftly. She would hardly thank me for your dismissal." While the shadow of a smile lifted the corner of his thin lips he added: "The last time I mixed in her affairs she refused to speak with me for over a year, and I have no mind to repeat the experience. We are all going to San Nicolas. It would be foolish to ride apart."

"Very well," Seyd agreed, not, however, with any great degree of pleasure. Apart from the strain involved by a day's travel with a man who had just confessed to a permanent intention of killing him he felt more disappointment than he would have cared to admit at the spoiling of the tête-à-tête with the girl. In fact, the feeling was so acute that he found it necessary to justify it in his own thought. "It was only for a day," he mused, slightly changing his previous conclusion to fit the case, "and I'd like to have seen it out."

"So! so! The storm proved a little too much for this one."

They had just ridden into copal woods, and, looking up, Seyd saw that he was pointing at a pile of bones and wet tatters of clothing that lay under a swinging fray of rope. If possible, it was more grisly of appearance than a second mummy which still swung, clicking its miserable bones in the wind. Whether or no he noticed Seyd's shiver of disgust Sebastien ran easily on:

"He was a stout rogue, this fellow, with a keen eye for a pretty woman and small scruples as to how he got her. It was, indeed, through this little weakness that we caught him, using a girl to bait the trap. But he died game-with a joke on his lips. 'Se?or,' he said, as the mule went from under him, 'if but one-half of my brats walk in my steps thou wilt have need of an army to finish us up.'

"He had humor, too. He it was that stole the altar service from the church of San Anselmo to pay the priest of Guadaloupe to say a thousand masses for the repose of his soul. He was dead and the masses said

before the service was traced by a pilgrim to the Guadaloupe shrine, and ever since the priests have been at war-both over the return of the service and to decide the burning question as to whether it is possible to nullify a heavenly title obtained through fraud. It makes a pretty point in theology, and the battle still rages. Being debarred from physical expression, the brute in a priest exercises itself through the tongue, and they will not leave such a choice morsel till the last shred of meat has been gnawed from the bones."

In presence of those dumb witnesses to its truth, the grim banter sounded even grimmer. During the long white nights that followed hard days at work on the smelter nothing had suited Caliban more than to be drawn on to talk of the war against the brigands. Under the red light of a camp fire, with the vast night of the Barranca yawning below, the tales had been spun-tales that had outdone the dime novels of Seyd's youth. Of them all, that which had ended with the hanging of the last bandit in this very glade had outdone all in sheer desperation.

Kindling to the romance of it all, he took stealthy note, as they rode on, of the lithe muscular figure, which was as extraordinary in its balanced strength as the calm power of the quiet brown face. When memory drew a vivid contrast between Sebastien and his early training in the sober atmosphere of the English commercial boarding-school Seyd wondered, and finally put his wonder into words.

"Didn't you find the transition from Manchester rather sudden? It must have been like plunging head first into a romance."

"Romance?" For the first time that morning, for matter of that, in all their intercourse, Sebastien laughed outright. "Oh, you Anglo-Saxons! Romance is a creature of your own dreamy idealism. We do not know it. We are passionate, nervous, hysterical, gross, materialistic, but for all our heat we see life more clearly than you. It would be better for us if we did not. For where in the mirror of your imaginings you see your strength enormously magnified our clearer perceptions show our weaknesses. Even at the point of death you neither see nor accept defeat. But we, cowering before it, are swept the quicker away." Just as on that other occasion when he stood talking beside their fire on the rim of the Barranca, this came out of his quiet with volcanic heat. Dropping as quickly into his usual calm, he finished, "No, I did not find it romantic-merely amusing."

Nettled a little by his amused contempt, Seyd quickly retorted: "I fail to see how you can claim to have no ideals? You who are striving with all your might against the American invasion?"

Sebastien shrugged. "Racial aversion-backed up by the instinct of self-preservation. Even cattle will band together against the wolves. But remove the danger and the bulls fall at once fighting for command of the herd. Before Diaz we had sixty-five rulers in sixty years, very few of whom died in their beds. Once remove his iron hand from our throats and we shall go at it again, revolution upon revolution, for the sole purpose of satisfying some man's personal ambition, lust, or individual greed. No, se?or, we are individualists in the extreme. We have nothing in our make-up to correspond to the racial ideal that makes you Northmen subordinate personal interest to the general good. And because of our lack you will eventually rule us."

"Yet you strive against it?"

"For the one reason, as I told you, that the weaker wolf declines to be eaten. Individually, I find it amusing. I would much prefer shooting gringo soldiery to hanging Mexican bandits."

"And the General-Don Luis?"

Once again Sebastien laughed. "That old revolutionist? He would deny all I have said as rank heresy, though he himself is its most startling example. He would say that he was for Mexico, but Mexico, to him, is Mexico with a Garcia for president. Selfish to the backbone, every one of us."

In a phrase he had described Don Luis, and, while he could not but smile at its truth, Seyd was just a little startled by the keen intelligence and flashing intuition. Even after allowing for advantages of travel and education the man's sharp reasoning and originality were remarkable. Like a clear black pool his mind sharply reflected all that passed over it, and always the conception stood out as under a lightning flash.

"No, se?or," he went on, after a pause, "we are individualists, and as such can only obtain happiness by following our own bent. If we are held back for a while by Porfirio, be sure that sooner or later we shall return with greater zest to our ancient pastime of cutting each other's throats."

His uncanny intelligence, too, threw sinister lights on everything they passed. "I told you we were gross," he said, indicating a youth and a brown girl who were flirting through the barred windows of an adobe ranch house. "The proof-the bars. With us love is a passion; the ideal exists only in our songs."

Shortly thereafter they rode out on the rim overlooking the Barranca, and the necessity of riding in single file down the zigzag staircases brought an end to their talk. Neither did he begin it again as they crossed the bottom flat to the inn. Coming after a long silence, the invitation which he delivered at last, as they rode into the patio, came as a greater surprise.

"I feel certain, se?or, that my cousin will wish you to lunch with us."

Because another trait in Sebastien's nature was not revealed until, a few minutes later, he knocked at Francesca's door, Seyd failed to see that which, after all, was perhaps even more surprising. As he entered in response to her call she rose and stood, one hand resting on the small altar where burned a tiny taper; and as he stood looking at her across the length of the room the inquiry in her wide eyes became touched with fear.

"It is you?" she broke the silence. "They told me that you spent last night here. How was it that I did not meet you on the way?"

"Simply because I had happened to turn in at the Rancho del Rio to look at some cattle. But I overtook the mozo you sent back with the horse for the gringo. Also I called in at the jacal of Miguel, the vaquero of San Angel, where I found Maria, his woman, just returned. She was rejoicing over a supernatural visitation. It seems that while she and Miguel were away the Virgin Guadaloupe abode in their house, and even honored Maria by putting on her best fiesta clothes. In proof thereof she showed me a silver peso that the Virgin left tied up in one corner of her chemisette. It was truly remarkable, and I was well on my way to a healthy conversion when I happened to stumble on the gringo's pipe-at least, he claimed it on sight."

"And you immediately turned about to tattle this to me?"

He merely smiled under her bright scorn. "To see you home."

"Where you will proceed to make my mother eternally miserable, and uncle-"

"-Infernally angry? On the contrary, I am prepared to back up with pistol and knife the tale of Maria's visitation. Why should I wish to bring suffering to the good mother? It was a hap of the trail, and, much as I hate all gringos, it was far better that you should have been in this man's hands. Some day I may have to kill him, and I shall do it with greater pleasure because of this!"

"If the attempt does not fail as miserably as that which you made on his soul."

"Put it morals, cousin, just to bring it within the bounds of my comprehension. You know my beliefs as to souls."

"In any case it was a mean trick."

"Tricks are tricks only when they fail. Successful, they rise to the dignity of strategems. And he ought not to complain. Did he not come out of the ordeal unscathed, tricked out in the flowers of virtue? He's really in my debt. But returning to my point, some day I shall kill him; but in the mean time I have asked him to lunch with us. As he looked hungry, I should suggest a little haste."

"I am ready now." Going toward him, she spoke, hesitantly: "Let me-thank you. Were you always thus, Sebastien, we should be better friends."

"Gracias, anything but that." Bowing, he stood aside to permit her to pass. "The half liking that you deal out to Anton, Javier, and other fat-jowled hacendados, your admirers, would never do for me. I prefer your-fear."

"But I am not afraid of you." She looked straight in his eyes passing out.

"You will be-some day."

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