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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 17125

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


As before said, the last piece of machinery and the first rain arrived simultaneously at Santa Gertrudis. The break in the summer heat came with a south wind which herded mountainous vapors in from the warm Pacific. All night the rain fell in sheets that set the thirsty arroyos running bank-high and raised the river ten feet. Then, after the pleasant tropical fashion, the downpour ceased, and day broke with a blaze of sunlight over the Barranca.

"Sinbad's valley of diamonds!"

It was Billy's metaphor when he came out with Seyd from breakfast, and, trite as the comparison might be, nothing else could better describe the millions of wet jewels that flashed in the dark mantle of pine above and embroidered the green cloak of the jungle beneath. Yesterday had seen the last touches put on the aerial cable which would be soon dropping buckets of ore into the red jaws of the furnace two thousand feet below. From the edge of the plateau it ran, a streak of silver fringed with glittering rain drops, down and out to the smelter; and when, in the pride of his heart, Billy loosed the brakes the first vibration threw off a cloud of prismatic spray.

"Balanced to a hair! You see, the weight of one full bucket is sufficient to start the chain."

"Fine!" Seyd echoed. "Runs like a clock. Another week and we'll be running steady."

Standing there, watching the buckets sail up and down like great iron birds, they gave themselves up to the joy of accomplishment; as once before, permitted fancy to run amuck through the golden future. And after their hard labors and prolonged anxieties a little self-congratulation was quite in order. If, one way or another, they succeeded in meeting their first note they really could be counted in splendid shape, for their shipments of copper matte would be on the market before the second fell due.

Billy nodded assent when Seyd spoke. "Francesca said they would be home to-day. I think I'll run down there and tackle Don Luis."

Between them were no secrets, and when Seyd rode away an hour later with Caliban at his heels Billy called after him: "And say, old man, have it out with the girl. If she has half the brains I have always allowed her she'll easily see the accidental way in which it all came about."

Though the advice merely restated his own intention, Seyd found it inspiring. Riding down the Barranca staircases, he whistled and sang. While following the trail through the long succession of ranchos, jungle, hamlets, he lived over again that first ride with Francesca. Very plainly he now perceived that it dated his love, that in the pauses of his stealthy study she had ensnared him with her rich personality.

"She got you then," he mused, adding, with a burst of feeling that astonished himself, "And now I'll get her-if I have to take her by force."

Planning and dreaming, he rode along until the sight of the river, flowing swiftly and deep over the San Nicolas ford, broke up his reverie. Only a mile away, on the other side, the hacienda lay in full view, yet it appeared at first as if they would have to turn back. But after nosing up and down the banks Caliban presently flushed a peon and a dugout. With the horses swimming behind, they were ferried over, and rode across the tree-studded pastures, which were still clad in summer brown.

At the sight of the amber walls in their setting of low brown hills Seyd's pulses had quickened, and, interpreting everything by his own feeling, it seemed to him that the dark women who peeped from their doorways, the swart vaqueros, and the slender girls that passed to and fro with ollas balanced ahead, all turned faces of welcome. But when at last he reined in before the shut gates of the casa he experienced a sudden, cold revulsion. Like so many eyes, the iron studs stared from the oaken face of the door, until the sudden sliding of a hatch revealed the wrinkled visage of Paulo, the Spanish administrador.

With his employer's toleration of the gringo the administrador had no sympathy. Malice sparkled in his small brown eyes while he answered Seyd's question. "As you see, se?or, the casa is empty. The se?ora and the ni?a"-he used the family diminutive for Francesca-"are still at hacienda El Quiss. Don Luis? He has gone again to Ciudad, Mexico, to talk with Porfirio Diaz himself about the gringo dam. I do not know when he will return," he replied, further, "nor the se?ora."

His high spirits dashed to the ground, Seyd sat his horse, oppressed with heavy forebodings, for the disappointment raised vivid memories of the suddenness with which the girl had been snatched out of his life on two other occasions. Sick at heart, he refused for himself the refreshment that the house's tradition compelled Paulo to offer, and spent the hour required for the beasts' feeding in heavy brooding.

From this, however, he roused himself presently to a lighter mood. "After all, the week is only up to-day," he urged. "She might easily be detained beyond her expectations."

At first he thought of leaving a note. But, realizing the formal terms in which it would have to be couched might make an unfavorable impression, he left, instead, verbal regrets. That settled, he had time to think of Don Luis, and, being now on practical ground, came to a quick conclusion. Forgetting all about his promise not to travel alone, he sent Caliban back to the mine while he went himself straight out to the station.

On his arrival there, however-so late that he had to call Peters out of his bed-he was not a little surprised to find that nothing had been seen of Don Luis. It was, of course, easily possible that he had boarded the train at a flag station ten miles up the line that was nearer to El Quiss. But when, next evening, a thorough search of his usual haunts in Mexico City failed to yield sight or sign of Don Luis, Seyd began to grow suspicious. Suspicion developed into a certainty when on his return two days later Peters informed him that Don Luis had taken the up train that very morning.

"He came from San Nicolas, too," Peters added. "I shouldn't wonder if he was there all the time. Looks to me like he's trying to dodge you."

Intentional or not, it left Seyd in a serious plight. A second trip to Mexico City would take three days. Adding two more to get Billy away in the event of Don Luis's refusal of further time, less than three weeks would be left of their month of grace. It was not to be thought of; and, though the afternoon rains were draping the mountains with heavy gray sheets, he rode out to the inn that night. Crossing the river early next morning, he sent Billy away at once.

"You'll have to spend twelve hours in Mexico City anyway," he instructed him, concerning Don Luis, "so you might as well try to find him. If you succeed, no trifling! Get his fist on a written extension. If he doesn't come through-and I have my doubts-chase right on home to California. With the photos of the prospect and plant you ought not to have much trouble in raising enough to cover the note. And the minute you get it wire me credits on Mexico City."

Hardly expecting it, he was not surprised when Billy wired, two days later, that he was leaving that evening for the States. Under the message Peters had scribbled, "Don Luis came in to-day on Number Nine. Go right down and see him."

Half an hour after receipt of the message Seyd and Caliban were again on their way.

For nearly a week now it had rained heavily night and day, and here and there on the bottoms small inundations gave early warning of coming floods. Though the river still ran in its banks opposite San Nicolas, the dugout in which they crossed was swept with the swimming horses half a mile downstream before they made a landing, and it was easily to be seen that another week's rain would cut off travel on that side of the stream.

Riding in to the great square, Seyd's pulses beat a lively accompaniment to the thought: "It is now the end of the second week. She is sure to be home." Yet in the moment of its riotous birth the hope gave place to black misgivings at the sight of the shut house.

His spirits touched zero when the sliding hatch left Paulo's wrinkled visage framed again in the blank oaken face of the door. "Don Luis is still in Mexico, se?or." He anticipated Seyd's question.

"But he returned-was seen the day before yesterday at the station."

"At the station, se?or? How could that be?" His brown beads of eyes blinked in uneasy surprise; then in an instant the wrinkled mask fell

into an expression of simple cunning. "Or, if so, then it must be that he has gone to join the se?ora and the ni?a, who are still at El Quiss."

She was not there! For the third time he found himself confronted by silence, mysterious and complete as that which had attended her previous disappearances. But, though oppressed by a weight of care, he tried to hide his bitter disappointment from the administrador's inquisition. Once again he spent a black hour while the beasts were feeding. His broodings, riding homeward, shed no light on the enigma. A night of dark thought left him baffled, furious, in good fettle for the news that Caliban gleaned from a passing charcoal-burner.

"Don Luis must have been there, se?or, for Benito saw him ride forth this morning. He has gone north to see for himself the gringo dam."

"Oh, he has, has he!" Seyd ground the words out between his teeth. "The old fox! But now I'll chase him into his earth."

In this, however, he had forgotten to allow for the rains which, driving down the Barranca in great wet sheets, caused Don Luis to put in at El Quiss, there to wait in the leisurely fashion of the country until the weather should break and Sebastien have time to accompany him. Arriving at the power plant after two days' wallowing on jungle trails, Seyd found himself foiled once more in their little game of hide and seek.

The trip, however, was not altogether wasted, for the pert young Chicagoan in charge gave him uproarious welcome. "So you're the fellow that has been bucking the whole state of Guerrero! I'm awfully glad to know you, Mr. Seyd, though I'm puzzled yet as to how you managed to hold out. It took a whole regiment of Diaz's rurales to establish us here, and if they were withdrawn even now we wouldn't last long."

Also it was worth the labor to see the dam. A huge earthen structure, nearly a hundred feet high, it spanned the Barranca just where the valley nipped in from a wide angle to a passage a quarter mile wide. Behind it a muddy lake stretched as far as the eye could reach, and while standing in the center Seyd recalled and quoted Peters's prediction.

"'Boulders big as churches were piled up in the bed of the stream like pebbles, and if that dam was built of solid concrete instead of clay they'd go through it like it was dough.'"

The Chicagoan, however, laughed at the quotation. "If the devil himself was bowling them I'd defy him to knock off a single chip. She's solid, and the sluiceways allow ample flood escape. Nothing but an earthquake could touch it-a jim dandy, at that."

Nevertheless, while that enormous volume of water hung suspended, as it were, over the valley, Seyd felt nervous. Traveling homeward the next day, he measured with a careful eye the valley floor, and, using last year's high-water mark as a base for his calculations, concluded that only San Nicolas, the smelter, and one or two haciendas that stood on higher ground would escape destruction if the dam should happen to burst. Approaching El Quiss, he noted, in particular, that, standing on level ground, it would surely be inundated.

For some fifteen miles his trail ran through Sebastien's lands, and, climbing in one place over a knoll, it afforded a view of the hacienda buildings across the rain-swept pastures. As, reining in, Seyd watched the faint pink of the walls flash out and fade in the shifting vapors he was seized with a mad impulse to ride in. But his native good sense quickly reasserted itself, for a moment's reflection showed that the intrusion could only result in humiliation for Francesca and himself. The knowledge, however, did not render her proximity less maddening. He was sitting there restlessly chafing when Caliban's voice suddenly rose behind.

"If it were desired to leave a message there is one I know that could place it in her own hands."

Startled, Seyd swung in the saddle. He had known long ago that kindly usage had transformed the hunchback into a faithful friend, but he was not prepared either for the sympathy that softened his glittering beads of eyes or his uncanny divination.

"Si." The hunchback nodded. "A cousin of my woman is in Don Sebastien's household service. 'Twould be easy to pass a paper by the little maid you picked out of the river. The se?orita keeps her always close to her own body."

Before he finished Seyd had cut a pencil and was writing on the back of an envelope under cover of his raincoat. At first he gave free vent to his feelings, but, remembering the danger of interception, he tore it up and wrote instead a humorous protest against her continued absence. Then, after instructing Caliban to take all the time necessary to procure an answer, he journeyed on alone.

It was well, too, that he gave the hunchback free rein, for three days elapsed before he returned to the mine soaked to the marrow by the continuous rains that had raised the floods almost to last year's mark. "With Don Sebastien one goes slowly," he explained. "If the sharp eye of him had once touched me 'twould have been a short shrift under the nearest tree. For two days I lay close in the jacal of my woman's cousin before she brought me this."

It was a considerable package, and Seyd rather wondered at its size while tearing away the dried corn leaves in which Caliban had wrapped it. When the last leaf fell off he stared at first in surprise, then, as his eye fell on the ink scores, in utter consternation at the Albuquerque Times. Minutes passed before he could command words to send the hunchback away, then, sitting down by the table, he leaned his head on his hand and remained for some time plunged in black reflection.

From a long distance in time and space his first insincerity had come home to roost. But, while he saw himself as the designer of his own undoing, he was by no means resigned. Presently hard, mutinous lights broke in his gloomy eyes. The stubborn fighter awoke. Throwing the traitorous sheet across the room, he picked up a pen and began to write.

Wasting no time in wonder at the fortuitous chance that had placed the paper in Francesca's hands, he wrote steadily on the story of his love from the first doubtful beginnings to its actual consummation. Very clearly he explained his first natural dislike to intrude his personal affairs upon people for whom he had no reason to suppose they would have the slightest interest, the later honorable intention that had always been frustrated by unfavorable circumstances. And he finished with a statement that is never unwelcome in a woman's ear:

"No matter what comes I shall always love you."

Steady rain all that day and night had given the floods another lift and sent the river roaming wide through the jungle. Once again the valley opposite the mine was converted into a great lake dotted with wooded islands between which swift currents hurtled floating debris. Profiting by last year's lesson, Seyd had had two roomy dugouts fitted with oars and rowlocks, and early the next morning he rowed Caliban across himself. Returning, he was to send a smoke signal to call the boat, and when, on the afternoon of the fourth day, Seyd spied the thin blue spiral through a break in the drifting rain he almost cracked his back rowing across the flood.

But his glowing hope died at the shake of the hunchback's head. "The se?orita is gone with her mother and Don Luis to San Nicolas, se?or. But she is to return to El Quiss in a few days. The cousin of my woman had it from Roberta, the little maid. She is still there, and will deliver the letter when the se?orita returns."

The news was not altogether bad, for Francesca, at least, was now at San Nicolas. Within the hour Seyd crossed the river to the inn-where a horse was to be had for hire-and his purpose gained strength from a wire that he found waiting there from Billy.

"San Francisco burned to the ground. Not a cent to be raised in California. Am going east."

In view of the aforesaid game of hide and seek he had been playing with Don Luis the situation looked very dark. But, serious as it was, when, halfway to San Nicolas, he met Paulo riding at the head of a mule train loaded with fagots it was wiped altogether out of his mind.

"We go to build beacons along the rim of the Barranca to give warning against the bursting of the gringo dam," he answered Seyd. "Si, Don Luis and the se?ora are at the casa. The se?orita?" His creases drew into a malevolent grin. "The se?ora, you mean. She was married two hours ago to Don Sebastien."

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