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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 10766

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Riding at a hard gallop, Seyd had cut down Sebastien's lead by a full hour in the run along the rim. At the sight of the beacon-which the peons were now thatching with grass-he, also, reined in. But, having learned from them that Sebastien and Francesca had passed two hours ago, he rode on down the staircases at a pace which showed little respect for his neck.

Nearly an hour later he stopped again on the very knoll from which he had overlooked El Quiss. If he had looked northward it would have been possible to see Sebastien at the head of the mule train which was wriggling like a mottled brown snake across the wet green pastures. But during the quarter hour that Seyd remained there his gaze never left the distant pink of the hacienda walls.

Somehow their solid realism cooled his fever and brought order to his rioting senses. "Well, you are here! Now what are you going to do? What can you do?" The still small voice of Reason rose above the storm. "These, you know, are not the days of chivalry. It is no longer the fashion for a jilted lover to snatch his bride from the horns of the altar. And if it were"-Reason here observed a deadly pause-"what chance would you have against Sebastien and his retainers?"

"But I must see her! I will see her!" The still small voice was drowned in a gush of passion. "There have been too many accidents already. Not till I hear from her own lips that she has done this of her free will shall I quit."

"Sounds good." Reason agreed only to differ. "But it has one drawback-she might not care to be interviewed in her bridal chamber."

The suggestion was ill-timed, for it started a new riot among his senses. "I'll see her! I will have speech with her!" It went roaring through his brain.

But how to compass it? Had he known the name of Caliban's woman's cousin it would have been difficult enough! Not knowing it, the thing was almost impossible. He was tossing on successive waves of feeling that now urged him forward, again carried him back in the undertow of despair, when there came a patter of nude feet behind him.

"Se?or! se?or! Mira! The beacons! The beacons!"

It was one of the peons whom he had left above. "Ride, se?or! Ride and give warning lest they have not seen it at El Quiss! I go to my woman and children!" Shouting it, he swung at right angles and flew down the valley at top speed.

Almost as quickly Seyd galloped off. One glance had shown the tall smoke plumes which were rising like ghostly sentinels above the black edge of the pine, and with it there burst upon him a vivid picture of the muddy sea behind the great dam. Crossing the river that morning, he had noticed that the floods were running above last year's highest mark, and almost as plainly as by actual sight his imagination pictured the wave which had just leaped, like a huge yellow hound, over the broken dam. A solid wall of water, he saw it sweeping down the valley, lapping up villages, ranches, jacals, with greedy tongues. Roweling the flanks of his tired beast, he drove on. Yet, despite his apprehension, the phrase rang in his mind like a clashing bell:

"I shall see her! Now I shall see her!"

While he was still half a mile away he saw two mounted men dash out of the patio gates and ride off at right angles, north and south. After them came a crowd on foot, and as they opened to let him through Seyd noted with wonder that all were women. His surprise deepened when, driving in through the gates, he almost rode over Francesca, who stood with Roberta against her skirts in the deserted patio. While, breathing hard after his wild ride, he sat looking down upon her she returned his gaze with big mournful eyes.

"You are-alone?"

"Yes." Hesitating, she went on, "Don Sebastien left an hour ago-immediately after our arrival-with the men to work on the dam."

He almost shouted. It was inconceivable, except on a supposition that filled him with sudden hope. "Then it isn't true? If it were, he would not have left you. He lied! Paulo lied! All day I have ridden hard on your trail to disprove it! He lied! Tell me that Paulo lied!"

It was not necessary to reply in words. The slender weaving fingers, her quivering distress, the pity and grief of her eyes, made answer.

"Oh, how could you?" But his natural sense of justice instantly asserted itself. "But no! I have only myself to blame. I played the fool all through. Yet, I meant well-but I explained that in my letter."

"I only received it two hours ago. Oh, why didn't you send it sooner?"

"I did-wrote the instant I got the paper. It lay here four days."

Now, only twenty miles away, at speed swifter than bird flight, the wave was leaping over the jungle with plumage of tangled debris streaming out behind. Even then they might have caught its distant roar. But, blind to all but the fortuitous chance that had dogged their love to this unhappy conclusion, they stood gazing at each other in distress and despair.

"We have been unfortunate, you and I." She spoke, mournfully, at last. "And this is the end."

He would not accept it. In thought he was storming the barrier her act had placed between them when her sorrowful voice answered the mute appeal of his eyes. "Si, the end. If Sebastien had not been so kind! He took advantage of my anger to place bars between you and me, but there he rests. His consideration

deserves some return, and the least I can offer is the outward semblance of good wifehood. You must go!"

"What! Leave you-now?" Recalled to a sudden realization of their imminent danger, he pleaded, "First let me place you in safety?"

"No." She nodded toward a saddled horse under the gateway. "In a few minutes I can overtake the people. With you will go my-"

While they talked Roberta had wandered over to the gates. Now she suddenly cried: "Oh, se?ora! Don Sebastien!"

Seyd's view of the trail was limited by a swing to the south that cut off all but a couple of hundred yards. As he made, instinctively, to move forward Francesca caught his bridle. "No! no! He must not see you! If he finds you here-with me-oh, has there not been trouble enough?" Her distracted glance circled the courtyard. "See, the old guardhouse! Dismount-quickly! Lead in your horse, then I will ride with the child to meet him!"

As a matter of fact, he felt like anything but hiding. His eye lit with a hard gray gleam. But in these premises that he had forced upon her it was not for him to pick and choose. He yielded to her pleading, "For my sake?"

Dismounting, he led his horse in through the arched doorway, and as she closed the door upon him Francesca added a last hurried instruction. "He will undoubtedly turn with me. Give us time to gain cover under the oaks, then take you the trail to the south. It reaches high ground quickly. And ride hard"-her voice broke in a sob-"for if you should be overtaken by the water what in this miserable world would be left for me?"

"And this is the end?" He caught her hand between the closing doors.

"The end-for thy sake." She dropped into the tender second person of the Spanish. "Si, if you wish it."

Left alone, Seyd stood listening, the soft touch of her lips thrilling upon his. In the guardhouse, used now for a storeroom, all but one window was blocked by piles of sacked maize, but as his eyes grew accustomed to the half gloom he made out the massive beams which held up the heavy roof. The wall from which the one window looked out formed part of the hacienda's southern face, and, remembering that the trail inclined in that direction, he moved over to it when he caught the clatter of departing hoofs. Deeply recessed in the thick wall, the low sill afforded standing room, and by peering obliquely through the bars he caught first the flutter of her skirt, then gradually she forged into full view. About three hundred yards away the trail ran in among shade oaks, cedars, and great spreading banyans, that were strewn in clumps all over the pastures. But just before she rode in among them Sebastien and Pancho, his mozo, galloped out from among the trees.

Even if the wind had not been dashing the sheeting rain in his face it would have been impossible for Seyd to have caught a distant murmur of voices. But he saw the mozo lift Roberta from Francesca's beast, and lead off, with his mistress following. Then Sebastien came galloping on toward the gates.

"Coming for something-money or papers," Seyd thought. "Just for fear he looks in-"

At the far end of the room a pile of sacked beans formed a natural stall, and he had no more than gotten his horse behind it when the clatter of hoofs broke in the court. He could not, of course, see Sebastien dismount. But, faint as they were, his highly keyed senses recorded the vibrations of the other's footsteps as he followed the muddy horse tracks across to the guardhouse.

Outside the door Sebastien stopped. In the tense pause that followed Seyd's hand went to his gun. At first the act was due to the natural instinct of self protection, but in the very moment of its inception that gave place to a second, more powerful impulse that dyed his face and neck with a dark flush. Drawing the weapon, he trained it across a sack at the door, and at that moment no primitive man in hiding at the mouth of his enemy's cave was ever obsessed by a fiercer lust to kill. All of his trials and long travail, despair, seemed in his disordered fancy to materialize just then in Sebastien's person. And it would be so easy! A slight pressure of his finger the instant he showed in the doorway, then-the flood!

In a flash the pros and cons of it passed through his mind. If the circumstances were reversed he knew exactly the course that Sebastien would take. And almost as he thought it came proof-first the grating of the key in the lock of the inner door, next the groaning complaint of rusty hinges as Sebastien swung to the iron outer doors which had not been used for a score of years, finally the wooden crash of the oaken bars falling into their staples.

It was all over before Seyd really understood. With knowledge there flashed upon him the thought of the flood. Rushing across the floor, he leaped and threw all of his weight against the inner door. It hardly shook, and the recoil threw him flat on the floor. As he rose came the clatter of Sebastien's departing hoofs, and running across to the window he was just in time to see him come in view. On the skirts of the timber he reined suddenly in and sat his beast, listening. Then, after a quick glance northward, he galloped on.

And Seyd, at the window, also heard.

Above the sough of the wind which drove the sheeting rain into his face he caught the roar of the oncoming flood.

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