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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 9274

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


From the time Seyd rode into the hacienda up to that moment less than twenty minutes had passed, but events had leaped to a conclusion.

The barrier of debris across the outer buildings had diminished the force of the blow upon the house, and had the water gained instant access to the interior and equalized the pressure it might have stood. As the wave raced past, level with the high wall, the patio presented for an instant a curious resemblance to a square vessel pressed down till its edges just rose above the water. The next, its stout walls fell inward, and over them a yellow wave leaped at the house. Reinforced by its partition walls, it withstood for a few seconds the enormous pressure. Then above the cracking and grinding of debris and the mingled roar of the flood rose the boom of doors and windows blown out of their frames.

Because of its length the guardhouse went first. Feeling it tremble under his feet, Seyd lifted Francesca and held her face in against his breast. Not that he was in the least resigned. Never in all his life had he felt a keener desire to live. His glance darted hither and thither, and when, freed by the fall of the stone lintels, a patio gate sprang out of the yellow cauldron almost at his feet he snatched up Francesca, leaped, and landed in its very center. Falling under her, he was, for an instant, breathless. But in the few seconds that he lay there gasping circumstances worked in their favor. Thrust by the impact into the recoil of the wave from the house wall, the gate was heaved out of the patio, and passed the guardhouse just before the heavy tiled roof collapsed with the walls.

Almost in an instant the house crumbled and melted with scarcely a splash. Sitting up a few seconds later, Seyd looked back on all that was left of El Quiss, the barrier of debris rising, a black reef, out of a yellow sea. A mile ahead the wave roared on, its furious crescendo again reduced to a booming diapason. While the gate was being carried with incredible swiftness across the El Quiss pastures the roar sank to a distant hum, and presently died altogether, leaving only the quiet lapping of the waters in the falling dusk.

So quickly had it all passed that Seyd found it hard to believe they were floating in comparative safety. The gate, which was ten feet by twelve in size and four inches thick, floated evenly, and if an occasional wave ran across it the tepid rain water of the tropics caused no discomfort. Neither were they in danger from the debris, logs, and uprooted trees which floated at equal speed on currents that were setting back to the river. With a pole that he picked up Seyd was able to keep out of the way of the few that rolled and tumbled when their branches caught on the bottom, and when at last they drifted on the deeper, slower currents of the river he turned to Francesca, who had remained a huddled, sobbing heap just where she fell.

She looked up when he touched her shoulder. "Oh, I feel wicked!" she cried, remorsefully. "If I had only waited for a few more days, given you time to explain, he would still be alive."

"It was perfectly natural," Seyd comforted her. "He would absolve you from all blame were he here, for with all his faults he was big and brave."

"You really think that he would?" She looked up with tearful anxiety.

"I'm sure of it. How could he do otherwise?"

"But he was-my husband. And I left him-for you."

"Yet I do not think that he held you in blame."

Kneeling beside her, with one arm around her shoulders, he gave his reason-Sebastien's last salute. Even if this started her tears anew she, nevertheless, felt comforted. When a black shape forged out of the dusk alongside, and he had to return to his pole, her natural spirit reasserted itself.

"Here am I, crying like a child instead of helping. What can I do?"

There was really nothing. But to keep her from brooding he placed her on watch. "If you'll keep a lookout I'll take a shove at everything that floats in reach. The current is setting across the river, and we have nearly twenty miles to work in. With any old luck we ought to be able to land at Santa Gertrudis."

Thick dusk presently merged into night, but they were helped by a full moon which shed a dew of light through the falling rain. Not that they voyaged without hazard. Twice they were almost swamped by trees which rolled over under the thrust of Seyd's pole. Farther down they narrowly escaped shipwreck on wooded islands. Yet, thrusting and hauling, he worked steadily with the favoring current, and they had gained almost across when, rounding a bend, they sig

hted a distant light.

"Caliban's, for sure! Only another hour to food and fire!" Seyd cheered her.

He had, however, his own misgivings. As they drew into the shadow of the Barranca wall the moonlight grew fainter, and, drifting later over the submerged jungle, they were hard put to avoid the treetops which upreared like huge mushrooms above the flood. More than once they were almost swept off the raft by bejucos, vegetable cables, which stretched from top to top, and as these grew thicker Seyd saw that disaster was merely a question of time. He was hoping desperately that their capsizing would not entail too long a swim, when out of the obscurity rose a huge black shape.

With a shock that threw them both down, the raft grounded in shallow water.

It was the plateau on which the new smelter stood. But, changed as it was in the new geography of the flood, Seyd did not recognize it until, scrambling ashore with Francesca, he saw above the dark mass of the buildings the cable and iron ore buckets in dim outline against the sky.

"Why, it's the smelter!" he shouted, in glad surprise. "Ever since the explosion we have kept a man here on guard. Ola! Calixto! Ola! Ola!"

While he was calling a yellow oblong broke out of the building's mass, framing the black silhouette of a man. "It is the jefe!" They heard his comment to his woman inside, then, uttering a volley of surprised "Caramba's!" he came rushing down the bank with his lantern.

When Francesca's pale wet face shone under its sudden glow he dropped the lantern, which, fortunately, did not go out. Picking it up again, he lighted their way to the adobe that had served Billy for house and office while the smelter was building.

For use during the rains, a chimney and wide hearth had been installed in the adobe, and while Calixto was building a roaring fire Seyd directed a piratical raid on Billy's trunks. At first his search returned only muddy overalls and soiled clothing of various sorts, but at the very bottom-just as they had been placed by the hands of a careful mother-a new suit of flannel pajamas and a voluminous woolen bathrobe appeared. When, with some misgivings, and confused, he suggested a change, a touch of the girl's old archness flashed out. Her smile was almost mischievous as she returned thanks.

"I'm sorry there's nothing better to offer." The smile emboldened him to add: "But they will serve till we have something to eat. Then you may have the fire all to yourself to dry your own things."

She smiled again when, returning with food and coffee prepared by Calixto's woman, he exclaimed, "You look like the Queen of Sheba!"

With the brown-black hair swinging almost to her knees and the bathrobe-a gorgeous affair in pink chosen with an eye to Billy's vivid taste-belted in to her waist and pajamas ballooning beneath over small bare feet, she did look Oriental. When the coffee and food had relit her eyes and restored her usual faint color he was sure that she had never looked so distractingly pretty. The effect was not diminished either by her small vexed frowns at the revelations of smooth whiteness caused by the persistent slipping of the wide sleeves. When, as they sat by the fire after the meal, warmth and fatigue moved her to a yawn and he caught the full redness of her mouth before she could cover it the intimacy of it all sent the blood drumming through his pulses. If her serious eyes restrained him, they did not repress his thought.

"I have you-now! I have you at last, and I'll never let you go again!"

Undoubtedly she furnished the inspiration which kindled a sudden light in his eyes. "Why not?" he urged against the one objection that occurred in his thought. "It's an awful smash at the conventions, but-it's the only way. He locked me in to drown-and do you suppose that he'd hesitate if he were here now in my shoes? I guess not. And if he would, I won't. By the Lord, I'll do it!"

He rose soon after reaching his conclusion. "You must be very tired, so I'll go now and leave you to dry your things. You know, we start early in the morning."

"Start early?" She opened her sleepy eyes.

"Listen!" He took her gently by both shoulders. "We have been held apart so far by all sorts of accidents and misunderstandings. You know how closely we came to utter shipwreck?" Her shiver answering, he went on, "Now, will you trust-leave all to me?"

She had been no woman if she had not divined the restraint behind his quiet during the last warm hour, and, rising suddenly upon small bare toes, she paid him for his consideration. "I will do anything you say."

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