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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 10718

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The new day opened a new and fertile country before Seyd's sleepy eyes, a country wonderfully beautiful with variegated foliage of coffee, rubber, palm, and banana plantations.

During the night the Barranca walls had, while growing lower, closed in to a long gorge through which the river ran like a millrace. For two hours their ears were dinned and deafened by the roar and thunder of mad waters, but, as the boulders of the one rapid were buried thirty feet deep, they sustained nothing worse than a slight deafness and natural apprehension at the hair-raising speed with which they were catapulted onward. Excepting those two hours when he had to use both oars to hold the dugout's head in the center of the current, Francesca had slept in his arms, and, nestling upon his shoulder the moment they emerged upon quieter waters, she had fallen asleep once more, nor did she move till the sun pointed a golden finger down between two clouds.

Awakening, she uttered a small cry and lay for a few seconds looking up into Seyd's face, her eyes blank with bewildered terror. Then, recognizing him, she gave a sob of relief. "Oh, I was dreaming-that I was at El Quiss-to stay there-forever!" She paused and sat for a moment looking into his tired face, then burst out: "Oh, little animal! All night I slept while you kept watch. Now you shall sleep."

Taking his place in the stern, she forced him, with pretty authority, to cushion his head in her lap. "Si, I will awaken you before we reach the harbor, but do not dare to open an eye till then."

The command was unnecessary, for, completely fagged, he had no more than lain down when he was fast asleep. Until sure of the fact she sat perfectly still. Then, with a rueful glance at her soiled and shrunken garments, she murmured, "Nevertheless, we must try to look our best."

After a second shy study of his sleeping face she let down her hair and began to comb it out with her slender fingers. Because of the length and thickness of the dark masses this proved a long task. The dugout had drifted miles before she finished the coiffure with small feminine pats. Reassured that he still slept, she dipped her handkerchief overside and washed her face and neck.

Her own toilet completed, she next essayed his. After warming the wet handkerchief against her own cheek she cleansed his face with delicate touches, then, with the same soft white comb-her fingers-smoothed his hair. Discovering, in the process, a few gray hairs, she murmured: "Oh, pobre! See what I have cost thee!"

Very gently she began to trace and smooth out the lines of worry upon his face, and, rediscovering his cleft chin, she repeated, with a soft laugh, her comment made that night in the shepherd's hut. "Oh, fickle! fickle! I said thy wife would need the sharpest of eyes, but they will needs have nimble fingers that steal thee from me."

Her face at that moment formed a playground for all that was arch, but presently it took the shadow of sadder thoughts. Brimming over, a big tear rolled down her cheek. Yet, while sincerely sorry for Sebastien, she was perfectly frank with herself in thought. "I would not, if I could, bring him back. 'Twould mean only more trouble-for all of us. Now, at least, he is at peace.

"They will think me hard and cruel." Her musings continued. "The whole Barranca will throw up hands of horror-the hands that applauded the greater sin when I gave myself without love in marriage. Bueno!" She scornfully tossed her head. "Wicked or not, I will do it-for thee."

She squeezed his face so hard, murmuring it, that he stirred, and for fully a minute thereafter she sat holding her breath. But he slept on. During the last hour the river had widened, and along its banks tufted cocoa palms were woven with the brighter foliage of bananas into the rich green damask of the bordering jungle. Also the sun had prevailed for a few hours in the daily battle with the mists, and under the golden spell of light and warmth the girl's musings grew happier as they floated on. When she awoke him to the sight of the blue harbor opening up from behind a long bend, Seyd looked up at a smiling face.

"That's the American consulate." After rubbing the sleep out of his eyes he pointed out a white stone building which perched, like a gull, on a terrace above the flaming rose and gold of the adobe town. "We'll go there. The consul is a fine old fellow. He'll help us all he can."

First, however, they were destined to encounter the unexpected, for when, an hour later, Seyd pulled the dugout into a ragged wooden pier an officer in the silver and gray of the Mexican rurales pushed through the peon laborers who thronged the wharf.

"You are from up river, se?or? Then you can tell us of the flood in the Barranca. A cousin of mine, Don Sebastien-Caramba!" At the sight of Francesca he broke suddenly off. "It is surely the se?orita Garcia? You will remember me, Eduardo Gallardo, upon the occasion that I visited, at San Nicolas, your uncle, the excellent General Garcia, with my wife, who is of your kinsfolk?"

Recognizing him while he was still in the crowd, Francesca had gained time to prepare. His use of her maiden name proved that here at the port they had heard nothing as yet of her marriage, so, after briefly describing Sebastien's death and the destruction of El Qui

ss, she concluded: "I was saved by the se?or, here, who rode in to warn us. But for him I also should have drowned."

And Seyd availed himself of the opening. "As the se?orita is completely exhausted, se?or, you will please to excuse us. We go to the American consulate."

"But why the consulate, se?or," the rurale politely objected, "when she owns here the house of her kinswoman? The se?ora, my wife-"

"Si, I have heard of her-nothing that is not lovely." Drawing him a little aside, Francesca proceeded to heal, with winning smiles, the wound in his pride. "You shall give her my love, cousin. Tell her that I should prefer to visit her, but, having taken my life from the hand of this se?or, I cannot do otherwise than fall in with his plans."

Deferring with Latin politeness to her wish, his pride was none the less hurt, and while they climbed the hill to the consulate he hurried home to his wife, whose feminine intuitions placed the whole matter in an entirely new light.

"A gringo, sayest thou? Then it will be he for whose sake she was sent away to Europe. Medium tall, is he, with a straight nose, hollow cheeks, quick gray eyes? The very man that Paulo, the administrador, described to me on his last visit to the port. Caramba! Here's fine bread for the baking! 'Tis told all over the Barranca that she has this man in her blood, and count me for a liar if she comes with him this far for any purpose but marriage. 'Twill never do to have Don Luis knocking at our door to ask why we let her go before our very eyes. He is a power, hombrecita, with the government, thy master, and, fail or win, we lose nothing by trying to trip her run. And 'twill be easy! A word in the ear of the jefe, judge, and priest, and 'tis done. And do not sleep on it. Away with you-at once."

In his cool white salon on the hill above, the consul-a portly old fellow with a clean, good-natured face-was counseling Seyd at that moment in almost the same terms.

"As you say, this is no time to stand on conventions-especially after the man had locked you in and left you to drown. After seeing the young lady"-his smiling glance went to the door through which Francesca had just gone with his wife-"I should feel less than ever like protracted mourning. Besides, it is now or never. If you don't marry her at once the chance may never come again. If Eduardo Gallardo hadn't seen you it would have been quite simple. I could have fixed it up for you all right. But he is counted something of a sneak, and if he once sniffs the wind-well, you can be sure he won't let such a chance slip to better himself with General Garcia. You've simply got to beat him to it."

After a pause of thought he went on: "In their usual course, both the legal and ecclesiastical procedures are very slow. It takes about a week for the lawyers to coin the bridegroom's natural impatience into ready money, and after they are through the Church holds out its hand for what's left. It's an awful graft, but has its advantages, for if the wheels are well greased they spin like lightning. Shut up! I don't have to be told that you emerged from the flood with empty pockets. I'll attend to that, and you can settle with me any old time. All you have to do"-taking Seyd by the shoulders, he marched him into his own bedroom-"is to take a shave and bath and make yourself look as much as you can like a happy bridegroom."

With a last order, "Help yourself from my clothes," he went out laughing. But when he returned an hour later his smile was obscured by a vexed cloud. "Eduardo wins," he reported to Seyd, who had just come out on the veranda. "He must have gone right to it, for when I arrived at the edificio municipal they were already primed. The judge and jefe-politico both count themselves of mine, but they wouldn't do a thing. Really you can't blame them. El general Garcia is a name to conjure with down here, and they are all afraid of their official heads. 'Much as we would like to serve you,' and so forth, 'but in the case of a young lady of such high family we dare not proceed without her guardian's written consent.'

"And the jefe gave me good advice. El capitan, Eduardo, it seems, is not only ambitious, but not a bit too scrupulous about the way by which he gains his ends. So you must not go out alone. It would be quite easy to trump up some charge, arrest, and then shoot you as an escaping prisoner under the law of El Fuga. You wouldn't be the first to be shot inside the prison and then thrown outside, and, though I should most certainly hold an inquiry and kick up an awful row, that wouldn't bring you back to life. Also we shall have to look out that they don't kidnap your girl."

While the consul was thus easing his bosom of its load of doubt Seyd had stared out over the blue harbor at a steamer that was taking cargo from a dozen lighters. Suddenly he asked, "What ship is that?"

"The Cura?ao, of San Francisco."

"American, then. When does she sail?"

"To-morrow morning at five."

"How far outside the harbor does Mexican jurisdiction extend?"

"The usual three miles beyond the headlands."

Seyd came to his point. "Then what is to prevent her skipper from marrying us?"

"Bueno!" The consul slapped him on the back. "He'll do it sure, for he's a friend of mine. Bravo! Trust your lover to find a way."

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