STONEHEART

BY

GUSTAVE AIMARD

AUTHOR OF "BEE-HUNTERS," "SMUGGLER CHIEF," ETC., ETC.

 

 

LONDON,
CHARLES HENRY CLARKE, 13 PATERNOSTER ROW.
1874

CONTENTS.



I. SYMPATHY
II. THE VIRGIN FOREST
III. DON TORRIBIO QUIROGA
IV. LA TERTULIA (THE PARTY)
V. THE AMBUSH
VI. SAN LUCAR
VII. THE ATTACK ON THE PRESIDIO
VIII. DISGRACE
IX. THE PRISONER
X. THE CAMP OF THE REDSKINS
XI. THE RENEGADE
XII. WOMAN'S WILL
XIII. PALEFACE VERSUS REDSKIN
XIV. THE CATASTROPHE
XV. ONE MONTH LATER
XVI. PREPARATIONS FOR THE CHASE
XVII. THE CHASE
XVIII. EL VOLADERO DE LAS ÁNIMAS
XIX. THE HAND OF GOD


CHAPTER I.

SYMPATHY.


Sympathy is a feeling admitting neither analyzation nor discussion. It masters us, whether we will or no. Persons we meet unconsciously attract or repel us at first sight. And why? It is a question impossible to answer, but the fact is indubitable. An irresistible magnetic influence draws us towards people whom, if we listened to the promptings of self-interest, we ought to shun; while, on the other hand, the same influence compels us to avoid others, in whom this very interest should induce us to confide.

And it is an extraordinary fact, well worthy of remark, that this intuition, acting in opposition to our reasoning powers, seldom if ever misleads us. Sooner or later we are forced to acknowledge as right what to the prejudiced eyes of the world appeared erroneous, and find that our sympathy, far from deceiving, has only led us to the truth.

The result of this sympathy and antipathy are so palpable, so many persons have experienced the effects of this mysterious influence, that it would be superfluous for us to linger longer over the topic.

Don Estevan and Stoneheart had become acquainted under circumstances which might have induced enmity between them, or, at all events, made them indifferent to each other: the reputation of the bee-hunter, and the singular life he led, were ample reasons why the young and straightforward mayor domo of Don Pedro de Luna should feel himself repelled by them; and yet a diametrically opposite effect was produced without the two young men knowing why, and they suddenly felt themselves friends, bound together, not by one of those vapid sentimentalities so common in civilised life in Europe, where the word "friend" means no more than a mere acquaintance, and is one of the titles most easily and constantly profaned, but by the strong, true feeling, admitting neither limit nor reasoning, which shoots up so strongly in a few hours that it engrosses an immense part of the existence of those of whom it has taken possession.

They had never seen each other before their casual encounter in the road to San Lucar, and yet they seemed to have known each other for ages, and now only to have met again after a long parting.

Singular to say, the same effect was produced on both at the same moment, without calculation or reservation.

What we have asserted is so true, that Don Estevan, notwithstanding the innate prudence of his character, had not hesitated to confide to Stoneheart, on the spur of the moment, the history of his master, or, to speak more correctly, his benefactor. He had recounted this history in all its details, without disguising anything, or omitting a title, induced to act as he did by the secret presentiment which apprised him that he had found a man worthy of sharing the burden of this important secret.

The course of this tale will furnish us with still stronger proofs of the singular confidence these two men had instantly felt for each other.

The sun was setting in a flood of purple and gold behind the snowy crests of the lofty and jagged mountains of the Sierra Madre, when Don Estevan ceased speaking.

The landscape assumed that garb of placid melancholy in which it clothes itself at the approach of eve; the birds came flying in countless flocks, to nestle, twittering, under the leafy boughs of the grand old trees. Vaqueros and peones, galloping in all directions, mustered the cattle, and drove them towards the hacienda; and in the distance appeared a camp of arrieros, whose watch fires already began to tinge the rapidly darkening sky with a ruddy glow.

"And now," resumed Don Estevan, "having acquired as intimate a knowledge as my own of the secrets of the family with whom chance has brought you into contact, what do you intend to do?"

"First, and before all a single word," answered Stoneheart.

"Say on; you must indeed have many things to confide to me in your turn."

"Not so many as you think. You already know as much of my life as I do myself; that is to say, almost nothing. But that is not the question between us at present."

"What can it be, then?" said Don Estevan, unable to repress his curiosity.

"I am about to tell you. Surely you have not told me this long and interesting tale with the sole purpose of satisfying a curiosity I never exhibited; there must be some other motive in your thoughts, and I think I have guessed it. Don Estevan Diaz, two bold men, bound to each other as closely as the ivy and the oak, with thoughts running in the same channel, with but one will between them,—two such men are mighty; for the one forms the complement to the other, and what each alone would not dare to essay, the two will undertake without hesitation, and be almost certain to succeed, however hazardous and rash their projects may seem. Are you of the same way of thinking?"

"Most surely, Don Fernando; I am entirely of the same opinion."

A flash of joy illumined the face of the bee-hunter. "Good!" said he, stretching out his arm; "Here is my hand, Don Estevan; it belongs to a man who, with his hand, offers you a loyal and honest heart, whatever may be said to the contrary: will you accept them?"

"ĄVive Dios!" eagerly exclaimed the mayor domo, heartily pressing in his own the hand so frankly tendered; "I accept both one and the other. Thanks, brother! I was on the point of making the same offer to you; we are now one for life or death. I am yours, as the handle is to the blade."

"Ah!" said Don Fernando, with a sigh of pleasure, "At last I have a friend. I shall no longer wander through life alone: joy and sorrow, grief and happiness,—I shall have one to whom I can confide them all."

"You shall have more than one to sympathise with you, brother; you shall have a mother too. Mine shall be yours also. Come, let us mount; it grows late. We have still many things to talk of."

"Let us go," was all the hunter answered.

The horses had not strayed from the neighbourhood of the rancho, near which they found abundant pasturage: the men easily lassoed them, and five minutes later the friends rode side by side in the direction of Don Estevan's dwelling.

Ņa Manuela was awaiting them at the entrance. She was smiling.

"Make haste!" she cried, as soon as she perceived them; "the angelus has rung an hour ago. It is supper time."

"Which means to say, mother, that we are dying with hunger," replied her son, dismounting; "so, if you have not prepared an ample meal, you run great risk of leaving our appetites unappeased."

"No fear of that, Estevan. I thought you would arrive in some such condition; so I took my precautions."

"Can you forgive me, madam," said the bee-hunter, "for making this fresh inroad on your hospitality?"

The mistress of the house smiled kindly.

"I am so ready to forgive you, seņor," said she, "that, feeling convinced we should have you a long time with us, I have myself arranged your cuarto (quarters)."

Don Fernando did not reply at once: a lively blush overspread his features; he dismounted, and approaching the old lady:

"Seņora," said he, much affected, "I know not how to thank you; you have guessed the dearest wish of my heart. Your son calls me brother: would you deign to permit me to call you mother? How happy it would make me!"

Ņa Manuela fixed upon him a long and steadfast gaze: her face exhibited tokens of vivid emotion; two tears coursed slowly down her pallid cheeks. Then, stretching out her hand to the hunter, she said:

"Be it so! Instead of one, I have now two children. Come, my sons, supper is waiting."

"My name is Fernando, mother."

"I will not forget it," was her smiling answer. They entered the dwelling, while some peones led away the horses to the corral.

Don Fernando had not deceived his friend; he had in truth given him a mother.

The meal proceeded with the cheerfulness to be expected from three persons who, although strangers three days before, had suddenly understood and appreciated each other: that is to say, it was gay and cordial. No allusion was made to the impromptu band which had linked them together so intimately and unexpectedly.

As soon as the peones had retired, and their masters found themselves alone, they left the table, and betook themselves, as on the previous day, to an inner room, where, sheltered from prying eyes and ears, they ran no risk of having their conversation overheard, commented on, and perhaps reported.

"Shut the door," said Don Estevan to Don Fernando, who was the last to enter.

"Not so," replied the latter; "we will leave it open: by this means we shall both see and hear anyone who may come near us. Take this as a general rule: never close the door when you have secrets to tell."

Don Estevan drew forward some butacas (seats), sat down, lit his cigarette, and turning to the hunter, said:

"Now for our talk!"

There are certain situations in life where the most insignificant word becomes of the greatest importance. So, when Don Estevan said, "Now for our talk!" each of the three felt that the conversation to ensue would not be confined to the limits of pleasant chat, but would almost assume the proportions of a congress with closed doors, so extremely grave were the matters which would be propounded.

It was Don Fernando who first commenced the conversation in the decided and clear manner which was habitual to him.

"My friend, I have pondered deeply on what you told me today: you would never have intrusted such an important secret to me, if grave reasons had not induced you. I think I have divined your reasons; they are these: the tranquillity which Don Pedro has enjoyed since he lived here is menaced; you dread evil to Doņa Hermosa. Are these your motives, or am I mistaken?"

"You are not. In fact, I have for some time past been oppressed by a vague fear, a secret apprehension, I cannot subdue; I feel, as it were, the approach of some misfortune, without knowing whence or how it will come. Doubtless you know better than I can tell you, that in all men's lives certain dark hours occur, in which the brave man trembles without apparent cause, like a child afraid of its own shadow. All things alarm, all things excite suspicion. Well, my friend, for the last two months I have lived these dark hours: an invincible sadness overpowers me. In a word, I am living in fear, without knowing why; for all around me takes its usual course: Don Pedro is as calm, Doņa Hermosa as gay, as lively, and as free from care as ever; we live in this out-of-the-way corner of the world entirely ignorant of its doings; the rumours of society die without an echo on our threshold. What have we, then, to fear? Who is the enemy that lies in wait for us, and whose savage eye watches us night and day? I know not; but I repeat, I feel him; I see him, as it were, without being really able to discover him."

"You know your enemy now, as well as I do. It is the Tigercat. The conversation you overheard last night between him and myself must have enlightened you as to his intention, if not as to his plans."

"True; but, nevertheless, my mind refuses to admit that this man can really be our enemy. As there can be no effects without causes, so there can be no hate without a reason. Since Don Pedro's arrival in this country, he has never come in contact with this man at home or abroad, for good or for evil. Why, then, should he wish ill to my master?"

"Why! Why!" repeated the hunter, with feverish impatience. "Why does day follow night? Why are there good and bad men? Why rascals and honest people? The inquiry would lead you too far, my good friend. I know as well as you that none of you have ever come in contact with the Tigercat. It is impossible to doubt it; but what does that signify? This man is a gloomy miscreant, the greater portion of whose life is spent in doing evil for mere evil's sake. Don Pedro is loved and honoured by all who know him; Doņa Hermosa is respected even by the Apaches,—the most ferocious redskins of the prairie; hence, most likely, the hatred he bears to the family of the hacendero. In such a man's eyes, no one has the right to be good and honest with impunity; it is an obvious necessity that all loyal hearts should be his natural enemies. A man, however low he may have fallen, can never forget his frightful downfall, or the position from which his crimes have hurled him; he cannot forgive the world his own abasement; but as he cannot avenge himself upon it in the mass, he wages war upon it in detail, attacking all those within his reach, and taking his revenge on them for fault she has himself committed. Here lies the sole cause of Tigercat's hatred of Don Pedro; seek no further reason; no other exists."

"Yes; you are right," answered Don Estevan uneasily; "it must be as you say."

"Of course it is! Trust in me, who have known the monster so long, as it is he who brought me up. But enough of this: what do you intend to do, now we have clearly ascertained our position?"

"I confess I find myself greatly embarrassed, and know not how to extricate myself from the dilemma—how to upset plans the aim of which is beyond my ken; how to thwart projects tending to an unknown end. There lies the difficulty for me."

"I think it would be by far the best course to leave the family in complete ignorance of our suspicions," said Ņa Manuela.

"Say rather our conviction, seņora," replied Don Fernando. "But in this matter I am quite of your opinion: it will be easy for us to guard Don Pedro and his daughter so secretly that they shall not dream of the danger which threatens them. Then, if the position grows too complicated, we shall not be in want of pretexts to oblige them to keep watch over their own safety."

"Oh, yes!" exclaimed Don Estevan excitedly;

"It is most important that they should entertain no suspicion, particularly Doņa Hermosa, who is so sensitive. Poor child; if our fears prove true, she will learn to know misfortune too soon. Come, Fernando, counsel us; you are the only one who can aid us in this trying emergency."

"I will do all a man can do to save those you love."

"Thanks. But why not save those whom you love yourself? You have already rendered them an inestimable service."

"Alas, my friend!" said the hunter, with a sigh; "What am I, the miserable adventurer, that I should lift my thoughts so high? I am nothing more; and can only play the part of the honest watchdog, who saves his master and dies at his feet."

He spoke these words in accents of so much sadness and humility, that Don Estevan and his mother, moved to tears, with one accord seized his hands, and pressed them affectionately.

"Do not speak thus, brother," exclaimed the mayor domo; "you do not know Doņa Hermosa as we do: a more upright heart, a purer or nobler soul, does not exist: she loves you."

"Ah," said Don Fernando with emotion, "do not utter the word. Doņa Hermosa—love me—me! It is impossible."

"Doņa Hermosa is a woman, my good friend; you saved her life. I do not positively know the nature of her sentiments towards you,—it is very likely they are inexplicable to herself,—but I am convinced of her gratitude to you; and in a young girl gratitude soon merges into love."

"Silence, Estevan!" cried the old lady, interrupting him; "Such words must not be used when speaking of your master's daughter."

"Very true, mother; forgive me; I was wrong. But had you heard Doņa Hermosa speaking of our friend as I did, and exacting from me a promise to search for and bring him to her,—Ąvive Dios! you would not know what to think."

"Perhaps so; but, at all events, I should not have poured oil upon the flame, and, for my own sake and that of my friend, should have prudently locked up my thoughts at the bottom of my heart."

"Do not think me so mad, seņora," exclaimed Don Fernando, "as to attach more importance than they deserve to your son's words. I know too well what I am—I have too complete a conviction of my inferiority—to dare to raise my venturous eyes to her whom honour compels me to respect as one of the angels."

"Well said, Don Fernando, and spoken as a man should speak," broke in Ņa Manuela; "but let us drop the subject, and occupy ourselves in finding the means of escape from the dilemma we are in."

"I think," replied the hunter, with some hesitation—"I think I can show you the means, if you cannot contrive something better."

Mother and son eagerly drew their butacas nearer to him, in order to listen more attentively.

"Speak, brother, speak," cried Don Estevan; "let us have no further delay. These means, what are they?"

"You must excuse me," resumed Don Fernando, "if the plan I am about to submit to you should not be exactly compatible with the strict laws of honour as they are understood in the civilised world; but I entreat you to recollect that I have been brought up as a redskin; that the man with whom we are about to enter into mortal strife is more than half an Indian; and the war he intends to wage with you will be an Apache war, full of treachery and ambuscades; that, in order to meet him with advantage, we too, whatever repugnance we may feel, must employ the same measures,—must turn his own weapons against himself; must repel treachery by treachery, and knavery by knavery; for if, adhering to a false idea of honour, we persist in an open and honest warfare, we shall play the part of fools indeed, and he will outwit us."

"What you say, Fernando," replied the mayor domo, "is unfortunately but too true. The proverb is right, 'Cap a knave with a knave.' I perfectly understand the bearing and the justice of your reasoning, yet I confess that it is hard for an honest man, accustomed to look his enemies in the face, to be forced to wrap himself in a fox's hide, and condescend to stratagem when his heart leads him to attack openly."

"But what can we do? This is one of the sad necessities of our position. If we do not act in this wise, we may as well submit to our foe as attempt to thwart his measures; for we should fail."

"Let it be as you wish, since there is no other method; but now for your plan."

"It is this: notwithstanding the disagreement between myself and the Tigercat, he has allowed me to dive too deep into his confidence—too many of his secrets are known to me—for him to exhibit any rancour against me, whatever anger he may feel. Accustomed for a number of years to mould me to his will, and rule over me as he pleased, he thinks he knows my character thoroughly, and is persuaded that my dispute with him was only an outbreak of temper, and that nothing would please me more than to place myself once again under his guidance. Finally, like all men who have through long years cherished a chimera, the Tigercat—who, I am convinced, has only fostered me and suffered me in his presence for the sake of making me useful in one of his infernal plots—will allow himself, shrewd as he is, to be overreached by me, if I choose to take the trouble."

"All this sounds plausible enough," observed Don Estevan.

"I think it does. Well, then, listen to my proposal. At daybreak tomorrow you and I will leave for the presidio, where I will put you into communication with a certain rogue of my acquaintance, who is as much devoted to me as people of his sort can be. This pícaro will serve you as an agent: through him we shall learn all the Tigercat is doing at San Lucar with the leperos he is enrolling for some sinister purpose. We will then part: you to return quietly to this place; I to rejoin the Tigercat in the prairies. In this way, whatever happens will reach our ears. This is my project; what do you think of it?"

"It is capital, Fernando; you have thought of everything."

"But remember three things: first of all, whatever I may do or say, whatever measures you may see me try, do not take offence at them; leave me complete master of my actions, and never for a moment suspect that I intend to betray you."

"Have no uneasiness on that score; I will put no faith in the testimony of my eyes or ears: my confidence in you shall be unalterable. And now for your next remark."

"You will instantly comprehend its importance. As soon as we have left the presidio, we must be as strangers; we must know nothing of each other."

"It is indeed an important piece of advice, and I will take care to follow it; the consequences of a single mistake would be incalculably disastrous to us."

"Lastly, be ready to act at the first signal, be it by night or day. Never mind what you may be doing; leave everything instantly to assume the offensive the moment the signal is given."

"Good. After tomorrow, on the pretence of having certain urgent work to be carried out at the hacienda, I will quietly enlist a score of leperos,—hairbrained fellows,—who for gold will obey me blindly and recoil before no danger."

"The very thing! You can easily employ them here in doing nothing till the time comes for the use of knife and rifle."

"I will be answerable that no one shall make a single inquiry concerning them. But what sort of token will you send me, and through whom will you send it?"

"The token will be a white eagle's plume broken into three pieces, and with the quill painted red. He who brings the plume will only say the words, 'My two piastres.' You will give them to him without remark, and send him away again."

"But who is the man, Fernando?"

"He will be a stranger; most likely the first man I happen to meet. It is requisite that the messenger should not suspect the importance of the message he conveys, should he chance to fall into the enemy's hands."

"Well reasoned! Come, come, I think we shall get through this business successfully."

"As for me, I am sure of it," exclaimed Don Fernando, "if you will only follow my instructions to the letter."

"Do not be anxious on that score, brother; I will answer for my accuracy."

Everything having been thus arranged and decided on by our three personages, they separated and retired to rest, for it was already late, and the two men were to mount at daybreak to take the road to the presidio of San Lucar.


CHAPTER II.

THE VIRGIN FOREST.


Don Torribio Quiroga, with whom we have now to do, was a young man of twenty-eight, with a refined and intellectual countenance, an elegant figure, and possessing in the highest degree the manners of the best society.

He belonged to one of the richest and most considerable families in the province of Chihuahua: the death of his parents had put him in possession of an income of more than five hundred thousand piastres, or about ninety thousand pounds sterling; for money is plentiful in that country.

A man in this position, and gifted with all the mental and physical advantages enjoyed by Don Torribio, had a right to very high pretensions; for, a certain amount of fortune once reached, obstacles no longer exist, or, at least, are only an excitement instead of an impediment.

Don Torribio had succeeded in all his undertakings, with one exception: his struggle against Don Fernando,—a struggle in which the latter had always come off victorious.

Thus the hatred the rich hacendero felt for the bee-hunter, and which was originally based upon puerile motives, had insensibly increased with each successive mortification, and ended at last by assuming the alarming proportions of real Mexican hate, which only the death of its object can appease.

After the meeting with Don Fernando Carril, which resulted so unfavourably for him, Don Torribio Quiroga remained a prey to that cold and concentrated rage which slowly eats into the soul till it explodes with terrific violence.

As soon as he lost sight of his lucky adversary, he had started at full speed. His spurs mangled the flanks of his luckless horse, who snorted with pain, and redoubled his furious pace.

Now, where was Don Torribio going, with distorted features and hair streaming to the wind?

He did not know himself; moreover, he did not care.

He saw nothing, heard nothing. Revolving sinister projects in his brain, he crossed torrents and ravines without checking his horse's career.

Hatred was crying aloud in his heart; nothing cooled his burning forehead; his temples beat as if they would burst, and nervous agitation shook him in every limb.

This state of overexcitement lasted many hours. His steed still continued to fly. At last the noble animal, worn out with fatigue, suddenly stopped and dropped upon the sand.

Don Torribio rose, and looked around him with a bewildered air.

A shock like this rude fall was necessary to restore order to his ideas, and recall him to reality. Another hour of such continued anguish would have made him raving mad, or ended in sudden apoplexy.

It was night. Thick darkness covered the earth; a mournful silence reigned over the wilderness to which chance had brought him.

"Where am I?" he exclaimed, endeavouring to make out his position.

But the moon, hidden by clouds, gave forth no ray; the wind began to roar like thunder; the branches of the trees crashed against each other, and, from the depths of the wilderness, the growlings of the wild beast began to mingle their deep notes with the sharper howling of the wild cats.

Don Torribio strained his eyes in vain efforts to penetrate the darkness around him. At last he approached his horse, which was stretched on the ground, and drawing its breath with difficulty. Moved with pity for the faithful companion of so many adventures, he stooped down, removed his pistols from the holsters to his belt, and taking from the saddle, where it was slung, a gourd filled with rum, began to wash the eyes, nostrils, and mouth of the panting animal. Half an hour's persistence seemed to restore life to the horse. He got on his legs, and, with his natural instinct, soon discovered a neighbouring rill, at which he slaked his thirst.

"All is not yet lost," muttered Don Torribio; "after all, I may make my escape hence."

But a deep roar resounded at a short distance, repeated immediately afterwards in four different directions.

The horse's coat stood on end; and Don Torribio felt a cold shudder run through his veins.

"Curse upon it!" he exclaimed; "I have stumbled upon a drinking place for panthers! What is to be done?"

He stooped, and found the confirmation of his fears in the footprints stamped in the muddy borders of the rill.

Just at this moment he saw, at ten paces from him, two eyes, glimmering like burning coals, fixed upon him with strange intensity.

Don Torribio was a man of well-tried courage. Many a time, before the eyes of his comrades, he had performed deeds of wonderful temerity; but now, alone in the darkness, and surrounded by savage animals, he felt himself overcome by deadly terror: his chest heaved, and his breath came and went with difficulty through his set teeth; a cold sweat broke out on his limbs, and he was on the point of dropping.

But this fit of terror did not last above a minute. By a violent effort of his will, he collected himself, and calling all his energy to his aid, prepared for a desperate struggle, in which he knew he must succumb; yet, preserving that instinct of self-preservation and hope which is seldom utterly extinguished in man, he determined to defend his life to the last moment.

Just then his horse, with a snort of horrible fear, bounded away, and made his escape on to the plain.

"So much the better," muttered Don Torribio; "perhaps the poor brute's speed may save him."

A frightful concert of yells and howling broke out in all parts of the forest at the flight of the horse, and mighty shadows, indistinguishable in the darkness, bounded past Don Torribio.

He smiled bitterly.

"Aha!" said he; "Shall I stand here to be devoured, without attempting to escape? ĄVive Dios! It would be the act of a fool! Come, I am not eaten yet: I will go."

A violent gust of wind here cleared the heaven of clouds, and for some minutes the wan light of the moon lit up the wild spot, in which Don Torribio found himself.

A few paces off, the Rio del Norte ran between two steep banks; on all sides, and far away in the distance, the dense masses of the virgin forest extended themselves. A chaos of rocks piled on each other in inextricable confusion, from whose fissures rose clumps of trees overgrown with entangled creepers drooping in fantastic garlands, pushed its ramifications to the verge of the river; the soil, composed of sand and the detritus always abounding in the forests of America, crumbled under the footstep.

Then Don Torribio knew where he was: at least fifteen leagues from the nearest inhabited spot. He was entangled in the first spurs of an immense forest—the only one throughout the country of the Apaches which the hardy pioneers of civilization had not yet dared to explore, such mysterious horrors seemed concealed in its dark recesses.

Don Torribio took no pains to inquire how his headlong course had brought him to this dreaded region. Danger so frightful that it claimed the exertion of all his powers, hung too directly over his head for him to waste time in speculating on anything save the manner of extricating himself.

At this side, the limpid steam we have mentioned issued from a rock; its banks, impressed with numberless footprints of wild beasts, clearly indicating that the spot was a favourite drinking place, when, at sunset, they left their lairs to seek their food and quench their thirst. And as a further living proof of the fact, two magnificent jaguars, male and female, had at that very moment stopped at its border, and were watching with restless eyes the gambols of their young.

"So," said Don Torribio to himself, "here are pleasant neighbours;" and he mechanically cast his eyes on the other side.

An immense panther, crouched on a rock in the attitude of a cat on the watch, had fixed on him two eyeballs glowing like carbuncle.

Don Torribio, according to the custom in South America, never left home without his weapons. His carbine, of great price, was of remarkable accuracy, and by a providential chance, had not been broken when he fell with his horse. He had placed it as he rose against a rock beside him: he stretched out his arm, and seized it.

"Good!" said he, with a grim smile; "The struggle will cost them dear, at all events."

He shouldered the weapon; but at the moment he was about to fire, a plaintive caterwauling causing him to raise his eyes, he saw a dozen of catamounts and tiger cats of immense size perched in the branches above him, while a number of wolves crept stealthily up and dropped down in the bushes behind him. Poised on the summits of the surrounding rocks, a tribe of vultures, bald buzzards, and urubus, with half closed eyes, seemed to be expecting the moment to seize their share of the quarry.

With one bound, Don Torribio threw himself on to an angle of the rock, and from thence, by aid of his hands and knees, he contrived, in the course of a minute or two, to drag himself with enormous difficulty, to a kind of terrace, about twenty feet above the ground. Here he felt himself in comparative security for a time.

The horrible concert performed by the denizens of the forest, attracted one after another by the keenness of their scent, increased in volume with every minute, and had now reached such a pitch, that it drowned the roar of the wind which was raging through the ravines and clearings.

The moon had disappeared behind the clouds, and Don Torribio was once more enveloped in darkness. But if he could no longer distinguish the wild beasts, he knew they were there: he smelt their odour; he saw their eyes flashing through the obscurity; and their yells, nearing him more and more, made him feel that the last spark of hope would soon be extinguished for ever.

Firmly planting his feet on the ground and leaning a little forward to secure his aim, he drew a revolver, and fired six shots in rapid succession at the tiger cats. Six howls of agony, and the noise produced by falling from branch to branch, immediately followed. Six of the beasts were killed or wounded.

Nothing more horrible can be conceived than the uproar caused by this unexpected onslaught. The wolves threw themselves yelling on the victims, which they began to devour eagerly, disputing their booty with the vultures and zopilotes, who also claimed their share.

Suddenly there was a strange rustling amongst the leaves and branches of the trees. A body, of indistinguishable shape, shot through the air, and alighted growling on the platform. Don Torribio, clutching his rifle, dealt the animal a terrific blow with the butt on the skull, and the brute rolled howling from the top of the rock to the bottom.

And now his ears were stunned by the uproar arising from a dreadful combat, a few feet below him, between the jaguars and tiger cats on one side, and the panther which had attacked them. Fascinated by the terrible danger to which he was exposed, Don Torribio, forgetful of the evil consequences to him that might ensue, fired two pistol shots into the mass of foes tearing and rushing at each other's throats at his feet.

Thereupon a strange thing occurred: all these animals, natural enemies to each other, seemed to comprehend that it would be better to unite against man, their common foe, than waste their strength in strife among themselves. Suddenly ceasing from the terrible combat in which they were engaged, and abandoning, with one accord, the bloody and half-devoured bodies of the victims, they turned their rage in the direction of the rock on which Don Torribio seemed to set them at defiance, and attacked it in concert with terrific energy—leaping upon its excrescences, striving to hold on to them, and trying to escalade it on all sides at once.

The situation grew more and more critical. Several tiger cats had already bounded on to the platform. As fast as Don Torribio knocked them over, others took their place. The number of his enemies increased with every minute; his own strength and energy were gradually deserting him.

This strife of one man against a host of ferocious brutes had something grand and striking about it. Don Torribio, like one with the nightmare, strove in vain to beat back the constantly renewed crowds of his assailants: he felt close to him the hot and fetid breath of the tiger cats and panthers; the roaring of the jaguars, and mocking moans of the panthers, poured into his ears a frightful song, that deafened and made him giddy; the eyes of thousands of his invisible foes flashed through the obscurity, and fascinated his own gaze; and sometimes the heavy wing of the vulture or zopilote brushed his cheek, from which the cold sweat exuded.

An accurate perception of his own existence had vanished from his soul; he no longer thought: his life, if we may still use the expression, had grown mechanical; his motions and gestures were those of a machine, and his arm rose and fell with the dull regularity of a pendulum.

Talons had already torn his flesh; several catamounts, rushing upon him, had fastened on his throat, and he had been obliged to seize them bodily to force them to quit their hold. His blood was streaming from twenty wounds, superficial, it is true; but the moment was close at hand when the energy which alone sustained him would be worn out, and he would fall from the rock, to be torn in pieces by the brutes who were ever pressing more madly upon him.

At this solemn moment, when strength and courage were alike failing, a last cry issued from his breast—a cry of agony, a cry of horrible expression, which was repeated far and wide by the echoes: the last, the final protest of a bold man, who owns himself vanquished, and instinctively calls on his kind for succour before he falls.

Wonderful to relate, a cry answered his own!

Don Torribio, astonished, and not daring to believe that a miracle was to take place in a wilderness where none before himself had dared to penetrate, fancied his ears had deceived him; yet, confessing to himself how little strength was still left him, and feeling hope faintly reviving in his soul, he uttered a second cry, more poignant, more help-seeking than the former.

As soon as the echoes of the forest were silent after their repetition of the cry, a single word, weak as a sigh, was borne to his listening ears on the wings of the breeze: "Hope!"

Don Torribio recovered himself. Electrified by the word, he seemed to regain new life and strength, and redoubled his strokes on his numberless assailants.

Suddenly the gallop of many horses was heard in the distance, several discharges of firearms illumined the darkness with their transient splendour, and some men, or rather demons, rushed unexpectedly into the thickest crowd of wild beasts, making a horrible slaughter.

At this moment Don Torribio, attacked by two tiger cats, rolled upon the platform struggling with both.

In a very short time the brutes were put to flight by the newcomers, who hastened to light fires to keep them at bay for the rest of the night.

Two of the men armed with burning torches of ocote wood, set themselves to search for the man whose cries of distress had brought them to his aid.

They were not long in finding him stretched out on the platform, surrounded by ten or twelve dead tiger cats, and clutching in his stiffened hands the throat of a strangled catamount.

"Well, Carlocho," exclaimed a voice, "have you found him?"

"Yes," replied the other; "but he seems dead."

"ĄCaray!" resumed Pablito; "It would be a pity; for he was a bold fellow. Where is he?"

"There; on the rock opposite you."

"Can you let him down with the verado's help?"

"Nothing easier; he is as still as a log."

"Make haste, then, in the name of heaven!" said Pablito; "Every minute's delay may be a year's life stolen from him!"

Carlocho and the verado lifted Don Torribio by the feet and shoulders, and with infinite precaution carried him from the improvised fortress he had defended so bravely to one of the fires, and laid him on a bed of leaves prepared by El Zapote; for the four vaqueros were, by a strange chance, reunited in this spot.

"ĄCanarios!" cried Pablito, at sight of the miserable man; "Poor devil! How they have mauled him! It was high time for help."

"Do you think he will recover?" asked Carlocho, with great interest.

"There is always hope," said Pablito dogmatically, "when the vital organs are uninjured. Let us look at him."

He bent over the body of Don Torribio, unsheathed his poniard, and put the blade to his lips.

"Not a sign of breath!". and he shook his head.

"Are his wounds serious?" asked the verado.

"I think not: he has fallen from fatigue and overexcitement."

"But in that case he may come round again?"

"Perhaps he may; perhaps he may not: all depends upon the greater or less violence of the shock to his nervous system."

"Ha!" exclaimed the verado joyfully; "Look here! He breathes. ĄVive Dios! He has tried to open his eyes!"

"Then he is saved!" replied Pablito; "He will soon come to his senses. This man has a constitution of iron. He will be able to be in the saddle in a quarter of an hour, if he likes; but we must attend to his wounds."

The vaqueros, like the backwoodsmen, live far from inhabited places; and are obliged to be their own doctors; hence they acquire a certain practical knowledge of surgery, and are adepts in the collection and application of the herbs in use among the Indians.

Pablito, aided by Carlocho and the verado, bathed the wounds of Don Torribio, first with water, then with rum, and blew tobacco smoke into his nostrils.

The latter, after some minutes of this strange treatment, uttered a scarcely perceptible sigh, moved his lips slightly, and at last opened his eyes, which as yet had no consciousness in them.

"He is saved!" repeated Pablito; "Now let us leave nature to work: she is the best doctor I know."

Don Torribio raised himself up, supporting himself on one elbow, and passed his hand across his forehead, as if to recall his thoughts.

"Who are you?" he said in a feeble tone.

"Friends, seņor; fear nothing."

"I am killed; my limbs are all broken."

"It is nothing to signify, seņor; it is only fatigue: you are as well as we are?"

Don Torribio sat up and looked attentively at the men who surrounded him.

"I must be mistaken," said he; "I never expected to find you here. By what miracle did you reach me in time to save me?—you, whom I promised to meet at a rendezvous so far from the spot where we are?"

"It was your horse performed the miracle, seņor," said the verado.

"How is that?" asked Don Torribio, whose voice grew stronger every moment, and who had already managed to stand up.

"The case is very simple. We were skirting the forest, on our road to the place you had pointed out to us, when suddenly a horse passed across us at a giddy speed, a pack of wolves at his heels. We soon relieved him from his incarnate foes. Then, as we thought it unlikely for a saddled horse to be all alone in a forest into which none dare venture, we set out in search of his rider. Your cry was our pilot."

"Thanks!" replied Don Torribio; "I shall know how to repay the debt I have contracted with you."

"Nonsense! That is not worth speaking of. Come! here is your horse; we can go as soon as you like."

Don Torribio held up his hand.

"Stay here," said he; "we shall find no more suitable place than this to discuss what we have got to say to each other."


CHAPTER III.

DON TORRIBIO QUIROGA.


There was a long silence after these words of Don Torribio. The vaqueros, with their eyes fixed on him, endeavoured to guess his thoughts from the play of his features. But Don Torribio's face, cold and rigid as a block of marble, gave no signs of the thoughts within. At last, after casting a glance of suspicion around, more from habit than from any fear of being overheard, he rolled a cigarette, lit it with the greatest coolness, and began to speak in a careless tone.

"My good verado, I am truly sorry that you have taken these honourable caballeros from their vocations, and put yourself to inconvenience, in order to repair to the place I had appointed."

"Why so, seņor?" asked the verado, perfectly puzzled by this commencement.

"For a very simple reason, seņor,—because the motives no longer exist which induced me to wish to confer with you."

"What!" cried all the rogues together; "Can that be possible?"

"Oh, yes!" he replied coolly; "All things considered, Don Fernando Carril is a charming caballero. I should be in despair if I caused him the slightest inconvenience."

"Diablo! not quite so charming!" observed the verado; "The fellow who ordered Carlocho to kill me quietly!"

"It was not to me, dear friend," said Carlocho, with great suavity, "but to Don Pablito here, that Seņor Don Fernando gave the order."

"You are right; I made a mistake. Accept my excuses, seņor."

After this exchange of courtesy, the two bandits again grew silent.

"An honest man sticks to his word," said Tonillo; "and if Don Torribio has changed his mind, we have nothing more to say. That reminds me," he added, with a smothered sigh, "that I must refund to you two hundred piastres, which you advanced to—"

"Keep the trifle, dear seņor," said Don Torribio; "the money cannot be in better hands than yours."

The vaquero, who had pulled the coins from his pocket with evident reluctance, thrust them back again with a celerity that evinced the greatest satisfaction.

"It is all the same," said he; "I do not consider myself quits with you, seņor. I am an honest man, and you may rely upon me."

"On us all!" exclaimed the others in one voice.

"I thank you for your devotion, seņores, and appreciate it highly. Unfortunately, as I say once more, it is of no use to me."

"It is unfortunate," said the verado; "one does not find such patrons as you every day, seņor."

"Pooh!" said he gaily; "Now you are free, what prevents your placing yourselves under the orders of Don Fernando? He is very generous; a caballero to the tips of his fingers: I am sure he will pay you well."

"I suppose it will have to be so, seņor," said Pablito; "moreover, we can now confess that we have already been thinking of it, and—"

"Have already taken service with him," said Don Torribio carelessly. "I was aware of it."

"You know it?" cried the bandits, struck with astonishment.

"And are not vexed at it?" continued Pablito.

"Why should I be? On the contrary, I am delighted. It is a strange chance; but perhaps you will be even better able to serve me by the change."

"Indeed!" said they, becoming very attentive.

"Certainly you may. So you really are devoted to me?"

"To the last drop of our blood!" shouted the vaqueros in touching unison.

"You do not despise money?"

"Money can never hurt those who have none," replied the sententious Pablito.

"When it is earned honourably," added Tonillo with a grin like a monkey.

"I agree with you," said Don Torribio; "particularly when it is a question of a hundred ounces or so," (about three hundred and forty pounds sterling).

The bandits trembled with joy, and their wild eyes sparkled. They exchanged looks of promise to themselves for the future, which did not escape Don Torribio's observation.

"ĄCaray!" they muttered, hugging themselves with joy.

"So that would suit you, I suppose?"

"Rayo de Dios! a hundred ounces! I should think so," said Pablito.

"There may be more," observed Don Torribio.

"But doubtless it will be a difficult job," the verado ventured to say.

"ĄDame! You know, things are going wrong at present."

"No need to tell us that, seņor; the misery is frightful."

"Perhaps there may be a man to kill?" insinuated Carlocho.

"That might happen!" roundly replied Don Torribio.

"So much the worse for him," muttered Pablito.

"Then the offer is agreeable to you, even in that case?"

"More so than ever," growled Tonillo.

"Since that is your opinion, caballeros, listen attentively," said Don Torribio, drawing himself up; "I have pledged my honour," he began, "to make no attempts against Don Fernando Carril, either directly or indirectly."

"An honest man sticks to his word," said Tonillo.

"And I intend to keep mine scrupulously, as regards Don Fernando."

The vaqueros made signs of approbation.

"But," continued the speaker, "you know as well as I do that Don Fernando is a man made of mysteries, whose life lies hidden under an impenetrable veil."

"Alas, yes!" piteously sighed Tonillo.

"No one knows what becomes of him for the greater part of his time: he disappears for months together, to start up again at the moment when one least expects him."

"It is but too true," said Pablito; "the life of the caballero is most extraordinary."

"To how many dangers he must expose himself," continued Don Torribio, "in those perilous adventures, of which no one knows the object, nor the direction in which he seeks them!"

"It is terrible even to think of them," said Carlocho, with an air of conviction.

"One so easily meets with mishap in the wilderness," added the verado.

"Without going further, only look what might have happened to yourself tonight, seņor!" said Tonillo, looking interested.

"It is dreadful," exclaimed Pablito.

"You will clearly understand, seņores," resumed Don Torribio, "that I can by no means be responsible for the numberless accidents to which Don Fernando's manner of life exposes him at every step."

"This is incontestable," cried the others.

"Chance seems to take malignant pleasure in deranging and upsetting the best conceived plans; and it is impossible for me to save him from chance, even with the lively interest I take in his safety."

"There can be no doubt on that head," said Pablito, dogmatically; "and certainly not a soul would have the right to utter a word of reproach against you, seņor, should poor Don Fernando be killed in one of his perilous adventures."

"Exactly what I think; but as I am now no longer the enemy, but the friend of Don Fernando, and in that capacity take the greatest interest in knowing all that may happen to him, so that I might fly to his aid if necessary—"

"Or avenge him, if ill luck should have it that he should be killed," said Carlocho, interrupting him.

"I should like," continued Don Torribio, "to be constantly apprised of whatever may happen to him."

"Oh, holy friendship!" exclaimed Tonillo, raising his eyes to heaven with a sanctified air; "Thou art not a mere idle word!"

"Caballeros, you could not be in a better position for giving me information; and as all trouble should have its reward, you shall receive at least one hundred ounces to share amongst you, or two hundred, according to the news you may bring me. You understand?"

"Perfectly, seņor," replied Carlocho, with imperturbable composure, in the name of his deeply touched companions; "the office you confide to us is most honourable. You may rely on our carrying out your views to your utmost satisfaction."

"Well, that is settled, seņores; I rely upon the accuracy of your information, for you must perceive the ridiculous position in which a false report would place me in the eyes of Don Fernando's numerous friends, whom I should be loth to disturb without good cause."

"Trust entirely to us, seņor; we will confirm our information by irrefragable proof."

"Good! I see we understand each other; it is useless to pursue the matter further."

"Perfectly useless, seņor; we are men of quick comprehension."

"Yes," said Don Torribio, smiling; "but, as your memories may be short, do me the honour of dividing these ten ounces amongst you,—not as the earnest—money of a bargain, for there is no bargain between us, but as a return for the service you have just done me, and as a means of imprinting our conversation on your brains."

The vaqueros, without waiting to be pressed, extended their hands, and, with smiling faces, pocketed the ounces so liberally bestowed.

"Now, one word more, caballeros: where are we?"

"In the Selva Negra, seņor," answered Pablito; "not more than four leagues from the Hacienda del Cormillo, where Don Pedro de Luna and his family are at present residing."

Don Torribio started in astonishment.

"What! Has Don Pedro left Las Norias de San Antonio?"

"Yes, seņor; since yesterday."

"What a singular thing! El Cormillo is on the extreme verge of the wilderness, in the midst of the Apaches: it is impossible to understand it."

"They say it was Doņa Hermosa who wished for this change, of which scarcely anybody has yet heard."

"What an extraordinary whim! After the dangers to which she was exposed only a few days ago, to come and brave the redskins on their own territory!"

"The hacienda is strong, and perfectly safe from sudden assault."

"True: yet the change of residence seems very incomprehensible. At sunrise, I should be happy if you would do me the honour of serving me as guides till I get within sight of the hacienda. It is important that I should see Don Pedro without delay."

"We shall be at your orders, seņor, as soon as you please to depart," answered Carlocho.

The night was fleeting; and Don Torribio had need of repose to restore his strength, exhausted by his late struggle for life. He rolled himself in his zarapé, stretched out his feet towards the fire, and was soon asleep, in spite of the trouble that racked his mind.

The vaqueros followed his example, after drawing lots amongst themselves as to who should watch over the common safety.

The post fell to Carlocho: the others closed their eyes; and the silence of the wilderness, which had just been so terribly disturbed, resumed its empire.

Night passed, without anything occurring to disturb the rest of these guests of the forest.

At sunrise the vaqueros were up. After feeding and watering their horses, they saddled them, and roused Don Torribio, announcing that the hour of departure had arrived.

The latter rose at once; and, after a short prayer uttered by them all, the five men mounted, and left the clearing which had nearly proved so fatal to one of them.

The Hacienda del Cormillo may be looked upon as the advanced sentinel of the presidio of San Lucar; it is, without contradiction, the richest and strongest position on the whole Indian frontier. It rises on a kind of peninsula, three leagues in circumference, on which an incalculable number of cattle pasture at liberty. We will not expatiate much on the description of a dwelling in which only a few scenes of our story are laid; we will confine ourselves to saying, that in the middle of the hacienda properly speaking, and perfectly secured behind the massive fortifications, loopholed and bastioned, of the fortress (for El Cormillo was certainly such), there stood a white house, small indeed, but admirably arranged, pleasant and cheerful looking. At a distance, the roof was half concealed by the branches of the trees which covered it with their verdant foliage; from its windows, the eye roamed on one side over the wilderness, on the other over the Rio del Norte, which unrolled itself in the plain like a silver band, and was lost to view in the blue distance of the horizon.

The vaqueros, in company with Don Torribio, had struck into the forest. For three hours their route led them along the banks of the Rio Bravo del Norte, till they were opposite the Hacienda del Cormillo, which dimly showed itself in the centre of one of those charming oases created by the deposit of the river, and covered with groups of willows, nopals, mesquites, orange and citron trees, and jasmines in full flower, amongst the branches of which a whole host of birds of varied plumage warbled unceasingly.

Don Torribio halted, and turning towards his companions, who had likewise stopped, addressed them:

"I must leave you here; I thank you for the escort you have done me the honour to give me. Your help is no longer needed. Return to your avocations, seņores; you know our agreement, and I reckon on your punctuality."

"Farewell, caballero," they replied, bowing ceremoniously to him; "cast aside all anxiety as to the measures we are about to take."

They turned the heads of their horses, made them enter the river as if they intended to cross it, and soon vanished behind a rise in the ground. Don Torribio remained alone.

The families of Don Torribio and Don Pedro de Luna, both originally Spanish, and connected by various ties in old times, had always lived on a footing of great intimacy. The young man and the girl had almost been brought up together. So, when her handsome cousin had come to bid her adieu, and announce his departure for Europe, where he was to stay a few years, in order to complete his education and acquire the manners of the fashionable world, Doņa Hermosa, then about twelve years old, had felt sorry to lose him. They had loved each other from infancy, unwittingly obeying the secret impulses of childhood, which is always seeking for happiness.

Don Torribio had left her, carrying his own love with him, and never doubting that Doņa Hermosa was preserving hers for him.

On his return to Veracruz, after visiting the most celebrated places of the civilized world, he had hastened to put his affairs in order, and set out for San Lucar, burning with desire to meet her whom he loved so dearly, and whom he had not seen for three years—his Hermosa, that pretty child, who by this time, must have grown into a beautiful and accomplished woman.

The surprise and joy of Don Pedro and his daughter were extreme. Hermosa was particularly happy, for, we must confess, she had thought all day long of Don Torribio, and looked at him through the medium of her recollections of childhood; yet at the same time she felt her heart disturbed by mingled sensations of pain and pleasure.

Don Torribio perceived it: he understood, or thought he understood, that she still loved him; and his happiness was complete.

"Come, children," the smiling father had said, "embrace each other; you have my permission."

Doņa Hermosa, with many blushes, bent forward her forehead to Don Torribio, who respectfully touched it with his lips.

"Is that what you call kissing?" cried Don Pedro. "Come, come, no hypocrisy; embrace each other frankly. Do not play the coquette, Hermosa, because you are a pretty girl and he is a handsome fellow; and you, Torribio, who have come upon us like a thunderbolt, without giving warning, do you think to make me believe you have ridden many hundred leagues, as fast as your horse could carry you, to see me? I know for whom you come all the way from Veracruz to San Lucar! You love each other. Give each other an honest kiss, like betrothed lovers as you are; and if you are wise, you will be married offhand."

The young people, melted by his kind words and pleasant humour, threw themselves into the arms of the venerable man, to hide the depth of their emotion.

In consequence of this reception, Don Torribio had been formally acknowledged as having a claim to the hand of Doņa Hermosa, and in that capacity was received by her.

We must do the girl the justice to say, that she sincerely believed she loved her cousin. The ties of relationship, their childish friendship, and the long separation, which had increased the warmth of their feelings, disposed her to think favourably of the marriage proposed by her father. She awaited the day fixed for her espousals without any degree of impatience, and looked forward with a kind of pleasurable hope to the time when she would be indissolubly united to him.

Although such an assertion will most likely make many of our readers cry "Fie!" upon us, we will nevertheless maintain that a young girl's first passion is rarely genuine love. Her second love originates in the heart; the first only in the brain A young girl who begins to experience the first emotions of her heart naturally allows herself to be attracted by the man who, from circumstances and his relations towards her, has long ago obtained her confidence and excited her interest. This kind of love, then, is only friendship, fortified by habit and magnified by the secret influence exercised by the as yet vague and undecided thoughts which crop up in the brains of sixteen; and lastly, and more than all, by the want of opportunities for comparing her lover with others, and the fact that the marriage is already settled, and she thinks it impossible to recede.

This was the position in which Doņa Hermosa, without at all suspecting it, stood towards her cousin. The marriage had been retarded, up to the day about which we are now writing, for divers reasons of age and convenience, although Don Pedro attached immense importance to it, either on account of his intended son-in-law's enormous wealth, or because he was persuaded the union would make his daughter happy.

Matters had proceeded thus between the young people, without any remarkable incident occurring to trouble the calm of their relations to each other, up to the time when the events we have narrated in another place happened to Doņa Hermosa in the prairie. But at the first visit Don Torribio paid his betrothed after her return to the Hacienda de las Norias, he perceived, with the clear-sightedness of love, that Doņa Hermosa did not receive him with the freedom or the frankness of speech and manner to which he had been accustomed.

The girl seemed sad and dreamy; she scarcely answered the questions he addressed to her, and did not appear to understand the hints he threw out about their approaching marriage.

Don Torribio at first attributed the change to one of those nervous influences to which young girls are subject, without suspecting it. He fancied she was unwell, and left her, without dreaming that another filled the place in the heart of his betrothed which he believed himself alone to occupy.

Moreover, upon whom could his suspicions fall, if he entertained any? Don Pedro lived in great retirement, only receiving at long intervals his old friends, most of them married, or long past the age for marrying.

It was impossible to suppose that, in the two days Doņa Hermosa spent in the prairie among the redskins, she could have met with a man whose appearance and manners could have touched her affections.

However, Don Torribio was soon compelled to acknowledge in spite of himself, that what he had at first taken for a girlish whim was a confirmed resolve; or, in one word, that if Doņa Hermosa still preserved for him the friendship to which he had a right, as the companion of her childhood, her love, if she had ever felt it for him, had vanished for ever.

When once convinced of this certainty, he became seriously uneasy. The love he felt for his cousin was profound and sincere; he had let it grow into his heart too deeply to be easily eradicated. He saw all his plans of happiness in the future crumble together, and, his hopes once shipwrecked, resolved to have the indispensable explanation from the girl which should tell him how much he had to hope or fear.

It was with the intention of demanding this explanation from Doņa Hermosa that, instead of returning to San Lucar, where he lived, he had desired the vaqueros to show him the way to the Hacienda del Cormillo. But as soon as his guides left him, and he found himself alone in front of the hacienda, his courage nearly evaporated. Foreseeing the result of the step he was about to take, he hesitated to enter the dwelling; for, like all lovers, in spite of the pain caused by the girl's indifference, he would have preferred to go on cheating himself with futile expectations, rather than learn a truth which would break his heart, by robbing him of all hope.

The struggle lasted a long time; more than once he made as if he would ride back; but at last reason conquered passion. He comprehended how difficult the position would be, both for Doņa Hermosa and himself. Happen what might, he resolved to end it; and digging his spurs into the flanks of his horse, he galloped towards the hacienda, rightly fearing that, if he lingered longer, he would find no strength to accomplish the project he had formed.

When he arrived at El Cormillo, he was informed that Don Pedro and his daughter had gone hunting at sunrise, and would not return before the oraciķn (time for mass).

"So much the better," muttered Don Torribio between his teeth, and with a sigh of satisfaction at the respite chance had so opportunely afforded him.

Without stopping for the refreshments offered him, he turned his horse's head in the direction of San Lucar, and galloped off, congratulating himself that the explanation he both dreaded and desired had been thus providentially delayed.


CHAPTER IV.

LA TERTULIA (THE PARTY).


We must now introduce our readers to the Hacienda del Cormillo, two days later than the event we have just narrated.

Towards eight o'clock in the evening, two persons were seated in the drawing room of the hacienda, close to a brasero (brasier); for the nights were still cold.

A stranger opening the doors of this room could have fancied himself transported to the Faubourg St. Germain, it was so elegantly furnished in the French fashion. Parisian luxury was exhibited in the carpets, Parisian taste in the choice of the furniture. Nothing was forgotten,—not even a pianoforte by Erard, on which lay the scores of Parisian operas, nor a magnificent harmonium from the workshops of Alexandre; and as if to prove that glory travels far, and genius has wings, the novels and poems in fashion at Paris strewed a round table by Boule. Everything put you in mind of France and Paris, with the exception of the silver brasero, which, with its glowing knots of olive wood, showed that you were in Spanish America. This magnificent withdrawing room was lighted up by candles of rose-coloured wax, in handsome chandeliers.

It was Don Pedro and his daughter who was seated by the brasero. Doņa Hermosa was clad in a dress of the greatest simplicity, which made her look still more charming. She was smoking a tiny cigarette, rolled in a maize leaf, which did not interrupt the flow of her conversation with her father.

"Yes," said she, "the most lovely birds in the world have been brought to the presidio."

"Well, querida chica?" (my darling).

"It appears to me that my dearest father is not quite as gallant as usual tonight," she said, pouting a little, like a spoilt child.

"What do you know about that, seņorita?" answered Don Pedro, laughing.

"What! Is it the truth?" she exclaimed, as she jumped from her seat, and clapped her hands together; "You have thought—"

"Of buying you the birds. Tomorrow you will see your feathered subjects, and your aviary stocked with parakeets, love birds, Bengalis, hummingbirds, and Heaven knows how many others. There are at least four hundred of them, you little ingrate!"

"Oh, how kind you are! And how I love you!" replied the girl, throwing herself into her father's arms, and kissing him a thousand times.

"That will do, that will do, little monkey! Do you want to stifle me with kisses?"

"What shall I do to show my gratitude for such kind forethought?"

"Poor little dear!" said he sadly; "I have only yourself to love now."

"Say to adore, my dearest father; for it is adoration you feel for me; and I too love you with all the strength of love which God has given me."

"And yet," said Don Pedro, in tones of gentle reproach, "you are not afraid of causing me uneasiness."

"I!" said Hermosa, beginning to tremble.

"Yes, you," he replied, threatening her with uplifted finger; "you are concealing something from me."

"Father!" she murmured softly.

"Daughter, a father's eye can pierce to the bottom of the heart of a girl of sixteen. Some extraordinary change has taken place in you these last few days: your thoughts are strangely preoccupied."

"You are right, father," she replied with a good deal of firmness.

"And what are you dreaming about, little girl?" asked Don Pedro, smiling to conceal his anxiety.

"About Don Torribio de Quiroga, father."

"Aha!" replied he, "Because you love him, I suppose?"

Doņa Hermosa drew herself up, and assumed a serious expression.

"I!" said she, placing her hand on her bosom, "No! I deceived myself until today. I do not love Don Torribio, and yet I cannot help thinking of him, although I do not know why. Since his return from Europe, a change has come over him for which I cannot account. It seems to me, that he is not the same person who was brought up with me. His look pains, yet fascinates me; his voice raises a feeling of undefinable sorrow. Certainly, the man is handsome; his manners are noble, and his bearing that of a highbred gentleman: yet there is something nameless about him which chills me, and inspires invincible repugnance."

"How romantic!" said Don Pedro, laughing.

"Laugh at me! Mock me!" she replied, her voice trembling. "Shall I confess everything, father?"

"Speak confidently, dearest child."

"I will. I believe this man, whom I thought I loved, will bring evil upon me."

"Child," replied Don Pedro, kissing her forehead, "what ill could he do you?"

"Father, I cannot tell; but I dread it."

"Do you wish me to break with him, and not to admit him again?"

"Heaven forbid! It would certainly hasten the misfortune that threatens me."

"Pooh! you are a spoilt child! You grow whimsical, and amuse yourself by creating phantoms. All these fears and imaginary presentiments spring from your love for your cousin. The only way to restore your tranquillity is to marry you to him as soon as possible; and be sure, my dear, that is what I intend to do."

Doņa Hermosa shook her head sorrowfully, and cast down her eyes, but she made no reply: she felt that her father had completely misunderstood her meaning, and that any attempt to bring him over to her wishes would be vain.

Just at that moment a peon announced Don Torribio, who entered the room.

He was dressed in the latest Paris fashion; and the glare of the candles lighted up his handsome face.

Father and daughter both trembled; the one perhaps with joy, the other certainly with fear.

Don Torribio, after gracefully saluting Doņa Hermosa, approached her and respectfully offered her a superb bouquet of exotic flowers. She took them with a forced smile, and, without looking at them, placed them on the table.

Soon after, other persons were announced: the governor, Don José Kalbris, and his staff; two or three other families—in all, about twenty people; and lastly, Don Estevan Dias, and Don Fernando Carril.

It was certainly impossible to recognise the hardy backwoodsman, the redoubtable bee-hunter, who a few days before had done Don Pedro and his daughter such signal service, in the elegant caballero who arrived in the company of the mayor domo of the hacienda. His irreproachable bearing, his distinguished manner, in short, all about him, banished suspicion, or rather prevented comparison.

We have already said that Don Fernando Carril, although his life was wrapped in impenetrable mystery, was superficially known to all the best society in the provinces, and, thanks to the easy-going manners of the Mexicans, received in the best families. His presence at the hacienda was, therefore, nothing extraordinary. Nevertheless, his appearance excited lively curiosity in the guests; for it was a long time since Don Fernando had been seen at any entertainment.

Like Don Torribio, the hunter, when he entered the room, approached Doņa Hermosa, bowed profoundly to her, and respectfully offered her a flower he held in his hand.

"Seņorita," said he, in a voice full of suppressed emotion, "deign to accept this modest flower; it grows only in the desert," he added, significantly.

Doņa Hermosa trembled at the sound of his voice, which she thought she had recognised; a lively blush rose to her cheeks; and dropping her eyes under the ardent gaze fixed upon her, she took the flower and placed it in her bosom, as she answered inarticulately:

"Everything that comes from the desert will be dear to me henceforth."

The conversation of the guests had by this time grown animated. The little incident passed without remark, except from one person, who, with that kind of intuition which springs from love and jealousy, had divined in Don Fernando one who, if not an openly declared rival, was, at least, preferred in secret.

This person was Don Torribio Quiroga.

Leaning towards Don Estevan, who chanced to be near him, he said, in a voice low indeed but perfectly distinct and audible to all: "What golden key does this man possess, whom nobody knows, by which he introduces himself into honourable families, where his presence is neither desired nor invited?"

"Ask him yourself, seņor," said Don Estevan dryly; "he will most likely be able to explain his conduct satisfactorily."

"I shall follow your advice this instant, seņor," answered Don Torribio haughtily.

"It is unnecessary, caballero; I heard your words perfectly," said Don Fernando.

His voice was calm, and he made a courteous bow to Don Torribio, while an ironical smile curled his lips for a moment.

All conversation had been suddenly broken off; a profound silence reigned over those present, and the looks of all were turned in curiosity towards the two men.

Doņa Hermosa, pale and trembling, cast a look of entreaty on her father.

Don Pedro walked resolutely into the middle, of the room, and placed himself between the two caballeros.

"What does this mean, seņores?" said he. "Is this the idea of propriety you have brought back from your travels in Europe, Don Torribio? Do you dare to turn my drawing room into lists wherein to break your lance in personal quarrels? What right have you to cavil at Don Fernando's presence here? You are not my son-in-law yet, as far as I know. I am master here, and can receive whom I think fit."

"Even cutthroats and salteadores (highwaymen), cousin, if such is your good pleasure," replied the young man, with an ironical bow.

Don Fernando looked as if he were going to rush upon the man who had thus insulted him, but managed to contain himself.

"Will Don Torribio deign to explain himself," he said calmly, "and not speak in enigmas?"

"And whose fault is it, caballero, if I speak in enigmas? Are you not the cause of the mystery?"

"Enough, caballeros!" exclaimed Don Pedro; "He who utters another word on this subject, makes me his mortal enemy."

The two men bowed respectfully to the hacendero and separated, but not without having exchanged looks of terrible expression.

"Well, colonel," continued Don Pedro, addressing the governor, in the hopes of glossing over the lamentable altercation, "What news from La Ciudad? Is Mexico still tranquil?"

"Our great Santa Anna," replied the colonel, who was choking in his uniform, "has once more soundly beaten the audacious general who has dared to issue a pronunciamiento (manifesto) against him."

"Thank God! Perhaps this victory will procure us the tranquillity of which commerce stands so much in need."

"Yes," said a rich hacendero, a neighbour of Don Pedro. "Communication has been so difficult of late, that we can forward nothing."

"Are the redskins at work?" asked a merchant, whom these words had troubled.

"No," said the governor; "there is no danger from them. The last lesson they got was a rude one, and they will not forget it. For a long time they have not dared to invade our frontiers."

An almost imperceptible smile curled the lips of Don Fernando. "You forget the Tigercat and his adherents," said he.

"Oh! the Tigercat is only a bandit," said the governor hastily. "Besides, Government is at this moment preparing an expedition against him, so as to finish, once and for all, with his band of brigands."

"It is an admirable idea," said Don Torribio, with a sarcastic sneer. "It is time this frontier should be cleared of the host of fellows, with more than equivocal habits, who infest it."

"I am quite of the same opinion; it seems a most sensible measure," said Don Fernando quietly, but giving back to his adversary a smile as bitter as his own.

"In case of invasion, do you think the Indians able to give the province much trouble?" asked the merchant.

"H'm!" said Don José, with a patronising air; "People entertain exaggerated ideas of these redskins; in fact, they are but miserable wretches."

Don Fernando smiled again; but this time the smile was savage and sinister.

"Seņor gobernador," said he, "you are not quite right. To judge by the news you were good enough to communicate, I believe the Indians will keep quite peaceably at home, unless they are determined to tempt ill luck."

"ĄRayo de Dios! I should think so," replied the governor.

"Ah! Seņorita," said Don Torribio, gracefully turning to Doņa Hermosa, "may I pray of your kindness to let us hear that delicious song from the Domino Noir, which you sang to such perfection a few days ago?"

Doņa Hermosa, darted a look from under her long lashes at Don Fernando. The latter's eyes conveyed a mute prayer of entreaty. Without further hesitation, she placed herself at the piano, and, in a pure and feeling voice, sang the romance in the third act.

"I remember having heard that delicious romance sung in Paris by Madame Demareau, that nightingale who flew away too soon," said Don Torribio, bowing gallantly to Doņa Hermosa. "I know not whether you or she sang it with most taste and spirit."

She answered: "Cousin, you have lived too long in France."

"How so, seņorita?"

"Because," she replied, with a smile as cold and keen as the point of a poniard, "France has made you a detestable flatterer."

"ĄBravo!" chuckled the fat governor, whose cheeks shook with delight. "You see Don Torribio, our creoles rival the Parisian ladies in the smartness of their repartee."

"Incontestably, colonel," answered Don Torribio. "But I can take my own part," he added in an undefinable tone; "I shall soon have my revenge." And he cast a glance at Don Fernando and Doņa Hermosa, who were seated close to each other, which made the girl shudder with fear.

"Don Fernando, and you other caballeros, here present," said the governor, addressing the guests, "I hope that tomorrow you will attend the Te Deum to be sung in honour of our glorious Santa Anna."

"I shall have the honour," said Don Fernando. The others made a similar response.

"As for me," said Don Torribio, "you must excuse me, colonel; for business compels me to leave tonight."

"What!" cried Don Pedro, in astonishment; "You are going to travel tonight, cousin?"

"I am indeed, Seņor Don Pedro; I am obliged to leave you, even though I have but just arrived."

"Well, that is a singular and most unforeseen resolution. Where are you going?"

"Excuse me if I keep the object of my expedition secret. Certain persons must not have the sole right of making mysterious excursions."

"Indeed!" said Don Pedro peevishly. "And do you intend to stay away long?"

"I hope not, but dare not say I am sure."

"So much the better. Come back to us as soon as you can; for," said he significantly, "your return will please all of us here."

"ŋQuién sabe?" (who knows?) muttered Don Torribio, with a sinister expression.

Doņa Hermosa, who overheard these two words, could no longer master her fears.

While Don Pedro and his cousin were exchanging these words, the girl Whispered to Don Estevan:

"Brother, tomorrow, after mass, I want to speak to you at my nurse's."

"To me, or to my friend?" said Don Estevan softly.

"To both," she answered, with feverish agitation.

Don Estevan and Don Fernando now retired with joyful hearts. The latter was sure that Doņa Hermosa had recognised him.

The other visitors also gradually departed, till Don Torribio de Quiroga was left alone with his host.

"Cousin," said he, in a low and broken voice, as he bent down to the lady to bid her farewell, "I am about to begin a journey in which I shall incur considerable danger. May I hope you will remember the traveller in your prayers?"

Hermosa looked him in the face for an instant, and replied with an austerity unusual in her:

"Cousin, I cannot pray for the success of a journey the purport of which I do not know."

"Thanks for your frankness, seņorita," he replied, without exhibiting emotion; "I shall not forget your words."

"So you are really going, Don Torribio?" said Don Pedro, who joined them at the moment.

"This very instant, cousin: all is ready for my departure."

"Then I wish you luck! I hope we shall soon hear from you?"

"Yes," he replied, with a singular expression; "you shall soon hear of me. Farewell!"

"What is the matter with your cousin, niņa?" asked Don Pedro, when he found himself alone with his daughter: "His conduct tonight has been very strange."

Before she could answer, the door opened. "The capataz of the Hacienda de las Norias," said a peon who had entered, "wishes to speak to Seņor Don Pedro de Luna on affairs of consequence."

"Admit him instantly," replied Don Pedro to the domestic who had announced the arrival of the capataz so pompously.

Don Torribio was terribly agitated when he left the house. He looked back, and cast a venomous eye on the windows of the room, on which he could see the graceful shadow of Doņa Hermosa.

"Proud girl," said he in a terrible voice, "I hate you with all the power of the love I once felt for you! Soon, very soon, I will punish you for your disdain."

Then, wrapping his cloak around him, he rapidly took the direction of the nearest patio (out-buildings), where he hoped to find his horse. Indeed, he found him there; a peon holding the bridle. Don Torribio seized the reins, threw the peon a piastre, flung himself into the saddle, and rode off at a gallop.

"Wagh!" said the Indian, picking up the money; "What ails the young master? One would think him mad. How he scampered off!"

In the meantime Don Torribio had left the hacienda behind him, and was making all haste on the road to San Lucar.

But he had not ridden more than a quarter of an hour, when suddenly, at a turn of the road, his horse gave a start of terror, reared, and flew round, with his ears laid close to his head. Don Torribio looked to see what had alarmed the animal.

A man of tall stature, mounted on a strong black horse, held the middle of the road four or five paces in advance of him, and completely barred his passage.

Don Torribio cocked a pistol.

"Holloa, caballero!" he cried in a sharp tone; "Move to the right or the left."

"Neither to one nor the other, Don Torribio de Quiroga. I want to speak to you."

"It is a singular demand at this time of night, and in such a place."

"I did not choose either time or place. Did you not receive a note without a signature today?"

"I did," said Don Torribio, striking his forehead; "and the note proposed—"

"To teach you things," hastily interrupted the stranger, "which it is important you should know at once."

"Those were the words contained in the note."

"It was I who sent it."

"Indeed?" said Don Torribio, surprised; "was it you?"

"Yes; and I am ready to satisfy you; but to do that, you must follow me."

"But what good will it do me to know these matters? Perhaps it would be better to leave them untold."

"As you please; I do not force you to listen to me. Everyone is free to act as he chooses. If you prefer to sit down under insult without avenging yourself, I have no objection."

These words were uttered with such a sneer, that Don Torribio could not help shuddering.

"Do you in truth offer me revenge?" he asked in a voice half stifled with the rage surging at his heart.

"You shall judge, if you will follow me."

"Demon!" cried Don Torribio, "Whoever thou may'st be, lead on, since it must be so! I will follow thee, even unto hell."

"Amen," said the stranger, with a sinister chuckle.

The two riders dashed into the darkness, and the sound of their furious pace was soon merged in profound silence.


CHAPTER V.

THE AMBUSH.


Don Fernando and his friend, as we have related, left the hacienda a little before Don Torribio. They had made all haste to reach their dwelling. The tertulia had ended at nine o'clock; and by eleven they were at the rancho.

Doņa Manuela was expecting them. In a few words they reported to her all that had happened at the tertulia, and hastened to their couches; for they were obliged to leave again at daybreak, if they wished to arrive in good time at San Lucar without over-fatigueing Doņa Manuela, who was to accompany them. In fact, according to agreement, they mounted their horses a little before four in the morning.

In Mexico, on account of the intense heat of the day, people generally travel by night; that is to say, from four in the morning till eleven, and from six in the evening till midnight. Nine o'clock struck as the three entered the presidio. Don Fernando left his friend and the mother to find their way to the house he possessed in San Lucar, which he had placed at their disposal, while he himself repaired to the governor's house, whither affairs of grave importance called him.

The worthy governor overwhelmed the visitor with civilities,—for the latter had, on more than one occasion, rendered him important service,—and seemed unable to show him sufficient courtesy But, in spite of the efforts of his host, Don Fernando perceived that Don José Kalbris was a prey to anxiety, which all his sense of the attentions due to his guest did not enable him wholly to conceal.

Don José Kalbris was a brave and worthy soldier, true as his own steel, to whom the Mexican government had given the charge of the presidio as a recompense for his valiant services during the War of Independence. For fifteen years the colonel had governed the presidio, and, thanks to a certain degree of severity tempered by justice, and to his undoubted courage, had managed to keep it in a state of comparative tranquillity, in spite of the evil passions of the vaqueros—a set of rascals, three or four of whom he was obliged to garrote annually, in order to overawe the rest—and the continual raids of the Indians, who pushed up under the guns of the fort in their attempts to carry off cattle and make prisoners, the latter being their favourite booty, especially women.

Don José, endowed with moderate intelligence, but rich in experience, and warmly supported by the better classes, who had entire confidence in him, had contrived to maintain peace in his province without much difficulty up to the time of which we are now speaking. This denoted a certain strength of character in the old soldier, who was without education, and had made his own career, particularly when one takes into consideration the difficulty of his receiving support from his government; so that he was thrown on his own resources, and obliged to take the initiative, and act on his own responsibility, in all cases where he thought fit to exercise the strong arm of the law.

In person the governor was a tall, stout man with a purple and bloated face, perfectly self-satisfied, fond of hearing himself talk, and who laid great stress on every syllable he uttered.

Don Fernando, well acquainted with the colonel's character, and holding him in great esteem, was astounded at the uneasiness he displayed, and the change from his usual placidity of manner. Fancying that want of money might be at the bottom of his embarrassment, he resolved to sound him, and come to his aid, if that were necessary.

"Holloa!" said the colonel, "What good wind blows you to the presidio so early, Don Fernando?"

"The wish to see you," replied the latter, pressing the hand the colonel extended.

"It is very kind of you. You will breakfast with me, of course?"

"I came to invite myself."

"That is right," said the colonel, striking a bell.

A domestic entered.

"This caballero will do me the honour to breakfast with me."

The servant, a well-trained soldier, disappeared.

"By the bye, Don Fernando, I have a heap of papers here addressed to you."

"Thank Heaven! I was afraid they had been delayed. I want them particularly, for certain reasons."

"So much the better, then," said the colonel, producing the papers, which Don Fernando put into his pocket.

"Breakfast is ready," said the same man who had appeared an instant before.

The governor and his guest proceeded to the breakfast room, where they found a third person waiting for them. This was a Major Barnum, an old Englishman, tall, dry, thin, and formal; as brave a soldier as ever existed; for twenty years in the service of the Mexican Republic; devoted heart and soul to the country of his adoption; and second in command in the presidio of San Lucar.

He and Don José had seen much service together, and were attached to each other like two brothers; resuscitating in this out of the way corner of the world the fables of Castor and Pollux Damon and Pythias, and all the other heroes of ancient friendship.

Don Fernando and Major Barnum were slightly acquainted with each other, and glad of the meeting; for the Englishman was an excellent fellow, and hid a warm and loyal heart under his rather cold manner.

After the usual greetings, all three placed themselves at table, and commenced a vigorous attack on the delicacies with which the board was abundantly supplied.

When the first keen relish of appetite had been appeased, the conversation became more lively, and at the close of the meal grew quite amicable and confidential.

"By the bye, what is the matter with you, Don José?" said Don Fernando. "There is something odd about you today, which I have never seen before."

"Right," said the governor, draining a glass of Jerez de la Frontera (sherry); "I feel sad."

"You sad! You astonish me. If I had not noticed your appetite at breakfast, I should think you were ill."

"Well," said the soldier, with a sigh, "my appetite is good."

"Then what is there to vex you?"

"I have a presentiment of evil," said the governor, seriously.

"A presentiment of evil!" echoed the major. "I know that at first sight it seems ridiculous for old soldiers like ourselves to attach importance to such folly, which is only, at the best, the result of a diseased imagination. Nevertheless, I too feel like the colonel: I am uneasy without knowing why; I expect every moment to receive evil tidings. In two words, I am firmly convinced some great danger is impending. I feel it, I know it, without being able to guess whence it is to come."

"Ah," said the governor, "the major has just described my own sensations. Long as my career as a soldier has been, I have never felt so anxious and oppressed as now. I have been in this state of excitement a whole week, and am astonished nothing has happened to justify my forebodings. Don Fernando, God does give warnings of danger to man."

"I do not deny the truth of what you propound. I know you too well to have the least intention to question your conviction. But still, how is it to be accounted for? You and Major Barnum are not men to be afraid of a shadow, or easily scared; you have proved that a thousand times. Has nothing occurred to confirm your presentiment?"

"Nothing as yet," replied the governor; "but I momentarily expect bad news."

"Come, come, Don José!" said Don Fernando gravely; "you are suffering from an attack of a malady very common in the major's country, where they call it 'the blue devils.' It is a kind of spleen, caused by the fogs in England. Listen to me: get yourself bled—do not spare the wine cup; and in a couple of days you will be the first to laugh at the trick your fancy has played you. Do you not think so, major?"

"I wish it were so," said that officer, shaking his head.

"Pooh!" said Don Fernando; "Life is short enough already. What is the use of creating bugbears to frighten ourselves? And besides, who is there to give you trouble?"

"ŋQuién sabe? We are never sure of anything on the frontiers."

"Nonsense! The Indians have grown as quiet as lambs."

Just then a servant opened the door, and beckoned to the governor.

"What do you want?" said the latter.

"Seņor," replied the servant, "a vaquero, just arrived in all haste, requests an audience. He is the bearer of important intelligence."

This announcement fell like a sheet of ice on the three caballeros, and thoroughly stopped the flow of their fictitious gaiety.

"Let him come in," said the colonel.

Then casting a look of inconceivable sadness on Don Fernando, he added:

"It is fate herself who undertakes to answer you!"

"We shall see!" replied Don Fernando with a forced smile.

Heavy footsteps were heard in the adjacent apartments, and the vaquero entered.

It was Pablito.

The man had indeed the look of one who brings bad news. He seemed to have just left the battlefield—to have escaped from a massacre. His clothes hung in rags, stained with mud and gore; his face, pale as death, had an expression of sadness very strange in such a man. It was with difficulty he held himself upright, so dreadfully jaded he seemed by the struggle he had had to reach the presidio. His spurs left a bloody mark on the floor at every step; and he was forced to support himself on his rifle.

The three men looked at him with mingled fear and pity.

"Here," said Don Fernando, pouring out a tumbler of wine; "drink this; it will restore you."

"No!" said Pablito, thrusting back the glass; "I thirst for blood, not wine!"

These words were uttered in such a tone of hatred and despair, that the listeners involuntarily turned pale, and shuddered with horror.

"What has happened?" said the colonel, in deep anxiety.

The vaquero wiped the cold sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, and said, in short, sharp accents, which struck terror into his hearers:

"The Indians are upon us!"

"Have you seen them?" asked the major.

"Yes," said he abruptly; "I have seen them."

"When was that—today?"

"This very morning, colonel."

"Far from hence?"

"About twenty leagues. They have already crossed the Rio del Norte."

"Already! How many are there? Do you know."

"Count the sand grains in the desert, and you will know."

"God!" said the colonel; "it is impossible. The Indians cannot assemble in such numbers in the course of a day. Your fears have deceived you."

"Fears!" said Pablito, laughing derisively. "Fear is very well for you who live in towns; in the wilderness we have no time to make her acquaintance."

"Well, then, how are they coming?"

"Like a tornado, burning and pillaging as they come."

"Is it their intention to attack the presidio?"

"They have formed an immense half moon, the two horns of which are nearing you every moment."

"Are they still a good way off?"

"Yes; for they are acting on a preconceived plan, establishing themselves firmly in places capable of defence, and apparently not governed by the sole instinct of pillage; but, as it would seem, obeying the directions of a chief who understands the art of war, and whose influence is felt in all their movements."

"This looks serious," said the governor.

The major shook his head.

"Why have you waited so long before you warned us?" said he.

"This morning, at daybreak, my comrades and I were surrounded by more than two hundred of these demons, who seemed to rise out of the ground. We defended ourselves like lions: one is dead; two of us are wounded, but we managed to escape; and here I am."

"Get back to your post as soon as possible; they shall give you a fresh horse."

"I will be off directly, colonel."

The vaquero saluted and left them. Five minutes later, they heard his horse's hoofs clattering over the stony road.

"Well," said the colonel, looking at the two others; "what did I tell you? Did my forebodings lie?"

Don Fernando rose.

"Where are you going?" asked the colonel.

"Back to the Hacienda del Cormillo."

"At once! Without finishing your breakfast?"

"This instant. I am torn by indescribable anxiety. The Indians may attack the hacienda; and God knows what may happen."

"El Cormillo is fortified, and cannot be taken by a coup-de-main. However, I think Doņa Hermosa would be safer here. Try, if there is time, to induce Don Pedro to return: no one can foresee the issue of an invasion undertaken on such a scale; and one cannot take too many precautions. I should be glad to see Don Pedro and his daughter safe among us."

"Thank you, colonel; your advice is excellent. I will use every effort to induce Don Pedro to follow it. Good-bye. I venture to flatter myself that an energetic demonstration on your part will rid us of these ferocious foes, whose tactics are always to attempt a surprise, and who disappear as suddenly as they came the moment they find their plans have been discovered."

"God grant it! But I scarcely hope as much." "Farewell, caballeros, and good luck!" said Don Fernando, pressing the hands of the two old soldiers.

Don Estevan was waiting for him in the court, and joined him as soon as he appeared.

"Well," said the mayor domo, "you have heard the news? The Indians are coming like the locusts."

"Yes; I have heard so."

"What do you intend to do?"

"To return to the hacienda at once."

"H'm! That would be scarcely prudent. You know how speedily these demons spread themselves over all the country; we should most likely meet some of them."

"Well! We will ride over their corpses."

"ĄCanarios! I dare say. But you may be killed."

"Pooh! Doņa Hermosa expects me; and I am not killed yet."

"True; but you may be."

"Well, we shall see."

"Probably so. However, as I foresaw the objections you would make, I have arranged everything to go. The horses are ready saddled, the peones in waiting: we will set off as soon as you choose."

"Thanks, Estevan; you are really a friend."

"I know it," said the latter, with a gay smile. Estevan Diaz whistled shrilly, and the peones entered the court, leading two horses by their bridles.

"Let us be off," said Don Fernando, springing into the saddle.

"Let us be off," repeated Don Estevan.

They gave the horses their heads, and began to push their way slowly through the crowd of idlers assembled before the gates of the fortress to learn the latest news, and trotted down the steep incline leading from the fort to the old presidio, replying, as well as they could, to the questions with which they were assailed on all sides. As soon as they had threaded the town, they increased their speed along the road to the Hacienda del Cormillo, without noticing the repeated signals of several more than suspicious-looking individuals, carefully wrapped in thick cloaks, who had followed them at a distance since they left the fort, talking eagerly the while to each other.

It was a stormy day. The sky was gray and lowering; the birds wheeled screaming around; and the wind, blowing in squalls, roared in the deep defiles of the road, filling the air with clouds of impalpable dust.

The two peones who had brought the news of the Indians' march upon the presidio rode twenty paces in advance, and scanned the country on each side of the road with startled looks, expecting every instant to see the redskins make their appearance, and to hear the dreaded war whoop. Don Fernando and Don Estevan rode side by side, without exchanging a syllable, each sufficiently occupied by his own thoughts.

In the meanwhile, the nearer the travellers got to the river, the more the storm increased in intensity. The rain fell in torrents, the lightning flashed incessantly, and the peals of thunder rolled majestically among the high cliffs, from which enormous crags were constantly detached, and hurled crashing into the river.

The storm had reached such a pitch of fury, that the riders had the greatest difficulty in making progress, and were in constant danger of falling with their horses, which were plunging wildly in their fright at the tempest. The ground, soaked with rain, afforded no foothold for the poor brutes: they slipped and stumbled at every step, snorted violently, and threatened to break down.

"It is impossible to get farther," said the mayor domo, picking up his horse from a plunge which had nearly unseated him.

"But what is to be done?" asked Don Fernando, looking about him with great anxiety.

"I think we had better take shelter under this clump of trees for a while: the storm grows worse and worse. It is folly to pursue our journey while it lasts."

"Let us go, if we must," said Don Fernando resignedly.

Accordingly they turned towards a small copse on one side of the road, which seemed to offer some little shelter from the intensity of the storm.

They were only a few paces from it, when four men, their faces covered with black masks, rushed out of the wood, and dashed at the travellers, whom they attacked without uttering a word. The peones fell from their saddles, knocked over by two shots from the masked strangers, and rolled on the ground in convulsive agony, uttering the most piteous cries.

Don Fernando and Don Estevan, astonished at this sudden attack by men who could not be Indians,—for they were dressed like vaqueros, and their hands were white,—instantly dismounted, and, placing themselves behind their horses, awaited their assailants' onset with cocked rifles.

The latter, after making sure of the death of the peones, turned their horses' heads to attack the two Spaniards. Shots were again exchanged, and a terrible combat began,—a dreadful struggle of two men against four—in which no word was spoken, and which was intended to end in the death of those who had been so treacherously set upon. However, the combat was sustained with a semblance of equality which discouraged the assailants, of whom one had already fallen, cut down to the teeth; while a second was retreating, with his chest pierced through by the good blade of Don Fernando.

"Aha! my masters," exclaimed the latter; "have you had enough, or do you wish to make further acquaintance with my blade? Fools that you are! You should have set at least ten to assassinate us."

"What!" added the mayor domo, "Are you already satisfied? You are not clever enough for highwaymen; the man who pays you might have made a better choice."

In fact, the two remaining men in masks had withdrawn a few paces, and held themselves on the defensive.

Suddenly four other masked men appeared, and all six rushed upon the Spaniards, who awaited them firmly.

"The devil! I wronged you by my suspicion," said Don Estevan. "I see you are up to your work;" and he discharged a pistol point-blank into the midst of his adversaries.

The latter, still without a word, answered his fire, and the struggle was renewed with fresh fury.

But the two brave Spaniards could not defend themselves much longer: they were exhausted with fatigue; and it was not long before they, in their turn, fell on the dead bodies of two more of their assailants, whom they had sacrificed to their fury before they fell.

When they saw Don Fernando and Don Estevan stretched on the ground, the strangers uttered a shout of triumph. Without troubling themselves about the mayor domo, they seized the body of Don Fernando, threw it over the neck of one of their horses, and rapidly vanished amongst the manifold complications of the road.

The tempest continued to rage with fury. A lugubrious silence reigned in the spot where this tragedy had been acted, and where seven corpses were now lying, round which the vultures and hideous zopilotes, uttering their hoarse cries, began to sail in narrowing circles.


CHAPTER VI.

SAN LUCAR.


When Don Fernando left them, the governor and the major remained perfectly mute a while, overcome by the gravity of the news they had just received. But a state of prostration so much at variance with the character of the two veterans, whose life had been spent in active service, could not last long. They soon recovered their animation, like two noble steeds who prick up their ears at the signal for the charge; their features resumed their usual expression of imperturbability; and, having exchanged a shake of the hand; they left the apartment.

"The shock has been a rude one, and I was far from expecting it," said the colonel; "but, Ąvive Dios! the pagans shall find out whom they have to deal with. Major, have the officers' call sounded we will hold a council of war, to concert measures of defence."

"That is right," replied the major; "just what you ought to do. I had rather see you thus—proud, resolute, and stern—than troubled and anxious, as you have looked these last few days. Caray! you are yourself again, now, my good friend."

"Well," said the governor, smiling, "you ought not to be astonished at the change, my dear Barnum. For some time past I have been sadly oppressed by vague forebodings, and the ill they threatened seemed the greater, because I could not divine what it might be. Now the stroke has fallen, I know what I have to do. I have not the least doubt that the danger which menaces us is immense, but we know what the result will be."

"Quite true," said the major, leaving him to obey the orders he had received from his chief.

The officers of the garrison were soon assembled around the governor; there were six of them, without counting the major and colonel. Don José Kalbris invited them to be seated, and then addressed them:

"Caballeros, you are aware why I have sent for you: the Indians threaten us once more. I have just got the information from one of our bravest scouts—in fact, the most faithful and intelligent of them all. It is a grave case, seņores; for the Indians have leagued themselves together, and are marching against us in great force. I have caused you to meet here, in order to organise a vigorous defence, and to endeavour to discover the means of giving these savages so sharp a lesson, that it will be a long time before they dream of invading our territories again. But, first of all, let us see what means are at our disposal."

"We have plenty of arms and ammunition," said the major. "We have two hundred thousand pounds of powder, abundance of muskets, sabres, lances, and pistols; and the guns are in good condition, and amply supplied with round shot and grape."

"A capital account," said the colonel, rubbing his hands for joy.

"Unfortunately," continued the major, "although we have plenty of arms, we have very few men fit for service."

"How many men have we?"

"The effective state should be two hundred and seventy; but, unluckily, disease, death, and desertion have reduced them to a hundred and twenty."

"The deuce!" said the colonel, shaking his head; "But I think we might manage to increase the number. We are in one of those critical positions where the end sanctifies the means: we must not be nice in our choice. Besides, the common safety is in question. I trust to meet with no opposition to the execution of a plan which I hope will save us all."

"What is it? We all go hand and hand with you."

"I know that very well. I do not allude to you, seņores, but to the inhabitants of the town, who will reject it, and with whom we shall be obliged to have recourse to forcible measures. It is of the last importance to make an imposing show of men on the walls. Now, this is what I propose: all the peones of the haciendas shall be enrolled, and formed into companies; the merchants shall form another corps; the haciendas, well mounted and armed, shall defend the approaches, and patrol the plain. By these means, we shall muster an effective force of about eleven hundred men,—a number quite sufficient to hold the savages in check, and force them to retreat precipitately to their villages."

"You must recollect, colonel, that the greater number of the vaqueros here are criminals, to whom any disturbance is a pretext for plunder."

"For that reason, I have appointed them the exterior defence of the place. They shall encamp outside the presidio, into which they shall not enter on any pretence. To lessen the chance of a mutiny amongst them, they shall be formed into two divisions—one of which shall be constantly employed in scouring the neighbourhood, while the other remains in camp. Thus, by keeping them always at work, we shall have nothing to fear from them."

"As for the creoles, and the strangers at present in the presidio," said the major, "I think you had better order them to assemble in the fort every night: we shall be able to use them in case of necessity."

"Very good. You will also double the number of scouts, the better to avoid a surprise. You will also have the entrances to the place barricaded, to check the tremendous charges the Indians make when they attack a position."

"Permit me to propose, colonel, that a man to be depended upon should be despatched to put the hacenderos on their guard, and warn them to take refuge in the fort at the signal of three guns, to announce the approach of the Indians."

"It shall be done, major; or these poor fellows would be all massacred by the pagans. The inhabitants of the town must also be warned to retire—the women into the fort—as soon as the Indians are visible, or they may be carried off. The savages are partial to white women, and in the last inroad carried off three hundred: such a piece of misfortune must not happen again. I think, seņores, we have taken every precaution against the threatened danger; we have now only to do our duty as brave men. Our fate is in the hands of God, who will surely not abandon us in circumstances of such great peril."

The officers rose, and were preparing to take leave of their chief, when another vaquero was announced as bringing reports to the governor.

Don José made signs to his officers to retain their seats, and ordered the scout to be introduced.

It was Tonillo el Zapote, Pablito's friend. He had left the place where they had hidden themselves to watch the movements of the Indians four hours after his comrade, and yet had arrived at the presidio only an hour later,—sure proof of the importance of the news he bore.

He looked as impudent and sneering as ever. His face was pale, and smeared with blood and powder; his dress was torn in many places; while the bandage round his head, one arm in a sling, and, more than all, three or four scalps which hung bleeding from his girdle, showed that he had had a hard tussle with the Indians, and been obliged to cut his way through them to reach the presidio.

"Zapote!" said the governor; "your comrade, Pablito, has just left me."

"I know, colonel," answered the vaquero.

"Have you brought us worse tidings than his?"

"That depends upon the light in which you look upon them, seņores."

"What do your words imply?"

"Oh!" was the reply, while the speaker swayed himself carelessly from side to side; "If you love your ease, it is very probable it would be troubled before long, and, in that case, the news I bring cannot be very pleasant to you; but if you are fond of mounting to meet the redskins, you can easily gratify your whim, and all I have to tell you will be very acceptable."

Notwithstanding the gravity of the situation and the anxiety they felt, the governor and his officers could not help smiling at the singular logic of the vaquero.

"Explain, Zapote," said Don José; "we shall then know what to think of your tidings."

"Hardly ten minutes after my comrade left me, I was rummaging in the bushes, which seemed to me to have an odd kind of motion, when I discovered a peon, whose terror was so great, that it took me a good half hour to get him to describe the dangers from which he had escaped. The fellow belonged to a poor old man called Ignacio Rayal, one of the two solitary individuals who escaped from the massacre of the inhabitants of the peninsula of San-José by the Apaches in the last invasion, twenty years ago. The peon and his master were looking for firewood, without dreaming of danger, when the Indians suddenly started up close by. The former had time to hide himself in a drain; but the old man, too feeble to save himself, fell into the hands of the savages, who butchered him with all the refinements of their horrid barbarity. His body was riddled with wounds, till his own mother would not have known him; he had received twenty lance thrusts; and his head was smashed to atoms with tomahawks. I left the peon to watch in our ambuscade, after I had restored his courage as well as I could, and, proceeding in the direction he pointed out, was not long in seeing a host of Indians driving before them a multitude of cattle and prisoners. These fellows put everything to sack and fire on their route; they were marching rapidly on the presidio, and detached parties at intervals to destroy the haciendas on their road. The haciendas of Piedra Rosa and San Blas are no longer standing; they are now a heap of ashes, under which their unfortunate owners lie buried. These are my tidings; make what you like out of them, seņores."

"And these scalps?" said the governor, pointing to the bloody trophies hanging at the vaquero's girdle.

"Oh! These are nothing," he replied, with a smile of triumph; "as I had got too near the Indians, in the hope of getting a better idea of their force and intentions, they saw me, and naturally wanted to lay hands on me; so we had a bit of a skirmish."

"I presume these Indians are a party of pillagers from the wilderness, who want to steal cattle, and will retire when they have collected enough booty."

"Hm!" said Tonillo, shaking his head; "I am not sure of that. There are too many of them; they are too well equipped. Colonel, these fellows have another object: unless I am greatly mistaken, they intend to wage war to the knife against us."

The governor exchanged looks with his officers.

"Thank you, Zapote," said he; "I am pleased with you. Your conduct has been that of a loyal Mexican. Return to your post, and be doubly vigilant."

"You may rely on my comrades and me, colonel. You know, we do not exactly love the Indians," said Tonillo, who saluted and left them.

"You see, seņores," said the governor, "that the situation grows more critical every minute. We will lose no more time in deliberation. You may go."

"One moment," said the major; "I have a piece of advice to give before we separate."

"Let us hear it, old friend."

"No precaution must be omitted in the perilous circumstances which surround us. We are here in an out-of-the-way place, far from any speedy and efficacious support. We may have to sustain a siege in the presidio, and run the risk of being starved out. I propose that a vessel be immediately despatched to the governor general of the state, to apprise him of our critical position, and to request reinforcements; for it is impossible, with our scanty forces, to hold out long against the invasion."

A profound and solemn silence followed this speech.

"What do you think of Major Barnum's advice?" said the colonel to his officers.

"We agree to it," said one of them, speaking in the name of the others; "and we think it ought to be put into execution without delay."

"I am of the same opinion," said Don José; "let it be so. Caballeros, you may retire."

And now they began to organise the defence with an energy inconceivable to those acquainted with the Spanish character, and the profound laziness which is one of its principal failings.

The terrible danger menacing them made all the inhabitants of the presidio responsible for each other; it seemed to give courage to those who had none, and redouble the ardour of the others.

Two hours later, troops of cattle were driven in and parked in the town, the streets barricaded, the guns supplied with ammunition, and the women and children shut up in the buildings within the fort.

A vessel had been despatched to the capital of the state, as had been agreed on in council; and a hundred and fifty resolute men intrenched themselves in the old presidio, the houses of which they loopholed, in order to make head against the Indians when they appeared.

The governor and Major Barnum seemed to multiply themselves; they were ubiquitous; encouraging the newly enlisted, helping the workmen, and speaking hope to all.

About three o'clock in the afternoon, a strong wind arose, bringing with it from the south-west volumes of thick smoke, obstructing the view of objects at a distance. It was caused by the conflagration throughout the country. The anxiety of the inhabitants increased tenfold, as the direction from which it came proved that it could only arise from the doings of the Indians.

The Indian tribes always have recourse to this measure when they intend to invade the territories of the whites; an excellent aid to their system of attack by surprise, for, by shrouding the country in smoke, they prevent the scouts discovering them from afar, and are more easily able to conceal their numbers and motions.

On the day in question, the Indians, unhappily for the Mexicans, succeeded better than their wont; for the wind drove the smoke across the open, and one could scarcely distinguish objects at ten paces off.

It must be allowed, that in a country so uniformly level as the prairies, which afford no points to mask a march, and where nothing is easier than to find out the enemy's whole strength, the stratagem employed by the Indians is as simple as it is ingenious.

The scouts came galloping in one after the other, to report to the governor the approach of the enemy, who, according to their calculations, would reach the presidio of San Lucar that same night.

The masses of Indians increased every moment. Their hordes covered the open; they marched with inconceivable rapidity, and seemed to concentrate all their forces on the luckless pueblo.

The governor ordered the three alarm-guns to be fired. Immediately one saw the poor rancheros (cottagers) of the plain trooping in crowds into the town, bringing with them their cattle and furniture, and shedding tears of rage and despair at the sight of their harvests blazing in all directions.

The poor men encamped as they best could in the squares of the pueblo; and after sending their women and children into the fort, all able to bear arms rushed to the barricades, resolved to make those pay dearly who had been the cause of their ruin.

Terror and consternation reigned throughout the town: nothing was heard but sighs and lamentation; and night came, to add horror to the situation by enveloping the earth in darkness.

Strong patrols paraded the streets incessantly; and at times hardy vaqueros, gliding like serpents through the obscurity, ventured two or three hundred paces from the walls, to assure themselves that no immediate danger threatened the presidio.

Things remained in this state till about two in the morning, when, in the midst of the mournful silence brooding over the town, a slight noise, scarcely perceptible at first, was heard. It grew louder every moment, and all of a sudden, as if by enchantment, and without any one being able to guess how they got there, the Apaches crowned the barricades of the presidio, brandishing flaming torches and uttering the war whoop.

For a moment the inhabitants thought the town was taken; but Major Barnum, who commanded at this post, was too old a soldier, and too accustomed to Indian warfare, to be deceived by their stratagem. At the moment the Apaches were about to cross the barricades, a well-sustained fire opened suddenly upon them, and drove them from the intrenchments much faster than they had scaled them.

The Mexicans charged with the bayonet: for one moment there was a frightful męlée, from the midst of which rose cries of agony, maledictions, and the sharp clang of steel crossing steel; then the whites regained their position; the Indians disappeared; the town, illumined for so short a time by the blaze of the torches, was again enveloped in darkness; and the silence, broken by the few minutes of onslaught, was once more complete.

This was the only attempt that night. The Indians were up to their work; having failed in their bold coup-de-main, they would, in all probability, convert the attack into a blockade, if they were determined to take the town; or they might retreat altogether, if their miscarriage had led them to despair of mastering it.

But at daybreak this latter illusion vanished; the Indians seemed to have no inclination to beat a retreat.

The country presented a most afflicting spectacle; everything was burnt down, and the disorder frightful. In one place a band of mounted Apaches were driving before them the horses and cattle they had stolen; in another, nearer the town, and facing towards it, a strong body of warriors, with poised lances, watched the movements of the inhabitants of the presidio, with the intention of repelling any sortie that might be attempted; behind them, women and children were chasing the cattle, which were lowing with anger at being forced to quit the pastures; here and there prisoners, men, women, and children, driven on by blows of the lance, lifted their hands in vain supplication, and painfully dragged themselves forward amidst their captors. Lastly, as far as the eye could see, long files of Indians were hastening up on every side, while others drove in the pickets, or built callis (huts); and the town was completely surrounded.

Then an unheard-of circumstance occurred—a circumstance which the most experienced soldiers in the fort had never witnessed in all their previous encounters with the Indians, viz. the order that ruled through all this disorder; that is to say, the manner in which the callis were grouped, the serried and disciplined march of the infantry, the precision of their movements; and, what particularly upset all the arrangements of the colonel and major, the drawing of a parallel about the place, and throwing up an earthwork with immense rapidity, so as to shelter the Apaches from the fire of the guns.

"ĄSangre de Dios!" exclaimed the colonel, with an angry stamp; "those wretches have a traitor among them; they have never made war in this fashion before."

"Hem!" said the major, pulling at his moustache; "We shall have to tilt against rude jousters."

"Yes," replied the colonel; "and if succour does not arrive from the city, I do not exactly see how this is to end."

"Badly, colonel. ĄCaray! I am afraid we shall lose our hides here. Look! There are more than three thousand of them, without counting those who are still coming and blackening the plain on all sides. But what is the meaning of this noise?" he added, as he turned in the direction whence the notes of a trumpet proceeded.

Four sachems, dressed in white, and preceded by an Indian bearing a white flag, had halted at half-gunshot from the first barricade at the old presidio.

"What can this mean?" said the colonel; "They seem to demand a parley. Do they think I am fool enough to fall into the snare? Major, a hatful of grape for that group of pagans! We'll teach them to take us for dolts!"

"I think you are wrong, colonel, and that it would be better to parley with them; in that way we shall learn their intentions."

"You may be right, my good friend; but who will be fool enough to risk his life among these lawless bandits?"

"I, if you will permit me," answered the major.

"You!" cried Don José, in astonishment.

"Yes; is it not our duty to suffer no means to escape us by which we may save the wretched people confided to our honour? I am only one man; my life is of little importance to the defence of the presidio, and the step I am about to take may save it."

The colonel stifled a sigh, pressed his old friend's hand affectionately, and exclaimed, in a voice half choked with the emotion he vainly endeavoured to suppress:

"Go, since you insist upon it."

"Thanks," said the major joyfully. And he turned with a firm step in the direction of the barricade.


CHAPTER VII.

THE ATTACK ON THE PRESIDIO.


Major Barnum was unarmed; he was offering up his life, and would not take his sword, that he might have no pretext for defending himself should a conflict ensue, as would probably be the case.

When he had got within earshot, he halted. As in his former campaign he had often had occasion to confer with the Apaches, he had learnt enough of their language to need no interpreter.

"What do you require, chiefs? Have you crossed the Rio Grande del Norte, and invaded our frontiers, in breach of the peace existing between us?"

He said this in a loud voice, and saluting them with his hat, which he immediately replaced after this act of courtesy.

"Are you the man whom the palefaces call Don José Kalbris?" asked one of the chiefs; "The man to whom they give the title of governor?"

"No; according to our laws, the governor may not quit his post. I am Major Barnum, second in command, deputed to represent him; so you may report to me what brings you hither."

The chiefs conferred together for an instant; then, planting their long lances in the sand, they dashed forward on their horses till beside the major.

The latter, who had never taken his eyes off them, had divined their purpose, but remained motionless, and testified no surprise at seeing them at his side.

The Indians, who had intended by the suddenness of their action to throw off his guard and perhaps intimidate the major, were secretly annoyed at his coolness, which they could not help admiring.

"My father is brave," said the one who was spokesman.

"At my age," replied the veteran, "one does not fear death; one often looks upon it as a blessing."

"My father bears on his head the snows of many winters; he must be one of the wisest chiefs of his nation. The young men listen to him with respect around the council fire."

The major bowed modestly.

"Do not talk of me," he said; "we have met to discuss graver matters. Why have you demanded this interview?"

"Will not my father lead us to the council fire of his nation?" said the warrior in insinuating tones. "Is it proper for great sachems, renowned warriors, to treat of important affairs on horseback, between two armies ready to come to blows?"

"I understand your meaning, chief; but cannot comply with your desires. When a town is invested, no leader of the enemy can be admitted as flag of truce."

"Does my father fear that we four should take the town?" said the Apache, laughing, but secretly vexed at the abortion of his plan to communicate with the friends he undoubtedly had in the place.

"It is not my custom to fear anything," replied the major; "I tell you a fact of which you were ignorant, that is all. And now, if you wish to use this pretext to break off the interview, you can do so; I have nothing more to do than to go back."

"Oho! My father is hasty for his age. Why break off the interview, when we have not even mentioned the object of it?"

"Speak then, and tell me what brings you here."

The sachems looked at each other, and exchanged a few words in a whisper. Then the chief took up the word:

"My father has seen the great army of the Apaches, and the nations their allies?"

"I have," replied the major carelessly.

"And has my father, who is a learned paleface, counted the warriors who compose it?"

"Yes, as far as it was possible."

"Ah! And how many are there, according to my father's counting?"

"Upon my word, chief," replied the major, with an unconcern that was admirably counterfeited, "I must confess that, as for us, we do not care how many of them there are."

"But still," persisted the Indian, "at how many does my father count them?"

"How can I know? Eight or ten thousand I dare say."

The chiefs were astounded at the indifference the major displayed for numbers thrice their force; and the Apache warrior replied:

"And my father is not frightened at the number of warriors united under one chief?"

The wonder of the sachems had not escaped the major.

"Why should I be frightened? Has not my nation conquered greater numbers?"

"It is possible," said the chief, biting his lips; "but this time you will not conquer."

"Who can tell? Is that what you came to parley about, chief? If so, you might have spared yourself the trouble."

"No; it is not that. Let my father be patient."

"Speak, then, and have done with it. One never knows how to get on with all your Indian circumlocutions."

"The army of the great nations is camped before the presidio to obtain satisfaction for all the wrongs the palefaces have done the Indians, since they first set foot on the red man's territory."

"What are you talking about? Explain yourself clearly; and, first of all, what is your pretext for thus invading our frontiers, without previously declaring war? Have we broken the treaties we made with you? Have we not always been generous to the Indians who claimed our protection? Answer!"

"Why does my father pretend to be ignorant of our just reasons for war with the palefaces?" replied the Apache, feigning to be discontented with the major's speech. "My father knows that we have for centuries been at war with the Long Knives,[1] who dwell on the other side of the mountains. Why has my father's nation, which assumes to be at peace with us, made treaties with them?"

"Chief, you are only seeking a quarrel; but that does not signify. I would rather you had told me frankly that your wish was to pillage and steal our horses and cattle, than give me a reason without common sense. We should be at war with the Comanches, if you really meant what you say. Therefore, chief, mock me no more, but proceed to facts. What is it you demand?"

The chief burst out laughing.

"My father is cunning," he said. "Listen; thus say the chiefs: 'This land belongs to us: we will have it.' The white ancestors of my father had no right to establish themselves in it."

"That pretext is, at all events, specious; for my ancestors bought this land from one of your sachems."

"The chiefs in assembly round, the tree of the Master of life have determined to return to the great white chief, without reserve, all the articles formerly given to the sachem in exchange for the land, and to resume the country belonging to them, in which they will no longer have the palefaces."

"Is that all you were deputed to tell me?"

"It is all," said the chief, bending his head.

"And how much time," answered the major, "do the chiefs allow the governor of the presidio to discuss these proposals?"

"Two hours."

"Very well," said the major coolly. "And if the governor refuses, what will my brothers do?"

"The sachems," replied the Apache, emphatically, "have determined to resume the ownership of their territory. If the palefaces refuse to restore it, their village shall be burnt, their warriors put to death, their wives and children carried away as slaves."

"Ah!" said the major; "Before you obtain that result, all the whites in the presidio will have been killed in its defence. But it is not for me to discuss the matter with you. I will carry your demands to the governor, precisely as you have made them; and tomorrow, at sunrise, you shall have your answer. Hostilities must be suspended until then."

"No; it is for you to stop them. We cannot stay here inactive; so be on your guard."

"Thanks for your frankness, chief," replied the major. "I am happy at meeting an Indian who is not altogether a rascal. Good-bye, till tomorrow."

"Farewell," said the chiefs courteously.

All were struck with admiration at the coolness of the veteran.

The major retired as slowly as he had come, without manifesting apprehension.

The colonel awaited him at the barricade with the greatest anxiety. The long interview had filled him with uneasiness. He had prepared himself to avenge any insult that might be offered to his envoy. When the major reached the barricade, he hastened to join him.

"Well?" said he impatiently.

"They are only seeking to gain time, in order to execute one of their devilries."

"What is the sum of their demands?"

"Their pretensions are absurd, and they know it; for they sneered when they laid them before me. They pretend that the sachem who ceded the territory to the Spaniards, two hundred years ago, had no right to sell it. They demand that we should surrender it to them in twenty-four hours; if not—then follow the usual threats. Ah!" said the major, with an ironical smile, "I forgot to tell you, colonel, that they pretend to be ready to restore everything the sachem received for the land he sold. That is all I am commissioned to report."

The colonel shrugged his shoulders in disdain.

"The demons are mad," said he, "or else they are trying to lull us into security, so as to surprise us the more easily."

"What do you think of doing?" asked the major.

"Redouble my vigilance, my good friend; for I have no doubt we shall soon come to blows with them again. I am specially uneasy about the old presidio."

"You go back to the fort; I will take the command of the advanced post. It is most important, in case of a check, that our communication should not be cut off, and that we may be able to retreat into the place without too great loss."

"I will leave you at liberty to act, my dear major; I am sure you will do your best."

The two veterans separated, after shaking hands warmly. The colonel returned to the fort, while the major actively bestirred himself to put the post confided to him in safety against a surprise.

The garrison of the old presidio consisted chiefly of vaqueros and leperos,—people, we confess, on whose fidelity the major could only moderately rely. But the stout old soldier locked the apprehensions that tormented him up in his heart, and feigned entire confidence in these fellows, whom he more than suspected.

The day passed over quietly enough. The Apaches, buried like moles behind their intrenchments, seemed determined not to quit them. The sentinels watched vigilantly at the barriers and barricades which closed the suburb. The major, reassured by this apparent tranquillity, hoped that the Indians would not assume the offensive before the term proposed for the receipt of the governor's answer; and, overwhelmed with fatigue from the numerous operations he had been obliged to superintend in providing for the defence in its minutest details, he retired to a house close to the barricade, to snatch a few minutes of necessary repose.

Certain of our old acquaintances were amongst the defenders of the suburb: Pablito, El Verado, Tonillo, and Carlocho. The worthy vaqueros, since the appearance of the Indians, had given such undeniable proofs of fidelity, that the major, at their request, and as a reward for their good conduct, had confided to them the most advanced barricade, which was, in fact, the key of the suburb.

A few minutes after sunset, these four men were together at the foot of the barricade, and talking in whispers. A dozen more rascals of their own stamp, grouped a few paces off were evidently awaiting the result of their mysterious council.

At last they rose, and their colloquy terminated.

"Well, then," said Carlocho, by way of wind-up, "it is settled for ten o'clock?"

"For ten o'clock," peremptorily replied El Zapote; "a man can only stick to his word. We have been nobly paid, and must fulfil our promise, especially as we have received half the amount."

"True," said the others, thoroughly convinced; "the loss would be too great."

"I should think so!" exclaimed El Zapote; "Only think, queridos (my boys); five-and-twenty ounces a piece!"

The bandits grinned like hyenas which scent a corpse, and their eyes glistened with greed.

The major, lying half upright on a butaca, slept the restless sleep of a man whose mind is preoccupied by affairs of great moment; when all of a sudden he felt himself rudely shaken, and a voice, half unintelligible from emotion, shouted into his ears:

"Rise, major, rise! We are betrayed! The vaqueros have given up the barricade to the Apaches, and the Indians are in the place."

The officer bounded to his feet, seized his sword, and rushed out of doors without answering, followed by the man—a Mexican soldier—who had so rudely awakened him.

At a single glance, the major recognised the truth of the disastrous news reported to him. El Zapote and his comrades had not only surrendered the barrier to the Apaches, but had even joined them, followed by the few wretches we mentioned above.

The situation was very critical. The Mexicans, disheartened by the shameful defection of the vaqueros, fought without energy or order, dreading further treachery, and on that account not daring to make good head against the enemy.

The Apaches and the vaqueros howled like demons, and charged furiously on the demoralised defenders of the presidio, whom they slaughtered pitilessly.

It was a horrid spectacle to witness, this homicidal strife, illumined by the lurid reflection of the houses fired by the Indians to light up their victory. The war whoop of the Apaches mingled with the cries of agony of the Mexicans they were massacring and the awful roaring of the flames, fanned by the frequent squalls.

The major threw himself resolutely into the thickest of the fight, calling the garrison around him, and exciting them by voice and gesture, to a desperate resistance.

The appearance of the commandant of the presidio produced an electrical effect on the Mexicans. Animated by his example, they formed around him, and replied by a well-directed fire to the attacks of their ferocious foes.

The vaqueros, brought to a stand by the point of the bayonet, ignominiously fled, pursued by a shower of balls.

Thanks to the energetic action of the major, the fight was fairly renewed; but Barnum was a soldier of too much experience to allow himself to be deceived by a factitious success. He felt that any attempt to hold the suburb would be madness; he therefore only thought how to make good his retreat in the best possible order, and to bring off the women and children.

Calling his boldest and most resolute men about him, he formed them into a body to hold the Indians in check, while the non-combatants embarked and crossed the river. The Apaches perceived big project, and doubled their efforts to hinder its execution.

The męlée grew still more frightful. A desperate hand-to-hand combat ensued between whites and redskins; the former fighting for the safety of their families, the latter in the hope of an immense booty.

But the Mexicans, encouraged by the heroic devotion of their commander, only retreated step by step, resisting with the energy of that despair which performs prodigies, and in desperate circumstances trebles the strength of man.

This handful of brave men, scarcely numbering a hundred and fifty, kept in check for three hours, and without allowing themselves to be broken, nearly two thousand Indians, falling one after the other at their allotted posts, in order to save their wives and children.

At last the final boats full of wounded and non-combatants quitted the suburb; the Mexicans uttered a shout of joy, charged the Apaches once more, and, under the orders of the major,—who, like an old wounded lion, seemed to abandon the fight with regret,—commenced their retreat, continually harassed by the Apaches.

They soon reached the river. Here the savages were constrained to fall back in their turn, being decimated by the showers of grape poured upon their dense ranks by the guns of the fortress.

This successful diversion permitted the scanty survivors of the heroic Mexican phalanx to enter the boats, and retire without further molestation, carrying with them two or three prisoners they had contrived to secure. The fight was at an end, after having lasted five hours. The Apaches had only conquered through the treachery of the vaqueros.

The colonel received his friend at the landing place, and congratulated him on his admirable defence, which, in his eyes, was as good as a victory, on account of the enormous losses it had caused the enemy.

Then, without losing time, the two officers took measures to complete the defence of the place, by ordering the construction of strong intrenchments on the bank of the river, and the erection of two flanking batteries, of six guns each.

The capture of the old presidio by the Indians, through the treachery of the vaqueros, was an immense loss to the Mexicans, whose communications with the numerous haciendas on that bank were cut off. Luckily, the colonel, foreseeing a result almost inevitable from the want of troops at his disposal, had withdrawn the whole of the population of the suburb into San Lucar. The houses had been gutted, horses and cattle carried off, and the boats moored under the batteries of the fort, where they were in safety—at least for the present.

It is true the Indians were masters of the suburb; but the success had cost them greater losses than the possession of it was worth. After all, the Mexicans had only lost an insignificant piece of ground, scarcely worth defence; for the old presidio was not the key of the place, of which it was only a questionable dependency, and from which it was separated by the breadth of the river.

Thus the effect of the battle on the two camps was exactly the reverse of what the reader might suppose.

The Mexicans almost congratulated themselves on the loss of a position nearly useless to them in the present state of affairs, and the defence of which could only cost them many valuable lives; while the Apaches asked each other sadly what good the conquest of the suburb had done them, in return for the loss of more than five hundred of their bravest warriors who had fallen.

Two vaqueros, who had been thrown from their horses, had been taken prisoners by the Mexicans during their retreat.

The colonel ordered a court martial to assemble, commanded two high gibbets to be erected a little in advance of the new intrenchments along the river, and had them hung in the sight of the whole population, and of their companions, who had clustered together on the opposite bank of the river, and uttered shouts of impotent rage at seeing them executed.

Don José Kalbris was not naturally cruel; but in this case he justly thought he ought to make an example, in order to intimidate such as might have the inclination to imitate them. A bando (an edict), fixed to the foot of each gibbet, announced that the same fate awaited every revolted vaquero who fell into the hands of the Mexicans.

While this was doing, evening closed in; and the Indians, to annoy the whites, amused themselves by setting fire to the suburb they had taken the night before. The immense volume of flame produced by the conflagration threw fantastic shadows over the camp of the Apaches and the town of San Lucar, whose miserable inhabitants, plunged in the stupor of grief, knew they had no mercy to expect from foes like these.

The colonel seemed made of iron: he did not take a moment's rest, but visited the posts continually, and sought by every means to strengthen the defences of the town.

He and the major had just entered the fort, after making a final round. The night had passed, and the Indians had retreated to their camp, after making a futile attempt to surprise the presidio.

"Well, major," said the colonel, "you see how it is; there is no use in our trying to blind each other. It is only a question of time for us; whether we shall be taken tomorrow or in a week, no one can say: but everyone can see what the result must be."

"Hm!" said the major; "When the last moment has come, we shall always have the resource of shutting ourselves up in the fort, and blowing it and ourselves to the devil."

"Unluckily, we have not even that resource."

"How so?"

"Why, we old soldiers might blow ourselves up easily and ought to do it; but we cannot condemn the women and children shut up with us to such a cruel fate."

"True; but I have it! Although we cannot blow ourselves up, I can always blow out my brains."

"You have not even that consolation, my good friend. Is it not our duty to set an example to the poor people cooped up here, and protect them while we can? Is it not our duty to be in the breach to the last?"

The major made no reply to this argument, which he inwardly acknowledged to be unanswerable.

"But," said he, after a pause, "how is it we have received no news from the capital of the state?"

"Ah, my friend! Out there they have probably other things than us to think of."

"I will not believe it."

At this moment a servant opened the door, and announced:

"Don Torribio Quiroga!"

The two men shuddered, without being able to account for their emotion.

Don Torribio entered. He wore the magnificent uniform of a colonel in the Mexican service, and on his left arm the ribbons of an aide-de-camp. He bowed respectfully to the two officers.

"Is that you, Don Torribio?" said the colonel.

"I suppose it is," said the former smiling.

"When I last saw you, you were about to undertake a long journey."

"From which I have just returned."

"But the uniform you wear?"

"Good heavens, caballeros! I was tired of being treated in the provinces as a nobody, a kind of useless ninny. I threw off everything of that sort, and have become a man of the world like others."

"Then you are—?" asked Don José.

"An officer like yourself, colonel,—of the same rank; and moreover, aide-de-camp to the governor of the state."

"It is wonderful!" said the colonel.

"Why so? Nothing could be more simple."

The major had taken no part in this conversation. When Don Torribio entered, a strange suspicion had seized him.

"I confess," said the colonel, "that I was a thousand miles from thinking—"

"What, pray? That I should turn officer? You see, you were wrong; and so much the more so, since I have been deputed by the general commanding the province to bring you a message, which I am sure will be of great service to you in the present conjuncture."

He drew forth a large folded paper, sealed with the Mexican arms, and presented it to the colonel.

Don José hastened to take it.

"With your permission," said he, and hurriedly broke the seal, and read the missive.

"Aha!" he exclaimed; "Four hundred and fifty men! I did not expect so strong a reinforcement."

"The general feels greatly concerned for the presidio," said Don Torribio; "he will spare no sacrifice to retain it."

"ĄVive Dios! caballero, with such help I care as much for the Indians as for a bundle of straw."

"It seems to me that they will not arrive a whit too soon," said Don Torribio, with a sneer.

"ĄCanarios! It is just in time; but now we shall have some fun."

"I hope so," said the other, while an indescribable smile curled his lips.

"And your men?" asked the governor.

"Will be here in an hour, at the latest."

"To what corps do they belong?"

"To none in particular; they are guerilleros" (irregular troops).

"Hm!" said the colonel, showing a little disappointment; "I should have preferred other troops. But never mind; if you like, we will go out to meet them."

"I am at your orders, colonel."

"Shall I go with you?" asked the major.

"Nothing could be better," said Don Torribio hastily.

The colonel hesitated a moment.

"No," said he, at last; "remain here. One cannot tell what may happen, and somebody must be here to act for me in my absence. Come, Don Torribio."

With a sigh of satisfaction, the major threw himself back again on the sofa from which he had risen.

The two men went out. Just as they were mounting, they encountered a horseman, who came up at full speed.

"Estevan Diaz!" muttered Don Torribio to himself; "Please Heaven he has not recognized me."

[1] The inhabitants of the United States.

CHAPTER VIII.

DISGRACE.


As we have already said, Don Torribio had rapidly quitted the Hacienda del Cormillo in company with the mysterious stranger whom he had met in such an extraordinary manner.

Their journey was not long. At the close of a quarter of an hour, the stranger pulled up his horse, saying, in a sharp tone:

"It is useless to take you farther before I know what I have to expect from you."

Don Torribio had halted at the same time as the unknown.

"I think you are making a mistake, caballero," said he dryly.

"In what way, if you please, seņor?" said the other in a sneering tone.

"I am going to put you in possession of a few facts, which will put us on a level with each other."

"Let us hear them, caballero; I am all attention."

"In the first place," said Don Torribio firmly, "before we go any farther, let me give you a piece of advice."

"Advice is always useful: if yours is good, I shall profit by it; of that be certain."

"You will be right. I am unaware whether you know me, but be sure of this: I am not easily frightened; and if, for some unknown reason, you have led me into an ambush, I warn you that, at the first suspicious movement you make, I will blow your brains out; for I neither know you, nor what your intentions are."

"Good! You are a man after my own heart, I see clearly we shall come to an understanding."

"Perhaps so. But as it is not I who have come to seek you out,—as I have not claimed your aid in any way,—I demand, in the first place, that you give me a clear explanation, without prevarication or circumlocution."

The stranger shrugged his shoulders.

"Is it not enough for you to know that I am in a position to serve you effectually in the plans of vengeance you meditate?"

"I neither understand what you say, nor to what you allude," said Don Torribio haughtily.

"Aha!" said the other, laughing grimly; "Is that the way you answer me?"

"Why should I give you a different answer? What right have you to my confidence? On what plea, supposing I have a secret, do you pretend to search into it?"

"Because your enemy is mine also; because, in avenging you, I avenge myself. Do you understand me now?"

"No more than I did before. If you have nothing else to say, we had better break off our conference and part."

The stranger made a gesture of impatience: he had not expected to meet with so much inflexibility.

"One word more, Don Torribio Quiroga. The man whom you hate, whose death you have already plotted, is called Don Fernando Carril. That man who for a long time has crossed your path at every turn, counteracting your plans and ruining your hopes, has overthrown you in all your reencounters; your very life belongs to him; he has taken all, even to the heart of her you love. Is not this true? Will you trust me now?"

Don Torribio had listened with mingled pain and anger to the revelations of the singular being who had accosted him.

"Yes," said he, clenching his hand with rage, "yes, you are well informed. I care not whether you have gleaned your knowledge from heaven or hell; it is accurate. This man is my evil genius, always and forever crossing my path, and overthrowing, as if in wantonness, my most cherished aspirations. I would sacrifice my whole fortune to avenge myself on him—to hold him, panting and despairing, in my power."

"I thought we should end by coming to an understanding."

"Do not mock me, seņor; my soul is deeply troubled. I could have forgiven this man his insolent good luck, his success in the world, where he thrives at my expense, the heaps of gold he wins with such proud indifference,—I say, I could have forgiven him all this, if he had not destroyed my sweetest hopes in tearing from me the heart of her I love; for although I have no tangible proof to corroborate my suspicions, I have tonight acquired a moral certainty impossible to controvert. A lover's heart does not deceive him; jealousy is sharp-sighted. On the appearance of Don Fernando at Don Pedro de Luna's, I found in him a rival, and a rival who is preferred to me."

"If you choose, I will rid you of Don Fernando, and deliver Doņa Hermosa into your hands."

"You will do that?" cried Don Torribio, beside himself with joy.

"I will do it," briefly responded the stranger. "Before two days are over, you shall have your revenge on both. But it all depends upon your own will."

"Ah! If that is all," said the other, with an indescribable expression of rage, "I will do all you ask, I will agree to all your demands, to the utmost of my power."

"Take heed, Don Torribio; we are about to enter into a compact—a compact, the conditions of which you must fulfil at all hazards."

"Whatever they may be, I will fulfil them, if you secure my twofold revenge."

"Good! Swear to me, by all you hold most sacred in this world, that, whatever may happen, whatever determination you may arrive at hereafter, you will never divulge what is going to pass between us."

"I swear to you, a fe de caballero," (on the honour of a gentleman), "seņor. Speak with all confidence."

"Just now you asked me who I am: I am the Tigercat!"

Don Torribio shuddered involuntarily on hearing this redoubtable name, but recovered himself immediately.

"Very good," said he; "the name you reveal is a guarantee of success to my vengeance."

"Yes," said the bandit, chuckling, "I dare say it is; my reputation has been established a long time on the frontiers. In the meantime, this is what I exact of you. Ponder well what you are about to hear—reflect seriously on what I am going to propose—before you answer; for, I repeat once more, I will compel you to act up to the conditions when once you have accepted them."

"Speak," he replied impatiently; "have I not told you I am longing for revenge?"

"Hear me, then, and remember your oath. I am at this moment preparing an expedition against San Lucar, of which I intend to gain possession at any price. For certain reasons, which need not be mentioned, I have assembled several tribes of the Apaches and a considerable number of vaqueros, who are concealed not far from hence, and only await my signal to fall, like tigers thirsting for blood, upon the pueblo, as it is gorged with wealth. An active and intelligent ally, upon whom I counted to execute this bold coup-de-main, has deserted me at the last moment. You alone can replace him: will you do so?"

"What is this?" exclaimed Don Torribio, shuddering; "It is treason you propose!"

"No," replied the other, in a deep voice, "it is revenge!—consummate vengeance, by which I shall confound your enemies, and those who have applauded their success, while they laughed in scorn at each of your disasters."

"What! I, Don Torribio Quiroga, belonging to one of the oldest families in the country; I am to associate—"

He hesitated and paused. The Tigercat laughed with disdain.

"With bandits and redskins, you would say, and wage war on your own countrymen. Why hesitate to pronounce the words? As for me, those qualifications have no value. I offer you revenge on your countrymen, who have become your enemies in siding with your adversary. You are about to engage in a duel. In a duel, all feints to kill your opponent are lawful. But these are my conditions, and I will not alter them a tittle. I will give you twenty-four hours for consideration."

A long silence ensued between the two men.

The night was dark; the wind howled mournfully through the branches of the trees; nameless noises passed them by, borne on the wings of the breeze.

At last Don Torribio answered in husky tones:

"You have given me twenty-four hours; I demand forty-eight to come to my determination. I will make one more attempt with her I love. You see, I am frank with you. The line of conduct I adopt will depend upon the result of the experiment."

"Be it so," said the Tigercat; "it is better thus. Your cooperation will be more efficacious, and your will firmer, when your last allusion has been torn from you. Go, then! For my part, I shall not be idle."

"Thanks! In case I want to communicate to you my resolve, where shall I find you?"

"I will await you at the Barranca del Fraile" (the Friar's inn).

"Agreed! God grant," he added, with a sigh, "that fate may not force me to be there!"

The Tigercat laughed aloud; and, without replying, spurred his horse, and disappeared in the darkness.

We have already related how the old freebooter acted to keep his promise to Don Torribio.

The desertion among the Apaches, brought about by the influence of the amantzin, on the night when the Tigercat left them to repair to the rendezvous arranged with Stoneheart, had not been as successful as the sorcerer had hoped. The sudden return of the old chief sufficed to restore his authority among the Apaches, who had long been accustomed to obey him, and whose raids against the frontier had always been productive of booty when he commanded them.

The Tigercat had not even taken the trouble to punish the amantzin himself—the Zopilote had taken care of that; and the summary execution had produced an excellent effect upon those rugged and savage minds, which brute force alone can tame.

Nevertheless, he had no wish to damp the renewed devotion shown him by the redskins; and, although his final dispositions were not yet made, and the defection of Stoneheart was a serious hindrance to his plans, he comprehended the necessity of hurrying on his expedition, even at the risk of seeing it fail, calculating on turning to his own profit the hatred of Don Torribio, whose high standing in the province might be very useful to him. He assembled all the Indians able to bear arms of whom he could dispose, crossed the Rio Grande del Norte; and these vultures fell like a devastating hurricane on the luckless Indian frontier,—burning, pillaging, slaughtering, and passing like a horrible plague over those magnificent plains which they left behind them a desert.

Don Torribio Quiroga was one of the first to learn the tidings of the Indian invasion. The news gave him an indescribable feeling of mingled joy and regret. He guessed that the Tigercat wished to give him a proof of the sincerity of his intentions towards him, and of the manner in which he meant to keep the promise he had given.

Up to that time a prey to a thousand conflicting feelings, he now resolved to settle his doubts at once, and to learn positively what he had to hope or fear from Doņa Hermosa and her father. Towards nine o'clock in the morning, he called for his horse, and, in spite of the danger he would certainly incur in the short space between the presidio and the hacienda, he managed to leave San Lucar, on which the Indians were rapidly moving, and rode at full speed towards El Cormillo.

About half way to the hacienda his horse started at several dead bodies lying across the road, riddled with wounds; but he was too preoccupied by his own thoughts to pay much attention to the ominous reencounter. As he rode past, he cast a careless look at the corpses, and continued his road without further thought of the incident.

Either designedly, or because they knew the futility of an attack on the hacienda, the Apaches had deviated from their furious course, so as not to approach it. When Don Torribio arrived, he found it in a perfect state of defence: the gates shut and barricaded with care, the windows blocked and loopholed; and he saw the bayonets of the numerous garrison gleaming above the walls in the sunshine.

The sentries placed at the principal entrance gave admittance to Don Torribio, but not before they had questioned and recognised him. A peon received and conducted him to the drawing room. He found three persons there: Don Pedro de Luna, Ņa Manuela, and Don Estevan Diaz, who, pale and bloody, was lying upon a sofa, apparently asleep. His mother, seated beside him, watched his slumbers with that tender solicitude which belongs to mothers only. Don Torribio took a few hesitating steps forward, and stopped in surprise when he perceived that no one seemed to notice his presence. At last Don Pedro raised his eyes, and looking at him coldly, said, "Oh! Is it you, cousin? How does it happen that you are here today?"

"Had I no other motive," replied Don Torribio, troubled by a reception he had not anticipated, and foreseeing a storm, "the lively interest I take in your family would have made it my duty to be here now."

"I thank you, cousin," said Don Pedro still more coldly, "for the proof of sympathy you are kind enough to give us. But you might have remembered that El Cormillo is in a perfect state of defence, and that we run no danger behind these walls, before you exposed yourself to be assassinated on the road, as has nearly happened to our poor Don Estevan."

"Has he been set upon?" asked Don Torribio.

"Yes," dryly replied the hacendero; "he and another person, who, less lucky than Estevan, is most likely dead. Did you not know it?"

"I!" Exclaimed Don Torribio, with an accent of truth there was no mistaking; "How should I know?"

"Excuse me, cousin; I am so troubled at what has occurred, that I hardly know what I am saying."

Don Torribio bowed, and then replied:

"May I not have the pleasure of offering my homage to my charming cousin?"

"You must excuse her; she has retired to her room. The poor child is so distracted by the late extraordinary events, that she is unable to see any one—not even you."

"I am the more grieved at this indisposition, as I wished to have some conversation with her on a matter of moment."

"So much the worse, cousin; so much the worse. The time is ill chosen to speak of business, as you must allow, when the Indians are at our gates, devastating our fields and burning our dwellings."

"True, cousin; I acknowledge the justice of your remark. Unfortunately, I find myself placed by chance in such extraordinary circumstances, that if I might persist—"

"It would be useless, my dear Don Torribio," said Don Pedro, interrupting him, and exhibiting a certain degree of stiffness. "I have the honour to tell you that my daughter cannot have the pleasure of seeing you today."

"Then pray, cousin, excuse my inopportune intrusion. Perhaps I shall be more lucky another day."

"That is it; some other day, when we have got rid of these cursed pagans, and have no longer a horrible death in perspective."

"And now," said Don Torribio, with ill-suppressed rage, "as I perceive that, owing to your abstraction doubtless, you have not even offered me a seat, cousin, I have no more to do than offer my good wishes for your safety, and take my leave of you."

The hacendero did not seem to observe the tone of ill humour in which these words were uttered.

"Good-bye, then, Don Torribio," said he, "and a lucky journey. Above all things, be prudent, and do not travel with your eyes shut. The roads are infested by brigands, and I should be in despair if you met with mishap."

"I thank you for your advice, and will follow it," he replied, turning to leave the room.

Just at this moment Don Estevan—who, as we have said, appeared to be sleeping—opened his eyes, and perceived Don Torribio. His look brightened.

"Mother," said he in a feeble voice, "and you, Don Pedro, do me the favour to leave me alone with this caballero for a short time. I have a few words to say to him in private."

"To me, seņor?" asked Don Torribio, in a tone so haughty it sounded like disdain.

"To yourself, Seņor Don Torribio Quiroga," replied the wounded man, whose voice grew stronger under the excitement of his feelings.

"You are very weak, my son, for a conversation with any one," said Manuela.

"Perhaps, my friend," said Don Pedro, "it would be more prudent to defer it for a few days."

"No," was the reply; "it must be today—must be this instant."

"Just as you please, headstrong!" said Don Pedro. "We will go into the anteroom, where we shall be within call. Come, Manuela."

Don Estevan kept his eyes fixed on the door till it closed behind them; then he turned to Don Torribio, who was still standing in the centre of the room.

"Come nearer, seņor, that you may be better able to hear what I have to say to you."

"I am listening to you, seņor; but, at the same time, must beg you not to delay your communication."

"You shall have it. I warn you, that I tore the mask from one of the bandits who attacked us, and recognised him."

"I am at a loss to understand," said Don Torribio.

"Oh! You do not understand, seņor! It is the answer I expected. I suppose, likewise, you do not know the name of the person who accompanied me, and on whom the vaqueros fell with such indescribable fury?"

"I am perfectly ignorant as to who he was," said Don Torribio, quite unmoved.

"Better and better! Learn, then, that it was Don Fernando Carril who was killed." And he cast a look pregnant with irony at the man standing beside him.

"Don Fernando Carril!—killed!" exclaimed the latter, stupefied.

Don Estevan smiled disdainfully.

"Listen once more to this," he continued in threatening tones. "If Don Fernando is not brought to this hacienda within twenty-four hours, I will reveal to Don Pedro and his daughter the name of his assassin. I think you understand me this time?" And, overcome with grief, he sank half fainting on his couch.

Don Torribio remained a moment, annihilated with the words he had heard; but, immediately recovering his presence of mind, he quickly left the hacienda, and galloped into the plains, muttering as he rode:

"The Tigercat was right: there is nothing left for me but to seek the Barranca del Fraile."


CHAPTER IX.

THE PRISONER.


We must now explain to our readers what happened after the fall of Don Fernando Carril, when he was made the victim of an ambuscade.

When his hand was no longer able to raise his sword, and he had fallen by the side of his companion, the men in masks—who had been chary of approaching too near him, out of respect for the blade he wielded so well, as proved by the bodies of four bandits lying on the sand beside him? rushed all at once upon him.

Don Fernando Carril lay on his back showing no signs of life. A deadly, pallor overspread his noble features; his half-opened lips disclosed his clenched teeth; blood was flowing in torrents from the many wounds he had received; and his hand still clasped the weapon with which he had so long held his assailants at bay.

"ĄCaspita!" cried one, looking at him attentively; "Here is a young gentleman who is seriously hurt. What will the master say?"

"What would you have him say, Seņor Carlocho?" said another; "He defended himself like a lion. It is his own fault. He ought to have let himself be taken nicely, and all this would not have happened. Look! we have lost four men."

"A pretty loss indeed, those four fellows there! I would rather he had killed six than be in the state he is now."

"The devil!" muttered the other bandit; "That is no compliment to us, you know."

"That will do; that will do. Help me to bind up his wounds as well as we can, and lose no time about it. This is no wholesome place for us; besides we are expected elsewhere; so be quick."

Without further discussion, the bandits hastened to obey the orders of Carlocho. Don Fernando's wounds were bound up somehow; he was thrown across the horse of the guacho, who seemed to be leader of the expedition, and the party set off at full gallop, without further heed of those who had fallen in the struggle, and whose bodies were abandoned to the beasts of prey.

After a very rapid ride of two hours, they reached an abandoned rancho.

Two men were awaiting their arrival with impatience.

These two men were Tigercat and Don Torribio.

"Well!" shouted the former, as soon as he saw them.

"It is done!" said Carlocho laconically, as he dismounted, took Don Fernando in his arms, and carried him to a bed of leaves.

The latter showed no signs of life.

"Is he dead?" asked the Tigercat.

Carlocho shook his head.

"He is hardly better than dead," he replied.

"Wretch!" cried the Indian chief in a fury; "Is it thus you execute my orders? Did I not command you to take him alive?"

"Hm!" said Carlocho; "I only wish you had been there to see! An incarnate demon, who, armed only with a thin rapier, withstood us for more than twenty minutes, and only gave in after killing four of our bravest!"

The Tigercat smiled disdainfully.

"You are all cowards," he said.

And turning his back on the vaquero, he went up to Don Fernando.

Don Torribio was already at his side.

"Is he dead?" he asked.

"No," replied the Mexican; "but nearly so."

"So much the worse," muttered the old chief, "I would give a good deal for his recovery."

Don Torribio looked at him with astonishment.

"Of what importance is the life of this man to us?" he said. "Was he not your enemy?"

"The very reason why I do not wish him to die."

"I do not understand you."

"I have devoted my life to the accomplishment of an idea; therefore I no longer belong to myself, and am bound to offer up my hate and friendship to my idea."

"I admit that, up to a certain point: but how is it, then, that you have laid a trap for this man, who, according to your own account, is a traitor."

"Are men always to be harshly judged, even by those who are most intimate with them?" said the old chief, with a bitter smile. "What is it to me that the man may be a traitor? By putting him out of the way, without touching his life, I should have gained the end I had before me when I sought your alliance. After keeping him a prisoner for a few days, to prevent his counteracting your plans, and hindering your marriage with Doņa Hermosa, I should have restored him to freedom. Unluckily, it is too late now: what is done cannot be undone. The death of this man, obscurely slain in ambuscade, will do more to frustrate my plans than you imagine. His blood be upon your head! It is you who ordered this murder."

"I!" replied Don Torribio. "You are mad!"

The Tigercat looked at his new ally with a stare of surprise, shrugged his shoulders, and whistled a Mexican seguidilla. It was evident that Don Torribio had not understood a word of what had been uttered by this singular man, whose sole delight had hitherto been in slaughter.

"Pooh!" said he; "What does one, more or less, signify?"

The Indian chief stooped over the body of the wounded man, and examined it carefully. The eyes were closed, and the features had the paleness and rigidity of death. Two or three vaqueros, aided by Carlocho, rubbed his temples and chest incessantly with rum.

After looking at the body attentively, the old chief drew a knife from his girdle, held the blade for two or three minutes across the mouth, withdrew it again, and examined it. He thought it was slightly tarnished; then he knelt down by Don Fernando, seized his left arm, ripped up the sleeve, and, having felt for the vein, pricked it with the delicate point of his knife.

Then followed an instant of anxious suspense. The looks of all were fixed on the wounded man. This attempt would be the last; if it did not succeed, all was over: he knew of no other means to recall him to life. The vaqueros continued the friction.

At the puncture made by the chief's knife, there appeared at last a dark speck; little by little it increased in size, till it grew into a black point, which finally became a bead of jet: this trembled for a moment, and then fell rolling down the arm, pressed forward by another which succeeded it, and immediately made room for a third; then the blood grew less black and less thick, and finally gushed out in a long vermillion stream.

The Tigercat could not repress a shout of triumph; Don Fernando was saved. In fact, after the lapse of a minute, the latter moved slightly and uttered a deep sigh.

The Indian chief rose, after binding up Don Fernando's arm and signed to Pablito to follow him into another compartment of the rancho, requesting Don Torribio to remain for a time where he was.

Without waiting for the question which the vaquero was about to ask, and which he saw playing about his finely chiselled lips, the chief began to speak with a feverish haste, betraying the secret agitation of his mind.

"You see what has happened," he said.

"But you yourself willed it so!" said Pablito, utterly surprised.

"Yes, I did will it; and I thank God for having spared me this odious crime!"

"If you are satisfied, all will go well."

"But here is another matter. Remember this: Don Torribio must be kept in the dark. To all the world, and to this man in particular, Don Fernando is dead."

"Speak on; I think I understand you."

"Don Fernando's wounds, though many, are not severe. The loss of blood, and the speed with which he was brought hither, are the sole causes of the lethargy into which he has fallen, and out of which he will soon awake."

"Good; Now, what am I to do?"

"He must not see me."

"Very good; nothing can be easier."

"Nor must he recognise you."

"That will be more difficult; he knows me well."

"It is most important."

"I will try."

"And now, this is what you have to do."

"I am all attention."

"I must leave this place immediately; my presence is required elsewhere. As for you, you will have Don Fernando carried to the presidio, without his learning who has taken him thither."

"To the presidio?" exclaimed Pablito, astonished.

"Yes; it is the safest place," said the chief, drawing forth a paper cut to a certain shape; "you will take him to my house. He must not leave it on any pretence: above all, he must not know he is at the presidio."

"Is that all?"

"It is. Only, remember, you are answerable to me for him."

"Very well. At your orders I will produce him, alive or dead."

"Alive! His life is precious to me."

"Then I will do my best."

"And now, Pablito, be honest with me. Can I trust you?"

"Well," said Pablito, "since you are so much concerned about such a wretched affair, I will answer for your prisoner."

"Then farewell, and thanks," said the Tigercat; "above all, remember to report to me tonight, in Don Torribio's presence, that his enemy is dead."

"Rely upon me for that."

"No, no," muttered the old chief to himself; "he must not die: his life is too necessary for the accomplishment of my revenge."

He rejoined Don Torribio, who had grown impatient. Without exchanging a word, the two mounted the magnificent mustangs that were waiting for them, and disappeared amongst the foliage.

Pablito, twisting his moustache in ill humour, returned to the wounded man; the office intrusted to him was evidently unpalatable. However, as the vaquero was an honest man enough, after his own fashion, and prided himself, among the numerous other good qualities he fancied he possessed, most especially on his adherence to his word, the thought of breaking it never entered his mind.

"How is he?" he asked Carlocho in a whisper.

"A great deal better," replied the latter. "It is astonishing how much good the bleeding has done him; he has already opened his eyes twice and tried to speak."

"Hm! Then we have no time to lose. Put a bandage round the eyes of this fellow, and then, lest he should use his hands to remove it, tie them down to his sides. But, as this is only to be done for prudence' sake, I recommend you to use as much gentleness and delicacy as your nature is capable of. Do you understand perfectly?"

"Yes, Ącanarios! One need not be a wizard to do that!"

"Well, make haste! I give you five minutes to obey my orders: in ten we shall be gone."

The wounded man had indeed recovered a good deal of his strength. As the chief had declared, his wounds were not severe, and the loss of blood alone had occasioned the prostration in which he was lying.

Little by little he had recovered his senses sufficiently to know into whose hands he had fallen; and although too feeble to offer the slightest opposition whatever to the bandits at his side, his presence of mind had returned in a degree to enable him to comprehend that the greatest circumspection was necessary, to avoid arousing the suspicions as to his state in people who would not for a moment hesitate to sacrifice him to their safety.

So, when Carlocho, according to the injunctions of Pablito, passed a folded handkerchief over his eyes, and bound his hands, he feigned entire insensibility, and allowed them to do as they pleased with him, secretly rejoiced at these precautions, which indicated that his life was safe for the present.

"Now, what is to be done?" asked Carlocho.

"Two or three of you take up the wounded man, and carry him carefully to the boat I have in waiting close by. And pay particular attention to him, you fellows; for, at the first jolt, I will blow your brains out."

"Caray!" was all the vaquero could utter, for surprise.

"Ah!" said Pablito, with a shrug of his shoulders; "As you were fools enough not to kill him when you might have done so, so much the worse for you: now you shall mount guard over him. That shall teach you to introduce courtesy, or, if you like it better, clumsiness, into an ambuscade the next time."

Carlocho opened his eyes wide at this rodomontade, which he could not understand, but hastened to obey the order.

Don Fernando was carried thus into a boat by Pablito, Carlocho, and a third vaquero; while the remainder went off by land, taking their comrades' horses with them. Three hours later, the prisoner, to whom his keepers had not spoken a word during the journey, was carried into the presidio, and shut up in a house lately hired by the Tigercat in a fictitious name—a circumstance of which Don Fernando knew nothing.

The bandage was taken from his eyes, his hands were freed; but a man in a mask, mute as a tomb, was placed in his chamber, and never left him.

The wounded man, harassed by the journey, and weakened by the blood he had lost, resolved, for the present, to trust to chance for relief from his annoying and incomprehensible situation. He gave that apparently listless but all-observant glance around him which is peculiar to prisoners, and dropped off into a deep sleep, lasting many hours, and restoring to his mind all its coolness and original clearness.

The people who served him, though masked and dumb, took the greatest care of him, and seemed to vie with each other in their endeavours to comply with his wishes, and satisfy his most capricious whims. In point of fact, his position was tolerable; at bottom, there was a spice of originality about it; and Don Fernando, convinced, at the end of two days' experience, that no attempt would be made on his life, but that, on the contrary, every effort was made to heal his wounds as quickly as possible, concluded to bear his lot bravely, in the expectation of better times.

The third day of his captivity, Don Fernando, whose wounds were only sword cuts, and now nearly cicatrised, rose from his bed, partly to try his strength, and partly to look out and discover where he was: it was requisite to know the locality, in order to mature the scheme of escape he was already secretly planning.

The weather was magnificent; the hot sunlight shone cheerfully in at the windows, tracing the bars on the floor of the chamber which served as his prison. It made him feel quite refreshed, and he tried to walk a few steps, still carefully watched by his inevitable guard, whose flaming eyes were never off him. Suddenly a terrible clamour arose, and a round of artillery shook the panes.

"What is that?" asked Don Fernando.

His keeper shrugged his shoulders, but did not reply.

The sharp cracking of muskets was now mingled with the roar of the guns; and it became evident that a hard fight was going on somewhere in the neighbourhood. His keeper, imperturbable as ever, closed the windows.

Don Fernando went up to him. The two men stared at each other for a moment. Many a time had the wounded man addressed a question to this stolid sentry without eliciting an answer, and now he hesitated a little before making a fresh attempt.

"Friend," said he, at last, in a gentle voice, "what is going on out of doors?"

The man remained mute.

"Answer me, in the name of Heaven!" continued the querist; "I ask but little. Surely you would not overstep your instructions by telling me thus much?"

Just then the clamour seemed to draw nearer; hurried steps, mingled with outcries, sounded close at hand. His keeper rose uneasily, drew his machete (knife) from its sheath, pulled a pistol from his belt, and went towards the door; but on a sudden it was violently opened, and a man rushed into the room, his face blanched with terror.

"Up! On your guard;" cried he; "we are lost!"

His keeper made a sign for Don Fernando to keep back, and placed himself resolutely in front of the door, where four men, masked and armed to the teeth, had just made their appearance.

"Back!" cried the keeper; "No one enters here without a watchword!"

"Here you have it," answered one of the men at the door, as, with a pistol, he blew out the keeper's brains.

The four men stepped over his body, seized and bound his comrade, who had crouched down in the farthest corner of the room, and advanced to Don Fernando, who was wondering at the strange scene.

"You are at liberty, caballero," said one of the four. "Come, you must leave this house at once."

"First of all, who are you?" replied Don Fernando; "Who are you, who proclaim yourselves my liberators?"

"We have no time for explanations," answered the man in the mask. "Make haste and follow us."

"Not before I know who you are."

The other gave an impatient stamp, and, stooping down, whispered in his ear:

"Madman! Have you no wish to see Doņa Hermosa again?"

Don Fernando reddened with pleasure.

"I follow you," said he.

"Here," said the mask, "take these pistols and this sword; we have not done our work yet. We may still have fighting before us."

"Yes!" exclaimed Don Fernando joyfully; "I now see that you are really sent to save me. I will follow wherever you may lead." And he seized the weapons, and placed them in his girdle.

They hastily left the house.

"What!" cried Don Fernando, as he put his foot out of doors, "Am I at the presidio of San Lucar?"

"Did you not know it?" asked his guide.

"How was it possible? I was brought here with my eyes bandaged."

In the court several horses, ready saddled, were tied to rings in the wall.

"Could you keep your saddle?" said the stranger.

"I hope so," replied Don Fernando.

"You must," said the stranger peremptorily.

"Then I will, even if I die in it."

"Good: let us mount and be gone."

At the very moment they were issuing into the street, a troop of ten or twelve mounted men were coming up at full gallop: they were not more than twenty paces off.

"Here are the enemy," said the stranger in deep and low tones; "we must charge and ride over them, or die."

The five men formed in line, and rushed like a thunderbolt upon the newcomers, at whom they discharged their pistols point-blank, and then cut their way with the sword.

"ĄCaray!" screamed Pablito, in a fury—for it was he who commanded the troop—"My prisoner is escaping."

Spurring his horse, he dashed at Don Fernando. But the latter, without drawing bridle, fired a pistol; and the vaquero's horse, struck by a ball in the forehead, rolled to the ground, bearing his rider with him.

Pablito rose, half killed by the fall. The men who had attacked him so briskly had disappeared.

"Never mind; I shall find them again," he cried.

In the meantime, the fugitives had reached the bank of the river, and found a boat waiting for them.

"We must part here," said the stranger, taking off his mask.

"Estevan!" cried Don Fernando.

"Myself," replied the mayor domo. "This boat will take you to the Hacienda del Cormillo. Go there without delay, and," he added, as he placed in his hands a paper folded into four, "read this attentively; perhaps you will have to come to the rescue in your turn."

"Be assured on that score: I have my revenge to take."

"Farewell, my friend."

"Shall I see Doņa Hermosa?"

"I am forbidden to talk on the subject."

"Another question, then. Do you know who kept me prisoner?"

"Yes; there were two—the Tigercat and Don Torribio."

"Indeed!" said Don Fernando, frowning. "I will not forget them. Once more, thanks Estevan."

He sat down in the boat, and gave a sign to the rowers. They were soon in rapid motion, and speedily lost in the shadows of the darkening night.

Three persons remained on the bank anxiously watching the course of the frail boat. These three persons were Estevan Diaz, Doņa Hermosa, and Ņa Manuela.


CHAPTER X.

THE CAMP OF THE REDSKINS.


The extreme care of Don Pedro and his daughter soon restored Don Estevan to perfect health.

His first care was to reveal to the hacendero, in accordance with his threat to Don Torribio, the name of the man who had originated the dastardly attack on Don Fernando, and into whose hands he had fallen.

After that communication, Don Torribio was a lost man in the estimation of Don Pedro and his daughter.

Having accomplished this piece of revenge, the mayor domo undertook the duty of discovering tidings of his friend. Chance favoured him by throwing El Zapote in his way. The worthy and conscientious vaquero was just then in the best humour for giving all the information required, in consequence of having that very morning, by a ruinous run of ill luck which fastened upon him been utterly cleaned out at monte, and left without an ochavo (a farthing). By the help of a few ounces of gold, the mayor domo contrived to learn, in the minutest detail, all that had passed, and the place where Don Fernando was concealed.

As soon as he had learned all he wanted, Don Estevan left the vaquero, and hastened his return to the hacienda.

Doņa Hermosa was no ordinary woman. She was gifted with much energy, and, moreover, loved Don Fernando. She resolved to set him free; but held her tongue, in the fear of making Don Pedro uneasy. She merely expressed a wish to spend a day or two at the hacienda of Las Norias; to which Don Pedro consented, on condition of her taking with her a strong escort of resolute and well-armed peones.

Instead of going to the hacienda, the girl went to the presidio, into which she managed to find her way unnoticed by the Indians.

Once in the presidio, she revealed her project to Don Estevan.

The mayor domo was astounded at her coolness as she detailed the plan she had conceived—a plan in which not only herself, but also Don Estevan's mother, was to act a part.

All his efforts to make her renounce her project were futile; willing or unwilling, he was forced to obey.

When they could no longer see the boat with Don Fernando, her foster brother turned to Doņa Hermosa.

"Now, seņorita, what are you going to do next?"

She answered succinctly:

"I am going to visit the camp of the Apaches and see Don Torribio."

The mayor domo shuddered.

"Dishonour and death await you there," said he in a hoarse, low voice.

"No," she replied firmly; "only revenge."

"You wish for revenge?"

"I demand it."

"Very well," he replied; "I will obey you. Go and get ready; I myself will escort you to the camp of the redskins."

The three returned to Don Pedro's house without exchanging a syllable.

Night had now fairly set in. The streets were deserted: a deathlike silence pervaded the town, which for two days the Indians had been sacking; and their diabolical figures could be perceived, as they passed and repassed among the still flaming ruins.

When they arrived at the house, Don Estevan stopped short in the court.

"Ponder well what you are about to do, seņorita," said he. "Why must you avenge yourself? Have you not secured the safety of him you love?"

"Yes; but he has barely escaped death. The first atrocious attempt has failed; the second may succeed. Don Torribio has wounded me in my most cherished affections. My resolve is taken; he shall feel a woman's vengeance."

"Can nothing change your resolve?"

"Nothing," said she, coldly.

"Then make your preparations, seņorita; I will wait for you here."

The two women entered the house together, while Don Estevan seated himself on one of the steps of the porch.

His watching was not long: in ten minutes they returned.

Both were clothed in the Apache dress; the paint smeared upon their faces completed the illusion, and secured them from recognition. The transformation was so perfect, that Don Estevan could not repress his admiration.

"Nothing could be better," he exclaimed; "you are Indian women indeed."

"Do you think," said Doņa Hermosa bitterly, "that Don Torribio has the sole right of deception and assuming any character at his pleasure?"

"Who can strive against a woman?" said the mayor domo, with a shrug. "And now, what are your orders?"

"Very simple; your escort as far as the first Indian lines."

"And after that?"

"The rest of the affair is our work."

"But are you really dreaming of remaining alone in the midst of these pagans?"

"It is no dream; it is my immovable resolve to stay there."

"And you, mother?" said her son sadly; "Are you, too, determined to throw yourself into the hands of the savages?"

"Be comforted, my son," replied the dame; "I run no danger."

"And yet—"

"Estevan," said Doņa Hermosa, interrupting him, "I will answer for your mother's safety."

The mayor domo was thoroughly discouraged.

"Then," said he, "I can only commend you to Heaven."

"Let us go," said Doņa Hermosa, wrapping the folds of her cloak around her.

Don Estevan led the way.

The night was dark. Here and there the dying watch fires in the presidio, round which the besieged were sleeping, threw a pale and uncertain glimmer over the surrounding objects, without affording sufficient light to guide them through the increasing obscurity.

A mournful silence brooded over the town, interrupted at intervals by the hoarse cries of the vultures, urubus, and prairie wolves, quarrelling over the corpses of the slain, and dragging hither and thither morsels of bleeding flesh.

The three pushed resolutely forward amidst the ruins, stumbling over fragments of fallen walls, striding over dead bodies, and disturbing the horrid feast of the birds of prey, that flew off uttering screams of anger.

Thus they traversed the whole length of the town, and arrived at last, with desperate difficulty, and after making many circuits, at one of the barriers opposite the camp of the redskins, from which numberless fires were glancing, and shouts and songs were heard.

The sentries, after exchanging a few words with their guide, allowed the three to pass, a few paces farther on, Don Estevan halted, and stopped his companions.

"Look, Doņa Hermosa," said he in a whisper; "there is the camp of the redskins before you. If I went farther with you, my escort would prove fatal. I must stop here: only a few steps separate you from your object."

"Thanks!" said the girl, stretching out her hand. Don Estevan retained it between his own.

"Seņorita, one word more."

"Speak, dear friend."

"I conjure you, in the name of all you hold dear in the world, to renounce your project. Trust to my experience while it is yet time: return to the Hacienda del Cormillo; you know not the danger to which you expose yourself."

"Estevan," replied the girl firmly, "whatever be the danger, I will brave it: nothing can change my resolve. Farewell! I shall soon see you again."

"Farewell!" repeated the mayor domo.

Doņa Hermosa turned away in the direction of the Indian camp. Ņa Manuela hesitated a moment, and then threw herself into the arms of her son.

"Alas!" cried he, excited by the emotions terrible to witness in such a man; "Stay with me, mother, I implore you!"

"What!" said the noble woman, pointing to Doņa Hermosa, "Shall I leave her to sacrifice herself alone?"

Don Estevan was unable to reply.

Manuela embraced him once more, then tore herself with a violent effort from the arms of her son, who vainly strove to restrain her, and hurried to join Hermosa.

The mayor domo followed them with his eyes as long as he could distinguish them in the obscurity; than, uttering a heart-felt sigh, he retraced his steps, muttering as he went:

"If I can only get there in time—if it has only not yet reached Don José de Kalbris!"

Just as Don Estevan arrived at the fort, the governor was leaving it, in company with Don Torribio Quiroga. But the Mexican, absorbed in the ideas which were harassing his brain, did not notice them, although they passed so close to him that he might have touched them.

This fatal accident was the cause of irreparable misfortune.

Having left Don Estevan, the two women wandered about at a venture, directing their steps towards the fires in front of them.

On getting within a certain distance, they, stopped to recruit their spirits, and to calm the throbbing of their hearts, which beat almost to bursting.

They were now within a few paces of the Indian toldos (huts); the rash and hazardous nature of their undertaking presented itself in all its force, and the poor women felt their courage gradually oozing away, in spite of the resolution which had animated them. Their hearts turned to stone at the thought of the horrible drama in which they were going to act the principal characters.

Strange to say, it was Manuela who restored her companion to the firmness which was abandoning her.

"Seņorita," she said to her, "it is now my turn to act as guide; if you will only consent to follow my council, I hope to be able to avoid all the danger with which we are threatened."

"Speak, nurse; let me hear what you propose."

"We must first drop these cloaks, which hide our dress, and betray that we are whites."

In saying this she threw off her mantle, and cast it away. Doņa Hermosa followed her example.

"Now walk by my side; show no fear, whatever may happen; and, above all, do not utter a single word, unless we are hopelessly lost."

"I obey you," said Hermosa.

"We are to be two Indian women," continued Manuela, "who have made a vow to Wacondah for the recovery of their wounded father; and once again, no words from your mouth."

"Let us go on. May God protect us!"

"Amen!" said Manuela, devoutly crossing herself.

They continued their journey, and, five minutes afterwards, entered the camp of the redskins.

The Indians, intoxicated with the easy triumph they had gained over the Mexicans, were giving vent to their joy. There were nothing but singing and dancing everywhere. Some casks of aguardiente, discovered in the old presidio and in the pillaged haciendas, had been dragged into camp, and staved.

On this account, unexampled disorder and a nameless hubbub prevailed among the Indians, whom drunkenness makes raving mad, and excites to the most hideous excesses.

The power of the sachems was disowned: moreover, the greater number of them were in the same state as the warriors; and there can be no doubt that, if the inhabitants of San Lucar had been in sufficient force to attempt a surprise, they might have made a frightful massacre of the savages, brutalised as they were by strong liquors, and incapable of defending themselves.

Profiting by the disorder, the two women climbed over the ramparts of the camp without being observed. Then, their hearts palpitating with terror, and with shivering limbs, they glided like serpents between the knots of Indians, passing unnoticed through the midst of the drinkers; seeking at haphazard, and trusting to Providence or their good angel to find among the scattered toldos the hovel which served as a habitation to the great paleface.

They had already been some time roaming about in this manner, without lighting on any unpleasant adventure. Emboldened by success, their fears nearly dissipated, they were exchanging looks of encouragement, when suddenly an Indian of athletic stature seized Doņa Hermosa round the waist, and, lifting her from the ground, gave her a boisterous kiss on the neck.

At this unexpected insult, she uttered a shriek of terror, and making a superhuman effort, freed herself from his arms, pushing him from her with all her strength. The savage staggered backwards, and, too drunk to keep his legs, dropped to the ground, giving vent to a cry of rage; but, springing up in an instant, he rushed like a jaguar on Hermosa.

Ņa Manuela threw herself hastily before her.

"Back!" said she, resolutely placing her hand on the Indian's chest; "This girl is my sister."

"El Zopilote is a brave who never puts up with an insult," replied the savage, frowning, and unsheathing his knife.

"Will you kill her?" exclaimed Manuela in terror.

"Yes, I will kill her, unless she consents to follow me to my toldo. She shall be the wife of a chief."

"You are mad," said Manuela. "Your toldo is full, and there is no room for another fire."

"There is room for two," replied the Indian, grinning. "Since you are her sister, you shall go with her."

The noise collected a crowd of Indians round the two women, who were thus the centre of a circle it would have been impossible to break through.

Manuela instantly comprehended the danger of their situation; she saw they were all but lost.

"Well," continued El Zopilote, seizing in his left hand Hermosa's hair, and twisting it round his wrist, at the same time brandishing his scalp knife, "will you and your sister follow me to my toldo?"

The poor girl cowered down; half recumbent upon the ground, she awaited the mortal blow.

Manuela drew herself up to her full height; her eyes flashed fire; she arrested the arm of El Zopilote, and addressed him thus:

"Since thou wilt have it so, dog, let thy destiny be fulfilled! Behold, the Wacondah allows not his servants to be insulted with impunity."

Hitherto Manuela had contrived to keep herself in such a position that her face was shaded as much as possible, and no one had remarked her features; now she turned her head towards the full light of the fires. On seeing the fantastic lines of paint, the Indians gave utterance to a cry of surprise, and recoiled in terror.

Manuela smiled at her triumph: she resolved to complete it.

"The power of the Wacondah is boundless," she cried; "woe to him who would oppose his schemes: he it is who sends me. Back, all!"

Grasping the arm of Doņa Hermosa, who had scarcely recovered from her terrible emotion, she advanced to the edge of the circle. The Indians hesitated. Manuela extended her arm in an attitude of supreme command; the outwitted savages opened to right and left, and gave them passage.

"I shall die," faintly whispered Doņa Hermosa.

"Courage!" replied Manuela, "We are saved."

"Wagh!" said a jeering voice; "What is passing here?"

And a man placed himself before the two women.

"The amantzin!" muttered the Indians; and taking fresh courage, they again crowded round their prisoners.

Manuela shuddered, overcome with despair at seeing her hopes annihilated; still the resolute woman determined to make one more effort.

"The Wacondah loves the Indians," she said; "it is he who sends me the amantzin of the Apache braves."

"Indeed!" said the sorcerer, with a sneer; "And what does he want with me?"

"None but yourself may hear."

"Wagh!" said the amantzin, placing his hand on her shoulder, and looking at her attentively; "What proof can you give me of the mission with which the all-powerful Spirit has charged you?"

"Will you save me?" said Manuela, whispering rapidly in his ear.

"That depends on her," answered the sorcerer, fixing his glittering eyes on the girl.

"See!" said Manuela, presenting to him the rich bracelets of gold and pearls she took from her arms.

"Wagh!" replied the sorcerer, hiding them in his bosom; "They are beautiful! What does my mother require?"

"First of all, to be freed from these men."

"And afterwards?"

"Deliver us first."

"It shall be as you will."

The Indians had remained motionless, impassive spectators of the scene. They had heard nothing of this short conversation. The amantzin turned towards them, exhibiting a countenance distorted with fear.

"Fly!" said he in terrible accents; "This woman brings misfortune! The Wacondah is angry! Fly, all; fly!"

The Indians, who had only been restored to confidence by the advent of their sorcerer, seeing him a prey to a terror they could not comprehend, first crowded together, and then dispersed, without asking further questions.

As soon as they had disappeared behind the toldos, the sorcerer turned to the two women.

"Am I able to protect you?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Manuela; "and I thank my father, who is as powerful as he is wise."

A smile of gratified pride just formed itself on the lips of the cautious Indian.

"I am powerful to avenge myself on those who deceive me," said he.

"Therefore I shall not attempt to deceive my father."

"Whence comes my white daughter," he asked.

"From the ark of the first man," replied Manuela, looking him steadily in the face.

The amantzin blushed.

"My daughter has the forked tongue of the congouar," he said. "Does she take me for a lizard, that one can entrap like an old woman?"

"Here is a necklace," she replied, offering a rich string of pearls to the Indian; "the Wacondah gave it me for the wise man of the Apaches."

"Wagh!" said the amantzin; "My mother cannot lie; she is wise. What more can I do for her?" And he slipped the necklace into the same receptacle with the bracelets.

"My father must lead me to the toldo of the great white chief who fights in the ranks of the Apache warriors."

"My daughter would speak to the white chief?"

"I would."

"The white chief is a wise man; will he admit women?"

"Let not that trouble my father; tonight I must speak with the white chief."

"Good; my mother shall speak to him. But this woman?" And he pointed to Doņa Hermosa.

"That woman," answered Manuela, "is a friend of the Tigercat. She too is charged with a mission to the sachem."

The sorcerer shook his head.

"The warriors must spin the vicuņa wool," said he, "since women make war, and sit at the council fire."

"My father errs; the sachem loves my sister."

"No," replied the Indian.

"Let us see if my father will refuse to lead me to the toldo of the great chief," said Manuela, impatient at the tergiversations of the amantzin, and dreading the return of her persecutors. "Let him beware, the great chief expects us."

The sorcerer cast a piercing look at her, which Manuela bore without casting down her eyes.

"Good," said he; "my mother does not lie. Follow me."

Grasping each of the women by a wrist, he placed himself between them, and began to guide them through the labyrinthine confusion of the camp.

The Indians they met on their road avoided them with unequivocal signs of terror.

The amantzin was by no means displeased with what had happened: he was radiant with joy; for, besides the profit derived from meeting the women, the incident which occurred in consequence had tended to confirm his power in the eyes of the credulous and superstitious Indians, who believed him to be really inspired by the Wacondah.

A quarter of an hour's difficult walking brought them to the toldo, in front of which the totem (standard) of the assembled tribes was planted, surrounded by lances fringed with scarlet, and guarded by four warriors.

"This is the place," said the sorcerer to Manuela.

"Good; let my father give orders that we enter alone."

"Am I to leave you?"

"Yes; my father can wait for us outside,"

"I will wait," briefly replied he, casting a suspicious look on them.

At a sign from the amantzin, the sentries placed before the toldo made way for the women. They entered with trepidation: the dwelling was unoccupied.

They were unable to repress a sigh of satisfaction. The absence of Don Torribio gave them time to prepare for the interview Doņa Hermosa so greatly desired.

The amantzin remained standing at the entrance to the toldo. This man, lately raised to the dignity through the influence of the Tigercat, was his tool, and acted as his spy.


CHAPTER XI.

THE RENEGADE.


Don Torribio Quiroga and Don José Kalbris urged on their horses, in order to get beyond the defences of the presidio as soon as possible.

The governor was rejoicing at the reinforcement the general commanding in the province had sent him. He knew it would be an easy task to compel the Indians to raise the siege of the presidio when once the troops marching up had joined him. Indeed, he counted upon profiting by the opportunity to give the Apaches—those untiring ravagers of the Mexican frontiers—such a rude lesson, that it would be long before they again attempted an inroad into the territory of the Confederation.

They now arrived at one of the barriers, guarded by a strong detachment of vaqueros and townspeople.

"We must pass through here," said Don Torribio to the governor. "The night is dark, bands of these Indian vagabonds are prowling about all over the country, and we shall most probably have to ride a league or two before we meet our men. I think it will be scarcely prudent for us to venture forth without an escort."

"A very just remark," said Don José.

"You must recollect that you are the governor of the presidio," continued Don Torribio, with a strange smile. "The consequences would be very serious for the town if the Indians were to attack us, and take us prisoners. I do not mention this on my own account, but on yours: I should be a prize of little value to the savages; but with you it is a very different matter. I beg you to consider this carefully, before we go any farther."

"By heaven! You are quite right colonel; it would be an unpardonable imprudence. So I think the best thing we can do is to take an escort."

"I think it would be advantageous," said Don Torribio. "How many men will you take?"

"Oh, a dozen, at the most."

"No; take a score. We cannot tell whom we may fall in with on our road at this time of night. Suppose we were to be set upon by a couple of hundred Indians! We ought to be able to show them a front."

"Let it be a score, then, if you like," answered Don José, with perfect indifference; "and be good enough to choose them yourself."

"Make your mind easy," said Torribio.

With that he rode up to the guard, who had turned out on the governor's arrival, and picked out twenty horseman, whom he ordered to form behind them.

"Now," said he to the governor, "we are ready to march."

"Then let us go," said the latter, giving his horse his head.

The escort put itself in motion, and followed Don José Kalbris and Colonel Torribio Quiroga at about twenty paces' interval.

All went well for nearly an hour, when the governor began to grow restless, in spite of Don Torribio's lively conversation. The latter kept up a constant fire of jokes and sparkling repartees, laying himself out to amuse Don José, and had never before proved so agreeable a companion.

"Excuse me, colonel," said the governor, coming to a halt; "but is it not extraordinary that we see no signs of the troops we are going to meet?"

"Not at all, seņor; perhaps the officer in command is waiting for my return, before he leads his men into roads with which he is unacquainted."

"It is just possible," said the governor, after a minute's reflection.

"I think it highly probable," said Don Torribio; "and, in that case, we have nearly another league before we can meet him."

"Then we had better push on."

They resumed their march, but without renewing their conversation. Both of them seemed absorbed in meditation. At times Don Torribio raised his head, and looked carefully about him. All of a sudden they heard the distant neigh of a horse.

"What is that?" said Don Torribio.

"Most likely the troops we are looking for," replied the governor.

"Perhaps," answered the other; "but we had better be cautious."

Requesting the governor to stop where he was, he set spurs to his horse, and riding forward was soon lost in the darkness. Having ridden a short distance, he dismounted, applied his ear to the ground, and listened.

"ĄDemonios!" he exclaimed, hastily rising and throwing himself into the saddle; "They are pursuing us! Can that vagabond, Don Estevan, have recognised me? There is not a moment to lose!"

"Well, what is it?" asked the governor, as Don Torribio rode back to him.

"Nothing," said Don Torribio shortly; "nothing of interest to you."

"Then—"

"Then," retorted the other, laying his hand on the governor's left arm, "Don José Kalbris, surrender; you are my prisoner."

"What do you say?" replied the astounded veteran. "Are you mad, Don Torribio?"

"Call me no longer Don Torribio: I am a nameless, homeless wretch, whom the thirst for vengeance has driven amongst the Apaches."

"Treason!" exclaimed the governor. "To the rescue, men! Defend your colonel!"

"These men will not help you, Don José; they are in my pay. Surrender, I say!"

"I will not surrender," said the governor resolutely. "Don Torribio, or whatever else you may call yourself, you are a coward!"

He gave his horse the spur, shook off Don Torribio's hold, and drew his sword. At the same time, the rapid approach of horsemen was heard in the distance.

"Aha!" said the governor, cocking a pistol; "Here comes aid!"

"Yes," replied Don Torribio; "but it comes too late."

And he ordered the vaqueros to surround Don José, and attack him. A couple of shots from the governor's pistol laid two of them in the dust; and a terrible combat began.

Don José, knowing all hope of safety to be gone, determined to sell his life dearly, and did wonders. An accomplished horseman, he parried the blows aimed at him, and struck fiercely into the men crowding upon him with savage vociferations. In the meantime, the thundering gallop of the approaching horsemen grew louder. Don Torribio saw it was time to make a finish, and shot the governor's horse through the head.

Don José came violently to the ground, but was up again in a moment, and aimed a blow at the renegade, which the latter avoided by a dexterous movement. Then the gallant old soldier put the muzzle of his pistol to his own forehead.

"A man like me," said he, "never surrenders to dogs like you; here, curs, quarrel over my body!"

With these words he blew his brains out.

Just then several shots were fired, and a troop of horsemen fell, like a whirlwind, upon the vaqueros. Don Estevan and Major Barnum led the assailants.

The conflict did not last long. Don Torribio gave a loud whistle, and the vaqueros went to the right-about, and, scattering in all directions, were soon lost sight of.

Seven or eight remained dead on the field.

"What is to be done?" said Major Barnum.

"Nothing!" replied Don Estevan sorrowfully; "We are too late. Don José has killed himself rather than submit to be carried off by these dogs."

"He was a noble soldier!" said the major; "But how can we get at the rascals again?"

"We will let them alone, major: they are in camp by this time. Trust me, we shall soon learn to read this riddle."

The mayor domo dismounted, and cut with his machete a branch of the resinous pinewood, which grows so abundantly through all the country. He struck a light, and in a minute or two a torch was ready.

By its ruddy and flickering flame, he and the major began to examine the bodies on the ground. They soon found the governor, lying on his back, with his head horribly crushed. His hand still retained the fatal weapon; and his features wore an expression of haughty disdain and indomitable courage.

"Look at him!" said Don Estevan.

The major could not repress the tear that rolled silently down his swarthy cheek.

"Yes," he said; "he has died like a soldier, with his face to the foe. But, alas! he has fallen a victim to treachery—killed by a white man. My poor old friend! Was this to be your end?"

"It was God's will," answered Don Estevan.

"It was," said the major: "may we do our duty as he has done his!"

Reverently they lifted the body, put it upon a horse, and marched back in sadness to the presidio.

In the meanwhile, Don Torribio was greatly disconcerted. His plans had failed. He had not wished the governor to lose his life, for his death would be no benefit, but, on the contrary, prejudicial, by inspiring the Mexicans with the desire for revenge, and strengthening their determination to resist to the last, and bury themselves under the ruins of the presidio, rather than surrender to such ferocious enemies. His intention had been to seize Don José, keep him prisoner, and to make his own terms with the Mexicans.

But the old soldier's energetic resistance, and resolve to blow out his own brains rather than surrender, had upset these plans. So he returned to the camp, cast down and discontented, while his companions looked upon the cause of his dejection as a triumphant success.

Manuela and Doņa Hermosa had profited by his absence to throw off their disguise, and resume their usual dress.

As soon as Don Torribio reached his toldo, the sorcerer, who had never quitted it since he had led the two women to the spot, came forward to meet him.

"What do you want?" said Don Torribio.

"Let my father look with a favourable eye upon me," replied the amantzin; "two women have entered the camp tonight."

"And what is that to me?" said the chief impatiently.

"These females, although dressed like Indians, are white," answered the sorcerer, laying stress on the last two words.

"What then? They are most likely wives of some of the vaqueros."

"Not so," said the sorcerer; "their hands are too white, and their feet too small."

"Indeed!" replied the other, in whom the tale began to excite some interest; "Who has taken them prisoner?"

"No one; they are here alone, of their own accord."

"Alone?"

"They said they had important revelations to make to my father."

"They did?" said the chief, scanning the man narrowly; "And how does my father know that?"

"Because I rescued them, and brought them to my father's toldo."

"Then they are in here?"

"This hour or more."

Don Torribio drew from his pocket a few ounces, and handed them to the sorcerer. "I thank my brother," said he; "he has done well."

The amantzin grinned, and pocketed the bribe.

Don Torribio rushed to the toldo, and raised the curtain. A cry of joy and astonishment escaped him when he recognised Doņa Hermosa.

The latter smiled; while he bowed gracefully, asking himself the while what the meaning of this could be.

Doņa Hermosa could not resist admiring the man. His rich uniform became him; it exhibited all his handsome proportions, and increased his attractions.

"What rank shall I give you?" she said, beckoning to him to sit down by her side.

"Give me any name you like best, seņorita. If you speak to the Spaniard, call me Don Torribio; if you address yourself to the Indian, the name by which I am known among the Apaches is 'the Accursed.'"

"Why have they given you this dreadful name?" said she.

There was no answer to her question: and the two gazed at each other in silence.

Doņa Hermosa was thinking of the manner in which she should tell him the object of her visit; he was pondering over the reasons which could have brought her there. He was the first to speak.

"Have you really come here inquest of me seņorita?"

"Of whom else?" she replied.

"Excuse my frankness," said he; "but this seems to me so extraordinary, that although I see and hear you, I cannot believe in such great good fortune. I feel as if I were in a dream, and dread the awakening."

This piece of flattery was pronounced in the tone which Don Torribio Quiroga would have employed had he been at Don Pedro's hacienda; a tone adding to the strangeness of the scene, it was so little in accord with the circumstances and the place where it was uttered.

"Good sir," replied Doņa Hermosa, in the same easy tone he had used towards her, "I will relieve your trouble, and hasten to dispel the witchery to which you would attribute my presence in your toldo."

"You will still remain an enchantress in my eyes," said he, smiling.

"You flatter me. If there is any enchantment at all in the matter, poor Estevan is the wizard He knew my fixed determination to see you, and told me where I should find you. So, if you are determined to raise somebody to the rank of sorcerer, let Estevan be the victim."

"I will not forget him when the opportunity occurs," said Don Torribio, his face darkly clouding over. "But let us not wander from our own two selves. I have the happiness to see you here: will it offend you if I ask why you come?"

"The reason is quite simple," replied Doņa Hermosa, eyeing him steadfastly. "A girl of my age, and particularly of my rank"—and she laid great emphasis on the latter word—"does not take a step so—let us say, so singular, without a strong motive."

"I am sure of it."

"What motive could be strong enough to induce a woman to lay aside the instinctive modesty of her sex, and risk her good name? I know but one. When her heart is in question, when her love is involved? Am I speaking clearly, Don Torribio? Do you begin to understand me."

"I begin to comprehend, seņorita."

"The last time we met, my father received you coldly,—you, my betrothed. Mad with jealousy, furious with him and myself, believing our marriage broken off, you rushed from us, and left the hacienda with rage and hatred boiling in your breast."

"Cousin, I swear to you?"

"I am a woman, Don Torribio; and we women possess an instinct which never deceives us. Can you think for a moment that I, on the verge of marriage with you, did not know the love you felt for me?"

Don Torribio gazed at her with an indefinable expression.

"A few days later," she continued, "Don Fernando Carril fell into an ambush, and was left for dead on the spot. Why did you do this, Don Torribio?"

"I will not attempt to deny, seņorita, that I wished to avenge myself on one I considered a rival; but I swear I gave no orders to kill him."

"I know it!" she replied; "You need not attempt to exculpate yourself."

Don Torribio looked at her without understanding her words.

"The man whom you imagined to be your rival was no favoured suitor," she continued, with a sweet smile. "You had scarcely left the hacienda, before I confessed to my father that you were my only love, and that I would never consent to marry another."

"Is it possible?" cried Don Torribio, rising in his excitement. "Oh! Had I but known it!"

"Calm yourself; the evil you have done is partly repaired. Don Fernando, rescued by my orders from the clutches of Pablito, is now at Las Norias, whence he will shortly depart for Mexico. My father, who can never refuse me anything, has given me permission to choose him I love most."

As she said this, she darted at Don Torribio a look full of unutterable affection.

He was thunderstruck. A crowd of opposing feelings jostled in his breast: he did not dare to put full credence in the girl's words; a cruel doubt would insinuate itself. Was she mocking him?

"Is it indeed true," he said, "that you could still love me?"

"Is not my presence here an answer? Why should I have come? What should induce me?"

"It is true!" said he, falling on his knees before her. "Forgive me, seņorita; I am mad, and know not what I say. It is too much happiness."

A smile of triumph lighted up her face.

"If I did not love you," she said, "could I not have chosen Don Fernando, who is now at the hacienda?"

"Yes, yes; you are a thousand times right! O woman! Adorable woman! Who is able to fathom thy heart?"

Doņa Hermosa smiled bitterly: she had brought the lion captive to her feet; she had vanquished man in his pride. Now she was sure of her revenge.

"What answer shall I give my father?" she said.

He drew himself up to his full height; his eyes flashed, his features grew radiant, and he answered in a low tone:

"Seņorita, my happiness is immeasurable. Say to your father, that the devotion of a whole life cannot repay the bliss of this interview. As soon as the presidio of San Lucar is taken, I shall present myself at the hacienda of Don Pedro de Luna."


CHAPTER XII.

WOMAN'S WILL.


Every extreme situation, as soon as it reaches its culminating point, must necessarily subside into a reaction of an opposite tendency. This was exactly what happened after the scene we described in the last chapter.

Don Torribio, beside himself with joy, could not accept Doņa Hermosa's protestations of love without a certain degree of mistrust. Yet the improbability of her having taken this decided step from other motives than the one she professed, had materially aided her in the successful attempt to hoodwink her admirer.

Intelligence of a high class is often accompanied by a weakness detrimental to its possessors: they cannot bring themselves to believe, that those who fawn upon them and flatter their propensities are sufficiently acute to deceive them. And so it happened in this case. How could he fail to believe a girl, still almost a child, whose manner seemed so guileless, whose looks were fraught with love, and who avowed her affection so frankly?

What could she gain by deceiving him, now Don Fernando was alive? What object could she have in coming thus to put herself into his hands, without the possibility of escaping from him?

All this appeared absurd: and was so, in fact, up to a certain point.

It only proved that Don Torribio, preeminently a statesman, endowed with admirable talent, and whose sole aim through life had been the accomplishment of his dreams of ambition, was so entirely absorbed in farfetched political calculations, that he had no time to study that amalgam of archness, grace, and perfidy we call woman, and knew nothing about her nature.

A woman South American woman especially—never forgives an injury to her lover; he is the holy ark which none may touch.

Moreover, we must say, Doņa Hermosa was the first, the only love of Don Torribio. His love was to him a creed, a faith; and all doubt vanished from before his eyes at the proof she had just given of her affection.

"And now," she said to him, "can I remain in the camp till my father comes, without risking insult?"

"You have but to command!" he replied: "All here are your slaves."

"The woman, under whose protection I was able to reach you will go back to the hacienda of Las Norias."

Don Torribio strode to the curtain of the toldo, and clapped his hands twice.

An Indian warrior appeared.

"Let a toldo be prepared for me; I cede this to the two paleface women," he said, in the Apache language; "a body of chosen braves, whom my brother will command, will watch incessantly over their safety. Woe to him who fails in the profoundest respect! These women are sacred; free to come and go, and to receive whomsoever they choose. Does my brother understand?"

The warrior bowed his head without reply.

"Let my brother have two horses ready."

The Indian disappeared.

"You see, seņorita," he continued, turning towards her, "you are queen here."

"I thank you!" said Doņa Hermosa, drawing from her bosom an open letter she had prepared for the occasion; "I felt sure of the result of my interview with you: you see, I have announced it to my father, even before I met you. Take this, Don Torribio, and read what I have written."

She held it out to him with a charming smile, but an inward misgiving.

"Seņorita," he replied, motioning the letter away, "what a daughter writes to her father should be sacred; no one but himself should read it."

Doņa Hermosa folded up the letter, without evincing the least emotion at the terrible risk she had just run, and gave it to Manuela.

"Mother," she said, "you will give this letter to my father, and explain to him what I have not been able to write."

"Allow me to retire," exclaimed Don Torribio; "I must not listen to the instructions you are about to give to your attendant."

"I object," she replied; "I must have no secrets from you; henceforth you must know all my inmost thoughts."

Don Torribio glowed with delight. Just then they brought the horses. Doņa Hermosa profited by the opportunity afforded by his speaking to the Apache to say rapidly to Manuela: "Your son must be here in an hour, if that be possible."

Manuela made a sign of acquiescence, and Don Torribio reentered the toldo.

"I myself will accompany Ņa Manuela as far as the defences of the presidio; this will insure her from incurring any danger."

"Thanks, once more," replied Doņa Hermosa.

The two women threw themselves into each other's arms, and embraced as if they were never to meet again.

"Do not forget!" whispered Doņa Hermosa.

"Trust in me," replied Manuela.

"This is now your home," said Don Torribio "no one will dare to enter without your permission."

Doņa Hermosa smiled her thanks, and accompanied them to the entrance of the toldo; Manuela and her escort mounted and departed.

The young Mexican followed them with her eyes till the sound of their horses' feet was lost amid the other noises in the camp, when she returned to the toldo, murmuring: "The first steps are taken: now to discover his intentions!"

A quarter of an hour later, Manuela and her guide arrived within a hundred yards of the pueblo. They had not exchanged a word.

"You have now no further need of me," said Don Torribio. "Keep the horse; he may be useful to you. May God preserve you!"

Without another word, he turned his horse, and rode back to the camp, leaving Manuela alone.

The latter looked about her to discover whereabouts she was, and then rode resolutely towards the town, which was looming in a dark mass before her. She had only gone a few paces, when a rude hand seized her reins, a pistol was presented at her head, and a rough voice exclaimed, in Spanish:

"Who goes there?"

"Friend," she replied, attempting to conceal her trepidation.

"Mother!" cried a joyful voice.

"Estevan, my darling child," she exclaimed, throwing herself on his breast, to which she was clasped in the most affectionate embrace.

"How did you come here, and whence?" he asked, after a time.

"From the camp of the redskins."

"Already!" said he, in astonishment.

"Yes; my mistress sends me to you."

"And who was the man with you, mother?"

"Don Torribio himself."

"Malediction!" exclaimed the mayor domo; "I have let him escape, when I had covered him for five minutes with my rifle. But we will not stay here. Come with me. As soon as I have placed you in safety, you shall relate what your mistress has charged you to communicate to me."

When they got into the presidio, Don Estevan made his mother recount the incidents of their expedition.

"Ah!" said he more than once; "Women are imps of cunning; men are but fools beside them!"

When Manuela had quite finished her tale, he said: "Mother, there is not a moment to lose: Don Pedro must get the letter this very night. The poor father must be in a state of dreadful anxiety."

"I am going to him myself," said Manuela.

"No!" he replied "you have need of rest. I have a man here who will acquit himself well of this commission."

"As you please, Estevan," said she, giving him the letter.

"Yes, I think this will be the best way. Come into this house; the good woman to whom it belongs knows me, and will take every care of you."

"Are you going to Doņa Hermosa?"

"By Heavens! Do you think I intend to leave the poor girl there, in the midst of those infidels? Besides, what she has got to say to me may concern us all narrowly."

"Devoted as ever, Estevan! How like you that is?"

"What can I do, mother?" he replied, with a laugh. "Devotion seems to be my vocation."

He led his mother into the house, where he confided her to its mistress, and then went in search of his emissary to Don Pedro de Luna.

Round a bright fire burning in the centre of the street several men were lying, wrapped in their cloaks. Don Estevan roughly shook one of the sleepers.

"Wake, Tonillo!" he said; "Get up, muchacho: you must be off for the Hacienda de las Norias."

"But I only came thence a quarter of an hour ago!" replied the lepero, rubbing his eyes, and still half asleep.

"I know it; and that is the reason why I send you; you ought to know the road well. Besides, it is for Doņa Hermosa's sake."

"For Doņa Hermosa's sake!" cried the lepero, whom the sound of the name seemed to awaken thoroughly; "What are her orders?"

"Now you are as you should be," said the mayor domo. "Mount directly, and carry this letter to Don Pedro: to say it is from his daughter, is to tell you it is of importance."

"Very well; I will go this minute."

"I have no need to tell you that no one must take this paper from you."

"I can see that, canarios."

"You will let yourself be killed sooner than give it up?"

"Yes, yes; make yourself easy, mayor domo."

"And even after death they must not find it."

"I will sooner eat it; Rayo de Dios!" El Zapote was galloping towards the hacienda a quarter of an hour later.

"It is my turn now," said the mayor domo to himself, as soon as he was alone; "but how am I to get to Doņa Hermosa?"

It seemed as if a little consideration had enlightened him as to the means, for he banished the frown from his forehead, and gaily took the road to the fort.

After a conference with Major Barnum, who, since the death of the governor, had assumed the command of the town, Estevan disguised himself as an Indian, and went to the camp of the redskins. Shortly before sunrise he was in the town again.

"Well!" said his mother.

"All is for the best," he replied. "ĄVive Dios! I think Doņa Hermosa will make that incarnate demon pay dearly for kidnapping Don Fernando."

"Am I to rejoin her?"

"No; it is not necessary."

Without entering into any details, Don Estevan who was sinking from fatigue, retired to snatch a few hours' repose.

Several days passed without the Indians attacking the pueblo. They contented themselves with investing it more closely, without attempting an assault. Their plan seemed to be to starve out the inhabitants, and force them to surrender from famine.

The blockade was kept so strictly, that it was impossible for the besieged to stir beyond their lines: all their communications were cut off, and provisions began to fail. The cattle which had been collected at the commencement of the siege had all been killed, and the Mexicans were now driven to the necessity of consuming the hides.

The plan would doubtless have succeeded; and the Mexicans, reduced to the last extremity, would soon have been obliged to surrender without striking a blow; but a project of Don Estevan's, communicated to Major Barnum, and executed without delay, suddenly defeated the Tigercat's plans, and obliged him to make the assault, in order to hinder the revolt of the tribes who followed him. The Mexicans, whom the pangs of famine were driving to despair, were eagerly longing for the assault.

Don Estevan ordered a hundred and fifty loaves to be made of wheat saturated with arsenic. These were packed on a few mules, still left in the fort, in company with twenty-four kegs of brandy mixed with vitriol. With ten trusty fellows, he escorted this formidable freight to within a short distance of the redskin intrenchments.

Everything happened as he had foreseen. The Indians, who are extravagantly fond of brandy, were allured by the sight of the kegs, and rushed upon the convoy in the hopes of capturing it.

Don Estevan lost no time. Casting loaves and kegs upon the sand, and retreating at full speed, he brought off his men and mules in the pueblo.

The Indians, dragging their booty into their camp, knocked in the heads of the barrels, and an orgy commenced which lasted till bread and brandy had disappeared.

More than a thousand Indians perished through this ingenious device of the mayor domo's[1] the others, smitten with terror, began to disband in all directions.

The exasperated savages, in their first moments of excitement, and in spite of the efforts of their leader, ruthlessly massacred under horrible tortures all the men, women, and children who had fallen into their power at the commencement of the war, and had been kept prisoners in the camp up to the time.

Doņa Hermosa herself, notwithstanding the respect with which she had been treated, and the extreme care she took never to leave the toldo, was in great danger of falling a victim to the fury of the Indians. Chance alone saved her.

The great chief resolved to finish the war at once. He despatched El Zopilote to order all the sachems to assemble in his toldo. As soon as they arrived, he announced to them that at the endic'ha (daybreak) on the morrow the presidio would be attacked on all sides at once.

Don Torribio, in his quality of chief, was present at the council. As soon as it was over he hastened to Doņa Hermosa's toldo, and demanded an interview.

Since her arrival in the camp, although the Tigercat was perfectly aware of all that was going on between her and Don Torribio, he had purposely avoided meeting her, contenting himself with congratulating the latter on the affection the girl manifested for him. Nevertheless, an acute observer might have easily perceived that the Tigercat harboured some sinister purpose in his mind. Don Torribio, on the contrary, was too much blinded by his passion to attempt to read the countenance of the old bandit.

The intensity of his love, and the zest with which he gave himself up to it, diverted his thoughts from the shame and remorse which stung him when he thought of the infamy attached to his name by his treacherous desertion of his own people to become a member of the ferocious and sanguinary tribes of the Apaches.

Doņa Hermosa, on hearing that Don Torribio wished to see her, gave orders for his instant admittance. She was talking at the time with her father. Don Pedro de Luna had hastened to join his daughter the instant he received her letter, and had already been some days in the camp.

The interior of the toldo was greatly changed. Don Torribio had ordered it to be embellished with divers pieces of elegant furniture, stolen by the Indians from different haciendas. Partitions had been constructed, closets contrived, so that the metamorphosis was complete; and, although the exterior remained as it had been before, the inside, in consequence of the alterations, assumed the appearance of a European residence.

Manuela, Doņa Hermosa's nurse, had also returned with Don Pedro—a circumstance extremely agreeable to the girl; first, on account of the great confidence she reposed in her; and again, because Manuela was indispensable for all those little services and attentions to which women of rank are accustomed. Besides, the presence of the nurse, who never left Doņa Hermosa's side in her interviews with Don Torribio, prevented any exuberant outbreak of passion on his part, and confined him to the limits of a respectful decorum.

Whatever astonishment the redskins might have felt at the alterations in the toldo undertaken by Don Torribio, the veneration and devotion they professed for the Tigercat were so great, that, with the delicacy which seems innate in their race, they pretended to see none of them, especially as the latter had taken no offence at the conduct of the paleface chief. Moreover, as, under all circumstances, the latter rendered them energetic cooperation, being always the foremost in battle and the last to retreat, they thought it right to leave him to arrange his own affairs as he judged best, without any attempt to oppose him.

"Well," said Doņa Hermosa, when he entered, "has the Tigercat succeeded in subduing the exasperation of the tribes?"

"Thank Heaven! He has, seņorita; but the atrocious crime committed by Major Barnum is unworthy of a man, and more the deed of a savage brute than of a civilized being."

"Perhaps the major is not the author of the crime."

"The whites are accustomed to treat the Indians thus. Have I not heard them assert a thousand times that the redskins are not human beings? All weapons that kill them are lawful, and poison is one of the surest. This crime alone is sufficient to justify me in having quitted the ranks of the monsters."

"Speak no more on this subject, I beseech you; you make me shudder. I am obliged to confess that reason is on your side. When we witness such horrors, we begin to regret that we belong to a race capable of inventing them."

"What is the decision of the council?" asked Don Pedro, in order to turn the conversation.

"Tomorrow, at daybreak, a general assault will be delivered on the presidio."

"Tomorrow!" exclaimed Doņa Hermosa, in a fright.

"Yes," he replied; "tomorrow I hope to revenge myself on those who were my brothers, and have forced me to repudiate them. Tomorrow I shall conquer or die."

"God protect the good cause!" said she ambiguously.

"Thanks, cousin," replied Don Torribio, mistaking the meaning of her exclamation.

Don Pedro with difficulty repressed a sigh.

"The action tomorrow will be severe," Don Torribio continued. "I conjure you, seņorita, not to leave the toldo. Should we meet with a reverse, no one can tell to what extremes the rage of the Apaches may carry them. I will leave twenty resolute men, vaqueros on whom I can rely, to defend you. As soon as the affair is over, I will send you word."

"Are you going already, Don Torribio?" said she, as she saw him move for the purpose.

"I must, seņorita; I am one of the chiefs of the Indian army. In that quality, I have duties to fulfil, and must make preparations for the morrow. I entreat you to let me go."

"Farewell, then, if it must be so."

Bowing respectfully to her and her father, Don Torribio retired.

"All is lost," said Don Pedro; "the Mexicans will never be able to withstand the assault."

Doņa Hermosa looked at him with a strange expression, and then whispered in his ear:

"Father, have you read your Bible?"

"Why do you ask, little madcap?"

"Because," said she, with a coaxing smile, "you seem to have forgotten the story of Delilah."

"What!" he exclaimed, more astonished than ever; "Do you intend to cut off his hair?"

"ŋQuién sabe?" she answered, shaking her head knowingly, and with a delicious assumption of bravado; while at the same time she put one of her fingers on her rosy lips.

Don Pedro gave the shrug of a man who is utterly at a loss to understand, and who gives up an inexplicable enigma.

[1] A fact. An identical occurrence took place at the Carmen of Patagonia, daring an attack by the Indians.

CHAPTER XIII.

PALEFACE VERSUS REDSKIN.


The redskins in general, and the Apaches in particular, exhibit a surprising degree of craftiness when on the warpath, or preparing for a hazardous expedition. The best troops of the civilized world cannot compete with them in subtlety and wariness, such pains do they take to conceal and dissemble their movements.

Towards three o'clock in the morning, just as the first pearly notes issued from the throats of the mawkawis[1] nestled among the leaves, the Tigercat and Don Torribio rose from their beds, armed themselves for the fight, and issued forth from their toldos, followed by several Apache braves, directing their silent and rapid steps towards the centre of the camp, where the sachems of the tribes, crouched on their haunches around an immense brasier, smoked the war calumet while waiting for the great chief.

When the Tigercat appeared, the Indians rose in a body to reverence their leader.

The Tigercat, returning their salute, made them a sign to be seated, and turning to the amantzin, or sorcerer, who stood by his side. "Will the Master of life remain neutral?" he asked. "Will the Wacondah be propitious to the Apache braves? Or will he be adverse to the war his Indian sons, united before the stone atepelt (village) of the palefaces, are going to wage this day against their oppressors?"

"At the bidding of the chiefs," replied the amantzin, "I will question the Master of life."

Then, drawing himself up to his full height, he wrapped his bison robe about him, and thrice paced round the fire, marching from left to right, and muttering words unintelligible to all, and which yet seemed to have a mysterious meaning. At the third round, he poured a coui (a small vessel) of water, sweetened with smilax, into a cup of reeds, plaited so closely that not a drop escaped. Next, having dipped a sprig of wormwood in the coui, he sprinkled the assembled sachems, and emptied the water in three separate portions towards the rising sun.

Then, bending his body forward, with outstretched head and expanded arms, he appeared to listen to sounds perceptible to him alone.

At the end of a few seconds the mawkawis lifted up his song again, on the right of his sorcerer. Immediately his face contorted itself, and grew horrible to look at; his bloodshot eyes seemed ready to start from their orbits; a whitish foam oozed from the corners of his compressed lips; a livid pallor overspread his features; his limbs were convulsed, and his body was agitated by violent distortions.

"The Spirit comes! The Spirit comes!" muttered the Indians, in superstitious terror.

"Silence!" cried the Tigercat; "The wise man is about to speak."

In fact, a painful hissing issued from the distorted mouth of the amantzin, which changed by slow degrees into words, unintelligible at first, but soon pronounced sufficiently distinctly to be understood by all.

"The spirit comes!" he exclaimed; "He has unbound his long locks, which float abroad on the winds. His breath brings annihilation; the heaven are red with blood. Victims will not be wanting for the Wacondah, the spirit of evil. Who can resist him? He alone is master. The knives of the Apaches shall find a sheath in the breasts of the palefaces. The vultures and urubus are glad; they snuff the ample repast. Shout the war cry! Courage, warriors! the Wacondah himself will lead you. Death is nothing; glory is all!"

The amantzin, having uttered a few other unintelligible words, dropped to the ground, a prey to frightful convulsions.

Strange to relate, the men who had up to this time hung suspended on his lips, listening with strained anxiety to his utterances, had now no look or word of pity or interest for him as he lay writhing on the ground, but left him there, without further thought about him. It was because the man rash enough to touch a sorcerer while possessed by the spirit would fall a lifeless corpse: such is the Indian belief.

As soon as the amantzin had ceased speaking, the Tigercat took up the word in his turn.

"Great chiefs of the Apache tribes," said he in a deep voice, "you see that the God of your fathers smiles on our attempt, and encourages it. Let us not hesitate, warriors! Let us confound with one last blow the pride of our oppressors. Our lands are now free; one single spot is still in the power of our tyrants. Let us conquer it today, and at sunset let the Spanish flag, whose fatal shadow has so long been the omen of misery and death, be lowered on our frontiers forever. Courage, brothers! Your ancestors, hunting in the happy prairies, will joyfully welcome those who fall in the battle. Let each repair to the post I have assigned him; the hoarse cry of the urubu, thrice repeated at equal intervals, will give the signal for the assault."

The chiefs, with deep reverence, took their departure, and dispersed in various directions. The Tigercat remained alone, absorbed in profound meditation.

An awful stillness reigned over the scene. There was not a breath of wind, nor a cloud in the sky. The limpid and transparent atmosphere permitted objects to be seen at a vast distance. The dark blue heavens were studded with a multitude of sparkling stars; the moon was pouring forth her silver rays in profusion; no sound disturbed the impressive silence, except, at intervals, that low murmuring which, coming we know not whence, seems the awful breathing of slumbering nature.

The white chief, on the point of making his mightiest effort to enfranchise the Indian nations, and pave the way for the triumph of his mysterious combinations, yielded with delight to the tumultuous thoughts busying themselves in his brain. Communing with his soul, he scrutinised his own conduct, and fervently entreated Him who is almighty, and whose eye searches the heart, not to abandon him, if the cause for which he fought was righteous.

A hand was laid heavily on his shoulder.

Thus rudely recalled to himself, the Tigercat started. He passed his hand over his damp brow, and turned to the intruder. The sorcerer stood there, gazing at him with his perfidious eyes, and grinning an evil smile.

"What brings you here?" said the chief abruptly.

"Is my father satisfied with me?" replied the amantzin; "Has the Wacondah spoken well to the sachems?"

"Yes," said the Tigercat, with a gesture of disgust; "my brother has done well: he may go."

"My father is great and generous! The spirit that possesses me tore me grievously."

The chief snatched a string of pearls from his neck, and threw it to the wretch, who caught it with a shout of delight.

"Go!" said the Tigercat, turning haughtily away.

The amantzin retired. He had got all he wanted.

Don Torribio had left the scene of the incantation with the other chiefs, to repair to his post; but after proceeding a little way, he looked up to the sky, and mentally calculated the hour by the position of the stars.

"I shall have time," he muttered to himself.

So he hastily directed his steps towards the toldo of Doņa Hermosa; numerous guards surrounded it.

"She sleeps," said he; "sleeps, lulled by sweet childish fancies. O God! Who knowest the extent of my love, and the sacrifice I have offered at its shrine, grant she may be happy!"

He went up to one of the vaqueros, who, leaning against a tree, was silently smoking his cigarette, his eyes fixed on the toldo.

"Verado," said he, with emotion he could not repress, "twice have I saved your life at the risk of my own. Do you remember?"

"I remember," said the vaquero briefly.

"Today it is I who come to ask a service. Can I rely on you?"

"Speak, Don Torribio; I will do all a man can do, to do you a service."

"Thanks, comrade! My life, my soul, all I hold dear in the world, is contained in this toldo. I confide her to you. Swear to defend her, whatever may happen!"

"I swear it, Don Torribio. The toldo is sacred; neither friend nor enemy shall enter. I and the men you have placed under my command will die on the spot before injury shall happen to those you love."

"I thank you," said the chief, extending his hand to the vaquero.

The latter seized the bottom of his leader's cloak, and kissed it reverently.

Don Torribio cast one more look of affection at the toldo, which concealed, as he had said, all he loved in this world, and then went his way with rapid strides.

"Now," said he, "let me be a man! They are bold men we have to contend with."

As soon as the chief had ordered the sachems to their posts, where the warriors were anxiously expecting the word to let them loose upon the foe, they proceeded to the different stations where their respective tribes were posted.

The men then commenced one of those incredible marches which Indians alone can perform—crawling on their bellies over the ground. Creeping and gliding along like snakes, they managed to station themselves, in less than an hour, and without attracting notice, immediately at the foot of the ramparts held by the Mexicans. This movement had been executed with so much precision and success, that no sound had been heard in the prairie, and nothing appeared to have stirred in the camp, where all seemed plunged into the deepest repose.

Nevertheless, a few minutes before the sachems had received the final orders of the Tigercat, a man in Apache dress had quitted the camp in advance of the others, and crept towards the fort on hands and knees.

When he arrived at the barricade, another man who, leaning over it, had been listening with intense anxiety, reached out his hand, and helped him inside the town.

"Well, Estevan?"

"We shall be attacked before an hour is over, major," said the mayor domo.

"Will the attack be serious?"

"An assault. The Indians are determined to finish the game at once; they are afraid of being all poisoned if they wait longer."

"What is to be done?" grumbled the officer.

"Let ourselves be killed," was the reply.

"By Heavens! A comfortable piece of advice! We can but do that at the last extremity."

"We might try something else."

"But what? Speak, in Heaven's name!"

"Is everything prepared as we agreed?"

"It is. But what do you propose?"

"Give me twenty-five vaqueros, whom you can trust."

"Take them; you will lead them?"

"That is my affair, major. I will not answer for success; for these red devils are numberless as the sands; but you may depend on my thinning their ranks."

"That will do us no harm. But the women and children?"

"I have got them all safely to Las Norias."

"God be praised! Now we can fight like men; our dear ones are in safety."

"For a time they are."

"What do you mean? What is there else to fear?"

"Only that when the Indians have taken the presidio, they will most probably attack the hacienda."

"You are out of your wits, Estevan," said the major, smiling; "and Doņa Hermosa—"

"True," replied the mayor domo gaily; "I had forgotten her."

"Is that all you have to report?"

"No, major," he said quickly; "one thing more."

"Out with it then; for time presses."

"The signal for the attack is to be three screams of the urubu, at equal intervals."

"Good! I will be ready for them: they will attack before daybreak."

The major and Don Estevan separated, to visit the posts in succession, to arouse the guards, and prepare them for the event.

The preceding evening, Major Barnum had assembled all the townspeople, and, in a brief and energetic speech, and with the greatest frankness, apprised them of the precarious situation of the pueblo; had explained his plan of defence; and finished by telling them that boats were ready moored under the guns of the fort, to receive the women, children, old men, and all those country people who declined to join in his desperate resistance; adding, that all who embarked would be conveyed at nightfall to the Hacienda of Las Norias, where they would be kindly received.

We are bound to say, that a few of the people in the town, dismayed by the energetic proceedings of the major, had recoiled from the idea of taking part in them, and had gone to the hacienda. There remained, therefore, in the town only resolute men, determined to sell their lives dearly, and on whom he could rely with confidence.

Thus when, on being aroused, the immediate attack of the Apaches was made known to them, they manned the barriers confidently, with eyes and ears on the watch, ready to give fire at the first signal.

One hour passed over without any occurrence to break the stillness of the night. The Mexicans began to imagine that they had been summoned to the walls by a false alarm, as had already happened on several occasions, when suddenly the hoarse and ominous scream of the urubu arose.

Again it broke through the silence, and a cold shudder ran through the frames of the besieged, who recognised their death cry, and knew how little chance of escape existed.

A third time the scream of the urubu arose, louder and hoarser than before. Ere it was well ended, the dreadful war whoop broke forth on all sides, and the Indians threw themselves in swarms on the exterior defences, and attempted to carry them by escalade. The Mexicans received them firmly, like men who knew their last hour was come, and were resolved to fall amidst a hecatomb of foes. The Indians fell back in dismay, astounded at the vigorous resistance. Their measures had been taken so secretly, that they felt certain of surprising the town. As soon as they were in the open, showers of grape swept them down, and scattered death and disorder among their masses.

Don Estevan, profiting by the panic, threw himself, at the head of his vaqueros, on the thunderstricken redskins, and cut them down indiscriminately. Twice he renewed the charge with the courage of a lion, and twice the Indians recoiled before him.

As long as the darkness lasted, the Apaches could not perceive the smallness of the force opposed to them, and the combat was greatly favourable to the palefaces, who, sheltered behind the barricades, kept up a deadly fire on the dense masses of the enemy.

But after about two hours of this obstinate resistance the sun rose, and lighted up the field of battle with the glorious splendour of his rays. The Indians hailed his appearance with clamorous shouts, and precipitated themselves with renewed fury on the intrenchments from which they had just been driven. Their shock was irresistible.

The whites, after an amount of resistance determined on beforehand, abandoned a position they could no longer hold. The Indians, at the top of their speed, rushed in pursuit. But at that moment a frightful explosion was heard, the ground burst under their feet, and the mangled wretches, hurled into the air, were cast in all directions.

The interior of the defences had been undermined, and the major had just issued the order to fire the train. The effects of the explosion were horrible. The panic-stricken redskins began to fly on all sides, and, yielding to the impulse of their terror, were deaf to the orders of their sachems, and refused to renew the fight.

For a moment the palefaces thought themselves saved. But the Tigercat, mounted on a magnificent jet black mustang, and unfolding to the breeze the sacred totem of the allied tribes, rushed to the front, braving in his single person the shots the Mexicans aimed at him, and cried in a terrible voice: "Cowards! As you will not conquer, see how a brave man can die!"

His voice conveyed the bitterest reproach to the ears of the redskins; the most cowardly were ashamed to abandon the chief who was thus generously sacrificing himself; they faced about, and returned to the assault with redoubled ardour.

The Tigercat seemed invulnerable. He made his horse bound into the thickest of the fight, parrying the blows aimed at him with the staff of the totem, which he held displayed above his head to encourage his men.

The Apaches, electrified by the audacity of their great chief, crowded around him, undismayed even in death, and shouted:

"The Tigercat! The Tigercat! Let us die for the great chief!"

"Look there!" cried he enthusiastically, pointing to the morning star; "Look there! Your Father is smiling upon your deeds! Forwards! Forwards!"

"Forwards!" repeated the redskins, advancing with fresh fury.

But the major knew this horrible struggle could not last much longer. The redskins had carried all the barricades; the town swarmed with them. The Mexicans disputed it house by house, only leaving one to throw themselves into another when dislodged by main force. The redskins formed into a solid mass, led by Don Torribio, charged up the steep street leading to the old presidio and the fort which commands it. In spite of the ravages caused in their ranks by the grape from the guns of the fort, they advanced without wavering; for they saw, after each of the discharges which showered death amongst them, the Tigercat ten paces in advance, bestriding his black charger, and brandishing the totem, with Don Torribio at his side waving his sword.

"Come," said the major gravely to Don Estevan; "the time has arrived to execute the orders I gave you."

"You insist upon them, major?" replied the latter.

"I do Estevan."

"Enough, major; they shall not say I disobeyed your last orders. Farewell! Or rather, may we soon meet in heaven; for I shall fall as well as you."

"ŋQuién sabe? Farewell, farewell!"

"Let us still hope," answered the mayor domo in a stifled voice.

The two men silently clasped each other's hands in a final pressure; for they knew that, without a miracle, they should never meet again.

After this leave-taking, Don Estevan collected some forty horsemen, formed them into a compact body, and, in the interval between two volleys from the fort, threw himself at full speed on the advancing redskins. The Apaches could not resist the impetuosity of the charge, and fled into the houses on either hand. When they recovered from their panic, the horsemen who had so rudely handled them had got on board two large boats, and were rowing swiftly towards the Hacienda de las Norias. Don Estevan and the whole of his followers were saved, with the exception of three or four who fell in the charge. The major had profited by the diversion to throw himself, with the remaining whites, into the fort, the gates of which were instantly closed behind him. Don Torribio ordered the redskins to halt, and advanced alone to the fortress.

"Major," cried he in a loud voice, "surrender! The lives of yourself and the garrison shall be respected."

"You are a traitor, a coward, and a dog!" replied the major, appearing on the walls. "You murdered my friend, who trusted to your loyalty. No surrender!"

"It is death to you and all with you; for the sake of humanity, surrender! Defence is impossible."

"You are a coward!" cried the major again; "here is my answer."

"Back, all of you! Back!" shouted the Tigercat, driving both spurs into his horse, which bounded into the air, and flew off with the speed of an arrow.

The Indians precipitated themselves from the top to the base of the rampart, seized with an indescribable panic; but not speedily enough to avoid the fate that threatened them. The major had fired the magazines in the fort. A terrific explosion ensued. The gigantic edifice oscillated for a second or two on its foundations, like a tottering mastodon; then, suddenly torn from the ground, rose into the air, and burst like an elephantine shell. Amidst the last cries of "Long live the Republic!" from the besieged, a storm of stones and bodies, horribly mutilated, hailed down upon the redskins, aghast at the horrible catastrophe—and all was over, the Tigercat was master of the Presidio de San Lucar; but, as Major Barnum had sworn, he was only in possession of a pile of ruins.

With tears of rage, Don Torribio planted the totem of the Apaches on a strip of tottering wall—the sole remnant to mark the spot where, ten minutes ago, rose the magnificent fort of San Lucar.

[1] A Mexican songbird.

CHAPTER XIV.

THE CATASTROPHE.


Several days had elapsed since the fall of the presidio of San Lucar. The pueblo had been given up to pillage, with refinements of barbarity impossible to describe. Only the principal buildings had been spared, thanks to the measures employed by the Tigercat, who to save the immense treasures they contained, had allotted them to the most powerful sachems of the tribes who followed him.

The old freebooter had established his headquarters in the former dwelling of Don Torribio Quiroga, which the latter had gracefully ceded to him. Doņa Hermosa and her father had resumed possession of their own mansion.

The town, with none but Indians for inhabitants, had a mournful aspect: no more commerce; no more cheerful songs; nothing left of the careless spirit of gaiety which formerly animated the Mexican colony. Here and there in the open streets lay corpses, battled for by the birds of prey, festering, and infecting the atmosphere. In a word, the whole scene afforded the spectacle of that desolation which accompanies a war of extermination between two races who have been foes for centuries.

About a week after the events we have described in the preceding chapter, three persons were assembled, about ten o'clock in the morning, in a room in Don Pedro de Luna's house, and were talking in low tones. These three persons were, Don Pedro himself, Doņa Hermosa, and the worthy capataz Luciano Pedralva, who, huddled up in the fantastical costume of a vaquero, looked like a monstrous robber, exciting bursts of laughter from Ņa Manuela, who was seated, on the watch, at a window. Every time she looked at him, she broke into a fresh laugh, to the indignation of the capataz, who voted his disguise at the devil.

"Well as we have agreed," said Don Pedro, "you must put on your pumps, Luciano, and prepare for the dance."

"And it is to take place today?"

"It must, my good friend. It seems to me that we live in singular times, and in a very singular country. I have seen many revolutions, but this beats them all."

"As for me," said Doņa Hermosa, "it seems consistent enough from an Indian point of view."

"Very possible, my dear. I am not going to enter into a discussion with you; but you must confess that a month ago we were far from expecting such a prompt re-establishment of the Apache power on these frontiers."

"You know, Don Pedro, I understand none of these matters; only it appears to me that the Tigercat is not very magnanimous for a man about to become a sovereign."

"What do you mean by that, Luciano?"

"I mean what everyone ought to mean. The letter he sent Don Fernando the day before yesterday is explicit enough; for in it he tells him, shortly and sharply, that if he is found in the colony five days after its receipt, he will have him hanged."

"If he can catch him!" said Doņa Hermosa hastily.

"That is understood," replied the capataz.

"What is there in that to astonish you, Luciano?" said Don Pedro. "By Heavens! What extraordinary things I have witnessed in my life! I myself know a score of people to whom the same threats have been made, and who are yet alive and well."

"It is all one; but, in spite of that, I do not like it."

"But this is all foreign to our matter. You will return to the hacienda, Don Luciano; and remember my advice."

"Trust to me, seņor. But I have something else to say."

"Say what you will, my good friend; but lose no time."

"I am dreadfully anxious about Don Estevan," replied the capataz, in a voice so low that it could not reach Ņa Manuela's ears; "for six days he has disappeared, and we hear no tidings of him."

Doņa Hermosa smiled slyly. "Estevan is not the man to lose himself without leaving a trail," said she. "Tranquilize yourself: at the proper time you will see him again."

"So much the better, seņorita; for he is a man to be relied on."

"Don Torribio!" suddenly exclaimed Manuela.

"Indeed!" said the capataz; "Then it is time for me to vanish."

"Follow me quickly;" cried the mayor domo's mother.

The capataz bent reverently before Doņa Hermosa and Don Pedro, and left the room with Manuela.

The door by which they went out had hardly closed upon them, when another opened, and Don Torribio entered. He wore a superb Indian dress; his forehead was lined with care, and his looks were sad. He bowed to Doņa Hermosa, cordially grasped the hand of Don Pedro, and took his seat at a mute sign from the lady.

After the interchange of a few common-place words, the daughter of the hacendero, whom Don Torribio's downcast demeanour disquieted more than she liked to evince, turned gracefully towards him, and said, with an assumption of interest which was admirably acted:

"What ails you, Don Torribio? You look sad. What bad news have you received?"

"None, seņorita; though I thank you for the interest you take in my affairs. Were I ambitious, I should feel content; for all my aspirations have been realised. In receiving your hand, a few days hence, the dream of my whole life will be fulfilled. You see, seņorita," he added, with a mournful smile, "that I allow you to peer into the depths of my heart."

"I am thankful for what you say; but, Don Torribio, you were not thus a few days ago. Something must have—"

"Nothing personal, I assure you. But the nearer the time comes for the ceremony of taking possession of the territories we have won back, the greater discouragement masters me. I can by no means approve the determination of the Tigercat to have himself officially declared an independent sovereign; it is a folly I cannot comprehend. The Tigercat knows better than any one how impossible it is to maintain himself here. The Apaches, brave as they are, will never be able to hold their own against the disciplined force the Mexican Government will despatch against us, as soon as they hear of this outbreak."

"Is it impossible to induce the Tigercat to change his purpose?"

"It is. I have tried every means to show him the insanity of his project. He will listen to nothing. The man has an object in view known to himself alone; the wish he loudly proclaims—to regenerate the race of redskins—is a mere pretext."

"You shock me, Don Torribio! If this is the case, why not give him up?"

"Can I do so? Am I not already a renegade? Shall I confess to you, seņorita? Although every thing seems prosperous,—although the future seems to have nothing but smiles for me,—yet, for the last few days, an invincible despondency has crept over me. Everything looks dark, and I feel world worn. In a word, I have a foreboding that I am on the eve of a terrible misfortune."

Doņa Hermosa cast a piercing glance at him, which he did not observe. "Banish these mournful thoughts," said she, with emphasis; "henceforth your fate is settled; nothing can alter it."

"I believe so; but, you know, seņorita, mischance may come between the cup and the lip."

"Come, come, Don Torribio!" said Don Pedro gaily; "Let us to breakfast. It is the last repast you will share with us before the ceremony of taking possession. Is it still to be today?"

"It is!" replied Don Torribio, offering his hand to Doņa Hermosa, to lead her into another room, where a splendid meal was prepared.

At first they were very silent; the guests seemed ill at ease; but by degrees the efforts of Doņa Hermosa and her father to cheer Don Torribio succeeded in breaking the ice, and the conversation became more lively. Yet it was easily seen that Don Torribio had a hard struggle to repel the thoughts that rose to his lips, and to condemn them to silence.

Towards the close of the repast, the chief turned to Doņa Hermosa.

"Seņorita," he said, "tonight my future will be settled. In taking part, as an Indian chief, in the ceremony of today, I shall throw down the gauntlet to my countrymen, by giving them to understand that I openly join the cause of the redskins; and that what they at first supposed to be an Indian raid grew, thanks to the Tigercat and me, into the rising of a whole nation. I know the pride of the whites! Unable to utilise the immense territories they possess, they will still never leave us in peaceful enjoyment of the heritage we have carved out for ourselves at the point of our lances. The Mexican Government will wage a war of destruction upon us. Can I depend upon you?"

"Before answering, Don Torribio, I must demand a clearer explanation."

"And you shall have it. Reprisals are what the Spaniards most dread in an Indian insurrection; that is to say, a massacre of the whites. My carriage with a Mexican would be a gage of peace from us to them—a pledge for the future security of their commerce, and the observance of the relations to be established between us. Our path is marked out, however the chiefs of the tribes may object. Neither the Tigercat nor I will deviate from it a hair's breadth. Seņorita, I address this frank and loyal question to you: Will you grant me your hand?"

"Why should you press so grave a matter at such a moment, Don Torribio?" was her answer "Are you not sure of me?"

Don Torribio Quiroga frowned. "Always the same reply," he said. "Child, you are playing with the lion! If I had not been your shield these ten days past, you would have been slain ere now. Do you fancy me ignorant of your petty machinations, or ensnared by your childish calculations? You are playing for life or death, silly one; you are caught yourself in the net you spread for me. You are in my power! It is for me to dictate my conditions. Tomorrow you will espouse me; the heads of your father and of Don Fernando shall answer for your compliance!" Seizing a crystal vase of water, he filled his glass, and emptied it at a draught; while Doņa Hermosa gazed at him with a strange expression in her eyes. "In an hour," said he, dashing the glass to pieces on the table, "you will attend the ceremony. You shall be beside me. I will it so!"

"I will be there!" she said quietly.

"Farewell!" he exclaimed, in a husky voice; and, casting another glance at her, he left the room. The girl rose hastily, seized the vase, and emptied its contents, murmuring: "Don Torribio! Don Torribio! thou hast thyself told me, that between cup and lip stood death!"

"Now for the finishing stroke!" said Don Pedro

At a sign from his daughter, he went out upon the terrace, and placed two stands, filled with flowers, close to the balustrade. This appeared to be a signal; for they had hardly been moved a minute, when Manuela hastily entered the room, saying, "He is here!"

"Let him come!" said Don Pedro and his daughter.

Don Estevan made his appearance.

The hacendero, having charged Manuela to be on the watch, carefully closed the doors, seated himself close to the mayor domo, and said in a whisper, "What news have you brought, Estevan?"


The grand square of the pueblo presented an unusual spectacle that day; a large stage, covered with a crimson velvet carpet, had been erected in the centre. On the stage stood a mahogany butaca; another armchair, lower and less decorated, was placed on the right, and several forms were arranged in a semicircle behind the two seats.

At twelve o'clock precisely, when the sun at its zenith was pouring down its vertical rays, five shots, fired from a gun at regular intervals, thundered through the pueblo. Instantly the different Apache tribes, constituting the Tigercat's army, debouched by the several approaches to the square, headed by the principal sachems in their robes of ceremony.

These warriors were few in number, forming an effective force of fifteen hundred men; for, according to Indian custom, the booty, immediately after the fall of the presidio, had been sent under a strong escort to the villages, and the greater number of the redskins had dispersed, to return to their atepelts. Those who stayed behind were tried and faithful braves, devoted heart and soul to the Tigercat. The latter, after the total defeat of the Mexicans, deemed it useless to retain a larger force about him, particularly as the first signal would bring back the others to his standard.

As fast as the tribes reached the square, they ranged themselves in good order on three of its sides, leaving the fourth open, which was presently occupied by a body of two hundred vaqueros, who, like the redskins, halted motionless on the spot assigned to them—with this difference: that the Indians were on foot, and without arms, except the machetes at their girdles; while the vaqueros were mounted, and armed to the teeth.

A very few lookers-on, English, French, or Germans, who had remained in the town after its occupation, showed their pale and frightened faces at the windows of the houses in the square. Indian women, huddled together in disorder behind the warriors, stretched their heads inquisitively over the shoulders of the latter, in order to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. The centre of the square remained void.

In front of the stage, and at the foot of a rude altar, shaped like a table, with a deep groove in it, and surmounted by an image of the sun, stood the great amantzin of the Apaches, surrounded by five sorcerers of inferior grade. All had their arms crossed on their breasts, and their eyes cast on the ground.

When everyone had fallen into his place, five more guns were fired. Then a brilliant cavalcade came curveting into the square. At its head rode the Tigercat, with haughty air and fiery eye, holding in his hand the totem, and having on his right Don Torribio, who carried the sacred calumet. Behind followed Don Pedro, his daughter, and several of the principal townspeople.

The Tigercat dismounted, ascended the stage, and placed himself in front of the principal seat, but did not sit down. Don Torribio, having assisted Doņa Hermosa from her horse, took his place before the second chair. The features of the former, usually so pale, were now inflamed, and his hollow eyes seemed red with incessant vigils. He ceaselessly wiped the moisture from his brow, and appeared a prey to agitating emotions, which would break forth in spite of his efforts to control them.

Doņa Hermosa had placed herself behind her father, at a short distance from the stage. She, too, seemed to suffer from secret agitation. She was pale, her lips were contracted, and occasionally a nervous tremor made her limbs tremble, and a feverish flush passed over her face, which, however, soon resumed its former pallor. She kept her eyes resolutely fixed on Don Torribio.

The Apache sachems grouped themselves at the foot of the platform, which they surrounded completely.

A third time the cannon roared. Then the sorcerers stepped to one side, disclosing to the view a man firmly bound, who lay on the ground in the midst of them.

The amantzin addressed the multitude: "Listen to me, all you who hear me. You know why we are here assembled: our great father, the Sun, has smiled at our success. The Wacondah has fought on our side, according to the promise of our illustrious chief. This atepelt is now ours. The chief elected by ourselves to command and defend us is the Tigercat. In his name and our own we now offer to the Master of life the sacrifice most agreeable to him, in order that he may still continue his almighty protection. Sorcerers, bring hither the victim!"

The amantzins seized the unhappy wretch they guarded, and laid him upon the altar. He was a Mexican, taken prisoner at the capture of the old presidio. The pulquero, in whose house one of the first scenes of this story was laid, had, from avarice, refused to quit his miserable pulquería, and had fallen into the hands of the redskins.

In the meantime, Don Torribio felt his strength gradually deserting him. His eyes grew more bloodshot, his ears were stunned, his temples throbbed violently, and he was obliged to support himself by one of the arms of his seat.

"What ails you?" said Doņa Hermosa.

"I know not," he replied; "the heat—agitation, perhaps: I am choking. But it is nothing."

The pulquero, extended on the altar, had been stripped of his garments. The wretch uttered shouts of terror. The amantzin approached him, brandishing his knife.

"It is horrible," cried Doņa Hermosa, hiding her face in her hands.

"Silence!" said Don Torribio; "the sacrifice must be completed."

The sorcerer, heedless of the cries of the victim coolly examined him to find the right place for the blow; while the miserable prisoner, with eyes unnaturally distended, gazed at him with an expression of fear impossible to describe. Suddenly the amantzin raised the knife, and, thrusting it into the chest of his victim, laid it open the whole length of the ribs. The wretched man uttered a horrible cry. Then the sorcerer plunged his hand into the gaping breast of the victim, and tore out the palpitating heart; while his assistants carefully collected the blood that was flowing in torrents. The sufferer writhed in agony, still making superhuman efforts to break his bonds.

While this was doing, the sachems in a body ascended the stage, and seating the Tigercat on the butaca, raised him on their shoulders, shouting enthusiastically "Long live the conqueror of the palefaces, the great sachem of the Apaches!"

The sorcerers meanwhile sprinkled the crowd with the blood of the sacrifice; and the redskins, frenzied with excitement, rent the air with deafening clamour.

"At last," said the Tigercat proudly, "I have kept my promise: I have driven the palefaces from this country for ever."

"Not yet," exclaimed Don Pedro, in cutting tones; "look hither."

A sudden change had indeed come over the scene. The vaqueros, up to this time impassive spectators, suddenly charged, the unarmed Indians: Mexican troops fell upon them from all the entrances to the square: and all the windows were manned by whites armed with muskets, who poured down a pitiless fire on the redskins.

In the centre of the square were Don Fernando Carril, Luciano Pedralva, and Don Estevan, who mercilessly rode in upon the Indians, shouting: "Down with them! Down with them! Slay! Slay!"

"ĄCaray!" exclaimed Don Torribio, waving the totem; "What horrible treachery is this?" He rushed forward to fly to the side of the redskins; but he tottered—a dark veil obstructed his sight—and he sank on his knees. "God!" cried he, "What has happened to me?"

"You are dying," whispered Don Estevan in his ear; "that is what is happening." And he seized him fiercely by the arm.

"You lie, dog!" said Don Torribio, trying to release himself. "I will go and help my brothers."

"Your brothers are slain, as you intended to have slain tomorrow Don Pedro, Doņa Hermosa, Don Fernando, and myself. Die, wretch, with rage at seeing your treachery meet its reward! I have given you leche de palio[1] to drink; you are poisoned."

"Ah!" said he despairingly, and dragging himself on his knees to the edge of the platform; "Woe to me; woe; God is just."

In the square the Mexicans were making a horrible carnage. "Remember Don José de Kalbris," they cried; "revenge Major Barnum!"

It was no battle; it was a fearful butchery. Several of the chiefs, flying before Don Fernando, Luciano, and Don Estevan, threw themselves upon the stage as a last place of refuge.

"Ha!" shouted Don Torribio, with a bound like a jaguar, seizing Don Fernando by the throat; "At least I shall not die unavenged." A moment of terrible anxiety ensued. "No," he continued, quitting his grasp on his foe, and falling backwards, "it would be the act of a coward. My life belongs to this man; he won it from me."

The bystanders could not repress a cry of admiration. Don Fernando coolly raised his rifle to his shoulder, and discharged its contents point-blank into the breast of the man stretched at his feet.

"Thus perish all traitors!" he cried.

"Great God!" freely exclaimed Don Torribio, by a supreme effort rising to his knees, and looking up to heaven with an expression of sublime hope irradiating his features,—"Great God, I thank Thee! Thou hast forgiven me!" One last smile of unutterable happiness glided over his face; he fell back and expired.

Meanwhile Doņa Hermosa had disappeared. When the Tigercat, who had been fighting like a lion in the midst of the fray, perceived that all was lost, and nothing but flight could save him from the fate to which the Mexicans had doomed him, should he fall into their hands, he rallied around him a handful of his bravest warriors, seized Doņa Hermosa, regardless of her cries and prayers, threw her across his saddle, spurred his horse into the thickest of the męlée, cut his passage through, and, followed by his faithful braves, succeeded in getting out of the town and gaining the prairie.

It was too late for pursuit when the Mexicans became aware of his flight; the old freebooter was already beyond their reach, carrying his prey with him, like an eagle bearing a lamb in his talons.

[1] Literally, milk from a pall; poison.

CHAPTER XV.

ONE MONTH LATER.


It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. The rays of the sun, falling more and more obliquely, were gradually lengthening the shadows of the trees; the birds were flying to their roosts, and nestling as they could under the foliage, with deafening cries and pipings. A few bands of prairie wolves were showing themselves here and there, snuffing the breeze, and preparing for their nocturnal chase among the tall grasses. At intervals, the lofty antlers of elks and antelopes were suddenly rising from amidst the herbage, the animals quickly throwing back their heads, and commencing a giddy flight into the distance. The sun, close on the verge of the horizon, looked like a globe of red fire behind the trunks of the stately trees. Everything announced the rapid approach of night.

In the virgin forest, about two hundred miles from the presidio of San Lucar, where the last terrible episodes of our story occurred, and in the centre of a vast clearing, two men, habited like the Mexican gambucinos, were sitting on buffalo skulls, beside a clear fire which gave forth no smoke. They were Don Estevan Diaz the mayor domo, and Luciano Pedralva the capataz. They held their rifles across their knees, ready for an emergency, and smoked their maize pajillos in silence. Several peones and arrieros were lying about a few paces off, and baggage mules were greedily munching the rations of Indian corn laid on mats before them. Eight or ten horses were tethered, to prevent their straying, close to a jacal (hut) of branches, the entrance to which was closed with a zarapé. A peon, standing motionless with cocked rifle on the borders of a little brook which meandered round the extremity of the clearing, watched over the common safety.

It was easy to perceive, from the fragments of all sorts which littered the ground, whence every vestige of grass had disappeared, and from the quarters of venison suspended from the boughs of a mahogany tree, that the encampment we have described was not one of those temporary resting places which the backwoodsmen choose for a night and quit at sunrise, but one of those more substantial camps which the hunters often establish as places of rendezvous for the trapping season.

The zarapé at the entrance to the jacal was lifted, and Don Pedro made his appearance on the scene. His features were pale, his expression was sad and pensive. He looked carefully around, went up to the two men seated by the fire, and spoke: "No news as yet?"

"None whatever," replied Don Estevan.

"This absence is incomprehensible; Don Fernando has never before stayed away from us so long."

"True," said the capataz; "it is more than thirty hours since he left us. Pray God, no misfortune may have happened."

"No," answered Don Estevan; "Don Fernando is too well acquainted with the desert to incur much danger."

"But think whereabouts we are," put in Don Pedro; "the country round about is infested by the most dangerous serpents; wild beasts swarm in every place."

"What does that matter, Don Pedro?" boldly answered Don Estevan; "You forget that Don Fernando and Stoneheart are one and the same; that in this region the greater part of his life was spent; that it is here, for long years, he was a bee-hunter, and gathered the cascarilla bark."

"But how do you explain his protracted absence?"

"You recollect, Don Pedro, with what disinterestedness our friend offered us his cooperation when, in despair at the sudden disappearance of Doņa Hermosa, mad with grief, and impotent to act, we knew not what step to take to recover the lost one. We have been led from the presidio to this spot, following a trail invisible to all eyes save Don Fernando's, who, accustomed to reap the sublime lines of the wilderness, recognised it with singular ease and exactitude. The trail has suddenly vanished here—vanished in spite of the most minute and patient research. We have been eight days encamped in this place; and every morning, at sunrise, Don Fernando—whom obstacles seem to excite, rather than subdue—mounts and begins his search afresh. Hitherto his labour has been in vain. Yesterday he left us, as usual, at daybreak. Well, suppose the reason of his protracted absence, which makes you so restless, should be the finding, at some spot leagues away perchance, the signs we have sought for so long and unavailing?"

"God grant it, my good friend! Your idea glads my heart. But what traces could we find, after the painful exertions we have already made?"

"You forget, Don Pedro, that we have to deal with the Apaches, the most astute savages in the wilderness, the most acute of all the redskins in hiding their trail."

"Holloa!" exclaimed the capataz; "I hear the tread of a horse."

"Is it possible?" said Don Pedro joyfully.

"Yes," said Don Estevan; "I, too, hear a noise, but it is not the sound of one horse; there are two or three."

"Yet Don Fernando left the camp alone."

"He has probably encountered someone on the road," replied Don Estevan, laughing.

"You are wrong to joke with us in our circumstances; it is almost an insult to my sorrow."

"Heaven preserve me from such an intention, Don Pedro! The sound is coming nearer. We shall soon see what we have to do. I should not be at all surprised if Don Fernando has laid hands upon some Indian marauder, at the very moment when, concealed by the underwood, he was watching our camp, and spying out our movements."

"ĄCanarios! It is he himself!" cried the capataz.

In fact, the clear and sonorous voice of Don Fernando replied to the challenge of the sentry, and two horsemen pushed through the thick underwood which surrounded the clearing and formed a kind of natural rampart.

Don Fernando brought with him a man whom he had firmly bound to a horse to prevent his escape. As to the prisoner, he seemed to bear his capture lightly. He swayed himself comfortably in his saddle, comported himself with an air of assurance, and looked altogether as impudent as possible. On reaching the fire, where our personages were assembled, he saluted them with a grimace, unabashed by the looks of the standers-by.

He was no other than our friend Tonillo el Zapote, whom we have presented to our readers on several occasions.

Don Fernando was very warmly and heartily greeted. His friends burnt with impatience to question him; and their curiosity was the more excited, as the frank and almost joyful expression of his features led them to suppose he was the bearer of good news. Don Fernando dismounted, embraced his friends, and unbuckled the girth which strapped the prisoner's legs under the belly of his horse, thus giving him the use of his limbs.

"Good," said the vaquero, "many thanks, Don Fernando. I have had quite enough of it. My legs are tingling as if a million of pins were stuck in them." He sprang to the ground; but he had spoken truly; his benumbed limbs could not support the weight of his body, and he fell heavily. The capataz hastened to raise him. "It is a mere nothing," said the vaquero, honouring him with a gracious smile; "yet I thank you, caballero. In five minutes the circulation will be restored, and no harm done. But if it is the same to you, Don Fernando, pray do not pull the buckle so tight another time."

"It will depend upon yourself, Zapote. Swear you will make no attempt at escape, and I will set you free."

"If that is all," cried the vaquero, gaily, "we shall soon strike a bargain. I swear, by all my hopes of Paradise, not to slip away."

"Enough! I will trust you."

"An honest man sticks to his word," answered El Zapote; "you will have no cause of complaint against me. I am the bond-slave of my word."

"It will be all the better for you if that is the truth. But I am doubtful about it, particularly after your late conduct towards me, in spite of the protestations and offers of service you made me."

The vaquero showed no signs of embarrassment at this straightforward thrust. "Men endowed with certain good qualities are sure to be misunderstood," he replied in a wheedling tone; "I never broke the promise I made you."

"Not when, after introducing Indians and other rascals of your own kind into the presidio, you laid an infamous snare for me, and led me into an ambuscade?"

"Yes, Seņor Don Fernando; I was faithful even under the circumstances you mention."

"ĄRayo de Dios!" impatiently exclaimed the latter; "I should be glad to learn how you can prove your fidelity there."

"Good Heavens, seņor! I was faithful after my own fashion."

This answer was so extraordinary and unexpected, that the bystanders could not refrain from laughing. El Zapote bowed gravely, with the proud humility common to men of doubtful talent, who in their inmost soul consider themselves unappreciated geniuses.

"After all," said Don Fernando, carelessly shrugging his shoulders, "we shall soon see. I know pretty well the extent of this elastic fidelity."

El Zapote returned no answer; he merely raised his eyes to heaven, as if to invoke it as a witness of the injustice done to him, and crossed his arms on his breast.

"Before telling you anything, let me have something to eat," said Don Fernando, "I am fainting from inanition; I have neither eaten or drank since I left the camp."

Don Estevan hastened to place provisions before him, to which he and his prisoner did great honour. However, the meal was short. Don Fernando's appetite was soon appeased; he gave a sigh of satisfaction, after slaking his thirst in the limpid brook, came and sat down beside the others, and, without putting their curiosity to further torture, began to explain the causes of his prolonged absence in all their details. Don Estevan had judged correctly; Don Fernando had really discovered the trail so long fruitlessly sought for. The trail took a south-west direction, towards the most unexplored regions of the Far West. He had followed it with a trapper's indomitable patience for several hours, in order to be well assured that it was the true trail, and not an Indian artifice to turn his steps astray.

The redskins, when they fear pursuit, and cannot hide their trail, entangle so skilfully the many tracks they purposely make, and throw them all into such hopeless confusion, that it is generally impossible to distinguish the right one. On this occasion they had used a similar artifice with such dexterity and success, that they would have managed to outwit and lead astray any hunter less adroit than Stoneheart. But he, accustomed from childhood to their wiles, did not suffer himself to be hoodwinked, particularly as he thought he had recognised some peculiar signs, which would have escaped the observation of a less experienced woodman. Don Fernando, delighted with his discovery, had rapidly commenced his return to the camp, without neglecting any of the prudential measures requisite in a country where every bush may conceal a foe, when it struck him that the grass in a certain spot was waving in a manner not wholly natural. He dropped quietly from his horse, and, without other arms than the knife he carried in an iron ring at his girdle, and a pistol, crept towards the suspected spot, crawling on hands and knees with the speed and silence of a snake gliding through grass.

After a quarter of an hour's work, he reached the place, and with difficulty repressed a cry of joy on seeing El Zapote comfortably seated on the ground, the bridle of his horse passed over his left arm, and finishing a copious meal.

Don Fernando drew a few paces nearer, in order to be sure of his man; then, having carefully measured the distance, with a spring like a jaguar he seized the vaquero by the throat, and had him bound beyond the possibility of resistance before El Zapote had recovered from his astonishment. "Aha!" said he, seating himself beside his prisoner, "what a singular chance! How are you, Zapote?"

"You are very kind, caballero; I cough a little." And he put his hand to his threat.

"Poor fellow! I hope it is of no consequence."

"I hope, too, that no evil consequences may ensue, seņor; nevertheless, I am not quite easy about it."

"Pooh! Cast aside your anxiety. I will cure you."

"Do you know a remedy, caballero?"

"Yes; an excellent one, which I propose to apply to you."

"A thousand thanks, seņor! But perhaps that would give you too much trouble?"

"None in the world. Judge for yourself. I propose to knock out your brains with the butt end of a pistol."

The vaquero shuddered when the words were uttered; but he would not give in. "You really think that remedy would cure me?" said he.

"Radically, I am convinced."

"It may seem very odd, caballero; but, with all due deference, I am obliged to observe, that I am of a totally different opinion."

"You are wrong," replied Don Fernando, coolly cocking a pistol; "you will soon find how efficacious it is."

"And you really think, seņor, there is no other remedy?"

"By my faith, I see no other."

"But it seems to me a little too violent."

"You only think so. I tell you again, you are Wrong."

"Possibly so. I would not take the liberty of contradicting you, caballero. Have you any great wish to administer the remedy on this particular spot?"

"I? Not at all! Do you know any more fitting place?"

"I think I do, seņor."

"And whereabouts is the place, comrade?"

"Good heavens! caballero, I may be mistaken; but still, I think it would be a pity so marvellous a secret as this remedy should be lost, for want of an eyewitness to its efficacy. Consequently, I wish you to take me where we can find one."

"Very well! I suppose you know of such a place, not very far hence?"

"Yes, caballero; I even fancy you would be charmed to see those to whom I wish to present you."

"That depends upon who they are."

"You know them very well, seņor: one of them is the Tigercat—a most amiable caballero."

"And you will undertake to lead me to him?"

"Whenever you please: this very instant if you like."

Don Fernando replaced the pistol in his belt. "Not directly. No," he said; "we must first report ourselves at the camp, where my friends expect me. I find you are not quite so ill as I thought; and I need not administer my remedy just now. We can always fall back upon it some other time, if it is necessary."

"I can assure you, there is no hurry at all," replied the vaquero, trying an engaging smile.

Thus the business was concluded between the two men, who, knowing each other for a long time were perfectly aware of what each could expect from the other. Don Fernando put no faith in Tonillo; so he took good care to remove all temptation to stray from his side, by leaving him bound as he was—a proceeding against which the vaquero did not remonstrate.

But as night had fallen while they were talking, they made such arrangements as they could for sleeping where they were, giving up all idea of rejoining the camp until the morrow. Two or three times in the course of the night the vaquero surreptitiously tried to free himself from the bonds in which he lay; but each time he endeavoured to put his project into execution, he saw the large blue eyes of the hunter fixed steadfastly upon him.

"Do you still feel indisposed?" he asked, the last time the prisoner made his attempt.

"Not at all!" replied the vaquero hastily; "Not at all."

"I am glad to hear it; but," added he slowly, and emphatically, "your inability to sleep made me anxious about you."

The vaquero took the hint, shut his eyes without another word, and did not open them again till daylight.

Don Fernando was already alert, and had saddled the horses. "Aha! Awake at last?" said he.

"Have you slept well?"

"Capitally; only I feel a little numb. Gentle exercise would soon restore the circulation."

"The effects of the dew," said the hunter imperturbably; "the nights are cold."

"The devil!" said the vaquero, grinning. "I hope I shall not catch the rheumatism."

"I think not. The ride will do you good."

While he said this, Don Fernando had hoisted his companion on his shoulders, and thrown him across one of the horses. But on second thoughts, he freed his legs, and set him upright in the saddle; reflecting that useless cruelty would only harden the man against him, who could give such precious information when the proper moment arrived. The vaquero, who feared he was about to make the journey slung over the horse like a bale of merchandise, felt grateful for the half-liberty allowed him, and made no objection when Don Fernando took the precaution of buckling his legs together under his horse's belly.

In this manner the two men rode to the camp, talking on different matters, and apparently the best friends in the world.


CHAPTER XVI.

PREPARATIONS FOR THE CHASE.


All the time Don Fernando was telling his story, El Zapote had assumed the nonchalant attitude of a man perfectly satisfied with himself; nodding his head affirmatively at certain passages, and smiling at others with an air of modest gratification. When the former ceased speaking, he thought it time to put in his word also.

"You see, seņores, I made no objection whatever to following this estimable caballero; which means to say, that I am ready to obey all commands you may please to lay on me."

"Here is a compliment," said Don Fernando, with a malicious smile, "which would evidently have been addressed to others, but for the surprise of yesterday!"

"Oh, fie, caballero!" retorted the vaquero, assuming a look of indignant denial.

"But," continued Stoneheart, "I will not vex you on that score; your secret feelings towards me affect me in nowise. I thought I had given you ample proof a long while ago how little I dread you in any way. I will content myself with remarking, that, more generous than you, I have several times held your life in my hands, and never abused the power."

"On that account I am deeply grateful to you, seņor."

"Pooh, pooh, Seņor Zapote!" replied Stoneheart, shrugging his shoulders; "You have quite mistaken your man. I have no more belief in your gratitude than in your good feelings towards me, and I have only refreshed your memory in this respect to induce you to reflect that, if I have hitherto condescended to pardon you, the amount of courtesy I could afford to expend on you is at length exhausted, and on the next occasion matters will end very differently between us."

"I perfectly understand your meaning, seņor; but, please God, such an occasion, I am quite sure, will never present itself. I repeat, once for all, that I have given you my word, and, you know, an honest man sticks—"

"No more!" broke in Stoneheart. "I wish it may be so, for your own sake. However that may be, listen attentively."

"I am all ears, seņor; I will not lose a word."

"Although I am still young, Seņor Tonillo, I know one important truth not very creditable to humanity. If one wishes to attract a man, and insure his fidelity, one must not attempt to act upon his virtues, but make sure of him through his vices. You are more richly endowed with these last than most men I know."

The vaquero made a modest bow in acknowledgment of the compliment. "Seņor," he said, "you cover me with confusion; such praise—"

"Is richly deserved," continued Stoneheart. "I have seen few men in possession of such a formidable assortment of vices as you, my friend. Yours are so many, that I was at a loss which to select. But among these vices are a few more prominent than the rest: for instance, your avarice has acquired a prodigious development; I am going to appeal to your avarice."

The vaquero's eyes sparkled with greed. "What do you want me to do?" said he.

"First, let me tell you what I will give you; after that, I will explain what I require."

The leering, cunning face of the bandit instantly grew serious; and, leaning his elbows on his knees, he stretched out his head to listen to Stoneheart's words.

"You know I am rich, and can have no doubt that I am able to fulfil any engagement with you into which I may enter. However, to save time, and deprive you of any pretext to betray me, I will immediately place in your hands three diamonds, each worth two thousand five hundred piastres You are so well acquainted with precious stones, that a single glance will convince you of their value. These diamonds are yours. I make you a present of them. Nevertheless, if you prefer it, I engage to pay you what they are worth; that is to say, to forward seven thousand five hundred piastres on your first demand, after our return to San Lucar, in exchange for the jewels."

"And you have got the diamonds about you?" said the vaquero, in a voice half stifled with emotion.

"Here they are!" replied Stoneheart, drawing from his bosom a small deerskin bag, and taking out three good-sized jewels, which he placed in the vaquero's hands.

The latter clutched them with a glee he did not attempt to conceal, looked at them for a moment with eyes sparkling with triumph, and hid them carefully in his bosom.

"Wait a moment!" said Stoneheart, with a curious smile; "I have not yet told you the conditions."

"Whatever they may be, I accept them, seņor. ĄCaspita! seven thousand five hundred piastres! It is a fortune to a poor devil like me! No navajada will ever bring me in as much, however well they pay me!"

"Then you want no time for consideration?"

"ĄCanarios! I should think not! Whom am I to kill?"

"No one," briefly answered Stoneheart. "Listen to me: all you have to do is to lead me to the place where the Tigercat has taken refuge."

The vaquero shook his head discontentedly at this proposal. "I cannot do it, caballero. By all my hopes hereafter, it is impossible!"

"Very well," said Stoneheart. "I forgot to mention another little thing."

"What is it, seņor?" asked the vaquero, in great trouble at the turn the conversation was taking.

"A very trifling matter. If you do not accept my proposal, I will instantly blow out your brains."

El Zapote examined the speaker's face most carefully; with a rascal's intuitive perception, he felt that the time for pleasantry was over, and matters were threatening to become serious. "At least give me leave to explain, seņor," said he.

"I ask no better," said Stoneheart coldly. "I am in no hurry."

"I cannot lead you to the Tigercat's hiding place—I swear so; but I can direct you to it, and tell you its name."

"That is something. Go on; we have already made some progress. I see we shall come to an understanding. I am in despair at finding myself obliged to use extreme measures; it is so disagreeable."

"Unhappily, seņor, I have told you all. This is what happened: the Tigercat, after his flight from the presidio, collected some score of resolute men, of whom I was one, who comprehended that for some time to come the Mexican Confederation would be too hot to hold them, and resolved to plunge into the wilderness, in order to give the storm time to blow over. All went well for a little while, when the Tigercat suddenly changed his route; and, instead of leading us to overrun the country of the Apaches, took us to the district of the bee-hunters and cascarilla gatherers."

"He has done that?" exclaimed Stoneheart, starting with surprise and terror.

"Yes, seņor. You can understand how little I cared for a game of life and death, in regions infested by the fiercest beasts of prey, and, worse than that, by serpents whose bite is mortal. Seeing that the Tigercat was seriously bent upon taking refuge in this horrible country, I confess, seņor, I got terribly frightened; and at the risk of dying with hunger, or being scalped by the redskins in the desert, I quietly dropped to the rear, and profited by the first opportunity to give the Tigercat the slip."

Stoneheart fixed on the vaquero a gaze which seemed to search his inmost soul; the latter bore it manfully.

"It is well," he said, "I see you have not lied. How long is it since you left the Tigercat?"

"Only four days, seņor. As I do not know this part of the wilderness, I was wandering about at a venture, when I had the good fortune to fall in with you."

"Indeed! Now, what is the name of the place to which the Tigercat intended to lead you?"

"El Voladero de las Ánimas," answered the vaquero, without hesitation.

Stoneheart instantly grew pale as death at this information; and yet he had almost expected it, from the cruel and implacable character of his former teacher.

"Alas!" cried he; "The unfortunate girl is lost! This wretch has carried her into a very nest of serpents!"

The bystanders were dreadfully agitated.

"What is this horrible place?" said Don Pedro.

"Alas! El Voladero de las Ánimas is an accursed region, into which the hardiest bee-hunters and boldest cascarilleros scarcely dare to enter. The Voladero is a lofty mountain, which frowns over an immense expanse of swamps swarming with cobras, coral snakes, and others, whose slightest bite kills the strongest man in ten minutes. For ten leagues around this dread mountain, the country is alive with reptiles and venomous insects, against which how shall man defend himself!"

"Great God!" cried Don Pedro, in despair; "And it is to this hell they have carried my darling child!"

"Calm yourself," said Stoneheart, who perceived the necessity of restoring a little courage to the poor father; "the Tigercat knows this accursed place too well to enter it without taking the needful precautions. The swamps alone are to be dreaded; the Voladero is free from these noxious animals; the air is too pure, and its elevation too great for them to live there. Not one attempts to scale it. Courage, then! If your daughter, as I hope, has reached the Voladero alive, she is in safety."

"But, alas!" replied Don Pedro, "How are we to cross this impassable barrier; how reach my daughter, without encountering certain death?"

An indefinable smile illumined the features of Don Fernando. "I will reach her, Don Pedro," he exclaimed, in firm and resolute tones. "Have you forgotten that I am Stoneheart, the most renowned bee-hunter of the prairies? The Tigercat confided all his secrets to me when we were not only bee-hunters but cascarilleros. Courage, I say; all is not yet lost."

If a man who is struck down with some dire and and unexpected calamity has a friend beside him, whose stout heart and cheering words bid him hope, his prostrate courage revives, however faint and problematical the hope may be, and, confiding in the prospect held out to him, he gathers fresh energy for the approaching struggle. This was exactly what happened to Don Pedro. The speech of Stoneheart, who, for weeks past, had worked hard for him,—whom he had learned to love, and in whom he had entire confidence,—revived his hope and courage as if by magic.

"And now," said Stoneheart, addressing the vaquero, "tell me how the Tigercat treated his prisoners. You remained with him long enough to give me reliable information on this point."

"As far as that goes, seņor, I can answer without hesitation, that his attention to the seņorita's welfare was unceasing; he watched over her with anxious care, often shortening the day's march for fear of overtiring her."

His hearers breathed more freely. This solicitude on the part of one who respected neither God nor man seemed to indicate better intentions than they had a right to expect.

Stoneheart continued his interrogations. "Do you know the nature of the Tigercat's conversations with Doņa Hermosa?"

"I overheard one, seņor. The poor seņorita was very sad: she dared not weep openly, for fear of offending the chief; but her eyes were always filled with tears, and her breast heaved with stifled sobs. One day, during a halt, she was sitting apart at the foot of a tree, her eyes fixed on the road we had just travelled, and large tears coursing down her cheeks. The Tigercat advanced towards her, looked at her for a moment with mingled pity and displeasure, and addressed her in nearly the following words: 'Child, it is useless to look back; those you expect will not come. No one shall tear you from my hands till the time comes when I shall think fit to restore you to freedom. To you alone I owe the ruin of my projects, and the massacre of my friends at San Lucar. I know it well. Therefore I carried you off, for vengeance' sake. But this I will tell you, for your consolation and encouragement: my revenge shall not be harsh; within a month I will give you to him you love.' The seņorita looked at him incredulously; he perceived it, and continued, in a tone of implacable malice: 'My most earnest wish is to see you some day the bride of Don Fernando Carril: I have never lost sight of this. Take courage, then; dry those useless tears, which only disfigure you,—for I swear to you I will carry out my resolve, the very day and hour I have appointed.' Having said this, he left her, without waiting for the answer Doņa Hermosa was about to make. I happened to be lying on the grass, a few paces from the lady. The Tigercat either did not notice me, or thought me asleep. That is how I overheard their conversation. To the best of my belief, that is the only time the chief ever conversed with his prisoner, although he continued to treat her well."

When the vaquero ceased, a long silence ensued, caused by the strangeness of this revelation. Stoneheart racked his brains in vain endeavours to discover a motive for the Tigercat's conduct. He recalled the words the chief had once uttered in his presence,—words which agreed with what he had just heard; for even at that time the old man seemed to take delight in the project. But Stoneheart vainly tried to find a solution to the question, why he should act thus.

In the meanwhile the sun had gone down, and night set in with the rapidity peculiar to intertropical climates, in which there is no twilight. It was one of those delicious nights of Southern America which are replete with sweet odours and airy melody. The dark blue sky was enamelled with a countless number of golden stars. The moon, now at the full, showered down a flood of soft and glorious light; and the transparent atmosphere made distant objects seem close at hand. The night wind tempered the oppressive heat of the day; and the men seated in front of the jacal inhaled with delight the refreshing breeze that whispered among the foliage, surrendering themselves to the influence of the night, which stole upon them with all its seductive languor.

When Don Pedro and his two confidential agents first set out on their search for Doņa Hermosa, under the auspices of Stoneheart, Ņa Manuela, that devoted pure-hearted woman, refused to leave her master and her son. She had loudly claimed her share in the risks and perils they were about to encounter, asserting her right to accompany them in her quality of Doņa Hermosa's nurse. The good woman had persisted so obstinately, that Don Pedro and Don Estevan, touched by her self-abnegation, could no longer resist her entreaties, and she had come with them. Ņa Manuela had charge of the commissariat of the camp. As soon as night had completely closed in, she issued from the jacal, bearing refreshments, which she distributed with strict impartiality to all present, master and man. Unseen, the worthy woman had listened to the queries put to the vaquero. Her heart failed her at El Zapote's story; but she dissembled her grief, for fear of augmenting Don Pedro's anguish; and she appeared amongst the travellers with dry eyes and a smiling countenance.

However, time passed on; the hour for rest had come; one after another the peones rolled themselves in their zarapés, and slumbered peacefully, with the exception of the sentries posted to watch over the safety of the camp. Stoneheart, plunged in deep meditation, was reclining, with his head supported by his right arm; his companions now and then exchanged a few words, uttered in a low tone, that they might not disturb him. The vaquero, with characteristic carelessness, stretched himself out on the ground, indifferent to what was passing around him. His eyelids grew heavy; he was already in a state of semi—somnolence, when he was thoroughly roused to consciousness by Don Fernando, who shook him rudely.

"Holloa, seņor! What is the matter?" said he, sitting up, and rubbing his eyes.

"Is it possible to trust you?"

"A question you asked once before, seņor. I replied, 'Yes, if you pay me well.' Now, you have paid me royally. There was but one man in the world to whom I could attach myself sooner than to you—Don Torribio Quiroga. He is dead; you take his place. No dog would obey your slightest sign more faithfully than I."

"I am not now going to put your new fledged fidelity to any rude proof; I shall content myself with leaving you here. But remember to deal frankly with me, and without reservation; for as surely as I have not hesitated to pay you in advance in the bargain I have concluded with you, so surely will I not hesitate to kill you on the spot if you betray me. And take this to your soul: if you deceive me, no hiding place, however secret or remote, shall save you from my vengeance."

The vaquero bent his head, and answered unhesitatingly: "Seņor Don Fernando, I swear, by the Cross of our Lord, who died for the remission of our sins, that I will be faithful to you unto the death."

"Good," said Stoneheart; "I believe you, Zapote. Sleep now, if you are able."

The vaquero did not wait for a repetition of the words, but rolled over, and was soon fast asleep.

"Seņores," said Stoneheart, turning to his friends, "it is time for you to rest. As for me, I must watch a while. Be of good courage, Don Pedro; our position is far from desperate. The more I reflect, the surer I am we shall tear from the Tigercat the prey he holds in his grasp and longs to devour. Be not too anxious; and if you should not see me tomorrow, do not on any pretext leave this encampment till my return: my absence will not be long. Good night to all!" Having said this, Stoneheart crossed his arms on his breast, and returned to his sombre meditations.

His friends, respecting his wish to be alone, withdrew; and ten minutes later all the inmates in the camp, except Stoneheart and the sentinels, were asleep, or seemed to sleep.


CHAPTER XVII.

THE CHASE.


Deep silence prevailed through the wilderness, broken only at long intervals by the growling of the jaguar at the spring, or the barking of the prairie dog in his burrow. Stoneheart had not moved after his friends left him; he was so motionless, one would have thought him asleep, but for the occasional glitter of his eye through the darkness. Suddenly a hand was laid on his shoulder. He started up in an instant. Don Estevan stood beside him. Stoneheart greeted him with a smile. "You have something to tell me?" said he.

"I have," replied Don Estevan, seating himself at his side. "I waited till all were asleep before sought you out. You are meditating some daring exploit—perhaps an expedition to the camp of the Tigercat?"

Stoneheart replied by a smile.

"Have I guessed aright?" said the mayor domo.

"Perhaps you have, Estevan; but how does that concern you?"

"More than you think, Fernando. Such an expedition is as dangerous as can be imagined; you yourself said so. I will not let you commit so great a folly as to attempt it alone. Remember that, from our first meeting, we have been irresistibly attracted to each other; we are bound together by ties of friendship which nothing can sever. Everything ought to be in common between us. Who can tell the danger to which you would be exposed in the expedition you are about to undertake! This is what I have come to tell you: half of that danger is mine; I come to claim the share you have no right to withhold from me."

"Brother," replied Stoneheart, much moved, "I feared this would happen; I dreaded the demand you have just made. Alas! You have guessed truly; the expedition is indeed desperate, and who can say whether I shall succeed? But why link yourself to my evil fate? Has not my whole life been one long sorrow? It will make me happy to sacrifice it for the poor father, pining for the child who has been torn from him. Every man has a destiny in this world; mine is to be wretched. Let me fulfil it. Your destiny smiles upon you; you have a mother whom you cherish, and who adores you. I am alone. If I perish, none save yourself will regret me. Should you fall by my side, you leave me a lifelong sorrow for having caused your death. No length of life could obliterate my remorse."

"Fernando, my determination is irrevocable. Whatever you may say, I shall follow you. Fidelity is an heirloom in our family; and I must do this day what my father did not hesitate to do long ago for the family to whom we are attached. I repeat once more, Fernando, my duty compels me to be with you."

"Think no more of it, Estevan; think of your mother, and her grief."

"I think of nothing but what honour bids me."

"Estevan, I cannot consent to what you wish. Again I say, think of your mother's grief if she should lose you."

"My mother, Fernando, would be the first to bid me go, were she here."

"Spoken like a man!" said a gentle voice behind them. They turned, and saw Ņa Manuela. "I have heard all," she said. "Thanks, Don Fernando, for speaking as you did; I will never forget your words. But Estevan is right: duty compels him to follow you. You lose your time in trying to dissuade him. He springs from a race who never tamper with their duty. Let him go with you. If he falls, I shall weep,—perhaps I shall die; but I shall die blessing him, for he will fall in the service of those whom, through five generations, we have sworn to serve faithfully."

Stoneheart gazed with admiration at the mother who did not hesitate to sacrifice her son to her sense of duty, regardless of the boundless love she bore him. He felt himself a weakling, compared with this self-denial. Words failed him, and he could only manifest by signs his acquiescence in a wish so energetically expressed.

"Go, my sons," she continued, raising her eyes to heaven with an expression of holy fervour; "God, who sees all, sees your devotedness. He will reward you. The rule of the wicked on earth is short; the protection of the Almighty will be with you—will defend you in every danger. Go without fear; He tells me you will prosper in your undertaking. Farewell!"

"Farewell, mother," replied the two men, moved even to tears.

The noble woman pressed them to her heart, but could not part from them without an effort. "Remember this law," she said,—"it is the basis of honour: do your duty, whatever may happen. Farewell, farewell!" She turned, and hastily entered the jacal for, in spite of herself, tears were regaining the mastery, and she would weaken their resolution. The others were silent for a time, looking steadfastly at the jacal.

"You see," said Don Estevan, at last, "my mother herself orders me to follow you."

"Be it as you will, then," said Stoneheart, with a sigh; "I will no longer oppose your wishes."

"Thank Heaven!" exclaimed the mayor domo.

Stoneheart carefully examined the heavens. "It is two o'clock," he said; "at half past three it will be daylight. We must go."

Don Estevan left him, to bring up the horses. They were soon saddled. The men left the camp, gave their horses the spur, and dashed into the desert. By sunrise they had ridden six leagues. They were following the course of one of those nameless rivers which traverse the wilderness in every direction, and ultimately fall into some larger stream.

"Let us halt here a while," said Stoneheart; "first to breathe our horses, and then to take a few precautions indispensable to our success."

Dismounting, they took the bits from the horses' mouths, leaving them at liberty to crop the luxuriant grass on the banks of the river.

"The time has come, Estevan," said Don Fernando, "when I must teach you something, without which it would be impossible to avoid the dangers we are about to encounter; I must reveal a secret known only to us, 'the bee-hunters.' Hardly two leagues farther on, we shall have to enter the swamps, swarming with serpents, and we must take the requisite precautions against their fatal bite, for every reptile we shall meet on the road will be of the most venomous species."

"The devil!" ejaculated Don Estevan, turning somewhat pale.

"I will give you a lesson. When we have once put on our armour, we can trample with impunity on the heads of the most dangerous."

"ĄCaray!" replied Don Estevan; "your secret is worth knowing."

"You shall prove it soon. Come with me. Of course you are acquainted with the guaco?"

"Certainly. I have often helped it in his battles with snakes."

"Very well. I dare say you are ignorant of the means this intelligent bird employs to heal the wounds in the mortal combats which always terminate in the destruction of the reptile?"

"I confess, Fernando, that I have never attempted to fathom the mystery."

"Then it is lucky, Estevan, that I have thought for both. Come, close at hand I see several stems of the mikania twisting round the cork trees: That is what we want. We will take a supply of the leaves of the guaco creeper."

Don Estevan, without troubling his head concerning his friend's intentions, set about collecting the leaves of the creeper he had pointed out. By dint of exertion, a goodly number were soon heaped upon the ground. When Stoneheart deemed the quantity sufficient, he gathered them up in his zarapé, and returned to the spot where they had left their horses. Without further explanation, he began to pound the leaves on a flat stone he brought from the edge of the water. Don Estevan, taking great interest in the mysterious operation, occupied himself in collecting in a coui (or gourd) the juice which ran from the leaves as Stoneheart crushed them. The work lasted an hour, by which time the coui was filled to the brim with a greenish liquid.

"What are we to do now?" said Don Estevan, puzzled more and more.

"That is a delicate question, my friend," replied Stoneheart, with a laugh. "We must undress; then, with the point of the navaja, we will make longitudinal incisions in our breasts, our arms, thighs, and between the fingers and toes, just deep enough to cause blood to flow. Afterwards, we will carefully inject the liquid we have collected into these incisions. Have you sufficient courage to inoculate yourself with the mikaniajuice?"

"Certainly, Fernando, though the operation will be painful. But what good will it do us?"

"Only the least in the world! We shall be invulnerable. We shall be able to trample thousands of snakes under our feet; and their bites shall do us no more harm than the prick of a pin." Stoneheart said no more, but undressed himself, and coolly began to make incisions in his body. Don Estevan followed his example. After slicing themselves in this fashion, they rubbed the cuts with the juice of the creeper, leaving the liquid time to dry in before they resumed their dress.

"Well, that is done," said Stoneheart. "We need not keep our horses: the poor brutes would infallibly perish, for we cannot insure them from the serpents. We will leave them here, and pick them up when we return; only let us hobble them well, for fear they should stray too far."

The saddles were carefully hidden under some bushes, and the two hardy adventurers commenced their journey on foot, trailing their rifles, and holding in one hand a slender but tough twig of mesquite, to cut the reptiles in two which might dispute their passage. They marched rapidly, one behind the other, shaking the grasses on right and left with their rods, to dislodge the snakes, and following a track left by a numerous body of horsemen.

Suddenly they saw a dead body before them horribly swollen and putrified, over which they were obliged to step.

"Ah!" said Stoneheart, "Here lies a poor wretch, who probably did not know the uses of the guaco creeper."

Just at that moment, a sharp hissing was heard, and a beautiful little snake, about as thick as the little finger, and seven or eight inches long, crept from under the corpse, raised itself upon its tail, and, darting with wonderful rapidity, fixed itself on Stoneheart's right leg.

"Your pardon, my good fellow," said he coolly; "you have made a mistake!" and, seizing it by the tail, he swung it round, and crushed its head on the ground. "It is a ribbon snake," he added; "bitten by him, you have just eleven minutes to live. You grow first yellow, then green; then you begin to swell, and all is over—with this exception: you have the consolation of changing colour once more, this time from green to black. It is odd, is it not, Estevan?"

"ĄCaray!" replied the latter, who could not help shuddering; "Yours was a lucky thought, Fernando."

"Do you think so, Estevan?"

"By heavens! It is self-evident. Ha! Crush that coral snake coiling round your leg!"

"Why, really, so he is! Well, he is a gentleman who takes liberties!" Saying this, he seized the reptile, and crushed him. "It is a lovely country," he continued. "It is quite diverting to travel here. Halloa! more bodies!—This time a man and horse. They have died together. Poor brute!"

And thus they went on all day. The farther they advanced, the more numerous were the snakes; they met them by threes and fours together. At intervals they found more bodies stretched across their path, proving that they were still on the right trail, and that the Tigercat had left the greater number of his companions on the road. With all their courage, they could not refrain from shuddering at the frightful spectacles they had witnessed in passing through this dreadful place.

Suddenly Stoneheart stopped, bent his body forward, made a sign to his friend to be still, and listened anxiously. "If I am not mistaken," he whispered, "somebody is coming this way."

"Someone!" exclaimed the astonished Estevan. "Impossible!"

"And why so? We are here, and why not others?"

"Quite right: but who can it be?"

"We shall soon see;" and he dragged his companion behind a thick bush, where they crouched for concealment.

"Cock your rifle, Estevan. Who can tell whom we may have to meet?"

The mayor domo obeyed. Both kept motionless, expecting the arrival of the individual, whose steps were now clearly distinguishable.

During the last hour, the path our adventurers were pursuing had gradually begun to rise, with frequent turnings—a sure proof that they were quitting the swamps, and approaching the region which was free from reptiles.

Stoneheart soon saw a shadow thrown across an angle in the path, and immediately afterwards a man appeared. Stoneheart recognised him directly by his tall stature and long white beard. It was the Tigercat. Stoneheart whispered a few words in his companion's ear, and, drawing himself together, bounded at one spring into the middle of the path. The Tigercat showed no surprise at this sudden apparition. "I was coming to look for you," he said calmly, as he halted.

"Then your task is finished," said Stoneheart, "for here I am."

"No, it is not ended; for, while you show yourself in my camp, I shall go to yours."

"You think so?" said Stoneheart, with a mocking laugh.

"Certainly. Do you think to bar my passage?"

"Why not? Is it not mine to settle affairs between us?"

"For my part, I see no reason. You are not looking for me, I suppose?"

"You are wrong, Tigercat! I came here on purpose to seek you."

"Me, and another person."

"You, first of all; for we have a long account to settle."

"We are losing time," said the Tigercat impatiently. "Listen, and try to understand me. Doņa Hermosa is close by; she expects you, for I have promised to bring you together. She has charged me with certain messages to her father; and on that account I must go to your camp. But first, I will lead you to mine—a sad one: of all my followers, but four are left; the rest are dead."

"I know; I saw their bodies on the road. It is you who have slain them. Why did you lead them here?"

"Never mind. What is done cannot be undone. But time presses; will you follow me? I wish to deal openly with you."

"No! I do not trust you. Why have you come into this fearful place?"

"Did you not guess, my son? Merely to be sure that my prisoner was safe."

"You made a mistake, for I am here."

"Perhaps I did. But enough of this. Here, take my rifle. Tell your friend, the barrel of whose rifle I see gleaming through the branches, to come from behind his bush. Perchance you will not be afraid to follow me now, when I am unarmed, and you two to one."

Stoneheart reflected for a moment, and then said: "Come forth, Estevan!"

His friend was at his side in a moment.

"Keep your rifle," said Stoneheart to the Tigercat; "no one must travel in the wilderness without weapons."

"Thanks, Fernando," replied the old chief; "I see you have not forgotten the old rule: a backwoodsman never quits his rifle."

The Tigercat turned and led the way to his camp, the two others following exactly in his footsteps. In about an hour they reached it, pitched halfway up the Voladero, in a spacious cavern. The chief had told the truth—only four out of all his men survived.

"Before going farther," he said, when they got there, "I have a condition to exact."

"To exact!" said Stoneheart ironically, emphasizing the words.

The Tigercat shrugged his shoulders. "At a sign from me, those men will stab Doņa Hermosa to the heart without hesitation; you see, I have the power to exact."

"Speak, then," said Stoneheart, trembling for her sake.

"I will leave you here alone with Doņa Hermosa. I, your friend, and my four comrades, will leave the Voladero at once. In two days, and not before, you will quit the mountain, and come to your camp, where you will find me."

"Why do you impose this condition?"

"You have nothing to do with that: is it so hard, that you will not submit to it? But, briefly, I do not choose to explain; answer—yes or no. Except on this condition you shall not see Doņa Hermosa."

"How do I know whether she is still alive?"

"What good would it have done me to kill her?"

Stoneheart hesitated for a moment. "I accept the conditions," said he at last; "I will stay here two days."

"Good! Now go to her; as for us we will leave you."

"One instant longer! My friend—will you be answerable for his safety? I know I can trust your word."

"I swear to you, I will look upon him as my own friend as long as he remains with me, and you shall find him safe and sound in the camp."

"Enough. Farewell, Estevan; console Don Pedro, and tell him on what conditions his daughter has been restored."

"I will tell them to him myself," said the Tigercat, his mouth contorted with a strange expression.

Stoneheart and Don Estevan bade each other farewell; then the former rapidly approached the cavern, while the Tigercat, his four followers, and the mayor domo, went down the path into the plains. On reaching the nearest trees, the Tigercat halted for a moment, and turned to the cavern into which Stoneheart had just entered. "Aha!" he exclaimed, with a sinister smile, and rubbing his hands with delight; "At last I am sure of my revenge!"

He followed his companion, and they were soon lost to sight, behind the intervening foliage.


CHAPTER XVIII.

EL VOLADERO DE LAS ÁNIMAS.


We have already said that Don Fernando Carril, or Stoneheart, had passed the greater part of his life in the wilderness. Brought up by the Tigercat in the perilous calling of a bee-hunter, chance had occasionally brought him, most unwillingly we confess, to the district in which he now found himself. Thus he was well acquainted with the Voladero de las Ánimas, even to its inmost recesses. He had often sought shelter in the cavern where Doņa Hermosa was now a prisoner, and found it again without difficulty, although the access to it was so well masked by certain features of the mountain, that any other would have been some time in discovering it. The cavern, one of the greatest curiosities of this part of the country; contains several chambers, extending far into the hill, and two broad passages, which terminate in two apertures, like gigantic windows, exactly under the peak of the Voladero, where they hang at a height of a thousand feet over the plain; the conformation of the mountain being so singular that, looking down from them, nothing is to be seen but the tops of the trees below.

Stoneheart entered the cavern, which by another remarkable peculiarity, was lighted throughout its whole extent by innumerable fissures in the rock, admitting sufficient daylight to enable objects to be perceived at a distance of twenty or twenty-five paces. He was very restless; the conditions imposed by Tigercat depressed his spirit to a degree he could not shake off. He could not help asking himself why the old chief had insisted on his remaining two days with Doņa Hermosa on the mountain before he rejoined the camp. He suspected some treachery in these conditions; but of what kind? That was the riddle he could not solve.

He walked slowly through the cavern, looking right and left in the hope of finding her; and, for more than half an hour, could see no indications of her presence.

The sun was already disappearing below the horizon when Stoneheart had issued from the forest; the cavern, sombre enough in the daytime, was at this hour in almost total darkness; so he retraced his steps, to obtain a light for the purpose of resuming a search which otherwise the obscurity rendered impossible. On reaching the entrance to the cavern, he availed himself of the last gleam of daylight to look about him. Some torches of ocote wood were carefully arranged close to the entrance. Producing flint and steel, he speedily procured a light; and, arming himself with a kindled torch, again made his way into the cave. He traversed several chambers without success: and had begun to suspect that the Tigercat had duped him, when he perceived a faint glimmer at some distance in advance of him, which gradually approached, until its light was sufficient to reveal the form of Doņa Hermosa.

She too held a torch in her hand. She was walking with a slow and unsteady step, her head sunk on her breast, in an attitude of poignant sorrow. Doņa Hermosa came nearer and nearer, till she was within fifty paces of Stoneheart. Uncertain how to attract her attention, he was on the point of calling to her, when she chanced to raise her head. On seeing a man before her, she stopped, and haughtily demanded: "Why have you entered this corridor? Have you forgotten that your chief has forbidden anyone to enter it and annoy me?"

"Forgive me, seņorita," replied Stoneheart gently; "the order was unknown to me."

"Heavens!" cried she; "That voice! Is it a a dream?" She dropped her torch, and hastened to approach Stoneheart, who likewise rushed towards her. "Don Fernando!" she exclaimed; "Don Fernando here, in this horrible den! Great God! what further evil is at hand? Have I not suffered enough yet?"

Overcome by emotion, she lost all consciousness, and sank, fainting, into the arms of Stoneheart. Alarmed at the occurrence, and not knowing how to recall her to her senses, he hurried her back to the entrance to the cavern, hoping that the fresh air might restore her. He placed her carefully on a heap of dry leaves, and left her to herself. Stoneheart was a man whose courage reached the verge of temerity. A hundred times he had looked death in the face with a smile; but when he saw the girl lying before him, her features rigid, and pale as death, he trembled like a child; a cold sweat broke out over his forehead, and tears—the first he had ever shed—rolled down his face.

"My God, my God!" he exclaimed; "I have killed her!"

"Who speaks?" said Doņa Hermosa in feeble accents, the current of air rushing into the cave having somewhat revived her. "Do I really hear Don Fernando? Can it be he?"

"It is I; it is indeed I, Hermosa. Collect yourself, and forgive me for causing this sudden fright."

"I am not alarmed," she answered; "on the contrary, your presence relieves me, Don Fernando, if your appearance in this dreadful place augurs no new misfortune."

"Calm yourself, seņorita," he said, drawing gently near her; "I am no omen of evil; I bring good tidings."

"Why seek to deceive me, my friend? Are not you too a prisoner of the monster in human shape who has kept me captive so long?" She rose; the colour returned to her cheeks. She extended her hand to Stoneheart, who, kneeling, clasped it in both his own, and covered it with kisses. "Now we shall no longer be alone; we shall suffer together," she said, fixing an earnest look upon him.

"Dearest Hermosa, your sufferings are at an end; I do indeed bring you good tidings."

"What is it you say, Don Fernando? Your words are incomprehensible. How can you talk of good tidings, while we are both in the power of the Tigercat."

"No, seņorita; you are no longer in his power."

"Free!" she exclaimed in ecstasy; "Is it possible O my father! My father! I shall see you once more!"

"You shall see him very soon, Hermosa. Your father is not far hence, with all you love—Don Estevan and Ņa Manuela."

Doņa Hermosa fell on her knees, with an expression on her face impossible to describe. Lifting her clasped hands to heaven, she uttered a long, silent, and fervent prayer.

Stoneheart gazed upon her with reverential admiration. The sudden transition from sorrow and despair to this excess of joy excited him infinitely. He felt intensely happy—happier than he had ever known himself before.

When Doņa Hermosa rose from her knees, she had regained her calmness. "And now, Don Fernando," she said in gentle accents, "as we are really free, let us sit down outside the cave. Tell me all that has happened since I was torn away from my father."

They left the cavern, and sat down, side by side, on the green turf, canopied by the night, which hung cool and odorous above them; and Stoneheart began his story. It lasted a long time; for Doņa Hermosa frequently interrupted him, to make him repeat details concerning Don Pedro, and night had sped away before the recital ended. "It is your turn, seņorita," said Stoneheart, as soon as he had finished. "You have now to relate what has happened to you."

"As for me," she replied, with a charming smile, "the month has passed in sorrowful thoughts of those from whom I was torn. But I must be just enough to confess, that the man who bore me away treated me with respect—nay, on several occasions he sought to console me and alleviate my grief, by holding out hopes of my soon seeing those whom I love so dearly."

"The Tigercat's conduct is incomprehensible," said Stoneheart thoughtfully. "Why did he carry you off, when he has restored you to us again with so little demur?"

"It is strange," said she; "what could his object be? But I am tree! Thank Heaven, I shall see my father again!"

"Tomorrow we will go to him."

Doņa Hermosa looked at him in surprise.

"Tomorrow!" she exclaimed; "Why not today? Why not at once?"

"Alas!" said he, "I have sworn not to leave this place until tomorrow! The Tigercat would only restore you to liberty on this condition."

"How singular! Why should that man wish to keep us here?"

"I will tell you the reason!" cried Don Estevan, suddenly appearing before them.

"Estevan!" they exclaimed, rushing towards him.

"What happy chance brings you here?" asked Stoneheart.

"It is no chance, brother. God has permitted me to overhear words spoken by the Tigercat, which have given me as clear an insight into his plans as if he himself had revealed them."

"Explain your words, Estevan?"

"Yesterday, when I left you, Fernando, you turned your steps to the cavern, while we retraced ours to the forest. I know not why, but my heart was heavy, and I felt loth to quit you. I could not help fancying that the Tigercat's urbanity covered some deadly purpose against you. So I went slowly down the hill. I happened to turn when I reached the forest, and saw that the chief had ceased to follow us. He had halted a few paces from me. He was rubbing his hands with ferocious delight; his eyes were earnestly fixed on the cave, and I distinctly heard him utter these words: 'At last I am sure of my revenge!' It was like a sudden gleam of light; the diabolical plan the monster had conceived started forth in all its hideousness. Don Fernando, you remember how we became acquainted?"

"I do, Estevan; the remembrance is too near for me to forget it."

"You recollect your conversation on the island with the Tigercat, which I overheard? The insinuations of the man? The implacable hatred to Don Pedro he openly avowed?"

"I recollect it all, Estevan; but to what does it lead?"

"To this, Fernando: the Tigercat, despairing to reach Don Pedro himself, endeavours to strike him through his daughter. Hence the long-concocted plan in which he has made you an involuntary accomplice. You love Doņa Hermosa; you have done everything to save her; he proposes to restore her to you on the simple condition of remaining two days here in her company: do you understand me now?"

"It is frightful!" indignantly exclaimed Stoneheart.

Doņa Hermosa covered her face with her hands to conceal her tears.

"Forgive the pain I have caused you," continued Estevan. "I wished to save you from yourselves; and I could only do so by bluntly laying his machinations open before you. The question is now, whence this inveterate hatred to Don Pedro? Satan alone can tell. But let us not mind that; his plans are unmasked; we have nothing to fear from him."

"Thanks, Estevan," said Doņa Hermosa, holding out her hand.

"But how were you able to return?" cried Stoneheart.

"Easily enough. I had nothing to do but to tell the Tigercat plainly that I did not choose to travel in his company any longer. Our man was thunderstruck at my deliberate desertion; but found no words to oppose me. As for me, I had nothing more to say, so, at the first turn of the road, I left him."

"It was a capital idea, Estevan, and I thank you heartily. But now, what are we to do? I have given my word."

"Nonsense, Fernando! You must be mad. Are we obliged to keep promises which have only been extorted from us to do us harm? If you take my advice, you will leave this place instantly, to thwart any new plots this man may brew."

"True, true!" cried Doņa Hermosa. "Estevan, you are right. We will follow your counsel, and go."

"Let us go," said Stoneheart, "since you wish it. As for me, there is nothing I should like better than to leave this accursed cavern. But how are we to get Doņa Hermosa through the forest?"

"In the same way I crossed it before," she said firmly.

"How was that?" cried Estevan.

"On a kind of litter, which ought to be here still. It was carried on men's shoulders. You know, the snakes do not spring very high."

"And we will wrap you in a buffalo hide, so that you will be safe from all danger."

Don Estevan went in search of the litter, and soon found it, while Stoneheart got the buffalo hide ready. All was prepared in a few minutes.

"We have not broken the conditions of the treaty," said Estevan to his friend.

"How so?"

"Did you not agree to meet the chief at the camp today, and not before?"

"I did; and it would have been impossible to do so, had we remained here the stated time."

"Well, who knows whether the Tigercat did not take that into account too?" replied Estevan.

This observation gave our three personages ample food for reflection; and they began their journey without any further attempt at conversation.


CHAPTER XIX.

THE HAND OF GOD.


We will now return to the hacendero and the Mexican encampment. When Don Pedro awoke in the morning, Ņa Manuela reported Stoneheart's departure in company with her son.

"I feared something of the sort," said Don Pedro sighing; "Don Fernando was so preoccupied last night. I am glad your son has gone with him, Manuela, for it is a perilous expedition. God grant they may bring me back my daughter! Yet I cannot help thinking it would have been better to have consulted me before they left. We have here twenty bold men, who would certainly have been able to do more than two unsupported men, however brave they may be."

"I am of a different opinion," replied Ņa Manuela. "Surprises are the chief element of wars in the wilderness, and two men can often succeed by means of their apparent weakness, which allows them to pass unnoticed, when numbers would fail. However, they will not be long absent, and we shall have certain news of the niņa."

"Please God they be good! Manuela, if I should lose my daughter, in addition to my former woes, I could not survive it."

"Drive away these sombre thoughts, seņor; Providence watches over us all. I hope we shall not be abandoned in our affliction."

"After all," said Don Pedro, "as we are forced to remain inactive, we must exert our patience till our stragglers return."

The day passed without any incident worthy of record. El Zapote, who had gone hunting at daybreak, returned with an elk.

The next day, about ten in the morning, an unarmed Indian presented himself before the sentries, demanding speech of Don Pedro. The latter ordered him to be brought forward. The redskin was an Apache, of cunning features and reckless manner. Brought into the presence of the hacendero, who at that moment was talking to the capataz, he stood motionless and with downcast eyes, waiting with the cold impassiveness characteristic of his race, till they should speak to him. The hacendero scrutinised him attentively. The Indian was perfectly indifferent to the scrutiny.

"What does my brother want? What is his name?" asked don Pedro.

"El Zopilote is an Apache brave," replied the redskin; "the sachem of his tribe sends him to the chief of the palefaces."

"I am the chief of the palefaces. Tell your mission to me."

"Hear what the Tigercat says," replied the immoveable Apache.

"The Tigercat!" exclaimed Don Pedro greatly astonished; "What can he want of me?"

"If my father will listen, El Zopilote will tell him."

"I will listen. Speak Zopilote."

"Thus says the Tigercat: a cloud has arisen between the Tigercat and the chief of the palefaces, who have come into the hunting grounds of my tribe. As the beneficent rays of the sun disperse the clouds that obscure the heavens, so, if wise paleface will smoke the calumet of peace with the Tigercat, the cloud between them will disappear, and the war hatchet be buried so deep, that it shall not be found again for a thousand moons and ten. I have said: I await the answer of my father with the beard of snow."

"Indian!" replied Don Pedro, in accents of sadness, "Your chief has done me much harm, yet I know not the cause of his hatred to me. But Heaven forbid I should reject his proposal, if he entertains the wish to end the difference existing between us. Bid him come; and say I am ready to offer reparation for injury I may have done him without my will or knowledge."

The Apache listened with evident attention to the words of the hacendero. When the latter ceased, he answered: "Wagh! My father has spoken well. Wisdom has taken up her abode in him. The chief will come; but who will insure his safety when in the camp of the palefaces,—he alone, with twenty Yarri (Spanish) braves around him!"

"My word of honour, redskin; my word of honour,—which is worth more than all your chief could give me," said Don Pedro haughtily.

"My father's word is good; his tongue is not forked. The Tigercat asks no more; he will come."

Having uttered these words with Indian emphasis, the Apache warrior bowed profoundly, and retired with the same quiet step which marked his coming.

"What do you think of that Luciano?" said Don Pedro, as soon as they were alone.

"By Heavens, seņor! I think it conceals some Indian devilry. I fear the white who changes his colour, and turns redskin, a hundred times words than the true Indian. I never liked chameleons."

"Right, Luciano! But we are placed in a difficult position. Before all things I must have my daughter; for her sake I must overlook many things."

"True, seņor! Nevertheless, you know as well as I, that the Tigercat is a miscreant without faith or honour. Do not trust him too far."

"I am obliged to trust him. Have I not given my word?"

"You have," growled the capataz; "but I have not given mine!"

"Be cautious, Luciano; and, above all things, do not excite his suspicions."

"Make yourself easy on that score, seņor. Your honour is as dear to me as my own; but I dare not leave you without means of defence, though it please you to trust yourself with a wretch as determined as he."

With these words, the capataz cut short the conversation, and left the jacal, to prevent further remarks from his master. "Ha!" said he, as he met El Zapote; "You are the very man I want, my friend!"

"Me, capataz! That is capital! What is to be done?"

"Come with me a while," replied the capataz; "I must tell you the matter where we cannot be overheard."

An hour later,—that is to say, a little after eleven in the morning,—the Tigercat arrived at the camp, as El Zopilote had asserted. The chief was dressed as a gambucino, and carried no weapons—at least, none were visible.

As soon as the sentinels recognised him, they allowed him to pass, and led him to the capataz, who was walking backwards and forwards. The Tigercat cast a scrutinising look around him the moment he entered the camp. Everything seemed in its usual state, and the chief saw nothing to excite suspicion. He approached the capataz.

"What do you want here?" asked Don Luciano roughly.

"I wish to speak to Don Pedro de Luna," quickly replied the Tigercat.

"Good! Follow me; he expects you."

Without further ceremony, the capataz led him to the jacal. "Enter," said he; "you will find Don Pedro there."

"Who is there?" said a voice from within.

"Seņor," replied the capataz, "it is the Indian who asked the favour of a conversation with the chief. Come, enter!" he added, addressing the Tigercat.

The latter made no observation, but went into the jacal with the capataz.

"You asked to speak with me," began Don Pedro.

"I did," said the chief in a gloomy tone; "but with you alone."

"This man is one of my oldest servants; he has my entire confidence."

"What I have to say must be told to no other ears than yours."

"Retire, Luciano," said don Pedro; "but remain near at hand."

The capataz cast a look of rage at the Tigercat, and left the jacal grumbling.

"Now that we are alone," said Don Pedro, "you can speak openly to me."

"I intend to do so," said the chief in harsh accents.

"Are you come to speak of my daughter?"

"Of her and others," replied the Tigercat in the same tone.

"All this is a mystery, chief; explain!"

"It will not be long before I do so; for I have longed, panted for the opportunity to meet you face to face. Look at me well, Don Pedro; do you not recognise me?"

"I believe I never saw you before you received me as a guest in the teocali."

The chief laughed savagely. "Have years changed me so much? Has the name of Tigercat obliterated my own so thoroughly that that too is forgotten? As Don Guzman de Ribera became Don Pedro de Luna, why should not Don Leoncio de Ribera become the Tigercat, brother?"

"What words are these?" exclaimed Don Pedro, rising in terror. "What name have you uttered?"

"I have said that which is," coldly answered the chief. "The name I utter is mine."

Don Pedro gazed at him with pitiful regret. "Unhappy man!" he sighed; "How have you fallen so low?"

"You are wrong, brother," replied the Tigercat, with a sneer; "on the contrary, I have risen to be the sachem of an Indian tribe. Long, long have I waited for my revenge! Twenty years I have watched; but today I have it—today it is complete!"

"Your revenge, miserable man!" answered Don Pedro indignantly; "What revenge would you against me?—you, who attempted to seduce my wife; you, who sought to slay me; and who, lastly, to crown your infamy, have borne away my daughter!"

"You forget to name your son, whom I also carried away,—your sin, Don Fernando Carril, in whom I have contrived to excite a passion for his sister, and who has been these two days alone with her at the Voladero de las Ánimas. Aha! Don Guzman, what say you to that revenge?"

"Woe, woe!" exclaimed Don Pedro, wringing his hands in his despair.

"Brother and sister in love with each other; licensed by you, Don Guzman, and married by me! Aha!" and he burst into a horrid laugh, that sounded like the howl of the hyena.

"It is too horrible," cried Don Pedro, in the depths of despair. "It is a lie, wretch! Bandit as you are, you dare not meditate a crime so terrible! You are but a boasting miscreant! Your tale cannot be true; to believe it, would be to doubt the justice of Heaven!"

"You do not believe my words, brother?" replied the Tigercat in a sarcastic tone. "As you please. Here come your children; I hear them entering the camp; ask them."

Don Pedro, half-mad with grief, was rushing out of the jacal when Stoneheart, Doņa Hermosa, and Don Estevan appeared at the entrance: the unhappy father was stopped by the shock.

"Look!" said the Tigercat, with his usual sneer; "Look how he receives his children! Is that his love?"

Doņa Hermosa had thrown herself into her father's arms, and tearfully embraced him; without seeing the Tigercat. "My father, my father!" she cried; "God be praised that I see you once more!"

"Who speaks of God here?" said Don Pedro in a hollow voice, and shaking off his daughter, who tottered from him.

Doņa Hermosa looked round in affright. Pale and trembling, she would have fallen, if Stoneheart had not hastened to support her.

"Look, how they love each other!" sneered the Tigercat. "It is touching! Don Fernando, throw your arms around your father;" and he pointed to Don Pedro.

"He my father!" cried Stoneheart, overjoyed; "Oh, it would be too much happiness!"

"Yes," said the Tigercat; "Don Pedro is your father, and here is your sister!" As he said this, he pointed to Doņa Hermosa and again burst into a diabolical laugh.

The two young people were thunderstruck. Don Pedro, whose nervous system had received a violent shock from the first revelation, felt his reason deserting him. He seemed neither to see nor hear, and to take no notice of the strange scene enacting around him. The Tigercat exulted in his triumph. Don Estevan, alarmed at the hacendero's state, thought it high time to interfere. "Don Pedro," said he in a loud voice and forcibly laying his hand on the old man's shoulder, "collect yourself; this miscreant is a liar! Your children are worthy of your name. I was with them at the Voladero."

Don Pedro seemed to make a mighty effort to resume his grasp on the senses which were leaving him. His body underwent a terrible convulsion. He turned his face towards Stoneheart, and a heavy sigh burst from his heart; then tears flowed down his venerable cheeks, and he cried in feeble accents, as he fell on the breast of his son, "Yours is the truth, Estevan; the truth, the truth!"

"I swear it, Don Pedro!" was the solemn reply.

"Thanks, thanks! I knew the miscreant lied. My children—"

The two young people threw themselves into his arms, and loaded him with caresses.

The Tigercat, with his arms crossed on his chest, looked on with his sardonic leer, and said ironically: "They love each other, brother; let them marry."

"They have a right to do so!" exclaimed a ringing voice. All turned in amazement. Ņa Manuela had entered the jacal. "Yes," said she, turning with an air of mockery to the Tigercat, who stood appalled, he knew not why, at the sudden apparition; "the day of judgment has come at last! I have waited for it patiently; but justice shall be done, and it is I whom God has chosen to manifest his power!"

All present gazed with admiration and respect at the woman, who seemed completely transfigured. Her face was radiant; her eyes flashed lightning. With calm and imposing steps, she approached the hacendero. "Don Pedro! my much-loved master," said she in a voice scarcely intelligible from emotion; "forgive me! I have made you suffer, oh, how long! But God inspired me! It is He, and only He, who dictated my conduct. Don Fernando is not your son; he is mine! Your son"—and she brought forward Don Estevan—"is here!"

"Don Estevan!" cried all present.

"A lie!" howled the Tigercat

"It is the truth," briefly replied Ņa Manuela. "Hatred is blind, Don Leoncio. You took away the poor nurse's child when you thought you had stolen your brother's. Look at Estevan, all you who knew his mother, and deny, if you dare, that he is her son."

In truth, the likeness was striking. Up to the time, Estevan's position had blinded their eyes; there was no reason to seek for a resemblance to anyone: but now, when the veil had fallen, they recognised whence he sprung.

"But you will always be my mother!" cried Estevan, with much feeling.

"Mother!" exclaimed Fernando, throwing himself into her arms.

Don Pedro's joy knew no bounds.

The Tigercat, forced to confess himself foiled, uttered a howl like a wild beast. "Aha!" cried he, beside himself with rage, "Is it to be thus? But it is not over yet!" He drew a poniard from his garments, and threw himself with all his force on Don Pedro, who, in his joy, had forgotten his presence.

But an eye watched him. Don Luciano had stolen into the jacal, and noiselessly placed himself behind the bandit, whose every movement he carefully watched. As the Tigercat made his spring, he threw his arms around him, and pinioned him, in spite of the desperate efforts made by the miserable wretch. At the same moment, the vaquero bounded into the jacal, knife in hand, and, before anyone could arrest him, plunged it up to the hilt in his throat. "Not bad;" he exclaimed. "The opportunity was too good to lose! My navajada was never given so fairly! I hope this blow will gain me pardon for the others."

The Tigercat remained standing a moment, swaying hither and thither, like a half-uprooted oak tottering to its fall. He rolled his eyes around him, in which rage still strove with the agony that made them haggard. He made one last effort to pronounce a terrible malediction, but his mouth contracted horribly; a stream of dark blood spouted from his yawning throat; he fell at his full length on the ground, where he writhed for a moment like a crushed reptile, to the inconceivable horror of the spectators. Then all was still: he was dead; but on his face, distorted by the death pang, unutterable hatred survived the life which had just quitted him.

"Justice is done," said Manuela, with trembling accents. "It is the hand of God!"

"Let us pray for him," said Don Pedro, falling on his knees.

All present, impressed by this noble and simple action, followed his example, and knelt by his side.

The vaquero, having finished his part in the scene, thought it prudent to disappear, but not without exchanging a glance of intelligence with the capataz, who smiled grimly under his gray moustache.