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Aimard Gustave
The Freebooters: A Story of the Texan War

PREFACE

Apart from the thrilling interest of Aimard's new story, which I herewith offer to English readers, I think it will be accepted with greater satisfaction, as being an historical record of the last great contest in which the North Americans were engaged. As at the present moment everything is eagerly devoured that may tend to throw light on the impending struggle between North and South, I believe that the story of "THE FREEBOOTERS," which is rigorously true in its details, will enable my readers to form a correct opinion of the character of the Southerners.

The series, of which this volume forms a second link, will be completed in a third volume, to be called "THE WHITE SCALPER," which contains an elaborate account of the liberation of Texas, and the memorable battle of San Jacinto, together with personal adventures of the most extraordinary character.

L.W.
7, DRAYTON TERRACE,
WEST BROMPTON.

CHAPTER I.
FRAY ANTONIO

All the wood rangers have noticed, with reference to the immense virgin forests which still cover a considerable extent of the soil of the New World, that, to the man who attempts to penetrate into one of these mysterious retreats which the hand of man has not yet deformed, and which preserve intact the sublime stamp which Deity has imprinted on them, the first steps offer almost insurmountable difficulties, which are gradually smoothed down more and more, and after a little while almost entirely disappear. It is as if Nature had desired to defend by a belt of thorns and spikes the mysterious shades of these aged forests, in which her most secret arcana are carried out.

Many times, during our wanderings in America, we were in a position to appreciate the correctness of the remark we have just made: this singular arrangement of the forests, surrounded, as it were, by a rampart of parasitic plants entangled one in the other, and thrusting in every direction their shoots full of incredible sap, seemed a problem which offered a certain degree of interest from various points of view, and especially from that of science.

It is evident to us that the circulation of the air favours the development of vegetation. The air which circulates freely round a large extent of ground covered with lofty trees, and is driven by the various breezes that agitate the atmosphere, penetrates to a certain depth into the clumps of trees it surrounds, and consequently supplies nourishment to all the parasitical shrubs vegetation presents to it. But, on reaching a certain depth under the covert, the air, less frequently renewed, no longer supplies carbonic acid to all the vegetation that covers the soil, and which, through the absence of that aliment, pines away and dies.

This is so true, that those accidents of soil which permit the air a more active circulation in certain spots, such as the bed of a torrent or a gorge between two eminences, the entrance of which is open to the prevailing wind, favour the development of a more luxuriant vegetation than in flat places.

It is more than probable that Fray Antonio1 made none of the reflections with which we begin this chapter, while he stepped silently and quietly through the trees, leaving the man who had helped him, and probably saved his life, to struggle as he could with the crowd of Redskins who attacked him, and against whom he would indubitably have great difficulty in defending him.

Fray Antonio was no coward; far from it: in several critical circumstances he had displayed true bravery; but he was a man to whom the existence he led offered enormous advantages and incalculable delights. Life seemed to him good, and he did all in his power to spend it jolly and free from care. Hence, through respect for himself, he was extremely prudent, only facing danger when it was absolutely necessary; but at such times, like all men driven into a corner, he became terrible and really dangerous to those who, in one way or the other, had provoked in him this explosion of passion.

In Mexico, and generally throughout Spanish America, as the clergy are only recruited from the poorest class of the population, their ranks contain men of gross ignorance, and for the most part of more than doubtful morality. The religious orders, which form nearly one-third of the population, living nearly independent of all subjection and control, receive among them people of all sorts, for whom the religious dress they don is a cloak behind which they give way with perfect liberty to their vices, of which the most venial are indubitably indolence, luxury, and intoxication.

Enjoying a great credit with the civilized Indian population, and greatly respected by them, the monks impudently abuse that halo of sanctity which surrounds them, in order to shamefully plunder these poor people under the slightest excuses.

Indeed, blackguardism and demoralisation have attained such a pitch in these unhappy countries, which are old and decrepit without ever having been young, that the conduct of the monks, offensive it may seem in the sight of Europeans, has nothing at all extraordinary for those among whom they live.

Far from us the thought of leading it to be supposed that among the Mexican clergy, and even the monks we have so decried, there are not men worthy of the gown they wear, and convinced of the sanctity of their mission; we have, indeed, known many of that character; but unfortunately they form so insignificant a minority, that they must be regarded as the exception.

Fray Antonio was assuredly no better or worse than the other monks whose gown he wore; but, unluckily for him, for some time past fatality appeared to have vented its spite on him, and mixed him up, despite his firm will, in events, not only opposed to his character but to his habits, which led him into a multitude of tribulations each more disagreeable than the other, and which were beginning to make him consider that life extremely bitter, which he had hitherto found so pleasant.

The atrocious mystification of which John Davis had rendered the poor monk a victim, had especially spread a gloomy haze over his hitherto so gay mind; a sad despondency had seized upon him; and it was with a heavy and uncertain step that he fled through the forest, although, excited by the sounds of combat that still reached his ear, he made haste to get off, through fear of falling into the hands of the Redskins, if they proved the victors.

Night surprised poor Fray Antonio ere he had reached the skirt of this forest, which seemed to him interminable. Naturally anything but hard-working, and not at all used to desert life, the monk found himself greatly embarrassed when he saw the sun disappear on the horizon in a mist of purple and gold, and the darkness almost instantaneously cover the earth. Unarmed, without means of lighting a fire, half-dead with hunger and alarm, the monk took a long glance of despair around him, and fell to the ground, giving vent to a dull groan: he literally did not know to what saint he should appeal.

Still, after a few moments, the instinct of self-preservation gained the mastery over discouragement, and the monk, whose teeth chattered with terror on hearing re-echoed through the forest the lugubrious roaring of the wild beasts, which were beginning to awaken, and greeted in their fashion the longed-for return of gloom – rose with a feverish energy, and suffering from that feverish over-excitement which fear raised to a certain pitch produces, resolved to profit by the fugitive rays that still crossed the glade, to secure himself a shelter for the night.

Opposite to him grew a majestic mahogany tree, whose interlaced branches and dense foliage seemed to offer him a secure retreat against the probable attack of the gloomy denizens of the forest.

Assuredly, under any other circumstances than those in which he found himself, the bare idea of escalading this immense forest would have appeared to the monk the height of folly and mental aberration, owing first to his paunch, and next to his awkwardness, of which he felt intimately convinced.

But it was a critical point: at each instant the situation grew more dangerous; the howling came nearer in a most alarming manner; there was no time to hesitate; and Fray Antonio did not do so. After walking once or twice round the tree, in order to discover the spot which offered him the greatest facility for his ascent, he gave vent to a sigh, embraced the enormous and rugged trunk with his arms and knees, and painfully commenced his attempted climb.

But it was no easy matter, especially for a plump monk, to mount the tree, and Fray Antonio soon perceived this fact at his own expense; for each time that, after extraordinary efforts, he managed to raise himself a few inches from the ground, his strength suddenly failed him, and he fell back on the ground with lacerated hands and torn clothes.

Ten times already had he renewed his efforts, with the desperation produced by despair, without seeing them crowned with success; the perspiration poured down his face; his chest panted; he was in a state to produce pity even in his most obstinate enemy.

"I shall never succeed in mounting it," he muttered sadly; "and if I remain here, I am a lost man, for within an hour I shall be infallibly devoured by some tiger in search of its supper."

This final reflection, which was incontestably true, restored a fresh ardour to the monk, who resolved to make a new and supreme attempt But this time he wished to take all his precautions; consequently, he began collecting the dead wood round him and piling it at the foot of the tree, so as to form a scaffolding high enough for him to reach, without any great difficulty, a branch sufficiently low for him, while careful to remain awake, to hope to spend the night without fear of being devoured – an alternative for which the worthy monk did not feel the slightest inclination.

Soon, thanks to the vivacity of his movements, Fray Antonio had a considerable heap of wood piled up around him. A smile of satisfaction lit up his wide face, and he breathed again, while wiping away the perspiration that poured down his face.

"This time," he muttered, calculating with a glance the space he had to cover, "if I do not succeed, I shall be preciously clumsy."

In the meanwhile the last gleams of twilight, so useful to the monk, had entirely disappeared; the absence of the stars, which had not yet shown themselves, left a profound obscurity in the sky, which was even more obscure under the covert; all was beginning to be blotted out, only allowing here and there a few clumps of trees to be distinguished, as they designed their gloomy masses in the night, or a few patches of water, the result of the last storm, which studded the forest with paler spots. The evening breeze had risen, and could be heard soughing through the foliage with a sad and melancholy plaintiveness.

The dangerous denizens of the forest had quitted their lurking places, and crushed the dead wood, as they eagerly came on, amid a deafening current of catlike howls. The monk had not an instant to lose, if he did not wish to be attacked on all sides at once by the wild beasts, whom a lengthened fast rendered more terrible still.

After taking a searching glance around him in order to assure himself that no pressing danger threatened him, the monk devotedly crossed himself, fervently recommended himself to Heaven with a sincerity he had probably never evinced before, and then, suddenly making up his mind, began resolutely climbing up the pile of wood. After several unsuccessful attempts, he at last reached the top of this fictitious mount.

He then stopped for a minute to draw breath; indeed, thanks to his ingenious ideas, Fray Antonio was now nearly ten feet from the ground. It is true that any animal could easily have overthrown this obstacle; but for all that, this beginning of success revived the monk's courage, the more so because, on raising his eyes he saw a few paces above him, the blessed branch toward which he had so long extended his arms in vain.

"Come!" he said, hopefully.

He embraced the tree once more, and recommenced his fatiguing clambering. Either through skill or accident Fray Antonio at length managed to seize the branch with both hands, and clung to it with all his strength. The rest was as nothing. The monk assembled by a supreme effort all the vigour his previous attempts had left him, and raising himself by his arms, tried to get astride on the branch. Owing to his energetic perseverances, he had raised his head and shoulders above the branch, when all at once he felt a hand or a claw fasten round his right leg, and squeeze it as in a vice. A shudder of terror ran over the monk's body: his blood stood still in his veins; an icy perspiration beaded on his temples, and his teeth chattered fit to break.

"Mercy!" he exclaimed in a choking voice, "I am dead. Holy virgin, have pity on me."

His strength, paralyzed by terror, deserted him, his hands let loose the protecting branch, and he fell in a lump at the foot of the tree. Fortunately for Fray Antonio, the care he had taken in piling up the dead wood to a considerable extent broke his fall, otherwise it would probably have been mortal: but the shock he experienced was so great that he completely lost his senses. The monk's fainting fit was long: when he returned to life and opened his eyes again, he took a frightened glance around, and fancied he must be suffering from a horrible nightmare.

He had not stirred from the spot, so to speak: he still found himself by the tree, which he had tried so long to climb up in vain, but he was lying close to an enormous fire, over which half a deer was roasting, and around him were some twenty Indians, crouching on their heels, silently smoking their pipes, while their horses, picketed a few yards off, and ready to mount, were eating their provender.

Fray Antonio had seen Indians several times before, and had stood on such intimate terms, indeed, with them, as to be able to recognize them. His new friends were clothed in their war garb, and from their hair drawn off their foreheads, and their long barbed lances, it was easy to recognize them as Apaches.

The monk's blood ran cold, for the Apaches are notorious for their cruelty and roguery. Poor Fray Antonio had fallen from Charybdis into Scylla; he had only escaped from the jaws of the wild beasts in order to be in all probability martyred by the Redskins. It was a sad prospect which furnished the unlucky monk with ample material for thoughts, each more gloomy than the other, for he had often listened with a shudder to the hunters' stories about the atrocious tortures the Apaches take a delight in inflicting on their prisoners with unexampled barbarity.

Still, the Indians went on smoking silently, and did not appear to perceive that their captive had regained his senses. For his part, the monk hermetically closed his eyes, and anxiously preserved the most perfect tranquillity, in order to leave his dangerous companions, so long as he could, in ignorance of the state in which he was.

At length the Indians left off smoking, and after shaking the ash out of their calumets, passed them again through their girdle; a Redskin removed from the fire the half deer which was perfectly roasted, laid it in abanijo leaves in front of his comrades, and each drawing his scalping knife, prepared for a vigorous attack on the venison, which exhaled an appetizing odour, especially for the nostrils of a man who, during the whole past day, had been condemned to an absolute fast.

At this moment the monk felt a heavy hand laid on his chest, while a voice said to him with a guttural accent, which, however, had nothing menacing about it.

"The father of prayer can open his eyes now, for the venison is smoking, and his share is cut off."

The monk, perceiving that his stratagem was discovered, and excited by the smell of the meat, having made up his mind, opened his eyes, and sat up.

"Och!" the man who had before spoken said, "My father can eat; he must be hungry, and has slept enough."

The monk attempted to smile, but only made a frightful grimace, so alarmed did he feel. As however, he was really hungry as a wolf, he followed the example offered him by the Indians, who had already commenced their meal, and set to work eating the lump of venison which they had the politeness to set before him. The meal did not take long; still it lasted long enough to restore a little courage to the monk, and make him regard his position from a less gloomy side than he had hitherto done.

In truth, the behaviour of the Apaches toward him had nothing hostile about it; on the contrary, they were most attentive in serving him with what he needed, giving him more food so soon as they perceived that he had nothing before him: they had even carried their politeness so far as to give him a few mouthfuls of spirit, an extremely precious liquid, of which they are most greedy, even for their own use, owing to the difficulty they experience in obtaining it.

When he had ended his meal, the monk, who was almost fully reassured as to the amicable temper of his new friends, on seeing them light their pipes, took from his pocket tobacco and an Indian corn leaf, and after rolling a pajillo with the skill which the men of Spanish race possess, he conscientiously enjoyed the bluish smoke of his excellent Havana tobacco, costa abajo.

A considerable space of time elapsed thus, and not a syllable was exchanged among them. By degrees the ranks of the Redskins thinned: one after the other, at short intervals, rolled themselves in their blankets, lay down with their feet to the fire, and went to sleep almost immediately. Fray Antonio, crushed by the poignant emotions of the day, and the enormous fatigue he had experienced, would gladly have imitated the Indians, had he dared, for he felt his eyes close involuntarily, and found immense difficulty in contending against the sleep that overpowered him. At last the Indian who hitherto had alone spoken, perceiving his state of somnolency, took pity on him. He rose, fetched a horsecloth, and brought it to the monk.

"My father will wrap himself in this fressada,2" he said, employing the bad Spanish in which he had hitherto spoken; "the nights are cold, and my father needs sleep greatly, he will, therefore, feel warmed with this. Tomorrow, a Chief will smoke the calumet with my father in council. Blue-fox desires to have a serious conversation with the father of prayer of the Palefaces."

Fray Antonio gratefully accepted the horsecloth so graciously offered by the Chief, and without attempting to prolong the conversation, he wrapped himself up carefully, and lay down by the fire so as to absorb the largest amount of caloric possible. Still the Indian's words did not fail to cause the monk a certain degree of anxiety.

"Hum!" he muttered to himself, "That is the reverse of the medal. What can this Pagan have to say to me? He does not mean to ask me to christen him, I suppose? especially as his name appears to be Blue-fox, a nice savage name, that. Well, heaven will not abandon me, and it will be day tomorrow. So now for a snooze."

And with this consolatory reflection the monk closed his eyes: two minutes later he slept as if never going to wake again.

Blue-fox, for it was really into the hands of that Chief the monk had so unexpectedly fallen, remained crouched over the fire the whole night, plunged in gloomy thought, and watching, alone of his comrades, over the common safety: at times, his eyes were fixed with a strange expression on the monk who was fast asleep, and far from suspecting that the Apache Chief was so obstinately engaged with him.

At sunrise Blue-fox was still awake: he had remained the whole night without once changing his position, and sleep had not once weighed down his eyelids.

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The Freebooters: A Story of the Texan War

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На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «The Freebooters: A Story of the Texan War», автора Gustave Aimard. Данная книга имеет возрастное ограничение 12+, относится к жанру «Зарубежная классика».. Книга «The Freebooters: A Story of the Texan War» была издана в 2017 году. Приятного чтения!