With this volume terminates the series in which Gustave Aimard has described the sad fate of the Count de Raousset-Boulbon, who fell a victim to Mexican treachery. In the next volume to be published, under the title of the "Trail Hunter," will be found the earlier history of some of the characters whose acquaintance the reader has formed, I trust with pleasure, in the present series.
The Jesuits founded in Mexico missions round which, with the patience that constantly distinguished them, an unbounded charity, and a perseverance which nothing could discourage, they succeeded in collecting a large number of Indians, whom they instructed in the principal and most touching dogmas of their faith – whom they baptized, instructed, and induced to till the soil.
These missions, at first insignificant and a great distance apart, insensibly increased. The Indians, attracted by the gentle amenity of the good fathers, placed themselves under their protection; and there is no doubt that if the Jesuits, victims to the jealousy of the Spanish viceroys, had not been shamefully plundered and expelled from Mexico, they would have brought around them the majority of the fiercest Indios Bravos, have civilised them, and made them give up their nomadic life.
It is to one of these missions we purpose conducting the reader, a month after the events we have narrated in a preceding work.1
The mission of Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles was built on the right bank of the Rio San Pedro, about sixty leagues from Pitic. Nothing can equal the grandeur and originality of its position. Nothing can compare, in wild grandeur and imposing severity, with the majestically terrible landscape which presents itself to the vision, and fills the heart with terror and a melancholy joy, at the sight of the frightful and gloomy rocks which tower over the river like colossal walls and gigantic parapets, apparently formed by some convulsion of nature; while in the midst of this chaos, at the foot of these astounding precipices, past which the river rushes in impetuous cascades, and in a delicious valley covered with verdure, stands the house, commanded on three sides by immense mountains, which raise their distant peaks almost to the heavens.
Alas! this house, formerly so smiling, so animated, so gay and happy – this remote corner of the world, which seemed a counterpart of Eden, where, morning and night, hymns of gratitude, mingling with the cascade, rose to the Omnipotent – this mission is now dead and desolate, the houses are deserted and in ruins, the church roof has fallen in, the grass has invaded the choir. The terrified members of this simple and innocent community, scattered by persecution, sought refuge in the desert, and returned to that savage life from which they were rescued with so much difficulty. Wild beasts dwell in the house of God, and nothing is heard save the voice of solitude murmuring unceasingly through the deserted houses and crumbling walls, which parasitic plants are rapidly invading, and will soon level with the ground, covering them with a winding sheet of verdure.
It was evening. The wind roared hoarsely through the trees. The sky, like a dome of diamond, flashed with those millions of stars which are also worlds; the moon spread around a vague and mysterious light; and the atmosphere, refreshed by a gusty breeze, was embalmed with those desert odours which it is so healthy to respire.
Still the night was somewhat fresh, and three travellers, crouching round a large brasero kindled amid the ruins, seemed to appreciate its kindly warmth. These travellers, on whose hard features the changing flashes of light were reflected, would have supplied a splendid subject for an artist, with their strange costumes, as they were encamped there in the midst of the wild and startling landscape.
A little distance behind the principal group four hobbled horses were munching their provender, while their riders, for their part, were concluding a scanty meal, composed of a slice of venison, a few pieces of tasajo, and maize tortillas, the whole washed down with water slightly dashed with refino to take off its hardness.
These three men were Count Louis, Valentine, and Don Cornelio. Although they ate like true hunters – that is to say, with good appetite, and not losing a mouthful – it was easy to guess that our friends were engaged with serious matters for thought. Their eyes wandered incessantly around, consulting the shadows, and striving to pierce the darkness. At times the hand stopped half way to the mouth – the lump of tasajo remained in suspense: with their left hand they instinctively sought the rifle that lay on the ground near them. They stretched forth their necks, and listened attentively, analysing those thousand nameless noises of the great American deserts, which all have a cause, and are an infallible warning to the man who knows how to understand them.
Still the meal drew to an end. Don Cornelio had seized his jarana; but at a sign from Don Louis he laid it again by his side, wrapped himself in his zarapé, and stretched himself out on the ground. Valentine was in deep reflection. Louis had risen, and, leaning against a wall, looked cautiously out into the desert. A long period elapsed ere a word was exchanged, until Louis seated himself again by the hunter's side.
"'Tis strange," he said.
"What?" Valentine replied abstractedly.
"Curumilla's prolonged absence. He has left us for nearly three hours without telling us the reason, and has not returned yet."
"Have you any suspicion of him?" the hunter said with a certain degree of bitterness.
"Brother," Louis replied, "you are unjust at this moment. I do not suspect; I am restless, that is all. Like yourself, I feel a too lively and sincere friendship for the chief not to fear some accident."
"Curumilla is prudent; no one is so well acquainted as he with Indian tricks. If he has not returned, there are important reasons for it, be assured."
"I am convinced of it; but the delay his absence causes us may prove injurious."
"How do you know, brother? Perhaps our safety depends on this very absence. Believe me, Louis, I know Curumilla much better than you do. I have slept too long side by side with him not to place the utmost confidence in him. Thus, you see, I patiently await his return."
"But supposing he has fallen into a snare, or has been killed?"
Valentine regarded his foster brother with a most peculiar look; then he replied, with a shrug of his shoulders, and an air of supreme contempt, —
"He fallen into a snare! Curumilla dead! Nonsense, brother, you must be jesting! You know perfectly well that is impossible."
Louis had no objection to offer to this simple profession of faith.
"At any rate," he continued presently, "you must allow that he has kept us waiting a long time."
"Why so? What do we want of him at this moment? You do not intend to leave this bivouac, I fancy? Well, what consequence is it if he return an hour sooner or later?"
Louis made a sign of impatience, wrapped himself up in his zarapé, and lay down by Don Cornelio's side, after growling, —
"Good night, brother," Valentine answered with a smile.
Ten minutes later, Don Louis, despite his ill temper, overcome by fatigue, slept as if he were never to wake up again. Valentine allowed a quarter of an hour to elapse ere he made a move; then he rose gently, crept up to his foster brother, bent over him, and examined him attentively for two or three minutes.
"At length," he said, drawing himself up. "I was afraid he would insist on sitting up and keeping me company."
The hunter thrust into his girdle the pistols he had laid on the ground, threw his rifle over his shoulder, and stepping carefully across the stones and rubbish that burdened the soil, rapidly but noiselessly retired, and speedily disappeared in the darkness. He walked in this way for about ten minutes, when he reached a dense thicket. Then he crouched behind a shrub, and, after taking a cautious survey of the surrounding country, whistled gently thrice, being careful to leave an equal space of time between each signal. At the expiration of two or three minutes the cry of the moorhen was heard twice from the midst of the trees that bordered the river's bank only a few paces from the spot where the hunter was standing.
"Good!" the latter muttered. "Our friend is punctual; but, as the wisdom of nations says somewhere that prudence is the mother of surety, let us be prudent: that can do no harm when dealing with such scamps."
And the worthy hunter set the hammer of his rifle. After taking this precaution he left the thicket in which he had been concealed, and advanced with apparent resolution, but still without neglecting any precaution to avoid a surprise, toward the spot whence the reply to his signal had come. When he had covered about half the distance four or five persons came forward to meet him.
"Oh, oh!" the hunter said; "these people appear very eager to speak with me. Attention!"
Hereupon he stopped, raised his rifle to his shoulder, and aimed at the nearest man.
"Halt," he said, "or I fire!"
"Capo de Dios! you are quick, caballero," an ironical voice answered. "You do not allow yourself to be easily approached; but uncock your rifle – you see that we are unarmed."
"Apparently so, I grant; but who guarantees me that you have not arms concealed about your person?"
"My honour, sir," the first speaker answered haughtily. "Would you venture to doubt it?"
The hunter laughed.
"I doubt everything at night, when I am alone in the desert, and see before me four men whom I have every reason for believing are not my friends."
"Come, come, sir, a little more politeness, if you please."
"I wish nothing more. Still, you requested this interview; hence you are bound to accept my conditions, and not I yours."
"As you please, Don Valentine: you shall arrange matters as you will. Still, the first time we had a conference together, I found you much more facile."
"I do not deny it. Come alone, and we will talk."
The stranger gave his companions a sign to stop where they were, and advanced alone.
"That will do," the hunter said as he uncocked his rifle, and rested the butt on the ground, crossing his hands over the muzzle.
The man to whom Valentine displayed so little confidence, or, to speak more clearly, whom he doubted so greatly, was no other than General Don Sebastian Guerrero.
"There, now you must be satisfied. I think I have given you a great proof of my condescension," the general said as he joined him.
"You have probably your reasons for it," the hunter replied, with a cunning look.
"Sir!" the general haughtily objected.
"Let us be brief and clear, like men who appreciate one another correctly," Valentine said dryly. "I am neither a fool nor a man infatuated with his own merits; hence frankness, reciprocal frankness, can alone bring us to any understanding, if that be possible, though I doubt it."
"What do you suppose, then, sir?"
"I suppose nothing, general. I am certain of what I assert, that is all. What probability is there that a great personage like you, general, Governor of Sonora, and Lord knows what else, would lower yourself to solicit from a poor fellow of a hunter like myself an interview at night, in the heart of the desert, unless he hoped to obtain a great advantage from that interview? A man must be mad or a fool not to see that at the first glance; and Heaven be thanked, I am neither one nor the other."
"Suppose that things are as you state?"
"Suppose it, then; I have no objection. Now come to facts."
"Hum! that does not appear to me so easy with you."
"Why so? Our first relations, as you reminded me just now, ought to have proved to you that I am easy enough in business matters."
"That is true. Still the transaction I have to propose to you is of rather a peculiar nature, and I am afraid – "
"What of? That I shall refuse? Hang it! you understand there is a risk to be incurred."
"No; I am afraid that you will not exactly catch the spirit of the affair, and feel annoyed."
"Do you think so? After all, that is possible. Would you like me to save you the trouble of an explanation?"
"Listen to me."
The two men were standing just two paces apart, looking in each other's eyes. Still Valentine, ever on his guard, was carefully watching, though not appearing to do so, the four men left behind.
"Speak!" the general said.
"General, you wish simply to propose to me that I should sell my friend."
Don Sebastian, at these words, pronounced with a cutting accent, involuntarily gave a sign of surprise, and fell back a pace.
"Is it true – yes or no?"
"You employ terms – " the general stammered.
"Terms have nothing to do with the matter. Now that you have discovered Don Louis is not the accomplice you hoped to find, who would raise you to the president's chair, and as you despair of changing his views, you wish to get rid of him – that is natural."
"Let me continue. For that purpose you can hit on nothing better than buying him. Indeed, you are used to such transactions. I have in my hands the proofs of several which do you a great deal of honour."
The general was livid with terror and rage. He clenched his fists and stamped, while uttering unconnected words. The hunter seemed not to notice this agitation, and continued imperturbably, —
"Still you are mistaken in applying to me. I am no Dog-face, a fellow with whom you made a famous bargain some years ago. I have dealt in cattle, but never in human flesh. Each man has his speciality, and I leave that to you."
"Stay, sir!" the general exclaimed in a paroxysm of fury. "What do you want to come to? Did you accept this interview for the purpose of insulting me?"
Valentine shrugged his shoulders.
"You do not believe it," he said: "that would be too childish. I want to propose a business transaction."
"Or a bargain, if you prefer that term."
"What is its nature?"
"I can tell you in two words. I have in my possession various papers, which, if they saw light, and were, handed to certain persons, might cost you not only your fortune, but possibly your life."
"Papers!" Don Sebastian stammered.
"Yes, general; your correspondence with a certain North American diplomatist, to whom you offered to deliver Sonora and one or two other provinces, if the United Sates supplied you with the means to seize the presidency of the Mexican Republic."
"And you have those papers?" the general said with ill-restrained anxiety.
"I have the letters, with your correspondent's answers."
"Of course," Valentine said with a laugh.
"Then you will die!" the general yelled, bounding like a panther on the hunter.
But the latter was on his guard. By a movement as quick as his adversary's, he seized the general by the throat, threw himself upon him, and laid his foot on his chest.
"One step further," he said coldly to the general's companions, who were running up at full speed to his aid, "one step, and he is a dead man."
Certainly the general was a brave man. Many times he had supplied unequivocal proofs of a courage carried almost to temerity: still he saw such resolution flashing in the hunter's tawny eye, that he felt a shudder pass through all his limbs – he was lost, he was afraid.
"Stop, stop!" he cried in a choking voice to his friends.
The latter obeyed.
"I could kill you," Valentine said; "you are really in my power; but what do I care for your life or death? I hold both in my hands. Rise! Now, one word – take care that you do nothing against the count."
The general had profited by the hunter's permission to rise; but so soon as he felt himself free, and his feet were firmly attached to the ground, a revolution was effected in him, and he felt his courage return.
"Listen in your turn," he said. "I will be as frank and brutal with you as you were with me. It is now a war to the death between us, without pity and without mercy. If I have to carry my head to the scaffold, the count shall die; for I hate him, and I require his death to satisfy my vengeance."
"Good!" Valentine coldly answered.
"Yes," the general said sarcastically. "Come, I do not fear you! I do not care if you employ the papers with which you threatened me, for I am invulnerable."
"You think so?" the hunter said slowly.
"I despise you; you are only adventurers: You can never touch me."
Valentine bent toward him.
"Perhaps not," he said; "but your daughter?"
And, taking advantage of the general's stupefaction, the hunter uttered a hoarse laugh and rushed into the thicket, where it was impossible to follow him.
"Oh!" the general muttered, at the expiration of a moment, as he passed his hand over his damp forehead, "the demon! My daughter!" he yelled, "my daughter!"
And he rejoined his companions, and went off with them, not responding to one of the questions they asked him.
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