The War Trail, The Hunt of the Wild Horse, by Captain Mayne Reid.
This book, along with several other of this author's, occupies an important position in the history of English literature, for it was one of the first to deal with the Wild West. The events take place shortly after the Mexican War of the late 1840s. The Mexicans themselves have been conquered, but now it is necessary to protect them from a further enemy, one who would war with both Americans and Mexicans—the Comanche Indians. The troop of rangers consists of many kinds of men, of Scots, Irish, English, German, Swiss, Polish descent, and many others. Some of these take major roles in this story, and their words are reported just as they would have been said.
Numerous extremely difficult situations are encountered, and it is often the woodcraft and ingenuity of these men that gets them out of them, sometimes in extremely (for you and me) unexpected ways. This results in a series of tense incidents, and, though the literary style is a bit unusual, they are very gripping.
Many books by this author were published in the second half of the nineteenth century, and some of them were printed with rather damaged type. The copy of this book that we worked from was one of these, so there may well be a very few typos left, for which we apologise.
THE WAR TRAIL, THE HUNT OF THE WILD HORSE, BY CAPTAIN MAYNE REID.
Land of the nopal and maguey—home of Moctezuma and Malinche!—I cannot wring thy memories from my heart! Years may roll on, hand wax weak, and heart grow old, but never till both are cold can I forget thee! I would not; for thee would I remember. Not for all the world would I bathe my soul in the waters of Lethe. Blessed be memory for thy sake!
Bright land of Anahuac! my spirit mounts upon the aerial wings of Fancy, and once more I stand upon thy shores! Over thy broad savannahs I spur my noble steed, whose joyous neigh tells that he too is inspired by the scene. I rest under the shade of the corozo palm, and quaff the wine of the acrocomia. I climb thy mountains of amygdaloid and porphyry— thy crags of quartz, that yield the white silver and the yellow gold. I cross thy fields of lava, rugged in outline, and yet more rugged with their coverture of strange vegetable forms—acacias and cactus, yuccas and zamias. I traverse thy table-plains through bristling rows of giant aloes, whose sparkling juice cheers me on my path. I stand upon the limits of eternal snow, crushing the Alpine lichen under my heel; while down in the deep barranca, far down below, I behold the feathery fronds of the palm, the wax-like foliage of the orange, the broad shining leaves of the pothos, of arums, and bananas! O that I could again look with living eye on these bright pictures, that even thus palely outlined upon the retina of memory, impart pleasure to my soul!
Land of Moctezuma! I have other souvenirs of thee, more deeply graven on my memory than these pictures of peace. Thou recallest scenes of war. I traversed thy fields a foeman—sword in hand—and now, after years gone by, many a wild scene of soldier-life springs up before me with all the vividness of reality.
The Bivouac!—I sit by the night camp-fire; around are warlike forms and bearded faces. The blazing log reflects the sheen of arms and accoutrements—saddles, rifles, pistols, canteens, strewing the ground, or hanging from the branches of adjacent trees. Picketed steeds loom large in the darkness, their forms dimly outlined against the sombre background of the forest. A solitary palm stands near, its curving fronds looking hoary under the fire-light. The same light gleams upon the fluted columns of the great organ-cactus, upon agaves and bromelias, upon the silvery tillandsia, that drapes the tall trees as with a toga.
The wild tale is told—the song is sung—the jest goes round—the hoarse peal echoes through the aisles of the forest, frighting the parrot on its perch, and the wolf upon his prowl. Little reck they who sing, and jest, and laugh—little reck they of the morrow.
The Skirmish!—Morning breaks. The fragrant forest is silent, and the white blue light is just tinging the treetops. A shot rings upon the air: it is the warning-gun of the picket-sentinel, who comes galloping in upon the guard. The enemy approaches! 'To horse!' the bugle thrills in clear loud notes. The slumberers spring to their feet—they seize their rifles, pistols, and sabres, and dash through the smouldering fires till ashes cloud the air. The steeds snort and neigh; in a trice they are saddled, bridled, and mounted; and away sweeps the troop along the forest road.
The enemy is in sight—a band of guerilleros, in all their picturesqueness of manga and serape—of scarlet, purple, and gold. Lances, with shining points and streaming pennons, o'ertop the trees.
The bugle sounds the charge; its notes are drowned by the charging cheer. We meet our swarthy foemen face to face; spear-thrusts are answered by pistol-shots; our sabres cross and clink, but our snorting steeds rear back, and will not let us kill each other. We wheel and meet again, with deadlier aim, and more determined arm; we strike without remorse—we strike for freedom!
The Battle-field!—The serried columns and the bristling guns—the roar of cannon and the roll of drums—the bugle's wildest notes, the cheer, the charge—the struggle hand to hand—the falling foeman and his dying groan—the rout, retreat, the hoarse huzza for victory! I well remember, but I cannot paint them.
Land of Anahuac! thou recallest other scenes, far different from these— scenes of tender love or stormy passion. The strife is o'er—the war-drum has ceased to beat, and the bugle to bray; the steed stands chafing in his stall, and the conqueror dallies in the halls of the conquered. Love is now the victor, and the stern soldier, himself subdued, is transformed into a suing lover. In gilded hall or garden bower, behold him on bended knee, whispering his soft tale in the ear of some dark-eyed dongella, Andalusian or Aztec!
Lovely land! In truth have I sweet memories of thee; for who could traverse thy fields without beholding some fair flower, ever after to be borne upon his bosom! And yet, not all my souvenirs are glad. Pleasant and painful, sweet and sad, they thrill my heart with alternate throes. But the sad emotions have been tempered by time, and the glad ones, at each returning tide, seem tinged with brighter glow. In thy bowers, as elsewhere, roses must be plucked from thorns; but in memory's mellowed light I see not the thorns—I behold only the bright and beautiful roses.
A MEXICAN FRONTIER VILLAGE.
A Mexican pueblita on the banks of the Rio Bravo del Norte—a mere rancheria, or hamlet. The quaint old church of Morisco-Italian style, with its cupola of motley japan, the residence of the cura, and the house of the alcalde, are the only stone structures in the place. These constitute three sides of the piazza, a somewhat spacious square. The remaining side is taken up with shops or dwellings of the common people. They are built of large unburnt bricks (adobes), some of them washed with lime, others gaudily coloured like the proscenium of a theatre, but most of them uniform in their muddy and forbidding brown. All have heavy jail-like doors, and windows without glass or sash. The reja of iron bars, set vertically, opposes the burglar, not the weather.
From the four corners of the piazza, narrow, unpaved, dusty lanes lead off to the country, for some distance bordered on both sides by the adobe houses. Still farther out, on the skirts of the village, and sparsely placed, are dwellings of frailer build, but more picturesque appearance; they are ridge-roofed structures, of the split trunks of that gigantic lily, the arborescent yucca. Its branches form the rafters, its tough fibrous leaves the thatch. In these ranchitos dwell the poor peons, the descendants of the conquered race.
The stone dwellings, and those of mud likewise, are flat-roofed, tiled or cemented—sometimes tastefully japanned—with a parapet breast-high running round the edge. This flat roof is the azotea, characteristic of Mexican architecture.
When the sun is low and the evening cool, the azotea is a pleasant lounging-place, especially when the proprietor of the house has a taste for flowers; then it is converted into an aerial garden, and displays the rich flora for which the picture-land of Mexico is justly celebrated. It is just the place to enjoy a cigar, a glass of pinole, or, if you prefer it, Catalan. The smoke is wafted away, and the open air gives a relish to the beverage. Besides, your eye is feasted; you enjoy the privacy of a drawing-room, while you command what is passing in the street. The slight parapet gives security, while hindering a too free view from below; you see, without being seen. The world moves on, busied with earthly affairs, and does not think of looking up.
I stand upon such an azotea: it is that over the house of the alcalde; and his being the tallest roof in the village, I command a view of all the others. I can see beyond them all, and note the prominent features of the surrounding country. My eye wanders with delight over the deep rich verdure of its tropic vegetation; I can even distinguish its more characteristic forms—the cactus, the yucca, and the agave. I observe that the village is girdled by a belt of open ground—cultivated fields—where the maize waves its silken tassels in the breeze, contrasting with the darker leaves of the capsicums and bean-plants (frijoles). This open ground is of limited extent. The chapparal, with its thorny thicket of acacias, mimosae, ingas, and robinias—a perfect maze of leguminous trees—hems it in; and so near is the verge of this jungle, that I can distinguish its undergrowth of stemless sabal palms and bromelias—the sun-scorched and scarlet leaves of the pita plant shining in the distance like lists of fire.
This propinquity of the forest to the little pueblita bespeaks the indolence of the inhabitants; perhaps not. It must be remembered that these people are not agriculturists, but vaqueros (herdsmen); and that the glades and openings of that thick chapparal are speckled with herds of fierce Spanish cattle, and droves of small sharp-eared Andalusian horses, of the race of the Barb. The fact of so little cultivation does not abnegate the existence of industry on the part of the villagers. Grazing is their occupation, not farming; only a little of the latter to give them maize for their tortillas, chile to season it with, and black beans to complete the repast. These three, with the half-wild beef of their wide pastures, constitute the staple of food throughout all Mexico. For drink, the denizen of the high table-land find his favourite beverage—the rival of champagne—in the core of the gigantic aloe; while he of the tropic coast-land refreshes himself from the juice of another native endogen, the acrocomia palm.
Favoured land! Ceres loves thee, and Bacchus too. To thy fields both the god and the goddess have been freely bounteous. Food and drink may be had from them on easy terms. Alas! as in all other lands—one only excepted—Nature's divine views have been thwarted, her aim set aside, by the malignity of man. As over the broad world the blight of the despot is upon thy beauty.
Why are these people crowded together—hived, as it were, in towns and villages? Herdsmen—one would expect to find them scattered by reason of their occupation. Besides, a sky continually bright, a genial clime, a picturesqueness of scene—all seem to invite to rural life; and yet I have ridden for hours, a succession of lovely landscapes rising before my eyes, all of them wild, wanting in that one feature which makes the rural picture perfect—the house, the dwelling of man! Towns there are; and at long intervals the huge hacienda of the landed lord, walled in like a fortress; but where are the ranchos, the homes of the common people? True, I have noticed the ruins of many, and that explains the puzzle. I remember, now that I am on the frontier: that for years past the banks of the Rio Bravo, from its source to the sea, have been hostile ground—a war-border of fifteen hundred miles in length! Many a red conflict has occurred—is still occurring—between those Arabs of the American desert—the Horse Indians—and the pale-faced descendants of the Spaniard. That is why the ranchos exist only in ruins—that is why the haciendas are loopholed, and the populace pent up within walls. The condition of feudal Europe exists in free America, on the banks of the Rio Bravo del Norte!
Nearly a mile off, looking westward, I perceive the sheen of water: it is a reach of the great river that glances under the setting sun. The river curves at that point; and the summit of a gentle hill, half girdled by the stream, is crowned by the low white walls of a hacienda. Though only one story high, this hacienda appears, from its extent, and the style of its architecture, to be a noble mansion. Like all of its class, it is flat-roofed; but the parapet is crenated, and small ornamental turrets over the angles and the great gateway relieve the monotony of its outlines. A larger tower, the belfry of a chapel, appears in the background, the Mexican hacienda is usually provided with its little capilla, for the convenient worship of the peon retainers. The emblems of religion, such as it is, are thick over the land. The glimmer of glass behind the iron rejas relieves to some extent the prison-like aspect, so characteristic of Mexican country-houses. This is further modified by the appearance over the parapet of green foliage. Forms of tropic vegetation show above the wall; among others, the graceful curving fronds of a palm. This must be an exotic, for although the lower half of the Rio Bravo is within the zone of the palms, the species that grow so far north are fan-palms (chamaerops and sabal). This one is of far different form, with plume-shaped pinnate fronds, of the character of cocos, phoenix, or euterpe. I note the fact, not from any botanical curiosity with which it inspires me, but rather because the presence of this exotic palm has a significance. It illustrates a point in the character of him—it may be her—who is the presiding spirit of the place. No doubt there is a fair garden upon the azotea—perhaps a fair being among its flowers! Pleasant thoughts spring up—anticipations. I long to climb that sloping hill, to enter that splendid mansion, and, longing still, I gaze.
The ring of a bugle startles me from this pleasant reverie. 'Tis only a stable-call; but it has driven sweet reflections out of my mind, and my eyes are turned away from the bright mansion, and rest upon the piazza of the pueblita. There, a far different scene greets their glance.
THE RANGERS ON PICKET.
The centre of the piazza presents a salient point in the picture. There the well (el poso), with its gigantic wheel, its huge leathern belt and buckets, its trough of cemented stone-work, offers an Oriental aspect. Verily, it is the Persian wheel! 'Tis odd to a northern eye to find such a structure in this Western land; but the explanation is easy. The Persian wheel has travelled from Egypt along the southern shores of the Mediterranean. With the Moors it crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, and the Spaniard has carried it over the Atlantic. The reader of the sacred volume will find many a familiar passage illustrated in the customs of Mexico. The genius of the Arab has shaped many a thought for the brain of the Aztec!
My eye rests not long upon the well, but turns to gaze on the scene of active life that is passing near and around it. Forms, and varied ones, I trow, are moving there.
Gliding with silent step and dubious look—his wide calzoneros flapping around his ankles, his arms and shoulders shrouded in the mottled serape, his black broad-brimmed hat darkening still more his swarth face—goes the poblano, the denizen of the adobe hut. He shuns the centre of the piazza, keeping around the walls; but at intervals his eyes are turned towards the well with a look of mingled fierceness and fear. He reaches a doorway—it is silently opened by a hand within—he enters quickly, and seems glad to get out of sight. A little afterwards, I can catch a glimpse of his sombre face dimly visible behind the bars of the reja.
At distant corners, I descry small groups of his class, all similarly costumed in calzoneros, striped blankets, and glaze hats; all, like him, wearing uneasy looks. They gesticulate little, contrary to their usual habit, and converse only in whispers or low mutterings. Unusual circumstances surround them.
Most of the women are within doors; a few of the poorer class—of pure Indian race—are seated in the piazza. They are hucksters, and their wares are spread before them on a thin palm-leaf mat (petate), while another similar one, supported umbrella-like on a stem, screens them and their merchandise from the sun. Their dyed woollen garments, their bare heads, their coarse black hair, adorned with twists of scarlet worsted, impart to them somewhat of a gipsy look. They appear as free of care as the zingali themselves: they laugh, and chatter, and show their white teeth all day long, asking each new-comer to purchase their fruits and vegetables, their pinole, atole, and agua dulce. Their not unmusical voices ring pleasantly upon the ear.
Now and then a young girl, with red olla poised upon her crown, trips lightly across the piazza in the direction of the well. Perhaps she is a poblana—one of the belles of the village—in short-skirted, bright-coloured petticoat, embroidered but sleeveless chemisette, with small satin slippers upon her feet; head, shoulders, and bosom, shrouded in the blue-grey reboso; arms and ankles bare. Several of these may be seen passing to and fro. They appear less uneasy than the men; they even smile at intervals, and reply to the rude badinage uttered in an unknown tongue by the odd-looking strangers around the well. The Mexican women are courageous as they are amiable. As a race, their beauty is undeniable.
But who are these strangers? They do not belong to the place, that is evident; and equally so that they are objects of terror to those who do. At present they are masters here. Their numbers, their proud confident swagger, and the bold loud tone of their conversation, attest that they are masters of the ground. Who are they?
Odd-looking, I have styled them; and the phrase is to be taken in its full significance. A more odd-looking set of fellows never mustered in a Mexican piazza, nor elsewhere. There are fourscore of them; and but that each carries a yager rifle in his hand, a knife in his belt, and a Colt's pistol on his thigh, you could not discover the slightest point of resemblance between any two of them. Their arms are the only things about them denoting uniformity, and some sort of organisation; for the rest, they are as unlike one another as the various shapes and hues of coarse broadcloth, woollen jeans, cottonades, coloured blankets, and buckskin, can make them. They wear caps of 'coon-skin, and cat's-skin, and squirrel; hats of beaver, and felt, and glaze, of wool and palmetto, of every imaginable shape and slouch. Even of the modern monster—the silken "tile"—samples might be seen, badly crushed. There are coats of broadcloth, few in number, and well worn; but many are the garments of "Kentucky jeans" of bluish-grey, of copper-coloured nigger cloth, and sky-coloured cottonade. Some wear coats made of green blankets, others of blue ones, and some of a scarlet red. There are hunting-shirts of dressed deerskin, with plaited skirt, and cape, fringed and jauntily adorned with beads and embroidery—the favourite style of the backwoods hunter, but others there are of true Indian cut—open only at the throat, and hanging loose, or fastened around the waist with a belt—the same that secures the knife and pistol. There are cloth jackets too, such as are worn by sailors, and others of sky-blue cottonade—the costume of the Creole of Louisiana; some of red-brown leather—the jaqueta of the Spano-American; and still another fashion, the close-fitting embroidered "spencer" of the Mexican ranchero. Some shoulders are covered by serapes, and some by the more graceful and toga-like manga. Look lower down: examine the limbs of the men of this motley band: the covering of these is not less varied than their upper garments. You see wrappers of coarse cloth, of flannel, and of baize: they are blue, and scarlet, and green. You see leggings of raw hide and of buckskin; boots of horse-leather reaching to the thighs; "nigger boots" of still coarser fabric, with the pantaloons tucked under brogans of unstained calf-skin, and moccasins of varied cut, betokening the fashion of more than one Indian tribe. You may see limbs encased in calzoneros, and others in the heavy stamped leather botas of the Mexican horseman, resembling the greaves of warriors of the olden time.
The heels of all are armed, though their armature is as varied as the costumes. There are spurs of silver and steel, some plated, and some with the plating worn off; some strapped, and others screwed into the heel of the boot; some light, with small rowels and tiny teeth, while others are seen (the heavy spur of Mexico) of several pounds' weight, with rowels five inches in diameter, and teeth that might be dashed through the ribs of a horse!—cruel weapons of the Mexican cavallero.
But these spurs in the piazza, these botas and calzoneros, these mangas and serapes, are not worn by Mexicans. Their present wearers are men of a different race. Most of those tall stalwart bodies are the product of the maize-plant of Kentucky and Tennessee, or the buckwheat and "hog-meat" of the fertile flats of Ohio, Indiana, and the Illinois. They are the squatters and hunters of the backwoods, the farmers of the great western slopes of the Alleghanies, the boatmen of the Mississippi, the pioneers of Arkansas and Missouri, the trappers of prairie-land, the voyageurs of the lake-country, the young planters of the lower states, the French Creoles of Louisiana, the adventurous settlers of Texas, with here and there a gay city spark from the larger towns of the "great west." Yes, and from other sources are individuals of that mixed band. I recognise the Teutonic type—the fair hair and whitish-yellow moustache of the German, the florid Englishman, the staid Scot, and his contrast the noisy Hibernian; both equally brave. I behold the adroit and nimble Frenchman, full of laugh and chatter, the stanch soldierly Swiss, and the moustached exile of Poland, dark, sombre, and silent. What a study for an ethnologist is that band of odd-looking men! Who are they?
You have thrice asked the question. I answer it. They are a corps of "Rangers"—the guerilla of the American army.
And who am I? I am their captain—their chief.
Yes, I am the leader of that queer crew; and, despite their rough motley aspect, I dare affirm, that not in Europe, not in America elsewhere, not upon the great globe's surface, can be found a band, of like numbers, to equal them in strength, daring, and warlike intelligence. Many of them have spent half a life in the sharpening practice of border warfare— Indian or Mexican—and from these the others have learnt. Some have been gentlemen upon whom fortune has frowned; a few have been desperadoes within the pale of civilised life; and a smaller few, perhaps, outlaws beyond it—bad materials wherewith to colonise; not so bad, if you go but to conquer.
Rude as is the coup d'oeil of the corps, I am proud to say that a high sentiment of honour pervades it—higher than will be found in the picked corps de garde of an emperor. True, they appear rough and reckless— terrible, I might say; for most of them—with their long beards and hair, dust-begrimed faces, slouched hats, and odd habiliments, belted as they are with knife, pistol, powder-horn, and pouch—present such an aspect.
But you would wrong them to take them as they look. Few among them are the pure bandits whose aim is plunder. Many a noble heart beats beneath a rude exterior—many a one truly humane. There are hearts in that band that throb under the influence of patriotism; some are guided by a still nobler impulse, a desire to extend the area of freedom: others, it is true, yearn but for revenge. These last are chiefly Texans, who mourn a friend or brother slain by Mexican treachery. They have not forgotten the cowardly assassination of Goliad; they remember the red butchery of the Alamo.
Perhaps I alone, of all the band, have no motive for being here; if one, 'tis slight—scarce so noble as vengeance. Mere chance, the love of excitement and adventure, perhaps some weak fondness for power and fame, are all the excuses I can urge for taking a hand in this affair. A poor adventurer—without friends, without home, without country, for my native land is no more a nation—my heart is not cheered by a single throb of patriotism. I have no private wrong to redress, no public cause, no country for which to combat.
During intervals of inaction, these thoughts recur to me, and give me pain.
The men have picketed their horses in the church enclosure; some are tied to trees, and others to the reja-bars of the windows: like their riders, a motley group, various in size, colour, and race. The strong high-mettled steed of Kentucky and Tennessee, the light "pacer" of Louisiana, the cob, the barb, his descendant the "mustang," that but a few weeks ago was running wild upon the prairies, may all be seen in the troop. Mules, also, of two distinct races—the large gaunt mule of North America, and the smaller and more sprightly variety, native of the soil.
My own black steed, with his pretty fern-coloured muzzle, stands near the fountain in the centre of the piazza. My eye wanders with a sort of habitual delight over the oval outlines of his body. How proudly he curves his swan like neck, and with mock anger paws up the dust! He knows that my eyes are upon him.
We have been scarcely an hour in the rancheria; we are perfect strangers to it: we are the first American troop its people have yet seen— although the war has been going on for some months farther down the river. We have been despatched upon scouting duty, with orders to scour the surrounding country as far as it is safe. The object in sending us hither is not so much to guard against a surprise from our Mexican foe, who is not upon this side, but to guard them, the Mexicans, from another enemy—an enemy of both of us—the Comanche! These Indian Ishmaelites, report says, are upon the "war-trail" and have quite an army in the field. It is said they are foraging higher up the river, where they have it all to themselves, and have just pillaged a settlement in that direction—butchered the men, as is their wont, and carried off the women, children, and chattels. We came hither to conquer the Mexicans, but we must protect while conquering them! Cosas de Mexico!
MAKING A CAPTIVE.
I was musing upon the singular character of this triangular war, when my reverie was disturbed by the hoof strokes of a horse. The sounds came from a distance, outside the village; the strokes were those of a horse at full gallop.
I stepped hastily across the azotea, and looked over the parapet, in hopes of obtaining a view of this rapid rider. I was not disappointed— as I neared the wall, the road and the rider came full under my eyes.
In the latter, I beheld a picturesque object. He appeared to be a very young man—a mere youth, without beard or moustache, but of singularly handsome features. The complexion was dark, almost brown; but even at the distance of two hundred yards, I could perceive the flash of a noble eye, and note a damask redness upon his cheeks. His shoulders were covered with a scarlet manga, that draped backward over the hips of his horse; and upon his head he wore a light sombrero, laced, banded, and tasselled with bullion of gold. The horse was a small but finely proportioned mustang—spotted like a jaguar upon a ground colour of cream—a true Andalusian.
The horseman was advancing at a gallop, without fear of the ground before him: by chance, his eyes were raised to the level of the azotea, on which I stood; my uniform, and the sparkle of my accoutrements, caught his glance; and quick as thought, as if by an involuntary movement, he reined up his mustang, until its ample tail lay clustered upon the dust of the road. It was then that I noted the singular appearance of both horse and rider.
Just at that moment, the ranger, who held picket on that side of the village, sprang forth from his hiding-place, and challenged the horseman to halt. The challenge was unheeded. Another jerk of the rein spun the mustang round, as upon a pivot; and the next instant, impelled by the spur, the animal resumed his gallop. He did not return by the road, but shot off in a new direction, nearly at right angles to his former course. A rifle-bullet would have followed, and most likely have stopped the career of either horse or rider, had not I, just in the "nick" of time, shouted to the sentry to hold his fire.
A reflection had occurred to me; the game was too noble, too beautiful, to be butchered by a bullet; it was worth a chase and a capture.
My horse was by the water-trough. I had noticed that he was not yet unsaddled, and the bridle was still on. He had been warmed by the morning's scout; and I had ordered my negro groom to walk him round for an hour or so before letting him at the water.
I did not wait to descend by the escalera; I sprang upon the parapet, and from that into the piazza. The groom, perceiving my intention, met me half-way with the horse.
I seized the reins, and bounded into the saddle. Several of the readiest of the rangers followed my example; and as I galloped down the lane that led out of the rancheria, I could tell by the clattering of hoofs that half-a-dozen of them were at my heels. I cared not much for that, for surely I was a match for the stripling we meant to chase. I knew, moreover, that speed at the moment was of more importance than strength; and that if the spotted horse possessed as much "bottom" as he evidently did "heels," his rider and I would have it to ourselves in the end. I knew that all the horses of my troop were less swift than my own; and from the half-dozen springs I had witnessed on the part of the mustang, I felt satisfied that it remained only for me to overhaul him.
My springing down from the roof and up into the saddle had occupied scarcely two minutes' time; and in two more, I had cleared the houses, and was scouring across the fields after the scarlet horseman. He was evidently making to get round the village, and continue the journey our presence had so suddenly interrupted.
The chase led through a field of milpas. My horse sank deeply in the loose earth, while the lighter mustang bounded over it like a hare. He was distancing me, and I began to fear I should lose him, when all at once I saw that his course was intercepted by a list of magueys, running transversely right and left. The plants were of luxuriant growth, eight or ten feet high, and placed alternately, so that their huge hooked blades interlocked with each other, forming a natural chevaux-de-frise.
This barrier at first glance seemed impassable for either man or horse. It brought the Mexican to a halt. He was turning to skirt it, when he perceived that I had leaned into the diagonal line, and could not fail to head him. With a quick wrench upon the rein, he once more wheeled round, set his horse against the magueys, plied the spur, and dashed right into their midst. In a moment, both horse and rider were out of sight; but as I spurred up to the spot, I could hear the thick blades crackle under the hoofs of the mustang.
There was no time for reflection. I must either follow, or abandon the pursuit. The alternative was not thought of. I was on my honour, my steed upon his mettle; and without halt we went plunging through the magueys.
Torn and bleeding, we came out on the opposite side; and I perceived, to my satisfaction, that I had made better time than the red rider before me; his halt had lessened the distance between us.
But another field of milpas had to be passed, and he was again gaining upon me, as we galloped over the heavy ground.
When nearly through the field, I perceived something glancing before us: it was water—a wide drain or ditch, a zequia for irrigating the field. Like the magueys, it ran transversely to our course.
"That will stop him," thought I; "he must take to the right or left, and then—"
My thoughts were interrupted. Instead of turning either to right or left, the Mexican headed his horse at the zequia, and the noble creature rushing forward, rose like a bird upon the wing, and cleared the canal!
I had no time to expend in admiring the feat; I hastened to imitate it, and galloping forward, I set myself for the leap. My brave steed needed neither whip nor spur; he had seen the other leap the zequia, and he knew what was expected of him. With a bound he went over, clearing the drain by several feet; and then, as if resolved upon bringing the affair to an end, he laid his head forward, and stretched himself at race-course speed.
A broad grassy plain—a savannah—lay before us, and the hoofs of both horses, pursuer and pursued, now rang upon hard firm turf. The rest of the chase would have been a simple trial of speed, and I made sure of overhauling the mustang before he could reach the opposite side, when a new obstacle presented itself. A vast herd of cattle and horses studded the savannah throughout its whole extent; these, startled by our wild gallop, tossed their heads, and ran affrighted in every direction, but frequently as otherwise, directly in our way. More than once I was forced to rein in, to save my neck or my horse's from being broken over a fierce bull or a long-horned lumbering ox; and more than once I was compelled to swerve from my course.
What vexed me most, was that in this zigzag race, the mustang, from practice perhaps, had the advantage; and while it continued, he increased his distance.
We cleared the drove at length; but to my chagrin I perceived that we were nearly across the plain. As I glanced ahead, I saw the chapparal near, with taller trees rising over it; beyond, I saw the swell of a hill, with white walls upon its summit. It was the hacienda already mentioned: we were riding directly towards it.
I was growing anxious about the result. Should the horseman reach the thicket, I would be almost certain to lose him. I dared not let him escape. What would my men say, if I went back without him? I had hindered the sentry from firing, and permitted to escape, perhaps a spy, perhaps some important personage. His desperate efforts to get off favoured the supposition that he was one or the other. He must be taken!
Under fresh impulse, derived from these reflections, I lanced the flanks of my horse more deeply than ever. Moro seemed to divine my thoughts, and stretched himself to his utmost. There were no more cattle, not an obstacle, and his superior speed soon lessened the distance between himself and the mustang. Ten seconds more would do it.
The ten seconds flew by. I felt myself within shooting distance; I drew my pistol from its holster.
"Alto! o yo tiro" (Halt! or I fire), I cried aloud.
There was no reply: the mustang kept on!
"Halt!" I cried again, unwilling to take the life of a fellow-creature—"halt! or you are a dead man!"
No reply again!
There were not six yards between myself and the Mexican horseman. Riding straight behind him, I could have sent a bullet into his back. Some secret instinct restrained me; it was partly, though not altogether, a feeling of admiration: there was an indefinable idea in my mind at the moment. My finger rested on the trigger, and I could not draw it.
"He must not escape! He is nearing the trees! He must not be allowed to enter the thicket; I must cripple the horse."
I looked for a place to aim at—his hips were towards me—should I hit him there he might still get off. Where should I aim?
At this moment the animal wheeled, as if guided by his own impulse— perhaps by the knees of his rider—and shot off in a new direction. The object of this manoeuvre was to throw me out of the track. So far it was successful; but it gave me just the opportunity to aim as I wanted; as it brought the mustang's side towards me; and levelling my pistol, I sent a bullet through his kidneys. A single plunge forward was his last, and both horse and rider came to the ground.
In an instant the latter had disengaged himself from his struggling steed, and stood upon his feet. Fearing that he might still endeavour to escape to the cover of the thicket, I spurred forward, pistol in hand, and pointed the weapon at his head. But he made no attempt either at further flight or resistance. On the contrary, he stood with folded arms, fronting the levelled tube, and, looking me full in the face, said with an air of perfect coolness—
"No matame, amigo! Soy muger!" (Do not kill me, friend! I am a woman!)
"Do not kill me, friend! I am a woman!"
This declaration scarcely astonished me; I was half prepared for it. During our wild gallop, I had noticed one or two circumstances which led me to suspect that the spy I pursued was a female. As the mustang sprung over the zequia, the flowing skirt of the manga was puffed upward, and hung for some moments spread out in the air. A velvet bodice beneath, a tunic-like skirt, the tournure of the form, all impressed me as singular for a cavallero, however rich and young. The limbs I could not see, as the goat-skin armas-de-agua were drawn over them; but I caught a glimpse of a gold spur, and a heel of a tiny red boot to which it was attached. The clubbed hair, too, loosened by the violent motion, had fallen backward, and in two thick plaits, slightly dishevelled, rested upon the croup of the horse. A young Indian's might have been equally as long, but his tresses would have been jet-black and coarse-grained, whereas those under my eyes were soft, silky, and nut-brown. Neither the style of riding—a la Duchesse de Berri—nor the manlike costume of manga and hat, were averse to the idea that the rider was a woman. Both the style and costume are common to the rancheras of Mexico. Moreover, as the mustang made his last double, I had caught a near view of the side face of the rider. The features of no man—not of the Trojan shepherd, not of Adonis or Endymion—were so exquisitely chiselled as they. Certainly a woman! Her declaration at once put an end to my conjectures, but, as I have said, did not astonish me.
I was astonished, however, by its tone and manner. Instead of being uttered in accents of alarm, it was pronounced as coolly as if the whole thing had been a jest! Sadness, not supplication, was the prevailing tone, which was further carried out as she knelt to the ground, pressed her lips to the muzzle of the still breathing mustang, and exclaimed—
"Ay-de-mi! pobre yegua! muerte! muerte!" (Alas me! poor mare! dead! dead!)
"A woman?" said I, feigning astonishment. My interrogatory was unheeded; she did not even look up.
"Ay-de-mi! pobre yegua! Lola, Lolita!" she repeated, as coolly as if the dead mustang was the only object of her thoughts, and I, the armed assassin, fifty miles from the spot! "A woman?" I again ejaculated—in my embarrassment scarcely knowing what to say.
"Si, senor; nada mas—que quiere V.?" (Yes, sir nothing more—what do you want?)
As she made this reply, she rose to her feet, and stood confronting me without the slightest semblance of fear. So unexpected was the answer, both in tone and sentiment, that for the life of me I could not help breaking into a laugh.
"You are merry, sir. You have made me sad; you have killed my favourite!"
I shall not easily forget the look that accompanied these words—sorrow, anger, contempt, defiance, were expressed in one and the same glance. My laughter was suddenly checked; I felt humiliated in that proud presence.
"Senorita," I replied, "I deeply regret the necessity I have been under: it might have been worse—"
"And how, pray?—how worse?" demanded she, interrupting me.
"My pistol might have been aimed at yourself, but for a suspicion—"
"Carrambo!" cried she, again interrupting me, "it could not have been worse! I loved that creature dearly—dearly as I do my life—as I love my father—pobre yegua—yeguita—ita—ita!"
And as she thus wildly expressed herself, she bent down, passed her arms around the neck of the mustang, and once more pressed her lips to its velvet muzzle. Then gently closing its eyelids, she rose to an erect attitude, and stood with folded arms, regarding the lifeless form with a sad and bitter expression of countenance.
I scarcely knew what to do. I was in a dilemma with my fair captive. I would have given a month of my "payroll" to have restored the spotted mustang to life; but as that was out of the question, I bethought me of some means of making restitution to its owner. An offer of money would not be delicate. What then?
A thought occurred to me, that promised to relieve me from my embarrassment. The eagerness of the rich Mexicans to obtain our large American horses—frisones, as they term them—was well known throughout the army. Fabulous prices were often paid for them by these ricos, who wanted them for display upon the Paseo. We had many good half-bred bloods in the troop; one of these, thought I, might be acceptable even to a lady who had lost her pet.
I made the offer as delicately as I could. It was rejected with scorn!
"What, senor!" cried she, striking the ground with her foot till the rowels rang—"what? A horse to me?—Mira!" she continued, pointing to the plain: "look there, sir! There are a thousand horses; they are mine. Now, know the value of your offer. Do I stand in need of a horse?"
"But, senorita," stammered I apologisingly, "these are horses of native race. The one I propose to—"
"Bah!" she exclaimed, interrupting me, and pointing to the mustang; "I would not have exchanged that native for all the frisones in your troop. Not one of them was its equal!"
A personal slight would not have called forth a contradiction; yet this defiance had that effect. She had touched the chord of my vanity—I might almost say, of my affection. With some pique I replied—
I looked towards Moro as I spoke. Her eyes followed mine, and she stood for some moments gazing at him in silence. I watched the expression of her eye; I saw it kindle into admiration as it swept over the gracefully curving outlines of my noble steed. He looked at the moment superb; the short skurry had drawn the foam from his lips, and flakes of it clung against his neck and counter, contrasting finely with the shining black of his skin; his sides heaved and fell in regular undulations, and the smoke issued from his blood-red nostrils; his eye was still on fire, and his neck proudly arched, as though conscious of his late triumph, and the interest he was now exciting.
For a long while she stood gazing upon him, and though she spoke not a word, I saw that she recognised his fine points.
"You are right, cavallero," she said at length, and thoughtfully; "he is."
Just then a series of reflections were passing through my mind, that rendered me extremely uncomfortable; and I felt regret that I had so pointedly drawn her attention to the horse. Would she demand him? That was the thought that troubled me. I had not promised her any horse in my troop, and Moro I would not have given for her herd of a thousand; but on the strength of the offer I had made, what if she should fancy him? The circumstances were awkward for a refusal; indeed, under any circumstances refusal would have been painful. I began to feel that I could deny her nothing. This proud beautiful woman already divided my interest with Moro!
My position was a delicate one; fortunately, I was relieved from it by an incident that carried our thoughts into a new current: the troopers who had followed me at that moment rode up.
She seemed uneasy at their presence; that could not be wondered at, considering their wild garb and fierce looks. I ordered them back to their quarters. They stared for a moment at the fallen mustang with its rich blood-stained trappings, at its late rider, and her picturesque garments; and then, muttering a few words to one another, obeyed the order. I was once more alone with my captive.
ISOLINA DE VARGAS.
As soon as the men were out of hearing, she said interrogatively, "Tejanos?"
"Some of them are Texans—not all."
"You are their chief?"
"Capitan, I presume?"
"That is my rank."
"And now, Senor Capitan, am I your captive?"
The question took me by surprise, and, for the moment, I did not know what answer to make. The excitement of the chase, the encounter, and its curious developments—perhaps above all other things, the bewitching beauty of my captive—had driven out of my mind the whole purpose of the pursuit; and for some minutes I had not been thinking of any result. The interrogatory reminded me that I had a delicate duty to perform. Was this lady a spy?
Such a supposition was by no means improbable, as my old campaigner can testify. "Fair ladies—though never one so fair as she—have, ere now, served their country in this fashion. She may be the bearer of some important dispatch for the enemy. If so, and I permit her to go free, the consequences may be serious—unpleasant even to myself." So ran my reflections.
On the other hand, I disliked the duty of taking her back a prisoner. I feared to execute it; I dreaded her displeasure. I wished to be friends with her. I felt the influence of that mysterious power which transcends all strength—the power of beauty. I had been but ten minutes in the company of this brown-skinned maiden, and already she controlled my heart as though she had been its mistress for life!
I knew not how to reply. She saw that I hesitated, and again put the question—
"Am I your captive?"
"I fear, senorita, I am yours."
I was prompted to this declaration, partly to escape from a direct answer, and partly giving way to the passion already fast gathering in my bosom. It was no coquetry on my part, no desire to make a pretty passage of words. Though I spoke only from impulse, I was serious; and with no little anxiety did I watch the effect of my speech.
Her large lustrous eyes rested upon me, at first with a puzzled expression; this gradually changed to one of more significance—one that pleased me better. She seemed for a moment to throw aside her indifference, and regard me with more attention. I fancied, from the glance she gave, that she was contented with what I had said. For all that, the slight curl upon her pretty lip had a provoking air of triumph in it; and she resumed her proud hauteur as she replied—
"Come, cavallero; this is idle compliment. Am I free to go?"
I wavered betwixt duty and over-politeness: a compromise offered itself.
"Lady," said I, approaching her, and looking as seriously as I could into her beautiful eyes, "if you give me your word that you are not a spy, you are free to go: your word—I ask nothing more."
I prescribed these conditions rather in a tone of entreaty than command. I affected sternness, but my countenance must have mocked me.
My captive broke into unrestrained laughter, crying out at intervals—
"I a spy!—a spy! Ha, ha, ha! Senor Capitan, you are jesting?"
"I hope, senorita, you are in earnest. You are no spy, then?—you bear no dispatch for our enemy?"
"Nothing of the sort, mio capitan;" and she continued her light laughter.
"Why, then, did you try to make away from us?"
"Ah, cavallero! are you not Tejanos? Do not be offended when I tell you that your people bear but an indifferent reputation among us Mexicans."
"But your attempt to escape was, to say the least, rash and imprudent: you risked life by it."
"Carrambo, yes! I perceive I did;" and she looked significantly at the mustang, while a bitter smile played upon her lips. "I perceive it now; I did not then. I did not think there was a horseman in all your troop could come up with me. Merced! there was one. You have overtaken me: you alone could have done it."
As she uttered these words, her large brown eyes were once more turned upon me—not in a fixed gaze, but wandering. She scanned me from the forage-cap on my crown to the spur upon my heel. I watched her eye with eager interest: I fancied that its scornful expression was giving way; I fancied there was a ray of tenderness in the glance, I would have given the world to have divined her thoughts at that moment.
Our eyes met, and parted in mutual embarrassment—at least I fancied so; for on turning again, I saw that her head drooped, and her gaze was directed downward, as if some new thought occupied her.
For some moments, both were silent. We might have remained longer thus, but it occurred to me that I was acting rudely. The lady was still my captive. I had not yet given her permission to depart: I hastened to tender it.
"Spy or no spy, senorita, I shall not detain you. I shall bear the risk: you are free to go."
"Gracias I cavallero! And now, since you have behaved so handsomely, I shall set your mind at rest about the risk. Read!"
She handed me a folded paper; at a glance, I recognised the safe-guard of the commander-in-chief, enjoining upon all to respect its bearer—the Dona Isolina de Vargas.
"You perceive, mio capita I was not your captive after all? Ha! ha! ha!"
"Lady, you are too general not to pardon the rudeness to which you have been subjected?"
"I shudder at thought of the risk you have run. Why did you act with such imprudence? Your sudden flight at sight of our picket caused suspicion, and of course it was our duty to follow and capture you. With the safeguard, you had no cause for flight."
"Ha! it was that very safe-guard that caused me to fly."
"The safe-guard, senorita? Pray, explain!"
"Can I trust your prudence, capitan?"
"Know, then, that I was not certain you were Americanos; for aught I could see, you might have been a guerilla of my countrymen. How would it be if this paper, and sundry others I carry, were to fall into the hands of Caiales? You perceive, capitan, we fear our friends more than our enemies."
I now fully comprehended the motive of her flight.
"You speak Spanish too well, mio capitan," continued she. "Had you cried 'Halt!' in your native tongue, I should at once have pulled up, and perhaps saved my pet. Ah, me!—pobre yegua! pobre Zola!"
As she uttered the last exclamation, her feelings once more overcame her; and sinking down upon her knees, she passed her arms around the neck of the mustang, now stiff and cold. Her face was buried in the long thick mane, and I could perceive the tears sparkling like dew-drops over the tossed hair.
"Pobre Lolita!" she continued, "I have good cause to grieve; I had reason to love you well. More than once you saved me from the fierce Lipan and the brutal Comanche. What am I to do now? I dread the Indian foray; I shall tremble at every sign of the savage. I dare no more venture upon the prairie; I dare not go abroad; I must tamely stay at home. Mia querida! you were my wings: they are clipped—I fly no more."
All this was uttered in a tone of extreme bitterness; and I—I who so loved my own brave steed—could appreciate her feelings. With the hope of imparting even a little consolation, I repeated my offer.
"Senorita," I said, "I have swift horses in my troop—some of noble race—"
"You have no horse in your troop I value."
"You have not seen them all?"
"All—every one of them—to-day, as you filed out of the city."
"Indeed, yes, noble capitan. I saw you as you carried yourself so cavalierly at the head of your troop of filibusteros—Ha, ha, ha!"
"Senorita, I saw not you."
"Carrambo! it was not for the want of using your eyes. There was not a balcon or reja into which you did not glance—not a smile in the whole street you did not seem anxious to reciprocate—Ha, ha, ha! I fear, Senor Capitan, you are the Don Juan de Tenorio of the north."
"Lady, it is not my character."
"Nonsense! you are proud of it. I never saw man who was not. But come! a truce to badinage. About the horse—you have none in your troop I value, save one."
I trembled as she spoke.
"It is he," she continued, pointing to Moro.
I felt as if I should sink into the earth. My embarrassment prevented me for some time from replying. She noticed my hesitation, but remained silent, awaiting my answer.
"Senorita," I stammered out at length, "that steed is a great favourite—an old and tried friend. If you desire—to possess him, he is—he is at your service."
In emphasising the "if," I was appealing to her generosity. It was to no purpose.
"Thank you," she replied coolly; "he shall be well cared for. No doubt he will serve my purpose. How is his mouth?"
I was choking with vexation, and could not reply. I began to hate her.
"Let me try him," continued she. "Ah! you have a curb bit—that will do; but it is not equal to ours. I use a mameluke. Help me to that lazo."
She pointed to a lazo of white horsehair, beautifully plaited, that was coiled upon the saddle of the mustang.
I unloosed the rope—mechanically I did—and in the same way adjusted it to the horn of my saddle. I noticed that the noose-ring was of silver! I shortened the leathers to the proper length.
"Now, capitan!" cried she, gathering the reins in her small gloved hand—"now I shall see how he performs."
At the word, she bounded into the saddle, her small foot scarcely touching the stirrup. She had thrown off her manga, and her woman's form was now displayed in all its undulating outlines. The silken skirt draped down to her ankles, and underneath appeared the tiny red boot, the glancing spur, and the lace ruffle of her snow-white calzoncillas. A scarlet sash encircled her waist, with its fringed ends drooping to the saddle; and the tight bodice, lashed with lace, displayed the full rounding of her bosom, as it rose and fell in quiet regular breathing— for she seemed in no way excited or nervous. Her full round eye expressed only calmness and courage.
I stood transfixed with admiration. I thought of the Amazons: were they beautiful like her? With a troop of such warriors one might conquer a world!
A fierce-looking bull, moved by curiosity or otherwise, had separated from the herd, and was seen approaching the spot where we were. This was just what the fair rider wanted. At a touch of the spur, the horse sprang forward, and galloped directly for the bull. The latter, cowed at the sudden onset, turned and ran; but his swift pursuer soon came within lazo distance. The noose circled in the air, and, launched forward, was seen to settle around the horns of the animal. The horse was now wheeled round, and headed in an opposite direction. The rope tightened with a sudden pluck, and the bull was thrown with violence to the plain, where he lay stunned and apparently lifeless. Before he had time to recover himself, the rider turned her horse, trotted up to the prostrate animal, bent over in the saddle, unfastened the noose, and, after coiling the rope under her arm, came galloping back.
"Superb!—magnificent!" she exclaimed, leaping from the saddle and gazing at the steed. "Beautiful!—most beautiful! Ah, Lola, poor Lola! I fear I shall soon forget thee!"
The last words were addressed to the mustang. Then turning to me, she added—
"And this horse is mine?"
"Yes, lady, if you will it," I replied somewhat cheerlessly, for I felt as if my best friend was about to be taken from me.
"But I do not will it," said she, with an air of determination; and then breaking into a laugh, she cried out, "Ha! capitan, I know your thoughts. Think you I cannot appreciate the sacrifice you would make? Keep your favourite. Enough that one of us should suffer;" and she pointed to the mustang. "Keep the brave black; you well know how to ride him. Were he mine, no mortal could influence me to part with him."
"There is but one who could influence me."
As I said this, I looked anxiously for the answer. It was not in words I expected it, but in the glance. Assuredly there was no frown; I even fancied I could detect a smile—a blending of triumph and satisfaction. It was short-lived, and my heart fell again under her light laugh.
"Ha! ha! ha! That one is of course your lady-love. Well, noble capitan, if you are as true to her as to you brave steed, she will have no cause to doubt your fealty. I must leave you. Adios!"
"Shall I not be permitted to accompany you to your home?"
"Gracias! no, senor. I am at home. Mira! my father's house!" She pointed to the hacienda. "Here is one who will look to the remains of poor Lola;" and she signalled to a vaquero at that moment coming from the herd. "Remember, capitan, you are an enemy; I must not accept your politeness; neither may I offer you hospitality. Ah! you know not us— you know not the tyrant Santa Anna. Perhaps even at this moment his spies are—" She glanced suspiciously around as she spoke. "O Heavens!" she exclaimed with a start, as her eyes fell upon the form of a man advancing down the hill. "Santissima Virgen! it is Ijurra!"
"Only my cousin; but—" She hesitated, and then suddenly changing to an expression of entreaty, she continued: "O leave me, senor! Por amor Dios! leave me. Adieu, adieu!"
Though I longed to have a nearer view of "Ijurra," the hurried earnestness of her manner overcame me; and without making other reply than a simple "Adios," I vaulted into the saddle, and rode off.
On reaching the border of the woods, curiosity—a stronger feeling perhaps—mastered my politeness; and, under the pretence of adjusting my stirrup, I turned in the saddle, and glanced back.
Ijurra had arrived upon the ground.
I beheld a tall dark man, dressed in the usual costume of the ricos of Mexico: dark cloth polka-jacket, blue military trousers, with scarlet sash around his waist, and low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat upon his head. He appeared about thirty years of age, whiskered, moustached, and, after a fashion, handsome. It was not his age, nor his personal appearance, nor yet his costume, that had my attention at the moment. I watched only his actions. He stood confronting his cousin, or rather he stood over her, for she appeared before him in an attitude of fear! He held a paper in one hand, and I saw he was pointing to it as he spoke. There was a fierce vulture-like expression upon his face; and even in the distance I could tell, from the tones of his voice, that he was talking angrily!
Why should she fear him? Why submit to such rude rebuke? He must have a strange power over that spirit who could force it thus tamely to listen to reproach?
These were my reflections. My impulse was to drive the spurs into the sides of my horse, and gallop back upon the ground. I might have done so had the scene lasted much longer; but I saw the lady suddenly leave the spot, and walk rapidly in the direction of the hacienda.
I wheeled round again, and plunging under the shadows of the forest, soon fell into a road leading to the rancheria. With my thoughts full of the incident that had just transpired, I rode unconsciously, leaving my horse to his own guidance.
My reverie was interrupted by the challenge of one of my own sentries, which admonished me that I had arrived at the entrance of the village.
AN ORDER TO FORAGE.
My adventure did not end with the day; it was continued into the night, and repeated in my dreams. I rode the chase over again; I dashed through the magueys, I leaped the zequia, and galloped through the affrighted herd; I beheld the spotted mustang stretched lifeless upon the plain, its rider bending and weeping over it. That face of rare beauty, that form of exquisite proportion, that eye rotund and noble, that tongue so free, and heart so bold—all were again encountered in dreamland. A dark face was in the vision, and at intervals crossed the picture like a cloud. It was the face of Ijurra.
I think it was that awoke me, but the reveille of the bugle was ringing in my ears as I leaped from my couch.
For some moments I was under the impression that the adventure had been a dream: an object that hung on the opposite wall came under my eyes, and recalled the reality—it was my saddle, over the holsters of which lay a coil of white horsehair rope, with a silver ring at the end. I remembered the lazo.
When fairly awake, I reviewed my yesterday's adventure from first to last. I tried to think calmly upon it; I tried to get it out of my thoughts, and return seriously to my duties. A vain attempt! The more I reflected upon the incident, the more I became conscious of the powerful interest its heroine had excited within me. Interest, indeed! Say rather passion—a passion that in one single hour had grown as large as my heart!
It was not the first love of my life. I was nigh thirty years of age. I had been enamoured before—more than once, it may be—and I understood what the feeling was. I needed no Cupid to tell me I was in love again—to the very ends of my fingers.
To paint the object of my passion is a task I shall not attempt. Beauty like hers must be left to the imagination. Think of the woman you yourself love or have loved; fancy her in her fairest moments, in bower or boudoir—perchance a blushing bride—and you may form some idea—No, no, no! you could never have looked upon woman so lovely as Isolina de Vargas.
Oh! that I could fix that fleeting phantom of beauty—that I could paint that likeness for the world to admire! It cannot be. The most puissant pen is powerless, the brightest colour too cold. Though deeply graven upon the tablet of my heart, I cannot multiply the impression.
It is idle to talk of wavy hair, profuse and glossed—of almond eyes with long dark fringes—of pearl-white teeth, and cheeks tinted with damascene. All these had she, but they are not peculiar characteristics. Other women are thus gifted. The traits of her beauty lay in the intellectual as much as the physical—in a happy combination of both. The soul, the spirit, had its share in producing this incomparable picture. It was to behold the play of those noble features, to watch the changing cheek, the varying smile, the falling lash, the flashing eye, the glance now tender, now sublime—it was to look on all this, and be impressed with an idea of the divinest loveliness.
As I ate my frugal breakfast, such a vision was passing before me. I contemplated the future with pleasant hopes, but not without feelings of uneasiness. I had not forgotten the abrupt parting—no invitation to renew the acquaintance, no hope, no prospect that I should ever behold that beautiful woman again, unless blind chance should prove my friend.
I am not a fatalist, and I therefore resolved not to rely upon mere destiny, but, if possible, to help it a little in its evolution.
Before I had finished my coffee, a dozen schemes had passed through my mind, all tending towards one object—the renewal of my acquaintance with Isolina de Vargas. Unless favoured by some lucky accident, or, what was more desirable, by the lady herself, I knew we might never meet again. In such times, it was not likely she would be much "out-of-doors;" and in a few days, hours perhaps, I might be ordered en route never more to return to that interesting outpost.
As the district was, of course, under martial law, and I was de facto dictator, you will imagine that I might easily have procured the right of entry anywhere. Not so. Whatever be the licence of the mere soldier as regards the common people of a conquered country, the position of the officer with its higher class is essentially different. If a gentleman, he naturally feels a delicacy in making any advances towards an acquaintance; and his honour restrains him from the freer forms of introduction. To take advantage of his position of power would be a positive meanness, of which a true gentleman cannot be guilty. Besides, there may be rancour on the part of the conquered—there usually is—but even when no such feeling exists, another barrier stands in the way of free association between the officer and "society." The latter feels that the position of affairs will not be permanent; the enemy will in time evacuate, and then the vengeance of mob-patriotism is to be dreaded. Never did the ricos of Mexico feel more secure than while under the protection of the American army: many of them were disposed to be friendly; but the phantom of the future, with its mob emeutes, stared them in the face, and under this dread they were forced to adopt a hypocritical exclusiveness. Epaulettes must not be seen glancing through the windows of their drawing-rooms!
Under such circumstances, my situation was difficult enough. I might gaze upon the outside walls of that handsome hacienda till my heart ached, but how was I to effect an entrance?
To charge a fort, a battery, an intrenched camp—to storm a castle, or break a solid square—one or all would have been child's play compared with the difficulty of crossing that glacial line of etiquette that separated me from my beautiful enemy.
To effect this purpose, a dozen schemes were passed through my mind, and rejected, till my eyes at length rested upon the most interesting object in the apartment—the little white rope that hung from my saddlebow. In the lazo, I recognised my "forlorn-hope." That pretty implement must be returned to its owner. I myself should take it home! So far destiny should be guided by me; beyond, I should have to put my trust in destiny.
I think best under the influence of a cigar; and lighting one, I ascended to the azotea, to complete my little scheme.
I had scarcely made two turns of the roof, when a horseman galloped into the piazza. He was in dragoon uniform, and I soon perceived he was an orderly from headquarters, inquiring for the commandant of the outpost. One of the men pointed to me; and the orderly trotting forward, drew up in front of the alcalde's house, and announced that he was the bearer of a dispatch from the general-in-chief, at the same time showing a folded paper. I directed him to pass it up on the point of his sabre, which he did; and then saluting me, he turned his horse and galloped back as he had come.
I opened the dispatch, and read:—
"Head-quarters, Army of Occupation,—
"July —th, 1846.
"Sir,—You will take a sufficient number of your men, and proceed to the hacienda of Don Ramon de Yargas, in the neighbourhood of your station. You will there find five thousand head of beeves, which you will cause to be driven to the camp of the American army, and delivered to the commissary-general. You will find the necessary drivers upon the ground, and a portion of your troop will form the escort. The enclosed note will enable you to understand the nature of your duty.
"Surely," thought I, as I finished reading—"surely there is a 'Providence that shapes our ends.' Just as I was cudgelling my brains for some scheme of introduction to Don Ramon de Vargas, here comes one ready fashioned to my hand."
I thought no more about the lazo: the rope was no longer an object of prime interest. Trimmed and embellished with the graceful excuse of "duty," I should now ride boldly up to the hacienda, and enter its gates with the confident air of a welcome guest. Welcome, indeed! A contract for five thousand beeves, and at war-prices! A good stroke of business on the part of the old Don. Of course, I shall see him—"embrace him"— hobnob with him over a glass of Canario or Xeres—get upon the most intimate terms, and so be "asked back." I am usually popular with old gentlemen, and I trusted to my bright star to place me en rapport with Don Ramon de Vargas. The coralling of the cattle would occupy some time—a brace of hours at the least. That would be outside work, and I could intrust it to my lieutenant or a sergeant. For myself, I was determined to stay by the walls. The Don must go out to look after his vaqueros. It would be rude to leave me alone. He would introduce me to his daughter—he could not do less—a customer on so large a scale! We should be left to ourselves, and then—Ha! Ijurra! I had forgotten him. Would he be there?
The recollection of this man fell like a shadow over the bright fancies I had conjured up.
A dispatch from head-quarters calls for prompt attention and my reflections were cut short by the necessity of carrying the order into execution. Without loss of time, I issued the command for about fifty of the rangers to "boot and saddle."
I was about to pay more than ordinary attention to my toilet, when it occurred to me I might as well first peruse the "note" referred to in the dispatch. I opened the paper; to my surprise the document was in Spanish. This did not puzzle me, and I read:—
"The five thousand beeves are ready for you, according to the contract, but I cannot take upon me to deliver them. They must be taken from me with a show of force; and even a little rudeness, on the part of those you send, would not be out of place. My vaqueros are at your service, but I must not command them. You may press them.
"Ramon de Vargas."
This note was addressed to the commissary-general of the American army. Its meaning, though to the uninitiated a little obscure, was to me as clear as noonday; and, although, it gave me a high opinion of the administrative talents of Don Ramon de Vargas, it was by no means a welcome document. It rendered null every act of the fine programme I had sketched out. By its directions, there was to be no "embracing," no hobnobbing over wine, no friendly chat with the Don, no tete-a-tete with his beautiful daughter—no; but, on the contrary, I was to ride up with a swagger, bang the doors, threaten the trembling porter, kick the peons, and demand from their master five thousand head of beef-cattle— all in true freebooting style!
A nice figure I shall cut, thought I, in the eyes of Isolina.
A little reflection, however, convinced me that that intelligent creature would be in the secret. Yes, she will understand my motives. I can act with as much mildness as circumstances will permit. My Texan lieutenant will do the kicking of the peons, and that without much pressing. If she be not cloistered, I will have a glimpse at her; so here goes. "To horse!"
The bugle gave the signal; fifty rangers—with Lieutenants Holingsworth and Wheatley—leaped into their saddles, and next moment were filing by twos from the piazza, myself at their head.
A twenty minutes' trot brought us to the front gate of the hacienda, where we halted. The great door, massive and jail-like, was closed, locked, and barred; the shutters of the windows as well. Not a soul was to be seen outside, not even the apparition of a frightened peon. I had given my Texan lieutenant his cue; he knew enough of Spanish for the purpose.
Flinging himself out of the saddle, he approached the gate, and commenced hammering upon it with the butt of his pistol.
"Ambre la puerta!" (Open the door!) cried he.
"La puerta—la puerta!" he repeated in a louder tone.
Still no answer.
"Ambre la puerta!" once more vociferated the lieutenant, at the same time thundering on the woodwork with his weapon.
When the noise ceased, a faint "Quien es?" (Who is it?) was heard from within.
"Yo!" bawled Wheatley, "ambre! ambre!"
"Si, senor," answered the voice in a somewhat tremulous key.
"Anda! anda! Somos hombres de bien!" (Quick then! We are honest men.)
A rattling of chains and shooting of bolts now commenced, and lasted for at least a couple of minutes, at the end of which time the great folding-doors opened inward, displaying to view the swarthy leather-clad portero, the brick-paved saguan, and a portion of the patio, or courtyard within.
As soon as the door was fairly open, Wheatley made a rush at the trembling porter, caught him by the jerkin, boxed both his ears, and then commanded him in a loud voice to summon the dueno!
This conduct, somewhat unexpected on the part of the rangers, seemed to be just to their taste; and I could hear behind me the whole troop chuckling in half-suppressed laughter. Guerilleros as they were, they had never been allowed much licence in their dealings with the inhabitants—the non-combatants—of the country, and much less had they witnessed such conduct on the part of their officers. Indeed, it was cause of complaint in the ranks of the American army, and with many officers too, that even hostile Mexicans were treated with a lenient consideration denied to themselves. Wheatley's behaviour, therefore, touched a chord in the hearts of our following, that vibrated pleasantly enough; they began to believe that the campaign was about to become a little more jolly.
"Senor," stammered the porter, "the du—du—dueno has given or— orders—he wi—wi—will not s-see any one."
"Will not?" echoed Wheatley; "go, tell him he must!"
"Yes, amigo," I said soothingly; for I began to fear the man would be too badly frightened to deliver his message. "Go, say to your master that an American officer has business with him, and must see him immediately."
The man went off, after a little more persuasion from the free hand of Wheatley, of course leaving the gates open behind him.
We did not wait for his return. The patio looked inviting; and, directing Holingsworth to remain outside with the men, and the Texan lieutenant to follow me, I headed my horse for the great archway, and rode in.
On entering the courtyard, a somewhat novel scene presented itself—a Spanish picture, with some transatlantic touches. The patio of a Mexican house is its proper front. Here you no longer look upon jail-like door and windows, but facades gaily frescoed, curtained verandahs, and glazed sashes that reach to the ground. The patio of Don Ramon's mansion was paved with brick. A fountain, with its tank of japanned mason-work, stood in the centre; orange-trees stretched their fronds over the water: their golden globes and white wax-like flowers perfumed the atmosphere, which, cooled by the constant evaporation of the jet, felt fresh and fragrant. Around three sides of the court extended a verandah, its floor of painted tiles rising but a few inches above the level of the pavement. A row of portales supported the roof of this verandah, and the whole corridor was railed in, and curtained. The curtains were close-drawn, and except at one point—the entrance between two of the portales—the corridor was completely screened from our view, and consequently all the windows of the house, that opened into the verandah. No human face greeted our searching glances. In looking to the rear—into the great corral, or cattle-yard—we could see numerous peons in their brown leathern dresses, with naked legs and sandalled feet; vaqueros in all their grandeur of velveteens, bell-buttons, and gold or silver lace; with a number of women and young girls in coloured naguas and rebosos. A busy scene was presented in that quarter. It was the great cattle enclosure, for the estate of Don Ramon de Vargas was a hacienda de ganados, or grand grazing-farm—a title which in no way detracts from the presumed respectability of its owner, many of the noble hidalgoes of Mexico being graziers on a large scale.
On entering the patio, I only glanced back at the corral; my eyes were busy with the curtained verandah, and, failing there were carried up to the azotea, in hopes of discovering the object of my thoughts. The house, as I have elsewhere stated, was but a single story in height, and from the saddle I could almost look into the azotea. I could see that it was a sanctuary of rare plants, and the broad leaves and bright corollas of some of the taller ones appeared over the edge of the parapet. Abundance of fair flowers I could perceive, but not that one for which I was looking. No face yet showed, no voice greeted us with a welcome. The shouts of the vaqueros, the music of singing-birds caged along the corridor, and the murmur of the fountain, were the only sounds. The two former suddenly became hushed, as the hoofs of our horses rang upon the stone pavement, and the heedless water alone continued to utter its soft monotone.
Once more my eyes swept the curtain, gazing intently into the few apertures left by a careless drawing; once more they sought the azotea, and glanced along the parapet: my scrutiny still remained unrewarded.
Without exchanging a word, Wheatley and I sat silent in our saddles, awaiting the return of the portero. Already the peons, vaqueros, and wenches, had poured in through the back gateway, and stood staring with astonishment at the unexpected guests.
After a considerable pause, the tread of feet was heard upon the corridor, and presently the messenger appeared, and announced that the dueno was coming.
In a minute after, one of the curtains was drawn back, and an old gentleman made his appearance behind the railing. He was a person of large frame, and although slightly stooping with age, his step was firm, and his whole aspect bespoke a wonderful energy and resolution. His eyes were large and brilliant, shadowed by heavy brows, upon which the hair still retained its dark colour, although that of his head was white as snow. He was simply habited—in a jacket of nankeen cloth, and wide trousers of like material. He wore neither waistcoat nor cravat. A full white shirt of finest linen covered his breast, and a sash of dull blue colour was twisted around his waist. On his head was a costly hat of the "Guayaquil grass," and in his fingers a husk cigarrito smoking at the end.
Altogether, the aspect of Don Ramon—for it was he—despite its assumed sternness, was pleasing and intelligent; and I should have relished a friendly chat with him, even upon his own account.
This, however, was out of the question. I must abide by the spirit of my orders: the farce must be played out; so, touching the flanks of my horse, I rode forward to the edge of the verandah, and placed myself vis-a-vis with the Don.
"Are you Don Ramon de Vargas?"
"Si, senor," was the reply, in a tone of angry astonishment.
"I am an officer of the American army"—I spoke loud, and in Spanish, of course, for the benefit of the peons and vaqueros. "I am sent to offer you a contract to supply the army with beeves. I have here an order from the general-in-chief—"
"I have no beeves for sale," interrupted Don Ramon, in a loud, indignant voice; "I shall have nothing to do with the American army."
"Then, sir," retorted I, "I must take your beeves without your consent. You shall be paid for them, but take them I must; my orders require that I should do so. Moreover, your vaqueros must accompany us, and drive the cattle to the American camp."
As I said this, I signalled to Holingsworth, who rode in with his following; and then the whole troop, filing through the back gateway, began to collect the frightened vaqueros, and set them about their work.
"I protest against this robbery!" shouted Don Ramon. "It is infamous— contrary to the laws of civilised warfare. I shall appeal to my government—to yours—I shall have redress."
"You shall have payment, Don Ramon," said I, apparently trying to pacify him.
"Payment, carrambo!—payment from robbers, filibusteros—"
"Come, come, old gentleman!" cried Wheatley, who was only half behind the scenes, and who spoke rather in earnest, "keep a good tongue in your head, or you may lose something of more value to you than your cattle. Remember whom you are talking to."
"Tejanos! ladrones!" hissed Don Ramon, with an earnest application of the latter phrase that would certainly have brought Wheatley's revolver from his belt, had I not, at the moment, whispered a word in the lieutenant's ear.
"Hang the old rascal!" muttered he in reply to me. "I thought he was in earnest. Look here, old fellow!" he continued, addressing himself to Don Ramon, "don't you be scared about the dollars. Uncle Sam's a liberal trader and a good paymaster. I wish your beef was mine, and I had his promise to pay for it. So take things a little easier, if you please; and don't be so free of your 'filibusteros' and 'ladrones': free-born Texans ain't used to such talk."
Don Ramon suddenly cut short the colloquy by angrily closing the curtains, and hiding himself from our sight.
During the whole scene I had great difficulty in controlling my countenance. I could perceive that the Mexican laboured under a similar difficulty. There was a laughing devil in the corner of his keen eye that required restraint; and I thought once or twice either he or I should lose our equanimity. I certainly should have done so, but that my heart and eyes were most of the time in other quarters. As for the Don, he was playing an important part; and a suspicion of his hypocrisy, on the minds of some of the leather-clad greasers who listened to the dialogue, might have afterwards brought him to grief. Most of them were his own domestics and retainers, but not all. There were free rancheros among them—some who belonged to the pueblita itself—some, perchance, who had figured in pronunciamentos—who voted at elections, and styled themselves citizens. The Don, therefore, had good reasons for assuming a character; and well did the old gentleman sustain it.