The White Chief, A Legend of Northern Mexico, by Captain Mayne Reid.
An exciting and well-written book by Mayne Reid based on his experiences during the war between America and Mexico in the 1840s. Reid took the title of "Captain" because that was what his men called him during that war, although he was never promoted to that rank.
The importance of Reid's books with this background is that they were among the first in the Wild West genre.
THE WHITE CHIEF, A LEGEND OF NORTHERN MEXICO, BY CAPTAIN MAYNE REID.
Deep in the interior of the American Continent—more than a thousand miles from the shores of any sea—lies our scene.
Climb with me yonder mountain, and let us look from its summit of snow.
We have reached its highest ridge. What do we behold?
On the north a chaos of mountains, that continues on through thirty parallels to the shores of the Arctic Sea! On the south, the same mountains,—here running in separate sierras, and there knotting with each other. On the west, mountains again, profiled along the sky, and alternating with broad tables that stretch between their bases.
Now turn we around, and look eastward. Not a mountain to be seen! Far as the eye can reach, and a thousand miles farther, not a mountain. Yonder dark line rising above the plain is but the rocky brow of another plain—a steppe of higher elevation.
Where are we? On what summit are we standing? On the Sierra Blanca, known to the hunter as the "Spanish Peaks." We are upon the western rim of the Grand Prairie.
Looking eastward, the eye discovers no signs of civilisation. There are none within a month's journeying. North and south,—mountains, mountains.
Westward, it is different. Through the telescope we can see cultivated fields afar off,—a mere strip along the banks of a shining river. Those are the settlements of Nuevo Mexico, an oasis irrigated by the Rio del Norte. The scene of our story lies not there.
Face once more to the eastward, and you have it before you. The mountain upon which we stand has its base upon a level plain that expands far to the east. There are no foot-hills. The plain and the mountain touch, and at a single step you pass from the naked turf of the one to the rocky and pine-clad declivities of the other.
The aspect of the plain is varied. In some places it is green, where the gramma-grass has formed a sward; but in most parts it is sterile as the Sahara. Here it appears brown, where the sun-parched earth is bare; there it is of a sandy, yellowish hue; and yonder the salt effervescence renders it as white as the snow upon which we stand.
The scant vegetation clothes it not in a livery of verdure. The leaves of the agave are mottled with scarlet, and the dull green of the cactus is still further obscured by its thickly-set spines. The blades of the yuccas are dimmed by dust, and resemble clusters of half-rusty bayonets; and the low scrubby copses of acacia scarce offer a shade to the dusky agama and the ground rattlesnake. Here and there a solitary palmetto, with branchless stem and tufted crown, gives an African aspect to the scene. The eye soon tires of a landscape where every object appears angular and thorny; and upon this plain, not only are the trees of that character, but the plants,—even the very grass carries its thorns!
With what sensations of pleasure we turn to gaze into a lovely valley, trending eastward from the base of the mountain! What a contrast to the arid plain! Its surface is covered with a carpet of bright green, enamelled by flowers that gleam like many-coloured gems; while the cotton-wood, the wild-china-tree, the live-oak, and the willow, mingle their foliage in soft shady groves that seem to invite us. Let us descend!
We have reached the plain, yet the valley is still far beneath us—a thousand feet at the least—but, from a promontory of the bluff projecting over it, we command a view of its entire surface to the distance of many miles. It is a level like the plain above; and gazing down upon it, one might fancy it a portion of the latter that had sunk into the earth's crust, so as to come within the influence of a fertilising power denied to the higher region.
On both sides of it, far as the eye can reach, run the bordering cliffs, stepping from one level to the other, by a thousand feet sheer, and only passable at certain points. There is a width of ten miles from cliff to cliff; and these, of equal height, seem the counterparts of each other. Their grim savage fronts, overhanging the soft bright landscape of the valley, suggest the idea of a beautiful picture framed in rough oak-work.
A stream, like a silver serpent, bisects the valley—not running in a straight course, but in luxuriant windings, as though it loved to tarry in the midst of that bright scene. Its frequent curves and gentle current show that it passes over a surface almost plane. Its banks are timbered, but not continuously. Here the timber forms a wide belt, there only a fringe scarce shadowing the stream, and yonder the grassy turf can be distinguished running in to the very water's edge.
Copse-like groves are scattered over the ground. These are of varied forms; some perfectly circular, others oblong or oval, and others curving like the cornucopias of our gardens. Detached trees meet the eye, whose full round tops show that Nature has had her will in their development. The whole scene suggests the idea of some noble park, planted by design, with just timber enough to adorn the picture without concealing its beauties.
Is there no palace, no lordly mansion, to correspond? No. Nor palace nor cottage sends up its smoke. No human form appears within this wild paradise. Herds of deer roam over its surface, the stately elk reposes within the shade of its leafy groves, but no human being is there. Perhaps the foot of man never—
Stay! there is one by our side who tells a different tale. Hear him.
"That is the valley of San Ildefonso." Wild though it appears, it was once the abode of civilised man. Near its centre you may note some irregular masses scattered over the ground. But for the trees and rank weeds that cover them, you might there behold the ruins of a city.
"Yes! on that spot once stood a town, large and prosperous. There was a Presidio with the flag of Spain flying from its battlements; there was a grand Mission-house of the Jesuit padres; and dwellings of rich miners and 'hacendados' studded the valley far above and below. A busy populace moved upon the scene; and all the passions of love and hate, ambition, avarice, and revenge, have had existence there. The hearts stirred by them are long since cold, and the actions to which they gave birth are not chronicled by human pen. They live only in legends that sound more like romance than real history.
"And yet these legends are less than a century old! One century ago, from the summit of yonder mountain could have been seen, not only the settlement of San Ildefonso, but a score of others—cities, and towns, and villages—where to-day the eye cannot trace a vestige of civilisation. Even the names of these cities are forgotten, and their histories buried among their ruins!
"The Indian has wreaked his revenge upon the murderers of Moctezuma! Had the Saxon permitted him to continue his war of retaliation, in one century more—nay, in half that time—the descendants of Cortez and his conquerors would have disappeared from the land of Anahuac!
"Listen to the 'Legend of San Ildefonso'!"
Perhaps in no country has religion so many devoted days as in Mexico. The "fiestas" are supposed to have a good effect in Christianising the natives, and the saints' calendar has been considerably enlarged in that pseudo-holy land. Nearly every week supplies a festival, with all its mummery of banners, and processions, and priests dressed as if for the altar-scene in "Pizarro," and squibs, and fireworks, and silly citizens kneeling in the dust, and hats off all round. Very much like a London Guy-Fawkes procession is the whole affair, and of about like influence upon the morals of the community.
Of course the padres do not get up these ceremonial exhibitions for mere amusement—not they. There are various little "blessings," and "indultos," and sprinklings of sacred water, to be distributed on these occasions—not gratuitously—and the wretched believer is preciously "plucked" while he is in the penitent mood—at the same time he is promised a short and easy route to heaven.
As to any solemnity in the character of the ceremonials, there is nothing of the sort. They are in reality days of amusement; and it is not uncommon to see the kneeling devotee struggling to keep down the cackle of his fighting-cock, which, full-galved, he carries under the folds of his serape! All this under the roof of the sacred temple of God!
On days of fiesta, the church genuflexions are soon over; and then the gambling-booth, the race-course, bull-baiting, the cock-pit, and various minor amusements, come into full operation. In all these you may meet the robed priest of the morning, and stake your dollar or doubloon against his, if you feel so inclined.
"San Juan" is one of the "fiestas principales"—one of the most noted of Mexican ceremonials. On this day—particularly in a New Mexican village—the houses are completely deserted. All people turn out, and proceed to some well-known locality, usually a neighbouring plain, to witness the sports—which consist of horse-racing, "tailing the bull," "running the cock," and the like. The intervals are filled up by gambling, smoking, and flirtation.
There is much of republican equality exhibited on these occasions. Rich and poor, high and low, mingle in the throng, and take part in the amusements of the day.
It is the day of San Juan. A broad grassy plain lies just outside the town of San Ildefonso, and upon this the citizens are assembled. It is the scene of the festival, and the sports will soon begin. Before they do, let us stroll through the crowd, and note its component parts. All classes of the community—in fact, all the community—appear to be present. There go the two stout padres of the mission, bustling about in their long gowns of coarse serge, with bead-string and crucifix dangling to their knees, and scalp-lock close shaven. The Apache will find no trophy on their crowns.
There is the cura of the town church, conspicuous in his long black cloak, shovel hat, black silk stockings, pumps, and buckles. Now smiling benignly upon the crowd, now darting quick Jesuitical glance from his dark ill-meaning eyes, and now playing off his white jewelled fingers, as he assists some newly-arrived "senora" to climb to her seat. Great "ladies' men" are these same black-gowned bachelor-churchmen of Mexico.
We have arrived in front of several rows of seats raised above one another. Let us observe who occupy them. At a glance it is apparent they are in possession of the "familias principales," the aristocracy of the settlement. Yes—there is the rich "comerciante," Don Jose Rincon, his fat wife, and four fat sleepy-looking daughters. There, too, is the wife and family of the "Alcalde," and this magistrate himself with tasselled official staff; and the Echevarrias—pretty creatures that they think themselves—under care of their brother, the beau, who has discarded the national costume for the mode de Paris! There is the rich "hacendado," Senor Gomez del Monte, the owner of countless flocks and broad acres in the valley; and there are others of his class with their senoras and senoritas. And there, too, observed of all, is the lovely Catalina de Cruces, the daughter of Don Ambrosio, the wealthy miner. He will be a lucky fellow who wins the smiles of Catalina, or rather perhaps the good graces of her father—for Don Ambrosio will have much to say in the matter of her marriage. Indeed, it is rumoured that that matter is already arranged; and that Captain Roblado, second in command at the Presidio, is the successful suitor. There stands he, in full moustache, covered with gold-lace, back and front, and frowning fiercely on every one who dares to rest eye for a moment upon the fair Catalina. With all his gold-lace and gallant strut, Catalina displays no great taste in her choice;—but is he her choice? Maybe not—maybe he is the choice of Don Ambrosio; who, himself of plebeian origin, is ambitious that his blood should be mingled with that of the military hidalgo. The soldier has no money—beyond his pay; and that is mortgaged for months in advance; but he is a true Gachupino, of "blue blood," a genuine "hijo de algo." Not a singular ambition of the old miser, nor uncommon among parvenus.
Vizcarra, the Comandante, is on the ground—a tall colonel of forty— laced and plumed like a peacock. A lively bachelor is he; and while chatting with padre, cura, or alcalde, his eye wanders to the faces of the pretty poblanas that are passing the spot. These regard his splendid uniform with astonishment, which he, fancying himself "Don Juan Tenorio," mistakes for admiration, and repays with a bland smile.
There, too, is the third officer—there are but the three—the teniente, Garcia by name. He is better looking, and consequently more of a favourite with both poblanas and rich senoritas, than either of his superiors. I wonder the fair Catalina does not give her preference to him. Who can tell that she does not? A Mexican dame does not carry her soul upon her sleeve, nor upon her tongue neither.
It would be a task to tell of whom Catalina is thinking just now. It is not likely at her age—she is twenty—that her heart is still her own; but whose? Roblado's? I would wager, no. Garcia's? That would be a fairer bet. After all, there are many others—young "hacendados," employes of the mines, and a few merchant dandies of the town. Her choice may be some one of these. Quien sabe?
Let us on through the crowd!
We see the soldiers of the garrison, with tinkling spurs and long trailing sabres, mingling fraternally with the serape-clad tradesmen, the gambucinos, and rancheros of the valley. They imitate their officers in strut and swagger—the very character of which enables one to tell that the military power is here in the ascendant. They are all dragoons—infantry would not avail against an Indian enemy—and they fancy that the loud clinking of their spurs, and the rattle of their steel scabbards, add greatly to their importance. They have their eyes after the poblanas, and the sweethearts of the poblanas keep their eyes after them in a constant vigil of jealousy.
The "poblanas" are the pretty girls of the place; but, pretty or plain, all the girls are out to-day in their best and gayest apparel. Some wear enaguas of blue—others of scarlet—others of purple; and many of them tastefully flounced at the bottoms with a trimming of narrow lace. They wear the embroidered chemisette, with its snow-white frills, and the blueish reboso, gracefully arranged, so as to conceal neck, bosom, arms, and, in some cases of coquetry, even the face! Ere night this jealous garment will have lost half its prudery. Already the prettier faces peep forth; and you may see, from the softness of the complexion, that they have been just washed free of the "allegria" that for the last two weeks has rendered them hideous.
The "rancheros" are in their full and beautiful costume—velveteen trousers, wide at the bottoms and open up the sides; botas of unstained leather; jackets of tanned sheepskin; or velveteen richly embroidered; fancy-worked shirts underneath; and scarfs of rich red silk around the waist. Over all the broad-brimmed sombrero, of black glaze, with silver or gold band, and tags of the same, screwed into the crown. Some have no jacket, but the serape, hanging negligently from their shoulders, serves in place of one. All of these men have horses with them; and on their feet may be seen spurs full five pounds in weight, with rowels three, four, and even five inches in diameter!
The "gambucinos," and young men of the town, the smaller tradespeople, are very similarly attired; but those of higher class—the officials and "comerciantes"—are clad in broad-cloth jackets and pantaloons, not exactly of European cut, but approaching it—a sort of compromise between Paris fashions and the native costume of the country.
Another costume may be noticed, worn by many of the crowd. This is the dress of the native "Pueblos", or Indios mansos—the poor labourers of the mines, and the neophytes of the mission. It is a simple dress, and consists of an upper garment, the tilma, a sort of coat without sleeves. A coffee-sack with a hole ripped in the bottom for the head to pass through, and a slit cut in each side for the arms, would make the "tilma." It has no waist, and hangs nearly to the hips without other fastening than the support at the shoulders. The tilma is usually a piece of coarse rug—a cheap woollen cloth of the country, called "gerga," of a whitish colour, with a few dyed threads to give the semblance of a pattern. This with a pair of dressed sheepskin breeches and rude sandals—guaraches—constitutes the wear of most of the "Indios mansos" of Mexico. The head is bare; and the legs, from the knee to the ankle, shine forth in all their copper-coloured nakedness.
Of these dark aborigines—the "peons" of the mission and the mines— there are hundreds stalking about, while their wives and daughters sit squatted upon the ground in rear of their petates; upon which are piled the fruits of the soil—the tunas, petahayas, plums, apricots, grapes, sandias, and other species of melons, with roasted nuts of the pinon-tree, the produce of the neighbouring mountains. Others keep stands of dulces and agua-miel or limonada; while others sell small loaves—piloncilios—of corn-stalk sugar, or baked roots of the agave. Some squat before fires, and prepare tortillas and chile Colorado; or melt the sugared chocolate cake in their urn-like earthen ollas. From these humble "hucksters," a hot peppery stew, a dish of atole, or a bowl of pinole, is to be had for a few clacos. There are other stands where you can buy cigarillos of punche, or a drink of the fiery aguardiente from Taos or El Paso; and these stands are favourite resorts of the thirsty miners and soldiers. There are no "booths," but most of the hucksters protect themselves from the sun by a huge screen of palmetto mat (petate) placed umbrella-like over their heads.
There is one class of persons yet to be spoken of—an important class at the festival of San Juan—they who are to be competitors in the sports— the real wrestlers in the games.
These are young men of all grades in society, and all of them mounted— of course, each in the best way he can. There they go, prancing over the ground, causing their gaily caparisoned steeds to caper and curvet, especially in front of the tiers of seated senoritas. There are miners among them, and young hacendados, and rancheros, and vaqueros, and ciboleros, and young merchants who ride well. Every one rides well in Mexico—even the dwellers in cities are good horsemen.
Nearly a hundred are there of these youths who intend to take part in the various trials of skill in equitation.
Let the sports begin!
The first exhibition on the programme was to be the coleo de toros, which may be rendered in English as "tailing the bull." It is only in the very large cities of Mexico where a regular plaza de toros, or arena for the bull-fight, is to be found; but in every tillage, however insignificant, the spoil of bull-tailing may be witnessed, as this only requires an open plain, and as wild a bull as can be procured. The sport is not quite so exciting as the bull-fight, as it is less perilous to those engaged in it. Not unfrequently, however, a gored horse or a mutilated rider is produced by the "coleo;" and fatal accidents have occurred at times. The horses, too, sometimes stumble, and both horse and rider are trampled by the others crowding from behind, so that in the pellmell drive awkward accidents are anything but uncommon. The coleo is, therefore, a game of strength, courage, and skill; and to excel in it is an object of high ambition among the youth of a New Mexican settlement.
The arrangements having been completed, it was announced by a herald that the coleo was about to begin. These arrangements were simple enough, and consisted in collecting the crowd to one side, so that the bull, when let loose, would have a clear track before him in the direction of the open country. Should he not be allowed this favour he might head towards the crowd,—a thing to be apprehended. In fear of this, most of the women were to be seen mounting into the rude carretas, scores of which were upon the ground, having carried their owners to the spectacle. Of course the senoras and senoritas on the raised benches felt secure.
The competitors were now drawn up in a line. There were a dozen detailed for this first race,—young men of all classes, who were, or fancied themselves, "crack" riders. There were rancheros in their picturesque attire, smart arrieros, miners from the hills, townsmen, hacendados of the valley, vaqueros from the grazing-farms, and ciboleros, whose home is for the most part on the wide prairies. Several dragoons, too, were arrayed with the rest, eager to prove their superiority in the manege of the horse.
At a given signal the bull was brought forth from a neighbouring corral. He was not led by men afoot,—that would have been a dangerous undertaking. His conductors were well-mounted vaqueros, who, with their lazoes around his horns, were ready, in case of his showing symptoms of mutiny, to fling him to the earth by a jerk.
A vicious-looking brute he appeared, with shaggy frontlet and scowling lurid eye. It was plain that it only needed a little goading to make him a still more terrible object; for he already swept his tail angrily against his flanks, tossed his long straight horns in the air, snorted sharply, and beat the turf at intervals with his hoofs. He was evidently one of the fiercest of a fierce race—the race of Spanish bulls.
Every eye was fixed upon him with interest, and the spectators freely commented upon his qualities. Some thought him too fat, others alleged he was just in the condition to make a good run—as, in the coleo, speed, not courage, is the desirable quality. This difference of opinions led to the laying of numerous wagers on the result,—that is, the time that should elapse from the start until the bull should be "tailed" and "thrown." The throwing of the bull, of course ends the chase.
When it is considered that the brute selected is one of the strongest, swiftest, and fiercest of his kind, and that no weapon—not even the lazo—is allowed, it will be admitted this is a matter of no easy accomplishment. The animal goes at full run, almost as fast as the horse can gallop; and to bring him to the ground under these circumstances requires the performance of a feat, and one that demands skill, strength, and the best of horsemanship. That feat is to seize the bull by the tail, and jerk the animal off his legs!
The bull was led out some two hundred yards beyond the line of horsemen, where he was halted, with his head turned to the open plain. The lazoes, that held him by a leash-knot, were then cautiously slipped, two or three fire-squibs, pointed and barbed, were shot into his hips, and away he went amidst the yells of the spectators!
Next moment the riders spurred after, each shouting in his own fashion.
Soon the line was broken, and a confused spread of horsemen, like a "field" of fox-hunters, was seen scouring over the plain. Each moment the troop became elongated, until what had started in line was now strung out in double and single file to a length of several hundred yards. Still on they went, whipping, and spurring, and urging their steeds to the utmost.
The bull, maddened by the arrowy squibs, and terrified by their hissing, ran at the top of his speed in a nearly direct line. The start he had been allowed was not so easily taken up, even by fast riders, and he had got a full mile or more before any one neared him. Then a dragoon, mounted on a large bay horse, was seen pressing him closely, and at length laying hold of the tail. He was observed to give it a jerk or two, as though endeavouring to fling the brute by sheer strength. It was a failure, however; for the next moment the bull shot out in a side direction, and left his pursuer behind.
A young hacendado, splendidly horsed, was next upon his flanks; but each time he reached forth to grasp the tail it was whisked beyond his reach. He succeeded at length in seizing it; but the bull, making a sudden lurch, whipped his tail from the rider's hands, and left him also in the rear.
One condition of the "coleo" was, that each competitor, after having once failed, should retire from the ground; so that the hacendado and the dragoon were now actually hors de chasse.
These were seen riding back, though not directly in front of the spectators. They preferred making a roundabout thing of it, so that their fallen faces might not be too closely scanned on their return.
On went the bull, and after him the eager and excited horsemen. Another dragoon soon tried his "pluck," and also failed; and then a vaquero, and another horseman, and another, with like success—each failure being hailed by a groan from the crowd. There were several tumbles, too, at which the spectators laughed heartily; and one horse was badly gored, having headed the bull and got entangled upon his horns.
In less than ten minutes eleven out of the twelve competitors were seen returning from the chase.
Only one now remained to make his trial. The bull had proved a splendid fellow, and was already in high favour, and loudly applauded by the spectators.
"Bravo, toro! bravissimo!" was heard on all sides. All eyes were now turned upon the enraged animal, and his one remaining pursuer. Both were still near enough to be well observed, for the chase had led hitherto, not in one line, but in different directions over the plain; so that the bull was actually no farther from the crowd than when first overtaken by the dragoon. He was at this moment running in a cross course, so that every movement of both pursuer and pursued could be well observed from the stand.
At the first glance it was plain that the bull had now behind him the handsomest horse and horseman upon the field—would they prove the best? That was to be tried.
The horse was a large coal-black mustang, with a long full tail, pointed at the tip, and carried like the brush of a running fox. Even while in gallop, his neck slightly curved, and his proud figure, displayed against the smooth sward, called forth expressions of admiration.
The rider was a young man of twenty or over; and his light curling hair and white-red complexion distinguished him from all his competitors—who were, without exception, dark-skinned men. He was dressed in full ranchero costume, with its rich broidery and trappings; and instead of the usual "serape," he wore a purple manga—a more graceful, as well as costlier garment. The long skirts of this he had flung behind him, in order to have his arms free; and its folds, opening to the breeze, added to the gracefulness of his carriage in the saddle.
The sudden appearance of this splendid horseman—for, hanging in the rear with folded manga, he seemed not to have been noticed before,— caused unusual attention, and many were heard inquiring his name.
"Carlos the cibolero!" cried a voice, loud enough to satisfy all at once.
Some evidently knew who "Carlos the cibolero" was, though by far the greater number on the ground did not. Of the former, one was heard inquiring—
"Why hasn't he come up before?—He could have done so if he had wished."
"Carrambo! yes," added another. "He might have done so. He only hung back to give the others a trial. He knew none of them could throw that bull. Mira!"
The speaker's conjecture was, no doubt, correct.
It was plain, at first sight, that this rider could easily overtake the bull. His horse was still in a gentle gallop, and, though his ears were set and his red nostrils staring open, it was only through the excitement of the chase, and chafing at being hitherto checked. The bridle-rein was, in fact, still tightly drawn.
As the speaker uttered the cautionary phrase "Mira!" a change was suddenly observed in the manner of the horseman. He was about twenty paces from the chase and directly in the rear. All at once his horse sprang forward at double his former speed, and in a few stretches laid himself alongside the bull. The rider was observed to grasp the long outstretched tail, and then lean forward and downward. The next moment he raised himself with a sudden jerk, and the huge horned creature turned sprawling upon his back. The whole thing seemed to cost him no more effort than if the bull had been a tom-cat. Loud "vivas!" broke from the spectators, and the victorious horseman rode back in front of the stand, modestly bowed his thanks, and then retired into the depth of the crowd.
There were not wanting those who fancied that in bowing the eyes of the cibolero were directed on the fair Catalina de Cruces; and some went so far as to assert that she smiled and looked content; but that could not be. The heiress of the rich Don Ambrosio smile to a compliment from a cibolero!
There was one, however, who did smile. That was a fair-haired, fair-skinned girl, who stood upon one of the carretas, by the side of which the victor had placed himself. Side by side those two faces seemed one. They were of one blood,—one colour,—one race: were they not brother and sister? Yes,—the fair girl was the sister of the cibolero. She was smiling from happiness at the thought of her brother's triumph.
A strange-looking woman was seated in the bottom of the carreta—an old woman, with long flowing hair, white as flax. She was silent, but her sharp eyes were bent upon the cibolero with a triumphant expression. Some regarded her with curiosity, but most with fear, akin to awe. These knew something of her, and whispered strange tales to one another.
"Esta una bruxa!—una hechicera!" (She is a witch! a charmer!) said they.
This they muttered in low tones lest they might be heard by Carlos or the girl. She was their mother!
The sports continue. The bull thrown by the cibolero, now cowed, walks moodily across the plain. He would not serve for a second run, so he is lazoed and led off,—to be delivered to the victor as his prize.
A second is brought forth and started, with a fresh dozen of horsemen at his heels.
These seem to be better matched, or rather the bull has not run off so well, as all overtake him at once, riding past him in their headlong speed. Most unexpectedly the animal turns in his tracks, and runs back, heading directly for the stand!
Loud screams are heard from the poblanas in the carretas—from the senoras and senoritas. No wonder. In ten seconds the enraged brute will be in their midst!
The pursuing horsemen are still far behind him. The sudden turning in their headlong race threw them out of distance. Even the foremost of them cannot come up in time.
The other horsemen are all dismounted. No man on foot will dare to check the onward rush of a goaded bull!
Confusion and loud shouting among the men, terror and screaming among the women, are the characteristics of the scene. Lives will be lost— perhaps many. None know but that they themselves may be the victims!
The strings of carretas filled with their terrified occupants flank the stand on each side; but, running farther out into the plain, form with it a sort of semicircle. The bull enters this semicircle, and guided by the carretas rushes down, heading directly for the benches, as though determined to break through in that direction. The ladies have risen to their feet, and, half-frantic, seem as though they would leap down upon the very horns of the monster they dread! It is a fearful crisis for them.
Just at this moment a man is seen advancing, lazo in hand, in front of the carretas. He is afoot. As soon as he has detached himself from the crowd, he spins the lazo round his head, and the noose shooting out is seen to settle over the horns of the bull.
Without losing a moment the man runs to a small tree that stands near the centre of the semicircle, and hastily coils the other end of the lazo around its trunk. Another moment, and he would have been too late.
The knot is scarcely tied, when a heavy pluck announces that the bull has reached the end of his rope, and the foiled brute is now seen thrown back upon his hips, with the lazo tightly noosed over his horns. He has fallen at the very feet of the spectators!
"Bravo! viva!" cried a hundred voices, as soon as their owners had sufficiently recovered from their terror to call out.
"Viva. Viva! Carlos the cibolero!"
It was he who had performed this second feat of skill and daring.
The bull was not yet conquered, however. He was only confined within a certain range—the circle of the lazo—and, rising to his feet, with a furious roar he rushed forward at the crowd. Fortunately the lazo was not long enough to enable him to reach the spectators on either side; and again he tumbled back upon his haunches. There was a scattering on all sides, as it was feared he might still slip the noose; but the horsemen had now come up. Fresh lazoes were wound about his neck, others tripped up his legs, and he was at length flung violently upon the ground and his quarters well stretched.
He was now completely conquered, and would run no more; and as but two bulls had been provided for the occasion, the "coleo de toros" was for that day at an end.
Several lesser feats of horsemanship were next exhibited, while preparations were being made for another of the grand games of the day. Those were by way of interlude, and were of various kinds. One was throwing the lazo upon the foot of a person running at full speed, noosing him around the ankle, and of course tripping him up. This was done by men both mounted and afoot; and so many accomplished it, that it could hardly be deemed a "feat:" nor was it regarded as such among the more skilful, who disdained to take part in it.
Picking up the hat was next exhibited. This consisted in the rider throwing his hat upon the ground, and then recovering it from the saddle, while his horse swept past at full gallop. Nearly every rider on the spot was equal to this feat, and only the younger ones looked upon it as a proof of skill. Of these some twenty could now be seen wheeling about at a gallop and ducking down for their sombreros, which they had previously dropped.
But it is not so easy to pick up smaller objects, and a piece of coin lying flat upon the ground tries the skill of the best "cavallero."
The Comandante Vizcarra now stepped forth and commanded silence. Placing a Spanish dollar upon the smooth turf, he called out—
"This to the man who can take it up at the first trial. Five gold onzas that Sergeant Gomez will perform the feat!"
There was silence for a while. Five gold "onzas" (doubloons) was a large sum of money. Only a "rico" could afford to lose such a sum.
After a pause, however, there came a reply. A young ranchero stepped forth:—
"Colonel Vizcarra," said he, "I will not bet that Sergeant Gomez cannot perform the feat; but I'll wager there's another on the ground can do it as well as he. Double the amount if you please."
"Name your man!" said Vizcarra.
"Carlos the cibolero."
"Enough—I accept your wager. Any one else may have their trial," continued Vizcarra, addressing the crowd. "I shall replace the dollar whenever it is taken up—only one attempt, remember!"
Several made the attempt and failed. Some touched the coin, and even drew it from its position, but no one succeeded in lifting it.
At length a dragoon mounted on a large bay appeared in the list, who was recognised as the Sergeant Gomez. He was the same that had first come up with the bull, but failed to fling him; and no doubt that failure dwelling still in his thoughts added to the natural gloom of his very sallow face. He was a man of large size, unquestionably a good rider, but he lacked that symmetrical shape that gives promise of sinewy activity.
The feat required little preparation. The sergeant looked to his saddle-girths, disencumbered himself of his sabre and belts, and then set his steed in motion.
In a few minutes he directed his horse so as to shave past the shining coin, and then, bending down, he tried to seize it. He succeeded in lifting it up from the ground; but, owing to the slight hold he had taken, it dropped from his fingers before he had got it to the height of the stirrup.
A shout, half of applause and half of disapprobation, came from the crowd. Most were disposed to favour him on Vizcarra's account. Not that they loved Colonel Vizcarra, but they feared him, and that made them loyal.
The cibolero now rode forth upon his shining black. All eyes were turned upon him. His handsome face would have won admiration, but for its very fairness. Therein lay a secret prejudice. They knew he was not of their race!
Woman's heart has no prejudice, however; and along that line of dark-eyed "doncellas" more than one pair of eyes were sparkling with admiration for the blond "Americano," for of such race was Carlos the cibolero.
Other eyes than woman's looked favourably on the cibolero, and other lips murmured applause. Among the half-brutalised Tagnos, with bent limbs and downcast look, there were men who dreamt of days gone by; who knew that their fathers were once free; who in their secret assemblies in mountain cave, or in the deep darkness of the "estufa," still burned the "sacred fire" of the god Quetzalcoatl—still talked of Moctezuma and Freedom.
These, though darker than all others, had no prejudice against the fair skin of Carlos. Even over their benighted minds the future had cast some rays of its light. A sort of mysterious presentiment, apparently instinctive, existed among them, that their deliverers from the yoke of Spanish tyranny would yet come from the East—from beyond the great plains!
The cibolero scarce deigned to make any preparation. He did not even divest himself of his manga, but only threw it carelessly back, and left its long skirt trailing over the hips of his horse.
Obedient to the voice of his rider, the animal sprang into a gallop; and then, guided by the touch of the knees, he commenced circling round the plain, increasing his speed as he went.
Having gained a wide reach, the rider directed his horse towards the glittering coin. When nearly over it he bent down from the saddle, caught the piece in his fingers, flung it up into the air, and then, suddenly checking his horse underneath, permitted it to drop into his outstretched palm!
All this was done with the ease and liability of a Hindoo juggler. Even the prejudiced could not restrain their applause; and loud vivas for "Carlos the cibolero" again pealed upon the air.
The sergeant was humiliated. He had for a long time been victor in these sports—for Carlos had not been present until this day, or had never before taken part in them. Vizcarra was little better pleased. His favourite humbled—himself the loser of ten golden onzas—no small sum, even to the Comandante of a frontier Presidio. Moreover, to be jibed by the fair senoritas for losing a wager he had himself challenged, and which, no doubt, he felt certain of winning. From that moment Vizcarra liked not "Carlos the cibolero."
The next exhibition consisted in riding at full gallop to the edge of a deep "zequia" which passed near the spot. The object of this was to show the courage and activity of the rider as well as the high training of the steed.
The zequia—a canal used for irrigation—was of such width that a horse could not well leap over it, and deep enough to render it no very pleasant matter for a horseman to get into. It therefore required both skill and daring to accomplish the feat. The animal was to arrive upon the bank of the canal in full run, and to be drawn up suddenly, so that his four feet should rest upon the ground inside a certain line. This line was marked at less than two lengths of himself from the edge of the drain. Of course the bank was quite firm, else the accomplishment of such a feat would have been impossible.
Many succeeded in doing it to perfection; and an admirable piece of horsemanship it was. The horse, suddenly checked in his impetuous gallop, upon the very brink of the zequia, and drawn back on his haunches, with head erect, starting eyeballs, and open smoking nostrils, formed a noble picture to look upon. Several, however, by way of contrast, gave the crowd a ludicrous picture to laugh at. These were either faint-hearted riders, who stopped short before arriving near the bank, or bold but unskilful ones, who overshot the mark, and went plunge into the deep muddy water. Either class of failure was hailed by groans and laughter, which the appearance of the half-drowned and dripping cavaliers, as they weltered out on the bank, rendered almost continuous. On the other hand, a well-executed manoeuvre elicited vivas of applause.
No wonder that, under such a system of training and emulation, these people are the finest riders in the world, and such they certainly are.
It was observed that Carlos the cibolero took no part in this game. What could be the reason? His friends alleged that he looked upon it as unworthy of him. He had already exhibited a skill in horsemanship of a superior kind, and to take part in this would be seeking a superfluous triumph. Such was in fact the feeling of Carlos.
But the chagrined Comandante had other views. Captain Roblado as well— for the latter had seen, or fancied he had seen, a strange expression in the eyes of Catalina at each fresh triumph of the cibolero. The two "militarios" had designs of their own. Base ones they were, and intended for the humiliation of Carlos. Approaching him, they inquired why he had not attempted the last feat.
"I did not think it worth while," answered the cibolero, in a modest tone.
"Ho!" cried Roblado, tauntingly; "my good fellow. You must have other reasons than that. It is not so contemptible a feat to rein up on the edge of that 'zanca.' You fear a ducking, I fancy?"
This was uttered in a tone of banter, loud enough for all to hear; and Captain Roblado wound up his speech with a jeering laugh.
Now, it was just this ducking that the militarios wished to see. They had conceived hopes, that, if Carlos attempted the feat, some accident, such as the slipping or stumbling of his horse, might lead to that result; which to them would have been as grateful as it would have been mortifying to the cibolero. A man floundering out of a muddy ditch, and drenched to the skin, however daring the attempt that led to it, would cut but a sorry figure in the eyes of a holiday crowd; and in such a situation did they wish to see Carlos placed.
Whether the cibolero suspected their object did not appear. His reply does not show. When it was heard, the "zequia" and its muddy water were at once forgotten. A feat of greater interest occupied the attention of the spectators.
Carlos, seated in his saddle, was silent for a while. He seemed puzzled for a reply. The manner of the two officers, as well as Roblado's speech, stung him. To have proceeded to the performance of this very common feat after all others had given over, merely on the banter of Roblado and the Comandante, would have been vexatious enough; and yet to refuse it would lay him open to jeers and insinuations; and, perhaps, this was their design.
He had reason to suspect some sinister motive. He knew something of both the men—of their public character—he could not otherwise, as they were lords paramount of the place. But of their private character, too, he had some knowledge, and that was far from being to their credit. With regard to Roblado, the cibolero had particular reasons for disliking him—very particular reasons; and but that the former was still ignorant of a certain fact, he had quite as good a reason for reciprocating the dislike. Up to this moment Roblado knew nothing of the cibolero, who for the most part of his time was absent from the valley. Perhaps the officer had never encountered him before, or at all events had never changed words with him. Carlos knew him better; and long ere this encounter, for reasons already hinted at, had regarded him with dislike.
This feeling was not lessened by the conduct of the officer on the present occasion. On the contrary, the haughty jeering tones fell bitterly upon the ear of the cibolero. He replied, at length, "Captain Roblado, I have said it is not worth my while to perform what a muchachito of ten years old would hardly deem a feat. I would not wrench my horse's mouth for such a pitiful exhibition as running him up on the edge of that harmless gutter; but if—"
"Well, if what?" eagerly inquired Roblado, taking advantage of the pause, and half suspecting Carlos' design.
"If you feel disposed to risk a doubloon—I am but a poor hunter, and cannot place more—I shall attempt what a muchachito of ten years would consider a feat perhaps."
"And what may that be, Senor Cibolero?" asked the officer, sneeringly.
"I will check my horse at full gallop on the brow of yonder cliff!"
"Within two lengths from the brow?"
"Within two lengths—less—the same distance that is traced here on the banks of the zequia!"
The surprise created by this announcement held the bystanders for some moments in silence. It was a proposal of such wild and reckless daring that it was difficult to believe that the maker of it was in earnest. Even the two officers were for a moment staggered by it, and inclined to fancy the cibolero was not serious but mocking them.
The cliff to which Carlos had pointed was part of the bluff that hemmed in the valley. It was a sort of promontory, however, that jutted out from the general line, so as to be a conspicuous object from the plain below. Its brow was of equal height with the rest of the precipice, of which it was a part—a sort of buttress—and the grassy turf that appeared along its edge was but the continuation of the upper plateau. Its front to the valley was vertical, without terrace or ledge, although horizontal seams traversing its face showed a stratification of lime and sandstone alternating with each other. From the sward upon the valley to the brow above the height was one thousand feet sheer. To gaze up to it was a trial to delicate nerves—to look down put the stoutest to the proof.
Such was the cliff upon whose edge the cibolero proposed to rein up his steed. No wonder the proposal was received with a surprise that caused a momentary silence in the crowd. When that passed, voices were heard exclaiming,—"Impossible!"
"He is mad!"
"Pah! he's joking!"
"Esta burlando los militarios!" (He's mocking the military gents); and such-like expressions.
Carlos sat playing with his bridle-rein, and waiting for a reply.
He had not long to wait. Vizcarra and Roblado muttered some hasty words between themselves; and then, with an eagerness of manner, Roblado cried out—
"I accept the wager!"
"And I another onza!" added the Comandante.
"Senores," said Carlos, with an air of apparent regret, "I am sorry I cannot take both. This doubloon is all I have in the world; and it's not likely I could borrow another just now."
As he said this Carlos regarded the crowd with a smile, but many of these were in no humour for smiling. They were really awed by the terrible fate which they believed awaited the reckless cibolero. A voice, however, answered him:—
"Twenty onzas, Carlos, for any other purpose. But I cannot encourage this mad project."
It was the young ranchero, his former backer, who spoke.
"Thank you, Don Juan," replied the cibolero. "I know you would lend them. Thank you all the same. Do not fear! I'll win the onza. Ha! ha! ha! I haven't been twenty years in the saddle to be bantered by a Gachupino."
"Sir!" thundered Vizcarra and Roblado in a breath, at the same time grasping the hilts of their swords, and frowning in a fierce threatening manner.
"Oh! gentlemen, don't be offended," said Carlos, half sneeringly. "It only slipped from my tongue. I meant no insult, I assure you."
"Then keep your tongue behind your teeth, my good fellow," threatened Vizcarra. "Another slip of the kind may cost you a fall."
"Thank you, Senor Comandante," replied Carlos, still laughing. "Perhaps I'll take your advice."
The only rejoinder uttered by the Comandante was a fierce "Carrajo!" which Carlos did not notice; for at this moment his sister, having heard of his intention, sprang down from the carreta and came running forward, evidently in great distress.
"Oh, brother Carlos!" she cried, reaching out her arms, and grasping him by the knees, "Is it true? Surely it is not true?"
"What, hermanita?" (little sister), he asked with a smile.
She could utter no more, but turned her eyes, and pointed to the cliff.
"Certainly, Rosita, and why not? For shame, girl! Don't be alarmed— there's nought to fear, I assure you—I've done the like before."
"Dear, dear Carlos, I know you are a brave horseman—none braver—but oh! think of the danger—Dios de mi alma! think of—"
"Pshaw, sister! don't shame me before the people—come to mother!—hear what she will say. I warrant she won't regard it." And, so saying, the cibolero rode up to the carreta, followed by his sister.
Poor Rosita! Eyes gleamed upon you at that moment that saw you for the first time—eyes in whose dark orbs lay an expression that boded you no good. Your fair form, the angelic beauty of your face—perhaps your very grief—awakened interest in a heart whose love never meant else than ruin to its object. It was the heart of Colonel Vizcarra.
"Mira! Roblado!" muttered he to his subordinate and fellow-villain. "See yonder! Santisima Virgen! Saint Guadalupe! Look, man! Venus, as I'm a Christian and a soldier! In the name of all the saints, what sky has she fallen from?"
"For Dios! I never saw her before," replied the captain; "she must be the sister of this fellow: yes—hear them! they address each other as brother and sister! She is pretty!"
"Ay de mi!" sighed the Comandante. "What a godsend! I was growing dull—very dull of this monotonous frontier life. With this new excitement, perhaps, I may kill another month. Will she last me that long, think you?"
"Scarcely—if she come and go as easily as the rest. What! already tired of Inez?"
"Poh! poh! loved me too much; and that I can't bear. I would rather too little if anything."
"Perhaps this blonde may please you better in that respect. But, see! they are off!"
As Roblado spoke, Carlos and his sister had moved forward to the carreta which held their aged mother, and were soon in conversation with her.
The Comandante and his captain, as well as a large number of the spectators, followed, and crowded around to listen.
"She wants to persuade me against it, mother," Carlos was heard to say. He had already communicated his design. "Without your consent, I will not. But hear me, dear mother; I have half pledged myself, and I wish to make good my pledge. It is a point of honour, mother."
The last phrase was spoken loudly and emphatically in the ear of the old woman, who appeared to be a little deaf.
"Who wants to dissuade you?" she asked, raising her head, and glancing upon the circle of faces. "Who?"
"Let Rosita to her loom, and weave rebosos—that's what she's fit for. You, my son, can do great things—deeds, ay, deeds; else have you not in your veins the blood of your father. He did deeds—he—ha! ha! ha!"
The strange laugh caused the spectators to start, accompanied, as it was, with the wild look of her who uttered it.
"Go!" cried she, tossing back her long flax-coloured locks, and waving her arms in the air—"go, Carlos the cibolero, and show the tawny cowards—slaves that they are—what a free American can do. To the cliff! to the cliff!"
As she uttered the awful command, she sank back into the carreta, and relapsed into her former silence.
Carlos interrogated her no further. The expressions she had let slip had rendered him somewhat eager to close the conversation; for he noticed that they were not lost on several of the bystanders. The officers, as well as the priests and alcalde, exchanged significant glances while she was uttering them.
Placing his sister once more in the carreta, and giving her a parting embrace, Carlos leaped to the back of his steed, and rode forth upon the plain. When at some distance he reined in, and bent his eyes for a moment upon the tiers of benches where sat the senoras and senoritas of the town. A commotion could be observed among them. They had heard of the intended feat, and many would have dissuaded the cibolero from the perilous attempt.
There was one whose heart was full to bursting—full as that of Carlos' own sister; and yet she dared not show it to those around. She was constrained to sit in silent agony, and suffer.
Carlos knew this. He drew a white handkerchief from his bosom, and waved it in the air, as though bidding some one an adieu. Whether he was answered could not be told; but the next moment he wheeled his horse, and galloped off towards the cliffs.
There were conjectures among the senoras and senoritas, among the poblanas too, as to who was the recipient of that parting salute. Many guesses were made, many names mentioned, and scandal ran the rounds. One only of all knew in her heart for whom the compliment was meant—in her heart overflowing with love and fear.
All who had horses followed the cibolero, who now directed himself towards a path that led from the valley to the table above. This path wound up the cliffs by zigzag turnings, and was the only one by which the upper plain could be reached at that point. A corresponding road traversed the opposite bluff, so that the valley might be here crossed; and this was the only practicable crossing for several miles up and down.
Though but a thousand feet separated the valley and table-land, the path leading from one to the other was nearly a mile in length; and as it was several miles from the scene of the festival to the bottom of the cliff, only those accompanied Carlos who were mounted, with a few others determined to witness every manoeuvre of this fearful attempt. Of course, the officers were of the party who went up. The rest of the people remained in the valley, but moved forward in the direction of the cliffs, so that they would be able to observe the more interesting and thrilling part of the spectacle.
For more than an hour those on the plain were kept waiting; but they did not allow the time to pass unimproved. A monte table had been spread out over which both gold and silver changed hands rapidly, the two padres of the mission being among the highest bettors; and the senoras, among themselves, had a quiet little game of their favourite chuza. A "main" between a pair of sturdy chanticleers, one belonging to the alcalde and the other to the cura (!), furnished the interlude for another half-hour. In this contest the representative of the Church was triumphant. His grey cock ("pardo") killed the alcalde's red one at a single blow, by striking one of his long steel galves through the latter's head. This was regarded as a very interesting and pleasant spectacle by all on the ground—ladies included, and alcalde excepted.
By the time the cock-fight was finished, the attention of the crowd became directed to the movements of the party who had gone up to the upper plain. These were now seen along the edge of the cliff, and by their manoeuvres it was evident they were engaged in arranging the preliminaries of the perilous adventure. Let us join them.
The cibolero, on gaining the ground, pointed out the spot where he had proposed to execute his daring design. From the plain above the cliffs were not visible, and even the great abyss of the valley itself could not be seen a hundred paces back from the edge of the bluff. There was no escarpment or slope of any kind. The turf ran in to the very edge of the precipice, and on the same level with the rest of the plain. It was smooth and firm—covered with a short sward of gramma grass. There was neither break nor pebble to endanger the hoof. No accident could arise from that cause.
The spot chosen, as already stated, was a sort of buttress-like promontory that stood out from the line of bluffs. This formation was more conspicuous from below. Viewing it from above, it resembled a tongue-like continuation of the plain.
Carlos first rode out to its extremity, and carefully examined the turf. It was just of the proper firmness to preclude the possibility of a horse's hoof either sliding or sinking into it. He was accompanied by Vizcarra, Roblado, and others. Many approached the spot, but kept at a safe distance from the edge of the horrid steep. Though denizens of this land of grand geological features, there were many present who dreaded to stand upon the brow of that fearful ledge and look below.
The cibolero sat upon his horse, on its very edge, as calm as if he had been on the banks of the zequia, and directed the marking of the line. His horse showed no symptoms of nervousness. It was evident he was well-trained to such situations. Now and then he stretched out his neck, gazed down into the valley, and, recognising some of his kind below, uttered a shrill neigh. Carlos purposely kept him on the cliff, in order to accustom him to it before making the terrible trial.
The line was soon traced, less than two lengths of the horse from the last grass on the turf. Vizcarra and Roblado would have insisted upon short measure; but their proposal to curtail it was received with murmurs of disapprobation and mutterings of "Shame!"
What did these men want? Though not evident to the crowd, they certainly desired the death of the cibolero. Both had their reasons. Both hated the man. The cause or causes of their hatred were of late growth,—with Roblado still later than his Comandante. He had observed something within the hour that had rendered him furious. He had observed the waving of that white kerchief; and as he stood by the stand he had seen to whom the "adios" was addressed. It had filled him with astonishment and indignation; and his language to Carlos had assumed a bullying and brutal tone.
Horrible as such a supposition may seem, both he and Vizcarra would have rejoiced to see the cibolero tumble over the bluff. Horrible indeed it seems; but such were the men, and the place, and the times, that there is nothing improbable in it. On the contrary, cases of equal barbarity—wishes and acts still more inhuman—are by no means rare under the skies of "Nuevo Mexico."
The young ranchero, who had accompanied the party to the upper plain, insisted upon fair play. Though but a ranchero, he was classed among the "ricos," and, being a fellow of spirit, urged Carlos' rights, even in the face of the moustached and scowling militarios.
"Here, Carlos!" cried he, while the arrangements were progressing; "I see you are bent on this madness; and since I cannot turn you from it, I shall not embarrass you. But you sha'n't risk yourself for such a trifle. My purse! bet what sum you will."
As he said this, he held out a purse to the cibolero, which, from its bulk, evidently contained a large, amount.
Carlos regarded the purse for a moment without making answer. He was evidently gratified by the noble offer. His countenance showed that he was deeply touched by the kindness of the youth. "No," said he, at length; "no, Don Juan. I thank you with all my heart, but I cannot take your purse—one onza, nothing more. I should like to stake one against the Comandante."
"As many as you please," urged the ranchero.
"Thank you, Don Juan! only one—that with my own will be two.—Two onzas!—that, in faith, is the largest bet I have ever made. Vaya! a poor cibolero staking a double onza!"
"Well, then," replied Don Juan, "if you don't, I shall. Colonel Vizcarra!" said he aloud, addressing himself to the Comandante, "I suppose you would like to win back your wager. Carlos will now take your bet for the onza, and I challenge you to place ten."
"Agreed!" said the Comandante, stiffly.
"Dare you double it?" inquired the ranchero.
"Dare I, sir?" echoed the Colonel, indignant at being thus challenged in the presence of the spectators. "Quadruple it, if you wish, sir."
"Quadruple then!" retorted the other. "Forty onzas that Carlos performs the feat!"
"Enough! deposit your stakes!"
The golden coins were counted out, and held by one of the bystanders, and judges were appointed.
The arrangements having been completed, the spectators drew back upon the plain, and left the cibolero in full possession of the promontory— alone with his horse.
All stood watching him with interested eyes. Every movement was noted.
He first alighted from the saddle, stripped off his manga, had it carried back and placed out of the way. He next looked to his spurs, to see that the straps were properly buckled. After this he re-tied his sash, and placed the sombrero firmly on his head. He buttoned his velveteen calzoneros down nearly to his ankles, so that their leathern bottoms might not flap open and discommode him. His hunting-knife along with his "whip" were sent back to the charge of Don Juan.
His attention was next turned to his horse, that stood all this while curving his neck proudly as though he divined that he was to be called upon for some signal service. The bridle was first scrutinised. The great bit—a Mameluke—was carefully examined, lest there might be some flaw or crack in the steel. The head-strap was buckled to its proper tightness, and then the reins were minutely scanned. These were of the hair of wild horses' tails closely and neatly plaited. Leather might snap, there was no fear of breaking such cords as these.
The saddle now had its turn. Passing from side to side, Carlos tried both stirrup-leathers, and examined the great wooden blocks which formed the stirrups. The girth was the last as well as most important object of his solicitude. He loosed the buckles on both sides, and then tightened them, using his knees to effect his purpose. When drawn to his liking, the tip of the finger could not have been passed under the strong leathern band.
No wonder he observed all this caution. The snapping of a strap, or the slipping of a buckle, might have hurled him into eternity.
Having satisfied himself that all was right, he gathered up the reins, and leaped lightly into the saddle.
He first directed his horse at a walk along the cliff, and within a few feet of its edge. This was to strengthen the nerves both of himself and the animal. Presently the walk became a trot, and then a gentle canter. Even this was an exhibition fearful to behold. To those regarding it from below it was a beautiful but terrible spectacle.
After a while he headed back towards the plain, and then stretching into a fair gallop—the gait in which he intended to approach the cliff—he suddenly reined up again, so as to throw his horse nearly on his flanks. Again he resumed the same gallop and again reined up; and this manoeuvre he repeated at least a dozen times, now with his horse's head turned towards the cliffs, and now in the direction of the plain. Of course this gallop was far from being the full speed of the animal. That was not bargained for. To draw a horse up at race-course speed within two lengths of himself would be an utter impossibility, even by sacrificing the life of the animal. A shot passing through his heart would not check a racer in so short a space. A fair gallop was all that could be expected under the circumstances, and the judges expressed themselves satisfied with that which was exhibited before them. Carlos had put the question.
At length he was seen to turn his horse towards the cliff, and take his firmest seat in the saddle. The determined glance of his eyes showed that the moment had come for the final trial.
A slight touch of the spur set the noble brute in motion, and in another second he was in full gallop, and heading directly for the cliff!
The gaze of all was fixed with intense earnestness upon that reckless horseman. Every heart heaved with emotion; and, beyond their quick breathing, not an utterance escaped from the spectators. The only sounds heard were the hoof-strokes of the horse as they rang back from the hard turf of the plain.
The suspense was of short duration. Twenty strides brought horse and horseman close to the verge, within half-a-dozen lengths. The rein still hung loose—Carlos dared not tighten it—a touch he knew would bring his horse to a halt, and that before he had crossed the line would only be a failure.
Another leap,—another,—yet another! Ho! he is inside—Great God! He will be over!
Such exclamations rose from the spectators as they saw the horseman cross the line, still in a gallop; out the next moment a loud cheer broke from both crowds, and the "vivas" of those in the valley were answered by similar shouts from those who witnessed the feat from above.
Just as the horse appeared about to spring over the horrid brink, the reins were observed suddenly to tighten, the fore-hoofs became fixed and spread, and the hips of the noble animal rested upon the plain. He was poised at scarce three feet distance from the edge of the cliff! While in this attitude the horseman raised his right hand, lifted his sombrero, and after waving it round returned it to his head!
A splendid picture from below. The dark forms of both horse and rider were perceived as they drew up on the cliff, and the imposing and graceful attitude was fully developed against the blue background of the sky. The arms, the limbs, the oval outlines of the steed, even the very trappings, could be seen distinctly; and for the short period in which they were poised and motionless, the spectator might have fancied an equestrian statue of bronze, its pedestal the pinnacle of the cliff!
This period was but of a moment's duration, but, during its continuance, the loud "vivas" pealed upon the air. Those looking from below saw the horseman suddenly wheel, and disappear beyond the brow-line of the bluff.
The daring feat was ended and over; and hearts, but a moment ago throbbing wildly within tender bosoms, now returned to their soft and regular beating.
When the cibolero returned to the plain, he was received with a fresh burst of vivas, and kerchiefs were waved to greet him. One only caught his eye,—but that was enough. He saw not the rest, nor cared to see them. That little perfumed piece of cambric, with its lace border, was to him an ensign of hope—a banner that would have beckoned him on to achieve deeds of still higher daring. He saw it held aloft by a small jewelled hand, and waved in triumph for him. He was happy.
He passed the stand, rode up to the carreta, and, dismounting, kissed his mother and sister. He was followed by Don Juan, his backer;—and there were those who noticed that the eyes of the blonde were not always upon her brother: there was another on the ground who shared their kind glances, and that other was the young ranchero. No one, not even the dullest, could fail to notice that these kind glances were more than repaid. It was an affair of mutual and understood love, beyond a doubt.
Though Don Juan was a rich young farmer, and by courtesy a "Don," yet in rank he was but a degree above the cibolero—the degree which wealth confers. He was not one of the high aristocracy of the place,—about that he cared little; but he had the character of being a brave, spirited young fellow; and in time, if he desired it, might mingle with the "sangre azul." It was not likely he ever should—at least through the influence of marriage. Any one who was witness to the ardent glances exchanged between his eyes and those of the cibolero's sister, would prophesy with ease that Don Juan was not going to marry among the aristocracy.
It was a happy little group around the carreta, and there was feasting, too,—dulces, and orgeat, and wine from El Taso of the best vintage. Don Juan was not afraid to spend money, and he had no reason on that occasion, with fifty onzas of clear gain in his pocket—a fact that by no means sat easily on the mind of the Comandante.
The latter was observed, with a clouded countenance, strolling around, occasionally approaching the carreta, and glancing somewhat rudely towards the group. His glances were, in fact, directed on Rosita, and the consciousness of his almost despotic power rendered him careless of concealing his designs. His admiration was expressed in such a manner that many could perceive it. The poor girl's eyes fell timidly when they encountered his, and Don Juan, having noticed it, was not without feelings of anger as well as uneasiness. He knew the character of the Comandante, as well as the dangerous power with which he was armed. O Liberty! what a glorious thing art thou! How many hopes are blighted, how many loves crossed, and hearts crushed, in a land where thou art not! where the myrmidons of tyranny have power to thwart the purpose of a life, or arrest the natural flow of its affections!
Several games were yet carried on upon the plain, but they were without general interest. The splendid feat of the cibolero had eclipsed all lesser exhibitions for the time; besides, a number of the head men were out of humour. Vizcarra was sad, and Roblado savage—jealous of Catalina. The alcalde and his assistant were in a vexed state, as both had bet heavy sums on the red cock. Both the padres had lost at monte, and they were no longer in a Christian spirit. The cura alone was in good spirits, and ready to back the "pardo" for another main.
The concluding game was at length heralded. It was to be the "Correr el gallo" (running the cock). As this is rather an exciting sport, the "monte" tables and other minor amusements were once more put aside; and all prepared to watch "el gallo."
"Running the cock" is a New Mexican game in all its characteristics. It is easily described. Thus: A cock is suspended by the limbs to a horizontal branch, at just such a height that a mounted man may lay hold of his head and neck hanging downward. The bird is fastened in such a manner that a smart pluck will detach him from the tree; while, to render this the more difficult, both head and neck are well covered with soap. The horseman must be in full gallop while passing under the branch; and he who succeeds in plucking down the cock is pursued by all the others, who endeavour to rob him of the prize. He has a fixed point to run round, and his goal is the tree from which he started. Sometimes he is over, taken before reaching this, the cock snatched from him,—or, as not infrequently happens, torn to pieces in the contest. Should he succeed in getting back—still retaining the bird entire—he is then declared victor. The scene ends by his laying his prize at the feet of his mistress; and she—usually some pretty poblana—appears that same evening at the fandango with the feathered trophy under her arm—thus signifying her appreciation of the compliment paid her, as well as giving to the fandangueros ocular proof of the fact that some skilful horseman is her admirer. It is a cruel sport, for it must be remembered that the poor cock who undergoes all this plucking and mangling is a living bird! It is doubtful whether a thought of the cruelty ever entered the mind of a New Mexican. If so, it must have been a New Mexican woman; for the humanity of these is in an inverse ratio to that of their lords. For the women it may be urged that the sport is a custom of the country; and what country is without its cruel sports? Is it rational or consistent to weep over the sufferings of Chanticleer, while we ride gaily upon the heels of poor broken Reynard?
There are two modes of the "Correr el gallo." The first has been described. The second only differs from it in the fact that the cock, instead of being tied to a tree, is buried up to his shoulders in the earth. The horsemen, as before, pass in routine—each bending from his saddle, and striving to pluck the bird out of the ground. For the rest the conditions are the same as before.
The first cock was hung to a branch; and the competitors having taken their places in a line, the game commenced.
Several made the attempt, and actually seized the bird's head, but the soap foiled them.
The dragoon sergeant was once more a competitor; but whether his colonel made any further bet upon him is not known. The Comandante had gambled enough for that day; and but for a little peculation which he enjoyed upon the mining "derechos," and other little customs dues, he would have felt his losses still more severely. Out of the derechos, however, he knew he could square himself at the expense of the vice-regal government.
The sergeant, who, as already stated, had the advantage of a tall figure and a tall horse, was able to get a full grasp at the neck of the bird; and being already provided, as was afterwards ascertained, with a fistful of sand, he took the prize with him, and galloped off.
But there were swifter horses than his on the ground; and before he could double the turning-post he was overtaken by an active vaquero, and lost a wing of his bird. Another wing was plucked from him by a second pursuer; and he returned to the tree with nothing but a fragment left! Of course he received neither vivas nor cheers.
Carlos the cibolero took no part in this contest. He knew that he had won glory enough for that day—that he had made both friends and enemies, and he did not desire to swell the list of either. Some of the bystanders, however, began to banter him, wishing, no doubt, to see him again exhibit his fine horsemanship. He withstood this for some time, until two more cocks were plucked from the tree—the vaquero already alluded to carrying one of them clear, and laying it at the feet of his smiling sweetheart.
A new thought seemed now to have entered the mind of Carlos, and he was seen riding into the lists, evidently about to take part in the next race.
"It will be some time before I can be present at another fiesta," remarked he to Don Juan. "Day after to-morrow I start for the plains. So I'll take all the sport I can out of this one."
An innovation was now introduced in the game. The bird was buried in the ground; and its long neck and sharp-pointed bill showed that it was no cock, but a snow-white "gruya," one of the beautiful species of herons common in these regions. Its fine tapering neck was not soiled with soap, but left in its natural state. In this case the chances of failure lay in the fact that, loosely buried as it was, the gruya would not allow its head to be approached by a hand, but jerked it from side to side, thus rendering it no easy matter to get hold of it.
The signal being given, away went the string of horsemen! Carlos was among the last, but on coming up he saw the white bending neck still there. His hand was too quick for the bird, and the next moment it was dragged from the yielding sand, and flapping its snowy wings over the withers of his horse.
It required not only speed on the part of Carlos, but great adroitness, to pass the crowd of horsemen, who now rushed from all points to intercept him. Here he dashed forward—there reined up—anon wheeled round a rider, and passed behind him; and, after a dozen such manoeuvres, the black horse was seen shooting off towards the turning-post alone. This passed, he galloped back to the goal, and holding up his prize, unstained and intact, received the applause of the spectators.
There was a good deal of guessing and wondering as to who would be the recipient of the trophy. Some girl of his own rank, conjectured the crowd; some poblana or ranchero's daughter. The cibolero did not seem in haste to gratify their curiosity; but, after a few minutes, he astonished them all, by flinging the gruya into the air, and suffering it to fly off. The bird rose majestically upward, and then, drawing in its long neck, was seen winging its way toward the lower end of the valley.
It was observed that before parting with the bird Carlos had plucked from its shoulders the long gossamer-like feathers that distinguish the heron species. These he was tying into a plume.
Having accomplished this, he put spurs to his horse, and, galloping up to the front of the stand, he bent gracefully forward, and deposited the trophy at the feet of Catalina de Cruces!
A murmur of surprise ran through the crowd, and sharp censure followed fast. What! a cibolero,—a poor devil, of whom nothing was known, aspire to the smiles of a rico's daughter? It was not a compliment. It was an insult! Presumption intolerable!
And these critiques were not confined to the senoras and senoritas. The poblanas and rancheros were as bitter as they. These felt themselves slighted—passed by—regularly jilted—by one of their own class. Catalina de Cruces, indeed!
Catalina—her situation was pleasant, yet painful—painful, because embarrassing. She smiled, then blushed, uttered a soft "Gracias, cavallero!" yet hesitated a moment whether to take up the trophy. A scowling father had started to his feet on one side, on the other a scowling lover. The last was Roblado.
"Insolent!" cried he, seizing the plume, and flinging it to the earth; "insolent!"
Carlos bent down from his saddle, once more laid hold of the plume, and stuck it under the gold band of his hat. Then, turning a defiant glance upon the officer, he said, "Don't lose your temper, Captain Roblado. A jealous lover makes but an indifferent husband." And transferring his look to Catalina, he added with a smile, and in a changed tone, "Gracias, senorita!"
As he said this he doffed his sombrero, and, waving it gracefully, turned his horse and rode off.
Roblado half drew his sword, and his loud "Carrajo!" along with the muttered imprecations of Don Ambrosio, reached the ears of the cibolero. But the captain was far from brave, with all his swagger; and seeing the long machete of the horseman strapped over his hips, he vented his spite in threats only, and suffered Carlos to depart.
The incident had created no small excitement, and a good deal of angry feeling. The cibolero had roused the indignation of the aristocracy, and the jealousy and envy of the democracy; so that, after all his brilliant performances, he was likely to leave the field anything but a favourite. The wild words of his strange old mother had been widely reported, and national hatred was aroused, so that his skill called forth envy instead of admiration. An angel indeed, should he have been to have won friendship there—he an Americano—a "heretico"—for in this far corner of the earth fanaticism was as fierce as in the Seven-hilled City itself during the gloomiest days of the Inquisition!
Mayhap it was as well for Carlos that the sports were now ended, and the fiesta about to close.
In a few minutes the company began to move off. The mules, oxen, and asses, were yoked to the carretas—the rancheros and rancheras climbed inside the deep boxes; and then, what with the cracking of quirts, the shouts of drivers, and the hideous screaming of the ungreased axles, a concert of sounds arose that would have astonished any human being, except a born native of the soil.
In half-an-hour the ground was clear, and the lean coyote might be seen skulking over the spot in search of a morsel for his hungry maw.
Though the field-sports were over, the fiesta of San Juan was not yet ended. There were still many sights to be seen before the crowd scattered to their homes. There was to be another turn at the church— another sale of "indultos," beads, and relics,—another sprinkling of sacred water, in order that the coffers of the padres might be replenished toward a fresh bout at the monte table. Then there was an evening procession of the Saint of the day (John), whose image, set upon a platform, was carried about the town, until the five or six fellows who bore the load were seen to perspire freely under its weight.
The Saint himself was a curiosity. A large wax and plaster doll, dressed in faded silk that had once been yellow, and stuck all over with feathers and tinsel. A Catholic image Indianised, for the Mexican divinities were as much Indian as Roman. He appeared bored of the business, as, the joinings between head and neck having partially given way, the former drooped over and nodded to the crowd as the image was moved along. This nodding, however, which would have been laughed at as supremely ridiculous in any other than a priest-ridden country, was here regarded in a different light. The padres did not fail to put their interpretation upon it, pointing it out to their devout followers as a mark of condescension on the part of the Saint, who, in thus bowing to the crowd, was expressing his approbation of their proceedings. It was, in fact, a regular miracle. So alleged both padres and cura, and who was there to contradict them? It would have been a dangerous matter to have said nay. In San Ildefonso no man dared to disbelieve the word of the Church. The miracle worked well. The religious enthusiasm boiled up; and when Saint John was returned to his niche, and the little "cofre" placed in front of him, many a "peseta", "real," and "cuartillo," were dropped in, which would otherwise have been deposited that night in the monte bank. Nodding Saints and "winking Madonnas" are by no means a novel contrivance of the Holy Church. The padres of its Mexican branch have had their wonderful saints too; and even in the almost terra ignota of New Mexico can be found a few of them that have performed as smart miracles as any recorded in the whole jugglery of the race.
A pyrotechnic display followed—and no mean exhibition of the sort neither—for in this "art" the New Mexicans are adepts. A fondness for "fireworks" is a singular but sure characteristic of a declining nation.
Give me the statistics of pyrotechnic powder burnt by a people, and I shall tell you the standard measure of their souls and bodies. If the figure be a maximum, then the physical and moral measure will be the minimum, for the ratio is inverse.
I stood in the Place de Concorde, and saw a whole nation—its rich and its poor—gazing on one of these pitiful spectacles, got up for the purpose of duping them into contentment. It was the price paid them for parting with their liberty, as a child parts with a valuable gem for a few sugar-plums. They were gazing with a delight that seemed enthusiasm! I looked upon scrubby, stunted forms, a foot shorter than were their ancestors. I looked upon eyes that gleamed with demoralised thought.
These were the representatives of a once great people, and who still deem themselves the first of mankind. I felt sure that this was an illusion. The pyro-spectacle and its reception convinced me that I saw before me a people who had passed the culminating point of their greatness, and were now gliding rapidly down the declining slope that leads to annihilation and nothingness.
After the fireworks came the "fandango." There we meet the same faces, without much alteration in the costumes. The senoras and senoritas alone have doffed their morning dresses, and here and there a pretty poblana has changed her coarse woollen "nagua" for a gay flounced muslin.
The ball was held in the large saloon of the "Casa de Cabildo," which occupied one side of the "Plaza." On this festival day there was no exclusiveness. In the frontier towns of Mexico not much at any time, for, notwithstanding the distinctions of class, and the domineering tyranny of the government authorities, in matters of mere amusement there is a sort of democratic equality, a mingling of high and low, that in other countries is rare. English, and even American travellers, have observed this with astonishment.
All were admitted to the "Salon de baile" who chose to pay for it; and alongside the rico in fine broad-cloth you might see the ranchero in his leathern jacket and velveteen calzoneros; while the daughter of the rich comerciante danced in the same set with the "aldeana," whose time was taken up in kneading tortillas or weaving rebosos!
The Comandante with Roblado and the lieutenant figured at the fandango in full uniform. The alcalde was there with his gold-headed cane and tassel; the cura in his shovel hat; the padres in their swinging robes; and all the "familias principales" of the place.
There was the rich comerciante, Don Jose Rincon, with his fat wife and four fat sleepy-looking daughters—there, too, the wife and family of the alcalde—there the Echevarrias, with their brother the "beau" in full Paris costume, with dress coat and crush hat—the only one to be seen in the saloon. There, too, the rich hacendado, Senor Gomez del Monte, with his lean wife and several rather lean daughters—differing in that respect from the hundreds of kine that roam over the pastures of his "ganada." And there, too, observed of all, was the lovely Catalina de Graces, the daughter of the wealthy miner Don Ambrosio, who himself is by her side, keeping a watchful eye upon her.
Besides these grand people there were employes of the mines of less note, clerks of the comerciantes, young farmers of the valley, gambucinos, vaqueros, ciboleros, and even "leperos" of the town, shrouded in their cheap serapes. A motley throng was the fandango.
The music consisted of a bandolon, a harp, and fiddle, and the dances were the waltz, the bolero, and the coona. It is but just to say that finer dancing could not have been witnessed in the saloons of Paris. Even the peon, in his leathern spencer and calzoneros, moved as gracefully as a professor of the art; and the poblanas, in their short skirts and gay coloured slippers, swept over the floor like so many coryphees of the ballet.
Roblado, as usual, was pressing his attentions on Catalina, and danced almost every set with her; but her eye wandered from his gold epaulettes and seemed to search the room for some other object. She was evidently indifferent to the remarks of her partner, and tired of his company.
Vizcarra's eyes were also in search of some one that did not appear to be present, for the Comandante strolled to and fro, peering into every group and corner with a dissatisfied look.
If it was the fair blonde he was looking for, he would be unsuccessful. She was not there. Rosita and her mother had returned home after the exhibition of the fireworks. Their house was far down the valley, and they had gone to it, accompanied by Carlos and the young ranchero. These, however, had returned to be present at the fandango. It was late before they made their appearance, the road having detained them. This was why the eye of Catalina wandered. Unlike Vizcarra, however, she was not to meet with disappointment.
While the dance was going on two young men entered the saloon, and soon mingled with the company. One of them was the young ranchero, the other was Carlos. The latter might easily have been distinguished by the heron-plume that waved over his black sombrero.
The eye of Catalina was no longer restless. It was now directed upon an object, though its glances were not fixed, but quick and stolen—stolen, because of the observation of an angry father and a jealous lover.
Carlos assumed indifference, though his heart was burning. What would he not have given to have danced with her? But he knew the situation too well. He knew that the offer of such a thing would lead to a scene. He dared not propose it.
At times he fancied that she had ceased to regard him—that she even listened with interest to Roblado—to the beau Echevarria—to others. This was but Catalina's fine acting. It was meant for other eyes than those of Carlos, but he knew not that, and became piqued.
He grew restless, and danced. He chose for his partner a very pretty "aldeana," Inez Gonzales by name, who was delighted to dance with him. Catalina saw this, and became jealous in turn.
This play continued for a length of time, but Carlos at length grew tired of his partner, and sat down upon the banqueta alone. His eyes followed the movements of Catalina. He saw that hers were bent upon him with glances of love,—love that had been avowed in words,—yes, had already been plighted upon oath. Why should they suspect each other?
The confidence of both hearts was restored; and now the excitement of the dance, and the less zealous guardianship of Don Ambrosio, half drunk with wine, gave confidence to their eyes, and they gazed more boldly and frequently at one another.
The ring of dancers whirling round the room passed close to where Carlos sat. It was a waltz. Catalina was waltzing with the beau Echevarria. At each circle her face was towards Carlos, and then their eyes met. In these transient but oft-recurring glances the eyes of a Spanish maid will speak volumes, and Carlos was reading in those of Catalina a pleasant tale. As she came round the room for the third time, he noticed something held between her fingers, which rested over the shoulder of her partner. It was a sprig with leaves of a dark greenish hue. When passing close to him, the sprig, dexterously detached, fell upon his knees, while he could just bear, uttered in a soft whisper, the word—"Tuya!"
Carlos caught the sprig, which was a branch of "tuya," or cedar. He well understood its significance; and after pressing it to his lips, he passed it through the button-hole of his embroidered "jaqueta." As Catalina came round again, the glances exchanged between them were those of mutual and confiding love.
The night wore on—Don Ambrosio at length became sleepy, and carried off his daughter, escorted by Roblado.
Soon after most of the ricos and fashionables left the saloon, but some tireless votaries of Terpsichore still lingered until the rosy Aurora peeped through the "rejas" of the Casa de Cabildo.
The "Llano Estacado," or "Staked Plain" of the hunters, is one of the most singular formations of the Great American Prairie. It is a table-land, or "steppe," rising above the regions around it to a height of nearly one thousand feet, and of an oblong or leg-of-mutton form, trending from north to south.
It is four hundred miles in length, and at its widest part between two and three hundred. Its superficial area is about equal to the island of Ireland. Its surface aspect differs considerably from the rest of prairie-land, nor is it of uniform appearance in every part. Its northern division consists of an arid steppe, sometimes treeless, for an extent of fifty miles, and sometimes having a stunted covering of mezquite (acacia), of which there are two distinct species. This steppe is in several places rent by chasms a thousand feet in depth, and walled in on both sides by rugged impassable precipices. Vast masses of shapeless rocks lie along the beds of these great clefts, and pools of water appear at long intervals, while stunted cedars grow among the rocks, or cling from the seams of the cliffs.