WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE
RITTER BROWN AUTHOR OF "MAN'S BIRTHRIGHT"
ILLUSTRATED BY W. M. BERGER
New York Desmond FitzGerald, Inc.
Copyright, 1912 By Desmond FitzGerald, Inc.
TO MY SON
"She glided and whirled in the moonlight, graceful as a wind-blown rose" Frontispiece FACING PAGE "The picture which she presented was one he carried with him for many a day" 130
"Instinctively he raised the casket with both hands" 272
"'Madre! Madre mia!' she cried and flung herself into Chiquita's arms" 292
"They were startled by a low moan and saw Blanch sink slowly to the bench" 330
There is a tradition extant among the Indians of the Southwest, extending from Arizona to the Isthmus of Panama, to the effect that, Montezuma will one day return on the back of an eagle, wearing a golden crown, and rule the land once more; typifying the return of the Messiah and the rebirth and renewal of the race.
WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE
The beauty of midsummer lay upon the land—the mountains and plains of Chihuahua. It was August, the month of melons and ripening corn. High aloft in the pale blue vault of heaven, a solitary eagle soared in ever widening circles in its flight toward the sun. Far out upon the plains the lone wolf skulked among the sage and cactus in search of the rabbit and antelope, or lay panting in the scanty shade of the yucca.
By most persons this little known land of the great Southwest is regarded as the one which God forgot. But to those who are familiar with its vast expanse of plain and horizon, its rugged sierras, its wild desolate mesas and solitary peaks of half-decayed mountains—its tawny stretches of desert marked with the occasional skeletons of animal and human remains—its golden wealth of sunshine and opalescent skies, and have felt the brooding death-like silence which seems to hold as in a spell all things living as well as dead, this land becomes one of mystery and enchantment—a mute witness of some unknown or forgotten past when the children of men were young, whose secrets it still withholds, and with whose dust is mingled not only that of unnumbered and unknown generations of men, but that of Montezuma and the hardy daring Conquistadores of old Spain.
But whatever may be the general consensus of opinion concerning this land, such at least was the light in which it was viewed by Captain Forest, as he and his Indian attendant, Jose, drew rein on the rim of a broken, wind-swept mesa in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert, a full day's ride from Santa Fe whither they were bound, to witness the Fiesta, the Feast of the Corn, which was celebrated annually at this season.
The point where they halted commanded a sweeping view of the surrounding country. Just opposite, some five leagues distant, on the farther side of the valley which lay below them, towered the sharp ragged crest of the Mexican Sierras; their sides and foothills clothed in a thin growth of chaparral, pine and juniper and other low-growing bushes. Deep, rugged arroyos, the work of the rain and mountain torrents, cut and scarred the foothills which descended in precipitous slopes to the valley and plains below. Solitary giant cactus dotted the landscape, adding to the general desolation of the scene, relieved only by the glitter of the silvery sage, white poppy and yucca, and yellow and scarlet cactus bloom which glistened in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun and the intense radiation of heat in which was mirrored the distant mirage; transforming the desert into wonderful lakes of limpid waters that faded in turn on the ever receding horizon.
Below them numerous Indian encampments of some half-wild hill tribe straggled along the banks of the almost dry stream which wound through the valley until lost in the thirsty sands of the desert beyond.
"'Tis the very spot, Capitan—the place of the skull!" ejaculated Jose, the first to break the silence. "See—yonder it lies just as we left it!" and he pointed toward the foot of the mesa where a spring trickled from the rock, a short distance from which lay a human skull bleached white by long exposure to the sun.
Instinctively the Captain's thoughts reverted to the incidents of the previous year when he lay in the desert sick unto death with fever and his horse, Starlight, had stood over his prostrate body and fought the wolves and vultures for a whole day and night until Jose returned with help from the Indian pueblo, La Guna. Involuntarily his hand slipped caressingly to the animal's neck, a chestnut with four white feet and a white mane and tail that swept the ground and a forelock that hung to his nostrils, concealing the star on his forehead; a magnificent animal, lithe and graceful as a lady's silken scarf, untiring and enduring as a Damascus blade. A horse that comes but once during twenty generations of Spanish-Arabian stock, and then is rare, and which, through some trick of nature or reversion, blossoms forth in all the beauty of an original type, taking upon himself the color and markings of some shy, wild-eyed dam, the pride of the Bedouin tribe and is known as the "Pearl of the Desert." The type of horse that bore Alexander and Jenghis Khan and the Prophet's War Chieftains to victory. As a colt he had escaped the rodeo. No mark of the branding-irons scarred his shoulder or thin transparent flanks. Again the Captain's thoughts traveled backward and he beheld a band of wild horses driven past him in review by a troup of Mexican vaqueros, and the beautiful chestnut stallion emerge from the cloud of dust on their rim and tossing his great white mane in the breeze, neigh loudly and defiantly as he swept by lithe and supple of limb.
"Bring me that horse!" he had cried.
"That horse? Jose y Maria, Capitan! He cannot be broken. Besides, it will take ten men to tie him."
"Then let ten men tie him!" he had replied, flinging a handful of golden eagles among them.
Many attempts had been made to steal the Arab since he had come into the Captain's possession. It was a dangerous undertaking, for the horse had the naive habit of relegating man to his proper place, either by ignoring his presence, or by quietly kicking him into eternity with the same indifference that he would switch a fly with his tail. Jose might feed and groom and saddle him, but not mount him. To one only would he submit; to him to whom a common destiny had linked him—his master.
"Sangre de Dios, Capitan!" began Jose again, breaking in upon the latter's musings. "Is it not better that we rest yonder by the spring than sit here in this infernal sun, gazing at nothing? 'Tis hot as the breath of hell where the Padres tell us all heretics will go after death!" The grim expression of the Captain's face relaxed for a moment and he turned toward him with a laugh.
"Aye, who knows," he replied, "we too, may go there some day," and dismounting, he began to loosen his saddle girths.
"The gods forbid!" answered Jose, making the sign of the cross, as if to ward off the influence of some evil spell. "I do not understand you Americanos," he continued, also dismounting and untying a small pack at the back of his saddle. "You are strange—you are ever gay when you should be sober. You laugh at the gods and the saints and frown at the corridos, and yet toss alms to the most worthless beggar."
The foregoing conversation was carried on in Spanish. Although Jose had acquired a liberal smattering of English during his service with the Captain, he nevertheless detested it; obstinately adhering to Spanish which, though only his mother-tongue by adoption, was in his estimation at least a language for Caballeros.
The two men were superb specimens of their respective races. Their rugged appearance, height and breadth of shoulder would have attracted attention anywhere. The Captain wore a gray felt hat and a rough gray suit of tweed—his trousers tucked in his long riding boots. Jose was clad in the typical vaquero's costume—buff leggins and jacket of goat-skin, slashed and ornamented with silver threads and buttons, and a red worsted sash about his middle in which he carried a knife and pistol. From beneath the broad brim of his sombrero peeped the knot of the yellow silken kerchief which he wore bound about his head and under which lay coiled his long black hair.
Captain Forest was unusually tall and stalwart, deep chested and robust in appearance, with not a superfluous ounce of flesh on his body, hardened by the rigors of long months of camp-life. His head was large and shapely, well poised and carried high on a full neck that sprang from the great breadth of his shoulders. His face, smooth and sensitive, and large and regular in feature with high cheek-bones and slightly hollowed cheeks, was bronzed by long exposure to the sun and weather, adding to the ruggedness of his appearance. The high arching forehead, acquiline nose and firm set mouth and chin denoted alertness, action and decision, while from his eyes, large and dark and piercing, shone that strange light so characteristic of the dreamer and genius. And yet, in spite of this alertness of mind and body and general appearance of strength and power which his presence inspired, there lurked about him an air of repose indicative of confidence in self and the full knowledge of his powers. Sensitive to a degree, keen and alive at all times, the strength of his personality, suggestive of his mastery over men, impressed the most unobservant. Yet owing to his poise and self-control those about him did not realize wholly his power until such moments when justice was violated. Then the latent force within him asserted itself and he became as inexorable as a law of nature in his demands. An intense spirit of democracy oddly combined with fastidiousness made an unusual and attractive personality in which the mundane and the spiritual were strangely blended. Outwardly he was a man of the world, yet inwardly he had advanced so far into the domain of sheer spirituality he scarcely realized that others groped their way among the most obvious material modes of expression.
Having removed their saddles and turned their horses loose to find what scant cropping the desert afforded, the two sought the shelter of the narrow strip of shade beside the spring at the foot of the mesa. Here they would rest until the heat of the day had passed, resuming their journey that evening. Jose unwound his zerape from his shoulders and spreading it on the ground between them, deposited two tin cups and a package of sandwiches upon it which, with the addition of a flask of aguardiente which the Captain drew from his pocket, formed their meal.
Two years previous the Captain had rescued his companion from a street mob in Hermosillo, the result of a feud that had broken out between her citizens and the Yaqui Indians; Jose having been mistaken for one of the latter. With his back against a wall and the blood streaming from his wounds, he was making a desperate stand. Three citizens who had run upon his knife, lay squirming at his feet; but the odds were too great. In another moment all would have been over with him had it not been for the Captain who chanced upon him in the nick of time. Snatching a club from one of his assailants and accompanying each blow with a volley of Spanish oaths, he rushed through the mob, scattering it in all directions. Whether it was the oaths or the Captain's exhibition of his fighting qualities that impressed Jose most it is difficult to say. Be that as it may, from that hour he belonged to Captain Forest body and soul. He was the grand senor, the Hidalgo, in comparison to whom other men were as nothing.
The meal over, Jose with head and shoulders on one end of the zerape, stretched himself at full length upon the ground and, as was his wont, fell asleep almost immediately. Captain Forest swallowed a last draught of liquor. Then leisurely rolling a cigarette he lit it, and with back against the cliff and gaze fixed abstractedly on the mountains opposite, smoked in silence.
Jack Forest's life was rich and full to overflowing with the things of this world which are generally considered to make for happiness and culture. Into the measure of his life, the comparatively short span of thirty-five years, had been crowded a wealth of incident and experience that seldom falls to the lot of the most fortunate men in this commercialized era whose tendency is to pull nations like individuals down to a common level of mediocrity, and seems bent upon extinguishing even their few remaining national traits and characteristics.
Born in Washington and a graduate of Harvard, he had traveled to the four corners of the earth, and hunted big game from the arctic circle to the equator. During a winter's sojourn in Egypt he made the acquaintance of Lord X——, then Consul-General of Egypt, upon whose advice he entered the diplomatic service of his country. Five years were subsequently spent as first Secretary of the American legations in London and St. Petersburg. The enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the work and the natural executive ability which he displayed soon marked him as a coming man in diplomatic circles. But the speculations of his friends concerning his future career were destined to be rudely shattered by one of those inexplicable tricks of fate which, in the twinkling of an eye, so often change the lives of individuals.
The spirit of adventure which had lain dormant within him ever since his decision to adopt diplomacy as a profession was suddenly awakened by the outbreak of hostilities between Spain and the United States. Through the influence of his father, General Forest, a Civil War veteran, and that of his uncle, Colonel Van Ashton, retired, he received the appointment of Second Lieutenant of Volunteers and shipped with his regiment for Cuba. He was wounded at the battle of Santiago, though not seriously. At the close of the campaign in the West Indies his regiment was ordered to the Philippines, where, at the end of a year, he was promoted to a captaincy in the regular army. At this juncture in his career the sudden death of his father necessitated his return to America on leave of absence.
The estate to which he and his mother fell heirs was an unusually large one, the administration of which demanded his immediate and entire attention if they wished to keep their holdings intact. But as this was clearly incompatible to the life of a soldier, he was forced to resign from the army. He took this step without great reluctance, for brief though his career as a soldier had been, it was a brilliant and satisfactory one. It was not for the glory of the profession that he had entered the army, but purely in the spirit of the patriot; and he had fought his battles and returned with newly won laurels and a fund of interesting experiences. Besides, campaigning in the Philippines had convinced him that diplomacy, though perhaps not always so exciting, was preferable to a life whose daily routine was enlivened only by target practice, dress-parades and the occasional diversion of chasing naked men about in the bush.
As soon as the estate was settled it was his intention to reenter the diplomatic service for which he knew himself to be better fitted than before his two years experience in the army.
The bulk of the fortune consisted of mines in Mexico, whither he was called to superintend his interests. At the end of a year, however, he received word from his uncle informing him that the Ministry to Greece would be open to him if he chose to accept it. Jubilant over the prospect of reentering the world of Diplomacy so soon, he immediately telegraphed his acceptance, and the following day addressed a letter to the girl he had known from his youth, Blanch Lennox, whose character, personal charm and ambition marked her as the one to share the future with him. There was as little doubt in his mind that she would accept him, as there was in hers that he would make the proposal; and when a week later, he received a telegram confirming his conjecture, the answer came as a matter of course.
The business at the mines was settled, but Mexico and her people were a new experience. Its vast expanse of plains, virgin forests and wild sierras lured him on; and in the company of a friend whose acquaintance he had made at the mines, he passed the remaining time left at his disposal traveling in the interior of the country, gathering data and visiting the wild tribes who, though of the same blood, were in characteristics a distinct people from the slavish peon classes. A people that have never actually submitted to the rule of the White man, and have held tenaciously to the ancient beliefs and customs of their forefathers.
He was impressed by the fact that, although living entirely independent of the outside world, they were nevertheless self-supporting and in certain instances had developed marked degrees of civilization.
He saw how they tended their flocks and fields, made their own clothes and articles of use, and wrought gold and silver ornaments embellished with native stones, and used the bow and arrow in the chase. They knew nothing of modern civilization. Their daily lives were sufficient unto them, and they were therefore happy. God seemed infinite and dwelt in their midst, and spoke to them from the dust as well as from the stars. But why was this? Why was life for them, in the natural course of events, so easy and simple, and so difficult and complicated for the civilized man?
His thoughts continually traveled back to the Eskimo of the frozen North, and to Africa and her sun-parched deserts and star-strewn skies with the roaming Bedouin in the background who regarded the earth as a footstool to be used only as a means to an end and houses as habitations fit only for slaves.
The picture he saw was not the ideal one—the emancipated man of whom men of all times have dreamed and to whose advent some men are still looking forward. But the care-free life of the primitive man set him thinking—opened his eyes to certain truths which, until now, he had failed to observe. Longings for the unattainable began to stir within him and take hold of him in a manner entirely new. Hazy, fragmentary glimpses of hitherto undreamed possibilities began to shape themselves in his mind. The immensity and profundity of the universe and the mysterious growth of its hidden life held and enthralled him.
The last word, he felt, had not yet been spoken. There was something lacking in the so-called civilized man's economy—a lack which his philosophy failed to account for, but which was not observable among animals and primitive men. There, the economy of the infinite cosmic mechanism which binds and holds all manifestations of life in one harmonious whole was too apparent to even suggest the detachment of a single form of life from this whole, but with the civilized man it was different. He alone seemed to have detached himself from this harmonious whole—his life stood out as a thing separate and apart from it. There seemed to be no permanent place for him in the economy of nature.
But how had this estrangement taken place? Why was he, the intellectually developed man, incapable of living in harmony with the universal law of life when it was so easy for the primitive man to do so? It was evident that he had lost his way somewhere along the path of normal development. Everything pointed to this—its signs were apparent to all who wished to see. Nature voiced it on every hand, in the forests and plains and on the mountain tops, and during the silence of night as he lay on the ground gazing at the stars overhead.
The wind that sighed among the ruined temples of the ancient races and the mountains that looked down upon them seemed to speak to him in the ever recurring refrain: "Behold the works and glories of men—we are enduring! The same wind that sighs among them this day, sang to them when their walls and pillars stood erect. The same mountains that shadowed them in the past, will still stand guard over the valleys in the days to come when the works of the present and future generations of men have passed away forever!"
He knew that these questions had been asked during countless generations, and that men were still asking them to-day. He knew also that man's situation in the universe was taking on a new aspect, and yet it was strange that such thoughts should absorb him, a man of the world, of the fighting type, whose wide experience with men and things had hitherto convinced him that the world, though not perfect, was good—that present progress made for good, and the best western civilization had thus far attained was probably about all men of the future could look forward to so far as happiness was concerned. These views, however, were no longer tenable if our arts, philosophies and scientific attainments fail to civilize and refine us. Clearly, modern man's conception of ethical progress was as deficient in certain respects as that of the great historic civilizations. The secret of right living had not yet been discovered. History proved this, and unless the trend of modern materialistic tendencies was supplanted by something higher, the same fate that overtook the Ancients must inevitably overtake us.
But the date of their wedding had been set, and the time for their departure for Athens was drawing nearer. Santa Fe lay a day's ride from the railroad. Instead of performing the journey in a single ride, he decided to pass the night at the hacienda of a friend, Don Felix de Tovar, some twelve miles distant from the old Spanish town. Thither he would ride during the cool of the evening, completing the remainder of the journey the following day. Between Santa Fe and Don Felix's hacienda lay the Indian pueblo, La Jara, situated some distance off the main road. By following the trail that led past this village, Jose explained, they would reduce the distance to Don Felix's rancho by at least two or three miles.
The country through which they traveled was broken and rugged. Twilight had descended upon the land, and as the two, following the trail that skirted the foothills, rode to the crest of the mesa upon which the village was situated, they came suddenly upon a woman riding at full gallop. The soft, sandy formation of the soil was such that neither heard the approach of the other, and all three reined in their horses with a jerk; the woman throwing hers well back upon its haunches; a high-strung, black, wiry animal whose foam-flecked mouth and breast told that she had been riding hard.
How free and wild she looked! She was either a Spaniard or an Indian, and rode astride. A bunch of red berries adorned her heavy black hair which fell in masses about her shoulders, accentuating the curve of her throat and well-formed, clear-cut features just discernible in the waning light as she sat motionless and erect on her horse, gazing at him in silence and evidently as much surprised as he was by their sudden encounter. Then with a smile and a nod of the head by way of acknowledgment, she lifted her reins and spurred past him; disappearing in the gathering darkness on the trail below them. Her unexpected appearance and grace and type of beauty, so different from that of the woman who occupied his thoughts, thrilled him for the moment as he listened to the soft, muffled hoof-beats of her horse which grew fainter and fainter until all was silence, save for the sighing of the wind among the mesquit and manzanita bushes that grew about them. All trace of her was gone. She had vanished into the night as swiftly as she had come.
Then a strange thing happened. Something suddenly gripped his heart; that indefinable something after which he had been groping and which had been knocking so persistently at the portals of his inmost being, but which until now had eluded him. The sight of that strange woman had shown him that, to be beautiful is to be free and natural. That the world he knew and revered was purely an artificial world of man's invention, transitory and a thing apart from the universal life in the midst of which he had been placed and apart from which it was impossible for him to develop naturally. That nature is more perfect than all the artificialities of civilization and a more efficient environment for the normal development of man. That man's happiness and true relationship to the universe were attainable only through direct contact and communion with this life whose creations are the only great and lasting realities. Thus only was it possible for him to quicken and vitalize his powers to their fullest. That when creation finished its task, peace and harmony reigned in the midst of the terrestrial garden, rendering man's pursuit of happiness through diverse acts and infinite forms of diversion quite unnecessary.
He had discovered the wild man's secret—why the stars still sing to him as of yore—why the winds and the waters, the animals and the rocks and the trees still speak to him in harmonies long since forgotten by civilized man. A great and secret joy, such as he had never before experienced, filled his soul; uplifting, consuming and mastering him.... But what would Blanch Lennox say? She with whose inner life he felt in perfect accord? She who was his ideal, the inspiration of his eager youth and well-spring of his ambitions of later years? The woman who always met his problems with quick sympathy and comprehending interest? Could she understand him now, sympathize with his new views of life? He knew a battle royal would ensue between them, but felt confident of his power to convince her. He found, however, upon his return to Newport where she awaited him, that he had reckoned without his host. She attributed his enthusiasm and changed convictions to his ardent love of nature and the roving spirit that animated him, but could not be convinced that the world of society in which she moved and shone and for whose adulation she lived, was the lesser world. She refused to relinquish their present life so full of the things of this world, the only realities which she knew or recognized, for some vague uncertainty. Surely the wanderlust, the love of the primitive, had gotten into his blood!
At first she laughed scornfully, then hysterically.
"Was he mad to suggest such folly—imagine that she could even dream of participating in such a life? He might give up the ambition of a lifetime, fling aside a brilliant career to follow the path of his mad fancy if he chose, but she would not be a partner to his folly!"
Again he noted her set lips and the pallor that succeeded the flush on her cheeks after her first furious outburst. Again he saw her as she rose, pale and trembling, her eyes blazing.
"And you dare come to me with this after all the years I have waited for you? Go back to your deserts—your wild woman and her land of savages!" she had cried in a voice of suppressed indignation and contempt. After all he could not blame her, knowing as he did the world in which she had been reared. She was right. And yet, as he sat there in the desert with his back to the cliff and smoked in silence, living over again the poignant memories of the past, the bitterness he experienced at the moment was even keener than on that memorable night when they had parted.
Could he ever forget her? The memory of that night clung to him in spite of every effort to banish it from his mind.
Above them shone the stars, golden as the apples of Hesperides. He heard again the rhythmic sound of the sea and the plashing of the fountain near at hand, and noted the rose petals which the breeze had shaken from the bushes to the path where they stood; filling the soft night air with their fragrance, and she, with the white moonlight in her face and the pink rose in the golden wreath of her hair, fair as the woman of Eden.
The vision passed before him in kaleidoscopic review, warm and living and tempting and haunting, and then faded from his sight.
The shadows of evening began to lengthen. Close at hand a lizard that had been sunning itself all day against the cliff raised its head for an instant, then slipped noiselessly away with the shadows into a crevice in the rock. The Indian camp-fires flickered in the valley below, their slender, ghostlike columns of smoke, rising heavenward straight as the flight of a flock of cranes, floated away in a pale, blue white cloud on the evening. The soft, plaintive notes of the night-hawk and prairie-owl mingled with the prolonged cry of the wolf in the distant foothills. The night breeze sprang up, fanning the parched desert with its cool breath. The stars came forth and the silver rim of the moon emerged above the dark towering mass of the Sierra Madres, outlining their crests in broken silvery lines as its full white disk swept into view; flooding the valley and plains with strange ethereal light.
Jose's sleep seemed troubled. He moved uneasily and muttered incoherently.
Where was she now—what was she doing? The woman he still loved in spite of himself? And whither was he drifting—what was the real end in view? What subtle, irresistible influence was it that impelled him to take the step, sacrifice all that men prize and hold dear? During such moments he questioned the seemingly blind destiny by which he felt himself impelled. A thousand miles he had ridden in search of the realization of his dreams, but had not found it. That which at first had lured him on, now seemed to mock him. The vision that beckoned to him still maintained a sphinx-like attitude toward his questioning.
Where was the new life he had promised himself? Was it only a vision he had conjured up in his mind? Either he had overlooked something in his calculations, or his logic was at fault.
Was this all? Had the human race attained its zenith—was there nothing beyond, nothing to look forward to, and he merely the latest dreamer and enthusiast who was pursuing the same will-o'-the-wisp that others had sought through the ages? If so, then what fatality was it that encompassed him and continually urged him on? Doubt counseled him to return, but pride and confidence in self still cried forward. Come what would, he either must go on to the end or accept the humiliation that awaits him who turns back. But why was the realization withheld from one so willing—from one who had dared face the world alone?
For the first time the loneliness and isolation of his life was borne in upon him as he reviewed the past, step by step, and thought of the woman he had chosen to share the future with him and whom it was impossible to disassociate from his plans.
Fortune seemed to have deserted him. A sudden revulsion and sickening sense of failure swept over him, crushing and overwhelming him. Would the voices never break silence? Must he forever ride alone with the sun in his face? Save for a cricket that chirped dreamily in a cleft of the rock close at hand, and the distant, subdued sounds of voices and barking of dogs in the Indian camps below him, there was no response to his query.
Strange that he, Jack Forest, the possessor of twenty millions, the associate of the great people of this world, and who was never referred to by his family and friends as other than the Magnificent, the man who did things, should find himself in the heart of the Mexican deserts apparently as far from his goal as when he started. It was incredible, but true, nevertheless. For was he not there in the midst of the wilderness with the scent of the sage in his nostrils and the alkali dust on his boots?
He closed his eyes and let his head sink forward on his breast, wearied by the oft-repeated endeavor to solve that which was fast becoming a riddle, a chimera to him, and he probably would have fallen asleep had he not been startled suddenly into a consciousness of his surroundings by a low whinny; soft and plaintive as a child's voice. Looking up, he saw Starlight standing before him with ears erect and pointed forward, gazing inquiringly into his face.
Again the Chestnut whinnied, and lowering his head, caressed his shoulder affectionately with his nose. Then raising his head, he began to paw the ground impatiently, indicating as plainly as words that it was time to resume their journey.
The night wind sighed across the desert and there was a chill in the air as the moon mounted higher in the heavens; an ideal night for travel. Jose awoke with a start and sitting bolt upright on the ground, gazed about him with a dazed, bewildered air, trying to collect his scattered senses.
"Capitan!" he cried, regarding him intently. "I have just dreamt that the shadow of a man came between you and a woman! I can't see their faces, but they are there!"
"Bah!" returned the Captain, rising to his feet and stretching wide his arms, preparatory to saddling his horse. "'Tis only the aguardiente, Jose!"
"Ah! do not jest, Capitan! Three times have I dreamed this dream—the shadow comes ever nearer!"
The Fiesta, the "Feast of the Corn," had been declared, and there was dancing and feasting, and song and laughter on the lips of men as Captain Forest and Jose rode into Santa Fe late the following morning and turned their horses' heads in the direction of the Posada de las Estrellas, the Inn of the Stars, which was situated just outside the principal entrance to the town.
The low gray adobe walls of the houses fronting directly upon the narrow winding streets leading to and from the plaza were gay with the blossoms of the pink and scarlet geranium, honeysuckle, and gorgeous magenta of the bougainvillea and golden cups of the trumpet-vine.
Pigeons fluttered from the house-tops to the streets, or hovered about the plaza and bosky alamedas of poplar, pepper and eucalyptus trees in search of stray grains of corn. Humming-birds and butterflies flashed their wings and gorgeous plumage in the sunshine as they darted in and out among the foliage in the patios and gardens at the rear of the houses, luxuriant with fruit and flowers as was attested by the orange and lemon, pomegranate and fig trees, heavy with ripening fruit and the delicately mingled perfume of orange and lemon blossoms, hyacinth, jasmine and Castilian rose.
Through the center of the town, beneath the walls of the half-ruined convent, flowed the little river, Santa Maria, at whose banks young girls and women were wont to wash their linen and beat it out on the large, smooth stones which lay strewn along the water's edge. The notes of the wood-dove and oriole mingling with the silvery voice of the river, fell in rhythmical cadences upon the ears of the inhabitants who rested in the shady seclusion of their patios and gardens during the hour of the siesta; rolling and smoking cigarillos as they leisurely discussed the latest bit of news or gossip over their black coffee, mescal and tequila, or engaged in a game of moles.
There had been much rain that season, the best of reasons why the people should give thanks to the heavens and the fields receive the blessing of the Church as well as that of the gods of the Indios at whose altars the Red men still worship and upon which still is written "blood for blood," as in the days when the White men first came from the South, bearing the fire and thunderbolts of heaven with which they overthrew them. This was in fulfillment of the curse which the people had brought upon themselves. The fate which their ancient Sachems had foretold would overtake them in those days when they should forget the commands of the gods and neglect the land, and the hand of brother be lifted against brother until the coming of a Fair Child with a face like the sun unto whose words all men would hearken and their hearts be united in love.
According to custom, runners had been sent forth to the north, east, south and west to proclaim the annual Fiesta. For this ceremony the choicest ears were selected from the new harvest, and, after being borne aloft in the procession that took place during the benediction of the fields, were placed in the churches where they remained until the following year. The golden ears represented the sunrise, the red, the sunset, the blue, the sky, the white, the clouds, and all together, their Mother, the Earth, from which they sprang.
As the season for rejoicing drew near, the rancheros of the neighboring haciendas, together with the Indians of the distant pueblos and half-wild hill tribes, chance strangers and adventurers, streamed toward Santa Fe and swarmed within her walls; some eager for trade and barter, but most of them bent upon pleasure. Her streets and plazas became a surging mass of struggling humanity, bright with the gay costumes of men and women. In her market-booths were displayed innumerable commodities; animals, fruit, vegetables, fowl—flowers, goldfish, caged finches, canaries—jewelry, rugs, stamped leathers and drawn-linen work—bright cloths, blankets, baskets and pottery—wines, laces, silks, satins, cigarettes and cigars.
Bidding was brisk and at times vehement, but always good humored. Sellers of lottery-tickets, writers of love-letters, jugglers and mountebanks plied their trades. The cries of the water-carrier and vender of sweet-meats mingled with those of the inevitable beggar who asked alms for the love of God; invoking blessings or curses upon the head of him who gave or refused him a centavo. Babel reigned. Donkies brayed, geese and turkeys hissed and gobbled, chickens cackled and fighting-cocks, tethered by the leg, strutted and crowed, while brown children of all sizes and ages laughed and screamed as they chased one another in and out among the crowds or rolled in the dust beneath the pedestrian's feet.
Old Santa Fe, christened by the early Franciscan Friars, "City of the Blessed Faith," but in reality a fair wanton, a veritable Sodom and Gomorrha of iniquity with her corridos, her cock-pits and dance and gambling-halls, threw wide her gates and bade the stranger welcome; and if he did not receive the worth of his gold in pleasure and substance, surely it was no fault of Santa Fe's. Besides, it was only a step from a gaming-table to a Father Confessor.
The soul of old Spain still lived in the land. The click of castanettes was heard daily in her plazas and streets where the fandango and jotta were gayly danced; while at night the soft sounds of guitars and voices issued from out the deep shadow of her walls. Soft hands drew the latches of casements, and slender figures stepped out upon moonlit balconies or beneath purple black heavens studded with myriads of golden stars, and passionate words and vows were exchanged under the cover of night.
Having passed the day at the Inn of the Stars, where they had been resting after the fatigues of the long night's ride, the Captain and Jose again directed their steps toward the town in the cool of the evening; Jose making for Pedro Romero's gambling-hall, the Captain for Carlos Moreno's theater, the Theatro Mexicano.
Owing to the tardiness of his arrival, he found the house packed to the doors. The performance, vaudeville in character, had already begun, and it was only after much elbowing and crowding that he finally succeeded in making his way to Carlos' private box where the latter awaited him.
A tall, dark woman had just ceased dancing, and as she paused before the footlights amid a burst of musical accompaniment, the audience with one impulse rose to its feet and gave vent to prolonged salvos of applause. Showers of glittering gold and silver coins, bouquets and wreaths of flowers were flung upon the stage, burying her feet in a wealth and suffusion of color as she stood smiling and bowing before the audience, vainly endeavoring to still the tumultuous applause which continued with deafening uproar until she consented to repeat the performance.
"Delicious—divine—'tis the Chiquita, amigo mio!" cried Carlos; pausing in the midst of his vivas to greet the Captain.
"You shall know her and fall in love with her like all the rest of the world—" but his speech was cut short by a fresh burst of applause from the audience. The floral tributes that had been showered upon her were hastily removed to one side of the stage and piled high against the wings. The musicians struck up their accompaniment and the dance began again.
It was evident that she was a favorite of the audience which perhaps partially accounted for the remarkable demonstration with which her performance was received. But be this as it may, Captain Forest felt that he had never witnessed such a remarkable exhibition of subtle grace and beauty and extraordinary execution and dash as she displayed in the dance. He recalled the names of the famous dancers he had known, but none of them had risen to such heights—succeeded in vitalizing and inspiring their art with so much poetry and life.
To all appearance she was either Spanish or of Indian extraction, and yet there was a foreign touch about her that seemed to set her apart from the women of Santa Fe.
Who was she, this unknown genius, this master of the terpsichorean art, living in this far away Mexican town? Such talent could not remain in obscurity for long. Another great Spanish dancer was about to burst unheralded upon the world. It only remained for her to dance into it—to captivate and conquer it.
This then, was the surprise Carlos had promised him if he came to the theater that evening. His curiosity was aroused, and he turned to him for an explanation, but he was no longer by his side; he had rushed behind the scenes to felicitate the dancer on her remarkable success.
The air was hot and stifling, and not caring to witness the remaining numbers on the programme, he took advantage of the intermission that followed the dance and left the theater.
Outside the air was deliciously cool. The moonlight and myriads of artificial lights strung across the streets and on the facades of the houses, together with the flaming torches in front of the many booths, lent the appearance of day to night as he slowly made his way through the surging crowds in the direction of Pedro Romero's gambling-hall where Carlos had agreed to join him after the performance.
Pedro's establishment was the chief and only respectable place of its kind of which the town could boast. It was the resort of the better element of Santa Fe, and if one were looking for a friend or acquaintance, he was usually to be found there. The hall was spacious and well lighted with electricity and resplendent in gilt and mirrors.
The gay strains of a string band enlivened the scene as he entered. Clouds of tobacco smoke hung over the throngs that crowded round the gaming-tables to try their luck with the Goddess Chance.
Jose was playing roulette, and judging by the satisfied expression of his face which the Captain noted in passing, he rightly conjectured that luck was on his side.
Like Carlos, Pedro had taken a great fancy to the Captain, and had generously placed his private stock of wines and cigars at the latter's disposal. Many an evening had the three passed together smoking and drinking and chatting; Pedro and Carlos listening with rapt attention to the Captain's anecdotes and adventures of which he seemed to possess an inexhaustible store. The hall was greatly overcrowded, rendering it difficult to find an acquaintance, but as the Captain paused in the midst of the tables in order to obtain a better view of the faces about him, he felt a touch on the shoulder from behind and turning, saw Pedro, the object of his search.
"Por Dios! but I'm glad to see you again, amigo!" exclaimed the proprietor, a dark little man with a kindly face pitted by the smallpox. He grasped and shook the Captain warmly by the hand.
"How are you—when did you return?" he inquired; leading him to a table in one corner of the hall around which were seated a number of his friends who, on the appearance of the Captain, rose and greeted him effusively.
"Mozo—mozo!" shouted Pedro to the waiter, "a glass for the Captain!"
The others also had been to the theater, and like him, had left during the intermission following the dance. Naturally the dancer formed the sole topic of conversation.
"Had the Senor Capitan seen the Chiquita—had he ever seen such dancing before—what did he think of her?" And by the time Carlos appeared on the scene, all agreed that the latter's fortune was made—that he would soon desert the sleepy old town for a tour of the world with his newly found star of the footlights.
"A tour of the world—with the Chiquita?" echoed Carlos, a fat, broad-shouldered little man of mixed blood, pausing and pulling back a chair in the act of seating himself at the table.
"Dios! if such a thing were possible," he exclaimed, pushing his hat on the back of his head and surveying his companions with critical eyes, "I would not exchange it for the richest gold mine in Mexico! But," he added, seating himself at the table, "you don't know the Chiquita, mis amigos. She is made of different stuff than that of the women who dance for a living."
To this last remark the company agreed.
"Caramba—how she danced!" he continued, taking a sip of pulque. "Had the house been as large as the plaza and the price of the seats doubled, there would not have been standing room left to accommodate the spectators."
"Aye!" broke in Miguel Torreno, a dark, wizened old Mexican with a face resembling a monkey's, "they say a thousand people were turned away at the doors."
"A thousand? Half the town, you mean!" returned Carlos, rolling a cigarillo between the tips of his stubby fingers.
"A pretty penny this dance of the Chiquita's must have cost you, Carlos Moreno," continued Miguel, his head cocked knowingly on one side, while he squinted over the rim of his glass between puffs of cigarette smoke.
"Three thousand pesos d'oro," answered Carlos. "But by the Virgin, it was worth it!"
"Three thousand pesos d'oro!" ejaculated his auditors with one breath. Old Miguel dropped his glass which fell with a crash, scattering its contents and fragments over the floor.
"Three thousand pesos d'oro!" he gasped. "Alma de mi vida! Soul of my life! 'tis the salary of a Bishop! Are you mad, Carlos Moreno?"
"Perhaps. But only Carlos Moreno can afford to pay such salaries during the Fiesta," he answered complacently, taking a fresh sip of pulque.
"How did you ever persuade her to dance?" asked Pedro. "It's not the first time you have made overtures to her."
"Ah, that's the mystery! I'd give something to know why she danced. You know," he continued, "it's the first time she has ever appeared in public."
"The first time?" interrupted the Captain in surprise. "Why—she possesses the composure of a veteran of the footlights."
"Just so," rejoined Carlos. "Nothing is more characteristic of her; she's at home everywhere. When I first saw her dance three years ago in the garden of the old Posada at the birthday fete of Senora Fernandez, I knew instantly that she was either possessed of the devil or the ancient muse of dance; also, why Don Felipe Ramirez went mad over her.
"Dios! she's a strange woman—almost mysterious at times!" he added reflectively, with a shrug of the shoulders and gesture of the hands. "I thought, of course, that it was the money she wanted when she finally consented to dance, but I'm not so sure of it now."
"What reason have you for supposing otherwise?" asked Pedro.
"Every reason. What do you think she did with the heap of gold and silver that was showered upon her by the audience?"
"What?" excitedly demanded old Miguel, who by this time had fortified himself with a fresh glass of aguardiente.
"Why, after it had been gathered up and handed to her, she, without so much as looking at it, tossed it lightly into the center of the stage and bade the musicians and stage-hands remember her when they drank to their sweethearts to-night."
Captain Forest's interest began to be aroused.
"Caramba—'tis strange!" muttered old Miguel, eyeing his glass meditatively; his head nodding slightly from the effects of too much liquor. "But what will Padre Antonio say when he hears of it? How fortunate he wasn't here to witness a sight that must have caused him the deepest humiliation. Poor man," he continued, assuming a sympathetic tone, "it is already the scandal of the town."
"Bah! what of that?" returned Carlos.
It was evident to all that the delights of the Fiesta were beginning to tell on the old man. Already it had been noted on previous occasions that an overindulgence in aguardiente usually invoked a religious frame of mind in him, but which in Miguel's case resembled rather the groping of a lost soul than the prophetic vision of the seer.
"What of that?" echoed Miguel, an ominous light flashing from his eyes. "Those golden pesos so lightly earned will just about pay for a thousand masses in order to avert excommunication and enable the Church to snatch the soul of the Chiquita from the fires of purgatory as a punishment for conduct unbecoming the ward of a priest."
"Bah! you talk like an infant, Miguel! What a sad, weary world this would be if there were only priests and churches in it and men did nothing all day long but say aves and burn candles on altars," and Carlos lightly blew a ring of smoke toward the ceiling.
"Ah, yes, perhaps—quien sabe, amigo mio?" answered the old man dryly. "But the Church is the Church."
"Miguel, you are growing old," said Pedro, slapping him lightly on the back. "Have another glass!"
"I'm not old. I'm no older than the rest of you, and neither will I have another glass," retorted Miguel hotly, greatly irritated by the others' laughter.
"Ah!" he continued, wagging his head, and in a tone of bravado and offended dignity, "you think I can't get home alone, do you? I'll show you that Miguel Torreno is still as young as the rest of you!" And supporting himself with one hand on the table and the other on his stick, he rose from his seat with great difficulty.
"Miguel Torreno old, is he? A thousand devils!" A chorus of laughter greeted this last outburst as he turned unsteadily and swaying to and fro, slowly made his way through the crowd toward the door.
Just then a man at the next table rose with an oath. It was Juan Ramon, Major-domo of the Inn of the Stars. Juan Ramon, the handsome, the hawk, the gambler—the greatest vaquero in Chihuahua. The man who took delight in riding horses that other men feared—the man in whose hand the riata became a magic wand, a hissing serpent, and who could stretch a bull at full length upon the ground at a given spot within a given time.
"Has the blessed Fiesta brought you no luck, Juan?" inquired Carlos, tilting himself back in his chair and smiling up in the other's face.
"Luck—blessed Fiesta? The devil take them both!" exclaimed Juan, the look of disgust on his face gradually changing to one of resignation—that serene expression of the born gambler whom experience has taught that days of famine are certain to follow those of plenty.
"Look!" he repeated. "The cards are bewitched—not a centavo! My pockets are empty as Lazarus' stomach! Only a month ago I picked out a beautiful little hacienda with the fairest acreage to which I intended to retire and live like a Caballero—to-day I parted with my only horse at a loss—to-morrow," and he shrugged his shoulders indifferently, "if this sort of thing continues, I'll be forced to pawn the buttons on my breeches.
"Mercedes Dios, blessed be the Fiesta!" And flinging the end of his zerape over one shoulder and across the lower half of his face, he stalked toward the door; the laughter of his friends ringing in his ears.
Ten years previous to the events just related, Padre Antonio, his parochial duties over for the day, was slowly retracing his steps homeward.
It was a mild, serene summer evening, and he paused before the massive iron gates set in the high adobe wall surrounding his garden for a last look at the sunset before entering his house.
It had been a strenuous day for Padre Antonio. Early that morning, Miguel Torreno while beating his mule, had been kicked half way across his corral by that stubborn though sensible animal, breaking Miguel's right arm and fracturing three of his ribs. But no sooner had it been ascertained that old Miguel would not die as he obstinately insisted that he would, calling frantically upon the Saints the while as the vision of purgatorial fires which he knew awaited him loomed before his distracted imagination, than the wives of Pedro Torlone and Jose Alvarez, neighbors and friends, quarreled over a cheap blue and white striped ribosa, embroiling their husbands who, without the Padre's intercession, would have come to blows.
Then the last sacrament had been administered to Don Juan Otero, one of Santa Fe's oldest and most respected citizens.
In a vain effort to banish the unpleasant recollections of the day from his thoughts, Padre Antonio turned with a sigh from the glories of the sunset which he had been contemplating, and was on the point of entering the garden when his quick ear caught the sound of horse's hoofs on the road, causing him to pause with his hand on the latch of the gate.
His house being situated in an unfrequented quarter of the town, he decided to await the coming of the animal; the bearer perchance of some friend or acquaintance. He had not long to wait. The sounds drew nearer and nearer, and presently, greatly to his astonishment, a tall, gaunt, half-starved gray horse with a riata fastened to his lower jaw, and upon whose back sat an equally gaunt and haggard Indian woman with disheveled hair and clothes tattered and dust begrimed, came into view around the sharp angle of the wall and stopped directly before him.
Never in all his long and varied experience had he witnessed such a pitiable spectacle as the woman presented. The wild, hollow eyes and wasted, emaciated form and features gave her more the appearance of some wild beast than a human being. She did not appear to be conscious of his presence; and before he had time to recover from his surprise or utter a word, she stretched both arms out before her as if toward the sun, and uttering a wild, harsh, inarticulate cry, dropped unconscious from the horse's back into his arms.
Experience had taught Padre Antonio to act quickly in cases of emergency, and with the assistance of his gardener and Manuela, his old Indian housekeeper, he carried her into the house and laid her upon his own bed. For days she lay in a delirium, the result of the terrible privations she had evidently endured. She raved and talked incoherently in a language which neither he nor Manuela understood.
The doctors whom he summoned at the outset, only shook their heads, and after a lengthy consultation informed him with the stoicism characteristic of the profession that, the patient would either die or recover. But Padre Antonio did not despair. In his extremity he turned to heaven, nor did his petition pass unheeded. At length, after many days of anxious watching, the fever left her and she sank into a deep, refreshing sleep from which she did not awaken for many hours.
It was toward the dawn of a Sabbath, and as the calm and peace of sleep settled upon her, her wasted and emaciated features began gradually to assume their normal outline. Nature asserted herself, and when the large dark eyes finally opened once more, it was into the face of a beautiful girl that Padre Antonio found himself gazing as he knelt by her bedside in prayer.
"Be quiet, my daughter," he involuntarily murmured as her eyes rested upon his, without considering whether she understood him. But the faint semblance of a smile that lit up her countenance in response to his words told him she comprehended. Then, during the long days of convalescence that ensued, she imparted her history to him in broken Spanish.
She was a Tewana; the daughter of their War Chief, the Whirlwind, who had been killed recently in battle with another Indian tribe, the Ispali. Just previous to this, her people who had long been at war with the Government, had been defeated by the Mexican troops. After the battle the entire tribe with the exception of the Whirlwind's band made peace with the Government; the remnant of the latter with which she remained, escaping into the mountains. But fate had doomed the little fleeing band to extermination. It was surprised and annihilated by the Ispali Chieftain, the White Wolf, and his followers whose territory they had invaded; she being the only one spared—the White Wolf signifying his intention of making her one of his wives. But that same night when the Chieftain entered the lodge he had set apart for her and began to make advances to her, she suddenly snatched a brand from the fire which burned in the center of the lodge and struck him over the head, knocking him senseless.
Then, stealing forth from the lodge, she mounted the Chieftain's horse which stood tethered just outside the door and fled under cover of the night. For days she fled across the deserts and mountains, concealing herself during the daytime and traveling at night; subsisting as best she could upon the wild roots and berries which she was able to find. But the privations which she was forced to endure—the lack of food and water, night vigils and exposure to the weather, began to tell on her. She became delirious, and no longer able to guide her horse, was obliged to let him choose his own course, and—Padre Antonio knew the rest.
Surely God had led this fair heathen child to his very door in order that he, Padre Antonio, might snatch her soul from the flames of hell by directing her in the way of the true faith. There could be no doubt of it; God's handiwork was too apparent.
Padre Antonio was a liberal, broad-minded man. Having experienced most things that fall to the lot of men, he did not believe in restraining her against her will in order that her conversion might be accomplished as many a zealous priest might have considered justifiable in her case. But should she manifest a desire to remain with him, she would be reared in the very lap of Mother Church. With this project in mind, it was with the greatest solicitude that he watched her recovery, and when she was informed that she would be permitted to return to her own people if she so desired, he won her confidence completely.
The last vestige of that barrier of restraint and suspicion which the strangeness of her position had reared between them was swept away.
From that moment the wild little nomad of the desert evinced the keenest interest in her new surroundings. Her childish delight was unbounded on beholding for the first time in her life the strange flowers and fruits in the garden. They were all so new and wonderful to her, and she wandered for hours among them; touching and plucking them and tasting and inhaling their fragrance.
Whether it was the novelty of her position, or her sudden and passionate attachment to Padre Antonio whom she regarded in the light of a new-found father that caused her to forget for the time her former wild life and consent to remain with him, is difficult to determine.
Padre Antonio who had lived many years among the wild tribes of the country and knew them as few men did, their insatiable love of liberty and intense dislike of the White man's civilization, looked upon her conversion and decision to remain with him as another direct intervention of Providence; for that which usually required years had been accomplished in as many weeks in her case. It was little short of a miracle, and he rejoiced exceedingly and began gradually to unfold his plans to her concerning her future.
The curriculum of the Convent of Saint Claire in Santa Fe did not seem adequate, and nothing would do, but that he should accompany her to the City of Mexico, where he placed her in charge of the Sisters of Saint Ursula. There she would have not only the educational, but the social advantages which the city offered.
Before their departure he christened her, Chiquita Pia Maria Roxan Concepcion Salvatore; a name which, out of gratitude and obedience to her benefactor, she accepted without question concerning either its origin or his reason for giving it to her.
Six years passed, during which she traveled for three summers in Europe with friends of the Padre. Interminably long years they seemed to him. Each year he had planned to visit her, but each time something intervened to prevent his going. He was a busy man. His duties required annual visits to the outlying pueblos and distant Indian Missions, consuming his entire time. However, he at length received word from the Sisters of Saint Ursula that Chiquita had completed her course of studies and had started on her return journey to Santa Fe.
It was evident from the reports which he had received at regular intervals from the Sisters that she did not care for the Church as he had fondly hoped she might. But after all, what did it really matter?
One so young and gay could not be expected to take life so seriously. When one grew old, one became serious enough for this world; and he smiled as he thought of his wild little Indian girl.
In his fond imagination, he saw her large, mischievous, dark eyes snap, and heard the merry peals of her laughter as she flitted about the garden in former years. Surely it was better thus—that she should remain blithe and happy like the birds, as God had created her.
The years had begun to tell on the aged Manuela. She was beginning to show signs of failing, and he decided that Chiquita, his ward, should live with him and rule his household in Manuela's stead. His wants were so few and simple that she would have little to do and old Manuela would be able to sun herself in the garden during the remaining years of her life; a reward for her long and faithful service. Nor was Manuela adverse to this new arrangement which must eventually deprive her of all authority in the household; a position she had guarded so jealously through the years and which had raised her in the estimation of the community. Although of a different people, the common racial blood bond had drawn the two women together from the first; besides, she could always assist in the lighter work of the household if she chose.
The Padre never tired of meditating upon this fond dream during his leisure moments. What a perpetual source of joy and satisfaction the presence and sunshine of this child of his own molding would be to him in his old age! Besides he would always be near her to administer spiritual council and guidance.
So, when the day of her arrival finally dawned, he and old Manuela rose with the sun, and gathering the freshest and brightest flowers the garden contained, they arranged them in the room she was to occupy; transforming it into a veritable bower of fragrance and color.
The prospect of seeing his protegee so soon again, filled Padre Antonio with the most conflicting emotions of longing and impatience.
He could think of nothing else—could neither sit nor stand, but fretted and bustled about the house with the impatience of a child. Fearful lest he should be too late, he hurried through his simple breakfast, consisting of black coffee and a roll, without so much as glancing at the local paper as was his wont; and then, quite forgetting to pull on his black silk gloves which Manuela thrust into his hands together with his hat and stick, he hastened to the station which he reached an hour before the time scheduled for the arrival of the stage.
Of course she must have changed somewhat during the long interval of her absence, he argued, more as a concession to reason than to desire or sentiment. But in spite of this possibility, his mental picture of her still remained that of the little Indian girl he had confided to the care of the good Sisters of Saint Ursula six years before.
What if the stage were late, and could she make the long journey alone and in safety, he asked himself a thousand times as he impatiently paced up and down the platform of the station; the tap of his gold-headed cane marking the time of his steps on the boards beneath him.
"Saints! but the stage was slow! A snail could crawl—" Suddenly he stopped short. A flush of joy suffused his countenance—his heart began to beat rapidly and his right hand with which he grasped his cane trembled perceptibly as he gazed intently down the long dusty highroad.
"At last!" he cried. Another intense moment of suspense and the distant cracking of a whip and sounds of wheels and hoof-beats on the road announced the approach of the stage. Presently it hove in sight and a few minutes later, as it drew up before the station and came to a full stop, the door was hastily flung open and a tall, closely veiled woman sprang lightly to the platform.
Her striking appearance would have commanded attention anywhere, but without noticing her, he brushed hastily past her and gazed eagerly into the interior of the coach. It was empty.
Dios! what had happened? There must be some mistake! With a note of keenest disappointment in his voice he turned sharply on the driver and impatiently demanded what had become of the little Indian girl that had been placed in his charge.
"Little Indian girl? Caramba!" A look of bewilderment accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders and a "no sabe, Senor Padre," was the only answer he received. Consternation seized Padre Antonio.
Merciful heaven! what had become of her—Chiquita, his little girl? His voice choked, while tears of bitter disappointment welled to his eyes. "Ah, yes, there had been a mistake—she would come by the next stage," he said, addressing the driver, and was on the point of turning away when a silvery peal of laughter fell upon his ears. He felt a soft touch on his shoulder and a voice close to him said:
"Padre Antonio, don't you know your little Chiquita?" The veil had slipped from her face, displaying the features of a beautiful Spanish woman. Confounded and speechless with amazement, Padre Antonio could only gaze in silence upon the apparition before him.
Was it possible, or was he only dreaming? What a transformation! Was this mature woman, this tall and supple and refined and graceful creature his Chiquita, his wild little Indian girl of former years? He rubbed his eyes in bewilderment and gazed again. Holy Maria! but she was beautiful—fair as the starry jasmine blossoms which she wore at her breast and in the dark folds of her hair.
In that hour the world suddenly became filled with exquisite harmony for Padre Antonio, and he seemed to grow younger by many years.
The radiant beauty of her face with the poetry of sunshine and laughter in her eyes and her grace and charm of personality affected him like some wonderfully attuned chime of silver bells. Surely this was worth waiting for. His prayers had been answered richly and abundantly, far beyond anything his imagination had pictured during those long years of waiting.
The Posada de las Estrellas was situated on the western side of the town within a stone's throw of Padre Antonio's house. It stood well back from the highroad from which it was screened by a thick hedge-like growth of cedar, manzanita, tamarisk and lilac bushes.
A short distance east of the Posada, the highroad entered the long Alameda which led to the plaza in the center of the town, overlooked by the old Precedio or Governor's palace.
The widespreading branches of two immense cottonwood trees, the trunk of one of which was encircled by a rustic bench, cast an inviting shade in front of the house and wide veranda which stretched its length along two sides of the low, one storied adobe structure. Honeysuckle and white clematis and pink and scarlet passion vines clambered up its slender pillars and hung in fragrant flowering festoons from the low balustrades above. The fresh green leaves of the nasturtium, bright with variegated blossoms, ranging from deep scarlet to gold and pale yellow, trailed along the ground at the foot of the veranda and skirted the narrow pathway which led to the rear of the Posada whose patio looked out upon a garden interspersed with innumerable flowers and shrubs, fruit and cedar trees, and whose soft green lawn was intersected by narrow gravel pathways. Just back of the garden lay the vegetable patches which intervened between it and the stables and corrals, whence came the cackling of hens and cooing of pigeons in the early morning.
Originally the Posada had been one of the large haciendas adjoining Santa Fe, but its mistress, Senora Fernandez, had transformed it into an Inn after the death of her husband who had been killed accidentally by the fall of his horse. Finding herself in reduced circumstances incurred by her husband's gambling propensities, she resolved upon the change. His chief legacy consisting of debts, she was obliged to part with the greater portion of the estate, but her natural executive ability stood her in good stead.
The new enterprise prospered, and the Inn became widely known throughout the country as a place at which to stop if only for a cup of chocolate or a chat with the Senora who always knew the latest gossip.
In her youth she had been noted for her beauty, and even now, in spite of middle-age and somewhat faded features, the latter the result of the struggle she had undergone to reestablish herself in the world, she was still considered buxom and fair to look upon by the majority of men. She carried her head high and with a coquettish air which plainly showed she had by no means relinquished her hold upon life.
On this particular morning she looked unusually well as she moved about the patio engaged with her women in assorting a huge basket of freshly laundered household linen. Not a strand of silver was visible in her jet black hair, adorned with a large tortoise-shell comb and a single Castilian rose. Her gay, low-necked, short sleeved bodice, exposing her shapely neck and arms, harmonized well with her short, black silken saya which rustled with every movement she made and from beneath which protruded a small pair of high instepped feet encased in black slippers ornamented with large quaint silver buckles.
It was the Senora's birthday. She had risen earlier than usual prepared to receive the congratulations of her friends who, she knew, would be sure to call during the day in honor of the occasion. A few of them would be asked to remain and dine with her in the evening.
It was on a similar occasion that Chiquita had danced in the patio before her guests.
The innate vanity of the woman might have led one to suppose that she would let the years pass unnoticed, but not so. The old, time-honored custom of the country must be observed lest her friends might say: Senora Fernandez is already laying by for a ripe old age, the mere suggestion of which on the part of the world would have been enough to throw her into one of those uncontrollable fits of rage for which she was noted.
Artful, shrewd and scheming though she was, her susceptibility to flattery was her weak point, amounting almost to a mania. To be told that she still looked as young and handsome as in the days when the years justified the statement, was to win her immediate esteem. The lack of this servile attitude and cringing civility on Chiquita's part, together with the knowledge of her own superiority which she never hesitated to show when occasion required, had drawn down the Senora's enmity upon her. Whereas, an occasional soft word or smile of acquiescence—she demanded so little—would have smoothed her ruffled spirit and taken the edge off her tongue, the sharpest in Santa Fe.
It was not easy for the inveterate coquette and one time reigning belle to resign the position she had held so long and undisputed, especially to an alien—one whom the full blooded Spaniard inwardly despises, regards as of an inferior race.
How she hated the dark woman, envied the glances and flatteries and attentions which she always received wherever she went. It was said, that on Chiquita's return from school, Senora Fernandez suddenly grew cold and haughty toward the world, but finding that a proud exterior availed her little, she sulked and pouted for a time like a spoiled child, only to warm again to the world which she loved so passionately, which she felt slipping from her and without whose adulation she could not live.
Dios de mi vida! but it was terrible to grow old! Not since the death of her husband, Don Carlos, had she endured so bitter a pang. The fact that she had never had any children accounted perhaps for a certain harshness in her nature.
It was a busy day for the Senora. Besides the care of her guests, the preparing of freshly killed fowl and baking of cakes and tortillas, there was the garden which must be hung with lanterns where there would be the usual dancing and merrymaking during the evening. All this and much more the Senora must superintend, but she was equal to the task.
As she issued her orders to the retinue of servants that came and went, she carried on a lively, though interrupted, conversation with her sister, Senora Rosario Sanchez, and her niece, Dolores, who had come to assist her in the preparations.
"It has come at last—I always said it would—I never trusted that double nature of hers!" she exclaimed triumphantly, pausing for an instant in her work of assorting the linen. The expression and gesture of Senora Sanchez plainly bespoke the shock she also had experienced.
"To think of it," she gasped. "How Padre Antonio can overlook such a breach of confidence and offense to the Church is more than I can understand!"
"Ah! that shows the extent of her influence over him," answered Senora. "She has bewitched him with her wild ways—he simply dotes on her!"
"It's scandalous!" broke in her sister.
"To my mind, it shows signs of the Padre's failing," rejoined the Senora sharply.
"It does indeed—poor man!" sighed her sister. "And what's more—it never did seem proper that so handsome a woman should live with a priest even though she be his ward and he an old man."
"Handsome?" sneered the Senora, drawing herself together as though she had received an electric shock; the pleased and animated expression of her face changing suddenly to one of utmost frigidity. "I never could understand why people considered that Indian good looking," and her black eyes snapped as she turned to resume her work, plainly betraying the jealousy aroused. Senora Sanchez, knowing her sister's temper only too well, hastened to change the subject.
Strange to say, Padre Antonio did not share the public's sentiment, or rather that of his own particular flock, concerning Chiquita's latest escapade. Instead of being overwhelmed, broken in spirit and utterly cast down by grief and shame as had been confidently predicted, he, much to the disgust of his congregation, went calmly about his duties as though nothing unusual had occurred, referring jocosely to this lark of his madcap ward as he was pleased to term it.
Lark? Heavens! had the Padre lost his senses? Excommunication might be a little too severe, but a year's solitary confinement in a convent as a penance for her sin was the least penalty she could expect.
But Padre Antonio knew what the rest of the world did not. That his charming, irrepressible protegee would have snapped her fingers lightly at the mere suggestion of either. The days of mediaeval suppression of females had come to an end even in Mexico. Moreover, there existed a perfect understanding between the two.
During his long years of missionary work he had learned that the heathen often stood higher in the sight of Heaven than many a zealous devotee of the Church. Besides, dancing was not only a national pastime of the Spaniard, but among Indians, a part of their religion as well.
That Chiquita had some very good reason for dancing in public, he knew well enough. They understood one another perfectly, and he did not ask her her reason for dancing, knowing full well that some day she would tell him of her own accord.
Although Chiquita had accommodated herself marvelously well to the new conditions, imbibing the best civilization had to offer, she nevertheless remained the freeborn woman—the descendant of a freeborn race of men. The wild, free nomad whom experience and direct contact with nature had early taught to recognize the simple underlying truths and realities of life and their relations to one another, was not to be measured by the conventions or limited standards of a tamer race of men hedged about by superficial traditions and born and reared remote from the heart of nature beneath the roofs of houses. It was the cold, hard earth and equally cold and unrelenting stars that had nurtured Chiquita from earliest childhood, and to apply the petty restraints and conventions of modern society to her was like clipping the wings of an eagle and then expecting it to fly.
Ordinarily, life is dull enough without civilized man's efforts to reduce it to positive boredom, and although Chiquita's escapades had acted like a slap in the face, they had nevertheless done much to arouse the spirit of the otherwise sleepy old town. Her presence was fresh and invigorating as the north wind. Moreover, the very ones who criticised her most in secret, were usually the first to come to her for advice when in trouble. For who was so wise as the strange, beautiful woman?
True, it cost something to be hated as cordially as one was admired, nevertheless, Padre Antonio rightly conjectured that there was not a woman in Santa Fe who would not willingly exchange places with his ward were she able to. So, like the sensible man that he was, he only smiled at idle gossip and continued to watch with increasing interest the transformation of his protegee.
Captain Forest had taken quarters at the Posada for an indefinite period; at least until he learned the whereabouts of his friend, Dick Yankton, who had accompanied him on his former expeditions.
He had been aroused at an early hour by the cackling of affrighted fowl and the voices and footsteps of peons as they came and went in the patio, their jests and laughter mingling with snatches of song. Not being able to sleep, he arose, and after a hasty toilet, stepped out upon the veranda, bright with the morning sunlight. Save for his presence, the place was deserted; the empty chairs standing about just as their occupants of the previous evening had left them, a proof that he was the first of the guests to be abroad.
"I wonder where Dick is?" he soliloquized, leisurely descending the veranda steps and turning into the pathway that led to the garden at the rear of the house and thence to the corrals, whither he directed his steps for a look at his horse to see whether he had been properly cared for during the night. As he disappeared around the corner of the house, a woman turned in from the highroad and paused before the Inn beneath the great cottonwood encircled by the bench.
She was tall and slender and on one arm carried a basket of eggs concealed beneath a layer of freshly cut roses; Padre Antonio's annual birthday tribute to the Senora. Her heavy blue-black hair, loosely caught up at the back of the neck and adorned with a bunch of pink passion flowers nestled about her neck and shoulders, on one of which was perched a small white dove that fluttered and cooed. From out the midst of the passion flowers shone a faint glint of silver.
Her dull white shirt waist, low at the neck and with sleeves rolled back to the elbows, exposed her long, slender neck and well rounded forearms which, like her face, were a rich red bronze. A faded orange kerchief, loosely knotted, encircled her neck; the ends thrust carelessly into her breast. Her soft mauve saya, worn and patched and looped up at one side, disclosing a faded blue petticoat underneath, fell to her ankles, displaying a pair of small feet encased in dull blue stockings and low black shoes.
Depositing the basket on the bench, she extended her right hand upon the back of which the dove immediately hopped, cooing and fluttering as before.
"Cara mia!" she murmured fondly, raising it to her lips, kissing it and caressing it gently against her cheek.
"What wouldst thou—thou greedy little Jaquino? Knowest not thou hast had one more berry than thy sweet little Jaquina?" But the dove only continued to flutter and coo on her hand.
"Hearest thou not," she continued, "she already calls thee!" And extending her lips, between which she had inserted a fresh berry, the dove eagerly seized and devoured it.
"Ah, querida mia!" she murmured softly, kissing it again. "Now fly away quickly like a good little Jaquino before some wicked senor comes to catch thee for his breakfast!" And tossing the dove lightly into the air with an "a Dios," it hovered over her head for an instant, then flew straight away over the old Posada back to Padre Antonio's garden where its mate awaited it.
A sigh escaped her as she watched the flight of the bird. How free of the cares and responsibilities of the world the winged creatures seemed. She turned to the bench once more and was in the act of picking up her basket, when her attention was suddenly arrested by the sound of footsteps close at hand, and wheeling around, she came face to face with Captain Forest.
The little cry of surprise that escaped her interrupted the Captain's meditations who, with eyes cast on the ground, might otherwise have walked straight into her.
"A thousand pardons, Senorita!" he exclaimed in Spanish, stopping abruptly and raising his hat.
"I—" He paused as her full gaze met his which to his surprise was almost on a level with his own. What a face! Could his sensations have been analyzed, they might have coincided with those of Padre Antonio's on beholding his protegee when she stepped from the stagecoach on her return from the convent.
The broad sweep of her brow, her penetrating gaze, her straight nose, high cheek bones and delicately molded lips and chin and grace of her supple, sinuous body, together with the picturesqueness of her costume, presented a picture of striking beauty.
"Why," he continued abruptly, "you are the woman that danced at Carlos Moreno's! The Senorita Chiquita about whom the whole town is talking!"
"Ah! you saw me dance, Senor?" she asked, betraying a slight embarrassment.
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world! Such a performance—I—" again he paused, regarding her intently. "Do you know, Senorita, all the while I watched you dance there seemed to be something familiar about you. It seemed as though I had seen you somewhere before."
"Yes?" she queried, her dark eyes glowing and a faint flush mounting to her cheeks.
"Yes," he answered. "Ever since then I have been trying to think where it could have been. Ah!" he exclaimed, stepping backwards and eyeing her critically. "Just turn your head that way again. There, that's it! I knew I had seen you before! Do you remember the night we met a year ago on the trail below La Jara?"
A smile parted her full rose-red lips, displaying her pearly teeth. "I remember it well, Senor," she answered, casting down her eyes for an instant. "I recognized you the instant I saw you."
"Strange," he muttered half to himself. Then, after a rather embarrassing silence, he said: "That was a fine horse you rode. Do you live here at the Posada, Senorita?"
"No. I live with Padre Antonio."
"Padre Antonio? Ah, yes!" he exclaimed, recalling the conversation at Pedro Romero's gambling hall. "Tell me," he continued, "who is Padre Antonio?"
"Ah! I see you have not been long in Santa Fe, Senor, else you must have heard something about him. Everybody knows Padre Antonio—he is our priest."
"Both you and he must have been absent when I was here before, otherwise I must have met you," he answered.
At this moment the tall figure of a man, dressed in a suit of light gray material with a soft felt hat to match, appeared in the doorway of the Inn. His eyes, like his hair and mustache, were dark brown. His hands were long and slender and delicate as a woman's, yet there was nothing effeminate in his appearance. His strong, sensitive features and roving, piercing eyes and alert carriage indicated courage and energy.
He paused as he caught sight of the two figures before him. Then, with an exclamation of surprise, he stepped quickly out on to the veranda. "Jack!" he exclaimed. "When did you get here?"
Turning swiftly, Captain Forest saw Dick Yankton standing before him. "Dick!" he cried, and rushing up the veranda steps, seized him by both hands. "I've been wondering where I would find you! You evidently didn't get my letter?"
"No," replied his companion. "I only returned from the mountains late last night. It's probably waiting for me here."
"The Senores know one another?" interrupted Chiquita, also ascending the veranda.
"Know one another? Senorita, we are brothers," said Dick.
"Brothers?" she echoed, surprised and perplexed.
"Yes, Senorita, all but in name," interposed the Captain.
"Ah! I see. Brothers in fortune!"
"Exactly," replied Dick. "But what is all this I hear concerning your doings, Senorita? I'd have given my best horse to have seen you dance, but, as you see, I'm too late. A pretty nest of hornets you've stirred up in the old place," he continued. "Why, last evening I met the Navaros on the road on their way home and they wouldn't let me pass until they had told me how wicked you were. Senora Navaro even crossed herself and said an ave at the first mention of your name."
"Ah," she sighed, then laughed unconcernedly. "I'm afraid I've been very naughty, Senor." Then suddenly recollecting her mission, she exclaimed: "I almost forgot why I came here this morning. I'm the bearer of Padre Antonio's gift and greetings to the Senora. It's her birthday, you know."
"Her birthday? I wonder she still dares have them!" exclaimed Dick.
"She does, nevertheless," laughed Chiquita; and brushing back the roses in her basket with a sweep of the hand, she disclosed the eggs beneath. "Look," she continued. "Padre Antonio's gift! Are they not beautiful—just fresh from the hens! You had better have some for your breakfast, Senor," she added.
"By all the Saints in the calendar, they are pearls, every one of them!" returned Dick enthusiastically, eyeing the contents of the basket. "Thrice blessed be thy hens, Senorita! We'll have eggs with our chocolate out here on the veranda!"
"I thought so!" came a sharp voice from the other side of the doorway just behind them, "as usual, talking with the Senores!" and Senora Fernandez, with flushed cheeks and a spiteful gleam in her eyes which she took no pains to conceal, stepped from the door into the light.
"Buenas dias, Dona Fernandez!" said Chiquita, unabashed by the Senora's sudden appearance and onslaught, "may the day bring you many blessings! Look! Padre Antonio's greetings," and she held up the basket for the Senora's benefit. Then, with a subtle sarcasm which she knew would avenge her amply for the Senora's unprovoked attack, she said: "I stopped to inquire what the Senores would have for their breakfast. They say they will have eggs with their chocolate."
"Indeed! Eggs and chocolate—chocolate and eggs!" angrily retorted the Senora, "just as though one didn't know what everybody takes for breakfast!" But without waiting for her to finish, Chiquita vanished through the doorway with her basket; her low laughter, followed by a snatch of song just audible from within, serving to increase the Senora's irritation.
"Holy God! I sometimes think the devil is inside of that girl!" she exclaimed, vexed beyond measure.
"Ah, but what a sweet one!" laughed Dick. "I wouldn't mind being possessed of the same myself."
"Bah, Senor! you talk like a fool!" she retorted. "I pray you, do not think too poorly of us, Senor Capitan," she continued in an apologetic tone, turning to Captain Forest. "I assure you, all the women in Santa Fe are not so bold as the Senorita Chiquita."
"No, most of them are a tame lot!" broke in Dick, secretly enjoying the Senora's discomfiture.
"Caramba! your speech grows more foolish as you talk, Senor!" returned the Senora in a tone of intense disgust. "I see, you too have fallen under her spell. They say she has the evil-eye, Senor Capitan," she went on, addressing the Captain again.
"Evil-eye—ha, ha! What next?" laughed Dick.
"Blood of the Saints! I'll no longer waste my time with you, Senor!" and with an angry swish of her skirt, she turned and disappeared in the house.
"What does she mean by the evil-eye?" asked the Captain after the sounds of the Senora's footsteps had died away in the corridor within the house.
"Nothing—it's only jealousy. Chiquita being the acknowledged belle of the town, most of the other women, especially those of pure Spanish blood, are jealous as cats of her, and seldom miss an opportunity of saying spiteful things about her. That's why her dancing has caused such a row. And yet," he continued, seating himself on the veranda rail, his back against one of its wooden pillars, "I can't see why. It's race hatred of course, but there's really no reason for it because she's the best educated woman between here and the City of Mexico. Padre Antonio saw to it that she received the best Mexico had to give. Why, she speaks French and English almost as well as she does Spanish. If she were a mestiza or half-caste, things would go hard with her, but being a full-blood, she's easily a match for them all."
"She's certainly an unusual woman," said the Captain; "one you would hardly expect to find in this out-of-the-way place."
"Oh, that's one of the many paradoxes in life," answered Dick. "I've met many a remarkable personality in the most remote regions during my wanderings. But," he continued, abruptly changing the topic of conversation, "what brings you back here? I always felt you would come back to this country again. Civilization isn't all it's cracked up to be, is it?"
"It was a hard wrench just the same," returned the Captain, "especially when one—"
"Did you hear that?" suddenly interrupted Dick, rising from his seat on the veranda rail and gazing intently down the highroad. The sounds of a vehicle and hoof-beats on the hard road, mingled with the shouts of a driver, the crack of a whip and tinkle of bells, were distinctly heard, and presently, a heavy lumbering stagecoach enveloped in a cloud of white dust and drawn by four mules was seen coming down the road at full gallop.
The sounds had also aroused the household. Senora Fernandez at the head of a troop of peons and women rushed out of the house, talking and gesticulating excitedly as they swarmed over the veranda and down the steps in front of the Posada, for all the world like a distracted colony of ants.
"Dios! what can have happened to the stage that it comes in the morning instead of the evening?" she cried breathlessly, quite forgetting her recent ill humor in the excitement.
"There's no stage at this hour," said Dick.
"But there it comes!" answered the Captain.
"It's not the regular stage," returned Dick; "a party of tourists, most likely! I see a lot of women!" he added, as the occupants on the outside of the stage came more clearly into view.
Suddenly Captain Forest started, gasped, and gripped one of the veranda pillars with his right hand. "No—it can't be!" he muttered, passing his free hand across his eyes as though to dispel an illusion.
"What's the matter, Jack?" asked Dick.
"God in heaven! what can have brought them here?" he cried, ignoring his companion's question and leaning out over the veranda rail, his gaze riveted on the stage.
"Friends of yours?" asked Dick again.
"Friends? It's the whole family!"
Dick gave a prolonged whistle.
The women and peons, clamoring vociferously, instantly surrounded the stage as it drew up before the Posada with a great clatter of wheels and hoofs; assisting its occupants to alight and carrying the luggage into the house.
On the box beside the driver sat Blanch Lennox, looking a trifle pale the Captain thought, and Bessie Van Ashton, his cousin, a pretty blond with large violet eyes and small hands and feet that matched her slender, willowy figure.
"Is this the infernal place?" came a voice from the interior of the coach that sounded more like a snarl of a wild beast than a human voice. "If ever I pass another night in such a damned ark—" came the voice again, as its possessor, Colonel Van Ashton, enveloped in a much wrinkled traveling coat, stepped with difficulty from the coach to the ground. "I'm so stiff I can hardly walk! Ough!" he cried, and his right hand went to his back as a fresh spasm of pain seized him.
"It's just what I told you it would be like! The country's beastly—beastly!" and Mrs. Forest, white with dust and completely exhausted by the journey, followed the Colonel, supported on either side by her maid and her brother's valet.