|Back||1 2 3 4 5 6 7||Next|
It was again raining, and a disagreeable wind had risen. Our course lay nearly west, and we soon knew by the strong current that we were in the creek of the Espiritu Santo. From time to time the wrecks of barns were seen, and we passed many half-submerged willows hung with farming implements.
We emerge at last into a broad silent sea. It is the "LLANO DE ESPIRITU SANTO." As the wind whistles by me, piling the shallower fresh water into mimic waves, I go back, in fancy, to the long ride of October over that boundless plain, and recall the sharp outlines of the distant hills, which are now lost in the lowering clouds. The men are rowing silently, and I find my mind, released from its tension, growing benumbed and depressed as then. The water, too, is getting more shallow as we leave the banks of the creek, and with my hand dipped listlessly over the thwarts, I detect the tops of chimisal, which shows the tide to have somewhat fallen. There is a black mound, bearing to the north of the line of alder, making an adverse current, which, as we sweep to the right to avoid, I recognize. We pull close alongside and I call to the men to stop.
There was a stake driven near its summit with the initials, "L. E. S. I." Tied halfway down was a curiously worked riata. It was George's. It had been cut with some sharp instrument, and the loose gravelly soil of the mound was deeply dented with horses' hoofs. The stake was covered with horsehairs. It was a record, but no clue.
The wind had grown more violent as we still fought our way forward, resting and rowing by turns, and oftener "poling" the shallower surface, but the old VALDA, or bench, is still distant. My recollection of the old survey enables me to guess the relative position of the meanderings of the creek, and an occasional simple professional experiment to determine the distance gives my crew the fullest faith in my ability. Night overtakes us in our impeded progress. Our condition looks more dangerous than it really is, but I urge the men, many of whom are still new in this mode of navigation, to greater exertion by assurance of perfect safety and speedy relief ahead. We go on in this way until about eight o'clock, and ground by the willows. We have a muddy walk for a few hundred yards before we strike a dry trail, and simultaneously the white walls of Altascar's appear like a snowbank before us. Lights are moving in the courtyard; but otherwise the old tomblike repose characterizes the building.
One of the peons recognized me as I entered the court, and Altascar met me on the corridor.
I was too weak to do more than beg his hospitality for the men who had dragged wearily with me. He looked at my hand, which still unconsciously held the broken riata. I began, wearily, to tell him about George and my fears, but with a gentler courtesy than was even his wont, he gravely laid his hand on my shoulder.
"POCO A POCO, senor--not now. You are tired, you have hunger, you have cold. Necessary it is you should have peace."
He took us into a small room and poured out some French cognac, which he gave to the men that had accompanied me. They drank and threw themselves before the fire in the larger room. The repose of the building was intensified that night, and I even fancied that the footsteps on the corridor were lighter and softer. The old Spaniard's habitual gravity was deeper; we might have been shut out from the world as well as the whistling storm, behind those ancient walls with their time-worn inheritor.
Before I could repeat my inquiry he retired. In a few minutes two smoking dishes of CHUPA with coffee were placed before us, and my men ate ravenously. I drank the coffee, but my excitement and weariness kept down the instincts of hunger.
I was sitting sadly by the fire when he reentered.
"You have eat?"
I said, "Yes," to please him.
"BUENO, eat when you can--food and appetite are not always."
He said this with that Sancho-like simplicity with which most of his countrymen utter a proverb, as though it were an experience rather than a legend, and, taking the riata from the floor, held it almost tenderly before him.
"It was made by me, senor."
"I kept it as a clue to him, Don Altascar," I said. "If I could find him--"
"He is here."
"Here! and"--but I could not say "well!" I understood the gravity of the old man's face, the hushed footfalls, the tomblike repose of the building, in an electric flash of consciousness; I held the clue to the broken riata at last. Altascar took my hand, and we crossed the corridor to a somber apartment. A few tall candles were burning in sconces before the window.
In an alcove there was a deep bed with its counterpane, pillows, and sheets heavily edged with lace, in all that splendid luxury which the humblest of these strange people lavish upon this single item of their household. I stepped beside it and saw George lying, as I had seen him once before, peacefully at rest. But a greater sacrifice than that he had known was here, and his generous heart was stilled forever.
"He was honest and brave," said the old man, and turned away. There was another figure in the room; a heavy shawl drawn over her graceful outline, and her long black hair hiding the hands that buried her downcast face. I did not seem to notice her, and, retiring presently, left the loving and loved together.
When we were again beside the crackling fire, in the shifting shadows of the great chamber, Altascar told me how he had that morning met the horse of George Tryan swimming on the prairie; how that, farther on, he found him lying, quite cold and dead, with no marks or bruises on his person; that he had probably become exhausted in fording the creek, and that he had as probably reached the mound only to die for want of that help he had so freely given to others; that, as a last act, he had freed his horse. These incidents were corroborated by many who collected in the great chamber that evening--women and children--most of them succored through the devoted energies of him who lay cold and lifeless above.
He was buried in the Indian mound--the single spot of strange perennial greenness which the poor aborigines had raised above the dusty plain. A little slab of sandstone with the initials "G. T." is his monument, and one of the bearings of the initial corner of the new survey of the "Espiritu Santo Rancho."
|Back||1 2 3 4 5 6 7||Next|
Harte's Short Stories -by- Bret Harte