In The Hands Of
The Cave Dwellers

BY G. A. HENTY [1900]

Chapter Titles.

Chapter 2
A Hearty Welcome

Early as Mexican households are awake, in order to enjoy the comparatively cool hours of the morning, William Harland was the first up, and, dressing hastily, he started out to fetch his kit-bag. At the bottom of this he had stowed away, before he went on board, the clothes that he had worn when he left home, and also the contents of a small truck that he had taken with him, buying an outfit for use on board from a slop-shop. He was back in an hour, for he had hidden the bag in a clump of bushes but two miles from the town. The servants were moving about, but, with the exception of Juan, none of the others were yet down. The latter met him as he entered.

“I have been to your room, and when I found it empty, guessed the errand on which you were away. Why did you not tell me last night? You could have had a negro slave to go with you and carry that sack of yours back.”

“Oh, I am not too proud to carry it myself, Don Juan, and I was really anxious to get it first thing this morning, for I certainly should feel very uncomfortable sitting down to breakfast with your friends in this rough sailor suit. Luckily, I have some decent clothes in my bag, and half a dozen white jean jackets and trousers, which I bought for wearing ashore when I was on my last voyage; for then, as an apprentice and in a ship chiefly belonging to my father, I had a good many privileges in the way of leave when we were in port.”

“You look desperately hot, and if you would like a swim, there is pond in that clump of trees at the end of the garden - I have had a dip there myself this morning.”

“Thank you, I should like it very much, and I can finish getting ready for the day there.”

The pond was an artificial one, the sides and bottom being lined with stone; a think band of trees and undergrowth surrounded it; it had doubtless been formed for the purpose of a bath, and also, as was shown by two or three seats placed around it, as a shady retreat during the heat of the day. In half an hour Will rejoined Juan, looking cool and comfortable in his white jacket and trousers, and a white flannel shirt, with turn-down collar and black silk handkerchief around the neck.

“That is a good deal better,” Juan said; “you only want a sombrero to complete your outfit. Sit down here; I told the servant to bring chocolate for us when I saw you coming out from the trees. Don Guzman and Christina take their chocolate in their room. I don’t suppose that we shall see them till breakfast, which will not be served for an hour and a half yet.”

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“How is your arm, Don Juan?”

“Drop the Don, please; I was always called simply Juan by my English friends at Valparaiso. It is much more pleasant that our ceremonious way of addressing each other. So call me Juan, please, and I will call you Will.”

“Now, Juan,” Harland said, as they sipped their chocolate, “who do you believe set those ruffians on to you? I could see plainly enough that both you and the senorita had suspicions, though you did not choose to mention them to her father.”

“You are a sharp observer.” Juan laughed. “Well, yes, I will tell you frankly upon whom my suspicions fell. I must tell you first that Don Guzman is a relative of mine, my father having married a first cousin of his. When my father went out to this new ranch of his, twelve years ago, he left me behind, under my cousin’s charge, and I lived here for five years, going to the mission to be educated by the priests. Since then I have generally spend a month or two here, and not unnaturally I have grown to be very fond of Christina. Of course till lately she has simply looked upon me as her big cousin, but when I was last here, before going down to Valparaiso, she was a little changed; she had grown to be shy with me, which she had never been before, and I hoped that she had begun to return my affection.

"Naturally enough, when I returned the other day, I spoke out to her, and learned, to my delight, that this was so, but of course she could say nothing until our parents had been consulted - an indispensable step, as you of course know, for in Mexico, although young people may have some voice in the matter, the parents’ consent has to be obtained, and the preliminaries are settled by them. In this case, happily, there is no fear of difficulty arising on that score. Don Guzman and my father are firm friends, and the alliance would be a suitable one in all respects, as, although my father may be more wealthy than Don Guzman, Christina is an only child, while I have a sister who is about her age.”

“But I still do not see, Juan, how that explains anyone having an enmity with you.”

“No, I am just coming to that. You must know that the military commandant of San Diego, Colonel Pedros Melos, has a son Enriques, who is a captain in the regiment stationed here. Christina told me before I went down to Chile that Captain Melos was a frequent visitor, and that he was very attentive to her father, and frequently brought bouquets of choice flowers.

She added that, although he was very civil to her, as far as the customs of the country permit a caballero [ed. note: spanish for gentleman] to be civil to any young lady not related to him, she did not like him. Well, it happened the other day, that, just as Christina and I were coming to an understanding, exactly where we are sitting now, this Captain Melos stepped out from the window of the drawing-room. I should imagine that he had no great difficulty in understanding the situation. A young couple who have just declared their love for each other are apt to look a little awkward when suddenly interrupted.

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“The sound of his foot, as he stepped out on the veranda, caused us to look around sharply. As his eyes fell on us he turned as pale as if he had received a blow, and if ever man’s face wore for a moment an expression if intense rage his did then. However, he checked himself, murmured a word or two about believing that Senor Guzman was in the veranda, and then turned on his heel and went back into the room. Christina aught my arm. ‘Beware, Juan, that man will be your deadly enemy!’ And I felt that she spoke truly. She said that his attentions of late had been very marked, and she had been in constant fear that his father would call on hers to ask for her hand for his son. We agreed that I should, without loss of time, speak to her father on the subject of my suit, and I did so on the same day.

"He was good enough to say that when a request from my father reached him to that effect, he would most willingly agree. Colonel Melos did, in fact, call the day before yesterday, and formally proposed the alliance to which Don Guzman replied that his daughter’s affections were already engaged with his perfect consent and approval. The colonel, of course, had nothing to do but to bow himself out with as good a grace as he could muster. I fancy from what I have heard that he is a good officer and an honest man. He has played a part in all the civil wars that we have here, but unlike most others, he always stuck to the same side, which, fortunately for him, turned out in the end to be the successful one. His son bears an altogether different character. Here, indeed, there has been nothing much against him; the fact of his father being the commandant has no doubt acted as a check upon him, and possibly the hope that he may have entertained of winning Christina’s hand may have helped to render him discreet, but I have heard that in other places where his regiment has been in garrison, he bore the worst of characters.

“So, you see, as a bitterly-disappointed man and as an unscrupulous one, he might well have been the author of this attack upon me; and, as you noticed, the idea occurred to Christina as well as myself, remembering as we did the expression of his face when he saw us together. That the attack was his work, however, we have no shadow of proof, and I should not think of whispering my suspicions to anyone. Still, I shall take every precaution for the three or four days that I remain here, and shall not be out in the unfrequented streets after nightfall.”

Juan continued, ”And now about yourself; tell me frankly, what are you thinking of doing? Do you intend to continue at sea, or are you thinking of returning to your home, where, no doubt, you would be gladly received by your father?”

“I have not thought it fully over yet, but I certainly shall not go back to my father with the tale that I found my life unbearable and deserted my ship. When I go it must be with a better record than that. He may have objected most strongly to my taking to the sea, but I think it would be an even greater annoyance to him to find that having, in defiance of his wishes, done so, I had so soon backed out of it. He himself is a man who carries through anything he undertakes, no matter if he incurs loss in do doing. I do not say that if I saw some other opening and made a success of it, he would mind; but when I do go back it must not be as a returned prodigal, but as a man who has done something, who has in one line or another achieved a certain amount of success. As far as I have thought it over, my ideas have been to take a passage down to Valparaiso, which seems to me the most advanced place on this coast, and there look round. I have money enough to last for some little time, for my father, on my return from my last voyage, gave me a cheque for five hundred dollars, and, beyond twenty or thirty dollars expended on my sea-kit, I still have it all in my belt.”

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“But what do you think of doing in Valparaiso?”

“I would take anything that turned up except a clerkship. Then, if in two or three months I could see nothing that seemed likely to lead to a good thing, I would ship again.”

“Well, you will not embark on any such wild-goose chase for some time, for I intend to take you off with me to my father’s hacienda for a long visit. You will receive the heartiest of welcomes when I tell them what you have done for me. I can promise you, I think, a pleasant time there, and you will see what will be quite a new side of life to you, and learn something of the ranching business, which, let me tell you, is as good as another, though I admit that a considerable amount of capital is required for making a fair start.”

“I would really like it, “Harland said, “but - “

“There are no buts in it, Will,” the other broke in. “You don’t suppose that after what happened you are going your way and I am going mine in the course of a few days, as if we were but two passengers who had made a short voyage together. My father would never forgive me if I did not bring you up with me. I expect tomorrow or the next day we shall have three or four of the men down with horses, blankets, and other necessities for travel. I sent a messenger off on the day I arrived. There is generally a wagon or two that comes down every month for groceries and other matters, and as I find that it is fully that time since the last trip, I expect that the carts and men will both arrive tomorrow. Traveling comfortably, we shall take the best part of a week to get there; of course, with relays of horses it could be done in less than half that time. The wagons take ten days, and that is good traveling, especially as there are three days’ heavy work over the first range of hills. Here the mules will have a few days’ rest and then start again.”

“You find mules better than horses for wagons?”

“Beyond all comparison better; the value of a mule is six times that of a horse, except for exceptionally good and fast animals. Feed a mule well, and there is no better beast in the world. Of course the mules are big animals, being bred from the finest donkeys that can be imported from Spain, and can drag as much as oxen and go half as fast again.”

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Acting under his friend’s advice, Will purchased the necessaries for his journey, the main item being a Mexican poncho; this, in appearance, was like a large blanket made of long, soft wool that was practically waterproof. A hole edged with a braid was cut in the middle. This was slipped on over the head, and a long reding-cloak, reaching to the stirrups, was obtained, while at night it served all the purposes of an ordinary blanket. Juan presented him with a rifle, a brace of handsomely mounted double-barreled pistols, and a sword.

“We always ride armed across the hills; we are on good terms with the Indians near us, but might fall in with some wandering bands, or possibly a party of white cut-throats, fugitives from justice. Besides, “ he added significantly, “there may possibly be dangers on this side of the first range of hills.”

“You think - “ Will began.

“Yes, I think it possible that the organizer of the first attempt on my life may try again. It is not probable that he likes me any better for the failure he then made.”

Some high riding boots, a couple of pairs of fringed Mexican trousers, and a few other necessaries completed the equipment, most of which was to be sent up in the wagon with the kit-bag. Will was in high spirits. Nothing could be more pleasant that the trip promised to be, and he looked eagerly forward to the start. The wagons had arrived, and with them four mounted men who had overtaken them on the day before they reached San Diego. They brought down with them two riding horses, intended for Juan’s use.

‘My father always sends two down, “Juan said, “so that I can have a change each day, and be beyond the reach of such accidents as a horse straining himself or casting a shoe. Besides, on more than one occasion I have brought back a friend with me, as I am going to do now.”

“I suppose you breed a good many horses up there?”

“We breed enough for the wants of our vaqueros, and a few high-class animals for our own riding. We don’t care about having more than is necessary, for a good horse is a temptation that an Indian can scarcely withstand. Cattle they don’t care so much for, for up in the mountains feed would be scarce for them; besides, they have no difficulty in getting meat - game is plentiful enough, deer and bear, while at time they go down into the great plains on the other side of the Rockies and kill as many buffalo as they please, jerk the meat, and bring it up to their villages. In point of fact, we never refuse half a dozen to a dozen cattle to any party of Indians who come down and ask for them. It keeps us on good terms with them, and practically costs us nothing, for they do not often take the hides, preferring greatly deer-skins for their hunting shirts and leggings, for which bullock hide is too heavy, while for their lariats and heel ropes, and so on, they use buffalo hide, which is stronger and tougher. So practically, you see, it is only the value of the fat we lose.”

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Three days later Juan and Will said goodbye to Senor Guzman and his daughter and set out, the four mounted men riding behind them with two led animals carrying provisions and water-skins.

“How far is it before we get beyond the settled country?”

“The country is cultivated as far as the Chocolate Hills, as there are several small rivers, whose water is used if irrigating the fields. Beyond these hills are scatted villages and haciendas, their positions being determined by the existence of streams coming down from a great mountain range, for although rain seldom falls near the coast, there are heavy showers there occasionally. Except in the rainy season, the beds of these streams are dry, but well sunk in them at all times yield a plentiful supply of water. It is drawn up by the labour of bullocks, and the ground irrigated; and they grow oranges, bananas, grapes, melons, and all kinds of fruit, in fact, in abundance. Some of these irrigated estates are of considerable size.

"For the last fifty miles we shall come across no settlements until we reach our own hacienda, for the country is too much open to Indian forays. Though we do not suffer as much as they do on the other side of the Colorado; still the risk is great - too great for men who embark their capital, to say nothing of their lives. We are fortunate in the fact that the tribe immediately in our neighbourhood is a small one, and far less warlike than many of their neighbours. The goods they receive from us, and the cattle, make them comparatively rich, and they have never shown any signs whatever of enmity against us. We have promised them that if they are attacked by any of their savage neighbours we will, if they come down to us, assist them, and as the hacienda is strongly built and we have a supply of arms sufficient for all our men, we could resist any attack. I think this understanding has quite as much to do with their friendly feeling toward us as the benefits they receive from us.”

“It must be a large valley to be capable of sustaining so vast a herd as that of your father?”

“Yes; the valley is not very wide at the lower end near the river, but the hills open out and form a basin some ten miles wide and twenty miles long. Beyond that it extends a considerable distance, but narrows fast; a stream runs down the centre, and during the rainy season and at the time of the melting of the snows there are innumerable rivulets coming down from the hills, and in consequence the grass is sweet and long. Our herds amount to about forty thousand head, and we do not let them exceed that number. We do not use the upper part of the valley. By our agreement with the Indians that is to remain untouched as a hunting ground for them.”

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That night they slept at the hacienda of some acquaintances of Senor Sarasta, where they were most hospitable entertained. The next day they halted for a few hours at San Felica, and rode on as soon as the sun had lost its full power. They were now beyond the region of general cultivations; the plain was, however, fairly green, as a short time before the unusual circumstance of a heavy rain had occurred, with the result that in the course of a few days the whole fact of the country was changed. As soon as the horses were unsaddled the men scattered to collect dead brushwood, and in a short time a fire was blazing, and a slice from the hindquarter of venison that had been presented to them by their host of the night before was skewered on a ramrod and placed over it.

They had made sixty-five miles in two days’ journey. They had not been following any beaten track, but the men had all made the journey so often that no path was needed. In the morning they would begin the ascent of the lower slopes of the mountains, whose crest rose some thirty miles ahead of them, although, seen in the clear air, they did not seem to Will Harland to be more than a fifth of that distance. Rather to the surprise of the men, Juan ordered that a watch should be kept, a precaution they had never taken before.

“I have an idea,” he said to Will, “that we shall be attacked either tonight or while mounting the hill tomorrow. It is just as well to take the precaution to set a guard to-night, but I do not really think that if a party are out after us they will trouble us tonight. They could not know exactly the road we should take, but will be sure that we shall cross the hills and come down on the north side of the Great Dry Lake, and probably stop at Martinez. From there the country is better cultivated, as we go along the Chatenezonais Valley, in which there are several villages. Tomorrow’s journey is, therefore, the most lonely and dangerous, and they would have no motive whatever in going farther, so I think that for tonight we can sleep tranquilly. Tomorrow we shall have to be on our guard.”

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