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Les chasseurs d'abeilles. English

Gustave Aimard

  Produced by Camille Bernard and Marc D'Hooghe at (Images generously madeavailable by the Oxford Bodleian Library)













  Since the discovery of the goldfields in California and on theFraser River, North America has entered into a phase of such activetransformation, civilisation has advanced with such giant strides,that only one region is still extant--a region of which very littleis known--where the poet, or the dreamer who delights in surroundinghimself with the glories of nature, can revel in the grandeur andmajesty, which are the great characteristics of the mysterioussavannahs.

  It is the only country, nowadays, where such men can sate themselveswith the contemplation of those immense oceans of alternate verdure andsand, which spread themselves out in striking contrast, yet wonderfulharmony,--expanding, boundless, solemn, silent, and threatening, underthe eye of the omnipotent Creator.

  This region, in which the sound of the squatter's axe has not yetroused the slumbering echoes, is called the Far West.

  Here the Indians still reign as masters, tracing paths on rapidmustangs, as untamed as their riders, through the vast solitudes, whosemysteries are known only to themselves; hunting the bison and wildhorse, waging war with each other, or pursuing with deadly enmity, thewhite hunters and trappers daring enough to venture into this lastformidable refuge of the redskins.

  On the 27th July, 1858, about three hours before sunset, a cavalier,mounted on a magnificent mustang, was carelessly following the banks ofthe Rio Bermejo, a tributary of the Rio Grande del Norte, into whichit falls after a course of from seventy to eighty leagues across thedesert.

  This cavalier, clad in the leather dress worn by Mexican hunters, was,as far as one could judge, a man not more than thirty years of age,of tall and well-knit frame, and graceful in manner and action. Hisface was proud and determined; and his hardy features, stamped withan expression of frankness and good nature, inspired, at first sight,respect and sympathy.

  His blue eyes, soft and mild as a woman's; the thick curls of blondehair, which escaped in masses from under the brim of his cap of vicunaskin, and wantoned in disorder on his shoulders; the sallowish whiteof his skin, very different from the olive tint, approaching to bronze,peculiar to the Mexicans,--all these would lead one to surmise that hehad not first seen the light under the hot sun of Spanish America.

  This man, who was to all appearance so peaceable and so little to bedreaded, concealed, under a slightly effeminate exterior, a couragewhich nothing could daunt, nor even startle: the delicate and almostdiaphanous skin of his white hands, with their rosy nails, served as acovering to nerves of steel.

  At the moment of which we speak this personage seemed to be half-asleepin his saddle, and allowed his mustang to choose his own pace; and thebeast, profiting by a liberty to which he was not accustomed, nibbledoff with the tips of his lips the blades of sun-dried grass he met withon his road.

  The place where our cavalier found himself was a plain of tolerableextent, cut into two nearly equal parts by the Rio Bermejo, whose bankswere steep, and here and there strewn with bare, gray rocks.

  This plain was enclosed between two chains of hills, rising to rightand left in successive undulations, until they formed at the horizonhigh peaks covered with snow, on which the purple splendours of sunsetwere playing.

  However, in spite of the real or pretended somnolence of the cavalier,his eyes half opened occasionally and, without turning his head,he cast a searching glance around him, but betrayed no symptom ofapprehension, which nevertheless would have been quite pardonable in adistrict where the jaguar is the least formidable of man's enemies.

  The traveller, or hunter,--for as yet we do not know who heis,--continued his road at a pace which became more and more slow andcareless; he was on the point of passing at about a hundred yards'distance from a rock which rose like a solitary watchtower on the bankof the Rio Bermejo, when, from behind the mass, where he had probablylain in ambuscade, there half emerged a man, armed with an Americanrifle.

  This individual for a moment examined the traveller with the minutestattention: then, levelling his rifle, he pressed the trigger, and fired.

  The cavalier, bounding in his saddle, and uttering a suppressed scream,flung up his arms, lost his stirrups, and rolled on the turf, where,after a few convulsive movements, he remained motionless.

  The horse, in alarm, reared, lashed out wildly with his heels, andstarted off at full speed in the direction of the woods scattered overthe hills, in the midst of which he soon disappeared.

  Having thus cleverly knocked over his man, the assassin dropped thebutt of his weapon on the ground, and, doffing his cap of vicuna skin,dried his forehead, while he murmured expressions of gratified vanity.

  "_iCanarios!_ This time I don't think my marauding friend will come tolife again; I must have broken his backbone for him. What a gloriousshot! What will those fools say who wanted to make me believe at theventa that he was a sorcerer, who could not be hit without putting asilver ball into my rifle, if they could see him now, stretched out inthat way? Capital! I have loyally earned my hundred piastres. It's notbad luck. I had lots of trouble in succeeding. May the holy Virgin beblessed for the protection she has deigned to grant me! I will takecare not to be ungrateful to her for it."

  All the time he was muttering thus, the worthy fellow was reloading hisrifle with the most scrupulous care.

  "Well," continued he, seating himself on a clod of turf, "I am knockedup with having had to watch so long. Suppose I were to go and convincemyself of his death? By Heaven, no; he might still be breathing, andtreat me to a thrust of the knife. I'm no such fool. I prefer sittinghere in peace, and smoking a cigarette. If, within an hour, he has notstirred, all will be over, and then I'll run the risk. And indeed I'min no sort of hurry," he added, with a sinister smile.

  Upon that, with an air of the greatest coolness, he took the tobaccofrom his pouch, twisted a _pajillo_ (straw cigarette), lit it, andcommenced smoking with immense _sangfroid_, never ceasing to watch, outof the corner of his eye, the corpse lying a few yards from him.

  Let us profit by this moment of respite to make the reader a littlebetter acquainted with this interesting personage.

  He was a man a little below the average height, but the breadth ofhis shoulders and bigness of his limbs showed him to be endowed withimmense muscular power; his forehead was low and receding like thatof a wild beast; his nose, long and hooked, bent down over a mouthimmense in size, but with thin lips, and garnished with long pointedand irregular teeth; gray eyes, with squinting pupils, stamped hisphysiognomy with a sinister expression.

  The man was dressed in a hunter's garb, similar to that of thecavalier. _Calzoneras_ (loose trousers) of leather, bound about atthe hips with a _faja_, or sash of silk, and falling as low as theknee, were fastened under _botas vaqueras_ (heav
y boots), intended topreserve the legs. A kind of half-jacket, half-blouse, also of leather,covered the upper part of his body, which garment, open in front likea shirt, had sleeves reaching to the elbow; a _machete_ or straightsword, passed without sheath through an iron ring, hung on his lefthip; and a game bag, apparently well supplied was slung to his rightside by a strip of bison hide worn across the shoulder; a _zarape_, orIndian blanket, motley with brilliant colours, lay on the earth besidehim.

  In the meanwhile time was passing; an hour and a half had alreadyelapsed without our friend, who smoked cigarette after cigarette,appearing to be able to decide upon going to convince himself of thedeath of him on whom he had treacherously drawn trigger from behind therock.

  During all this time, the cavalier, after he fell, had preservedthe most complete immobility; attentively watched by the assassin,the latter had not been able to perceive the slightest motion. The_zopilotes_ (turkey buzzards) and the condors, in all probabilityattracted by the scent of the corpse, were beginning to circle in widerings over it, uttering their rough and discordant cries; the sun, onthe point of disappearing, had assumed the shape of a globe of fire onthe edge of the horizon. It became necessary to act.

  The assassin rose, greatly against his will.

  "Pooh!" he murmured, "The man must be dead enough by this time, orif not his soul has turned to ashes in his heart. Let's go and look.Nevertheless, as prudence is the mother of safety, let us be prudent."

  And in accordance with this reasoning, he drew from his garter thesharp-pointed knife which every Mexican carries for the purpose ofcutting the thong if an enemy happens to cast the lasso round his neck.Having tried the spring of the blade against a stone, and convincedhimself that the point was not broken, he made up his mind, at last,to approach the body, still lying motionless on the spot where it hadfallen. But in the American deserts there is an axiom the justice ofwhich is acknowledged by all. It is this: That the shortest road fromone point to another is a curve. Our friend took good care to put it inpractice on this occasion. Instead of advancing straight to the objectof his visit, he made a long circuit, drawing nearer little by little,stealing along softly, stopping at intervals to examine the body, andready to fly at the slightest movement he might see, and with his knifeready to strike.

  But these precautions were useless; the corpse preserved the immobilityof a statue, and our man stopped almost within reach withoutdiscovering a single thing to betray an atom of life in the unhappywretch stretched upon the ground before him.

  The murderer crossed his arms over his chest, and contemplated thebody, whose face was turned to the ground.

  "By my faith, he is dead indeed. It is a pity; for he was a formidablefellow. I should never have dared to attack him face to face. But aman must stick to his word. I had been paid; I was bound to fulfil myengagement. Curious! I see no blood! Pooh! It is a case of internalbleeding. So much the better for him, for his sufferings will have beenless. However, to make doubly sure, I'll plant my knife between his twoshoulders: in that way I shall be sure of my bird, although there is nodanger of his coming to life again. You see, one must not deceive thosewho pay us; a man must stick to his word."

  After this soliloquy he knelt down, bent over the body, supportinghimself by one hand on its shoulders, and lifted his knife; butsuddenly, by a movement of unexampled rapidity, the supposed corpserose with a bound like a jaguar, and oversetting the stupefiedassassin, seized him by the throat, pinned him to the earth, plantedhis knee on his chest, and deprived him of his knife before his brainscould render an account of what was happening.

  "Hulloa, _compadre!_" (comrade) said the cavalier in a jeering tone;"One moment, if you please, _icuerpo de Cristo!_"

  All this passed in much less time than we have taken to write it.

  However, sudden and unexpected as the attack had been, the otherwas too much accustomed to strange vicissitudes in somewhat similarsituations not to recover his presence of mind almost immediately.

  "Well, comrade," resumed the cavalier, "what have you got to say to allthis?"

  "I?" replied the other, with a sneer; "_iCaray!_ I say the game hasbeen well played."

  "Then it is one you are acquainted with?"

  "A little," was the modest reply.

  "I have been a little sharper than you."

  "Yes, sharper; yet I certainly thought I had killed you. Curious," hecontinued, as if talking to himself, "the others were right; it isI who have been a fool. I will take a silver ball next time; it issurer."

  "What are you saying?"


  "Pardon me, you did say something."

  "Are you very anxious to know?"

  "Apparently, since I have asked the question."

  "Very well. I said I would take a silver bullet next time."

  "What for?"

  "Why, to kill you."

  "To kill me? Go to; you are a fool! Do you fancy I will let you escape?"

  "I do not fancy anything of the kind, the more so as you could not doanything worse."

  "Because you would kill me?"

  "By Heavens! Yes, as soon as possible."

  "Then you hate me?"

  "I? Not the least in the world."

  "Well, then, if not, what is your motive?"

  "Confound it! A man must stick to his word."

  The cavalier cast a long look upon him, shaking his head the while witha thoughtful air.

  "H'm," said he, at last, "promise me not to attempt to escape if Ileave you free for a time."

  "I promise, with so much the more pleasure, since I am obliged toconfess that I find myself in a most fatiguing posture, and am veryanxious to change it."

  "Rise," said the cavalier, helping him up.

  The other did not wait for the mandate to be repeated: in an instant hewas on his legs.

  "Ah," he replied, with a grunt of satisfaction, "liberty is a blessing!"

  "Is it not? Now shall we talk a little?"

  "I desire nothing better, _caballero_. I can only be the gainer by yourconversation," replied the other, bowing, with an insinuating smile.

  The two enemies placed themselves side by side, as if nothingextraordinary had happened between them.

  This is one of the distinctive traits of Mexican character: murderamongst these people has grown so thoroughly into a habit, that itnever astonishes anyone; and it often happens that the man just escapedfalling a victim to an ambuscade, does not scruple to press the handextended by his would-be assassin, foreseeing that someday or other hetoo will be called on to play in his turn the part of murderer.

  In the present circumstances it was certainly not this considerationwhich induced the cavalier to act as he was doing. He had a powerfulmotive, with which we shall become acquainted presently; for, in spiteof his feigned indifference, it was only with a sentiment of livelydisgust that he seated himself beside the bandit.

  As to the latter, we feel ourselves bound in justice to state that hehad only one feeling of regret--the shame of having missed his blow;but he promised himself, _in petto_, to take his revenge as soon aspossible, and this time to take such sure precautions that he mustsucceed.

  "What are you thinking of?" demanded the cavalier, all of a sudden.

  "I? On my honour, nothing," was the ingenuous reply.

  "You would deceive me. I know what you are thinking of at this verymoment."

  "Oh, as for that, permit me to tell you--"

  "You were thinking of killing me," said the cavalier, interrupting himabruptly.

  The other returned no answer; he contented himself with mutteringbetween his teeth--

  "What a devil! He reads the most hidden thoughts. One is not safebeside him."

  "Will you answer honestly, and frankly, the questions I am about to putto you?" resumed the cavalier, after a time.

  "Yes; as well as lies in my power."

  "That is to say, just so far as your interest does not lead you to lie."

  "Confound it, senor, no one like
s to make war upon oneself! No oneought to force me to speak ill of myself."

  "You are right. Who are you?"

  "Senor," replied the other, raising himself proudly, "I have thehonour to be a Mexican, My mother was an Opata Indian; my father a_caballero_ (gentleman) of Guadalupe."

  "Very well; but I learn nothing from this about yourself."

  "Alas, senor!" was the reply, given in that whining tone the Mexicansknow so well how to adopt, "I have been unfortunate."

  "Oh, you have met with misfortunes! Well, pardon me once more. You haveforgotten to mention your name."

  "It is a very obscure one, senor; but since you desire to know it, hereit is: I am called Tonillo el Zapote--at your service, senor."

  "Thanks, Senor Zapote. Now proceed; I am listening."

  "I have followed many trades in my day. I have been by turns _lepero_(vagabond), muleteer, husbandman, soldier. Unhappily, I am of a quicktemper: when I am in a passion, my hand is very ready."

  "And heavy," said the cavalier, with a smile.

  "It is all the same; so much so, that I have had the misfortune to_bleed_ five or six individuals who had the imprudence to pick aquarrel with me. The _Juez de letras_ (magistrate) was annoyed; andunder the pretence that I was guilty of six murders, he asserted Ideserved the garotte; so, seeing my fellow citizens misapprehendedme--that society would not appreciate me at my real value--I tookrefuge in the desert, and turned hunter."

  "Of men?" interrupted the cavalier in a tone of sarcasm.

  "By Heavens! Senor, times are hard: the Gringos pay twenty dollars fora scalp. It is a pretty sum; and, on my honour, particularly so whenwant presses. But I never have recourse to these means except in thedirest extremity."

  "It is well. And now tell me, do you know me?"

  "Very well by report; personally, not at all."

  "Have you any reasons for hating me?"

  "I have already the honour to tell you--none."

  "In that case, why have you attempted to assassinate me?"

  "I, senor?" cried he, showing signs of the utmost astonishment; "Iassassinate you? Never!",

  "What, fool!" exclaimed the cavalier, lowering his brows, "Dare youmaintain such an imposture? Four times have I served as a target toyour rifle. You have drawn trigger upon me this very day, and--"

  "Oh! By your leave, senor," said El Zapote with warmth, "that is quitea different thing. True, I fired at you; it is even likely I shall fireat you again; but never, as I hoped for Paradise, have I dreamed ofassassinating you. For shame!--I, a _caballero_! How could you form sobad an opinion of me, senor?"

  "Then what was your intention in firing at me?"

  "To kill you, senor; nothing more."

  "Then in this case murder is not assassination?"

  "Not in the slightest degree, senor; this was business."

  "What! Business?--The rogue will make me go mad, upon my soul!"

  "By Heaven, senor, an honest man must stick to his word."

  "If it is to kill me?"

  "Exactly so," answered El Zapote. "You can understand that, under theconditions, I was compelled to keep my engagement."

  There was a moment of silence; evidently the reasoning did not seem soconclusive to the cavalier as to the _lepero_.

  Then said the former:

  "Enough; let us have done with this."

  "I ask no better of your seigneurie."

  "You acknowledge, I suppose, that you are in my power?"

  "It would be difficult to assert the contrary."

  "Good! As, according to your own confession you have fired on me withthe evident intention of killing me--"

  "I cannot deny it, senor."

  "In killing you, now you are in my power, I should only be making useof reprisals?"

  "That is perfectly true, _caballero_, I must even confess that youcould not possibly have a stronger reason for doing so."

  His companion gazed at him in surprise.

  "Then you are content to die?" said he.

  "Let us understand each other," replied the _lepero_ with avidity."I am not at all content. On the contrary, I only know that I am athorough gambler, that is all. I played; I lost; I have to pay. It isreasonable."

  The cavalier seemed to reflect.

  "And if, instead of planting my knife in your throat, even as youyourself acknowledge I have the right to do--"

  El Zapote made a sign of assent.

  "I were to restore you to liberty," continued the cavalier, "leavingyou the power of acting according to your own impulse?"

  The bandit shook his head sorrowfully.

  "I repeat," he said, "that I would kill you. A man must stick to hisword. I cannot betray the confidence of my employers; it would ruin myreputation."

  The cavalier burst out laughing.

  "I suppose you have been well paid for this undertaking?" said he.

  "Not a great deal; but want makes many things be done. I have receiveda hundred piastres."

  "No more?" exclaimed the stranger, with a gesture of disdain; "It isvery little; I thought myself worth more than that."

  "A great deal more, particularly as the undertaking was difficult; butnext time I will take a silver bullet."

  "You are an idiot, comrade. You will not kill me the next, any morethan you did the other times. Think of what has occurred up to today.I have already heard your balls whistle four times about my ears: thatannoyed me. At last I wished to find out who you were: you see I havesucceeded."

  "It is the truth. Now, after all, were you not aware of my being closeto you?"

  The cavalier shrugged his shoulders.

  "I will not even demand of you," he said, "the name of him who hasordered you to compass my death. Here, take your knife, and begone. Idespise you too much to fear you. Adieu!"

  Speaking thus, the cavalier rose, and dismissed the bandit with agesture full of majesty and disdain.

  The _lepero_ remained an instant motionless, then bowed profoundlybefore his generous adversary.

  "Thanks, your worship," said he, in a voice exhibiting some emotion;"you are better than I. Never mind; I will prove to you that I am notthe scoundrel you fancy me, and that there is still something within mewhich has not been utterly corrupted."

  The cavalier's only answer was to turn his back upon him, with a shrugof the shoulders.

  The _lepero_ gazed after his retiring form with a look of which hissavage features would have seemed incapable: a mixture of sorrow andgratitude impressed on his countenance a stamp very different to theircustomary expression.

  "He does not believe me," he muttered--we have already seen that he hada decided taste for soliloquy--"he does not believe me. Why, indeed,should he trust my words? It is sad; but an honest man must stick tohis word, and I will prove to him that he does not yet know me. Let mebegone."

  Comforting himself with these words, the bandit returned to the rockbehind which he had originally hidden; there he picked up his rifle,then from the other side of the rock he brought his horse, which he hadconcealed in a hollow, replaced the bridle, and departed at a gallop,after casting a glance behind him, and murmuring, in a tone of sincereadmiration:

  "_iCaray!_ What a tremendous fellow! What natural power! What a pity itwould be to knock him over like an antelope, from behind a bush! _iVivaDios!_ That shall not happen, if I can hinder it, on the honour of aZapote."

  He forded the Rio Bermejo, and speedily disappeared amongst the tallgrasses that bordered the opposite bank.

  As soon as the unknown had assured himself of the _lepero's_ departure,he began to calculate the time by the enormously lengthened shadows ofthe trees; and, after looking about him attentively, gave a whistle,sharp and prolonged, which, although restrained, was neverthelessrepeated by all the echoes of the river, so powerful was its tone.

  At the end of a few seconds a distant neighing made itself audible,followed almost immediately after by the sound of precipitategalloping, resembling the rolling of distant thunder.

e by little the sound grew nearer, the branches crashed, theunderwood was violently dashed aside, and the unknown's mustang madehis appearance on the skirt of a wood at a little distance.

  When there, the noble animal paused, snuffed the air vigorously,turning his head and neck in all directions; then starting off, with athousand capers he made the best of his way, till he halted before hismaster, and gazed upon him with eyes full of intelligence.

  The latter patted him gently, talking to him in a caressing voice;then, having made quite sure that the _lepero_ was gone, and that hewas assuredly alone, he readjusted the trappings of his horse, whichhad become slightly disordered, vaulted into the saddle and in his turndeparted.

  But instead of continuing to follow the course of the Rio Bermejo, heturned his back upon it, and rode in the direction of the mountains.

  The bearing of the unknown had undergone a complete change; it was nolonger the man whom we formerly presented to our readers, half asleep,swaying in the saddle, and leaving his horse to wander at leisure.No; now he held himself firm and upright on his mustang, with limbsclosely pressing its flanks; his face was overcast with dark shadesof thought; his glances wandered about as if they would pierce themysteries of the thick forest with which he was surrounded; with headslightly bent forward, he listened with strained attention to the mosttrifling noise; and his rifle, placed across the saddlebow, had thelock exactly under his right hand, in such a fashion that he could fireinstantaneously, if circumstances required.

  One might have said, so suddenly had the man changed, that the strangescene to which we have just introduced our reader was for him only oneof those thousand accidents, without consequences, to which his desertlife exposed him, but that now he was preparing to battle with dangerswhich might really prove serious.