South, West and North/Part 2/Chapter 3

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3177426South, West and North — Bound West. IIIH. Bedford-Jones


HAVING made a start with dawn, three hours of hard travel by jungle and hill trails saw the three companions within five miles of Panama City. Passing the Mendoza y Mueges hacienda, they emerged upon a very fair carriage road which, as El Hambre informed the other two, joined the Chagres-Panama high way two miles from the latter city, and which would be practically deserted. The hour was too late for peons to be going to town with produce, and too early for the average city dweller to be outward bound.

“Here I leave you, señores,” said the Indian gravely. “Where do we meet tonight?”

“That is for you to say,” returned Hampton.

“Very well. Go to the inn of the Golden Pomegranates, in the Calle de los Hermanos, and ask for the owner, Juan d'Aquila. He is my father's brother; say that you come from me. I'll meet you there at nine tonight.”

“Agreed,” said Hampton. “Hasta la noche!”

“Until tonight,” repeated El Hambre, and was gone among the green foliage.

Hampton and Warlock struck out together along the road, which wound apparently through open jungle, though at times patches of cleared and cultivated land appeared beyond the bordering trees and vines, and twice they passed imposing haciendas. They had evidently been brought into one of the fertile vales which supplied the ancient richness of Panama.

“Looks to me,” observed Warlock, “as if we'd better raise an army before we go after Dias! Either that or a navy. What's your idea, anyhow?”

“You and I and El Hambre can do more than any army,” responded Hampton.

“All three of us together and —— the odds! Hello—squally weather ahead——

From a bend in the road just ahead, masked by trees, rose a shrill yell, followed by the roar of a gun. Then, almost upon them, dashed into sight a carriage drawn by two plunging horses. Another shot smashed out, and one of the horses pitched forward, bringing down the second and flinging a groom to the road, where he lay senseless. In the halted carriage appeared a woman, whose bright gown and gay parasol made a brilliant splotch of color.

As the two men stood staring, a group of figures broke into sight, running at the carriage; there was a flash of knives, and a yell shrilled up.

“Hold-up,” exclaimed Job Warlock, snatching at his revolver.

Hampton's weapon was already out, and he fired twice. The carriage was not twenty feet distant; the bandits, half a dozen ragged peons, were checked by the sight of two strangers, and one of them fell to Hampton's shots. An escopeta roared, and the slugs whistled overhead, as Warlock's weapon cracked—but instead of breaking, the bandits yelled and leaped forward, thinking that they had to deal with pistols now discharged and empty.

When Hampton dropped the leader, and Warlock winged another, cries of dismay burst from the remaining men, and next instant they scattered and were gone into the jungle, leaving a wounded comrade to drag himself after them, and two bodies sprawled grotesquely in the sunlit road. Warlock sprang to the reins of the unhurt horse, which was on his feet plunging in mad fright, while Hampton, removing his wide hat, turned to the occupant of the carriage.

Somewhat to his astonishment, he perceived that not only was she quite composed, but was smiling at him in entire absence of fright or alarm. Also, he noted that she was a rarely beautiful woman, with darkly vivid Spanish coloring and a peculiar golden glow to her skin which might have come from the sunlight splashing through the interstices of her dropping Leghorn hat. Jewels flashed on her fingers.

“Muchas gracias, señores!” she exclaimed, not in the long Mexican drawl but in the more precise and lisping accents of Castile. “I owe you more than thanks; I am in your debt. Those bandits shot one groom and the other went down when my horse was killed—you are not hurt? Praise to the saints!”

Hampton bowed, not forgetting that he must play a part.

“Señora, the opportunity of serving you is its own reward. With your leave, I will help my friend revive your groom——

He rushed to the aid of Warlock, who had quieted the horse, and between them they got the stunned groom revived and on his feet. The latter, his fears appeased, looked at the dead bandit leader, and crossed himself.

“It is he, El Tigre, the dreaded outlaw. But who will pay for my horse——

“I will pay, fool,” came the woman's voice, with an authoritative ring in it. “Go and see whether your companion is alive—though I think he was shot in the head and done for. Then return and hitch up the remaining horse. Señores, to whom do I give my thanks? Are you travelers, as your appearance would indicate, or paladin knights sent by the saints to aid me?”

Job Warlock, bowing, grinned widely and made answer.

“Neither and both, señora. Being Basque, we are noble, since every Basque gentleman is a noble by ancient rights; and having tired of plantations in Cuba, which we have sold, we are now traveling to the land of Eldorado, to seek California gold. I am Hernan d'Etchevain, and my friend here is Antonio Estramure. Señora, we kiss your hands and feet.”

To all this stately Spanish speech the woman paid little heed, save to one word, for her eyes were devouring the two men. Hampton found those dark and liquid eyes unaccountably piercing, and behind their beauty was a poise and quiet control unusual in such a woman.

“Basque!” she repeated. “That explains the accent, and also the swift action. Señores, since you are bound for California, it happens that I may be of aid to you. Come to my house at five this afternoon—the House of Yellow Tiles, in the Calle de los Hermanos.”

Hampton bowed assent, and at this instant the groom returned, with word that his fellow was dead. Hampton and Warlock helped him get the remaining horse patched up with the harness, and in another five minutes the carraige moved away toward town, with a last farewell from the unknown lady. When the equipage had disappeared, Warlock dug his friend in the ribs.

“Ha! 'Little black bull came over the mountain'—did ye note the hit ye made, Dick? She has an eye for wide shoulders, eh? I'll bet she'd like to see ye show up without me! And no name mentioned, neither—she's some fine lady. Look out ye don't get a knife from her husband tonight. A knife's a poor dinner, as the Injun said when he rubbed his belly——

“Shut up,” said Hampton, but frowned as he spoke. “There's something about her what I don't fancy.”

“Then I'll keep the appointment, and glad to leave ye behind!” Warlock chuckled. “Let's be moving, for we have work to do. Aye, her house is in the same street with the inn—you stop behind, and I'll go meet the lady, right enough!”

“We've other things on hand than playing fast and loose in Panama City.”

“Aye, but she can help us get north! That's a shot in your locker, matey.”

Hampton returned no answer, but struck into a rapid stride. He was not so pleased with the adventure as might have been; beautiful as the woman was, something in her face chilled and startled him; he could not forget the singular poise of those dark eyes.

However, he made no comment as they continued their brisk pace, and Job did not again break in upon his silence, Suddenly the road which they were following made an abrupt turn, and then emerged without warning upon the highway, two miles from the city—a wide road here paved with cobbles, chain gangs of convicts at work installing the stones farther on. The towers of the cathedral glistened in the sunlight, and to right and left were handsome suburban residences and gardens, the morning air sweet with the scent of flowers and oranges.

Another mile, and they came to the huge arching span of the stone bridge, and went on past the tower to where the road narrowed between walls to the moat and gate, where barefoot soldiers, clad in dirty white, uniform caps of blue and red, sustained the dignity of the sovereign republic of New Granada. The gates were open and the soldiers more interested in dice than in entrants, however, and no question was asked as the two friends passed through to the narrow streets of the city.

Here the tremendous influx of foreign elements was at once evident. There seemed to be only a sprinkling of little brown men, most of them barefoot, and native women cloaked in rebosos; everywhere were foreigners, with Americans predominating. The majority of these were swaggering about, enjoying themselves and spending money in great style; but from comments he caught in passing, and a few emaciated skeletons whom he observed, Hampton concluded that the camp on the beach would tell a different story. Neither he nor Warlock saw any one whom they knew, and having first to find the Inn of the Golden Pomegranates, directed their inquiries to this end.

The Street of the Brothers proved to be a tortuous and narrow lane behind the plaza, and not far from the ramparts where the brazen Spanish cannon glittered in the sunlight. Passing down this lane, the two men came presently to their objective—a small and unpromising fonda which was obviously given over to the peon trade, with numbers of Indians and mestizos sprawling about. Finding himself confronted by a wrinkled little old man, Hampton asked for Juan d'Aquila.

“I am he, señores,” said the other, with a serape, and a half-scowl.

“We are from El Hambre.”

Instantly the demeanor of their host passed from suspicion into hurried affability. He conducted them to a door, which led into a passage, and so into a very clean room with pink-painted ceiling and enormous netted bed. Relieving them of their packs, d'Aquila set out chairs and bowed.

“Señores, my house is yours, and all in it. Shall I bring food and wine before talking?”

It was by this time noon, and Hampton assented gladly. D'Aquila left, speedily to return with cakes, fruit and wine. Then, while they ate, he rolled cigaritos for them and talked. He was a little, gentle old Indian, full of wisdom.

“You are from that nephew of mine, and therefore it is a matter for discretion,” he said smilingly. “I suppose he knows that the police are seeking him?”

Hampton nodded. “Yes, but he is to meet us here at nine tonight. Can you supply us with a room that will be private?”

“This is my own room; it is yours.”

“Good. We shall return here, and tonight two or three men may come asking for us, at nine o'clock. They will ask for me, Don Ricardo; admit them, for they are friends. That is all.”

“Except,” said Warlock, “to tell us where there is a house in this street called the House of Yellow Tiles. Who lives there?”

D'Aquila shrugged:

“It is an old house at the farther end of the street, señores, and once belonged to the family of Guzman; now it is rented to no one knows whom—a family from down the coast, some say. They are rarely seen, and are not here often, though I heard today that the house was open.”

Disappointed in this, Hampton rose, for he meant to waste no time getting in touch with some of the Beverly company men; so, bidding d'Aquila adios, he returned to the street with Job Warlock, and they began to make inquiries from the obvious Americans sauntering past.

They discovered that their search must depend upon luck alone. The various companies reaching Panama tried to keep together, but it was impossible. The hotels were crowded, rooms of all sorts were at a high premium, and hundreds of men were camped out along the beach, while those who could afford to do so had gone over to Tobago Island to get out of the Panama fever-zone. The two friends consulted, and decided to separate.

“We've no time to lose, and one of us will be sure to get results,” said Job Warlock. “Whichever one of us finds the crowd, tell 'em to be at the inn at nine—that right? Then, where will you and me meet up?”

“At the inn, or failing that, at the señora's house at five.”

Warlock grinned.

“Ain't going to give me a show alone, eh? All right. So long.”

So they parted, at the plaza, each going in a different direction along the crowded streets.

Hampton, bound in the general direction of the beach, could not miss the uproarious spirit of those around him; for here about the plaza centered the cockpits and gambling halls, where monte was the chief diversion, and the pulquerias where every kind of drink from Peruvian pisco to Irish whisky could be obtained. For the gold-seekers there was no siesta hour, yet Hampton observed that the Americans in general, and above all the New Englanders, were under far greater restraint than the Europeans. Everywhere whanged out “Susannah,” from voice, accordion, violin or banjo; the swinging lilt of that air, which could be plaintive or roaring according to the tempo, filled everything.

“If it's like this at noon, what is it at night?” said Hampton to a Yankee standing in the street industriously chewing tobacco.

“Plain —— at night, pardner,” was the response, “with them niggers keepin' knives sharp.”

“I suppose you don't happen to know where I could find a Beverly company I'm looking for?”

“Them Beverly men? Sure—the poor —— are camped down to the beach, just the other side them fishing shacks. Half of them down with plague or fever, I hear tell.”

Hampton turned away and started for the bay, keeping time to “Susannah” as a party of bearded Hamburg men roared it out to German words of their own. That was practically the only tune heard in Panama, even when the military band played in the plaza; there was something in its lilt, in its sharply accented rhythm, which captivated the fancy of men.

When he was nearing the beach, along a hot and deserted little street with overhanging balconies and closed shutters, Hampton descried a figure approaching him with staggering step. This gaunt, emaciated creature, with ragged beard and tatterdemalion garments, he knew at once for an American, and eyed the man with pity. Then, upon drawing closer, dim recognition of those disease-smitten features leaped within him, and he halted staring; abruptly, with a gasp, he realized that this reeling scarecrow was the erstwhile dapper Adam Johnson, secretary of the Beverly company! Johnson came closer, fastened haggard eyes on Hampton, and came to a halt.

“You!” he croaked. “No, it can't be you, Dick Hampton—it can't be you——

Hampton sprang forward and caught the man as he reeled.

“Dick Hampton it is, old fellow—here, brace up! You're sick!”

“Sick and starved.” A hollow groan burst from Adam Johnson. “Nickerson died yesterday—he stayed with us. The other officers went with that scoundrel James Day. We're flat broke. No money, nothing except what we can beg—dysentery, fever——

“Thank God, man, I found you!” exclaimed Hampton fervently. “Coming across from Chagres I intercepted a message from Day. It contained a lot of your money—he was sending it to be cashed in New York. Here, look at these——

He produced the drafts, and Adam Johnson looked at them with distended eyes, then put his face in his hands and cried like a child. Hampton drew him into the shade of a doorway.

“You can't know what this means to us all,” gasped Johnson at length. “Thirty of us were here; ten are dead. Three more won't last until tomorrow. But now we can get food, everything! A lot of the other men have helped us, but most of them don't care. Now we can get back home—man, this is too good to be true! Thank the good Lord for you, Dick Hampton.”

Hampton took Johnson's arm and turned back toward the plaza.

“Here, I have ready money,” he said quietly. “While you're getting one of those drafts cashed, if you can do so, I'll be buying up some stuff and engaging a carrier. We'd better take a load down to camp. And tonight I'll be able to give you proof, Johnson, that I was innocent of the murder of Jed Barnes. Dias was the guilty man—James Day.”

“I don't doubt it now,” said the other bitterly. “After the way he robbed us all, we'll believe anything of the scoundrel. And, Hampton! Nelly Barnes must have gone on the schooner with him and our officers. Ezra Howe and his wife were to look after her——

“Never mind; I know,” said Hampton. “Come along, now. We've work to do.”

There was no difficulty in getting some of the drafts cashed, as many a man had more ready cash than he needed and was glad to convert some of it into less dangerous paper; moreover, Adam Johnson was a man well known to others from Boston or near-by parts. So, in half an hour's time, the two approached the terrible waterfront, with two staggering peon carriers behind them, and others on the way.

The scene along the beach, where each morning a dozen or two bodies were washed out to the sharks, beggared description; the Beverly men were no worse off than other parties. With food, drink, medicines, Dick Hampton and others who were sound fell to work among the sick, injected some atoms of order and decency into the miserable shelters of blankets and old garments, and finally moved the entire company to a spot farther down the beach where the sand was at least a trifle cleaner. The gratitude of the destitute men to Hampton was pitiful, for scarce one of them but had obtained a portion of his money back.

This work of mercy took time, however—most of the afternoon, in fact, and there was no sign of Job Warlock on the scene, so that Hampton had the chief burden on his own shoulders. One or two men from other companies pitched in and gave a hand, but the majority only marveled. The shouts of joy from the Beverly men, their devout prayers of thanksgiving, had attracted attention, and the news of their retrieved fortunes had been swift to spread abroad through the multitude.

Hampton was far from suspecting any danger from this fact; he had no time to think of anything until the camp was in shape. Then, in a drip of perspiration and feeling nearly exhausted, he joined Adam Johnson over a pipe and a bottle of wine. It was nearly four o'clock, and he had little enough time to get clean clothes, return to the inn and bathe, and keep his appointment with the unknown señora. Still, it was necessary to confide in Johnson to a certain extent, and he did so, but found that Johnson could give him no further information.

“Say the word,” said Johnson, “and we'll all join you in following that rascal Day!”

“No, thanks,” returned Hampton bluntly. He could not explain that these retired farmers and New England merchants were not the type of men to go on such a quest. “What you can do is to have three or four men with you at the Inn of the Golden Pomegranates at nine sharp tonight. I want you to be able to take word home that I'm innocent of murdering Jed Barnes”

“We'll do it, and gladly,” affirmed Johnson. “We'll send off letters tomorrow, to make certain, and will carry the word ourselves. We're all going back home, I think, as fast as we're able to travel.”

Hampton looked across the sand, attracted by a sudden motion. A peon had been talking with a group of the Beverly men, and now rose and departed. Moved by a sudden impulse, Hampton hailed the men.

“What was that fellow after, boys? Look out for thieves, now!”

“You bet,” came the response. “He'd heard about your finding our money, and was just asking who you were.”

Hampton sprang to his feet, but the peon had disappeared.

“Anything wrong?” demanded Adams Johnson.

“No,” said Hampton slowly. “No. I'll have to be moving, though. See you tonight, sure!”

“Nine sharp.”

Hampton returned to the plaza thoughtfully. It seemed hardly likely that Dias should have left men to look out for him and Job Warlock—that they should ever reach Panama must have appeared improbable; yet ever since their rescue they had been anticipating some such possibility. Dias had too much at stake to take chances. If that peon had been a spy of Dias, then the fat might be in the fire—or it might not.

Returning to the inn with a bundle of clean clothes, he went to the room d'Aquila had put at his disposal. Job Warlock had not returned. Hampton trimmed his half-grown beard, washed and dressed, and slightly before five o'clock started down the street toward the House of Yellow Tiles. All in all, he felt highly satisfied with his afternoon's work.

The house in question, one of the many half-ruined structures which filled the old city, was pointed out to him, and as he approached, he sighted the figure of Warlock coming toward him.

“Where've you been all afternoon?” demanded Hampton.

Warlock grinned, and opened his hand to display a mass of gold coins.

“Playing monte—and winning. Likewise, I been playing with that Mex skipper the Injun told us about. Filled him full o' lies, and we can have passage if we want. His schooner leaves in the morning. Have any luck? All spruced up for the lady, ain't you?”

“Found Adam Johnson; everything's settled. Here's our house.”

They paused before an archway, which gave access to an old carven black-oak door. Job Warlock pulled the hand bell, and Hampton let the heavy knocker fall—then he found the hand of Warlock gripping his arm.

“Look there!” exclaimed Job, pointing, a sudden glitter in his eyes, and Hampton turned to look at the stone beside the doorway, on the inside of the arch. There, painted in blue on the stone, were the two characters which had appeared on the knife and seal of Dias.

“Good gosh, matey!” breathed Job Warlock softly. “Know what this is? Now we're up against it and no mistake—that there señora was Doña Hermana herself—the wife o' Dias!”

The door before them opened, and Hampton swung about to face a Chinaman.