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- THE CRUSADE OF THE EXCELSIOR - 20/44 -
that looked like larger undulations of the soil, furrowed by bosky canadas or shining arroyos. Banks was startled into a burst of professional admiration.
"There's enough grain there to feed a thousand Todos Santos; and raised, too, with tools like that," he continued, pointing to a primitive plow that lay on the wayside, formed by a single forked root. A passing ox-cart, whose creaking wheels were made of a solid circle of wood, apparently sawn from an ordinary log, again plunged him into cogitation. Here and there little areas of the rudest cultivation broke into a luxuriousness of orange, lime, and fig trees. The joyous earth at the slightest provocation seemed to smile and dimple with fruit and flowers. Everywhere the rare beatitudes of Todos Santos revealed and repeated its simple story. The fructifying influence of earth and sky; the intervention of a vaporous veil between a fiery sun and fiery soil; the combination of heat and moisture, purified of feverish exhalations, and made sweet and wholesome by the saline breath of the mighty sea, had been the beneficent legacy of their isolation, the munificent compensation of their oblivion.
A gradual and gentle ascent at the end of two hours brought the cavalcade to a halt upon a rugged upland with semi-tropical shrubbery, and here and there larger trees from the tierra templada in the evergreens or madrono. A few low huts and corrals, and a rambling hacienda, were scattered along the crest, and in the midst arose a little votive chapel, flanked by pear-trees. Near the roadside were the crumbling edges of some long-forgotten excavation. Crosby gazed at it curiously. Touching the arm of the officer, he pointed to it.
"Una mina de plata," said the officer sententiously.
"A mine of some kind--silver, I bet!" said Crosby, turning to the others. "Is it good--bueno--you know?" he continued to the officer, with vague gesticulations.
"En tiempos pasados," returned the officer gravely.
"I wonder what that means?" said Winslow.
But before Crosby could question further, the subaltern signaled to them to dismount. They did so, and their horses were led away to a little declivity, whence came the sound of running water. Left to themselves, the Americans looked around them. The cavalcade seemed to have halted near the edge of a precipitous ridge, the evident termination of the road. But the view that here met their eyes was unexpected and startling.
The plateau on which they stood seemed to drop suddenly away, leaving them on the rocky shore of a monotonous and far-stretching sea of waste and glittering sand. Not a vestige nor trace of vegetation could be seen, except an occasional ridge of straggling pallid bushes, raised in hideous simulation of the broken crest of a ghostly wave. On either side, as far as the eye could reach, the hollow empty vision extended--the interminable desert stretched and panted before them.
"It's the jumping-off place, I reckon," said Crosby, "and they've brought us here to show us how small is our chance of getting away. But," he added, turning towards the plateau again, "what are they doing now? 'Pon my soul! I believe they're going off--and leaving us."
The others turned as he spoke. It was true. The dragoons were coolly galloping off the way they came, taking with them the horses the Americans had just ridden.
"I call that cool," said Crosby. "It looks deuced like as if we were to be left here to graze, like cattle."
"Perhaps that's their idea of a prison in this country," said Banks. "There's certainly no chance of our breaking jail in that direction," he added, pointing to the desert; "and we can't follow them without horses."
"And I dare say they've guarded the pass in the road lower down," said Winslow.
"We ought to be able to hold our own here until night," said Brace, "and then make a dash into Todos Santos, get hold of some arms, and join the ladies."
"The women are all right," said Crosby impatiently, "and are better treated than if we were with them. Suppose, instead of maundering over them, we reconnoitre and see what WE can do here. I'm getting devilishly hungry; they can't mean to starve us, and if they do, I don't intend to be starved as long as there is anything to be had by buying or stealing. Come along. There's sure to be fruit near that old chapel, and I saw some chickens in the bush near those huts. First, let's see if there's any one about. I don't see a soul."
The little plateau, indeed, seemed deserted. In vain they shouted; their voices were lost in the echoless air. They examined one by one the few thatched huts: they were open, contained one or two rude articles of furniture--a bed, a bench, and table--were scrupulously clean--and empty. They next inspected the chapel; it was tawdry and barbaric in ornament, but the candlesticks and crucifix and the basin for holy water were of heavily beaten silver. The same thought crossed their minds--the abandoned mine at the roadside!
Bananas, oranges, and prickly-pears growing within the cactus-hedge of the chapel partly mollified their thirst and hunger, and they turned their steps towards the long, rambling, barrack-looking building, with its low windows and red-tiled roof, which they had first noticed. Here, too, the tenement was deserted and abandoned; but there was evidence of some previous and more ambitious preparation: in a long dormitory off the corridor a number of scrupulously clean beds were ranged against the whitewashed walls, with spotless benches and tables. To the complete astonishment and bewilderment of the party another room, fitted up as a kitchen, with the simpler appliances of housekeeping, revealed a larder filled with provisions and meal. A shout from Winslow, who had penetrated the inner courtyard, however, drew them to a more remarkable spectacle. Their luggage and effects from the cabins of the Excelsior were there, carefully piled in the antique ox-cart that had evidently that morning brought them from Todos Santos!
"There's no mistake," said Brace, with a relieved look, after a hurried survey of the trunks. "They have only brought our baggage. The ladies have evidently had the opportunity of selecting their own things."
"Crosby told you they'd be all right," said Banks; "and as for ourselves, I don't see why we can't be pretty comfortable here, and all the better for our being alone. I shall take an opportunity of looking around a bit. It strikes me that there are some resources in this country that might pay to develop."
"And I shall have a look at that played-out mine," said Crosby; "if it's been worked as they work the land, they've left about as much in it as they've taken out."
"That's all well enough," said Brace, drawing a dull vermilion- colored stone from his pocket; "but here's something I picked up just now that ain't 'played out,' nor even the value of it suspected by those fellows. That's cinnabar--quicksilver ore--and a big per cent. of it too; and if there's as much of it here as the indications show, you could buy up all your SILVER mines in the country with it."
"If I were you, I'd put up a notice on a post somewhere, as they do in California, and claim discovery," said Banks seriously. "There's no knowing how this thing may end. We may not get away from here for some time yet, and if the Government will sell the place cheap, it wouldn't be a bad spec' to buy it. Form a kind of 'Excelsior Company' among ourselves, you know, and go shares."
The four men looked earnestly at each other. Already the lost Excelsior and her mutinous crew were forgotten; even the incidents of the morning--their arrest, the uncertainty of their fate, and the fact that they were in the hands of a hostile community-- appeared but as trivial preliminaries to the new life that opened before them! They suddenly became graver than they had ever been-- even in the moment of peril.
"I don't see why we shouldn't," said Brace quickly. "We started out to do that sort of thing in California, and I reckon if we'd found such a spot as this on the Sacramento or American River we'd have been content. We can take turns at housekeeping, prospect a little, and enter into negotiations with the Government. I'm for offering them a fair sum for this ridge and all it contains at once."
"The only thing against that," said Crosby slowly, "is the probability that it is already devoted to some other use by the Government. Ever since we've been here I've been thinking--I don't know why--that we've been put in a sort of quarantine. The desertion of the place, the half hospital arrangements of this building, and the means they have taken to isolate us from themselves, must mean something. I've read somewhere that in these out-of-the-way spots in the tropics they have a place where they put the fellows with malarious or contagious diseases. I don't want to frighten you boys: but I've an idea that we're in a sort of lazaretto, and the people outside won't trouble us often."
TODOS SANTOS SOLVES THE MYSTERY.
Notwithstanding his promise, and the summons of the Council, Father Esteban, on parting with the Excelsior prisoners in the San Antonio Road, did not proceed immediately to the presence of the Comandante. Partly anxious to inform himself more thoroughly regarding Hurlstone's antecedents before entering upon legislative functions that might concern him, partly uneasy at Brace's allusion to any possible ungentleness in the treatment of the fair Americanas, and partly apprehensive that Mrs. Brimmer might seek him at the Mission in the present emergency, the good Father turned his steps towards the Alcalde's house.
Mrs. Brimmer, in a becoming morning wrapper, half reclining in an Indian hammock in the corridor, supported by Miss Chubb, started at his approach. So did the young Alcalde, sympathetically seated at her side. Padre Esteban for an instant was himself embarrassed; Mrs. Brimmer quickly recovered her usual bewildering naivete.
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