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- Doctor Therne - 3/25 -
and hats; one of the priests too literally howled in his terror, but the other, a man of more dignity, only bowed his head and murmured a prayer. By this time also the mules had tied themselves into a knot and were threatening to overturn the coach, to prevent which our captors, before meddling with us, cut the animals loose with their /machetes/ or swords, and drove them over the brink of the abyss, where, like the drivers, they vanished. Then a dusky-faced ruffian, with a scar on his cheek, came to the door of the diligence and bowing politely beckoned to us to come out. As there were at least a dozen of them and resistance was useless, even if our companions could have found the courage to fight, we obeyed, and were placed before the brigands in a line, our backs being set to the edge of the gulf. I was last but one in the line, and beyond me stood Emma Becker, whose hand I held.
Then the tragedy began. Several of the villains seized the first merchant, and, stopping his cries and protestations with a blow in the mouth, stripped him to the shirt, abstracting notes and gold and everything else of value that they could find in various portions of his attire where he had hidden them, and principally, I remember, from the lining of his vest. When they had done with him, they dragged him away and bundled him roughly into the diligence.
Next to this merchant stood the two priests. Of the first of these the brigands asked a question, to which, with some hesitation, the priest --that man who had shown so much terror--replied in the affirmative, whereon his companion looked at him contemptuously and muttered a Spanish phrase which means "Man without shame." Of him also the same question was asked, in answer to which he shook his head, whereon he was conducted, though without violence or being searched, to the coach, and shut into it with the plundered merchant. Then the thieves went to work with the next victim.
"Dr. Therne," whispered Emma Becker, "you have a pistol, do you not?"
I nodded my head.
"Will you lend it me? You understand?"
"Yes," I answered, "I understand, but I hope that things are not so bad as that."
"They are," she answered with a quiver in her voice. "I have heard about these Mexican brigands. With the exception of that priest and myself they will put all of you into the coach and push it over the precipice."
At her words my heart stood still and a palpable mist gathered before my eyes. When it cleared away my brain seemed to awake to an abnormal activity, as though the knowledge that unless it was used to good effect now it would never be used again were spurring it to action. Rapidly I reviewed the situation and considered every possible method of escape. At first I could think of none; then suddenly I remembered that the driver and his companion, who no doubt knew every inch of the road, had leaped from the coach, apparently over the edge of the precipice. This I felt sure they would not have done had they been going to certain death, since they would have preferred to take their chance of mercy at the hands of the brigands. Moreover, these gentry themselves had driven the mules into the abyss whither those wise animals would never have gone unless there was some foothold for them.
I looked behind me but could discover nothing, for, as is common in Mexico at the hour of dawn, the gulf was absolutely filled with dense vapours. Then I made up my mind that I would risk it and began to shuffle slowly backwards. Already I was near the edge when I remembered Emma Becker and paused to reflect. If I took her with me it would considerably lessen my chances of escape, and at any rate her life was not threatened. But I had not given her the pistol, and at that moment even in my panic there rose before me a vision of her face as I had seen it in the lamplight when she looked up at the glory shining on the crest of Orizaba.
Had it not been for this vision I think it possible that I might have left her. I wish to gloze over nothing; I did not make my own nature, and in these pages I describe it as it was and is without palliation or excuse. I know that this is not the fashion in autobiographies; no one has done it since the time of Pepys, who did not write for publication, and for that very reason my record has its value. I am physically and, perhaps morally also, timid--that is, although I have faced it boldly enough upon occasion, as the reader will learn in the course of my history, I fear the thought of death, and especially of cruel and violent death, such as was near to me at that moment. So much did I fear it then that the mere fact that an acquaintance was in danger and distress would scarcely have sufficed to cause me to sacrifice, or at least to greatly complicate, my own chances of escape in order to promote hers simply because that acquaintance was of the other sex. But Emma had touched a new chord in my nature, and I felt, whether I liked it or not, that whatever I could do for myself I must do for her also. So I shuffled forward again.
"Listen," I whispered, "I have been to look and I do not believe that the cliff is very steep just here. Will you try it with me?"
"Of course," she answered; "I had as soon die of a broken neck as in any other way."
"We must watch our chance then, or they will see us run and shoot. Wait till I give you the signal."
She nodded her head and we waited.
At length, while the fourth and last merchant, who stood next to me, was being dealt with, just as in our despair we were about to throw ourselves into the gulf before them all, fortune gave us our opportunity. This unhappy man, having probably some inkling of the doom which awaited him, broke suddenly from the hands of his captors, and ran at full speed down the road. After him they went pell-mell, every thief of them except one who remained--fortunately for us upon its farther side--on guard by the door of the diligence in which four people, three merchants and a priest, were now imprisoned. With laughs and shouts they hunted their wretched quarry, firing shots as they ran, till at length one of them overtook the man and cut him down with his /machete/.
"Don't look, but come," I whispered to my companion.
In another instant we were at the edge of the cliff, and a foot or so below us was spread the dense, impenetrable blanket of mist. I stopped and hesitated, for the next step might be my last.
"We can't be worse off, so God help us," said Emma, and without waiting for me to lead her she swung herself over the edge.
To my intense relief I heard her alight within a few feet, and followed immediately. Now I was at her side, and now we were scrambling and slipping down the precipitous and rocky slope as swiftly as the dense wet fog would let us. I believe that our escape was quite unnoticed. The guard was watching the murder of the merchant, or, if he saw us, he did not venture to leave the carriage door, and the priest who had accepted some offer which was made to him, probably that his life would be spared if he consented to give absolution to the murderers, was kneeling on the ground, his face hidden in his hands.
As we went the mist grew thinner, and we could see that we were travelling down a steep spur of the precipice, which to our left was quite sheer, and that at the foot of it was a wide plain thickly but not densely covered with trees. In ten minutes we were at the bottom, and as we could neither see nor hear any sign of pursuers we paused for an instant to rest.
Not five yards from us the cliff was broken away, and so straight that a cat could not have climbed it.
"We chose our place well," I said pointing upwards.
"No," Emma answered, "we did not choose; it was chosen for us."
As she spoke a muffled and terrifying sound of agony reached us from above, and then, in the layers of vapour that still stretched between us and the sky, we perceived something huge rushing swiftly down. It appeared; it drew near; it struck, and fell to pieces like a shattered glass. We ran to look, and there before us were the fragments of the diligence, and among them the mangled corpses of five of our fellow- travellers.
This was the fate that we had escaped.
"Oh! for God's sake come away," moaned Emma, and sick with horror we turned and ran, or rather reeled, into the shelter of the trees upon the plain.
"What are those?" said Emma presently, pointing to some animals that were half hidden by a clump of wild bananas. I looked and saw that they were two of the mules which the brigands had cut loose from the diligence. There could be no mistake about this, for the harness still hung to them.
"Can you ride?" I asked.
She nodded her head. Then we set to work. Having caught the mules without difficulty, I took off their superfluous harness and put her on the back of one of them, mounting the other myself. There was no time to lose, and we both of us knew it. Just as we were starting I heard a voice behind me calling "senor." Drawing the pistol from my pocket, I swung round to find myself confronted by a Mexican.
"No shoot, senor," he said in broken English, for this man had served upon an American ship, "Me driver, Antonio. My mate go down there," and he pointed to the precipice; "he dead, me not hurt. You run from bad men, me run too, for presently they come look. Where you go?"
"To Mexico," I answered.
"No get Mexico, senor; bad men watch road and kill you with /machete/ so," and he made a sweep with his knife, adding "they not want you live tell soldiers."
"Listen," said Emma. "Do you know the /hacienda/, Concepcion, by the town of San Jose?"
"Yes, senora, know it well, the /hacienda/ of Senor Gomez; bring you
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