What can be a night run in the savannahs of Texas.
The distance from Castroville to the dwelling of Don Melchior de Bartas was at most four leagues and a half to five leagues, a distance which, in any other circumstance than that of the missionary and his young guide, could easily be crossed in less of an hour and a half, especially with good horses, and those of Cardenio were excellent.
But here it was not the case.
It was impossible to make any rough calculations.
The hurricane, which had scarcely lasted an hour, must have caused enormous ravages, overflowed rivers and streams, removed the trunks of trees used as a bridge, erased all vestiges of the road.
It was therefore necessary to walk slowly and carefully through almost impassable paths, relying much more on the instinct of the animals one climbed, so as not to go astray, than on acquired knowledge which could be put into practice. failure at each step by unforeseen accidents.
It was nearly ten o’clock when Father Paul-Michel and Cardenio, on whose back Frasquito had climbed, left the presbytery and left Castroville.
A couple of rifle ranges of the city, after crossing some meadows more or less cultivated by civilized Indians or “mansos” who form most of the population of Castroville and hardly know the first and coarser notions of agriculture, extends a huge savanna called the “Leona”.
The “Leona”, cut by a crowd of brooks, some of which are quite large and deep enough, the course of which is generally very rough and forms infinite meanders, is besides sown with thick thick wood, covered partly by an immense chaparral, which is, rightly, the terror of the inhabitants.
Many settlers, who had come to this chaparral to pick up some pecan or dead wood, had gone astray and had not reappeared. Some time after, their bleached bones had been found at the foot of the trees, near their still full bags.
The Sioux, the Apaches, the Comanches, the Lipans, the Delawares furrowed the Leona in all directions, and massacred without mercy, with refinements of unheard-of cruelty, the unfortunate whites, whom their bad fate all but hurled on their way.
We speak here only for the sake of myriads of horrible snakes, mortal bites, jaguars, panthers and coyotes that seemed to hold an eternal Sanhedrin.
It was this place of pleasure which our three travelers had to traverse in part of its length, in the midst of darkness, following in single file the endless curves of a Texian road, that is to say, a path originally drawn up by the feet of wild beasts, hardly indicated by sharp cuts, made with an ax on the trunks of trees; where sometimes, as it would have been too long to remove the trees that suddenly came to block the passage, we had just cut one foot off the ground, so as to provide jolts without number to carts forced to engage in these terrible paths, and which often made tumble the horses of the rash riders who ventured to take a pace too fast.
In the first moments of their journey, with the exception of a few minor accidents, our travelers got off quite well with the difficulties they encountered in their footsteps.
They were then in open country; the night was clear; the moon gave them a sufficient glow to behave.
They thus reached a kind of bridge made of two pieces of barely squared wood, and of badly joined branches, thrown between two mounds which enclose a rather broad and deep stream named the Buffalo .
Behind this bridge, that they crossed at a gallop, at the risk of being overthrown at the bottom of a precipice of fifty meters if the horses had unfortunately butt, began the Leona , that is to say the real difficulties of the long trip that the three men had to do.
Nevertheless, under the direction of Cardenio, they resolutely engaged in chaparral, so fatal to so many men of their color.
He reigned under the cover a deep darkness; one could only grop his way, instinctively, without being sure of the line one was following.
For barely twenty minutes they had entered the chaparral, when Cardenio’s horse suddenly shivered with terror, uttered a dull neigh, and arched all four feet while quaking his ears and trembling with all his limbs. .
The young man, without otherwise being moved, cast a long look around him; then he saw, at twenty-five steps forward, two gloomy gleams which shone like a lugubrious lighthouse in the darkness.
Cardenio cocked his rifle, which he carried across the front of the saddle, and, after aiming for two or three seconds, he released the trigger.
A frightful roar was heard: there was a terrible noise of crumpled and broken branches, and that was all.
-The torch! said Cardenio to Frasquito.
The sacristan, whose teeth were chattering with terror, did not make himself repeat the injunction of the young man. A torch was immediately lit.
Then it was possible to recognize on what game had shot the hunter.
It was nothing less than a beautiful jaguar.
Cardenio had sent him a bullet just between the two eyes, and had killed him stiff on the spot.
But, at the red flame of the torch, the travelers discovered something else.
They were literally surrounded by wild beasts. There was everywhere, right, left, front, behind.
The missionary then explained the singular and mysterious noises that he had for some time heard in the bushes around him.
The situation was critical.
Their enemies were red wolves or jackals of the meadows, animals resembling the wolves of Europe, but exceeding them in strength and especially in ferocity.
They could be about forty; but as their number was constantly growing, it was to be feared that before half an hour they would be at least one hundred and fifty.
It is true that up to this moment they had not made any hostile demonstration against the travelers, whom they had merely escorted by trotting a short distance from them.
But this mildness, unusual in those animals which, like the lion of the Scripture, ran “quaerentes quem devorent,” or, to speak more clearly, were in search of their supper, was in all probability , extend a long time.
It was necessary to take a party, but which one?
That was the question.
The coyotes, frightened by the noise of the gunshot, dazzled by the flame of the torch, hesitated and seemed to consult each other; with this innate instinct in the animals that are used to hunting in groups, they vaguely understood that the prey they coveted, while being almost within reach of their claws and sharp fangs, might not be as easy to grasp that they had imagined it first.
The unfortunate accident of which the jaguar had been a victim was there as proof.
However, the acrid odor of blood began to rise to their nostrils; their lips were raised in a threatening manner; they uttered a few dull and jerky howls that did not presage anything good; besides, they were hungry; for a long time the proverb has said, “hungry wolf has no ears”.
There was no hesitation.
In Texas, at the time of which we speak, everyone, whether priest or city dweller, man or child, walked armed for his personal defense. The travelers had three shots at their disposal.
But three shots, it was not much in front of a compact mass of hungry wolves.
-Are you a good rider, padre? asked the young man.
“Not much,” replied the missionary; but do not worry about me, child; your life is more precious than mine.
-Padre, I will not abandon you; we will die or we will escape together. I only ask you one thing: let your horse do it. When I give the signal, cross your arms around his neck, and do not worry about anything.
“These instructions are easy to follow,” replied the priest, smiling.
“You promise to do what I ask you, Padre?
-I promise you, yes, my child.
“Then you will see, we are going to have a good time,” said the young man gayly. Do not tremble like that, Frasquito, coward!
“I am not a coward; only I am afraid, answered the sacristan naively, and I think there is something.
Bah! You’ll see; especially do not let go!
-For that, there is no danger.
The young man took two torches, lighted them, waved them for a moment to brighten the flame, then threw them one on the right, the other on the left, in the undergrowth, brandished the third above his head, and leaning on the neck of his mount:
Ah! Santiago! He cried; Adelante! Santiago!
At this well-known appeal of all the Mexican horses, the two mustangs rushed at full speed; they passed, with the rapidity of two meteors, in the midst of the terrified and terrified coyotes whose roars of terror and anger still excited the velocity of the two runners.
Horses flew in space with vertiginous rapidity: ditches, streams, ravines seemed to melt under their feet; there was something striking in the aspect of this maddening race in the midst of darkness, which the red flame of the torch held by the young man lined with a long line of fire.
-Hurrah! The dead are going fast!
-Faster still those who want to live.
The frantic race of the horse, fantastic of the ballad of Burger was exceeded.
Far behind, there was a great glimmer of light on the horizon: the chaparral was burning.
The screams of the wolves burst like laughter of demons, and one could hear in the distance their hurried footsteps, which approached quickly.
-Front, forward! repeated the young man unceasingly.
And the horses, pressed under the spur of terror, redoubled already prodigious efforts.
“I can no longer support myself: my breathing fails me, the forces abandon me,” said the missionary suddenly.
-Courage courage! repeated the young man in a shrill voice.
-I have courage, I have no strength.
“Three minutes more, in the name of heaven! Cardenio continued.
They had just crossed a fairly wide river and were now climbing the steep sides of a high hill.
-Halt, and down to earth! shouted the young man quickly.
The missionary let himself fall rather than descend from his horse; he was almost fainting.
In the plain, in the midst of tall grass, could be seen a long, black, whitish spot. It was the wolves who came running.
They were no longer fifty now; they were more than two hundred.
Without losing a moment the young man had launched his braided leather “reata” over the mistress branch of a high tree. He had seized the end of the “reata,” which had fallen to the ground, and had, in a trice, formed a chair with adroitly arranged knots; then, in this chair, he had firmly attached the missionary, who, unconscious and having, so to speak, no longer the perception of what was going on around him, let him mechanically do so.
-Hisse! he said to Frasquito.
The sacristan obeys without trying to understand; his teeth chattered like castanets.
Cardenio, although a little pale, his eyes gleaming and his lip sneering, seemed to have lost nothing of his self-assurance and coolness.
In a flash, the missionary was hoisted up to the first branch of the tree.
Cardenio, after having recommended Frasquito not to let go of the “reata,” clung to his feet and hands after the branches of lianas called “Spanish beards,” which embraced the enormous trunk of the gigantic tree; in less than a minute he reached the branch.
He then seized the missionary, gently pulled him to himself in the midst of a cradle of branches, after which, for greater safety, he tied him; then, after having rid him of the reata, he securely fastened it around the branch, and let himself slide to the ground.
“In your turn,” he said to Frasquito.
The Indian did not repeat the invitation. He climbed with the speed and skill of a monkey.
Meanwhile, Cardenio had removed the harnesses from the horses, bundled them together, and tied them to the end of the “reata”.
The young man had kept the three rifles.
He approached the horses, caressed them for a moment; then, slapping them on the rump, he shouted in a shrill voice: “Arrea! Arrea! Ah Santiago!
The animals made two or three leaps of joy, and sprang forward with the rapidity of lightning.
“I did everything I could to save them,” Cardenio murmured sadly; now that their instinct guides them!
What we spent so much time telling was done in less than ten minutes, so much did the urgent danger increase the young man’s strength tenfold.
However, the wolves were approaching; they had crossed the river and almost reached the foot of the hill.
Cardenio grabbed the torch he had planted in the ground, twirled it around his head to rekindle the flame, and flung it in the middle of the wolves.
Then, arming himself with rifles, with a terrible coolness, three times he aimed, and three times a wolf, struck to death, leaped upon himself with a roar of agony.
The young man threw the three rifles across his shoulder, grasped the reata with both hands, and in two seconds he reached the mistress of the tree; then he withdrew the “reata” from him, and removed the harnesses.
Ah! he said with a sigh of relief, “I think I won a cigarette.
We are here, to our great regret, forced to give the most formal denial to the proverb that claims that wolves do not eat each other.
The wolves, we have been many times able to notice, resemble, in this at least, perfectly to men: they devour each other; and what is most frightful is that they do it without any scruple, with the evident marks of the greatest satisfaction, always like men.
The wolf is essentially imitator. We suspect him very well of having followed, in this instance, as in many others, the example which has been so often given to him by man, that sweet and magnificent king of creation, as philanthropists call him.
By devouring their congeners, the coyotes had left Cardenio plenty of time to settle comfortably in his improvised fortress.
He had skilfully taken advantage of the few minutes of respite he had been left by the lunch taken by his terrible persecutors.
As he had promised himself, the young man had conscientiously smoked his cigarette; then, this accomplished duty, he had leaned over the missionary.
Father Paul-Michel was beginning to recover from the severe shock he had received; he breathed more easily; his pallor was less livid; his strength was coming back.
-What happened? he asked in a weak voice. Forgive me, my child; I believe that despite my will, I lost consciousness. How did I find myself on this tree?
“It’s Frasquito and I, Padre, who took you there; and, unless the wolves use their gates to uproot this magnificent mahogany, we are perfectly safe on its branches. See them downstairs, sitting on their back train, mouth open and eyes wide, he says gaily; they are, I assure you, all disconcerted and, above all, much disappointed at the turn we have played them.
These words, spoken with gaiety, made a strong impression on the missionary, and rendered him almost entirely his freedom of mind.
Indeed, the travelers were safe, provisionally at least; the wolves, after having traversed in all directions the summit of the hill, seeking and ferreting, had divided themselves into two troops, one of which, after a few moments of hesitation, had galloped down the hill, and he had started on the trail of the horses, while the other, on the contrary, had gathered around the tree, where she uttered uninterrupted frightful clamours.
The missionary, however, was in great anxiety; the singular situation in which he found himself threatened, in prolonging himself, to bring about rather serious complications.
Indeed, what to do? What to become? Isolated, abandoned, without food, without hope of help, lost like a wreck in the middle of the immensity of the desert, this prospect was not reassuring.
“My children,” said Father Michael, “thank God for the grace he has given us to preserve us from the attack of these ferocious animals, and from the obvious protection with which he has covered us in such a dangerous circumstance.
The three men then addressed a fervent prayer to the Lord.
Never, perhaps, more convinced accents escaped from human breasts.
“Help yourself, heaven will help you,” is one of the wisest precepts of our religion, “said the missionary, addressing Cardenio; now, tell me, my child, you whose intelligence and courage have so far been so helpful to us, what do you think we ought to do?
“Father,” replied the young man, “in my opinion nothing is simpler. My father knows that I left for Castroville; my long absence will doubtless have worried him; already, I am sure, unless unforeseen events, peons were sent to my research. Before two o’clock from here, perhaps less, we can not fail to see the arrival of liberators. Perhaps our horses, who had a great lead over the wolves, have already managed to reach the plantation and thus make known the danger in which we are.
-So, you think we are looking for us?
-I would swear, my father.
“The name of the Lord must not be taken in vain, my child,” said the missionary a little severely.
-Pardon me, Padre; I was wrong.
-Well; but admitting that you are not mistaken, that the servants of your father are at present traversing the savannah, it will be, it seems to me, very difficult to find us.
-Not as far as you suppose, padre; here is why: we have two torches left; these torches, lighted one after another, may last about three and a half hours; in four hours it will be daylight. Frasquito will take the two torches and mount everything at the end of the mahogany; Once there, he will light a torch and lift it over his head, waving it; the flame projected at a great distance will certainly be perceived by the peons. Meanwhile, as ammunition is not lacking, I will fire, without stopping a single moment, on the wolves; the sound of the gunshots, joined to the light of our improvised lighthouse and the deafening clamor of the coyotes, will suffice to bring us prompt help. What do you say about my idea, padre?
“I say that she is very wise, that you are a boy of wit, and that consequently you must carry out your idea as soon as possible, as you call it.
-At the moment, padre. You hear, Frasquito; can you go up there?
-Oh yes! Cardenio, my friend, answered the sacristan kindly, much more easily than I would go down.
What had been agreed upon was done.
While Frasquito took his post on the highest branch of the mahogany, Cardenio began a rolling fire against the wolves, which threw the disorder into their troop, and excited their fury to the climax of rage.
Their clamor and howling soon became a deafening din that was to be heard at a considerable distance.
At the top of the mahogany, Frasquito, trembling with fear, was waving his torch desperately.
About an hour passed thus, without bringing any change in the situation of our three characters.
Suddenly Cardenio shuddered, leaned towards the abbe Paul-Michel, and extending his arm towards the savannah:
“Look, Padre,” said he, pointing to several bright gleams which seemed to run in terror in the tall grass, “look!
-Well? the missionary asked anxiously.
-That is the help I promised you that happens to us.
Almost at the same instant a noise of horses, like the rolling of a distant thunder, was heard; several shots exploded; the wolves uttered a long howl of rage and fled in all directions.
Suddenly a score of horsemen appeared, waving torches over their heads, and repeated merry cries of appeal.
This time the travelers were really saved. These horsemen were the peons that Don Melchior de Bartas had sent in search of his son.