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GORDON MACCREAGH

MATTO GROSSO FURY

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First published in Jungle Stories, Summer 1950
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Produced by Richard Scott and updated by Roy Glashan

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Jungle Stories, Summer 1950, with "Matto Grosso Fury"



Lovely, golden-skinned Jane La-Vieja O'Rorke was held jungle captive, her last desperate hope for life and honor in the trembling hands of one man—Carey, the coward!



DAVID CAREY'S cultured friends back home wouldn't have known him here in the Yungas foothill country of the not so cultured side of the Andes. For back home, when those friends disagreed about unimportant subjects such as their infidelities or their religions, or about important ones such as their aesthetic values, they would say:

"One does not settle anything by violence. Let's talk this thing over like civilized people."

They talked, then, with well controlled emotions about this and that and everything and, the most aesthetic group of them, about flowers. Of this group the quite choicest talked beautiful words such as Brasso-Laelio-Cattleya Doris by Alba. Which did not mean that they were any stranger than millions of other Americans who believe in Civilization. It meant only that they grew orchids.

David Carey was one of them. He believed in capital C Civilization along with the rest of them. He was different only in that he went into those unwholesome places where orchids grew to collect them. If the friends could have seen him just now at the jungle fringe of this Rancho de Vainilla, a vanilla orchid plantation, they would have held their breaths and raised incredulous eyebrows.

David was, for one thing, not dressed like an aesthetic club man. He wore, despite the heat, heavy cord pants stuffed into high pampas boots—against snakes—and a frayed canvas shirt and a topi hat with a little mosquito net draped round it—just now tucked over the brim for better vision. He was armed with a rifle and a machete and he was advancing slowly upon a jaguar that snarled its big yellow teeth over a colt that still kicked in short bursts of terror. With its each move the jaguar spread claws as wide as dinner plates over some new portion of it to hold it down. Just as a vastly magnified cat might do with a rabbit. Only David's threatening advance kept it from sinking its teeth into the colt's throat.

Behind him horses snorted and stamped in the white staring hysteria of their kind so that their riders were hard put to hold them from bolting. The girl on one of them stared almost as big-eyed, her teeth bitten over her lower lip as she murmured tensely:

"Be careful there, por Dios, Señor David. He may charge."

David flashed a tight grin over his shoulder for just a fraction of a second. "My bet is he won't," he said. "Too well fed, this one; not hungry enough."

And there was exactly the reason why David was doing this foolhardy thing. He was pitting his nerve and his experience, everything he knew about animals, against the jaguar's courage to hold what it had. He was, to put it frankly, showing off.

The girl swung round on her companion.

"Do something, Ramon! Don't just sit there and look."

Ramon, the rancho foreman, sat his horse more calmly. He lifted his left arm in a white sling towards the girl to remind her of it

"Cha!" he grunted. "How am I to shoot one-handed; and he directly in the way?— And the beast is as he says; well fed. It may break first."

Meanwhile David was remorselessly advancing; bent forward, picking up his feet, feeling out the next step, his eyes narrow on the great orbs that blazed yellow under flattened ears.

Fifteen feet! Ten—within reach of the beast's spring now. Nine!—Eight—Se-e-ven—

"Diablos!" Ramon credited David. "He is mucho hombre, plenty tough, that one— And look! He wins!"


THE jaguar spat its last snarl, exploded its furious coughing growl, made a superb turning leap, like a diver in mid-air, and faded into the undergrowth behind it that splashed back torn leaves and twigs.

"Olé!" Ramon shouted, as men do for a good stunt in a bull fight.

David ran to the colt, helped it to struggle to its feet.

"Don't!" Ramon shouted and spurred his horse forward. "Car-r-aba, Hombre! Don't ever drop your machete or gun. It could come back."

"Nah." David grinned at him. "Never heard of one doing that, once it quit."

The girl spurred up, leaned angrily from the saddle. "What silly thing were you trying to do? It's easy enough to get a cat on your neck, without begging for it!"

David wiped a smear of blood from his hand. "The colt doesn't seem to have anything broken. Just clawed up some. We'd better herd it back with us, though; sure to be more than one cat around...."

The girl wouldn't be stopped. "And every one of them as dangerous as a bull. Why didn't you shoot it?"

Dave smiled sourly. "For sport? With a high-power rifle at can't-miss range? Might as well hunt chipmunks. Your Indios wouldn't eat it, anyhow. And I like cats."

"I think," the girl said, "that you are as mad as all other North Americans."

"Very likely," Dave grinned.

Ramon picked up David's rifle and machete. "In spite of which, amigo," he added, "don't ever drop your weapons Not in this country."


THEY rode back through tangled acres of the pale blue little vanilla orchids, all straggling over tumble-down trellises of tall poles, their long brown beans hanging in disorderly clusters. David rode ahead, slashing a way with his machete through encroaching thorny liana vines.

Behind him Ramon looked at the girl and nodded, then pointed ahead with his chin.

"Just such a tough man," he said, "as is needed on this rancho since the good Lord took the padron, your father, away from it."

The sun-tan of the girl's face flushed up to a golden brown, "You talk as foolishly as he does," she said shortly. "Besides, he has been here only a few days. We know nothing of him."

Ramon shrugged. "It would seem, however, enough. There are girls back in the cities who would look no further than that yellow hair of his; or, those who wanted romance, no farther than those almost too sensitive lips."

"I think, Ramon," the girl said, "that you are drooling."

The rancho hacienda was showing its pink-washed adobe walls and jail-grilled windows between flaming poinciana trees that shaded the vanilla. Ramon shrilled an eagle whistle through his teeth.

"That means," the girl explained to Dave, "there will be coffee in the patio, Señor, in just ten minutes."

In the patio Dave, relaxed in a grass hammock, sipped at a thick clay cup of coffee flavored with vanilla and gummy with raw cane-syrup.

"This," he said lazily, closing his eyes to the leaf-broken sunlight, "is the perfect way to collect orchids."

"And our Señorita here," said Ramon with his native extravagance, "the most perfect orchid of all."

David grinned at Ramon, a gesture of agreement without rudeness.

The girl's name was, rather startlingly in this place, Jane La-Vieja O'Rorke. The middle of it meant The Old One, though that had nothing to do with Jane. It was the name of a family as honored in the history of South American freedom as are, say, Washington or Jefferson in the North. It came to her from a frail little mother who still fluttered about the hacienda after the sweatiness of climate and rawness of hewing a vanilla plantation out of those merciless jungles had killed a more robust father of the equally famous filibustering O'Rorkes.

Jane was accordingly exotically golden-skinned and dark-haired and blue-eyed and was quite appropriately called La Orquidea, the Orchid. Just the sort of girl before whom it was distinctly worth showing off.

David sipped at his coffee and said, "Perfect. Here is Eden. Peace—beauty—everything."

"Aye," said Ramon, "Where are also serpents—as here comes one now whom our Indios reported by drum to be on the way."


THE man who topped the steep river bank before the patio did not look so much like a serpent as like an ordinary peon. But not quite. He was as swarthy as Ramon and wore a peon's raggy shirt and frayed pants and wide palmetto hat; but there was a confident insolence in his eyes and a certain swagger in the slouch that grew from his heel-dragging grass huaraches. He carried a naked machete in his hand, as men must who travel the jungle paths.

"'Na' dia' a la cas'," he clipped the formal greeting of good day to the household. "I bring a message," he went on, "from my padron, the balatero of below the great rapid, to say that he will honor himself within the next few days to come and pay his court to the Señorita."

"Barbaridad!" Ramon exploded. "And who is this savage to offer the insolence of his court to our Señorita?"

The man narrowed his bold eyes down on Ramon. "Everyone knows who he is. And since the Señorita now requires a protector, it is reasonable, no?"

The girl's hammock ceased to swing as if stopped by a heavy weight. She turned in it, shrinking into its overlap.

Ramon glowered over the crude usage of the outer borderlands. "Reasonable," he had to concede, "but not likely; since he built for himself a feud with the estancia of Roderigo Peña that lies comfortingly between his rapids and us."

The man smiled thinly. "None the less," he said.

"And since the Rancho O'Rorke is good friends with the Estancia Peña?" Ramon left the implication to soak in.

The man slouched to stand over him. He grinned more thinly. "And who are you, Señor Foreman, to make suggestions as to what—or whom—your Señorita may choose?"

Dave got out of his hammock and moved, long-legged, to face the intruder. "Since our friend Ramon is incapacitated in one arm," he said softly, "perhaps it would be better that you should talk to me."

"Pero seguro." The man smiled even more thinly upon Dave. "Certainly I will talk with you." He let his naked machete swing idly before him. "You will be that Norte-Amerciano spy of your big business of whom we have heard, no?"

"Caa-nas-ss-tos!" It was torn from Ramon. "That does it!"

Through fingers to her lips Jane warned: "Be careful, Señor David. The man is a machetero!" It was like saying, a "gunman."

"So then, Señor Norte-Americano," the man smiled easily. "Since we talk of what is better—it would be better that you should go to the devil back to your own country before my padron comes. It is I who tell you this, standing here before you."

"Caa-a-nass-s-s..."

Ramon held his breath on the fading sibilant. The girl's fingers pressed her lip white against her teeth, as motionless as though a snake had hissed. The whole patio seemed to hold its breath.

"Let us," Dave put his hands ostentatiously into his pockets, "talk this thing over like civilized people."


THE man's narrowed eyes opened in wide surprise. He didn't know about codes other than his own; but that a man, tall and apparently whole, should refuse his challenge meant here la comida de zopilotes, a dinner of buzzards, or eating crow. So surprised was the man that he let David take him by the arm and lead him from the patio.

The patio breathed again. The rancho foreman let his breath go through blown-out cheeks. The girl bit, not her fingers, but her lip till a red spot showed darker than its full carmine. The foreman kicked his hammock to swinging; his eyes remained fixed in a minute examination of a corner of the rancho roof. At last he turned to look at the girl.

"It would seem," he said, "that being tough with just a jaguar is not enough."

Jane looked only at her finger nails, bit at some tiny roughness. "And yet," her frown showed her wonderment, "he has a certain courage."

Ramon shrugged. "They are a difficult people to understand."

Both hammocks swayed in silence but for the rustly creaking of their hooks.

David came back. Alone. Ramon rose to a joyful hope. "You took him away to hew him down where the Señorita would not see, yes?"

David shook his head. His somber look showed his understanding of everyone else's hopeless misunderstanding. "Nothing would be gained by killing the man," he stated his back-home credo.

Ramon shrugged again, with down-turned lips, "Or by being perhaps oneself killed, eh?" and addressed himself pointedly to the girl. "Though I may remain desolate, my counsel is to sell this rancho and take the little mother to the safety of the far city. For Laredo Gomez is one who gets what he wants, un bravo endiablo y un—" He bit back obscene descriptions. "Forgive my sentiments, Señorita. But there he is established; and he has been working these four years without a conscience, gobbling up all the territory from his ravine to the upper rapids, until he is now king of the balateros..."

"Just who," David inquired, "is this Gomez?"

Ramon gave angry information that none the less had a certain pride in exploit.

"An offspring of ten fathers is Laredo, all of them devils. A gatherer of the valuable balata gum that your northern manufacturers prefer over rubber for insulating underwater cables. He works a crew of collected ruffians whose totally added-up principles would be rejected by a snake. And," he pointed his pessimism, "between his territory and here there remains now only the forest worked by Roderigo Peña."

"He used to work here," Jane added. "Until—" she paused, coloring.

"Until his upstart insolence became unbearable," Ramon growled.

"He was always at least, polite."

"As polite as the Serpent of Eden pursuing his ends."

"And now he's a jungle big shot," David added it up, "and he wants to marry you."

"Or perhaps," Ramon said darkly, "not even marry—now that the Padron, Señor O'Rorke, of whom alone in this region he was, not afraid, but a little wary, has passed to God."

Dave's brows went up. "Is that so?"

"It is exactly so," Ramon snapped. "In return, this rancho needs a man; one as tough as he."

"Perhaps," said Dave, "to sell and get out would be the best thing to do—if I may be forgiven for butting into something that's none of my business; which is orchids...Will you be guiding me down-river tomorrow, Ramon, to that place of which you spoke?"

"So the Señorita has ordered," Ramon said shortly. "While this Laredo ladron is already crawling like a viper to establish a footing above his ravine."

"For balata perhaps," Dave's tone was indifferent. "But orchids I have been able to collect even in the gold country that some have called prohibido."

Ramon looked at Jane. "Quite beyond understanding," he said sourly.

David didn't understand what he meant.


DAVID strained practised muscles to hold the dug-out canoe in the current that piled up, slick and deep with little under-surface eddies, gathering its strength for its charge into the granite maw of the gorge that thrust out of the close jungle greenery like a forbidding gateway. Down that slavering gullet he could see vivid colors sparkling in the white spray. His voice dropped to match the swish and rumble that welled out of the mist, as though he were reciting verse to the accompaniment of music.

"Those rocks and cliffs, Ramon, where you say nobody has been ... in their deep shades one might find even a new species."

Ramon's quick surge of negation rocked the canoe. "Not with my help, you won't. Valgame Dios! Nor with anybody in these parts, even though he might be as mad as an Americano of the North. That is a place where canoes don't live. Death lives. Here is the last landmark; here civilization ends. Below is Laredo Gomez' balata kingdom."

There was cynicism in David's laugh. "This is civilization's boundary? Some friends have told me that it ended quite a bit farther North."

"Yes, at your American border, I have heard the Padron say as he fought to hold what he had built. Here, he would say, Life is the accident, Death the surety."

The O'Rorke's experience proved its truth, as thumping suddenly thickly out of the jungle screen, muted and blanketed by the massed greenery, a fat bullet plopped into the water a dozen feet ahead of the canoe and ricochetted out of a little geyser to smack into a tree on the farther bank. The wooded steep caught up the echo and flung it back across the ravine; and that side redoubled it to strike back higher up again; and again; to crackle at last thinly out into the strip of open sky. The stillness of the appalled jungle creatures followed; and then a big red howler monkey shouted its defiance and the ravine roared back at it.

Long seconds before that Dave was furiously plying his paddle, driving the craft to the shelter of the farther bank. Ramon was shouting at him above the uproar:

"Not that way, Madman! The other bank! ... or he'll shoot again. That is a signal in these parts to come in and be inspected."

"Hell! I don't answer to bullets!" Dave humped his shoulders and heaved on his paddle the harder. The canoe slid into the almost black shadow of low, overhanging branches. Dave snatched up the light rifle and was ashore before Ramon recovered from the grating jolt that had sprawled him. Then Dave had him under an arm and was hoisting him with himself behind the shelter of a vast soleiman bole spiked with knife-like thorns.

Ramon's first readiness to obey the rude summons flung from a gun-muzzle was replaced by rage. "That would be one of Laredo's animals, I told you he was expanding his territory.... Look! Under that purple jacaranda there; eight or ten inches down, where the red flower shows. See his hat? There! See him move! You can perhaps get him from here and a hundred souls will laugh in welcoming hell."

Dave made no move to shoot. "I'm hunting orchids; not men."

"Infiernos! Give me then the gun." Ramon snatched for it. "With but one hand; yet..."

But Dave held tight to the weapon. His lips were thin with stubborn conviction. "I'm looking for no war with any balata man. I'm a peaceable collector of..."

"It is well, Señores, that your intentions are at least, peaceable." The voice cut down on them with a soft sibilance.

 

BOTH JERKED AROUND, twisting their necks to see the cold round hole of an old-fashioned rifle muzzle looking down on them from a copal bush, and above it a face. A face smoothly dark, like a handsome cat's, and it grinned. High cheek bones showed that proud Spanish blood had not been too proud somewhere down the line, though dominant enough to have established a jungle dynasty.

"Laredo!" Ramon's recognition was surly.

The man narrowed his eyes in the pretended effort of a famous man to recall some less prominent individual. "You know me, of course." His vanity was gratified. "You will be—let me see now—Ah yes, the so faithful foreman of the Rancho Rorque—who is in love with the Señorita, is it not?"

Dave suddenly stared round at Ramon, whose thoughts, whatever they were, were hidden under a scowl of bitter hatred. Laredo grinned back at it. "You should have known better, my friend, than to disregard an order to go ashore. My good Ruiz over there might have fired again, this time in earnest, had he not known that I paralleled him on this side."

The very extravagance of the man's politeness in his aped idiom of a caballero was a threat.

Ramon had the hardihood to loose a ripple of the personal invective for which his language is so well suited. Laredo's cat eyes flickered and then grinned from Ramon to Dave.

"And this, then, will be the new Yanqui who now takes up so much of the Señorita's time. A quite providential bag, I would say, all with one shot."

Dave's cheeks were flattened with rage as he threw his standard civilized indignation at the man. "By what the hell right, cabron, do you hold up an American citizen minding his own business?"

Laredo showed clean white teeth in sheer enjoyment. "Aha? A fine spirit of courage? This is not as my reports have had it. And you speak of rights here? Cra! You have not heard, then, that my poor friend Roderigo Peña of the upper ravine has suddenly died and—bequeathed to me this territory?"

"Died? When? Of what?" Ramon exploded in astonishment.

Laredo shrugged his eyebrows and shoulders together. "I am not a physician to discuss deaths. Only a poor balata gatherer, striving to develop some meager livelihood for the—shall we say—backward people of my country; and to protect it—" the man's moustachios laid back on his cheeks in a feline grin—"protect it, Señor, from, should we say again, Northern Capitalistic Exploitation?" He smiled at David. "You from North America understand, of course."

The grin died away to its underlying hate. "The which we shall discuss, Señores, not at this water level where the piume flies are oppressive, but in some shady spot along my jungle path above and under the unbiassed judgment of some other young men who are also patriotically interested in my endeavors. Only, with your permission, I shall carry the good rifle."

WITH superb arrogance the man turned to go first, leaving them to follow behind. Any man who would dare that much bravado, Dave was convinced must be deadly sure of the situation. The only precaution the fellow took was to draw his machete and flick at vines that trailed thorns across the way. He zigzagged leisurely up the steep slope, dropping easy persifflage over his shoulder. "A collector, I am told you present yourself, of orchids? An avocation, it would seem, in which there is little profit but much opportunity to spy out the land for what your people call commercial development."

"I have my papers," Dave fell back upon another convention of back home, "to show that I am a collector."

Laredo laughed. "Does one in your North, then, where so many can write, still believe in identity of papers? And even if so—they tell me that vanilla is also an orchid—an enterprising young man could have an ambition, is it not, to collect a whole plantation of them along with their owner?"

"Why, you son of a..." Dave's angry words broke off, and he shouted, "Look out!", and snatched at Laredo from behind; his hand closed on the fellow's upper arm, jerked him back and whirled him, his feet trundling the ground; and in the same move Dave had the machete in his own hand.

Ramon spat ferociously. "You've got him, amigo I have his feet. Split him now like a melon!"

But Dave was ahead of them both, hacking swift strokes at the greenery of a bush. Slender coils, splotched ruddy brown and gray-green over a leprous yellow belly, slipped reluctantly from the broken twigs.

"You talk too damn careless." Dave was grinding his heel on the thing's head. "Wise guy, huh? So monkey-pleased with yourself that you don't look ahead. That's how a fer-de-lance gets to hit a man in the face; after that, you can't apply a tourniquet anywhere!"

Laredo was scrambling to his feet, a little dazed and his face suddenly haggard with the tight lines that the close finger of death can draw. "Cra-ticulas!" he was mumbling. "Hombre you have an eyesight there."

"Such as is needed," Dave told him grimly, "in looking for orchids."

Laredo shook himself as a cat might that has escaped one death and is instantly bold again in its knowledge of eight good lives left. He could afford to be sleekly apologetic.

"Señor compels me to believe him. Who but a true botanist, as foolish as a virgin, would be so mad as to pass up an opportunity such as you have just lost? Cra-a-ss-sissimos! My good friend Ramon here, for example, in his excitement would surely have... But we shall let that pass too—for the present."

Sleek and purring. But the claws remained under the silk. "For the present, friend Ramon. Which, speaking of presents, although no caballero, but a poor balatero of the jungles, I can do no other than reciprocate." He cupped fingers ingeniously to his lips and emitted the long drawn yowl of a puma. "A signal, Señor, to my good lads on the path above that you have convinced me that you are not a commercial spy. Thus I present you with permission to go alive from our territory."


DAVE was staring at the man, wondering whether he understood all the implications of that gift, only dimly realizing how accidental was Life where the Padron O'Rorke had hewn him an estate.

"Although,"—Laredo shrugged again and showed the white smile—"you convince me, too, that I have a worthy competition for this rarest orchid of our country—to whom convey, please, my respects and my assurance that I, Laredo Gomez, do not relinquish hope—ever; and that I shall present myself losing no time." He bowed like a caballero. "Adios, Señores. Go with God. I shall expose myself upon some rock so that my good Ruiz and his men across the river may know that you have permission."

His mastery of the situation was supreme as he turned and went to the hill, leaving even the rifle behind him.

Ramon looked at it hungrily, his fingers clawing for the feel of it, and then he said, "He will have half a dozen of his ruffians down the path to the canoe. Scowlingly he paddled through a long silence. Then Ramon exploded.

"Death of ten gods! His very thoughts are an insult to the Señorita."

"Perhaps—" Dave paddled through many seconds before he finished it—"he can be stopped—somehow."

"But certainly he can be stopped. You could have stopped him, his machete to your hand! I would have stopped him, had I it, even knowing that his henchmen covered us. With this rifle he could be stopped now, as look, he has the effrontery to stand upon that eminence, signalling his assistant devil, Ruiz,"

Laredo waved the friendliest confirmation of his permission. His voice carried faintly over the water: "Inform the Señorita that, alarmed by your competition, I, Laredo Gomez, shall present myself so soon as I shall have consolidated myself in my new territory, where some upstarts of the Roderigo family are disputing my claim—or perhaps even sooner." He could have been a fraternity member announcing honest rivalry.

Ramon, at the forward paddle, snatched backwards for the rifle. "Son of the Ten Thousand! If I but thought I could get him from here, and the hell with his gang ashore! With God's luck they could all miss us."

But Dave kept his knee, weighed down by all his civilized inhibitions, on the rifle in the bottom of the canoe. He paddled through a half hour's silence. The evening cool was bringing the jungle to life. A troop of cebus monkeys shrilled affright and abuse at some tree cat that stalked them. Macaws screeched raucously and sped in pairs across the widening river with the flash of red and blue rockets, A fat curassow flopped clumsily to perch on a far overhanging branch.

Dave emerged from his tight-lipped introspection. "Good white meat." He let the canoe slide, took up the rifle and fired. The bird plummeted into the water.

"Car-r-rambas!" It broke from Ramon. "You can shoot like that, and you let him go! Or don't you yet understand that he murdered Roderigo?"

Dave said nothing; only directed the canoe towards the floating bird, picked it up, mechanically shook off its surface wetness, paddled on, staring at the mirror sheen of the water as though he saw reflections of himself, most of them scowling derisively at him, to be blinked impatiently away and replaced by others that stared puzzled and in complete lack of sympathy.


IN the hacienda patio, when the tale had been luridly told over the coffee by Ramon and moodily edited by Dave, he found Jane looking at both of them in the same way.

"But—but a gunshot is the recognized way to signal over the roar of the waters. And he—he was polite, as he has always been. Of course he held a gun on you until he might know who you were. Everybody does that here; and everybody is suspicious, of course, of being exploited by Yanqui capital. But as soon as he knew, he did nothing to you. In fact," there was a tinge, almost, of disappointment "nobody did anything."

"But surely," Ramon sulked. "The Señor did. Much. Only it was the wrong snake that he killed."

Jane's eyes glowed for the moment on Dave, and then there was a question in them again, wondering whether he agreed in that inexorable opinion. Dave looked away from her.

"I—don't know," was as far as he would commit himself. But he felt that explanation was necessary to placate Ramon. He faced him.

"You have said that your civilization comes as far as the ravine. I will tell you, then, that in the civilization of the madmen of the North there are many millions of people, whole statesful of them, who admit no excuse for the killing of a fellow human; not even by their governments."

Ramon stared at him, searching his face for vacuous weakness. Not finding it, he said slowly, "And the cure for madness, I have heard, is a shock worse than the sickness. The good God give that you remain mad."

Jane's rather forced laugh dispersed the mens' seriousness. "Your whole talk is mad. You are attributing all sorts of wickedness to Laredo Gomez only because he—because both of you—" Confusion flamed in her cheeks and she changed the subject. "Come, Dave, and look. I've found an orchid for you; right here in the moist ground behind the kitchen."

She did show him a bloom, plucked a lovely thing that strongly scented the air. But that was not what she brought him away for.

"What do you really think of Laredo?" Her hand was on his arm, tightly gripping her urgency.

Dave was staring at her eyes, not at the flower. "I—don't know. I don't know conditions here. He was—polite. Ramon seems to think, deadly polite, because completely master of—I don't know what."

The girl's eyes clouded. "Ramon is a dear. And faithful to the death. Perhaps a lee-tle over-zealous because—Yes, Laredo has always been polite; and masterly too—he has organized a little army down there, they say. He is, at all events, a Man."

Dave stared at her. "You—like him?" His question was almost an accusation.

She didn't answer that. Instead she said, as though neither of them had known it before, "Look, this orchid has a scent. Smell."

She held it toward him. He still stared at her, only unconsciously inhaling the flower's fragrance. She too, without conscious volition, drew closer, obeying her own injunction to "smell.". Their faces were close over the flower's crimson convoluted lip. Then Dave saw her eyes close. His own too-closely-focused vision swept beyond her and the flower was crushed between their lips.

She drew away slowly; her eyes opened and blinked away an incongruous wetness. "Now I shall feel safe."

Dave was drawing her back to him. Only looking his question.

"Because," she confessed to his khaki shirt, "there have been times, since I have been alone, that I have been afraid—amongst all these lawless men. But as long as you are here I shall feel safe."

"As long as I—" Dave was not conscious of having inspired any such confidence. "Why?"

"Because, foolish one," Jane lifted her lips without any intervening flower, "you are a civilized man—and you will behave like one."

Then she released herself, murmuring "Poor Ramon. I don't know how to tell him. But I know he will be—honestly glad for me. But not this evening. Tomorrow I shall make courage."

"Tomorrow," said Dave, "I shall go into the hills back there and collect a million of these orchids."


TOMORROW. Mañana. Everything happens mañana in those far places South of the Border. Sometimes faster than the North thinks. Next day, in the foothills Dave heard a gunshot coming from the direction of the hacienda. He didn't like that. Nobody there hunted; the peons wouldn't have a gun. Ramon—but why would Ramon want to fire a shot? A signal perhaps? Dave decided he had better go back. He started walking, but the nearer he came to the house, the faster he walked; till he was running; and when he came quite close, his heart was choking off his already strangled breath in his throat, for he could hear the inchoate clamor of South of the Border that takes its emotions noisily.

As he charged past the deserted servants' quarters around to the front that overhung the river, people milled about him; peons, house servants, all buzzing at once, mumbling, murmuring incoherently, like bees, hiveless, who had found a leader. Dave's anxiety flared to fury at their meaningless yammerings. A woman clung to him screeching. He shoved her off angrily; and then he saw that it was the fluttery frail Señora of the house. All she could pronounce was, "My daughter! My poor daughter!"

The mob surged Dave toward a smaller mob; and that one immediately detached itself from its interest to coalesce with the larger swarm and each shrill its complaint.

Its interest had been Ramon. He lay propped up against a moss-grown stone gate post; he had bled frightfully; was still bleeding through the fingers of a woman who had a cloth to his chest. He could speak coherently, saving his words.

"Grac' al buen' Dios! You come ... at last!" He pointed down river. "He came—as he had said, losing no time. With half a dozen of his thugs."

Dave was losing no time with stupidly obvious questions. "Perhaps some of the Romero balateros down the road can be organized."

Ramon waved the suggestion off with a weak hand. "Under a leader, perhaps; but—Time! He will be going fast—two hours start—to his own country below the gorge."

Dave's heart was thick in his throat again to choke off his voice. Ramon was desperately saving of words. "One chance—the canoe!"

Dave swallowed and said the obvious this time. "Ramon, you will die here if I—"

Ramon's hand pushed feebly at him. "So will she—unless—" His face twisted in a wracked grin. "You said you wanted to go—some day, and I—I told you it would have to be alone." His voice came stronger. "I denounce the fatherless animal before God. I name him for the ten-thousand sins of his mother. I—"


TIME! Dave shoved the chittering peons from before him and tumbled down the river embankment. Over the buzzing of the swarm that he left behind he could hear Ramon's fearful invective that he was taking with him to lay before God. Dave fell into the canoe, nearly swamped it—baled it frantically and shoved off.

He didn't know what he was going to do: or what he could do—alone. The race down the river gave little opportunity to plan; the strain of sheer physical endeavor for speed left scant room for thinking. Speed! For what? Vaguely the pattern set itself in his mind that he must contrive to cut off the raiders somewhere along the path. Vaguely, too, came a small comforting reminder that his rifle that he always carried into the jungles still bumped against his back on its web strap.

Speed! Time! How far might six hurrying men have shoved, hustled, carried a girl along a jungle trail in two hours of start? Too far! The mounting rage of futility burned in each heaving gasp.

The canoe was looking down into the maw of the gorge before Dave had coherent plans. But hope, at least, had come to him. Ten miles of rapids, Ramon had told him, roared through that defile. There, by Heaven, would be speed! Much faster than men on a rocky path. IF—

He shot the canoe into the suck of the dark water between the granite buttresses that scowled their "keep out." The gorge roared in his ears and took hold of him in a liquid avalanche that showed him how puny were strong muscles, and a fine spray that dimmed the bulk of rocks wickedly ahead, rushing up at him, gnashing jagged teeth. Speed, at all events, he had.

Canoes, Ramon had said out of his experience, didn't live in that gorge—and soon, disaster came as easily as disaster always can. An insignificant submerged rock, hardly big enough to cause any surface flurry, took the edge of the canoe and turned it neatly over. Dave was plucked away and rolled under and over and around like any other flotsam before another rock deflected him again to the surface.

Death, Ramon said, lived in that gorge. Death was undoubtedly preparing to do business; but Death, alone of all contingencies, always had Time. As yet, the river played with Dave; sucked at him, spewed him out, tossed him, hurtled him along, spun him, finally playfully into an eddy where Dave was able to swim to and clutch at a great snag of a tree left stranded from last season's rains. He was able to haul himself along to where its shattered stem was imbedded in a little oasis of clean white sand littered with other flotsam. With the help of a dead gray root he was able to heave himself to his feet and he tried to shout his exultation, but all he succeeded in doing was to belch hugely.

One thought surged in his mind. He had won TIME! Surely that, at least. Nobody could have traveled the twists and ups and downs of a cliffside trail with that fearful speed. They would be coming along presently, dragging Jane with them, damn their black souls. And then what? Six of them. Dave still had had no time to think what he might do but they would be along. Surely they would be coming. Fate, even in this savage country, couldn't be so brute merciless as to have let them already go by.

He must find the trail, wherever it would be winding and dipping along on the hillside behind him. He must contrive something. Some desperate thing that would be good against six armed men. He must—and then Dave knew that the Fates and the gods who ruled here were those sardonic heathen ones who grant favours and take their payment in immediate twisted antithesis.

He lived, and he had won Time. But—he looked madly at his hillside, at the sun, at the river; and he saw it. The trail! There it was, an unmistakable beaten path, dipping down from broken rocks to cross a strip of sandy beach—And the brute gods of the river and jungle had spewed him out on the other side!

THE RIVER raced along, chuckling and roaring its laughter at him. A mile—two miles—he couldn't see how much farther the rapids extended. Thirty feet across—a little thirty feet. But nothing alive could swim across; not even a fish. The best they could do was to let themselves be whirled down a mile in a few minutes and then work their way back, snuggling banks and backwaters, in hours.

Dave's reaction of exhaustion swept over him and he sagged down against his dead tree. Even his futile hope of cutting off the gang was hopeless. He lay a shapeless heap on the hot moist sand, numb in body, dead in mind.

Till suddenly above the roar of the river, he was conscious of a muted shout. More shouts. A fury of cursing. They were coming. Thirty feet away; only a little thirty feet across an uncrossable gulf!

And then those heathen gods laughed at him and told him what a Man could do. It seemed to Dave that he could see their eyes staring at him out of jungle shadows, cynical, malicious. He could hear their voices chuckling in the river:

"Civilization ends at your American border."

Dave's voice coughed some of their water from his lungs to croak a hoarse, "No!"

"Or," the insidious voices chuckled, "does it end when things come very close to home?"

Dave said nothing. Eyes! Voices! His inhibited soul was haunted.

Angry shouts dragged his mind out of its black introspection of all his past cherished illusions into the merciless glare of day; of this day; of right now! There they were. Laredo and—only three, it seemed, of his gang. Well, four of them or six, what did it matter? What mattered was that they were dragging, the girl between them.

Dave lurched up, not giving a damn, from behind his tree trunk, recklessly waving his arms, yelling, "Jane!"

The men on the other side bunched together. "Cra-ticulas!" Dave could hear the yelp of surprise. Ruiz flung up his rifle. His foot kicked a little shower of sand as he leaned forward to fire. His heavy, big-bore bullet swatted into Dave's tree.

And with that reminder that Life here was the accident, Dave suddenly knew that the heathen gods of that place were supremely right. He knew exactly what a man could do, what a Man must do!

The sensitive lips bit down on hard, unaesthetic words: on heathen words of the renounced faith.

"Principles, huh? Nothing ever settled by—the hell it isn't!" Dave tore at the web strap that held the rifle to his back. He snapped the bolt out and in. A slim brass cartridge slipped smoothly into place.

ANOTHER fat bullet suddenly dragged at the pocket of his jacket. The furious, crafty sanity of a man who fights for things very close to home dropped him behind his log.

Laredo Gomez was tugging at the girl's wrist, cursing her sudden resistance.

"Human life, yeah?" As fast as shooting at a fat curassow, Dave snapped a shot at Laredo over his log. As surely as shooting meat. Laredo let go of the girl's wrist, spun and pitched, head and shoulders in the water.

Illustration

Dave snapped a shot at Laredo over his log.

The river gods who held the agency for Death in this ravine shouted and dragged at him. Dave shouted as savagely.

The gang, as fast as apes, jumped behind sheltering rocks. A fusillade of bullets came. Dave yelled defiance.

The gods were lifting Laredo's shoulders; his body swayed out into the stream, anchored only by his feet. A man dashed from his shelter to clutch at them.

"Fool!" Dave fired again. The man lurched over Laredo. His weight launched both of them into the current, The gods chuckled and took them away.

Jane was standing, petrified, in the pose where Laredo's grip on her wrist had left her. Dave yelled at her.

"Duck, you little fool! Splinters!"

A bullet thumped into his tree and showered splinters into his own face. Blood spurted red before his eyes. His body heaved up and fell back. Yells came from the other side. The redness before Dave's eyes was more than blood. He pushed himself up on dizzy knees to see Jane struggling with one man to deflect his rifle. The other one was eagerly watching for another shot at wherever Dave might show up.

"Damned punk!" Dave fired twice, fast, before that one clutched at his stomach and slowly kneeled and even more slowly dipped his face into the sand. The man with whom Jane struggled yelled and tore himself loose. He darted behind a rock; from that to another. Dave could catch fleeting glimpses of him running between river fringe bushes. Deer ran like that, panicked and without thought. Dave watched now as he had watched many times for deer. He saw his chance and dropped, the man as he had dropped deer.

Then he stood up and shouted orders. "Jane!" He had to point up river to supplement his shout. "Go on back to head of rapids. Where I can swim across."

Jane's voice carried back to him. "All right. I think—it's safe—now."

The grimness that looked out of Dave's eyes was something that the friends in their civilized fragment of the map had never seen. Dave's hard-bitten lips barely moved as he spoke.

"You can damn well bet it's safe—now."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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