Stoneheart: A Romance

Stoneheart: A Romance

Gustave Aimard
Gustave Aimard

Author: Aimard, Gustave, 1818-1883
Apache Indians — Fiction
Frontier and pioneer life — Mexico — Fiction
Stoneheart: A Romance










Sympathy is a feeling admitting neither analyzation nor discussion. It masters us, whether we will or no. Persons we meet unconsciously attract or repel us at first sight. And why? It is a question impossible to answer, but the fact is indubitable. An irresistible magnetic influence draws us towards people whom, if we listened to the promptings of self-interest, we ought to shun; while, on the other hand, the same influence compels us to avoid others, in whom this very interest should induce us to confide.

And it is an extraordinary fact, well worthy of remark, that this intuition, acting in opposition to our reasoning powers, seldom if ever misleads us. Sooner or later we are forced to acknowledge as right what to the prejudiced eyes of the world appeared erroneous, and find that our sympathy, far from deceiving, has only led us to the truth.

The result of this sympathy and antipathy are so palpable, so many persons have experienced the effects of this mysterious influence, that it would be superfluous for us to linger longer over the topic.

Don Estevan and Stoneheart had become acquainted under circumstances which might have induced enmity between them, or, at all events, made them indifferent to each other: the reputation of the bee-hunter, and the singular life he led, were ample reasons why the young and straightforward mayor domo of Don Pedro de Luna should feel himself repelled by them; and yet a diametrically opposite effect was produced without the two young men knowing why, and they suddenly felt themselves friends, bound together, not by one of those vapid sentimentalities so common in civilised life in Europe, where the word “friend” means no more than a mere acquaintance, and is one of the titles most easily and constantly profaned, but by the strong, true feeling, admitting neither limit nor reasoning, which shoots up so strongly in a few hours that it engrosses an immense part of the existence of those of whom it has taken possession.

They had never seen each other before their casual encounter in the road to San Lucar, and yet they seemed to have known each other for ages, and now only to have met again after a long parting.

Singular to say, the same effect was produced on both at the same moment, without calculation or reservation.

What we have asserted is so true, that Don Estevan, notwithstanding the innate prudence of his character, had not hesitated to confide to Stoneheart, on the spur of the moment, the history of his master, or, to speak more correctly, his benefactor. He had recounted this history in all its details, without disguising anything, or omitting a title, induced to act as he did by the secret presentiment which apprised him that he had found a man worthy of sharing the burden of this important secret.

The course of this tale will furnish us with still stronger proofs of the singular confidence these two men had instantly felt for each other.

The sun was setting in a flood of purple and gold behind the snowy crests of the lofty and jagged mountains of the Sierra Madre, when Don Estevan ceased speaking.

The landscape assumed that garb of placid melancholy in which it clothes itself at the approach of eve; the birds came flying in countless flocks, to nestle, twittering, under the leafy boughs of the grand old trees. Vaqueros and peones, galloping in all directions, mustered the cattle, and drove them towards the hacienda; and in the distance appeared a camp of arrieros, whose watch fires already began to tinge the rapidly darkening sky with a ruddy glow.

“And now,” resumed Don Estevan, “having acquired as intimate a knowledge as my own of the secrets of the family with whom chance has brought you into contact, what do you intend to do?”

“First, and before all a single word,” answered Stoneheart.

“Say on; you must indeed have many things to confide to me in your turn.”

“Not so many as you think. You already know as much of my life as I do myself; that is to say, almost nothing. But that is not the question between us at present.”

“What can it be, then?” said Don Estevan, unable to repress his curiosity.

“I am about to tell you. Surely you have not told me this long and interesting tale with the sole purpose of satisfying a curiosity I never exhibited; there must be some other motive in your thoughts, and I think I have guessed it. Don Estevan Diaz, two bold men, bound to each other as closely as the ivy and the oak, with thoughts running in the same channel, with but one will between them,—two such men are mighty; for the one forms the complement to the other, and what each alone would not dare to essay, the two will undertake without hesitation, and be almost certain to succeed, however hazardous and rash their projects may seem. Are you of the same way of thinking?”

“Most surely, Don Fernando; I am entirely of the same opinion.”

A flash of joy illumined the face of the bee-hunter. “Good!” said he, stretching out his arm; “Here is my hand, Don Estevan; it belongs to a man who, with his hand, offers you a loyal and honest heart, whatever may be said to the contrary: will you accept them?”

¡Vive Dios!” eagerly exclaimed the mayor domo, heartily pressing in his own the hand so frankly tendered; “I accept both one and the other. Thanks, brother! I was on the point of making the same offer to you; we are now one for life or death. I am yours, as the handle is to the blade.”

“Ah!” said Don Fernando, with a sigh of pleasure, “At last I have a friend. I shall no longer wander through life alone: joy and sorrow, grief and happiness,—I shall have one to whom I can confide them all.”

“You shall have more than one to sympathise with you, brother; you shall have a mother too. Mine shall be yours also. Come, let us mount; it grows late. We have still many things to talk of.”

“Let us go,” was all the hunter answered.

The horses had not strayed from the neighbourhood of the rancho, near which they found abundant pasturage: the men easily lassoed them, and five minutes later the friends rode side by side in the direction of Don Estevan’s dwelling.

Ña Manuela was awaiting them at the entrance. She was smiling.

“Make haste!” she cried, as soon as she perceived them; “the angelus has rung an hour ago. It is supper time.”

“Which means to say, mother, that we are dying with hunger,” replied her son, dismounting; “so, if you have not prepared an ample meal, you run great risk of leaving our appetites unappeased.”

“No fear of that, Estevan. I thought you would arrive in some such condition; so I took my precautions.”

“Can you forgive me, madam,” said the bee-hunter, “for making this fresh inroad on your hospitality?”

The mistress of the house smiled kindly.

“I am so ready to forgive you, señor,” said she, “that, feeling convinced we should have you a long time with us, I have myself arranged your cuarto (quarters).”

Don Fernando did not reply at once: a lively blush overspread his features; he dismounted, and approaching the old lady:

“Señora,” said he, much affected, “I know not how to thank you; you have guessed the dearest wish of my heart. Your son calls me brother: would you deign to permit me to call you mother? How happy it would make me!”

Ña Manuela fixed upon him a long and steadfast gaze: her face exhibited tokens of vivid emotion; two tears coursed slowly down her pallid cheeks. Then, stretching out her hand to the hunter, she said:

“Be it so! Instead of one, I have now two children. Come, my sons, supper is waiting.”

“My name is Fernando, mother.”

“I will not forget it,” was her smiling answer. They entered the dwelling, while some peones led away the horses to the corral.

Don Fernando had not deceived his friend; he had in truth given him a mother.

The meal proceeded with the cheerfulness to be expected from three persons who, although strangers three days before, had suddenly understood and appreciated each other: that is to say, it was gay and cordial. No allusion was made to the impromptu band which had linked them together so intimately and unexpectedly.

As soon as the peones had retired, and their masters found themselves alone, they left the table, and betook themselves, as on the previous day, to an inner room, where, sheltered from prying eyes and ears, they ran no risk of having their conversation overheard, commented on, and perhaps reported.

“Shut the door,” said Don Estevan to Don Fernando, who was the last to enter.

“Not so,” replied the latter; “we will leave it open: by this means we shall both see and hear anyone who may come near us. Take this as a general rule: never close the door when you have secrets to tell.”

Don Estevan drew forward some butacas (seats), sat down, lit his cigarette, and turning to the hunter, said:

“Now for our talk!”

There are certain situations in life where the most insignificant word becomes of the greatest importance. So, when Don Estevan said, “Now for our talk!” each of the three felt that the conversation to ensue would not be confined to the limits of pleasant chat, but would almost assume the proportions of a congress with closed doors, so extremely grave were the matters which would be propounded.

It was Don Fernando who first commenced the conversation in the decided and clear manner which was habitual to him.

“My friend, I have pondered deeply on what you told me today: you would never have intrusted such an important secret to me, if grave reasons had not induced you. I think I have divined your reasons; they are these: the tranquillity which Don Pedro has enjoyed since he lived here is menaced; you dread evil to Doña Hermosa. Are these your motives, or am I mistaken?”

“You are not. In fact, I have for some time past been oppressed by a vague fear, a secret apprehension, I cannot subdue; I feel, as it were, the approach of some misfortune, without knowing whence or how it will come. Doubtless you know better than I can tell you, that in all men’s lives certain dark hours occur, in which the brave man trembles without apparent cause, like a child afraid of its own shadow. All things alarm, all things excite suspicion. Well, my friend, for the last two months I have lived these dark hours: an invincible sadness overpowers me. In a word, I am living in fear, without knowing why; for all around me takes its usual course: Don Pedro is as calm, Doña Hermosa as gay, as lively, and as free from care as ever; we live in this out-of-the-way corner of the world entirely ignorant of its doings; the rumours of society die without an echo on our threshold. What have we, then, to fear? Who is the enemy that lies in wait for us, and whose savage eye watches us night and day? I know not; but I repeat, I feel him; I see him, as it were, without being really able to discover him.”

“You know your enemy now, as well as I do. It is the Tigercat. The conversation you overheard last night between him and myself must have enlightened you as to his intention, if not as to his plans.”

“True; but, nevertheless, my mind refuses to admit that this man can really be our enemy. As there can be no effects without causes, so there can be no hate without a reason. Since Don Pedro’s arrival in this country, he has never come in contact with this man at home or abroad, for good or for evil. Why, then, should he wish ill to my master?”

“Why! Why!” repeated the hunter, with feverish impatience. “Why does day follow night? Why are there good and bad men? Why rascals and honest people? The inquiry would lead you too far, my good friend. I know as well as you that none of you have ever come in contact with the Tigercat. It is impossible to doubt it; but what does that signify? This man is a gloomy miscreant, the greater portion of whose life is spent in doing evil for mere evil’s sake. Don Pedro is loved and honoured by all who know him; Doña Hermosa is respected even by the Apaches,—the most ferocious redskins of the prairie; hence, most likely, the hatred he bears to the family of the hacendero. In such a man’s eyes, no one has the right to be good and honest with impunity; it is an obvious necessity that all loyal hearts should be his natural enemies. A man, however low he may have fallen, can never forget his frightful downfall, or the position from which his crimes have hurled him; he cannot forgive the world his own abasement; but as he cannot avenge himself upon it in the mass, he wages war upon it in detail, attacking all those within his reach, and taking his revenge on them for fault she has himself committed. Here lies the sole cause of Tigercat’s hatred of Don Pedro; seek no further reason; no other exists.”

“Yes; you are right,” answered Don Estevan uneasily; “it must be as you say.”

“Of course it is! Trust in me, who have known the monster so long, as it is he who brought me up. But enough of this: what do you intend to do, now we have clearly ascertained our position?”

“I confess I find myself greatly embarrassed, and know not how to extricate myself from the dilemma—how to upset plans the aim of which is beyond my ken; how to thwart projects tending to an unknown end. There lies the difficulty for me.”

“I think it would be by far the best course to leave the family in complete ignorance of our suspicions,” said Ña Manuela.

“Say rather our conviction, señora,” replied Don Fernando. “But in this matter I am quite of your opinion: it will be easy for us to guard Don Pedro and his daughter so secretly that they shall not dream of the danger which threatens them. Then, if the position grows too complicated, we shall not be in want of pretexts to oblige them to keep watch over their own safety.”

“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Don Estevan excitedly;

“It is most important that they should entertain no suspicion, particularly Doña Hermosa, who is so sensitive. Poor child; if our fears prove true, she will learn to know misfortune too soon. Come, Fernando, counsel us; you are the only one who can aid us in this trying emergency.”

“I will do all a man can do to save those you love.”

“Thanks. But why not save those whom you love yourself? You have already rendered them an inestimable service.”

“Alas, my friend!” said the hunter, with a sigh; “What am I, the miserable adventurer, that I should lift my thoughts so high? I am nothing more; and can only play the part of the honest watchdog, who saves his master and dies at his feet.”

He spoke these words in accents of so much sadness and humility, that Don Estevan and his mother, moved to tears, with one accord seized his hands, and pressed them affectionately.

“Do not speak thus, brother,” exclaimed the mayor domo; “you do not know Doña Hermosa as we do: a more upright heart, a purer or nobler soul, does not exist: she loves you.”

“Ah,” said Don Fernando with emotion, “do not utter the word. Doña Hermosa—love me—me! It is impossible.”

“Doña Hermosa is a woman, my good friend; you saved her life. I do not positively know the nature of her sentiments towards you,—it is very likely they are inexplicable to herself,—but I am convinced of her gratitude to you; and in a young girl gratitude soon merges into love.”

“Silence, Estevan!” cried the old lady, interrupting him; “Such words must not be used when speaking of your master’s daughter.”

“Very true, mother; forgive me; I was wrong. But had you heard Doña Hermosa speaking of our friend as I did, and exacting from me a promise to search for and bring him to her,—¡vive Dios! you would not know what to think.”

“Perhaps so; but, at all events, I should not have poured oil upon the flame, and, for my own sake and that of my friend, should have prudently locked up my thoughts at the bottom of my heart.”

“Do not think me so mad, señora,” exclaimed Don Fernando, “as to attach more importance than they deserve to your son’s words. I know too well what I am—I have too complete a conviction of my inferiority—to dare to raise my venturous eyes to her whom honour compels me to respect as one of the angels.”

“Well said, Don Fernando, and spoken as a man should speak,” broke in Ña Manuela; “but let us drop the subject, and occupy ourselves in finding the means of escape from the dilemma we are in.”

“I think,” replied the hunter, with some hesitation—”I think I can show you the means, if you cannot contrive something better.”

Mother and son eagerly drew their butacas nearer to him, in order to listen more attentively.

“Speak, brother, speak,” cried Don Estevan; “let us have no further delay. These means, what are they?”

“You must excuse me,” resumed Don Fernando, “if the plan I am about to submit to you should not be exactly compatible with the strict laws of honour as they are understood in the civilised world; but I entreat you to recollect that I have been brought up as a redskin; that the man with whom we are about to enter into mortal strife is more than half an Indian; and the war he intends to wage with you will be an Apache war, full of treachery and ambuscades; that, in order to meet him with advantage, we too, whatever repugnance we may feel, must employ the same measures,—must turn his own weapons against himself; must repel treachery by treachery, and knavery by knavery; for if, adhering to a false idea of honour, we persist in an open and honest warfare, we shall play the part of fools indeed, and he will outwit us.”

“What you say, Fernando,” replied the mayor domo, “is unfortunately but too true. The proverb is right, ‘Cap a knave

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