The Bee Hunters: A Tale of Adventure

The Bee Hunters: A Tale of Adventure

Gustave Aimard
Gustave Aimard

Author: Aimard, Gustave, 1818-1883
Western stories
Adventure stories
French fiction — Translations into English
The Bee Hunters: A Tale of Adventure











Since the discovery of the goldfields in California and on the Fraser River, North America has entered into a phase of such active transformation, civilisation has advanced with such giant strides, that only one region is still extant—a region of which very little is known—where the poet, or the dreamer who delights in surrounding himself with the glories of nature, can revel in the grandeur and majesty, which are the great characteristics of the mysterious savannahs.
It is the only country, nowadays, where such men can sate themselves with the contemplation of those immense oceans of alternate verdure and sand, which spread themselves out in striking contrast, yet wonderful harmony,—expanding, boundless, solemn, silent, and threatening, under the eye of the omnipotent Creator.
This region, in which the sound of the squatter’s axe has not yet roused the slumbering echoes, is called the Far West.
Here the Indians still reign as masters, tracing paths on rapid mustangs, as untamed as their riders, through the vast solitudes, whose mysteries are known only to themselves; hunting the bison and wild horse, waging war with each other, or pursuing with deadly enmity, the white hunters and trappers daring enough to venture into this last formidable refuge of the redskins.
On the 27th July, 1858, about three hours before sunset, a cavalier, mounted on a magnificent mustang, was carelessly following the banks of the Rio Bermejo, a tributary of the Rio Grande del Norte, into which it falls after a course of from seventy to eighty leagues across the desert.
This cavalier, clad in the leather dress worn by Mexican hunters, was, as far as one could judge, a man not more than thirty years of age, of tall and well-knit frame, and graceful in manner and action. His face was proud and determined; and his hardy features, stamped with an expression of frankness and good nature, inspired, at first sight, respect and sympathy.
His blue eyes, soft and mild as a woman’s; the thick curls of blonde hair, which escaped in masses from under the brim of his cap of vicuña skin, and wantoned in disorder on his shoulders; the sallowish white of his skin, very different from the olive tint, approaching to bronze, peculiar to the Mexicans,—all these would lead one to surmise that he had not first seen the light under the hot sun of Spanish America.
This man, who was to all appearance so peaceable and so little to be dreaded, concealed, under a slightly effeminate exterior, a courage which nothing could daunt, nor even startle: the delicate and almost diaphanous skin of his white hands, with their rosy nails, served as a covering to nerves of steel.
At the moment of which we speak this personage seemed to be half-asleep in his saddle, and allowed his mustang to choose his own pace; and the beast, profiting by a liberty to which he was not accustomed, nibbled off with the tips of his lips the blades of sun-dried grass he met with on his road.
The place where our cavalier found himself was a plain of tolerable extent, cut into two nearly equal parts by the Rio Bermejo, whose banks were steep, and here and there strewn with bare, gray rocks.
This plain was enclosed between two chains of hills, rising to right and left in successive undulations, until they formed at the horizon high peaks covered with snow, on which the purple splendours of sunset were playing.
However, in spite of the real or pretended somnolence of the cavalier, his eyes half opened occasionally and, without turning his head, he cast a searching glance around him, but betrayed no symptom of apprehension, which nevertheless would have been quite pardonable in a district where the jaguar is the least formidable of man’s enemies.
The traveller, or hunter,—for as yet we do not know who he is,—continued his road at a pace which became more and more slow and careless; he was on the point of passing at about a hundred yards’ distance from a rock which rose like a solitary watchtower on the bank of the Rio Bermejo, when, from behind the mass, where he had probably lain in ambuscade, there half emerged a man, armed with an American rifle.
This individual for a moment examined the traveller with the minutest attention: then, levelling his rifle, he pressed the trigger, and fired.
The cavalier, bounding in his saddle, and uttering a suppressed scream, flung up his arms, lost his stirrups, and rolled on the turf, where, after a few convulsive movements, he remained motionless.
The horse, in alarm, reared, lashed out wildly with his heels, and started off at full speed in the direction of the woods scattered over the hills, in the midst of which he soon disappeared.
Having thus cleverly knocked over his man, the assassin dropped the butt of his weapon on the ground, and, doffing his cap of vicuña skin, dried his forehead, while he murmured expressions of gratified vanity.
¡Canarios! This time I don’t think my marauding friend will come to life again; I must have broken his backbone for him. What a glorious shot! What will those fools say who wanted to make me believe at the venta that he was a sorcerer, who could not be hit without putting a silver ball into my rifle, if they could see him now, stretched out in that way? Capital! I have loyally earned my hundred piastres. It’s not bad luck. I had lots of trouble in succeeding. May the holy Virgin be blessed for the protection she has deigned to grant me! I will take care not to be ungrateful to her for it.”
All the time he was muttering thus, the worthy fellow was reloading his rifle with the most scrupulous care.
“Well,” continued he, seating himself on a clod of turf, “I am knocked up with having had to watch so long. Suppose I were to go and convince myself of his death? By Heaven, no; he might still be breathing, and treat me to a thrust of the knife. I’m no such fool. I prefer sitting here in peace, and smoking a cigarette. If, within an hour, he has not stirred, all will be over, and then I’ll run the risk. And indeed I’m in no sort of hurry,” he added, with a sinister smile.
Upon that, with an air of the greatest coolness, he took the tobacco from his pouch, twisted a pajillo (straw cigarette), lit it, and commenced smoking with immense sangfroid, never ceasing to watch, out of the corner of his eye, the corpse lying a few yards from him.
Let us profit by this moment of respite to make the reader a little better acquainted with this interesting personage.
He was a man a little below the average height, but the breadth of his shoulders and bigness of his limbs showed him to be endowed with immense muscular power; his forehead was low and receding like that of a wild beast; his nose, long and hooked, bent down over a mouth immense in size, but with thin lips, and garnished with long pointed and irregular teeth; gray eyes, with squinting pupils, stamped his physiognomy with a sinister expression.
The man was dressed in a hunter’s garb, similar to that of the cavalier. Calzoneras (loose trousers) of leather, bound about at the hips with a faja, or sash of silk, and falling as low as the knee, were fastened under botas vaqueras (heavy boots), intended to preserve the legs. A kind of half-jacket, half-blouse, also of leather, covered the upper part of his body, which garment, open in front like a shirt, had sleeves reaching to the elbow; a machete or straight sword, passed without sheath through an iron ring, hung on his left hip; and a game bag, apparently well supplied was slung to his right side by a strip of bison hide worn across the shoulder; a zarapé, or Indian blanket, motley with brilliant colours, lay on the earth beside him.
In the meanwhile time was passing; an hour and a half had already elapsed without our friend, who smoked cigarette after cigarette, appearing to be able to decide upon going to convince himself of the death of him on whom he had treacherously drawn trigger from behind the rock.
During all this time, the cavalier, after he fell, had preserved the most complete immobility; attentively watched by the assassin, the latter had not been able to perceive the slightest motion. The zopilotes (turkey buzzards) and the condors, in all probability attracted by the scent of the corpse, were beginning to circle in wide rings over it, uttering their rough and discordant cries; the sun, on the point of disappearing, had assumed the shape of a globe of fire on the edge of the horizon. It became necessary to act.
The assassin rose, greatly against his will.
“Pooh!” he murmured, “The man must be dead enough by this time, or if not his soul has turned to ashes in his heart. Let’s go and look. Nevertheless, as prudence is the mother of safety, let us be prudent.”
And in accordance with this reasoning, he drew from his garter the sharp-pointed knife which every Mexican carries for the purpose of cutting the thong if an enemy happens to cast the lasso round his neck. Having tried the spring of the blade against a stone, and convinced himself that the point was not broken, he made up his mind, at last, to approach the body, still lying motionless on the spot where it had fallen. But in the American deserts there is an axiom the justice of which is acknowledged by all. It is this: That the shortest road from one point to another is a curve. Our friend took good care to put it in practice on this occasion. Instead of advancing straight to the object of his visit, he made a long circuit, drawing nearer little by little, stealing along softly, stopping at intervals to examine the body, and ready to fly at the slightest movement he might see, and with his knife ready to strike.
But these precautions were useless; the corpse preserved the immobility of a statue, and our man stopped almost within reach without discovering a single thing to betray an atom of life in the unhappy wretch stretched upon the ground before him.
The murderer crossed his arms over his chest, and contemplated the body, whose face was turned to the ground.
“By my faith, he is dead indeed. It is a pity; for he was a formidable fellow. I should never have dared to attack him face to face. But a man must stick to his word. I had been paid; I was bound to fulfil my engagement. Curious! I see no blood! Pooh! It is a case of internal bleeding. So much the better for him, for his sufferings will have been less. However, to make doubly sure, I’ll plant my knife between his two shoulders: in that way I shall be sure of my bird, although there is no danger of his coming to life again. You see, one must not deceive those who pay us; a man must stick to his word.”
After this soliloquy he knelt down, bent over the body, supporting himself by one hand on its shoulders, and lifted his knife; but suddenly, by a movement of unexampled rapidity, the supposed corpse rose with a bound like a jaguar, and oversetting the stupefied assassin, seized him by the throat, pinned him to the earth, planted his knee on his chest, and deprived him of his knife before his brains could render an account of what was happening.
“Hulloa, compadre!” (comrade) said the cavalier in a jeering tone; “One moment, if you please, ¡cuerpo de Cristo!
All this passed in much less time than we have taken to write it.
However, sudden and unexpected as the attack had been, the other was too much accustomed to strange vicissitudes in somewhat similar situations not to recover his presence of mind almost immediately.
“Well, comrade,” resumed the cavalier, “what have you got to say to all this?”
“I?” replied the other, with a sneer; “¡Caray! I say the game has been well played.”
“Then it is one you are acquainted with?”
“A little,” was the modest reply.
“I have been a little sharper than you.”
“Yes, sharper; yet I certainly thought I had killed you. Curious,” he continued, as if talking to himself, “the others were right; it is I who have been a fool. I will take a silver ball next time; it is surer.”
“What are you saying?”
“Pardon me, you did say something.”
“Are you very anxious to know?”
“Apparently, since I have asked the question.”
“Very well. I said I would take a silver bullet next time.”
“What for?”
“Why, to kill you.”
“To kill me? Go to; you are a fool! Do you fancy I will let you escape?”
“I do not fancy anything of the kind, the more so as you could not do anything worse.”
“Because you would kill me?”
“By Heavens! Yes, as soon as possible.”
“Then you hate me?”
“I? Not the least in the world.”
“Well, then, if not, what is your motive?”
“Confound it! A man must stick to his word.”
The cavalier cast a long look upon him, shaking his head the while with a thoughtful air.
“H’m,” said he, at last, “promise me not to attempt to escape if I leave you free for a time.”
“I promise, with so much the more pleasure, since I am obliged to confess that I find myself in a most fatiguing posture, and am very anxious to change it.”
“Rise,” said the cavalier, helping him up.
The other did not wait for the mandate to be repeated: in an instant he was on his legs.
“Ah,” he replied, with a grunt of satisfaction, “liberty is a blessing!”
“Is it not? Now shall we talk a little?”
“I desire nothing better, caballero. I can only be the gainer by your conversation,” replied the other, bowing, with an insinuating smile.
The two enemies placed themselves side by side, as if nothing extraordinary had happened between them.
This is one of the distinctive traits of Mexican character: murder amongst these people has grown so thoroughly into a habit, that it never astonishes anyone; and it often happens that the man just escaped falling a victim to an ambuscade, does not scruple to press the hand extended by his would-be assassin, foreseeing that someday or other he too will be called on to play in his turn the part of murderer.
In the present circumstances it was certainly not this consideration which induced the cavalier to act as he was doing. He had a powerful motive, with which we shall become acquainted presently; for, in spite of his feigned indifference, it was only with a sentiment of lively disgust that he seated himself beside the bandit.
As to the latter, we feel ourselves bound in justice to state that he had only one feeling of regret—the shame of having missed his blow; but he promised himself, in petto, to take his revenge as soon as possible, and this time to take such sure precautions that he must succeed.
“What are you thinking of?” demanded the cavalier, all of a sudden.
“I? On my honour, nothing,” was the ingenuous reply.
“You would deceive me. I know what you are thinking of at this very moment.”
“Oh, as for that, permit me to tell you—”
“You were thinking of killing me,” said the cavalier, interrupting him abruptly.
The other returned no answer; he contented himself with muttering between his teeth—
“What a devil! He reads the most hidden thoughts. One is not safe beside him.”
“Will you answer honestly, and frankly, the questions I am about to put to you?” resumed the cavalier, after a time.
“Yes; as well as lies in my power.”
“That is to say, just so far as your interest does not lead you to lie.”
“Confound it, señor, no one likes to make war upon oneself! No one ought to force me to speak ill of myself.”
“You are right. Who are you?”
“Señor,” replied the other, raising himself proudly, “I have the honour to be a Mexican, My mother was an Opata Indian; my father a caballero (gentleman) of Guadalupe.”
“Very well; but I learn nothing from this about yourself.”
“Alas, señor!” was the reply, given in that whining tone the Mexicans know so well how to adopt, “I have been unfortunate.”
“Oh, you have met with misfortunes! Well, pardon me once more. You have forgotten to mention your name.”
“It is a very obscure one, señor; but since you desire to know it, here it is: I am called Tonillo el Zapote—at your service, señor.”
“Thanks, Señor Zapote. Now proceed; I am listening.”
“I have followed many trades in my day. I have been by turns lepero (vagabond), muleteer, husbandman, soldier. Unhappily, I am of a quick temper: when I am in a passion, my hand is very ready.”
“And heavy,” said the cavalier, with a smile.
“It is all the same; so much so, that I have had the misfortune to bleed five or six individuals who had the imprudence to pick a quarrel with me. The Juez de letras (magistrate) was annoyed; and under the pretence that I was guilty of six murders, he asserted I deserved the garotte; so, seeing my fellow citizens misapprehended me—that society would not appreciate me at my real value—I took refuge in the desert, and turned hunter.”
“Of men?” interrupted the cavalier in a tone of sarcasm.
“By Heavens! Señor, times are hard: the Gringos pay twenty dollars for a scalp. It is a pretty sum; and, on my honour, particularly so when want presses. But I never have recourse to these means except in the direst extremity.”
“It is well. And now tell me, do you know me?”
“Very well by report; personally, not at all.”
“Have you any reasons for hating me?”
“I have already the honour to tell you—none.”
“In that case, why have you attempted to assassinate me?”
“I, señor?” cried he, showing signs of the utmost astonishment; “I assassinate you? Never!”,
“What, fool!” exclaimed the cavalier, lowering his brows, “Dare you maintain such an imposture? Four times have I served as a target to your rifle. You have drawn trigger upon me this very day, and—”
“Oh! By your leave, señor,” said El Zapote with warmth, “that is quite a different thing. True, I fired at you; it is even likely I shall fire at you again; but never, as I hoped for Paradise, have I dreamed of assassinating you. For shame!—I, a caballero! How could you form so bad an opinion of me, señor?”
“Then what was your intention in firing at me?”
“To kill you, señor; nothing more.”
“Then in this case murder is not assassinat

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