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Chapter 11

XI

"Now Carreras, under the guise of politics and liberalism, was a
scoundrel of the deepest dye, and the unhappy state of Mendoza was the
prey of thieves, robbers, traitors and murderers, who formed his
party. He was under a noble exterior a man without heart, pity,
honour, or conscience. Tie aspired to nothing but tyranny, and though
he would have made use of Gaspar Ruiz for his nefarious designs, yet
he soon became aware that to propitiate the Chilian Government would
answer his purpose better. I blush to say that he made proposals to
our Government to deliver up on certain conditions the wife and child
of the man who had trusted to his honour, and that this offer was
accepted.

"While on her way to Mendoza over the Pequena pass she was betrayed by
her escort of Carreras' men, and given up to the officer in command of
a Chilian fort on the upland at the foot of the main Cordillera range.
This atrocious transaction might have cost me dear, for as a matter of
fact I was a prisoner in Gaspar Ruiz' camp when he received the news.
I had been captured during a reconnaissance, my escort of a few
troopers being speared by the Indians of his bodyguard. I was saved
from the same fate because he recognised my features just in time. No
doubt my friends thought I was dead, and I would not have given much
for my life at any time. But the strong man treated me very well,
because, he said, I had always believed in his innocence and had tried
to serve him when he was a victim of injustice.

"'And now,' was his speech to me, 'you shall see that I always speak
the truth. You are safe.'

"I did not think I was very safe when I was called up to go to him one
night. He paced up and down like a wild beast, exclaiming, 'Betrayed!
Betrayed!'

"He walked up to me clenching his fists. 'I could cut your throat.'

"'Will that give your wife back to you?' I said as quietly as I
could.

"'And the child!' he yelled out, as if mad. He fell into a chair and
laughed in a frightful, boisterous manner. 'Oh, no, you are safe.'

"I assured him that his wife's life was safe too; but I did not say
what I was convinced of--that he would never see her again. He wanted
war to the death, and the war could only end with his death.

"He gave me a strange, inexplicable look, and sat muttering blankly.
'In their hands. In their hands.'

"I kept as still as a mouse before a cat. Suddenly he jumped up.
'What am I doing here?' he cried; and opening the door, he yelled out
orders to saddle and mount. 'What is it?' he stammered, coming up to
me. 'The Pequena fort; a fort of palisades! Nothing. I would get her
back if she were hidden in the very heart of the mountain.' He amazed
me by adding, with an effort: 'I carried her off in my two arms while
the earth trembled. And the child at least is mine. She at least is
mine!'

"Those were bizarre words; but I had no time for wonder.

"'You shall go with me;' he said violently. 'I may want to parley,
and any other messenger from Ruiz, the outlaw, would have his throat
cut.'

"This was true enough. Between him and the rest of incensed mankind
there could be no communication, according to the customs of honour-
able warfare.

"In less than half an hour we were in the saddle, flying wildly
through the night. He had only an escort of twenty men at his
quarters, but would not wait for more. He sent, however, messengers to
Peneleo, the Indian chief then ranging in the foothills, directing him
to bring his warriors to the uplands and meet him at the lake called
the Eye of Water, near whose shores the frontier fort of Pequena was
built.

"We crossed the lowlands with that untired rapidity of movement which
had made Gaspar Ruiz' raids so famous. We followed the lower valleys
up to their precipitous heads. The ride was not without its dangers. A
cornice road on a perpendicular wall of basalt wound itself around a
buttressing rock, and at last we emerged from the gloom of a deep
gorge upon the upland of Peeņa.

"It was a plain of green wiry grass and thin flowering bushes; but
high above our heads patches of snow hung in the folds and crevices of
the great walls of rock. The little lake was as round as a staring
eye. The garrison of the fort were just driving in their small herd of
cattle when we appeared. Then the great wooden gates swung to, and
that four-square enclosure of broad blackened stakes pointed at the
top and barely hiding the grass roofs of the huts inside, seemed
deserted, empty, without a single soul.

"But when summoned to surrender, by a man who at Gaspar Ruiz' order
rode fearlessly forward, those inside answered by a volley which
rolled him and his horse over. I heard Ruiz by my side grind his
teeth. 'It does not matter,' he said. 'Now you go.'

"Torn and faded as its rags were, the vestiges of my uniform were
recognised, and I was allowed to approach within speaking distance;
and then I had to wait, because a voice clamouring through a loophole
with joy and astonishment would not allow me to place a word. It was
the voice of Major Pajol, an old friend. He, like my other comrades,
had thought me killed a long time ago.

"'Put spurs to your horse, man!' he yelled, in the greatest excitement;
'we will swing the gate open for you.'

"I let the reins fall out of my hand and shook my head. 'I am on my
honour,' I cried.

"'To him!' he shouted, with infinite disgust.'

"'He promises you your life.'

"'Our life is our own. And do you, Santierra, advise us to surrender
to that rastrero?'

"'No!' I shouted. 'But he wants his wife and child, and he can cut
you off from water.'

"'Then she would be the first to suffer. You may tell him that. Look
here--this is all nonsense: we shall dash out and capture you.

"'You shall not catch me alive,' I said firmly.

"'Imbecile!'

"'For God's sake,' I continued hastily, 'do not open the gate.' And I
pointed at the multitude of Peneleo's Indians who covered the shores
of the lake.

"I had never seen so many of these savages together. Their lances
seemed as numerous as stalks of grass. Their hoarse voices made a
vast, inarticulate sound like the murmur of the sea.

"My friend Pajol was swearing to himself. 'Well, then--go to the
devil!' he shouted, exasperated. But as I swung round he repented,
for I heard him say hurriedly, 'Shoot the fool's horse before he gets
away.

"He had good marksmen. Two shots rang out, and in the very act of
turning my horse staggered, fell and lay still as if struck by
lightning. I had my feet out of the stirrups and rolled clear of him;
but I did not attempt to rise. Neither dared they rush out to drag me
in.

"The masses of Indians had begun to move upon the fort. They rode up
in squadrons, trailing their long chusos; then dismounted out of
musket-shot, and, throwing off their fur mantles, advanced naked to
the attack, stamping their feet and shouting in cadence. A sheet of
flame ran three times along the face of the fort without checking
their steady march. They crowded right up to the very stakes,
flourishing their broad knives. But this palisade was not fastened
together with hide lashings in the usual way, but with long iron
nails, which they could not cut. Dismayed at the failure of their
usual method of forcing an entrance, the heathen, who had marched so
steadily against the musketry fire, broke and fled under the volleys
of the besieged.

"Directly they had passed me on their advance I got up and rejoined
Gaspar Ruiz on a low ridge which jutted out upon the plain. The
musketry of his own men had covered the attack, but now at a sign from
him a trumpet sounded the 'Cease fire.' Together we looked in silence
at the hopeless rout of the savages.

"'It must be a siege, then,' he muttered. And I detected him
wringing his hands stealthily.

"But what sort of siege could it be? Without any need for me to repeat
my friend Pajol's message, he dared not cut the water off from the
besieged. They had plenty of meat. And, indeed, if they had been
short, he would have been too anxious to send food into the stockade
had he been able. But, as a matter of fact, it was we on the plain who
were beginning to feel the pinch of hunger.

"Peneleo, the Indian chief, sat by our fire folded in his ample mantle
of guanaco skins. He was an athletic savage, with an enormous square
shock head of hair resembling a straw beehive in shape and size, and
with grave, surly, much-lined features. In his broken Spanish he
repeated, growling like a bad-tempered wild beast, that if an opening
ever so small were made in the stockade his men would march in and get
the senora--not otherwise.

"Gaspar Ruiz, sitting opposite him, kept his eyes fixed on the fort
night and day as it were, in awful silence and immobility. Meantime,
by runners from the lowlands that arrived nearly every day, we heard
of the defeat of one of his lieutenants in the Maipu valley. Scouts
sent afar brought news of a column of infantry advancing through
distant passes to the relief of the fort. They were slow, but we could
trace their toilful progress up the lower valleys. I wondered why Ruiz
did not march to attack and destroy this threatening force, in some
wild gorge fit for an ambuscade, in accordance with his genius for
guerrilla warfare. But his genius seemed to have abandoned him to his
despair.

"It was obvious to me that he could not tear himself away from the
sight of the fort. I protest to you, senores, that I was moved almost
to pity by the sight of this powerless strong man sitting on the
ridge, indifferent to sun, to rain, to cold, to wind; with his hands
clasped round his legs and his chin resting on his knees, gazing--
gazing--gazing.

"And. the fort he kept his eyes fastened on was as still and silent as
himself. The garrison gave no sign of life. They did not even answer
the desultory fire directed at the loopholes.

"One night, as I strolled past him, he, without changing his attitude,
spoke to me unexpectedly 'I have sent for a gun,' he said. 'I shall
have time to get her back and retreat before your Robles manages to
crawl up here.'

"He had sent for a gun to the plains.

"It was long in coming, but at last it came. It was a seven-pounder
field-gun. Dismounted and lashed crosswise to two long poles, it had
been carried up the narrow paths between two mules with ease. His wild
cry of exultation at daybreak when he saw the gun escort emerge from
the valley rings in my ears now.

"But, senores, I have no words to depict his amazement, his fury, his
despair and distraction, when he heard that the animal loaded with the
gun-carriage had, during the last night march, somehow or other
tumbled down a precipice. He broke into menaces of death and torture
against the escort. I kept out of his way all that day, lying behind
some bushes, and wondering what he would do now. Retreat was left for
him; but he could not retreat.

"I saw below me his artillerist Jorge, an old Spanish soldier,
building up a sort of structure with heaped-up saddles. The gun,
ready-loaded was lifted on to that, but in the act of firing the whole
thing collapsed and the shot flew high above the stockade.

"Nothing more was attempted. One of the ammunition mules had been lost
too, and they had no more than six shots to fire; amply enough to
batter down the gate, providing the gun was well laid. This was
impossible without it being properly mounted. There was no time nor
means to construct a carriage. Already every moment I expected to hear
Robles' bugle-calls echo amongst the crags.

"Peneleo, wandering about uneasily, draped in his skins, sat down for
a moment near me growling his usual tale.

"'Make an entrada--a hole. If make a hole, bueno. If not make a
hole, them vamos--we must go away.'

"After sunset I observed with surprise the Indians making preparations
as if for another assault. Their lines stood ranged in the shadows
mountains. On the plain in front of the fort gate I saw a group of men
swaying about in the same place.

"I walked down the ridge disregarded. The moonlight in the clear air
of the uplands was as bright as day, but the intense shadows confused
my sight, and I could not make out what they were doing. I heard voice
Jorge, artillerist, say in a queer, doubtful tone, 'It is loaded,
senores.'

"Then another voice in that group pronounced firmly the words, 'Bring
the riata here.' It was the voice of Gaspar Ruiz.

"A silence fell, in which the popping shots of the besieged garrison
rang out sharply. They too had observed the group. But the distance
was too great, and in the spatter of spent musket-balls cutting up the
ground, the group opened, closed, swayed, giving me a glimpse of busy
stooping figures in its midst. I drew nearer, doubting whether this
was a weird vision, a suggestive and insensate dream.

"A strangely stifled voice commanded, 'Haul the hitches tighter.'

"'Si, senor,' several other voices answered in tones of awed
alacrity.

"Then the stifled voice said: 'Like this. I must be free to breathe.'

"Then there was a concerned noise of many men together. 'Help him up,
hombres. Steady! Under the other arm.'

"That deadened voice, ordered: 'Bueno! Stand away from me, men.'

"I pushed my way through the recoiling circle, and heard once more
that same oppressed voice saying earnestly: 'Forget that I am a living
man, Jorge. Forget me altogether, and think of what you have to do.'

"'Be without fear, senor. You are nothing to me but a gun carriage,
and I shall not waste a shot.'

"I heard the spluttering of a port-fire, and smelt the saltpetre of
the match. I saw suddenly before me a nondescript shape on all fours
like a beast, but with a man's head drooping below a tubular
projection over the nape of the neck, and the gleam of a rounded mass
of bronze on its back.

"In front of a silent semicircle of men it squatted alone with Jorge
behind it and a trumpeter motionless, his trumpet in his hand, by its
side.

"Jorge, bent double, muttered, port-fire in hand: 'An inch to the
left, senor. Too much. So. Now, if you let yourself down a little by
letting your elbows bend, I will . . .'

"He leaped aside, lowering his port-fire, and a burst of flame darted
out of the muzzle of the gun lashed on the man's back.

"Then Gaspar Ruiz lowered himself slowly. 'Good shot?' he asked.

"'Full on, senor.'

"'Then load again.'

"He lay there before me on his breast under the darkly glittering
bronze of his monstrous burden, such as no love or strength of man had
ever had to bear in the lamentable history of the world. His arms were
spread out, and he resembled a prostrate penitent on the moonlit
ground.

"Again I saw him raised to his hands and knees, and the men stand away
from him, and old Jorge stoop, glancing along the gun.

"'Left a little. Right an inch. Por Dios, senor, stop this
trembling. Where is your strength?'

"The old gunner's voice was cracked with emotion. He stepped aside,
and quick as lightning brought the spark to the touch-hole.

"'Excellent!' he cried tearfully; but Gaspar Ruiz lay for a long time
silent, flattened on the ground.

"'I am tired,' he murmured at last. 'Will another shot do it?'

"'Without doubt,' said Jorge, bending down to his ear.

"'Then--load,' I heard him utter distinctly. 'Trumpeter!'

"'I am here, senor, ready for your word.'

"'Blow a blast at this word that shall be heard from one end of Chile
to the other,' he said, in an extraordinarily strong voice. 'And you
others stand ready to cut this accursed riata, for then will be the
time for me to lead you in your rush. Now raise me up, and, you,
Jorge--be quick with your aim.'

"The rattle of musketry from the fort nearly drowned his voice. The
palisade was wreathed in smoke and flame.

"'Exert your force forward against the recoil, mi amo,' said the old
gunner shakily. 'Dig your fingers into the ground. So. Now!'

"A cry of exultation escaped him after the shot. The trumpeter raised
his trumpet nearly to his lips, and waited. But no word came from the
prostrate man. I fell on one knee, and heard all he had to say then.

"'Something broken,' he whispered, lifting his head a little, and
turning his eyes towards me in his hopelessly crushed attitude.

"'The gate hangs only by the splinters,' yelled Jorge.

"Gaspar Ruiz tried to speak, but his voice died out in his throat, and
I helped to roll the gun off his broken back. He was insensible.

"I kept my lips shut, of course. The signal for the Indians to attack
was never given. Instead, the bugle-calls of the relieving force, for
which my ears had thirsted so long, burst out, terrifying like the
call of the Last Day to our surprised enemies.

"A tornado, senores, a real hurricane of stampeded men, wild horses,
mounted Indians, swept over me as I cowered on the ground by the side
of Gaspar Ruiz, still stretched out on his face in the shape of a
cross. Peneleo, galloping for life, jabbed at me with his long chuso
in passing--for the sake of old acquaintance, I suppose. How I
escaped the flying lead is more difficult to explain. Venturing to
rise on my knees too soon, some soldiers of the 17th Taltal regiment,
in their hurry to get at something alive, nearly bayonetted me on the
spot. They looked very disappointed too when some officers galloping
up drove them away with the flat of their swords.

"It was General Robles with his staff. He wanted badly to make some
prisoners. He, too, seemed disappointed for a moment. 'What? Is it
you?' he cried. But he dismounted at once to embrace me, for he was
an old friend of my family. I pointed to the body at our feet, and
said only these two words:

"'Gaspar Ruiz.'

"He threw his arms up in astonishment.

"'Aha! Your strong man! Always to the last with your strong man. No
matter. He saved our lives when the earth trembled enough to make the
bravest faint with fear. I was frightened out of my wits. But he--no!
Que guape! Where's the hero who got the best of him? Ha! ha! ha! What
killed him, chico?'

"'His own strength general,' I answered."

Joseph Conrad

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