Read CHAPTER TWENTY SIX of The Rover of the Andes A Tale of Adventure on South America , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

IN WHICH OLD FRIENDS AND ENEMIES TURN UP IN QUITE A SURPRISING MANNER AND QUASHY’S JOY OVERFLOWS.

They had not to wait long.  A few minutes later and old Ignacio returned with several men, one of whom, from his manner and bearing, appeared to be a chief among the outlaws.

“Who are you, and who bound you?” asked this chief, with a stern look.

Answering in his best Spanish, Lawrence explained how he fell into the hands of the savages.

The chief did not speak for a few seconds, but looked inquiringly at Ignacio.

“It won’t do to make more prisoners, you know,” said the old hunter, replying to the look; “we have too many on our hands as it is.  The troops are already on our track, and you may be sure they won’t lose time.  Besides, these men are unknown, and won’t fetch a ransom.”

“What would you advise, then?”

“Cut their throats,” suggested Ignacio, coolly.

“You old fool!” returned the outlaw, “what good would that do?  Isn’t it clear that these men are the enemies of the savages, and we want such to join us.”

“Ay,” returned Ignacio, “but they may be friends of the troops, and you don’t want such to join us.”

“There’s truth in that, old man.  Well, we’ll just let them lie.  They’re safe enough, as they are, not to do either good or evil.  As you say, it is of no use burdening ourselves with prisoners who won’t fetch a ransom.  The colonel and his women will fetch a good price, but these-nothing.  I suppose that is why Cruz has ordered Conrad to be shot before we leave the place.”

“Why, I thought,” said Ignacio, with a look of surprise, “that Conrad of the Mountains was an outlaw like yourselves.”

“Not he.  He’s a spy, and he’ll meet a spy’s doom, if he has not met it already.”

“Come-I’ll go and see this Conrad,” said Ignacio, “I should like to see a spy get his deserts.”

He turned quickly and hurried away, followed by the outlaw.

“Most awrful!” groaned Quashy, when they were gone.

“Awful indeed, to think that Manuela and her father are in the hands of such villains!” returned Lawrence.

“An’ Sooz’n,” said Quashy, with a deeper groan.

“But, massa, what’s come ober de olé hunter?  He not in arnest, ob course.”

“Of course not,” replied Lawrence, “that is our one ray of hope now.  He is only acting a part.  He will assuredly help us, and means us to help him, but he takes a strange way to do it.”

He ceased to speak, for at that moment a man was seen approaching.  He moved about like one who was searching for something.  At last he caught sight of the bound men, and ran towards them, drawing his knife as he did so.  For one instant a feeling of horror shot through the hearts of Lawrence and Quashy, but next moment they were relieved, for they recognised in the approaching man the features of their old acquaintance of the Andes, the robber Antonio.

“I come to pay my debt,” he said, going down on one knee, and severing the cords which bound Lawrence, who heartily showered on him all the Spanish terms for thanks and gratitude that he could recall.  Of course Quashy was also set free, and was equally profuse in his grateful expressions, but Antonio cut them both short.

“Come, we must be quick,” he said, and hurried away.

As they crossed the spot where the recent fight with the Indians had taken place, Quashy picked up one of the spears which lay on the ground, and Lawrence, to his great satisfaction, discovered his favourite cudgel lying where he had been knocked down.  He picked it up, almost affectionately, and hurried on.

Antonio was in evident haste.  Leading them through the hamlet, he went towards the corral, where, it could be seen, a party of the bandits were standing as if in wait.  Suddenly they heard a noise behind them, and observed a party of men with muskets on their shoulders surrounding a prisoner.  Antonio drew his companions into the shelter of a bush till they should pass.

“It is Conrad of the Mountains,” he whispered, while a fierce expression lighted up his eyes.  “They go to shoot him.  He must not die!”

As what seemed to be the firing-party advanced, followed by a straggling group of ruffians, Lawrence looked with profound interest and pity towards one of whom he had heard so much.  The prisoner’s head hung down as he approached the bush, but on passing it he looked up.  The sight of his face sent a shock of surprise and consternation to the hearts of Lawrence and Quashy, for the doomed man was no other than their friend Pedro!

Lawrence turned quickly to Antonio.  “Conrad?” he asked, pointing to Pedro.

“Si, senhor,” replied the outlaw.

When the procession had passed, Lawrence stepped from behind the bush, and quietly joined it without being recognised by Pedro.  He had not at that moment the most remote idea of what he intended to do; but one feeling was powerfully dominant in his breast-namely, that Pedro must be saved at all hazards.  Of course Quashy and Antonio followed him.

The sudden appearance of the two strangers did not cause much surprise among the band who followed the prisoner, for, besides their being in the company of one whom they knew, the men who had been gathered together by Cruz on this occasion were not all known to each other.  What they knew for certain was, that the country was up in arms because of some political convulsion, and that Cruz was a great leader, who knew how to make the most of such circumstances for the benefit of himself and his followers.

In a state of feverish anxiety, but with a calm outward appearance, Lawrence marched on, quite incapable of forming any plan of rescue, but not incapable of prayer, or of forming a resolve to do something, though he should die in the attempt.  On reaching the corral, he saw Cruz, and recognised him at once.  The bandit chief was obviously in haste, for he at once ordered Conrad-or, as we still prefer to call him, Pedro-to be placed with his back against the corral, and the firing-party to draw up in front of him at about twenty yards distance.

Pedro offered no resistance while being led towards the mud wall of the corral.  There was neither bravado nor fear in his bearing.  Evidently he had made up his mind to die like a Christian, and had given up all hope of deliverance from the foes by whom he was surrounded.  But friends were near whom he little dreamed of.

Having up to that point kept his eyes on the ground, he had not observed Lawrence; and the first intimation he had of his presence was on hearing his voice as he stepped forward, placed his tall and stalwart frame in front of him, and said sternly to the firing-party-

“Villains! you will have to send your bullets through my breast before they harm Conrad!”

“Yes, an’ troo dis buzzum too,” cried Quashy, planting himself in front of Lawrence, and glaring defiance in his own peculiar and powerful manner.

“What! two more enemies?” exclaimed Cruz, with a look of pleased surprise and triumph; “seize them, men; but no,-stay, we can as easily kill the three birds at one shot.  Ready!”

The firing-party cocked and raised their guns, but were suddenly arrested by seeing the wall of the enclosure behind Pedro lined, as if by magic, with human heads, all of which carefully levelled an equal number of muskets.  At the same moment Antonio, Ignacio, Spotted Tiger, Colonel Marchbanks, and the sporting Englishman sprang to the front, and the old hunter, cutting Pedro’s bonds, put a musket into his hands.

“Traitor!” exclaimed Cruz, grinding his teeth with passion, as he scowled at Antonio.

“Fool! do you not know,” retorted Antonio, contemptuously, “that traitors are the offspring of tyrants?  I acknowledge you as father in this respect.  But I am not here to bandy words.  Colonel Marchbanks will speak.”

“Yes, Cruz,” said the old colonel, stepping a pace to the front, “I will speak, and that to the purpose.  You see those men?” (pointing to the heads looking over the corral wall)-“ten of the best shots among them have their weapons pointed at your heart.  If a single musket is fired by your blackguards, you know what the result will be.”

Bold as Cruz undoubtedly was, this speech of the colonel had an obviously quieting effect on him, as well as on his followers, who, however, being numerous, and not wanting in courage, stood ready to obey orders.

“Now, I will tell you in few words what I have got to say,” continued the colonel, addressing Cruz.  “When you locked the villagers here in their own huts, you forgot, or did not know, that, being a tyrant as well as a scoundrel, you had enemies among your own followers.  These have not only set us, your prisoners, free, but have done the same good turn to the villagers, who have been persuaded to join us against you.  And now, as our numbers are pretty equal, we give you the option of going away quietly wherever you please, or, if you prefer it, having a fair fight.  I may add that if I were backed by my troops, instead of these villagers, I would not give you this option; but as I have no official right to command these men, I now make you the proposal either to retire quietly or fight.”

“Aw-just so,” said the sporting Englishman.  “And let me add, as a sort of-aw-freelance that I and my friend here hope sincerely that you will choose to fight.”

“You’s a brick!” exclaimed Quashy, with emphasis, regarding the sportsman for the first time with favour.

Cruz hesitated.  He was swayed by a burning thirst for vengeance and a prudent regard for his personal safety.  By way of hastening his decision, Colonel Marchbanks added-

“It may be well to remind you that when you unfortunately succeeded in decoying me and my friends into your snares, and captured us, you did not leave my troops without officers.  The gentleman now in command will not lose time in following us up, and he is aided by Gauchos who could trace you out though you were to hide your rascally head in the darkest retreats of the Andes.  So, you’d better be off at once, or come on.”

“Aw-yes.  If I might advise-come on!” suggested the sportsman.

“Das so.  Come on!” urged Quashy.

But Cruz refused their well-meant advice.  Regarding discretion as the better part of valour, and resolving, no doubt, to “fight another day,” he elected to “be off.”  Collecting his men in sulky silence, he speedily rode away.

“Sorry he’s so chicken-hearted,” said the sportsman, forgetting even to “aw” in his disappointment.

“You ought rather to be glad of it,” remarked Lawrence; “you forget that there are women and children behind us, and that our defeat would have ensured their destruction.”

“Oh no!” replied the Englishman, who had recovered his quiet nonchalance, “I did not forget the women and children-dear creatures!- but I confess that the idea of our defeat had not occurred to me.”

Colonel Marchbanks did not give his opinion at the time, but his air and expression suggested that, fire-eater though he was, he by no means regretted the turn events had taken.

Holding out his hand to Lawrence, in a condescending manner, he thanked him for the service he had just rendered.

“You have quite a talent for turning up unexpectedly in the nick of time,” he added, with a peculiar smile, as he turned and walked off towards the huts, around which the men who had sided with Antonio were by that time assembling.  Among them Lawrence, to his ineffable joy, found Manuela and Mariquita.  He was too wise, however, in the presence of the colonel to take any demonstrative notice of her.  He merely shook hands with both ladies, and congratulated them on their escape from the banditti.

“You have rendered us good service, senhor,” said Mariquita, with a brilliant smile-a smile that was indeed more brilliant than there seemed any occasion for.

“I-I have been very fortunate,” stammered Lawrence, glancing at Manuela.

But that princess of the Incas, with an aspect of imperturbable gravity, kept her pretty eyes on the ground, though the brown of her little cheeks seemed to deepen a trifle in colour.

“Now, Antonio,” cried the colonel, coming forward at the moment, “what do you intend to do?  If my men were here, you know, I should be under the necessity of making you and your fellows prisoners, notwithstanding your good services to-day.  As it is, those of us who stick together must be off without delay eastward.  I suppose you will rather take to the mountains.”

“Indeed no, Colonel Marchbanks.  I am willing to give myself up and to take service under you if that may be allowed.  And if you will take my advice, comrades,” added Antonio, turning to his companions, “you’ll do the same, for depend on it no good can come of our late style of life.”

Antonio’s comrades did not feel disposed to take his advice.  Indeed they had only rebelled against their late captain because of his tyrannical nature, but were by no means desirous of changing their mode of life.  Seeing this, the colonel accepted Antonio’s offer and gave his comrades a few words of serious warning and advice, mingled with thanks for the service they had rendered him, after which the two parties separated and went on their respective ways, leaving the Gauchos to fortify their village more carefully, and get into a better state of readiness to resist the attacks alike of outlaws and Indians.

Before leaving, however, Quashy had a noteworthy interview with Susan.  It occurred at the time that Antonio and his men were holding the above conversation with the colonel.

The negro lovers were affectionately seated on a horse-skull in one of the huts, regardless of all the world but themselves.

“Sooz’n, my lub,” said Quashy, “I’s agwine to carry you off wid me.”

“Quashy, my b’lubbed, I expecs you is,” replied Susan, simply, passing her black fingers through her lover’s very curly locks.

“O Sooz’n, how I lubs you!  I know’d I’d find you.  I always said it.  I always t’ought it, an’ now I’s dood it.”

“Das so,” returned Susan, with a bashfully pleased look.  “I always know’d it too.  I says, if it’s poss’ble for me to be found in dis worl’, Quashy’s de man to found me.”

“’Zactly so!” said the gratified negro.  “Now, Sooz’n, tell me.  Is you free to go ’way wid me?”

“Yes.  I’s kite free.  I’s bin kotched by rubbers an’ rescued by Gauchos, an’ stole by Injins, an’ I’s runned away an’ found myself here, an’ dey’s bin good to me here, but dey don’t seem to want me much-so I’s kite free-but I’s awrful heaby!”

“What’s dat got to do wid it?” inquired the lover, tying a knot of perplexity on his eyebrows.

“Why, you an’ me’s too heaby for one hoss, you know, an’ you said you hab on’y one.”

“Das true,” returned Quashy, entangling the knot with another.

“Well, nebber mind,” said Susan, with a little nod of assurance.  “I’s put it all right.  I’ll stole one.”

“Sooz’n!” exclaimed her lover, with inexpressible solemnity, “you’ll do nuffin ob de sort.  I b’longs to a good man now, so I knows better dan dat.  You mus’ nebber steal no more-nebber.  But I’ll get massa to buy you a hoss.  Das what I’ll do.”

Quashy had scarcely given utterance to his intentions, when a shout from Lawrence summoned him.  The party under Colonel Marchbanks was about to start on their journey eastward.

The negro soon informed his master of his difficulty.  As he had anticipated, it was removed at once.  Horse-flesh is cheap on the Pampas.  A lady’s wardrobe-especially a black lady’s-does not take long to pack in those regions.  In less than half an hour a passable steed was purchased from the Gauchos, and Susan mounted thereon.  Her little all, in a bundle, was strapped to her true-lover’s saddle, and she fell into the cavalcade, which soon afterwards left the village and rode out upon the illimitable plains.

It was not a large band, but it was composed of rare and strong materials.  Our friend Pedro-alias Conrad of the Mountains-alias the Rover of the Andes-of course took the lead.  Colonel Marchbanks, Manuela, and the fair Mariquita followed.  Antonio, Spotted Tiger, the sportsman and his friend came next, and Lawrence with Quashy and Sooz’n brought up the rear.

In this order they set off at full gallop over the roadless plains, diverging a little here and there as the nature of the ground required, but otherwise steering a straight line in the direction of the rising sun.