Chapter XXVII. We Commence Our Journey

Day after day we held on, suffering much by reason of heat, thirst and fatigue, since, fearing lest we should lose sight of our guide, the sea, and go astray to perish miserably in the wild, we followed ever the trend of this mountainous coast.

By rocky ways we marched, by swamps and mazy thickets, down precipitous slopes, through tangled woods, across wide savannahs, along perilous tracks high above dim forests that stretched away like a leafy ocean, whence we might behold a wide prospect of all those weary miles before us.

And surely nowhere in all this world is to be seen a country more full of marvels and wonders than this land of Darien. For here rise vasty mountains whose jagged summits split the very heaven; here are mighty rivers and roaring cataracts, rolling plains, thirsty deserts and illimitable forests in whose grim shadow lurk all manner of beasts and reptiles strange beyond thought; here lie dense groves and tangled thickets where bloom great flowers of unearthly beauty yet rank of smell and poisonous to the touch; here are birds of every kind and hue and far beyond this poor pen to describe by reason of the beauty and brilliancy of their plumage, some of which would warble so sweet 'twas great joy to hear while the discordant croakings and shrill clamours of others might scarce be endured. Here, too, are trees (like the cocos) so beneficent to yield a man food and drink, aye, and garments to cover him; or others (like the maria and balsam trees) that besides their timber do distil medicinal oils, and yet here also are trees so noxious their mere touch bringeth a painful disease of the skin and to sleep in their shadow breedeth sickness and death; here, too, grow all manner of luscious fruits as the ananas or pineapple, with oranges, grapes, medlars and dates, but here again are other fruits as fair to the eye, yet deadly as fang of snake or sting of cientopies. Truly (as I do think), nowhere is there country of such extremes of good and evil as this land of Darien.

Thus day by day we held on and daily learned I much of tree and fruit and flower, of beast, bird and reptile from Sir Richard who, it seemed, was deeply versed in the lore of such, both by reading and experience; but hourly I learned more of this man's many and noble qualities, as his fortitude, his unflinching courage and the cheerful spirit that could make light of pain and thirst and weariness so that, misjudging his strength, I would sometimes march him well-nigh beyond his endurance, but knew nought of it since he never complained but masked his suffering in brave and smiling words. And there were times when, burning with impatience, I would quicken my pace (God forgive me) until, missing his plodding figure, I would look back to see him stumbling after me afar.

It was upon the fifth day of our journey that, missing him thus, I turned to wait for him to come up and found him nowhere in sight. Hereupon I hasted back the way I had come and after some while beheld him prone in the dust; he lay outstretched upon his face in the hot glare of the sun, the dog Pluto squatting beside him, and as I approached the desolate figure I knew that he was weeping. So came I running to fall beside him on my knees and lifting that abased head, saw indeed the agony of his tears.

"Oh, Martin--forgive me!" he gasped. "I can crawl no faster--better were I dead, dear lad, than hamper you thus--"

"Rather will I perish!" said I, lifting him in my arms to bear him out of the sun and much grieved to find him a burden so light; and now, sitting 'neath a great tree, I took his head upon my bosom and wiped the tears from his furrowed cheeks and set myself diligently to comfort him, but seeing him so faint and fore-done, I began alternately to berate myself heartily and lament over him so that he must needs presently take to comforting me in turn, vowing himself very well, that it was nought but the heat, that he would be able to go and none the worse in a little, etc. "Besides," said he, "'tis worth such small discomfort to find you so tender of me, Martin. Yet indeed I am stronger than I seem and shall be ready to go on as soon as you will--"

"Nay, sir," said I, mighty determined, "here we bide till the sun moderates; 'tis too hot for the dog even," and I nodded where Pluto lay outstretched and panting, hard by. But now, even as I spoke, the dog lifted his head to snuff the air and, getting up, bolted off among the adjacent undergrowth. I was yet idly wondering at this when suddenly, from somewhere afar in the woods below, came a sound there was no mistaking--the faint, sharp crack of a firearm. In a moment I was on my feet and, with Sir Richard beside me, came where we might look into the green depths below us.

And sure enough, amid this leafy wilderness I saw a glitter that came and went, the which I knew must be armour, and presently made out the forms of men and horses with divers hooded litters and long files of tramping figures.

"Ah!" quoth Sir Richard. "Yon should be the gold-train for Panama or Carthagena, or mayhap Indians being marched to slavery in the mines, poor souls!"

As he spake, came a puff of white smoke plain to see and thereafter divers others, and presently the reports of this firing smote upon our ears in rapid succession.

"What now?" said I, straining my eyes. "Is there a battle toward--"

"Nay, Martin, 'tis more like some poor wretch hath broke his bonds and fled into the woods; if so, God send him safe out of their hands, for I have endured slavery and--" here his voice broke, and casting himself on his knees he clasped his arms about me, and I all amazed to see him so moved.

"Oh, Martin!" he wept, in voice of agony, "oh, dear and gentle lad, 'twas to such slavery, such shame and misery I sent thee once--thou--that I do so love--my son--"

"Sir," said I, stooping to lift him. "Sir, this is all forgot and out of mind."

"Yet, dear lad, you do bear the marks yet, scars o' the whip, marks o' the shackles. I have seen them when you slept--and never a one but set there by my hand--and now--now you must cherish me if I fail by the way--must bear me in your arms--grieve for my weakness--Oh, dear lad, I would you were a little harsher--less kind."

Now seeing how it was with him, I sat me down and, folding him within my arm, sought to comfort him in my blundering way, reminding him of all he had endured and that my sufferings could nowise compare with his own and that in many ways I was no whit the worse: "Indeed," said I, "in many ways I am the better man, for solitude hath but taught me to think beyond myself, though 'tis true I am something slow of speech and rude of manner, and hardship hath but made me stronger of body than most men I have met."

"Oh, God love you, lad!" cried he of a sudden, 'twixt laughing and weeping. "You will be calling me your benefactor next!"

"And wherefore not?" quoth I. "For indeed, being made wise by suffering, you have taught me many things and most of all to love you in despite of myself!"

Now at this he looks at me all radiant-eyed, yet when he would have spoken, could not, and so was silence awhile. Now turning to look down into the valley I saw it all deserted and marking how the forest road ran due east, I spoke that which was in my thought.

"Sir, yonder, as I think, must be a highway; at least, where others go, so may we, and 'twill be easier travelling than these rocky highlands; how think you?"

"Why, truly, if road there be, it must bring us again to the sea soon or late; so come, let us go!"

So saying, he got him to his legs, whereupon Pluto leapt and fawned upon him for very joy; and thus finding him something recovered and very earnest to be gone, we set out again (maugre the sun) looking for some place whereby we might get us down into the valley, and after some while came upon a fissure in the cliff face which, though easy going for an able man, was a different matter I thought for my companion; but as I hesitated, the matter was put beyond despite by Sir Richard forthwith cheerily beginning the descent, whereupon I followed him and after me the dog. As we descended, the way grew easier until We reached at last a small plateau pleasantly shaded by palm trees; here (and despite his hardihood), Sir Richard sank down, sweating with the painful effort and gasping for breath, yet needs must he smile up at me triumphant, so that I admired anew the indomitable spirit of him.

"Oh, for a drink!" quoth he, as I set an armful of fern beneath his head.

"Alas!" said I, "'tis far down to the river--"

"Nay--above, lad, look above--yonder is drink for a whole ship's company!" and he pointed feebly to the foliage of the tree 'neath which he lay:

"What! Is this a cocos palm?" said I, rejoicing; and forthwith doffing my sword belt, I clambered up this tree hand over fist and had soon plucked and tossed down a sufficiency of great, green nuts about the bigness of my two fists. Now sitting beside him, Sir Richard showed me how I must cut two holes in the green rind and we drank blissfully of this kindly juice that to our parched tongues was very nectar, for verily never in all my days have I tasted drink so delectable and invigorating. As for Pluto, when I offered him of this he merely sniffed and yawned contemptuous. Thus refreshed we went on again, the way growing ever easier until we entered the shade of those vast woods we had seen from above.

But scarce were we here than rose such a chattering, whittling and croaking from the leafy mysteries above and around us, such a screaming and wailing as was most distressful to hear, for all about us was a great multitude of birds; the forest seemed full of them, and very wonderful to see by reason of their plumage, its radiant and divers hues, so that as they flitted to and fro in their glowing splendour they seemed like so many flying jewels, while clustering high in the trees or swinging nimbly among the branches were troops of monkeys that screamed and chattered and grimaced down at us for all the world as they had been very fiends of the pit.

"Heard ye ever such unholy hubbub, Martin?" said Sir Richard, halting to glance about us. "This portendeth a storm, I judge, for these creatures possess gifts denied to us humans. See how they do begin to cower and seek what shelter they may! We were wise to do the like, my son. I marked a cave back yonder; let us go there, for these woods be an evil place at such times."

So back we went accordingly and saw the sunlight suddenly quenched and the sky lower above us ever darker and more threatening, so that by the time we had reached the little cave in question, it almost seemed night was upon us. And now, crouching in this secure haven, I marvelled at the sudden, unearthly stillness of all things; not a leaf stirred and never a sound to hear, for beast and bird alike had fallen mute.

Then all at once was a blinding glare followed by roaring thunder-clap that echoed and re-echoed from rugged cliff to mountain summit near and far until this was whelmed and lost in the rush of a booming, mighty wind and this howling riot full of whirling leaves and twigs and riven branches. And now came the rain, a hissing downpour that seemed it would drown the world, while ever the lightning flared and crackled and thunder roared ever more loud until I shrank, blinded and half-stunned. After some while, these awful sounds hushing a little, in their stead was the lash and beat of rain, the rush and trickle of water where it gushed and spouted down from the cliff above in foaming cascades until I began to dread lest this deluge overwhelm us and we be drowned miserably in our little cave. But, all at once, sudden as it had come, the storm was passed, rain and wind and thunder ceased, the sombre clouds rolled away and down beamed the sun to show us a new and radiant world of vivid greens spangled as it were with a myriad shimmering gems, a very glory to behold.

"'Tis a passionate country this, Martin," as we stepped forth of our refuge, "but its desperate rages be soon over."

By late afternoon we came out upon a broad green track that split the forest east and west, and where, despite the rain, we might yet discern faint traces here and there of the hoofs and feet had trampled it earlier in the day, so that it seemed we must march behind them. On we went, very grateful for the trees that shaded us and the springy grass underfoot, Sir Richard swinging his staff and striding out right cheerily. Suddenly Pluto, uttering a single joyous bark, sprang off among the brush that grew very thick, and looking thither, we espied a small stream and the day being far spent we decided to pass the night hereabouts, so we turned aside forthwith and having gone but a few yards, found ourselves quite hidden from the highway, so thick grew the trees and so dense and tangled the thickets that shut us in; and here ran this purling brook, making sweet, soft noises in the shallows mighty soothing to be heard. And here I would have stayed but Sir Richard shook wise head and was for pushing farther into the wild. "For," said he, "there may be other travellers behind us to spy some gleam of our fire and who shall these be but enemies?" So, following the rill that, it seemed, took its rise from the cliffs to our left, we went on until Sir Richard paused in the shade of a great tree that soared high above its fellows and hard beside the stream.

But scarce were we come hither than Pluto uttered a savage growl and turned, snuffing the air, whereupon Sir Richard, grasping the battered collar about his massy throat, bade him sternly to silence.

"What saw I, Martin? Some one comes--let us go see, and softly!"

So, following whither Pluto led, we presently heard voices speaking the Spanish tongue, and one cursed, and one mocked and one sang. Hereupon I drew sword, and moving with infinite caution, we came where, screened 'mid the leaves, we might behold the highway. And thus we beheld six men approaching and one a horseman; nearer they came until we could see them sweating beneath their armour and the weapons they bore, and driving before them a poor, blood-stained wretch tied to the horseman's stirrup, yet who, despite wounds and blows, strode with head proudly erect, heeding them no whit. Yet suddenly he stumbled and fell, whereupon the horseman swore again and the captive was kicked to his feet and so was dragged on again, reeling for very weariness; and I saw this poor creature was an Indian.

"Martin," said Sir Richard, when this sorry cavalcade was gone by, "it would, I think, be action commendable to endeavour rescue of this poor soul."

"It would, sir!" quoth I. "And a foolhardy."

"Mayhap," said he, "yet am I minded to adventure it"

"How, sir--with one sword and a knife?"

"Nay, Martin, by God's aid, strategy and a dog. Come then, let us follow; they cannot go far, and I heard them talk of camping hereabouts. Softly, lad!"

"But, sir," said I, amazed at this audacity, "will you outface five lusty men well-armed?"

"And wherefore not, Martin? Is the outfacing of five rogues any greater matter than outfacing this God's wilderness? Nay, I am not mad," said he, meeting my glance with a smile, "there were times when I adventured greater odds than this and to worse end, God forgive me! Alas, I have wrought so much of evil in the past I would fain offset it with a little good, so bear with me, dear lad--"

"Yet this man you risk your life for is but a stranger and an Indian at that!"

"And what then, Martin? Cannot an Indian suffer--cannot he die?" Here, finding me silent, he continued. "Moreover, there be very cogent reasons do urge a little risk, for look now, these rogues do go well shod--and see our poor shoes! They bear equipment very necessary to us that have so far to go and their horse should be useful to us. Nor dream I would lightly hazard your life, Martin, for these men have been drinking, will drink more and should therefore sleep sound, and I have a plan whereby Pluto and I--"

"Sir Richard," said I, "where you go, I go!"

"Why, very well, Martin, 'twere like you--but you shall be subject to my guidance and do nought without my word."

As he spoke, his eyes quick and alert, his face grimly purposeful, there was about him that indefinable air of authority I had noticed more than once. Thus, with no better weapons than his staff and knife, and my sword, bow and poor arrows, we held on after these five Spanish soldiers, Sir Richard nothing daunted by this disparity of power but rather the more determined and mighty cheerful by his looks, but myself full of doubts and misgiving. Perceiving which, he presently stopped to slap me on the shoulder:

"Martin," said he, "if things go as I think, we shall this night be very well off for equipment and all without a blow, which is good, and save a life, which is better!"

"Aye, but, sir, how if things go contrary-wise?"

"Why, then, sure a quick death is better than to perish miserably by the way, for we have cruel going before us, thirsty deserts and barren wilds where game is scarce; better steel or bullet than to die raving with thirst or slow starvation--how say ye, lad?"

"Lead on!" quoth I and tightened my belt.

"Ha!" said he, halting suddenly as arose a sudden crack of twigs and underbrush some distance on our front. "They have turned in to the water--let us sit here and watch for their camp fire." And presently, sure enough, we saw a red glow through the underbrush ahead that grew ever brighter as the shadows deepened; and so came the night.

How long we waited thus, our eyes turned ever towards this red fire-glow, I know not, but at last I felt Sir Richard touch me and heard his voice in my ear:

"Let us advance until we have 'em in better view!" Forthwith we stole forward, Sir Richard's grasp on Pluto's collar and hushing him to silence, until we were nigh enough to catch the sound of their voices very loud and distinct. Here we paused again and so passed another period of patient waiting wherein we heard them begin to grow merry, to judge by their laughter and singing, a lewd clamour very strange and out of place in these wild solitudes, under cover of which uproar we crept upon them nearer and nearer until we might see them sprawled about the fire, their muskets piled against a tree, their miserable captive lashed fast to another and drooping in his bonds like one sleeping or a-swoon. So lay we watching and waiting while their carouse waxed to a riot and waned anon to sleepy talk and drowsy murmurs and at last to a lusty snoring. And after some wait, Sir Richard's hand ever upon Pluto's collar, we crept forward again until we were drawn close upon that tree where stood the muskets. Then up rose Sir Richard, letting slip the dog and we were upon them, all three of us, our roars and shouts mingled with the fierce raving of the great hound. At the which hellish clamour, these poor rogues waked in sudden panic to behold the dog snapping and snarling about them and ourselves covering them with their own weapons, and never a thought among them but to supplicate our mercy; the which they did forthwith upon their knees and with upraised hands. Hereupon Sir Richard, scowling mighty fierce, bid such of them as loved life to be gone, whereat in the utmost haste and as one man, up started they all five and took themselves off with such impetuous celerity that we stood alone and masters of all their gear in less time than it taketh me to write down.

"Well, Martin," said Sir Richard, grim-smiling, "'twas none so desperate a business after all! Come now, let us minister to this poor prisoner."

We found him in sorry plight and having freed him of his bonds I fetched water from the brook near by and together we did what we might to his comfort, all of the which he suffered and never a word: which done, we supped heartily all three on the spoil we had taken. Only once did the Indian speak, and in broken Spanish, to know who we were.

"Content you, we are no Spaniards!" answered Sir Richard, setting a cloak about him as he lay.

"Truly this do I see, my father!" he murmured, and so fell asleep, the which so excellent example I bade Sir Richard follow and this after some demur, he agreed to (though first he must needs help me collect sticks for the fire), then commanding me wake him in two hours without fail, he rolled himself in one of the cloaks and very presently fell soundly asleep like the hardy old campaigner he was.

And now, the fire blazing cheerily, Pluto outstretched beside me, one bright eye opening ever and anon, and a pistol in my belt, I took careful stock of our new-come-by possessions and found them to comprise the following, viz:

  3 muskets with powder and shot a-plenty.
  2 brace of pistols.
  3 swords, with belts, hangers, etc.
  3 steel backs and breasts.
  4 morions.
  1 beaver hat excellent wide in the brim, should do for Sir
  Richard; he suffering much by the sun despite the hat of leaves
  I had made him.
  1 axe heavy and something blunted.
  2 excellent knives,
  2 wine skins, both empty.
  3 flasks, the same.
  Good store of meat with cakes of very excellent bread of cassava.
  1 horse with furniture for same,
  5 cloaks, something worn.
  3 pair of boots, very serviceable.
  1 tinder box.
  1 coat.

One brass compass in the pocket of same and of more value to us, I thought, than all the rest, the which pleased me mightily; so that for a long time I sat moving it to and fro to watch the swing of the needle and so at last, what with the crackle of the fire and the brooding stillness beyond and around us, I presently fell a-nodding and in a little (faithless sentinel that I was) to heavy slumber.