Chapter XXVIII. We Fall in with One Atlamatzin, an Indian Chief

I waked to a scream, a fierce trampling, an awful snarling, this drowned in the roar of a gun, and started up to see a glitter of darting steel that Sir Richard sought to parry with his smoking weapon. Then I was up, and, sword in hand, leapt towards his assailant, a tall, bearded man whose corselet flashed red in the fire-glow and who turned to meet my onset, shouting fiercely. And so we fell to it point and point; pushing desperately at each other in the half-light and raving pandemonium about us until more by good fortune than skill I ran him in the arm and shoulder, whereupon, gasping out hoarse maledictions, he incontinent made off into the dark. Then turned I to find myself alone; even the Indian had vanished, though from the darkness near at hand was a sound of fierce strife and a ringing shot. Catching up a musket I turned thitherward, but scarce had I gone a step than into the light of the fire limped Sir Richard and Pluto beside him, who licked and licked at his great muzzle as he came.

"Oh, Martin!" gasped Sir Richard, leaning on his musket and bowing his head, "oh, Martin--but for Pluto here--" And now, as he paused, I saw the dog's fangs and tongue horribly discoloured.

"'Tis all my fault!" said I bitterly. "I fell asleep at my post!"

"Aye!" he groaned, "whereby are two men dead and one by my hand, God forgive me!"

"Nay, but these were enemies bent on our murder!"

"Had they seen you wakeful and vigilant they had never dared attack us. As it is, I have another life on my conscience and I am an old man and soul-weary of strife and bloodshed, yet this it seems is my destiny!"

So saying he sat him down by the fire exceeding dejected, and when I would have comforted him I found no word. Suddenly I heard Pluto growl in his throat, saw the hair on neck and shoulders bristle, and looking where he looked, cocked my musket and raised it to my shoulder, then lowered it, as, with no sound of footstep, the Indian stepped into the firelight. In one hand he grasped the axe and as he came nearer I saw axe and hand and arm dripped red. At Sir Richard's word and gesture Pluto cowered down and suffered the Indian to approach, a tall, stately figure, who, coming close beside the fire, held out to us his left hand open and upon the palm three human ears, the which he let fall to stamp upon with his moccasined foot.

"Dead, my brothers!" said he in his broken Spanish and holding up three fingers. "So be all enemies of Atlamatzin and his good friends." Saying which he stopped to cleanse himself and the axe in the stream and with the same grave serenity he came back to the fire and stretching himself thereby, composed himself to slumber.

But as for Sir Richard and myself no thought had we of sleep but sat there very silent for the most part, staring into the fire until it paled to the day and the woods around us shrilled and echoed to the chatter and cries, the piping and sweet carol of new-waked birds.

Then, having broken our fast, we prepared to set out in the early freshness of the morning, when to us came the Indian Atlamatzin and taking my hand, touched it to his breast and forehead and having done as much by Sir Richard, crossed his arms, and looking from one to other of us, spake in his halting Spanish as much as to say, "My father and brother, whither go ye?" At this Sir Richard, who it seemed knew something of the Indian tongue, gave him to understand we went eastwards towards the Gulf. Whereupon the Indian bowed gravely, answering:

"Ye be lonely, even as I, and thitherward go I many moons to what little of good, war and evil have left to me. Therefore will I company with ye an ye would have me." To the which we presently agreeing, he forthwith took his share of our burden, and with the axe at his side and our spare musket on his shoulder, went on before, threading his way by brake and thicket with such sureness of direction that we were soon out upon the open thoroughfare.

And now seeing how stoutly Sir Richard stepped out (despite the gear he bore as gun, powder horn, water bottle, etc.) what with the sweet freshness here among the trees and seeing us so well provided against circumstances, I came nigh singing for pure lightness of heart. But scarce had we gone a mile than my gaiety was damped and in this fashion.

"Here is a land of death, Martin--see yonder!" said Sir Richard and pointed to divers great birds that flapped up heavily from the way before us. Coming nearer, I saw others of the breed that quarrelled and fought and screamed and, upon our nearer approach, hopped along in a kind of torpor ere they rose on lazy wings and flew away; and coming nearer yet I saw the wherefore of their gathering and Sir Richard's words and grew sick within me. It was an Indian woman who lay where she had fallen, a dead babe clasped to dead bosom with one arm, the other shorn off at the elbow.

"A Spanish sword-stroke, Martin!" said Sir Richard, pointing to this. "God pity this poor outraged people!" And with this prayer we left these poor remains, and hasting away, heard again the heavy beat of wings and the carrion cry of these monstrous birds. And now I bethought me that the Indian, striding before us, had never so much as turned and scarce deigned a glance at this pitiful sight, as I noted to Sir Richard.

"And yet, Martin, he brought in three Spanish ears last night! Moreover, he is an Indian and one of the Maya tribe that at one time were a noble people and notable good fighters, but now slaves, alas, all save a sorry few that do live out of the white man's reach 'mid the ruin of noble cities high up in the Cordilleras--sic transit gloria mundi, alas!"

For three days we tramped this highway in the wake of the Spanish treasure-convoy and came on the remains of many of these miserable slaves who, overcome with fatigue, had fallen in their chains and being cut free, had been left thus to perish miserably.

On this, the fourth day, we turned off from this forest road (the which began to trend southerly); we struck off, I say, following our Indian, into a narrow track bearing east and by north which heartened me much since, according to Adam's chart, this should bring us directly towards that spot he had marked as our rendezvous. And as we advanced, the country changed, the woods thinned away to a rolling hill-country, and this to rocky ways that grew ever steeper and more difficult, and though we had no lack of water, we suffered much by reason of the heat. And now on our right we beheld great mountains towering high above us, peak on peak, soaring aloft to the cloudless heaven where blazed a pitiless sun. Indeed, so unendurable was this heat that we would lie panting in some shade until the day languished and instead of glaring sun was radiant moon to light us on our pilgrimage. And here we were often beset by dreadful tempests where mighty winds shouted and thunder cracked and roared most awful to be heard among these solitary mountains. So we skirted these great mountains, by frowning precipice and dark defile, past foaming cataracts and waters that roared unseen below us.

And very thankful we were for such a guide as this Indian Atlamatzin who, grave, solemn and seldom-speaking, was never at a loss and very wise as to this wilderness and all things in it,--beast and bird, tree and herb and flower. And stoutly did Sir Richard bear himself during this weary time, plodding on hour after hour until for very shame I would call a halt, and he, albeit ready to swoon for weariness, would find breath to berate me for a laggard and protest himself able to go on, until, taking him in my arms, I would lay him in some sheltered nook and find him sound asleep before ever I could prepare our meal.

Thus held we on until towering mountain and scowling cliff sank behind and we came into a gentle country of placid streams, grassy tracts, with herb and tree and flower a very joy to the eyes.

"Martin," said Sir Richard, as we sat at breakfast beside a crystal pool, "Martin," said he, pulling at Pluto's nearest ear with sunburned fingers, "I do begin to think that all these days I have been harbouring a shadow."

"How so, sir?"

"It hath seemed to me from the first that I should leave this poor body here in Darien--"

"God forbid!" quoth I fervently.

"'Twould be but my body, Martin; my soul would go along with you, dear lad; aye, 'twould be close by to comfort and aid and bring you safe to--her--my sweet Joan--and mayhap--with you twain--to England."

"Nay, dear sir, I had liefer you bear your body along with it. Thank God, you do grow more hearty every day. And the ague scarce troubles you--"

"Truly, God hath been very kind. I am thrice the man I was, though I limp wofully, which grieves me since it shortens the day's journey, lad. We have been already these many days and yet, as I compute, we have fully eighty miles yet to go. Alas, dear lad, how my crawling must fret you."

"Sir Richard," said I, clapping my hand on his, "no man could have endured more courageously nor with stouter heart than you--no, not even Adam Penfeather himself, so grieve not for your lameness. Adam will wait us, of this I am assured."

"What manner of man is this Adam of yours, Martin?"

"He is himself, sir, and none other like him: a little, great man, a man of cunning plots and contrivances, very bold and determined and crafty beyond words. He is moreover a notable good seaman and commander, quick of hand and eye. Dangers and difficulty are but a whetstone to set a keener edge to his abilities. He was once a chief of buccaneers and is now a baronet of England and justice of the peace, aye, and I think a member of His Majesty's Parliament beside."

"Lord, Martin, you do paint me a very Proteus; fain would I meet such a man."

"Why, so you shall, sir, and judge for yourself."

Here Sir Richard sighed and turned to gaze where Atlamatzin was busied upon a small fire he had lighted some distance away. Now, as to this Indian, if I have not been particular in his description hitherto, it is because I know not how to do so, seeing he was (to my mind) rather as one of another world, a sombre figure proud and solitary and mostly beyond my ken, though I came to know him something better towards the end and but for him should have perished miserably. Thus then, I will try to show him to you in as few words as I may.

Neither young nor old, tall and slender yet of incredible strength; his features pleasing and no darker than my own sunburned skin, his voice soft and deep, his bearing proud and stately and of a most grave courtesy. Marvellous quick was he and nimble save for his tongue, he being less given to talk even than I, so that I have known us march by the hour together and never a word betwixt us. Yet was he a notable good friend, true and steadfast and loyal, as you shall hear.

Just now (as I say) he was busy with a fire whereon he cast an armful of wet leaves so that he had presently a thick column of smoke ascending into the stilly air; and now he took him one of the cloaks and covered this smoke, stifling and fanning it aside so that it was no more than a mist, and anon looses it into a column again; and thus he checked or broke his smoky pillar at irregular intervals, so that at last I needs must call to ask him what he did.

"Brother," answered he in his grave fashion, "I talk with my people. In a little you shall see them answer me. Hereupon Sir Richard told me how in some parts these Indians will converse long distances apart by means of drums, by which they will send you messages quicker than any relay of post horses may go. And presently, sure enough, from a woody upland afar rose an answering smoke that came and went and was answered by our fire, as in question and answer, until at last Atlamatzin, having extinguished his fire, came and sat him down beside us.

"Father and my brother," said he, folding his arms, "I read a tale of blood, fire and battle at sea and along the coast. White men slaying white men, which is good--so they slay enough!"

"A battle at sea? Do you mean ships?" I questioned uneasily.

"And on land, brother. Spanish soldiers have been espied wounded and yet shouting with singing and laughing. Galleons have sailed from Porto Bello and Carthagena."

"God send Adam is not beset!" said I.

"Amen!" quoth Sir Richard. "Nay, never despond, Martin, for if he be the man you say he shall not easily be outwitted."

"Ah, sir, I think on my dear lady."

"And I also, Martin. But she is in the hands of God Who hath cherished her thus far."

"Moreover, oh, father and my brother, yonder my people do send you greeting and will entertain you for so long as you will."

"Wherefore we thank you, Atlamatzin, good friend, you and them, but if fire and battle are abroad we must on so soon as we may." So saying, Sir Richard got to his feet and we did the like and, taking up our gear, set off with what speed we might.