THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK THREE: BOOK of the PACIFICATION
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
José held the coffee that Consuela brought to his lips, and its aroma refreshed him, making less intrusive the presence of the Belgian whose hair still glistened with whatever animal's fat Wallen employed to keep it in place. Mr. Poe would know what to do with this man, José thought, but this was the Territory and the eyes of the trader, and of his General, waited expectantly for him to speak. He took a deep draught of the steam rising from the tin cup, placed it down without drinking and commenced.
"There is a stretch of ground perhaps a kilometer in length near the encampment we call Estación Central, for the reason that it is half the distance between Santa Cruz del Bravo and the sea. Our route, on which the building of the railroad shall commence upon orders from President Diaz, runs to the north of the swamps, but this one spot still exhibited a malignant influence on all who passed, whether on military business or," he smiled sourly, "for trade. The ground east of Central, though high as can be found in the coastal region of Quintana Roo, remains influenced by the swamps stretching far to the south and, in the evenings, a foul and chilly fog arises from these marshes, sometimes blowing over this small settlement when under the influence of a tropic wind. On these occasions, it would happen that a man on his way to or from the village would not arrive at his destination. He would simply disappear... snatched out of this world by someone or some... thing... hiding itself within the folds of this vile fog."
"What could it have been?" interrupted Bravo, opening his hands in innocence. "A seller of silver jewelry," he began, unfolding the long, accusing digits of his left hand, and counting off the first of them with the index finger of the right, "whose merchandise perhaps contained a core of tin. Gone! A customer, both dissatisfied and of an inquiring nature or... this fog. One of my Lieutenants," and he tapped the middle finger, "a boy from a fine old family, a fearless, daring lad but two months graduated from Chapultepec, and his horse with him, and its saddle valued at five thousand pesos. A telegraph engineer and our Roman Catholic priest... whatever was taking these people clearly did not answer to the call of God... and, finally, an official from the capital, sent to inspect these disappearances which were reported." Bravo tapped the smallest finger of his left hand and rolled the whole up into a fist, with which he rapped the table. "This last was a serious matter. The reputation of a Federal Territory suffers when the emissaries of the President fail to return from their assignments, without leaving even their bodies behind for Christian burial. Many others also disappeared, but these were of lesser or no importance. What would you have thought?" General Bravo asked the trader.
The Belgian shrugged. "Perhaps someone who coveted the jewelry or the young man's saddle. The priest, the Inspector... magic? Perhaps there is some substance to the legend of the quetzal."
"That would be a hungry bird," laughed Bravo, "to devour a lieutenant and his horse, without leaving so much behind as even a bone. Even my Colonels are not so voracious. No, there is a simpler explanation. Captain... proceed!"
"Half a kilometer from the village," José explained, there was an old tree, a ceiba of enormous girth which had not been pulled down, owing to its great size and to the fact that it was over a hundred meters from the road, well beyond the limit that we have established to cut back the monte to prevent it from affording cover to the sublevados.
"Following the disappearance of the inspector, I was ordered by the General to solve this mystery, and generously allowed all necessary resources of the Territory which I deemed appropriate. Because I do put value upon my life, and on those of Mexican soldiers, I had a convicted railroad laborer made up in the uniform of a Captain and given a horse and a rifle which, of course, contained no ammunition. This man had been a thief of some sort, and didn't really have much say in the matter... a man whose nature I had determined would make him unlikely to attempt to escape. I had, besides, sixty good soldiers, each one an exceptional marksman, who were likewise disguised, but of a lower nature, as clearers of brush, whose rifles were concealed in the white baggy trousers that are so common here. Many others worked with them so, when twilight arrived, there was a great coming and going of men, and, during this, the sixty faded back into the monte, taking those posts which I had assigned to each... thirty on each side of the road, fifty kilometers distant from one another.
"It was a Saturday, and I did not bait my trap that evening, for I wished my men to become one with the monte, to wait and suffer and observe. The thief turned Captain had his orders to depart Central on Sunday night, and only if there was a south wind. If he were to pass the dangerous stretch of road, he was to continue to Santa Cruz del Bravo. Perhaps he would have been rewarded," José suggested, glancing towards the General, who made a noncommittal gesture.
"I cannot recall why I chose the side of the rode opposite the ceiba for my own position," the Captain continued. "It may have been that it was nearest to the center of the territory that we had staked out, but more likely it was an intervention... the hand of Providence, who aids us in our struggling with the forces of unholiness that are so strong here... for I could just as well have taken that side nearest the Ceiba and, if so, I would not be speaking of this to you and the mystery of El Central, perhaps, would remain unsolved. But first,” he digressed, “a little smoke.”
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