THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK THREE: BOOK of the PACIFICATION
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
José Macias lit and savored a small cigar… a cheap thing, fashioned in Turkey but nonetheless welcome for not only its stimulating effect but as a sabre to slash at the innumerable insects of the Territory. General Bravo offered another to the Belgian and, in this manner, the three men sat and smoked while the Captain continued his discourse.
"It was a clear night, at first, and the bright, three quarters moon shone piercingly, as it had done throughout the previous night while we had waited... with not a breath of wind from any direction, either to bring the deadly fog up or to grant relief as we waited through the heat of the day. The twenty four hours we had waited since Saturday's sundown became thirty, then thirty two. Just as it seemed we had waited for nothing, leaves began to stir. Long dark clouds began to cross the face of the moon and a dampness... I cannot describe, but only begin to number the infectious presences which were enveloping us."
José shuddered and raised his cup, noting how the Belgian seemed enraptured, his mouth hanging open, cigar drooping in his fist, the sweat and the stink radiating from him like a personification of the fog. He drank this time, and drew his hand up to his chin. "It must have been three hours after midnight. Our throats were constricted with fear," he recalled, "but I could not even reach for water out of the apprehension that whatever was in that fog knew... knew of our presence. Its touch was soft, not unpleasant... for that would have fortified our vigilance, it was rather as if the velvet cloak of a lady had been drawn past us, a darkness willing us to abandon wakefulness, upon which our eyes perhaps would open, beholding doom. Ever deeper was the undertow of night when I heard hoofbeats... it was the approach of the man-bait that gave me strength to shake off the entreaties of the fog. Would that some of the others had some of that strength!
"We had told nothing of our mission to the thief, who must have believed, to the last, that he was being employed in some complicated prank, a deception without harm and bearing little risk. His only orders were to proceed from Central to Santa Cruz as quickly as his mount could carry him and, whatever his sins, he was a competent rider. What pride he expressed in his uniform that would be the end of him!... for he had been outfitted as a Captain of the Rurales, which body had likely brought him to the penal colony. He didn't understand, poor devil, what an inviting target the soft, gray uniform made by night... he rode on, ignorant, his red tie flapping in the breeze while, at his approach, I raised the opera glasses I had brought, the better to observe his fate.
"I never saw his face," José averred. "It was only a silver outline, blurred by the mist of the swamps southwest of Ascension Bay; fear, if any, shrouded in those luminous vapors. There is, as you many know, a great deal of phosphorescence in Ascension, also in Espiritu Santo Bay at the south end of the swamps, and this quality streaked through and through the fog, raising phantoms of hellish design, the better to coax our fingers to our triggers and fire off at... nothing! I held my fire but, as the face of the moon cleared for an instant, I heard another shot... the poor impersonator tumbled clearly from his horse, his life done and his soul escaped. Whether his sacrifice was atonement sufficient for his life of crime rests now with He before whom all must stand in judgment. Every nerve, every muscle of my being tensed to leap up and run to him... and this instinct I suppressed, as I had also given orders to each of my sixty to do, for death on this road was merely ordinary... it was the absolute obliteration of the traces of its victims that made the thing in the fog so fearsome.
"I must have blinked, for when I put the glass to my eye, I saw a white, shapeless thing already flitting across the cleared ground on the other side of the road, like a sheet being drawn forward by an invisible string. It darted towards the corpse like a rag blown before a thunderstorm, first to the left, then to the right, making a shot all but impossible. I could now see the dead man at the side of the road, the horse had continued perhaps fifty meters before stopping, wondering no doubt at the sudden disappearance of its burden. But here, Mr. Wallen," José said, now turning to the chicle trader with a disgust he could not hide and only hoped would be mistaken for part of his story, "I made my only mistake... it was not of action, but of command."
"We are a Christian territory," Bravo again interrupted, "faithful believers in the scriptures and the word and law of Christ and his apostles; white men or..." and he tugged at his mustache, "nearly so, by birth or by upbringing. But sir, what passes in some parts of the Republic for the Christian faith is but a hodge-podge of ancient superstitions, coated with the lacquer of the Holy Bible and covered over by the name of a saint to hide the heathen demon within. Much as, in the more or less uncivilized portions of the Republic, an indian thinks nothing of relieving himself in the confessional and then burning incense to hid the smell. Naturally, some of these half-Christian sorts find their way into our military and while, for the most part, they execute their orders diligently, this superstitious nature is ever lurking to rear its horned, pustule-spotted snout at any indication of the supernatural.
"So you cannot bear full responsibility for the failing of one of these," Bravo tried to console José. "It was this man's own superstitious nature that put him beyond the reach of earthly help. Dwell, rather, on the science that brought about the detection and the fall of the Sad Indian."
"Very well," José continued. "The Sergeant across the road from me was of mixed-blood, a native of one of our Pacific states... not a bad soldier, but of a superstitious origin and perhaps unduly influenced by the baleful surroundings. As this white thing crept across the ground, he stepped out from cover and, against all orders, fired... clearly missing. The thing scuttled back into the monte and, in fact, was seen no more.
"We ran, now, to the road. The impostor was already dead. A bullet had taken him, passing cleanly through his skull... evidence, without doubt, that a powerful firearm of European make had been employed. Now the curious thing about this is that the entry wound was on the right side, just above the ear, while the other, much larger wound was through the left cheek." He placed a finger to each, then moved his hands forward so that the Belgian could see clearly the angle of fire. "Do you understand? This fellow had been fired upon from a great height, the bullet passing downward through his brain, causing immediate death. From the landscape, it was no difficult matter to thereby guess the source of this deadly fire."
"The tree!" Pieter Wallen exclaimed, excited with himself, as if he had concluded a perilous but profitable chicle transaction.
José nodded, his suspicions about the man's stupidity confirmed. "In the dark and fog," he continued, "it was both futile and dangerous to commence a search so we carried the dead man back to Central to wait for the morning. As soon as it grew light, we returned to the tree. I undertook the search myself and, in a sort of nest high among the ceiba's branches, found a gourd of water, some dried tortillas and even some exhausted cartridges. It was no quetzal, Mr. Wallen, which had plagued the road, not a demon or ghost... only an indian."
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