THE Indian laughed.
This lean, almost cadaverous man whose appearance sufficiently explained his name of “Hunger,” uttered, a low, harsh and dissonant cackle of sheer mirth. He perfectly comprehended the consternation of the two white men who had apprehended him red-handed in murder—a feeling which Job Warlock expressed disgustedly.
“Durn me if he ain't took us flat aback, matey! And now what?”
Hampton hesitated, then slowly shook his head and put away his weapon. Murderer or no, this Indian was the man he had come so far to seek—and now it was not the fate of his brother alone which hung upon the event, but also that of Nelly Barnes. Reading the message of his gray eyes, El Hambre made a swift gesture, indicating the corpse.
“Señores, you do not know why I have done this? Here, I will show you.”
He turned and stooped over the body of the oriental. Ripping asunder the black silk garments, he examined them, searching carefully with deft fingers. A grunt broke from his lips, he brought out his knife, and from the lining of the coat he extracted a letter, well sealed. This he shoved into the hand of Hampton, then darted to the mule, slashed at the thongs binding the load, and showed that this consisted of two stout Mexican trunks, gaily adorned. These he hurled into the jungle, then slapped the mule and sent it off up the trail.
Warlcck came to Hampton's side and stared at the letter.
“It's addressed to a New York bank,” said Hampton, frowning.
Then, as he turned over the letter, he started slightly. The seal impressed in the red wax was composed of two strange characters—the same two characters graven in the silver haft of the knife that had smitten Jed Barnes so murderously! Hampton looked up, encountered the eyes of El Hambre.
“What's this—a letter from Dias?”
The Indian gave him a slow, astonished look, then nodded.
“Yes, señor. This yellow man was taking it to New York with him; he is a trusted servant of that devil Dias! How did you know?”
Without hesitation, Hampton tore at the letter, forced it open, and found it to contain a number of bank drafts, each payable in New York or San Francisco and endorsed over to James Day. One glance at the names was enough.
“Some of his loot from the Beverly company,” said Hampton grimly. “No doubt these men are the ones now in Panama. This money must go back to them—it'll mean everything. What a crafty —— Dias is! El Hambre, is he in Panama now? Can we have him arrested?”
The Indian only laughed at that—the laugh was sufficient answer. He shook his head and began to roll himself another smoke.
Hampton understood clearly enough. Dias was quite immune from any local law, and his victims could not reach him. He had made a rich haul, had undoubtedly gone away in his schooner to his secret hold, and by the time he returned to Panama the city would be flooded with crowds of fresh victims. It was a safe and sure game.
Suddenly, when he had lighted his cigaret, El Hambre came to Hampton and touched his arm.
“You are looking for your brother, Don Ricardo, yes? You want to find this man Dias?”
“I came from the north in the same ship with him, and didn't know it until too late,” said Hampton bleakly. “Yes. Now I mean to find him, and my brother too.”
“Bueno!” The Indian made an imperative gesture. “Then come with me. I am alone, and it is not safe; the men of Dias would kill me if they knew that I was an enemy. We shall hunt that man together, we three. But come quickly, for others are on the trail. We cannot talk here.”
He leaned over the body of the yellow man, lifted it without apparent effort, and sent it after the boxes, hidden by the close-crowding jungle. Hampton and Job Warlock got their packs, and the cadaverous Indian beckoned them to the rivulet, which had a good sand bottom. Stepping up the stream, he shoved aside the tangle of vines and creepers, and the others followed him closely for a hundred feet, crouching close to the water and avoiding the heavy mass of foliage overhead. Then, unexpectedly, they emerged into another clearing, and a trail appeared going into the jungle. Job Warlock laughed:
“Injun does it, matey! Now we're goin' to get somewhere, soon's we can swap yarns with this chap. Looks like he's out to stick a knife in Dias, eh? Durned good thing we didn't put a bullet into him for knifing that chink! The world's a fine place, so hurray!”
Hampton made no response, devoting himself to keeping up with El Hambre, who advanced rapidly along the narrow trail that penetrated the jungle. When they had gone half a mile the trail began to mount and the trees thinned out, until at length the three men emerged upon a hill side, close to a trickling waterfall and a thatched hut. El Hambre gave a call, and from the hut emerged a wrinkled Indian woman.
“Mi madre,” he said to the white men in explanation. “Señores, my house is yours. Here we can talk in peace, for there is much to say.”
The old woman produced food, which neither Hampton nor Warlock desired. After a long drink from the pool under the fall, they lighted their pipes and joined El Hambre in the shade; for Job Warlock, having given up trying to masticate the local tobacco, was compelled to stick to his pipe. After having finished their brief repast, the Indian rolled a smoke and addressed Hampton:
“Don Ricardo, your brother was my very good friend; he was kind to me. I am sorry that I could not help him, yet I am one man and Dias has many men. Three years ago Dias took my wife, because one of his men desired her; since then I have killed his men, and he does not know how they have disappeared. More, I could not do. I am alone, poor, unable to do much. Twice I have tried to kill him—the last time, only a few days ago in Panama. I failed.”
“Where is my brother now?” demanded Hampton.
“Across the sea.”
“Si, señor—across the Vermilion Sea, the Gulf of California—there is a place south of Loreto, in Baja California, where Dias has settled. He takes his slaves there.”
“Oh!” said Hampton. “Then you know the place?”
“I went there three years ago, señor,” said the Indian simply, “but my wife was dead. I could not stay, lest they discover me and kill me, for I wanted to kill many of them first. So I came back. It was a long way.”
“This man, Señor Job, is my friend,” and Hampton indicated Warlock. “He comes with me to find my brother—and another. Did you see Dias and the people with him, in Panama?”
“Si; his schooner was there.”
“Did you see a señorita with brown hair, who was alone?”
Warlock caught the eye of the Indian and winked significantly, and the brows of El Hambre went up.
“Ah, yes! Yes, señor. She went on his schooner, with others. Some of them he will put ashore at Mazatlan, others he will take home as slaves.”
Hampton produced the envelope which had contained the drafts, and pointed to the two mysterious characters on the wax seals.
“What does this writing, if it is writing, mean?”
The Indians shrugged.
“No si, señor! It is a mark, a brand, used by Dias; all his men know it and respect it.”
“Perhaps this is the same thing,” said Hampton grimly, and produced from beneath his shirt the silver-hilted knife. He indicated the characters graven in the haft.
A gasp broke from the Indian. He leaned forward, took the knife, examined it with awed and incredulous eyes. Then he gazed wolfishly from Hampton to Job Warlock.
“It is the knife of Dias himself,” he said.
“Hurray! That settles who is the murderer!” cried Job Warlock, and grinned. “'Little black bull come over the mountain'—Hurray! Now we can go ahead, get the consul to have Dias stowed away in the calabozo, and go investigate his joint up the coast!”
“Not so fast—explain the matter first.”
Between them they sketched for El Hambre what had taken place aboard the Hannah, and how they had been providentially picked up by the French ship. The lean Indian listened, his eyes flashing, a keen intelligence evident in his features. He was by no means handsome, since his face was scarred and pitted by smallpox, but both men warmed to him.
“Now,” concluded Hampton, “here is what must be done. We must go to Panama and return the money that Dias stole from those men, and you whose knife this is——”
El Hambre intervened.
“A moment, señor! It is impossible to go to Panama.”
“Why impossible?” demanded Hampton, reading much behind the words.
The Indian laughed in his harsh, chuckling way.
“I was there last night, bargaining with that yellow man to bring him to Chagres, that I might kill him; unluckily, there was another yellow man——”
“Another?” struck in Hampton. “Another Chinaman?”
“Dias is served by many of them,” explained the Indian. “Most of the yellow men are his friends; why, I do not know. Yes, there was another. I wanted to make sure of him also, and last night I followed him to the place, where he lived, in the street of the shoemakers. There was a baile in that street, and just as I was killing the yellow man, a fight arose between Americanos and police; so it happened that, as I was leaving the house, police seized me as a thief. They let me go when they recognized me, for it is known that I am no thief; but when they find the dead yellow man this morning, they will search for me. They may be searching now—quién sabe? If I go to Panama, they will take me.”
Hampton marveled at the cool and imperturbable manner in which this man spoke of his killings. It was unreal and ghastly, almost inhuman; nothing could have so bitterly emphasized the Indian's ferocious and deadly hatred of Dias as his matter-of-fact recital. Under the circumstances, it was of course impossible for El Hambre to venture into the city by day.
On the other hand, Hampton was resolved to get the murder of Jed Barnes cleared up and thus procure his own absolution from the crime. The opportunity which was now his might never come again, and he was savagely determined not to lose the providential chance. Yet, for a moment, he could find no way out of the impasse. Upon the silence rose the voice of Job Warlock, humming his interminable ditty:
“A little black bull came down from the mountain,
Ri tura lingtum, ri tura lay!
A little black bull came down from the mountain,
Ri tura lingtum, diddle diddle aye!
“Oh, the little black bull he was feeling frisky,
Ri tura lingtum, ri——”
Hampton cut short the chant.
“What sort of place is the stronghold of Dias?”
“Puerto Escondido? As the name says, señor don, it is a little hidden haven, inside a barren and rocky island. All around the haven is ancient desert. There is a long, deep valley with a rivulet, and a tiny harbor. Dias has ships which prey on the pearl fisheries or come down to these coasts and do other things.”
“A pirate haven?”
“By no means, señor; his two schooners hold the direct commission of Santa Ana.”
“How can we get there from Panama? Are you willing to go with us?”
El Hambre grinned.
“Si, si, señor! I go gladly. But to go is another matter—it is not a trip to make in a fishing boat. There is a schooner in port now, a Mexican schooner bound north to Acapulco and Mazatlan. Her captain hates all gringos and will take no passengers; but if he thinks you are wealthy Basques or Cubans who can pay, and me your servant, he will agree. He is to sail tomorrow night or the next day. Still, it is not a boat with a good reputation, señor.”
Job Warlock chuckled, reading what was in Hampton's thought.
“Looks like the beards stay, matey! The world's a good place, so hurray!”
Hampton ignored him. “Very well, we go by that boat, El Hambre, if it can be managed. From Mazatlan we can get across the gulf easily enough. Now, have you any idea where we can find the Americanos from whom Dias stole this money?”
The Indian, who was now aglow with eagerness, shrugged.
“Dios sabe, señor! They are camped along the bay by the hundreds; already the hotels are crowded to the doors. One must search.”
“Well, then, we shall search. Can we reach Panama without going by the main road?”
“Yes; by trail to the plantation Mendoza y Mueges, then by road to the city.”
“Then I suggest this,” said Hampton decisively. “You lead us there first thing in the morning, and leave us. We've both been in Panama before, and know our way around. Then, after dark tomorrow night, you come along and join us. When my business is settled, we can see that Mexican skipper. Are you afraid to enter the city after dark?”
El Hambre shrugged.
“I will risk it, señores; besides, I can enter even if the gates are shut. I will do it, because we are amigos—but,” and here he looked at Hampton in a singular manner, “there is something you do not yet know.”
“There's a good deal I don't know, but I mean to find out,” and Hampton laughed. “Well?”
El Hambre began to fabricate a smoke, with meticulous care. He did not reply until he had scratched a sulphur-match and was puffing gently. A strange expression lay in the regard that he fastened upon the two white men.
“Yesterday,” he said, “a schooner arrived in Panama, landed a passenger, and went on to the south. It was one of the schooners belonging to Dias—he has two. Evidently that passenger came to meet Dias and did not know he had already arrived and gone north by his other schooner. That passenger is still in Panama City.”
“Well, what of it?” asked Hampton. “Who's the passenger?”
“A very beautiful woman,” said El Hambre, and smiled thinly. “A most beautiful and cruel woman, señores, with the heart of a tigre. It is said that her father was a wealthy merchant of Manila, and her mother a yellow woman—no one knows. It is through her that Dias is served by the yellow men—that is, they serve her, and hence serve him. That woman is more dangerous than many men.”
“And she is——”
“Señora Dias.” The Indian spat in the sand. “Or, as men call her, Doña Hermana.”
“Doña Hermana?” Job Warlock scowled puzzled. “That is no woman's name. It means sister.”
“Si,” and El Hambre showed his white teeth in a flashing smile. “Doña Hermana del Diablo—Sister of the Devil.”
“Oh!” said Hampton thoughtfully, and fell silent. He remembered what his brother had written about this woman, and wondered if poor Eli were now slaving away to build a palace in Baja California for the wife of Dias.
“Well,” he added presently, “we have nothing to do with her.”
“But,” said El Hambre, “she is in Panama, and she is a terrible woman. I am afraid of her, Señor Ricardo, and that is one very good reason why we should not go there.”
Hampton looked at the man, met the glittering eyes, and his lips set ominously. Then, after a moment, he spoke——
“We are going.”
“Bueno.” The Indian shrugged and smiled. “Yo también.”
“And I also,” repeated Job Warlock, grinning. “All three together, and —— the odds! Eh, matey! But I think that, instead of finishing our job, we have only begun it!”
El Hambre, who was still fingering that knife with the silver haft, ran his thumb along the razor-keen blade.
“I would give much for a knife such as this,” he murmured.
“Keep it,” said Hampton indifferently, “but be sure to bring it to the city with you tomorrow night!”
The Indian uttered his harsh laugh. “Good! Good!” he exclaimed. “There will be men with the Doña Hermana. Yellow men!”
Job Warlock grinned understandingly, but Hampton was slow to catch the implication.