How They Took the Gold-Train
Who ever more approves, and more accepts
Him who imploring mercy sues for life,
Than who self-rigorous chooses death as due,
Which argues over-just, and self-displeased
For self-offence, more than for God offended.
A fortnight or more has passed in severe toil, but not more severe than they have endured many a time before. Bidding farewell once and forever to the green ocean of the eastern plains, they have crossed the Cordillera; they have taken a longing glance at the city of Santa Fe, lying in the midst of rich gardens on its lofty mountain plateau, and have seen, as was to be expected, that it was far too large a place for any attempt of theirs. But they have not altogether thrown away their time. Their Indian lad has discovered that a gold-train is going down from Santa Fe toward the Magdalena; and they are waiting for it beside the miserable rut which serves for a road, encamped in a forest of oaks which would make them almost fancy themselves back again in Europe, were it not for the tree-ferns which form the undergrowth; and were it not, too, for the deep gorges opening at their very feet; in which, while their brows are swept by the cool breezes of a temperate zone, they can see far below, dim through their everlasting vapor-bath of rank hot steam, the mighty forms and gorgeous colors of the tropic forest.
They have pitched their camp among the tree-ferns, above a spot where the path winds along a steep hill-side, with a sheer cliff below of many a hundred feet. There was a road there once, perhaps, when Cundinamarca was a civilized and cultivated kingdom; but all which Spanish misrule has left of it are a few steps slipping from their places at the bottom of a narrow ditch of mud. It has gone the way of the aqueducts, and bridges, and post-houses, the gardens and the llama-flocks of that strange empire. In the mad search for gold, every art of civilization has fallen to decay, save architecture alone; and that survives only in the splendid cathedrals which have risen upon the ruins of the temples of the Sun, in honor of a milder Pantheon; if, indeed, that can be called a milder one which demands (as we have seen already) human sacrifices, unknown to the gentle nature-worship of the Incas.
And now, the rapid tropic vegetation has reclaimed its old domains, and Amyas and his crew are as utterly alone, within a few miles of an important Spanish settlement, as they would be in the solitudes of the Orinoco or the Amazon.
In the meanwhile, all their attempts to find sulphur and nitre have been unavailing; and they have been forced to depend after all (much to Yeos disgust) upon their swords and arrows. Be it so: Drake took Nombre de Dios and the gold-train there with no better weapons; and they may do as much.
So, having blocked up the road above by felling a large tree across it, they sit there among the flowers chewing coca, in default of food and drink, and meditating among themselves the cause of a mysterious roar, which has been heard nightly in their wake ever since they left the banks of the Meta. Jaguar it is not, nor monkey: it is unlike any sound they know; and why should it follow them? However, they are in the land of wonders; and, moreover, the gold train is far more important than any noise.
At last, up from beneath there was a sharp crack and a loud cry. The crack was neither the snapping of a branch, nor the tapping of a woodpecker; the cry was neither the scream of the parrot, nor the howl of the monkey.
That was a whips crack, said Yeo, and a womans wail. They are close here, lads!
A womans? Do they drive women in their gangs? asked Amyas.
Why not, the brutes? There they are, sir. Did you see their basnets glitter?
Men! said Amyas, in a low voice, I trust you all not to shoot till I do. Then give them one arrow, out swords, and at them! Pass the word along.
Up they came, slowly, and all hearts beat loud at their coming.
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