(At long last, the final part of the Jim and Toby adventure – wherein Jim Reade and Toby Shaw make a long journey to an abandoned Spanish presidio, in search of a fortune in silver which may be buried within it’s walls. But their friend Albert Biddle has made an unsettling discovery – previous chapters of the story here, here, here and here.)
No matter that twilight had already fallen, the sun gone down behind purple clouds fringed with a nimbus of fading gold – that peculiar piece of news required investigation on the spot.
“The Castle of Otranto has nothing on this place,” Albert Biddle observed, as unflappable as ever. “Buried treasure, dead monks … I expect to see a villainous nobleman at any moment … and if a pure and lovely maiden fond of wildflowers faints into my arms, I shall drop her at once.”
“You’d better,” Jim answered, twisting a mass of sage branches from the earth, winding them into a tight knot around a substantial stick of firewood to make a torch. He held it into the new fire until it was well alight. “You’re a happily married man, after all. Lead us to your dead monk, Albert. No wonder that the Comanche don’t want to set foot in this place.”
“They told many stories,” Toby nodded agreement. “None of which agreed with the others; powerful spirits, the ghosts of fierce warriors, lights floating across the ground … and Old Owl, he looked very solemn, as if he knew more than the others. He said it was a white man’s place, so what bad medicine that the others feared, would not harm you.”
“But aren’t you worried for yourself?” Albert Biddle ventured. Toby snorted, indignant at the very suggestion.
“My people are not wild Indians, like the Comanche,” he answered. “We are the True People; not to be frightened by tales told to bad children.”
“I thought that parts of this place looked as if someone had kept it in repair,” Jim remarked, some minutes later, when he and Toby had followed Albert Biddle to the inner room which must have been the presidio commander’s quarters and now was a tomb. They looked into it from the doorway … most remarkably, a doorway with a wooden door in it still. There was a fresh half-circular scoring on the dirt floor, where the door had been pushed open by Albert Biddle. “You didn’t move anything other than the door, did you?”
“No … I came in just far enough to see that the monk was dead,” Albert Biddle answered. “And that whoever he was, he’d been dead a long time.”
“But I doubt that he closed the door by himself,” Jim observed, holding up the torch. In the dark room, eldritch shadows and light flickered … all that was required to make a ghastly scene in one of Albert Biddle’s novels was a thunderstorm brewing overhead, Jim thought.
The room was a windowless one, as bare as a jail cell, although there was a space where a window once had been, now filled with stones roughly cemented in and the the roof over it being in good repair. A low bed, of unworked lengths of branch and rawhide held the body of the monk – or rather his bones, neatly laid with the bones of his hands crossed on the breast of the coarse brown wool robe and wound around with the beads of his rosary. The flesh of his face, hands and feet had desiccated to the same color as the rawhide, but there was no indication of a violent end that Jim could see … and he had seen many violent ends, in his time as one of Jack Hay’s stiletto men.
A plain wooden crucifix hung on one wall, a simple prie-dieux beneath it, of the same crude manufacture as the cot. There was only one other piece of furniture in the room; a small wooden chest, almost entirely covered – sides and corners by metal strap work, much blackened by tarnish – which sat against the wall close to the shallow fireplace, Jim raised his makeshift torch a little higher … yes, there was a dip in the floor, an arms-length from the fireplace. In the light of Jim’s fading torch, he could see the considering expression on Albert Biddle’s face – the expression of a man rapidly doing up long sums. Out in the pasture of the old parade ground one of the horses whinnied nervously – an unaccustomed noise in this silent place.
Jim’s eyes met those of Albert Biddle. “I wonder if the monk has not already saved us the trouble of digging up the treasure … that looks like a chest I would use to bury a fortune in silver.”
From the doorway, Toby said, “James … I think the horses are restless. There is something out there …”
“A wild-cat, likely,” Jim answered, as Albert Biddle gestured Jim to hold the torch closer to the chest. Toby’s eyes gleamed briefly; he had come no farther than the doorway, by which Jim guessed that for all of Toby’s brave words, he was shared the same superstitious of the Comanche regarding this place. With a whisper of his moccasins against the dirt, Toby was gone from the doorway, likely to see what had unsettled the horses.
“It has the arms of the king of Spain engraved on it, unless I am very much mistaken. But what would a simple Franciscan have to do with the lost silver of San Saba? And what brought him out here all alone?” Albert tested the latch of the chest – there were loops of iron where a lock would have been, and others through which chains might have once been drawn and triply-secured the contents. He lifted latch, and then lid, which opened with a metallic screech of protest, the two bent closer to see inside.
“It’s empty,” Jim exclaimed, crushing disappointment mixed with a certain degree of relief. He did not relish remaining here any longer, especially with the body of the mysterious Franciscan monk, hundreds of miles alone in the Comanche-haunted plains of the llano.
Albert Biddle reached in, feeling with wary care along the bottom of the chest. “Not quite,” he said, drawing out a small object held between thumb and finger. “There’s this – it was wedged in the corner. It might be silver – I’ll have to see it in good light to be certain.”
The object was about the size and shape of a sliver of apple cut from the core – thin at one edge, and about the thickness of Jim’s little finger on the outer. Jim took it from Albert, weighing it in his hand – it felt heavier than it looked, and he thought that he could feel something embossed into the blackened surface. “I hate to think that we came all this way and risked so much for just this,” he observed. He cast a disparaging eye on the body of the monk, whose empty eye-holes appeared to serenely contemplate the crucifix hanging on the wall. “I wonder if he found it – and if so, what he spent it all on?”
“Likely not what Bob Neighbors or any other Texian would have chosen,” Albert Biddle replied, and Jim was moved enough by that acid observation to laugh.
“Full to the brim with silver would have exhausted the capacity of …” Jim began to say, before the small metallic click of a pistol being cocked interrupted him – as loud as a shout in the silence, and suddenly the room was full of other men, and Bernard Vibart-Jones’s eyes glittering at them over the barrel.
“I most respectfully request that you hand over the silver, gentlemen,” the Englishman said, the smooth actor’s voice at odds with the expression of villainous satisfaction on his face.
“You!” Jim exclaimed; he had been so certain that they had ventured alone into the old fortress. He had not really expected the English agent to appear, risking the wrath of the Comanche, not with a band of bravos at his back, a solid phalanx of armed men, filling up the doorway
“Just like a bad counterfeit coin,” Albert Biddle remarked, conversationally as he handed the slip of tarnished silver to Vibart-Jones. “Just when you think you’ve seen the last of it, there it turns up again.”
“Keep a civil tongue in your head, Jonathan,” Vibart-Jones growled, the smoothness curdled into menace. “And give me the rest.”
“That’s all that was left,” Albert Biddle replied. “Look for yourself.”
“Insolence,” Vibart-Jones remarked, and swung the hand with the pistol in it – a blow on the side of Albert Buddle’s face which landed with a crunch snapped the Yankee’s head back. “I warned you about that, didn’t I, Jonathon?”
At that, Jim sprang forward, thrusting his sputtering torch towards the Englishman’s face; Vibart-Jones bellowed, falling back towards the doorway, and the room went pitch dark – a darkness broken by a violent scuffle in that part of it where Jim thought the doorway was, and vigorous curses in two languages. He was briefly torn – rush the doorway in all the confusion? But what of Albert Biddle, and where was Toby? Jim leapt towards the doorway – or where he thought it was, hoping to push past the human obstacles under cover of darkness, but two things happened almost at once: someone fired a shotgun, the flash of which nearly blinded him – and a heavy body plowed into his mid-section, knocking him flat, as shards of tile and wood fell from above. The ground rose up and smacked the back of his head, and a constellation of stars burst before his eyes. When he could see straight again, he lay with his arms bound tightly behind him, his legs tied as well, half-propped against a stone wall. He had no notion of how much time had passed, but it must have been more than a few minutes.
His head cleared – yes, that was Vibart-Jones, looming overhead, saying to the man at his side, “… them in here with the boy …guard on the door for tonight.”
The door shut, although he could see a dim glow – lamplight? – shining through the gaps between the planks. It was not as dark as all that, or else his eyes were becoming used to the darkness. From some distance, he could hear men’s voices, arguing vociferously; now and again the voice of the actor, but not the words being said.
That shotgun must have blasted a hole in the tiles above, for he could see a faint twinkle of starlight. He lay in the room with the skeletal monk – likely because it was the only one with a door solid enough to serve as a prison cell.
“Albert? You there?” He asked, tentatively, rewarded by a groan and a reply.
“Yes … damn him for a treacherous bloody-back bastard. I was certain that we’d thrown him off our trail in Bexar.”
“So did I,” Jim admitted. “I thought certain we were the only white men with the friendship of Mopechucope, and let down my guard. I even left my pistols with my saddle. Sorry, Albert.”
“Apologize when we get back to Bexar,” Albert Biddle answered. “I guess they’ve shut us in the commander’s parlor for now. I’m tied, hands and feet, so I guess that you are, too. Is Mr. Shaw with us? He’s awful quiet.”
“Like always,” Jim said, and raised his voice. “Toby – brother – are you here? He was going to see to the horses, he might have gotten away.”
A faint scuffling sound came from the other corner by way of reply, but it was not Toby’s voice which answered – but a boy speaking Spanish, and tremulous – as if he were scared out of his wits.
“He says that his name is Diego,” Albert Biddle said, softly – and the boy spoke again. He sounded very young, although it might have been from fear. “That he and his older brother were the servants of Fray Bernardo. That is the name of the monk, it seems. Fray Bernardo, of the missionary friars of St. Francis.”
“How did he come to be the servant of a holy friar?” Jim whispered. “I thought they were supposed to be vowed to poverty – and he does know this Fray Bernardo is dead … and where is this brother of his!”
Albert relayed Jim’s questions – but Jim understood Spanish well enough to make sense of the reply. The boy Diego had not been tied up as had Jim and Albert Biddle – only his hands were bound in front of him. He came, crawling on hands and knees, huddling against the wall next to where Albert Biddle lay, and as the moon rose outside, a little of that illumination seeped through the broken tiles.
Diego and his brother were the sons of a poor farmer in the borderlands; some years ago they had been taken captive by Comanche raiders … and Fray Bernardo had ransomed them.
“He was an old man, senor, even then … but a good man, a holy man. He ministered to los Indios … and they treated him as a holy man. He wandered everywhere, without fear … he had the power of healing, and he knew many languages.”
“How did he come here, to this place, Diego?” Jim asked, and the answer came haltingly, in fits and starts. Jim and Albert Biddle listened patiently – it was not as if they had anything else to do.
“He was often here, senor … he was a student in his youth of Padre Alonso, who died for the Faith when the mission of Santa Cruz was destroyed by the Comanche. Fray Bernardo came to say prayers for the souls of the departed, every year until his own death. And to take from the chest of silver treasure …”
“The Comanche allowed this?” Jim asked with considerable astonishment, just as Albert Biddle exclaimed, “So he did spend it … every single piece but one ingot … the cunning old …” Albert swallowed the last word, as Diego said, in deep reproof.
“Fray Bernardo was a very good man, senor – you should not say things like that about him. He may even be a saint, some day, I think. He took the silver coins, the cast ingots and he used them for good in little ways. A gift to a poor family, a little church … to an orphanage … but never so much that anyone would notice. Most often, he would send my brother or I, telling us to say that a rich man had made a gift to him. He was an old man when he died – two years ago. My brother and I did as he bid us … to say a prayer and leave him in this place, just as you see him now. There were only a handful of silver coins left in the chest. Fray Bernardo told us to take it as his gift to us for our faithful service. So we went home to our village. We said nothing to anyone about the silver – what Fray Bernardo had given us, or about that which he had given away! I swear to you, senor, not a word! But…”
“What happened, Diego – did someone threaten you? Someone who knew about Fray Bernardo, or the silver?”
“Yes, senor,” Diego replied, almost before the questions were out of Albert Biddle’s mouth. In the dark, Diego sounded very young, hardly older than little James Albert Toby. “These six men … with the foreigner, they came to our house. They broke in after dark … and they beat my brother to make us tell them about the silver. I think they knew about Fray Bernardo, but I don’t know how they could have known. And then … they killed my brother and made me go with them, so that I could show them where the silver was hidden. I said to them many times, even when they struck me and said that I lied … that it was all gone. Fray Bernardo had made good use of it, but they did not believe me. They are very angry now. I am afraid they will kill us.”
“There must have been some record left in Monclova,” Albert comforted the boy. “It was not your fault – anyone who knew of the silver left here, and also knew that your Fray Bernardo often traveled this way… it was a puzzle easily put together.”
“No, lad,” Jim said, at least as much to reassure Diego as himself. “I don’t think they will kill us. They might want to… but there is not another living man in this room with us, is there? My Indian brother – he came here with us, but I think he escaped in the confusion. So we have one ally at large. And … then, there is another Indian friend, watching from the hill above. That friend said that if we did not go out into the middle of the presidio after dawn tomorrow and every day and wave a red cloth, that he would go to his people for help. Diego – to you know of Old Owl, Mopechucope of the Penateka? He is our friend also. We came here by his leave and with his permission. I do not believe that our friends will allow us to be slaughtered out of hand. Tell him this, Albert.”
“So say us all,” Albert Biddle murmured. “Diego – your hands are tied in front of you?” He added what Jim had said in Spanish, and when Diego answered in the affirmative, Albert Biddle continued. “Well, I have a pen-knife in my front left waistcoat pocket. If you can find it and open it … well, then cut our bonds … softy, softly, lad – then at least we can sleep well, not bound up like beasts for the slaughter. When they come for us … whenever they do – hold the lengths of rope behind your back, as if still bound; we’ll catch them by surprise … I hope. Right, Diego – can you find my knife and open it? Good lad.”
There was a scuffling sound, as Diego fumbled with his bound hands to find Albert Biddle’s pen-knife. “I have it, senor!”
“Don’t drop it,” Albert Biddle admonished, as Jim asked, in tones of deliberately casual interest. “Ask him about those men who came with the foreigner and murdered his brother. Ask him about them, Albert. Does he have any sense of who they are and what they are after?”
“They are for the silver, senor!” Diego replied, instantly. “And peninsulares …of the upper class, senor – of Spain, or perhaps criollo… they are of the ruling class … else how could they behave as they did? There is no justice in the world for such as we, such as my brother! They murdered him, senors!”
“There will be justice, Diego – no fear for that.” Jim assured him, while Albert Biddle, his hands freed, leaned forward and sawed apart the ropes binding his legs.
“It sounds as if they are angry,” Albert Biddle observed. He fumbled with his knife in the darkness, and Jim felt the ropes around his wrists loosen and fall away.
“Can you make out what they are saying?” Jim asked, with a groan. His hands were numbed, and clumsy in unraveling the knots at his feet.
“It sounds as if they are arguing about searching, still.” Albert Biddle answered, after listening in silence for a long moment. The angry voices had grown louder as tempers rose. “Some of the men believe the chest we found is not the one – that the silver must still be hidden somewhere in this room, maybe elsewhere in the fortress. Others are certain the treasure is gone, and wish to leave at dawn, before the Comanche find them. It sounds as if they are divided evenly.”
“As long as they are in disagreement,” Jim pointed out. “The better for us.”
“Agreed,” Albert Biddle mused. “So – do we jump the first one of them who comes through that door?”
“If it looks like we can take them by surprise,” Jim agreed. “Still – I hope that Toby is lurking close and with a plan of his own.”
“It’s still three of us and Diego against seven of them,” Albert Biddle observed. He did not sound as if he relished those odds. “Ah, well – wait until morning, and we rush the door … unless there is a plan?”
“It will do for now.” Jim said, still hopeful that Toby was at liberty and close by.
* * *
As a plan, it might have worked – but for the short-barreled scattergun in the hands of Vibart-Jones. He might have been an actor – among other things – but he handled the weapon with the confidence of a master, as one of his co-conspirators unbarred the door and let it swing open. Daylight spilled into the room, dazzling eyes which had become accustomed to dimness.
“Come out, gentlemen,” Vibart-Jones invited them, suave and cordial as if it were a social occasion. “I see that you have freed yourself from the ropes … about what I would have expected from men of your skills and sagacity. A pointless exercise on the part of my friends, but they insisted. Their quaint native methods, you see – I thought best to indulge them.”
“So who has won the argument over the silver being still here or not?” Jim thought it best to take an aggressive tack, and Vibart-Jones smiled, mirthlessly.
“How kind of you to take an interest … Mr. Reade, is it? It will be of interest to you and your friend – you’ll be digging, of course – while my friends have a little chat with young Diego here.”
“You dare …” Albert Biddle hissed, through clenched teeth – sounding angrier than Jim had ever heard from him. Broad daylight hurt their eyes, but even blinking, Jim could see that Diego – now revealed in the light as a mestizo lad of twelve or thirteen years – was terrified. And no wonder. What had been the campfire that he had started the night before was blazing away – and there was no mistaking the purpose behind the ends of several ramrods resting their ends on the hottest coals. Albert Biddle saw it also – and he put an arm around Diego’s shoulders by way of comforting the boy.
“Of course I dare,” Vibart-Jones drawled, impatiently. “Just as you have done, gentlemen – for a fortune in silver coin and bullion? No, we are convinced that the old priest couldn’t possibly have given it all secretly. The boy knows where it is … and he shall tell us. If not now, then eventually.”
“No, he won’t,” Jim said, feeling suddenly very, very tired, or maybe it was just relief that turned his bones to jelly. “Because it’s gone. And there is one more thing.”
“And what is that, Mr. Reade?” Vibart-Jones managed to sound irritatingly confident. He made a commanding gesture towards the two of his comrades tending the fire. One of them jerked Diego roughly by the arm, pulling him away from Albert Biddle, just as Jim answered,
“The Comanche are here.”
He pointed at the hillside across the narrow river, now alive with horses, and the red blankets that the Comanche favored flashing in between the trees like a cardinal’s brilliant wings. The horsemen advanced down the slope, and the man holding Diego by a grip on the boy’s narrow shoulder let go with a shocked oath on his lips. The sudden naked terror on the faces of Vibart-Jones and his companions was almost enough to make him laugh, as they scattered like doves flushed from a thicket – snatching up saddles and weapons and flinging themselves on their horses – who of course had caught the contagion of fear and were not submitting readily to being bridled and saddled.
“Dios mio! El Comanche – a los caballos – ahora! Rapido!”
Now the Comanche were close enough that Jim could recognize individuals – Lions, old Mopechucope, and Bob Neighbors riding among them, his elbows out and his oversized coat flapping on him like a scarecrow’s. And there was Toby, as he preferred to be on foot, loping through the shallow river, swinging his old-fashioned war club and grinning from ear to ear.
“Brother!” Toby shouted, hurtling over a low-crumbled stretch of wall, even as Vibart Jones and the others gained their horses, departing in a rush of hoof-beats that pounded like a cavalry charge, out through the old gateway. Even as they did, the first Comanche warriors poured over the low outer walls, some on foot but others mounted, neck or nothing in their pursuit. It sounded as if the largest part of the Comanche warriors were in hot pursuit of the raiders from Mexico – much good it would do them, Jim thought; their horses were very fine, and they did have a bit of a head start. Toby laughed breathlessly as he came to where Albert and Jim stood by the still-blazing fire, and balanced the heavy club on his shoulder. “You survived the night, I see.”
“So did you,” Jim answered, and began to laugh, laugh so hard that he couldn’t speak. . Finally, Albert Biddle demanded,
“What in tarnation is so funny?”
Jim recovered himself with an effort. “This,” he gasped, “may be the very first time in the history books … that Texians are damned glad to see a Comanche war party, coming to the rescue!”