Charles James Lever.

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semble a trot, set out in the direction indicated, and where
already a small bundle of clothes had been placed for my

A piece of lighted charcoal and some fire wood also ap-
prised me of the office required at my hands, and which I
performed with a most hearty goodwill; and as I threw
the odious rags into the flames, I felt that I was saying
adieu to the last tie that bound me to the horrible Lazaretto
of Bexar.

" Let him join us now," said the Englishman ; " though I
think if the poor fellow has walked from Bexar, you might
have been satisfied he couldn't carry the leprosy with him."

" I've known it go with a piece of gun-wadding from
Bexar to the Rio del Norte," said one.

" I saw a fellow who caught it from the rind of a water-
melon a lepero had thrown away."

" There was a comrade of ours at Puerta Naval took it
from sitting on the bench beside a well on the road where a
lepero had been resting the day before," cried a third.

" Let him sit yonder, then," said the Englishman. " You're
more afeard of that disease than the bite of a cayman ;
though you needn't be squeamish most of you, if it's your
beauty you were thinking of."

And thus amid many a tale of the insidious character of
this fell disorder, and many a rude jest on the score of pre-
caution against it, I was ordered to seat myself at about a
dozen or twenty paces distant, and receive my food as it was
thrown towards me by the others too happy at this humble



privilege to think of anything but the good fortune of such
a meeting.

" Don't you remember me yet ? " cried the Englishman,
standing where the full glare of the fire lit up his marked

"Yes," said I, "you're Halkett."

" To be sure I am, lad. I'm glad you don't forget me."

" How should I ? This is not the first time you saved
my life."

"I scarcely thought I had succeeded so well," said he,
" when we parted last but you must tell me all about that
to-morrow, when you are rested and refreshed. The crew
here is not very unlike what you may remember aboard the
yacht don't cross them, and you'll do well with them."

" What are they ? " said I, eagerly.

" Garabusinos," said he, in a low voice.

" Bandits ?" whispered I, misconceiving the word.

" Not quite," rejoined he, laughing ; " though, I've no
doubt, ready to raise a dollar that way if any one could be
found in these wild parts a little richer than themselves ; "
with this, he commended me to a sound sleep, and the words
were scarcely spoken ere I obeyed the summons.

Before day broke, I was aroused by the noise of approaching
departure ; the band were strapping on knapsacks, slinging
muskets, and making other preparations for the march.
Halkett, as their captain, carrying nothing beyond his
weapons, and in his air and manner assuming all the impor-
tance of command.

The "Lepero," as I was called, was ordered to follow the
column at about a hundred paces to the rear ; but as I was
spared all burthen in compassion to my weak state, I readily
compounded for this invidious position, by the benefits it
conferred. A rude meal of rye bread and cold venison, with
some coffee, made our breakfast, and away we started ; our
path lying through the vast Prairie I have already spoken of.

As during my state of "quarantine," which lasted seven
entire days, we continued to march along over a dreary tract
of monotonous desolation nothing varying the dull uniform-
ity of each day's journey, save the chance sight of a distant
herd of buffaloes, the faint traces of an Indian war-party, or
the blackened embers of a bivouac, I will not weary my
readers by dwelling on my own reflections as I plodded on :
enough, when I say, they were oftener sad than otherwise.
The uncertainty regarding the object of my fellow-travellers,
harassed my mind by a thousand odd conjectures. It was


clear they were not merchants, neither could they be hunters,
still less a "war-party;" one of those marauding bands,
which on the Texan frontier of Mexico levy " black-mail "
upon the villagers, on the plea of a pretended protection
against the Indians. Although well armed, neither their
weapons, their discipline, nor, still less, their numbers, argued
in favour of this suspicion. What they could possibly be,
then, was an insurmountable puzzle to me. I knew they
were called Gambnsinos nothing more. Supposing that
some of my readers may not be wiser than I then was, let
me take this opportunity, while traversing the prairie, to say
in a few words what they were.

The Gambusinos are the gold-seekers of the New World ;
a class who, in number and importance, divide society
with the "Vaqueros," the cattle-dealers, into two almost
equal sections. Too poor to become possessors of mines;
Avithout capital for enterprise on a larger scale, they form
bands of wandering discoverers, traversing the least-known
districts of the Sonora, and spending years of life in the
wildest recesses of the Rocky Mountains. Associating to-
gether, generally from circumstances purely accidental, they
form little communities, subject to distinct laws ; and how-
ever turbulent and rebellious under ordinary control, beneath
the sway of the self-chosen leaders, they are reputed to be
submissive and obedient.

Their skill is, as may be judged, rude as their habits.
They rarely carry their researches to any depth beneath the
surface ; some general rules are all their guidance, and these
are easily acquired. They are all familiar with the fact, that
the streams which descend from the Rocky Mountains, either
towards the Atlantic or Pacific, carry in their autumnal floods
vast masses of earth, which form deposits in the plains ; that
these deposits are often charged with precious ores, and some-
times contain great pieces of pure gold. They know, besides,
that the quartz rock is the usual bed where the precious metals
are found ; and that these rocks form spurs from the large
mountains, easily known, because they are never clothed by
vegetation, and called in their phraseology " Crestones."

A sharp short stroke of the " barreta," the iron-shod staff
of the Gambusino, soon shivers the rock where treasure is
suspected ; and the fragments being submitted to the action
of a strong fire, the existence of gold is at once tested. Often
the mere stroke of the barreta will display the shining lustre
of the metal without more to do. Such is, for the most part,
the extent of their skill."

u 2


There are, of course, gradations even here ; and some will
distinguish themselves above their fellows in the detection of
profitable sources and rich " crestones," while others rarely
rise above the rank of mere "washers," men employed to
sift the sands and deposits of the rivers in which the chief
product is gold-dust.

Such, then, is the life of a " Gambusino." In this pursuit
he traverses the vast continent of South America from east
to west, crossing torrents, scaling cliffs, descending preci-
pices, braving hunger, thirst, heat, and snow, encountering
hostile Indians, and the not less terrible bands of rival ad-
venturers, contesting for existence with the wild animals of
the desert, and generally at last paying with his life the price
of his daring intrepidity ! Few, indeed, are ever seen as old
men among their native villages ; nearly all have found their
last rest beneath the scorching Band of the prairie.

Upon every other subject than that of treasure- seeking,
their minds were a perfect blank. For them, the varied
resources of a land abounding in the products of every clime,
had no attraction. On the contrary, the soil which grew the
maize, indigo, cotton, the sugar-cane, coffee, the olive, and
the vine, seemed sterile and barren, since in such regions no
gold was ever found. The wondrous fertility of that series of
terraces which, on the Andes, unite the fruits of the torrid
zone with the lichens of the icy north, had no value in the
estimation of men who acknowledged but one wealth, and
recognized but one idol. Their hearts turned from the glo-
rious vegetation of this rich garden to the dry courses of the
torrents that fissure the Cordilleras, or the stony gorges that
intersect the Rocky Mountains.

The life of wild and varied adventure, too, that they led,
was associated with these deserted and trackless wastes. To
them, civilization presented an aspect of slavish subjection
and dull uniformity ; while in the very vicissitudes of their
successes there was the excitement of gambling rich to-day,
they vowed a lamp of solid gold to the " Virgin " to-morrow,
in beggary, they braved the terrors of sacrilege, to steal from
the very altar they had themselves decorated. What strange
and wondrous narratives did they recount as we wandered
over that swelling prairie !

Many avowed that their own misdeeds had first driven
them to the life of the deserts ; and one who had lived for
years a prisoner among the Choctaws, confessed that his
heart still lingered with the time when he had sat as a chief
beside the war-fire, and planned stratagems against the tribe


of the rival Pawnees. To men of hardy and energetic tem-
perament, recklessness has an immense fascination. Life is
so often in peril, they cease to care much for whatever en-
dangers it, and thus, through all their stories, the one feeling
ever predominated, a careless indifference to every risk,
coupled with a most resolute conduct in time of danger.

I soon managed to make myself a favourite with this motley
assemblage ; my natural aptitude to pick up language, aided
by what I already knew of French and German, assisted me
to a knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese ; while from a
" half-breed " I acquired a sufficiency of the Indian dialect in
use throughout the Lower Prairies. I was fleet of foot, besides
being a good shot with the rifle qualities of more request
among my companions than many gifts of a more brilliant
order; and lastly, my skill in cookery, which I derived
from my education on board the Firefly, won me high esteem
and much honour. My life was, therefore, far from unplea-
sant. The monotony of the tract over which we marched
was more than compensated for by the marvellous tales that
beguiled the way. One only drawback existed on my hap-
piness, and yet that was sufficient to embitter many a lonely
hour of the night, and cast a shade over many a joyous hour
of the day. I am almost ashamed to confess what that
source of sorrow was, the more as, perhaps, my kind reader
will already fancy he has anticipated my grief, and say, "It
was the remembrance of Donna Maria ; the memory of Tier
I was never to see more." Alas, no! It was a feeling far
more selfish than this afflicted me. The plain fact is, I was
called "The Lepero." By no other name would my com-
panions know or acknowledge me. It was thus they first
addressed me, and so they would not take the trouble to
change my appellation. Not that, indeed, I dared to insinuate
a wish upon the subject : such a hint would have been too
bold a stroke to hazard in a company where one was called
" Brise-ses-fers," another, u Colpo-di-Sangue," a third,
" Teufel's Blut," and so on.

It was to no purpose that I appeared in all the vigour of
health and strength. I might outrun the wildest bull of the
buffalo herd ; I might spring upon the half-trained " mus-
tang ; " and outstrip the antelope in her flight ; I might climb
the wall-like surface of a cliff, and rob the eagle of her young ;
but when I came back, the cry of welcome that met me was,
" Bravo, Lepero ! " And thus did I bear about with me the
horrid badge of that dreary time when I dwelt within the
Lazaretto of Bexar.


The very fact that the name was not used in terms of scoff
or reproach increased the measure of its injury. It called
for no reply on my part ; it summoned no energy of resist-
ance ; it was, as it were, a simple recognition of certain quali-
ties that distinguished me and made up my identity, and at
last, to such an extent did it work upon my imagination, that
I yielded myself up to the delusion that I was all that they
styled me an outcast and a leper ! When this conviction
settled down on my mind, I ceased to fret as before, but a
gloomy depression gained possession of me, uncheered save
by the one hope, that my life should not be entirely spent
among my present associates, and that I should yet be known
as something else than " The Lepero."

The prairie over which we travelled never varied in aspect,
save with the changing hours of the day. The same dreary
swell the same yellowish grass the same scathed and
scorched cedars the same hazy outlines of distant mountains
that we saw yesterday, rose before us again to-day, as we
knew they would on the morrow till at last our minds took
the reflection of the scene, and we journeyed along, Aveary,
silent, and foot-sore. It was curious enough to mark how
this depression exhibited itself upon different nationalities.
The Saxon became silent and thoughtful, with only a slight
dash of more than ordinary care upon his features the
Italian grew peevish and irritable, the Spaniard was careless
and neglectful, while the Frenchman became downright
vicious in the wayward excesses of his spiteful humour.
Upon the half-breeds, two of whom were our guides, no
change was ever perceptible. Too long accustomed to the
Fife of the prairie to feel its influence as peculiar, they plodded
on, the whole faculties bent upon one fact, the discovery of
the Chihuahua trail, from which our new track was to diverge
in a direction nearly due west.

Our march, no longer enlivened by merry stories or excit-
ing narratives, had become wearisome in the extreme. The
heavy fogs of the night and the great mist which arose at
sunset prevented all possibility of tracing the path, which
often required the greatest skill to detect, so that we were
obliged to travel during the sultriest hours of the day, with-
out a particle of shade, our feet scorched by the hot sands,
and our heads constantly exposed to the risk of sunstroke.
Water, too, became each day more difficult to obtain ; the
signs by which our guides discovered its vicinity .seemed, to
me at least, little short of miraculous ; and yet, if by any
chance they made a mistake, the anger of the party rose so


near to mutiny, that nothing short of Halkett's own authority
could restore order. Save in these altercations, without
which rarely a day passed over, little was spoken ; each
trudged along either lost in vacuity or buried in his own



As for myself, my dreamy temperament aided me greatly. I
could build castles for ever ; and certainly there was no lack
of ground here for the foundation. Sometimes I fancied my-
self suddenly become the possessor of immense riches, with
which I should found a new colony in the very remotest
regions of the west. I pictured to myself the village of my
workmen, surrounded with its patches of cultivation in the
midst of universal barrenness the smiling aspect of civilized
life in the very centre of barbarism the smelting furnaces,
the mills, the great refining factories, of which I had heard
so much, all rose to my imagination, and my own princely
abode looking down upon these evidences of my wealth.

Then, I fancied the influences of education diffusing them-
selves among the young, who grew up with tastes and habits
BO different from those of their fathers. How pursuits of re-
finement by degrees mingled themselves with daily require-
ments, till at last the silent forests would echo with the
exciting strains of music, or the murmuring rivulet at night-
fall would be accompanied by the recited verses of poetry.

The primitive simplicity of such a life as I then pictured
was a perfect fascination : and when wearied with thinking
of it by day, as I dropped asleep at night, the thoughts would
haunt my dreams unceasingly.

This castle-building temperament which is, after all, no-
thing but hope engaged practically may, when pushed too
far, make a man dreamy, speculative, and visionary ; but if
restrained within any reasonable limits, cannot fail to support
the courage in many an hour of trial, and nerve the heart


against many a sore infliction. I know how it kept me up
when others of very different thews and sinews were falling
around me. Independently of this advantage, another and a
greater one accompanied it. These self-created visions, how-
ever they may represent a man in a situation of greatness or
power, always do so to exhibit him dispensing what he
imagines at least to be the virtues of such a station ! No
one, I trust, ever fancied himself a monarch for the sake of all
the cruelties he might inflict, and all the tyrannies he might
'practise ; so that, in reality, this " sparring against Fortune
with the gloves on " is admirable practice it' it be nothing

It was on the seventeenth day of our wanderings that the
guide announced that we had struck into the Chihuahua
" trail," and although to our eyes nothing unusual or strange
presented itself, Hermose exhibited signs of unmistakable
pride and self-esteem. As I looked around me on the unvary-
ing aspect of earth and sky, I could not help remembering
my disappointment on a former occasion, when I heard of the
"Banks of Newfoundland," and fancied that the Chihuahua
trail might have some such unseen existence as the redoubt-
able "Banks" aforesaid, which, however familiar to cod-fish,
are seldom visited by Christians.

" The evening star will rise straight above our heads to-
night," said Hermose and he was correct; our path lay
exactly in the very line with that bright orb. The confidence
inspired by this prediction increased, as we found that an.
occasional prickly pear-tree now presented itself, with, here
and there, a dwarf box or an acacia. As night closed in, we
found ourselves on the skirt of what seemed a dense wood,
bordered by the course of a dried-up torrent. A great wide
" streak " of rocks and stones attested the force and extent of
that river when filled by the mountain streams, but which
now trickled along among the pebbles with scarcely strength
enough to force its way. Hermose proceeded for some dis-
tance down into the bed of the torrent, and returned with a
handful of sand and clay, which he presented to Halkett, say-
ing, " The rains have not been heavy enough; this is last
year's earth."

Few as were the words, they conveyed to me an immense
impression of his skill, who, in a few grains of sand taken at
random, could distinguish the deposits of one year from
those of another.

" How does it look, Halkett?" cried one.

" Is it heavy ? " asked another.


" It is worthless," said Halkett, throwing the earth
from him; "but we are on the right track, lads, for
all that : there's always gold where the green snake

It was a mystery at the time to me, how Halkett knew of
the serpent's vicinity, for although I looked eagerly around
me, I saw no trace of one.

"I vow he's a-sarchin' for the Coppernose," said a Yankee,
as he laughed heartily at my ignorance.

" Do you see that bird, there, upon the bough of the cedar-
tree ? " said Halkett ; " that's the ' Choyero ; ' and wherever
he's found, the Coppernose is never far off." The mystery was
soon explained in this wise the " Choyero " is in the habit of
enveloping himself in the leaves of a certain prickly cactus,
called " Choya," with which armour he attacks the largest of
these green serpents, and always successfully the strong
thorny spines of the plant invariably inflicting death-wounds
upon the snake. Some asserted that the bird only attacked
the snake during his season of torpor, but others stoutly
averred that the Choyero was a match for any Coppernose in
his perfect vigour.

The approach of the long-sought-for " Placer " was cele-
brated by an extra allowance of rum ; and the party conversed
till a late hour of the night, with a degree of animation they
had not exhibited for a long time previous ; stories of the
" washings " resumed their sway strange wild narratives
the chief interest in which, however striking at the time, lay
in the manner of those who related them, and were themselves
the actors. They nearly all turned upon some incident of
gambling, and were strong illustrations of how completely
the love of gain can co-exist with a temperament utterly
wasteful and reckless, while both can render a man totally
indifferent to every feeling of friendship. There was mention,
by chance, of a certain Narvasque, who had been the comrade
of many of the party.

" He is dead," cried one.

" Caramba ! " cried another, " that is scarcely true ; they
told me he was at the Austin fair this fall."

" You may rely on it he's dead," said the first, " for I know
it : he died on the Sacramento, and in this wise. We had had
a two months' run of luck at the Crestones of Bacuachez
such fortune as I only hope we may soon see again : none of
your filthy wash and sieve work, nor any splintering of a
steel barreta on a flint rock, but light digging along the stream
and turning up such masses of the real shining metal as would


make your heart leap to look at lumps of thirty thirty-five
ay, forty pounds."

" There there, Harispe ! " said an old fellow, with a long
pipe of sugar-cane, " if we are to swallow what's a-comin',
don't choke us just now."

"What does an old trapper know of the diggin's," said
Harispe, contemptuously, " 'tis a bee huntin' and a birds'
nestin' you ought to be. Smash my ribs ! if he ever saw
goold, except on the breast of a gooldfinch." Having silenced
his adversary, he resumed :

" We were all rich by the time we reached Aranchez ; but
what use is metal ! one can't eat it, nor drink it, nor even
sleep on't, and the fellows up there had got as much as we
had ourselves. Everything cost twenty no, but two hundred
and twenty times its value ! I used to cut a goold button off
my coat every morning for a day's grub, so that we had to
make ourselves a kind of log-hut outside the village, and try
to vittal ourselves as best we could. There warn't much
savin' in that plan neither, for we drank brandy all day long,
and it cost half an ounce of goold every bottle of it ! Then
we stayed up all night and played brag, and it was that
finished Narvasque. He was a-betting with Shem Avery,
and Shem, who felt he was in for a run of luck, layed it on
a bit heavy like ; and the end o' it was, he won all Narvasque's
two months' diggin's, all to a twenty-eight ' ouncer ' that ho
wouldn't bet for anybody no, nor let any one see where he
hid it. Shem had his heart on that lump, and said, * I'll go
fifty ounces against your lump, Narvasque ; ' and the other
didn't take it at first, but up he gets and leaves the hut.
' Honour bright,' said he, ' no man follows me.' They all
gave their words, and he went out a short distance into the
wood, where he had a sheep's heart hanging near a rock, in
the centre of which he had concealed his treasure. He
wasn't three yards from, the spot, when a great spotted snake
darts through the long grass, and making a spring at the
piece of meat, bolts it and away ! Narvasque followed into
the deep jungle, unarmed as he was; there a deadly combat
must have ensued, for when his cries aroused us, as we sat
within the hut, we found him bitten on every part of the
body, and so near death, that he had only time to tell how it
happened, when he expired."

" And the snake ? " cried several in a breath.

" He got clear away ; we gave chase for four days after him
in vain : but a fellow with as much spare cash about him
must have come to bad ere now."


" The Injians has ripped him open afore this, depend on't,"
said another. " There's scarce a snake of any size hasn't an
emerald or splice of gold in him."

" There's more gold lies hidden by fellows that have never
lived, or come back to claim it, than ye know of," said the
old trapper; "and that's the kind of 'Placer' I'd like to
chance upon, all ready washed and smelted."

" They talk of martyrs ! " said a tall, sallow Spaniard, who
had been educated for a priest, " let me tell you that those
Injians, ay, even the negroes, have endured as much torture
for their gold, as ever did zealot for his faith. There was a
fellow in my father's time, up at Guajuaqualla, who, it was

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 30 of 50)