The Secret Meeting
The children, meanwhile, were sleeping soundly in their hard bed. They were so tired that they did not wake up even when a tiny stream of water broke through a crevice in the rocks and splashed down on Tonio's head. It ran off his hair just as the rain ran off the thatched roof of their little adobe hut.
About nine o'clock the rain stopped and the moon shone out from behind the clouds. An owl hooted; a fox ran right over the roof of their cave, making a soft pat-pat with his paws that would have frightened them if they had heard it, but they slept on.
At last, however, something did wake Tita. She sat up in terror. A flickering light that wasn't moonlight was dancing about the cave! It was so bright that she could see everything about them as plain as day.
She clutched Tonio, shook him gently, and whispered in his ear, "Tonio, Tonio, wake up."
Tonio stirred and opened his mouth, but Tita clapped her hand over it. She was so afraid he would make a noise. When he saw the flickering light Tonio almost shouted for joy, for he was sure that his father had found them at last.
The flickering light grew brighter. They heard the crackling of flames and men's voices, and saw sparks. Very quietly they squirmed around on their stomachs until they could peep out of the opening of their cave.
This is what they saw!
There on the ground a few feet in front of their hiding-place was a fire, and two men were beside it. Their horses were tied to bushes not far away. One of the men was broiling meat on the end of a stick. The smell of it made the children very hungry. The other man was drinking something hot from a cup. They both had guns, and the guns were leaning against the rocks just below the cave where the children were hidden.
The man who was standing up was tall and had a fierce black mustache. He had on a big sombrero, and under a fold of his serape Tonio could see a cartridge-belt and the handle of a revolver.
"It's the Tall Man that Father and Pedro were talking to in front of the pulque shop," whispered Tonio.
Tita was so frightened that she shook like a leaf and her teeth chattered.
Pretty soon the Tall Man spoke. "The others ought to be here soon," he said. "They'll see the fire. Put on a few more sticks and make it flame up more."
The other man gave a last turn to the meat, handed it stick and all to the Tall Man, and disappeared behind the bushes to search for wood.
He had not yet come back, when there was the sound of horses' feet, and a man rode into sight, dismounted, hitched his horse, and joined the Tall Man by the fire.
One by one others came, until there were ten men standing about and talking together in low tones. Last of all there was the thud-thud of two more horses and who should come riding into the firelight but Pancho on Pinto, and Pedro on another horse!
When they joined the circle, Tonio almost sprang up and shouted. He did make a little jump, but Tita clutched him and held him back. He loosened a pebble at the mouth of the cave by his motion and it clattered down over the rock. The man who had gone for the wood was just putting his load down by the fire when the pebble came rattling down beside him.
"What's that?" he said, and sprang for his rifle.
Tonio hastily drew in his head. The men all listened intently for a few minutes, and looked cautiously about them.
"It's nothing but a pebble," said the Tall Man at last. "No one will disturb us here. And if they should,"--he tapped the handle of his revolver and smiled,--"we'd give them such a warm welcome they would be glad to stay with us--quietly--oh, very quietly!"
The other men grinned a little, as if they saw a joke in this, and then they all sat down in a circle around the fire.
Pancho and Pedro sat where the children could look right at them. The Tall Man was the only one who did not sit down. He stood up and began to talk.
"Well, men," he said. "I knew I could count on you! Brave fellows like you know well when a blow must be struck, and where is the true Mexican who was ever afraid to strike a blow when he knew that it was needed?
"We came of a race of fighters! And once Mexico belonged to them! Our Indian forefathers did not serve a race of foreign tyrants as we, their sons, do! Look about you on Mexico! Where in the whole world can be found such a land? The soil so rich that it yields crops that burden the earth, and mountains full of gold and silver and precious stones! And it is for this reason we are enslaved!
"If our land were less rich and less beautiful, if it bore no such crops, if its sunshine were not so bright, and its mountains yielded no such treasure, we should be free men to-day.
"But the world envied our possessions. You know how Cortez, long ago, came from Spain and when our forefathers met him with friendliness he slew men, women, and children, tore down their ancient temples, and set the churches of Spain in their places!
"The Spaniards turned our fathers from free and brave men into a conquered and enslaved people, and worst of all they mixed their hated blood with ours. From the days of Cortez until now in one way or another we have submitted to oppression, until the spirit of our brave Indian ancestors is almost dead within us!
"And for what do we serve these aristocrats? For the privilege of remaining ignorant! For the privilege of tilling their
fields, which were once ours! For the privilege of digging our
gold and silver and precious stones out of their
mines to make them rich! For the privilege of living in huts while they live in palaces! For the privilege
of being robbed and beaten in the name of laws we never heard of and which we had no part in making, though this country is called a Republic! A Republic!--Bah!--A Republic where more than half the people cannot read! A Republic of cattle! A Republic where men like you work for a few pence a day, barely enough to keep your body and soul together--and even that pittance you must spend in stores owned by the men for whom you work!
"The little that you earn goes straight back into the pockets of your masters! Do you not see it? Do you not see if they own the land and the supplies they own you too? They call
you free men--but are you free? What are you free to do? Free to starve if you will not work on their terms, or if you will not strike a blow for freedom. Are not my words true? Speak up and answer me! Are you satisfied? Are you free?"
The Tall Man stopped and waited for an answer. The fire flickered over the dark faces of angry men, and Pedro stirred uneasily as if he would like to say something.
"Speak out, Pedro. Tell us your story," said the Tall Man.
Pedro stood up and shook his fist at the fire. "Every word you speak is true," he said. "Who should know better than I? I had a small farm some miles from here, left me by my father. It was my own, and I tilled my land and was content. My father could not read, neither could I. No one told me of the laws.
"At last one day a rural rode to my house, and said, 'Pedro, why have you not obeyed the law? The law says that if you did not have your property recorded before a magistrate by the first of last month it should be taken from you and given to the State.'
"'But I have never heard of such a law,' I said to him. He answered, 'Ignorance excuses no man. Your farm belongs to the state.' And I and my family were turned out of the house in which I and my father before me had been born. All our neighbors were treated in the same way. In despair we went away to the hacienda of Señor Fernandez, and there we work for a pittance as you say. And our homes! That whole region was turned over by the President, not long after, to a rich friend of his, who now owns it as a great estate!
"Many of my old neighbors are now his peons--working for him on land that was once their own and that was taken from them by a trick--by a trick, I say,"--his voice grew thick, and he sat down heavily in his place.
Another man, a stranger to Tonio, sprang to his feet. "Ah, if that were all!" he said; "but even in peonage we are not left undisturbed! It was only a year ago that I was riding into town on my donkey with some chickens to sell, when an officer stopped me and brought me before the Jefe Politico.
"'Why have you not obeyed the law?' said the magistrate. 'I know of no law that I have not obeyed,' I said. 'You may tell me that,' said the scoundrel, 'but to make me believe it is another matter. You must know very well that a law was passed not long ago that every peon must wear dark trousers if he wishes to enter a town.'
"'I have no dark trousers,' said I, 'and I have no money to buy them. I have worn such white trousers as these since I was a boy, as have all the men in this region.' 'That makes no difference to me,' he said; 'law is law.' I was put in prison and made to work every day on a bridge that the Government was building! I never saw my donkey or the chickens again. My wife did not know where I was for two weeks.
"While I was working on the bridge five other men whom I knew were seized and treated in the same way. It is my belief that there is no such law. They wanted workmen for that bridge and that was the cheapest way to get them!"
"Where are those other five men who were imprisoned, too? Have they no spirit?" It was the Tall Man who spoke.
"They have spirit," the man answered, "but they also have large families. They fear to leave them lest they starve. They are helpless."
"Say rather they are fools," said the Tall Man when the stranger sat down. "Why had they not the spirit like you to take things in their own hands--to revenge their wrongs? As for myself," he went on, "every one knows my story.
"The blood of my Indian ancestors was too hot in my veins for such slavery--by whatever name you call it. I broke away, and my name is now a terror in the region that I call mine.
"It is no worse to take by violence than by fraud. My land was taken from me by fraud. Very well, I take back what I can by violence. The rich call us bandits, but there is already an army of one thousand men waiting for you to join them, and we call ourselves Soldiers of the Revolution. We have risen up to get for ourselves some portion of what we have lost.
"Will you not join us? Our general is a peon like yourselves. He feels our wrongs because he has suffered them, and he fights like a demon to avenge them. Ride away to-night with me! You shall see something besides driving other people's cattle--and being driven like cattle yourselves!"
The Tall Man stopped talking and waited for an answer. No one spoke. The men gazed silently into the fire as if they were trying to think out something that was very puzzling.
The Tall Man spoke again. "Sons of brave ancestors, do you know where you are?" he said. "Do you know what this great pyramid is?" He pointed directly up toward the cave, and Tonio and Tita, who had listened to every word, instantly popped their heads out of sight like frightened rabbits.
"This stone mountain was built by your Indian ancestors hundreds of years ago. It is the burial-place of their dead. It is called the Pyramid of the Moon. Look at it! Have the Spaniards built anything greater? Mexico has many mighty monuments which show the glory which was ours before the Spaniards came.
"I have seen the ruins of great cities--cities full of stone buildings covered with wonderful carvings, all speaking of the magnificence of the days of Cuauhtemoc. Here in this place the souls of those brave ancestors listen for your answer. There are many people who do not know--who do not feel--who are content to be like the sheep on the hillside; but you, you know your wrongs,--come with us and avenge them!"
The man who had gone for the wood now spoke. He took up one of the rifles. "See!" he said, "we have guns enough for you, and you have horses. It is time to start. The morning will soon be here."
The men rose slowly from their places around the fire. Tonio saw some of them glance fearfully around at the great Pyramid of the Moon in which they were hidden and furtively cross themselves. Then he heard his father's voice. It was the first time Pancho had spoken.
"I will go with you," said Pancho. "I am no sheep. I, too, have suffered many things. My wife is a strong woman. She will look after the children while I am gone. I have no fear for them."
When Tita heard her father say these dreadful words she almost screamed, but now Tonio clapped his hand over her mouth.
"Keep still," he whispered in her ear. "Those other men might kill us if they knew we were here and had heard everything."
Tita hid her face on her arms, and her whole body shook with sobs, but she did not make a sound--not even when she saw Pancho and Pedro ride away with the two men whom they had first seen by the fire.
Four of the other men went with them too. The ones who had made the sign of the cross did not go.
The children could catch only a few words of what they said when Pancho and Pedro and the others rode away, but it sounded like this: "--Our wives--our children--we shall not forget--by and by--perhaps in the spring--" And then they heard the voice of the Tall Man speaking very sharply.
"If you will not go with us, see that you keep silence," he said. "If any news of this gets about in this region we shall know whom to blame and to punish! We shall come back and we shall know," and then "Á dios--á dios--á dios--" and the hoof-beats of horses as they rode away, then silence again, and the moon sailing away toward the west, with only the glow of the dying coals to show that any one had been there at all.
When they were gone, the children wept together as if their hearts would break, but soon the birds began to sing, and the sky grew brighter and brighter in the east, and the coming of the sunshine comforted them.
When it was quite light they let themselves down out of their nest and warmed themselves over the coals. They had nothing to eat, of course, and they did not know which way to go. But Tonio had an idea.
"Father and Pedro came from this direction," he said, pointing toward the south, "and so the hacienda must be somewhere over that way."
They started bravely toward the south and had not gone far when they struck a rough road. Tonio stooped down and found the fresh prints of Pinto's hoofs in the mud.
"This is the way," he cried joyfully. "I'm sure of it."
They walked on and on, but they were too hungry to go very fast. By and by they sat down on a stone to rest. They had been there only a short time when they heard the beat of horses' hoofs, and galloping down a hill they saw two people on horseback. One was a lady. The other was a man.
The children watched them eagerly, and in a moment Tita sprang up and began to run towards them, shouting joyfully, "It's the Señorita Carmen!"
Then Tonio ran too. When Carmen saw the two wild little figures she shouted and waved her hand to them, and she and the mozo, or servant, who was on the other horse, galloped as fast as they could up the hill to meet them.
When they reached the children, Carmen sprang down from her horse and threw her bridle-rein to the mozo. Then she quickly opened a little bundle which he handed her, and gave the children each a drink of milk, and some food, and all the while she murmured comforting things to them.
"Poor little ones--poor little souls!" she said, patting them. "We have been looking for you, the mozo and I, since daybreak! Where have you been, my poor pigeons? Your mother is nearly wild with grief! Tell me, have you seen anything of your father or Pedro? They have not been home either. We thought perhaps they might be searching for you too."
Tonio and Tita both had their hungry mouths so full they could not answer just then, but when the mozo had lifted Tita up on the horse behind Carmen, and had taken Tonio up on his own horse, and they were on their way home, they told Carmen and the mozo just how they got lost, only neither one said a single word about their father or Pedro, or the Tall Man, or the group they had seen around the fire.
They remembered what the Tall Man had said about coming back to punish any one who should tell of the secret meeting, and they remembered how fierce his voice sounded as he said it.
When at last they rode into the gate of the hacienda every one was so glad to see them that the Twins felt like heroes.
José waved his hat and shouted when he saw them coming, and Jasmin came tearing out to meet them with his tongue hanging out and his tail stuck straight out behind him like the smoke behind a fast locomotive.
The news spread quickly through the village, and all the boys and girls and the mothers came swarming out of their huts to greet them and to ask a thousand questions about where they had been.
The first one to reach them was Doña Teresa. She came running out of the chapel, with her rebozo flying out behind her almost like Jasmin's tail, and she clasped them in her arms and kissed them again and again and called them her lambs, her angels, her precious doves.
She kissed the hands of Carmen and thanked her, and then she ran back with the Twins to the chapel and made them say a prayer of thankfulness with her before the image of the Virgin.
It was not until she had them all to herself in their little adobe hut that she made them tell her every word about their adventure. Of course they told their mother everything--about the fire and the Tall Man, and the guns, and what he said about coming back to punish any one who told.
Doña Teresa rocked back and forth on her knees and wiped her eyes on her apron as she listened to them, while at the same time she made them hot chocolate on the brasero.
As they were drinking it she said to them: "Listen, my children. I will tell you a secret. Promise me first that you will never, never tell what I am going to tell you now!"
The children promised.
Then Doña Teresa went on: "I am not wholly surprised at your father's disappearance. I knew he had seen the Tall Man. I knew it after Judas Iscariot's Day. The Tall Man talked then with him and Pedro and some others, and asked them to join the Revolution. I begged him on my knees not to go, but he said: 'If I go it is only to make things better for us all. I'm tired of this life. Peons might just as well be slaves.'"
"What is the Revolution?" asked Tonio.
"Oh, I don't know," sobbed Doña Teresa. "Your father says it is rising up to fight against wrongs and oppression. He says the Government is in league with the rich and powerful and even with the Church"--here Doña Teresa crossed herself--"to keep the poor people down, and to take away their land. He says the Revolution is going to give back the land to the people and give them a better chance.
"That's what the Tall Man told him. But to me it looks like just adding to our poverty. Here at least we have a roof over our heads, and food, such as it is, and I could be content. What good it will do any one to go out and get shot I cannot see,--but then, of course, I am only a woman." She finished with a sob.
"Father told the Tall Man that you were a strong woman and that he had no fear for us because you would look after us while he is gone," said Tita.
"And so I will, my lamb," said Doña Teresa. "It is not for nothing that I am the best ironer and the best cook on the hacienda. You shall not suffer, my pigeons. But you must help me. You must never, never
, NEVER tell any one where your father has gone. Señor Fernandez would be angry. It might injure your father very much. We must be silent, and work hard to make up for his absence. I shall tell Pedro's wife. She knows about the Tall Man, and it was the first thing we both thought of when your father and Pedro did not come home last night. But Pablo doesn't know a thing about it, and he must not know. I'm afraid Pablo couldn't keep a secret!"
This made the Twins feel very grown up and important. Perhaps after all their father would come back and things would be better for them all, they thought. He probably knew best, for was he not a man? And so they lay down on their hard beds, warmed and fed and comforted, and slept, while Doña Teresa went over and told Pedro's wife all that the Twins had told her.
 Hay´fay pō-lee´tī-co.
 Ah dee-ōs´.