The Happy Hostage


From The High Chaparral Annual 1973

 

 

It might be said that the war began that evening when the Cannon family were sitting down to supper.  They were all there, all except Manolito Montoya, the brother of Victoria, Big John Cannon's wife.  His absence had, of course, been noticed, but nothing was thought of it.  Mano was inclined to be a law unto himself, and although Big John frowned at his non-appearance, for the big rancher liked to see a full table at the evening meal, he said nothing.

With a forkful of supper halfway to his mouth, Billy Blue started, "We got a caller, pa," he said, and put the food into his mouth.

"Yeah," grunted his uncle, Buck Cannon.  "I heard it, too.  Mighty funny sort of a sound, mark you, like mebbe something--"  He didn't finish but, getting up, went to the outside door.  He threw it open and finished his sentence: "--something thrown at the door."

"Holy mackerel!" exclaimed Billy Blue, and the three men leaped to their feet.  "It's an arrow!"

Victoria's eyes followed them as they rushed to the door.  Buck Cannon rushed out into the night, and, in spite of Big John's shout, they soon heard the beat of horse's hooves as he rode off.

Billy Blue and his father stared silently at the arrow, which was still quivering slightly.  Roughly, Big John plucked it out of the wood, and they went back to the table.  "Buck'll have his search for nothing," he growled.  "Whoever loosed this arrow will be well clear before Buck finds him."  He glowered down at the arrow.

His wife Victoria gave a little cry and reached out a hand.  Tied with a thin leather thong to the arrow was a fragment from a neckerchief.  She took it and stared at it, white-faced.  "This is part of Mano's neckcloth," she whispered.  "What does this mean, husband?  Where is my brother?  This is an Apache arrow!"

Big John looked at her stonily.  He had his own thoughts, but he knew he had to soothe his wife's fears.  Her woman's intuition had very often startled the stolid, matter-of-fact rancher.

"Now, don't take on, my dear," he said.  "All our neckcloths are mighty alike.  This could belong to any man."  But he knew that she would be right, and this, coupled with Manolito's non-appearance at supper, surely spelled trouble of some kind, and the Apache arrow proved it would be Apache trouble.  And that was always bad medicine.

Buck's heavy boots sounded on the porch, and he strode inside.  "Nary a feather!  I rid round in a big circle and I ain't seen hide nor hair of any one of the pesky critters.  Why, say, that's Mano's neckband!"

"Hold it, fella!" snapped Big John, as Victoria gave a little scream at Buck's prompt confirmation of her fears.  Big John frowned at his brother, but it was too late.

"No other thing or message on the arrow?"  put in Billy Blue awkwardly.

"How many Apaches do we know who can read or write?" his father said witheringly, and Billy Blue flushed.  They were all most distinctly on edge.

John Cannon sat down and laid the arrow in front of his plate.  "So," he said calmly.  "We're all agreed the scrap of cloth is Mano's.  Question now arises -- what does it mean?  Is Mano sending us a message, or ---?"

"Or what, pa?" asked Billy Blue when his father stopped.

"John," said Victoria steadily, "if Mano was sending us any messages he would have written on skin or birch bark if he had no paper.  No, the message is to us from someone else, and this is an Apache arrow."

Big John was glad that she herself said it.  He had not known how to frame the alternative to his unfinished sentence.

"There's dozens of small groups of 'em scattered about," said Billy Blue.  "That arrow could have come from any one of them. We can't go chasing every Apache brave in the territory."

Big John looked round.  "We cannot do a single thing until..."  He stopped, then went on with stumbling words, "...until the next message comes.  Whoever sent this must send another.  We must be patient and wait.  It will be hard for us all, not least for myself.  My present impulse is to call out every man on the spread and make ware on every Apache warrior for miles around.  But that will do no good to Manolito, wherever he is and in whatever condition he is..."  He could go no further and no one spoke.  In gloomy silence they all tried to eat, but it was useless.

Within half an hour they had all retreated upstairs, but there was little sleep that night at the ranch house of the High Chaparral and all thoughts were on the empty cot that should have held the gay, laughing caballero, Don Manolito Montoya.

 

 

 

The second arrow thunked into a tree trunk as Big John was riding beside the spinney at the further edge of the home paddocks.  He rode over and grabbed it.  He stared around him, but it seemed as though not a leaf stirred, nor a blade of grass swayed.  He grasped the arrow and tore it from the tree.  Now there was no longer any doubt.  The single glove of thin, fine leather, and embroidered on the back, was clearly one of Mano's gloves.  Then Big John's eyes narrowed, and he fingered the glove gingerly.  There was writing on the palm of the glove -- words in white paint such as the redskins use when they paint their faces for a war party.

Big John creased his forehead as he tried to make out what was drawn in the white paint of the leather.  It was difficult to read.  But he finally deciphered it and when he had, it seemed to make little sense:

Tonight -- moonrise --
three live oaks by landfall

The words were roughly printed, in small characters, and were obviously the work of Manolito.  That was for sure.  One of the Apaches hereabouts could read or write.  So...he brooded over the glove...this would be the demand for a meeting with a messenger from the captors of the kidnapped Manolito.  They would present their demands.

Well away from the ranch house, he told Billy blue and Buck, and arranged that they would meet behind the spinney.  Victoria was not to be told, of course, and although Big John was for calling in the sheriff, his brother, Buck, was dead against it.  "The High Chaparral looks after its own, John," he growled.

The "herald" from the Apaches turned out to be a girl, and Big John's lip curled.  "The varmints know we must respect a white flag," he grunted.  "But no, they must send a squaw to make doubly certain."  He glowered down at the girl, who smiled up at him not a bit shyly.  She was on a small pony, and she seemed to be unarmed.

"I bear a message from my father, Red Horse," she said calmly.  "My father is the chief of my tribe, and his braves have brought to him a kinsman of yours.  They say he is one of that race who warred upon the red men in the olden times -- a Spaniard.  We have many legends in our tribes of the cruelty of the Spaniard men."

"So," said Big John dangerously, "your father and his medicine men and his counsellors risk death from the weapons of my soldiers?  That message, child, is insolent.  But maybe it is not complete?"

"Indeed, no, white rancher," the girl said sweetly.  "My name is Mimosa Blossom.  My father demands twenty rifles, fifty horses, twelve cases of fire-water and for them the Spanish man will be released.

Buck was impatient.  "The kid's loco, Big John.  Her pa must be crazy, too.  Kidnapping Mano!  Idea's plumb stupid.  Tell her to tell Red Horse we give him until sundown to let Mano go, otherwise we ride in force and burn his village to the ground."

Big John put up a hand to silence Buck.  "If we do not agree?" he said, coldly and tensely.

Mimosa Blossom's small tongue touched her outer lips, and she smiled.  "I hope you will agree to my father's demands," she said.  "For my heart is warm towards the Spanish man.  But I am to tell you that if you do not yield to his demands, our captive will be burned alive at the rain dance which our medicine men will hold within two sleeps."

Billy Blue shuddered as he looked at the Indian maid, who was younger even than he was.  Buck's face darkened, and only Big John's face remained calm.

And she had not yet finished.  Learning down, she drew from a moccasin a small scrap of paper and held it out to him.  "The Spanish man told me that if I gave this to you it would make you see that the just demands of my father would be agreed to."

Big John's face was rock-firm as he read the scrawled note sent by Manolito.  Do not give way to these insolent dogs, the note read.  They will not dare to harm the last of the illustrious line of the glorious Montoya hildalgoes of Old Spain.

He crumbled the paper into a ball.  "You have read this?" he asked of the girl.

She gave a merry laugh, gurgling in her throat.  "I do not read the white man's language," she said.  "But the Spanish man told me that his words on the paper would tell you what to do.  I think he does not fear death, but he is young, so young and so gay."

Big John wheeled his horse, and gestured to the others.  "We will meet here at the same time tomorrow," he said.  "And we will bring you our reply."

She, too, turned her pony away, and smiled sweetly.  "If your reply consists of the horses and the guns and the whisky," she said, "no words will be necessary and the gay young caballero will live."

"This could mean an all-out war with these local Apaches," drawled Buck Cannon as they rode away.  "Durned careless of Mano to let himself be caught by these pesky redskins.  First time I lets him outa my sight --"

"Shouldn't we just grab the gal and force her to take us to where Mano is being kept?" butted in Billy Blue.

Big John scowled at them both.  "The child was a herald, under flag of truce," he said stiffly.  "We could not have laid hands on her."

Buck snorted.  "Don't figure I'd worry about no flag of truce."

Big John smiled.  "I might just hold you to that some time, Buck."

"We'd best go to town and rouse the sheriff and a posse, huh?" queried Billy Blue, and he threw his eyes back towards where the girl had ridden.

"She sure wouldn't have ridden back to their camp straight, Billy," said his father.  "Indians, and squaws, are too good at tracking and field-craft for any hope of trailing her.  And the sheriff's out, boys.  "Sides, posse'd be no good.  We'd need an army and we haven't time for that."

"Then what --?" blurted out Buck, and John flicked his horse's flanks and cantered away.  Uncle and nephew stared at each other, puzzled.

John Cannon told Victoria nothing of the night's work, but assured her that Mano was in no danger.  Resignedly, she looked into his eyes.  She must trust this big, kind, honourable husband of hers.

Buck and Billy found it harder to keep silence, as they found out that, well out of sight of the house, Big John was gathering a caravan of two wagons and fifty horses.  It left the ranch corrals very empty, but Big John would answer no questions.

Buck saw the gun boxes and the cases of fire water under the tarpaulins in the wagons, and he spat disgustedly.  "Y'know, boy," he grunted to Billy blue.  "He's gonna eat dirt before them lousy redskins.  Now I know Mano, and I know he wouldn't want your pa to give way to the demands of them savages."

"Don't forget, Buck," said Billy blue moodily.  "Mano's the brother of his wife Victoria.  There just ain't nothing pa wouldn't do to keep her from grief.  And Spaniards are mighty hot-blooded, y'know."

All buck could do was to look more disgusted than ever, and there was a morose supper that night at the ranch house.  Big John maintained a stony silence, and the other three were not too anxious to open up the subjects.

 

 

On the ride to the rendezvous Buck could no longer hold in his anger.  "Looka here, Big John," he burst out, "we can't just give in to them Injuns like lily-livered yeller rats. What you aimin' to do?"

Big John grinned at him, no longer cold and silent.  It was as though he had come to a decision.  He took out his six-gun and held it out, butt-first to Billy Blue.

"A little act, shall we say, brother.  Yesterday, Buck, you said you wouldn't care about a flag of truce.  I'm keeping you to that tonight.  Billy Blue will have my gun on me.  The rest is up to yo8u, Buck.  I'd figure if you tied the girl's hands and put her on your horse, her own pony, set free, would go straight back to wherever she came from.  Savvy, boys?"

Buck laughed uproariously.  "Well, I'll be durned," he marvelled.  "If that don't beat all for generalship.  But, if you was planning this, why the horses and the rifles and the firewater?"

"A good general, Buck," grinned Big John, "has more than one plan, so that if one misfires there's always another plan laid on."

When they met again beneath the moon by the three live oaks beyond the spinney, Mimosa Blossom was most definitely not the carefree girl they had talked with on the previous night.  She saw the two wagons, driven by ranch hands, behind the three.

She did not speak at first, then haltingly she said:  "My father the chief sends a further message.  He will return to you, unharmed, the Spanish man, in return for your promise that never again will he be allowed to meet any of your braves.  For your Spanish kinsman, white rancher, has dealing with spirits --"

The Big John's hands went up as Billy Blue cocked the six gun.  Buck's hands swept her from the saddle and he whacked the pony in the flank.  It kicked up its heels and skittered away.  But it rode straight into a cavalcade of riders coming towards the spinney.

Manolito led the way, and behind him trailed a mob of dejected Apache Indians.  They were all on foot, and to the horses that stepped free were roped a host of rifles and bows, buffalo skins and blankets.

"Greeting, amigos," sang out Manolito.  "While visiting our primitive friends, I took the opportunity of teaching them poker.  You know I never travel without cards.  They have a very long way to go, these poor fellows, before they can claim to be any good at poker.  This tribe, in fact, will be a long while before they have replaced all the horses, guns and so on that I have won from them.  I assure you that Red Horse and his braves were very glad to get rid of me.  As a kidnapped hostage, they were only too glad to see the last of me.  Release the child, Buck, will you?  She did me a service with that note, and she is, after all, but a poor, untutored savage."

He looked round and frowned at Big John Cannon.  He waved to the two wagons.  "Surely you did not intend to give way to these fellows..."

Big John chuckled and gave a whistle.  From the wagon piled the hands from the High Chaparral, and they mounted the fifty horses.

"Mano," grinned Big John, "You ever hear of the Wooden Horse of Troy?  The boys were our invading army, if we'd needed one."