THE LAST BLOW
WHILE JOAM DACOSTA was undergoing this examination, Yaquita, from an inquiry made by Manoel, ascertained that she and her children would be permitted to see the prisoner that very day about four o’clock in the afternoon.
Yaquita had not left her room since the evening before. Minha and Lina kept near her, waiting for the time when she would be admitted to see her husband.
Yaquita Garral or Yaquita Dacosta, he would still find her the devoted wife and brave companion he had ever known her to be.
About eleven o’clock in the morning Benito joined Manoel and Fragoso, who were talking in the bow of the jangada.
“Manoel,” said he, “I have a favor to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“And you too, Fragoso.”
“I am at your service, Mr. Benito,” answered the barber.
“What is the matter?” asked Manoel, looking at his friend, whose expression was that of a man who had come to some unalterable resolution.
“You never doubt my father’s innocence? Is that so?” said Benito.
“Ah!” exclaimed Fragoso. “Rather I think it was I who committed the crime.”
“Well, we must now commence on the project I thought of yesterday.”
“To find out Torres?” asked Manoel.
“Yes, and know from him how he found out my father’s retreat. There is something inexplicable about it. Did he know it before? I cannot understand it, for my father never left Iquitos for more than twenty years, and this scoundrel is hardly thirty! But the day will not close before I know it; or, woe to Torres!”
Benito’s resolution admitted of no discussion; and besides, neither Manoel nor Fragoso had the slightest thought of dissuading him.
“I will ask, then,” continued Benito, “for both of you to accompany me. We shall start in a minute or two. It will not do to wait till Torres has left Manaos. He has no longer got his silence to sell, and the idea might occur to him. Let us be off!”
And so all three of them landed on the bank of the Rio Negro and started for the town.
Manaos was not so considerable that it could not be searched in a few hours. They had made up their minds to go from house to house, if necessary, to look for Torres, but their better plan seemed to be to apply in the first instance to the keepers of the taverns and lojas where the adventurer was most likely to put up. There could hardly be a doubt that the ex-captain of the woods would not have given his name; he might have personal reasons for avoiding all communication with the police. Nevertheless, unless he had left Manaos, it was almost impossible for him to escape the young fellows’ search. In any case, there would be no use in applying to the police, for it was very probable—in fact, we know that it actually was so—that the information given to them had been anonymous.
For an hour Benito, Manoel, and Fragoso walked along the principal streets of the town, inquiring of the tradesmen in their shops, the tavern-keepers in their cabarets, and even the bystanders, without any one being able to recognize the individual whose description they so accurately gave.
Had Torres left Manaos? Would they have to give up all hope of coming across him?
In vain Manoel tried to calm Benito, whose head seemed on fire. Cost what it might, he must get at Torres!
Chance at last favored them, and it was Fragoso who put them on the right track.
In a tavern in Holy Ghost Street, from the description which the people received of the adventurer, they replied that the individual inquestion had put up at the loja the evening before.
“Did he sleep here?” asked Fragoso.
“Yes,” answered the tavern-keeper.
“Is he here now?”
“No. He has gone out.”
“But has he settled his bill, as a man would who has gone for good?”
“By no means; he left his room about an hour ago, and he will doubtless come back to supper.”
“Do you know what road he took when he went out?”
“We saw him turning toward the Amazon, going through the lower town, and you will probably meet him on that side.”
Fragoso did not want any more. A few seconds afterward he rejoined the young fellows, and said:
“I am on the track.”
“He is there!” exclaimed Benito.
“No; he has just gone out, and they have seen him walking across to the bank of the Amazon.”
“Come on!” replied Benito.
They had to go back toward the river, and the shortest way was for them to take the left bank of the Rio Negro, down to its mouth.
Benito and his companions soon left the last houses of the town behind, and followed the bank, making a slight detour so as not to be observed from the jangada.
The plain was at this time deserted. Far away the view exstended across the flat, where cultivated fields had replaced the former forests.
Benito did not speak; he could not utter a word. Manoel and Fragoso respected his silence. And so the three of them went along and looked about on all sides as they traversed the space between the bank of the Rio Negro and that of the Amazon. Three-quarters of an hour after leaving Manaos, and still they had seen nothing!
Once or twice Indians working in the fields were met with. Manoel questioned them, and one of them at length told him that a man, such as he described, had just passed in the direction of the angle formed by the two rivers at their confluence.
Without waiting for more, Benito, by an irresistible movement, strode to the front, and his two companions had to hurry on to avoid being left behind.
The left bank of the Amazon was then about a quarter of a mile off. A sort of cliff appeared ahead, hiding a part of the horizon, and bounding the view a few hundred paces in advance.
Benito, hurrying on, soon disappeared behind one of the sandy knolls.
“Quicker! quicker!” said Manoel to Fragoso. “We must not leave him alone for an instant.”
And they were dashing along when a shout struck on their ears.
Had Benito caught sight of Torres? What had he seen? Had Benito and Torres already met?
Manoel and Fragoso, fifty paces further on, after swiftly running round one of the spurs of the bank, saw two men standing face to face to each other.
They were Torres and Benito.
In an instant Manoel and Fragoso had hurried up to them. It might have been supposed that in Benito’s state of excitement he would be unable to restrain himself when he found himself once again in the presence of the adventurer. It was not so.
As soon as the young man saw himself face to face with Torres, and was certain that he could not escape, a complete change took place in his manner, his coolness returned, and he became once more master of himself.
The two men looked at one another for a few moments without a word.
Torres first broke silence, and, in the impudent tone habitual to him, remarked:
“Ah! How goes it, Mr. Benito Garral?”
“No, Benito Dacosta!” answered the young man.
“Quite so,” continued Torres. “Mr. Benito Dacosta, accompanied by Mr. Manoel Valdez and my friend Fragoso!”
At the irritating qualification thus accorded him by the adventurer, Fragoso, who was by no means loath to do him some damage, was about to rush to the attack, when Benito, quite unmoved, held him back.
“What is the matter with you, my lad?” exclaimed Torres, retreating for a few steps. “I think I had better put myself on guard.”
And as he spoke he drew from beneath his poncho his manchetta, the weapon, adapted at will for offense or defense, which a Brazilian is never without. And then, slightly stooping, and planted firmly on his feet, he waited for what was to follow.
“I have come to look for you, Torres,” said Benito, who had not stirred in the least at this threatening attitude.
“To look for me?” answered the adventurer. “It is not very difficult to find me. And why have you come to look for me?”
“To know from your own lips what you appear to know of the past life of my father.”
“Yes. I want to know how you recognized him, why yu were prowling about our fazenda in the forest of Iquitos, and why you were waiting for us at Tabatinga.”
“Well! it seems to me nothing could be clearer!” answered Torres, with a grin. “I was waiting to get a passage on the jangada, and I went on board with the intention of making him a very simple proposition—which possibly he was wrong in rejecting.”
At these words Manoel could stand it no longer. With pale face and eye of fire he strode up to Torres.
Benito, wishing to exhaust every means of conciliation, thrust himself between them.
“Calm yourself, Manoel!” he said. “I am calm—even I.”
And then continuing:
“Quite so, Torres; I know the reason of your coming on board the raft. Possessed of a secret which was doubtless given to you, you wanted to make it a means of extortion. But that is not what I want to know at present.”
“What is it, then?”
“I want to know how you recognized Joam Dacosta in the fazenda of Iquitos?”
“How I recognized him?” replied Torres. “That is my business, and I see no reason why I should tell you. The important fact is, that I was not mistaken when I denounced in him the real author of the crime of Tijuco!”
“You say that to me?” exclaimed Benito, who began to lose his self-possession.
“I will tell you nothing,” returned Torres; “Joam Dacosta declined my propositions! He refused to admit me into his family! Well! now that his secret is known, now that he is a prisoner, it is I who refuse to enter his family, the family of a thief, of a murderer, of a condemned felon, for whom the gallows now waits!”
“Scoundrel!” exclaimed Benito, who drew his manchetta from his belt and put himself in position.
Manoel and Fragoso, by a similar movement, quickly drew their weapons.
“Three against one!” said Torres.
“No! one against one!” answered Benito.
“Really! I should have thought an assassination would have better suited an assassin’s son!”
“Torres!” exclaimed Benito, “defend yourself, or I will kill you like a mad dog!”
“Mad! so be it!” answered Torres. “But I bite, Benito Dacosta, and beware of the wounds!”
And then again grasping his manchetta, he put himself on guard and ready to attack his enemy.
Benito had stepped back a few paces.
“Torres,” he said, regaining all his coolness, which for a moment he had lost; “you were the guest of my father, you threatened him, you betrayed him, you denounced him, you accused an innocent man, and with God’s help I am going to kill you!”
Torres replied with the most insolent smile imaginable. Perhaps at the moment the scoundrel had an idea of stopping any struggle between Benito and him, and he could have done so. In fact he had seen that Joam Dacosta had said nothing about the document which formed the material proof of his innocence.
Had he revealed to Benito that he, Torres, possessed this proof, Benito would have been that instant disarmed. But his desire to wait till the very last moment, so as to get the very best price for the document he possessed, the recollection of the young man’s insulting words, and the hate which he bore to all that belonged to him, made him forget his own interest.
In addition to being thoroughly accustomed to the manchetta, which he often had had occasion to use, the adventurer was strong, active, and artful, so that against an adversary who was scarcely twenty, who could have neither his strength nor his dexgterity, the chances were greatly in his favor.
Manoel by a last effort wished to insist on fighting him instead of Benito.
“No, Manoel,” was the cool reply, “it is for me alone to avenge my father, and as everyhthing here ought to be in order, you shall be my second.”
“As for you, Fragoso, you will not refuse if I ask you to act as second for that man?”
“So be it,” answered Fragoso, “though it is not an office of honor. Without the least ceremony,” he added, “I would have killed him like a wild beast.”
The place where the duel was about to take place was a level bank about fifty paces long, on the top of a cliff rising perpendicularly some fifty feet above the Amazon. The river slowly flowed at the foot, and bathed the clumps of reeds which bristled round its base.
There was, therefore, none too much room, and the combatant who was the first to give way would quickly be driven over into the abyss.
The signal was given by Manoel, and Torres and Benito stepped forward.
Benito had complete command over himself. The defender of a sacred cause, his coolness was unruffled, much more so than that of Torres, whose conscience insensible and hardened as it was, was bound at the moment to trouble him.
The two met, and the first blow came from Benito. Torres parried it. They then jumped back, but almost at the same instant they rushed together, and with their left hands seized each other by the shoulder—never to leave go again.
Torres, who was the strongest, struck a side blow with his manchetta which Benito could not quite parry. His left side was touched, and his poncho was reddened with his blood. But he quickly replied, and slightly wounded Torres in the hand.
Several blows were then interchanged, but nothing decisive was done. The ever silent gaze of Benito pierced the eyes of Torres like a sword blade thrust to his very heart. Visibly the scoundrel began to quail. He recoiled little by little, pressed back by his implacable foe, who was more determined on taking the life of his father’s denouncer than in defending his own. To strike was all that Benito longed for; to parry was all that the other now attempted to do.
Soon Torres saw himself thrust to the very edge of the bank, at a spot where, slightly scooped away, it overhung the river. He perceived the danger; he tried to retake the offensive and regain the lost ground. His agitation increased, his looks grew livid. At length he was obliged to stoop beneath the arm which threatened him.
“Die, then!” exclaimed Benito.
The blow was struck full on its chest, but the point of the manchetta was stopped by a hard substance hidden beneath the poncho of the adventurer.
Benito renewed his attack, and Torres, whose return thrust did not touch his adversary, felt himself lost. He was again obliged to retreat. Then he would have shouted—shouted that the life of Joam Dacosta depended on his own! He had not time!
A second thrust of the manchetta pierced his heart. He fell backward, and the ground suddenly failing him, he was precipitated down the cliff. As a last effort his hands convulsively clutched at a clump of reeds, but they could not stop him, and he disappeared beneath the waters of the river.
Benito was supported on Manoel’s shoulder; Fragoso grasped his hands. He would not even give his companions time to dress his wound, which was very slight.
“To the jangada!” he said, “to the jangada!”
Manoel and Fragoso with deep emotion followed him without speaking a word.
A quarter of an hour afterward the three reached the bank to which the raft was moored. Benito and Manoel rushed into the room where were Yaquita and Minha, and told them all that had passed.
“My son!” “My brother!”
The words were uttered at the same moment.
“To the prison!” said Benito.
“Yes! Come! come!” replied Yaquita.
Benito, followed by Manoel, hurried along his mother, and half an hour later they arrived before the prison.
Owing to the order previously given by Judge Jarriquez they were immediately admitted, and conducted to the chamber occupied by the prisoner.
The door opened. Joam Dacosta saw his wife, his son, and Manoel enter the room.
“Ah! Joam, my Joam!” exclaimed Yaquita.
“Yaquita! my wife! my children!” replied the prisoner, who opened his arms and pressed them to his heart.
“My Joam, innocent!”
“Innocent and avenged!” said Benito.
“Avenged? What do you mean?”
“Torres is dead, father; killed by my hand!”
“Dead!—Torres!—Dead!” gasped Joam Dacosta. “My son! You have ruined