Tigre and Isola by Will H. Thompson

by Will H. Thompson
Author of “The High Tide at Gettysburg”
It seldom rains in Arizona. The narrow valleys that drain southward into Mexico are the most arid in America. But, on the night old Nuñez Pico died, a black cloud rolled over the ragged rim of the Canille Mountains, dragged itself slowly along, was ripped by the granite teeth, collapsed, and fell in a deluge of rain. The bare stone shoulders of the mountain heaved the floods into the canyons, from whose monstrous throats it came bellowing into the valley. The river-bed was overbrimmed and the lowland became a sea.

Far into the night we sat about the long table upon which lay the shrouded form of the old Spaniard. The solemnity of the vigil, the feeble light, and the tumult of the storm depressed our minds and caused our speech to be low and infrequent, and it was a distinct relief to me when Major Blanchard said:

“Twenty years ago to-night we had just such a storm as this.”

Something in the tone of his voice, and in the introspective eyes of the old soldier, moved me to say: “Major, if there is a story waiting to be told, it would be kind of you to give it to us now. This watch is going to be heavy and long.”

He mused for a moment, then said:

“It is hardly a story, yet more than an episode. It was the finest tragedy I ever witnessed.”

Without further urging he began.

“Nuñez Pico, after fifteen years of life upon this ranch, revisited his early home in Spain, and returned, bringing with him his only daughter, who, after her mother’s death, had been reared and educated in Seville. It is not surprising that she found little happiness in this isolated valley. She was a splendid woman, and her superiority of blood and training was at once and universally recognized by the inhabitants of this half-wild land. None of the young rancheros was bold enough to lay siege to her heart, and the ‘Lady Isola,’ as she was usually called, passed many lonely days.

“Tigre Palladis was a gambler, a robber, and many times a homicide. He was born to his estate of lawlessness. His mother was a Spanish-lndian half-blood, his father an American adventurer of the worst type, who was killed while Tigre was a babe. Possibly it was because of his father’s ignominious death that the boy always bore his mother’s name.

“The young devil grew into a marvelous physical manhood. Indeed, he was the handsomest animal I ever saw—very tall, of an exceedingly powerful build, and with a lightness and impetuosity of movement that indicated immense vital force. Dark of face and dark of heart he was, as all who knew him knew, yet there was something in his contemptuous defiance of lawful restraint, and in his measureless strength and lightning-like energy of action in emergency, that aroused enough of hero-worship in the hearts of the half-wild people of the valley to have spared him long and to have shielded him from the vengeance earned by many a desperate deed, had he not chanced to meet the Lady Isola.

“The love that flamed in his volcanic heart did not illuminate his reason. It did not counsel patience, reformation of character, abandonment of lawless ventures, and subjugation of his turbulent spirit, but seemed rather to multiply his activities and to increase the violence of his temperament. Had the lady accepted his attentions or even yielded the fine courtesy she gave to the poorest peon upon her father’s ranch, it might have been better for her and for him at the last. But she seemed both to scorn and to fear him. She would neither receive him in her home nor walk abroad when he was in the vicinity.

“I knew Nuñez Pico well. His was the loftiest soul I ever hope to find on earth. The prayer of his distressed child to be permitted to return to Spain moved him deeply, but he refused to believe that danger threatened her, and he could not bear to part with her. In the simple sincerity of his nature he sought the disturber of his home and pleaded with him to leave his daughter in peace. But the passionate idolater would give no promise and swore that his love should yield to no earthly bar.

“However, after this interview, Tigre left the valley and was heard of in Mexico. Pico believed the trouble ended. Not so the Lady Isola. It was plain that her distress was unabated. She clung to the house, not venturing into the fine garden that lay between her window and the river, forsaking her loved hammock on the wide eastern porch, and pacing the long hall with a nervous step. In her dilated eyes one could mark the panic of her soul.

“A month after Tigre’s departure I visited Pico. Never before had I seen the garden so beautiful. The intense heat of the afternoon failed at sunset, and the full moon rose in cloudless beauty beyond the crenelated wall of the Canille Mountains. The air was delicious in its clearness and serenity. So great was the temptation to escape the stifling heat, still retained by the rooms, that Isola yielded to her father’s request and mine, and came out upon the east porch and sat for an hour listening to our talk, but taking no part therein.

“The soft moonlight fell over her like a veil. It seemed more to conceal than to reveal her. It dimmed the traces of sorrow and softened the unnatural luminosity of her eyes. She was very beautiful and, as I watched her face from my position in the shadow of the great clematis vine, her expression of hopelessness and terror was almost unbearable. I was younger then than now, and, as I said, Isola Pico was very beautiful.

“Moving my seat into the light, I looked across the silent garden and little shining river to the highlands beyond. In the silvery glory the landscape came out like a cameo. The garden seemed alert and watching with a thousand eyes. Beyond the garden the slender river gleamed in its stony bed. Wasted by the Summer’s heat, it was too weak to grieve. In the lowland beyond the river a space of alfalfa ran to the first swell of the foothills. Upon the plain at the base of the rise, a great rock, deeply imbedded in the earth, and rising fifty feet above the surface, was all in shadow; but, as the moon overlooked the mountain crest, the top of the rock seemed slowly to rise from out the darkness and break into the white flood.

“This movement appeared so real and affirmative that I turned to Isola to learn if she had noticed it. She did not heed my action, but sat with her eyes fixed upon the rock with such a stare as one might have who saw the rending of the solid earth. Quickly turning, I saw that on the top of the rock a man was standing, with lifted face and folded arms. The pose was grandly pathetic. The form looked larger than human in the wan moonlight. I was about to break the silence with an exclamation, when a mighty voice, a noble baritone, came rolling across the distance, wave upon wave, bearing the burden of an old and half-forgotten love-song:

‘The God who wrought thee over-sweet
  In Love’s old garden long ago.
Gave me the curse of wandering feet,
  The power to know, and only know,
That even God shall not repeat
  The agony of loving so!’
“When the refrain was reached I was thrilled as the singer substituted another name for the one written in the old song, and the night was stirred by a burst of passionate melody that will haunt my memory while I live:

‘Isola! Love, I love thee!
  Isola! Hear my cry!
The skies are black above me!
  Love me, or bid me die!
Isola! Isola!
  Love me, or let me die!’
“As the wonderful voice held the last word at the top of the register without a quaver, the lady arose, stood unsteadily for a moment, then turned and walked proudly to the hallway and disappeared within. Nuñez Pico rose and, without a word, followed his daughter.

“That night I could not sleep, and near morning left my room and paced the garden walks until daybreak. Then, drawn by curiosity, I crossed the river and came to the great rock at the foot of the rise. Here I found the trace of a horse, coming and going, and, behind the rock, evidence that the horse had stood there for many hours.

“The Lady Isola came to the breakfast the following morning without a tear-stain upon her face, her features set and cold. The look in her proud eyes seemed to say: ‘My hours of terror are done! I am master of myself!’

“She moved about the house, the porches and the garden as freely as of old, but with a different manner. Then it was with the languorous grace of one in love with idleness; now she moved with the proud militancy of one who asserts dominion and defies aggression. I was glad of the changed mien, and so, I think, was Pico.

“When on that evening she passed me, going down into the garden, she seemed to have grown taller, so martial was her carriage. I sat long in the gathering dusk with little note of passing time, when suddenly, a woman’s shriek, clear, high and long-drawn, rose from the garden, followed almost instantly by the thunder of galloping hoofs upon the stony bed of the river, a plash of water, the muffled sound of a falling earth-bank, and then the lessening throb of flying feet that died upon the night.

“The shriek, the rush of the trampling feet through the garden, the vault of the steed over the adobe wall, and the uproar of the steel-shod hoofs upon the stones of the river-bed did not occupy five seconds, and before I could leap from the porch and rush through the garden shrubbery the beat of the retreating feet sounded faint and far.

“The aroused household acted with desperate energy. Swift messengers called the assistance of all the neighboring rancheros. The cinching of saddle-girths, the clank of arms, the trampling of impatient horses, the sharp orders of Pico, and the headlong incoming of horsemen from the outer night, told of stern preparation that boded ill for the frenzied abductor.

“But before the pursuit could be taken up the storm came over the Obsidian Hills and broke upon the valley with lightning, thunder, roaring wind and such a downpour of rain that within half an hour the river could not be crossed except by a detour of many miles, and then only by leading our horses singly upon a frail swinging bridge intended only for pedestrians. However, the cloudburst passed as quickly as it came, and the trail was taken before midnight. Despite the obliterating effects of the storm, the trace was easy to follow, for one had joined us whose fame as a tracker in mountain and desert was supreme in Arizona and Mexico, and when Cady rode out, taking the trail at a gallop, all were content to follow blindly.

“None questioned his skill, nor his coolness and courage in the hour of conflict. All had heard stories of his almost miraculous feats in the following of horse-thieves and marauding Indians to their ruin, but few, I think, were prepared for the ease and certainty with which this man-hunter carried the trail at a speed as high as we dared urge our horses, over flinty mesas, up slopes of broken lava, through thorny fields of cactus and sage-brush, across a succession of lateral ravines that now, for the first time in many years, brought down to the river a hundred roaring streams, and on across scrub and chaparral, to the south, toward the outlaw’s hoped-for refuge in the mountains of Mexico.

“It was a wild ride and there were thirty wild men riding. Pico, half crazed by the horror of his daughter’s possible fate, urging on with brief, inflammatory appeals the already excessive ardor of the pursuers; Cady, silent and alert, rode a rod or two in advance, followed by Kenneth, Pico’s foreman, a gigantic Scotchman, a violent man of great physical power and energy. I rode with Pico when the exigencies of the trail permitted. The others followed as best they could keep the pace.

“At sunrise we were thirty miles south of the Pico ranch and upon the high mesa two miles east of the river. Here the trail entered, but did not cross, a deep and rough ravine that ran at right angles to the course hitherto taken by the fleeing desperado. Cady plunged without hesitation down the steep bank and clung to the lessening trace over bare spaces of slab stone, clean-washed by the storm, and across acres of boulder-covered bars, until the portal of the canyon was reached, where the storms of ages had cut a narrow channel to the river. Before this rock-walled gateway Cady halted, leaped from his horse and waited until all had come up.

“‘Dismount, men!’ he said, ‘The beast is at bay.’

“‘This canyon,’ he said, ‘twists to the right a hundred yards below, then opens into a big triangle facing the river. The jaws are two hundred yards apart, but each jaw is jammed square against the precipitous bank of the river. The bank on this side is a basalt bluff twenty feet high; the opposite bank is low, and a trail leads up a ravine from the water to the Obsidian Hills. Tigre knows the trail, but he forgot the storm. Do you hear the roar of the river? It is filled with jagged blocks of basalt, and the flood is now a regular water-cyclone. No horse or man that ever lived could cross it. The game is bagged. There is a heavy thicket along the bluff on this side of the river and he will be in the brush. There will be a fight. Every man must cover himself as best he can. Take no chances on Tigre Palladis. Shoot anything that moves; the woman will be hid.’

“Dismounted, we followed down the gorge until we reached the outlet and noted the heavy wall of brush that hid the river from our view. Beyond this the rage of the waters made itself manifest in terrible bellowings. Cady said:

“‘There may be trouble in the first fifty yards of open ground, and every man must make straight to the thicket. Move rapidly. If Tigre fires, riddle the spot from which the shot comes, and run in upon him. Shoot him down; he will not surrender.’

“Our rush followed, and was met by the crack of a Winchester. Ramon Aguates, a young ranchero, threw up his hands, spun around upon his toes and fell stone-dead. He had hardly touched the ground when another man, close by my side, sank slowly to his knees, gave a little sigh, and crumpled up into a shapeless heap. Tigre’s second shot was not heard, as our volley came at the same instant. Our second volley cut a wide swath in the foliage at the point where the smoke from the desperado’s rifle hung, and was instantly followed by a woman’s scream.

“‘Hold, men!’ cried Pico, ‘We are killing my child!’

“Cady sprang into the open and, raising his right hand, cried:

“‘Tigre, give us the lady uninjured and I swear that you shall go and not be followed!’

“No answer came, and it may be that the river’s voice drowned the call. Neither did any shot follow. Not knowing what to expect, we crept forward, taking the protection of every shrub and stone, until we reached and entered the thicket.

“Here we recognized our disadvantage in that we dared not fire upon any moving thing until we first ascertained whether it be friend or foe. But Tigre would know that every sound or motion marked an enemy. Yet, to our amazement, no rifle cracked, and neither sight nor sound indicated the presence of our desperate quarry.

“At last we came upon the body of the horse. The splendid animal had been struck by a number of our bullets and, to put it out of its misery, its throat had been cut. How cool the fellow must have been to conceive and execute the deed of mercy in a moment of such mortal peril! Near the body, beside an ugly pool of blood, we found one of the Lady Isola’s slippers and a few scattered beads from a turquoise necklace. The thoroughly ransacked thicket yielded nothing more. As we stood upon the rock rim, looking down into the boiling water, Pico cried:

“‘He has killed her, thrown her body into the river, and then drowned himself!’

“I felt this to be true and was about to say so, when Cady, who had been standing apparently lost in thought, called to me in sharp tones, indicative of great excitement:

“‘Major, give me your glass, quick!’

“I handed to him the large field-glass I carried. Looking through it at the farther shore for a moment, he turned to me and cried:

“‘As God lives, the madman has crossed that water-hell!’

“‘Impossible!’ I cried. ‘A man would be dashed to pieces in five seconds!’

“‘Nevertheless it is true,’ he said. ‘Look for yourself!’

“Taking the glass, I searched the farther shore, and there, plainly to be seen, were the deeply set footprints of a man in the wet sand at the water’s edge, and higher, upon the rocks of the ravine, were the splotched and straggling lines made by the water drained from the wet clothing.

“The outlaw’s tremendous achievement, which under other circumstances would have lifted my admiration to enthusiasm, passed from my thought as I marked that his footprints were alone. No small tracks were beside his, nor were there any traces of a dragged body. Evidently in his flight from the grasp of the river Tigre had not turned to look for his pursuers, nor down the stream for the poor girl’s body, if the hand of murder had given it to the waves.

“A hush of awe and horror fell upon us, and many seconds passed before it was broken by Cady’s low, masterful voice:

“‘Pico, take two men, go down to the mouth of Alkali Wash and watch for the body. All the drift swings in there when the water is high. Ride fast and you will be in time. The Major and I will see this hunt to the end. Come, Major, we can cross two miles above here, but it will be six miles as we ride.’

“Back we went to our horses, leaving four men to care for the dead, and at last, after many slides and zigzags, reached the river at a point where the current was slow. Cady’s horse took the water by a plunge from the crumbling bank, and we followed, swimming our animals to a narrow shingle at the base of the opposite bluff. Following this stony passageway a short distance, we scaled the hill after a struggle that left a number of our horses useless, and after a brief rest fifteen of us rode on.

“We struck the trail two miles from the river, at the point where the ravine rose to the level of the mesa, and followed it across rugged country—hard upon our horses, and harder, too, it must have been, for the indomitable man who crossed it on foot, keeping a direct course for the mountains.

“The blood-stains, found in many places, indicated severe wounds, yet the length of his strides and the deep impressions of his feet proved that he had passed at great speed. What exhaustless fountain of infernal energy supplied the strength to maintain this reckless waste? Many times we asked ourselves this question as hour after hour we urged on our flagging horses. No animal is equal to man at his best, and here, I think, was Nature’s masterpiece.

“We climbed the first foothills at sunset. As night came on with clouds obscuring the moon the pursuit became impossible and we unsaddled our tired horses, spread our blankets and slept until daybreak.

“Frequently, since recovering the trail, Cady had dismounted and closely examined the footprints of the fleeing man, with a look in his eyes that puzzled me. It betokened amazement, admiration and something akin to pity.

“When we took the saddle at sunrise the pace was forced, and within a mile we came to the spot where Tigre had passed the night, and I was amazed to find that, wounded and wearied unto death as he must have been, he had, with much patient toil, gathered from far and near enough of weed-stems and grass-blades to make a soft couch whereon to pass the night. The scant growth upon the waterless mesa betrayed the labor necessary in such gleaning. The bed, at about the position occupied by the sleeper’s breast, was heavily stained with blood. Perhaps it was on account of his wounds that he gave such effort to provide a comfortable couch. Cady looked steadily at the pitiful bed, carefully examined the blood-stains, then turned to mount his horse, muttering:

“‘My God! I knew it! And yet it seems impossible!’

“The hunt went remorselessly to the end. Through beds of cactus that stabbed and stung, up slopes of broken lava that tore the horses’ feet, through grease wood wastes rising to the sterile buttresses of the Obsidian Hills we followed on until I began to wonder if human feet had made this trail.

“At last, as the sun was low in the west, we entered a canyon leading up into the heart of the mountain range. A slender rill issued from it, and a dense clump of brush filled the bottom from wall to wall. We were following the foot of the basaltic bluff upon our left and were about to enter the thicket, when Cady suddenly halted and threw up his hand with a gesture so full of meaning that all pulled up and every rifle was thrown forward for instant use.

“After a long pause, in which no word was spoken, Cady signaled for all to dismount. As we stood in silence, I plainly heard the heavy breathing of some laboring thing, and the slight rustling of the brush. The sounds slowly approached, the branches parted, and Tigre Palladis stepped into the open. A dozen rifles covered him in a second, and a volley would have instantly followed had not Cady’s voice, sharp and imperious, rung out:

“‘Hold, men! There is no need now!’

“The outlaw stood motionless, looking straight into the muzzles of the leveled guns. His aspect was terribly pathetic. The butt of his heavy rifle rested upon the ground, his right hand upon its muzzle. The torn and disheveled clothing spoke pitifully of the dreadful journey. His head was bare, the waves of black hair tumbling about his neck. His face was shrunken and pallid, and the nostrils were updrawn, as we often see them in the article of death. The lips were apart, like those of a runner at the end of a desperate race, but the jaws were locked and grim. His eyes were glorious.

“I once joined in a lion hunt in upper Nubia. A great male lion, many times wounded, was surrounded in a copse of mimosa brush. With twenty guns leveled, we stood waiting while the beaters hurled fragments of stone into the cover. Instantly the branches parted and, with bristling mane and grand uplifted head, the desert king came forth. For a moment he stood in his defiant attitude, gazing at the threatening guns, then the royal mane fell, the great eyes blenched, the huge head sank, and the fierce beast turned and slunk into the copse.

“I recalled this Nubian episode as I now stood looking upon this hunted thing. But this was not a lion—it did not blench!

“There was a fearful silence. No one seemed to know what to do or say. At last Cady’s voice broke the silence, the low, measured tones vibrating with feeling.

“‘Tigre, God knows I should like to save you. If the Lady Isola—’

“His words were abruptly broken off by Kenneth. The big Scotchman roughly pushed him aside, fiercely crying:

“‘Save that bloody brute? Hold up your hands, you cowardly murderer!’

“What we then saw was a most wonderful thing. The outlaw’s face glowed with such radiancy as comes to men only in moments of ineffable joy. With electrical swiftness the heavy rifle was whisked backward, whirled with a swish over his right shoulder, and hurled forward with the resistless force of a cannon-shot. I heard the flutter as the weapon spun in the air like a revolving wheel, the crunch of the splintered ribs, and the sickening smash as the body of Kenneth was slammed back against the canyon wall, as a wind-gust slams a door. Then came a spurt of smoke from a dozen rifles, and the jar of the volley.

“The combined blow of the bullets shook the outlaw’s breast as though he had been struck with a heavy club, and a great red splotch flared out upon his bosom. The light slowly faded from his dauntless eyes, and, feebly turning, like one who walks in his sleep, he passed within the copse. An instant later we heard the fall of a heavy body, and then out rang a cry, a shriek of frenzied agony, a woman’s wail, carrying in its tones such horror and despair as to chill the blood within my heart. I turned to Cady, and the expression upon his white and drawn face appalled me. His hands shook as they slowly relaxed, dropping his rifle upon the ground. In a low voice, trembling with emotion, he cried:

“‘Great God, I knew it! We shot her at the river, and he swam with her through that water-hell! For two days he carried her mangled body before our horses! I knew why his footprints were so deep! I knew for whom that couch of grass was made! At last he knew she was dying, and he came out to be killed! God of heaven! what manner of man was this!’

“Rushing into the brush, I found the body of Palladis lying upon the back with arms outspread. The dying woman had crawled to his side; her arms were about his head, her lips upon his face, and, as she kissed him, she cried with a passion that should have mocked the power of death:

“‘Oh, Tigre! Tigre! I will tell you now!’

“Feebly she drew her lips to his ear and whispered something I could not hear. Her arms tightened about his head, there was a slight tremor of the slender body—and the Lady Isola Pico was dead.”

Major Blanchard rose and, stepping to the table, lifted the covering from the face of his old friend. He looked long and steadily upon the placid features of the dead. As he replaced the veil, he said:

“In the cemetery at Old Nogales there stands a beautiful monument of pink onyx, bearing the simple inscription:


“Nuñez Pico was the noblest man I ever knew.”