"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.