A DAUGHTER OF THE DONS
A Story of New Mexico Today
WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
WYOMING, BUCKY O'CONNOR, MAVERICKS, A TEXAS RANGER, BRAND BLOTTERS, RIDGWAY OF MONTANA, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
COPYRIGHT, 1914, BY
G.W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY
A Daughter of the Dons.
I. DON MANUEL INTRODUCES HIMSELF 5
II. THE TWO GRANTS 15
III. FISHERMAN'S LUCK 27
IV. AT THE YUSTE HACIENDA 42
V. "AN OPTIMISTIC GUY" 61
VI. JUANITA 76
VII. TWO MESSAGES 88
VIII. TAMING AN OUTLAW 101
IX. OF DON MANUEL AND MOONLIGHT 111
X. MR. AINSA DELIVERS A MESSAGE 123
XI. THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY AND THE TWENTIETH 137
XII. "I BELIEVE YOU'RE IN LOVE WITH HER TOO" 149
XIII. AMBUSHED 159
XIV. MANUEL TO THE RESCUE 173
XV. ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD 193
XVI. VALENCIA MAKES A PROMISE 201
XVII. AN OBSTINATE MAN 213
XVIII. MANUEL INTERFERES 230
XIX. VALENCIA ACCEPTS A RING 240
XX. DICK LIGHTS A CIGARETTE 246
XXI. WHEN THE WIRES WERE CUT 259
XXII. THE ATTACK 269
XXIII. THE TIN BOX 287
XXIV. DICK GORDON APOLOGIZES 298
XXV. THE PRINCE CONSORT 307
A DAUGHTER OF THE DONS
DON MANUEL INTRODUCES HIMSELF
For hours Manuel Pesquiera had been rolling up the roof of the continent in an observation-car of the "Short Line."
His train had wound in and out through a maze of bewildering scenery, and was at last dipping down into the basin of the famous gold camp.
The alert black eyes of the young New Mexican wandered discontentedly over the raw ugliness of the camp. Towns straggled here and there untidily at haphazard, mushroom growths of a day born of a lucky "strike." Into the valleys and up and down the hillsides ran a network of rails for trolley and steam cars. Everywhere were the open tunnel mouths or the frame shaft-houses perched above the gray Titan dump beards.
The magic that had wonderfully brought all these manifold activities into being had its talisman in the word "Gold"; but, since Pesquiera had come neither as a prospector nor investor, he heard with only half-concealed impatience the easy gossip of his fellow travelers about the famous ore producers of the district.
It was not until his inattentive ears caught the name of Dick Gordon that he found interest in the conversation.
"Pardon, sir! Are you acquaint' with Mr. Richard Gordon?" he asked, a touch of the gentle Spanish accent in his voice.
The man to whom he had spoken, a grizzled, weather-beaten little fellow in a corduroy suit and white, broad-brimmed felt hat, turned his steady blue eyes on his questioner a moment before he answered:
"I ought to know him, seeing as I'm his partner."
"Then you can tell me where I may find him?"
"Yes, sir, I can do that. See that streak of red there on the hill—the one above the big dump. That's the shafthouse of the Last Dollar. Drop down it about nine hundred feet and strike an airline west by north for about a quarter of a mile, and you'd be right close to him. He's down there, tackling a mighty uncertain proposition. The shaft and the workings of the Last Dollar are full of water. He's running a crosscut from an upraise in the Radley drift, so as to tap the west tunnel of the Last Dollar."
"It is dangerous, you inform me?"
"Dangerous ain't the word. It's suicide, the way I look at it. See here, my friend. His drill goes through and lets loose about 'steen million gallons of water. How is he going to get in out of the rain about that time?"
The New Mexican showed a double row of pearly teeth in a bland smile.
"Pardon, sir. If you would explain a leetle more fully I would then comprehend."
"Sure. Here's the way it is. Dick and his three men are plugging away at the breast of the drift with air-drills. Every day he gits closeter to that lake dammed up there. Right now there can't be more'n a few feet of granite 'twixt him and it. He don't know how many any more'n a rabbit, because he's going by old maps that ain't any too reliable. The question is whether the wall will hold till he dynamites it through, or whether the weight of water will crumple up that granite and come pouring out in a flood."
"Your friend, then, is in peril, is it not so?"
"You've said it. He's shooting dice with death. That's the way I size it up. If the wall holds till it's blown up, Dick has got to get back along the crosscut, lower himself down the upraise, and travel nearly a mile through tunnelings before he reaches a shaft to git out. That don't leave them any too much time at the best. But if the water breaks through on them, it's Heaven help Dick, and good-by to this world."
"Then Mr. Gordon is what you call brave?"
"He's the gamest man that ever walked into this camp. There ain't an inch of him that ain't clear grit through and through. Get into a tight place, and he's your one best bet to tie to."
"Mr. Gordon is fortunate in his friend," bowed the New Mexican politely.
The little miner looked at him with shining eyes.
"Nothing like that. Me, I figure the luck's all on my side. Onct you meet Dick you'll see why we boost for him. Hello, here's where we get off at. If you're looking for Dick, stranger, you better follow me. I'm going right up to the mine. Dick had ought to be coming up from below any minute now."
Pesquiera checked his suitcase at the depot newsstand and walked up a steep hill trail with his guide. The miner asked no questions of the New Mexican as to his business with Gordon, nor did the latter volunteer any information. They discussed instead the output of the camp for the preceding year, comparing it with that of the other famous gold districts of the world.
Just as they entered the shafthouse the cage shot to the surface. From it stepped two men.
Several miners crowded toward them with eager greetings, but they moved aside at sight of Pesquiera's companion, who made straight for those from below.
"What's new, Tregarth?" he asked of one of them, a huge Cornishman.
"The drill have brook into the Last Dollar tunnel. The watter of un do be leaking through, Measter Davis. The boss sent us oop while Tom and him stayed to put the charges in the drill holes to blow oot the wall. He wouldna coom and let me stay."
Davis thought a moment.
"I'll go down the shaft and wait at the foot of it. There'll be something doing soon. Keep your eye peeled for signals, Smith, and when you git the bell to raise, shoot her up sudden. If the water's coming, we'll be in a hurry, and don't you forget it. Want to come down with me, Tregarth?"
"I do that, sir." The man stepped into the cage and grinned. "We'll bring the byes back all right. Bet un we do, lads."
The cage shot down, and the New Mexican sat on a bench to wait its return. Beside him was a young doctor, who had come prepared for a possible disaster. Such conversation as the men carried on was in low tones, for all felt the strain of the long minutes. The engineer's eye was glued to his machinery, his hand constantly on the lever.
It must have been an hour before the bell rang sharply in the silence and the lever swept back instantly. A dozen men started to their feet and waited tensely. Next moment there was a wild, exultant cheer.
For Tregarth had stepped from the cage with a limp figure in his arms, and after him Davis, his arm around the shoulder of a drenched, staggering youth, who had a bleeding cut across his cheek. Through all the grime that covered the wounded miner the pallor of exhaustion showed itself.
But beaten and buffeted as the man had plainly been in his fight for life, the clean, supple strength and the invincible courage of him still shone in his eye and trod in his bearing. It was even now the salient thing about him, though he had but come, alive and no more, from a wrestle with death itself.
He sank to a bench, and looked around on his friends with shining eyes.
"'Twas nip and tuck, boys. The water caught us in the tunnel, and I thought we were gone. It swept us right to the cage," he panted.
"She didn't sweep Tom there, boss; ye went back after un," corrected the Cornishman.
"Anyhow, we made it in the nick o' time. Tom all right, Doctor?"
The doctor looked up from his examination.
"No bones broken. He seems sound. If there are no internal injuries it will be a matter of only a day or two in bed."
"Good. That's the way to talk. You got to make him good as new, Doctor. You ought to have seen the way he stayed by that drill when the water was pouring through the cracks in the granite. Have him taken to the hospital, and send the bill to me."
Tregarth boomed out in a heavy bass:
"What's the matter with the boss? Both of un? They be all right. Bean't they, lads?"
It was just after the answering chorus that Pesquiera came forward and bowed magnificently to the young mine operator. The New Mexican's eyes were blazing with admiration, for he was of Castilian blood and cherished courage as the chief of virtues.
"I have the honor to salute a hero, senor" he cried enthusiastically. "Your deed is of a most fine bravery. I, Manuel Pesquiera, say it. Have I the right in thinking him of the name of Mr. Richard Gordon?"
Something that was almost disgust filmed the gray eyes of the young miner. He had the Anglo-Saxon horror of heroics. What he had done was all in the day's work, and he was the last man in the world to enjoy having a fuss made over it.
"My name is Gordon," he said quietly.
The Spaniard bowed again.
"I have the honor to be your servant to command, Don Manuel Pesquiera. I believe myself to be, sir, a messenger of fortune to you—a Mercury from the favoring gods, with news of good import. I, therefore, ask the honor of an audience at your convenience."
Dick flung the wet hat from his curly head and took a look at the card which the Spaniard had presented him. From it his humorous gaze went back to the posturing owner of the pasteboard. Suppressing a grin, he answered with perfect gravity.
"If you will happen round to the palace about noon to-morrow, Senor Pesquiera, you will be admitted to the presence by the court flunkies. When you're inquiring for the whereabouts of the palace, better call it room 14, Gold Nugget Rooming-House."
He excused himself and stepped lightly across to his companion in the adventure, who had by this time recovered consciousness.
"How goes it, Tom? Feel as if you'd been run through a sausage-grinder?" he asked cheerily.
The man smiled faintly. "I'm all right, boss. The boys tell me you went back and saved me."
"Sho! I just grabbed you and slung you in the cage. No trick at all, Tom. Now, don't you worry, boy. Just lie there in the hospital and rest easy. We're settling the bill, and there's a hundred plunks waiting you when you get well."
Tom's hand pressed his feebly.
"I always knew you were white, boss."
The doctor laughed as he came forward with a basin of water and bandages.
"I'm afraid he'll be whiter than he need be if I don't stop that bleeding. I think we're ready for it now, Mr. Gordon."
"All right. It's only a scratch," answered Gordon indifferently.
Pesquiera, feeling that he was out of the picture, departed in search of a hotel for the night. He was conscious of a strong admiration for this fair brown-faced Anglo-Saxon who faced death so lightly for one of his men. Whatever else he might prove to be, Richard Gordon was a man.
The New Mexican had an uneasy prescience that his mission was foredoomed to failure and that it might start currents destined to affect potently the lives of many in the Rio Chama Valley.
THE TWO GRANTS
The clock in the depot tower registered just twelve, and the noon whistles were blowing when Pesquiera knocked at apartment 14, of the Gold Nugget Rooming-House.
In answer to an invitation to "Come in," he entered an apartment which seemed to be a combination office and living-room. A door opened into what the New Mexican assumed to be a sleeping chamber, adjoining which was evidently a bath, judging from the sound of splashing water.
"With you in a minute," a voice from within assured the guest.
The splashing ceased. There was the sound of a towel in vigorous motion. This was followed by the rustling of garments as the bather dressed. In an astonishingly short time the owner of the rooms appeared in the doorway.
He was a well-set-up youth, broad of shoulder and compact of muscle. The ruddy bloom that beat through the tanned cheeks and the elasticity of his tread hinted at an age not great, but there was no suggestion of immaturity in the cool steadiness of the gaze or in the quiet poise of the attitude.
He indicated a chair, after relieving his visitor of hat and cane. Pesquiera glanced at the bandage round the head.
"I trust, senor, your experience of yesterday has not given you a wakeful night?"
"Slept like a top. Fact is, I'm just getting up. You heard this morning yet how Tom is?"
"The morning newspaper says he is doing very well indeed."
"That's good hearing. He's a first-rate boy, and I'd hate to hear worse of him. But I mustn't take your time over our affairs. I think you mentioned business, sir?"
The Castilian leaned forward and fixed his black, piercing eyes on the other. Straight into his business he plunged.
"Senor Gordon, have you ever heard of the Valdes grant?"
"Not to remember it. What kind of a grant is it?"
"It is a land grant, made by Governor Facundo Megares, of New Mexico, which territory was then a province of Spain, to Don Fernando Valdes, in consideration of services rendered the Spanish crown against the Indians."
Dick shook his head. "You've got me, sir. If I ever heard of it the thing has plumb slipped my mind. Ought I to know about it?"
"Have you ever heard of the Moreno grant?"
Somewhere in the back of the young man's mind a faint memory stirred. He seemed to see an old man seated at a table in a big room with a carved fireplace. The table was littered with papers, and the old gentleman was explaining them to a woman. She was his daughter, Dick's mother. A slip of a youngster was playing about the room with two puppies. That little five-year-old was the young mine operator.
"I have," he answered calmly.
"You know, then, that a later governor of the territory, Manuel Armijo, illegally carved half a million acres out of the former grant and gave it to Jose Moreno, from whom your grandfather bought it."
The miner's face froze to impassivity. He was learning news. The very existence of such a grant was a surprise to him. His grandfather and his mother had been dead fifteen years. Somewhere in an old trunk back in Kentucky there was a tin box full of papers that might tell a story. But for the present he preferred to assume that he knew what information they contained.
"I object to the word illegal, Don Manuel," he answered curtly, not at all sure his objection had any foundation of law.
Pesquiera shrugged. "Very well, senor. The courts, I feel sure, will sustain my words."
"Perhaps, and perhaps not."
"The law is an expensive arbiter, Senor Gordon. Your claim is slight. The title has never been perfected by you. In fifteen years you have paid no taxes. Still your claim, though worthless in itself, operates as a cloud upon the title of my client, the Valdes heir."
Dick looked at him steadily and nodded. He began to see the purpose of this visit. He waited silently, his mind very alert.
"Senor, I am here to ask of you a relinquishment. You are brave; no doubt, chivalrous——"
"I'm a business man, Don Manuel," interrupted Gordon. "I don't see what chivalry has got to do with it."
"Senorita Valdes is a woman, young and beautiful. This little estate is her sole possession. To fight for it in court is a hardship that Senor Gordon will not force upon her."
"So she's young and beautiful, is she?"
"The fairest daughter of Spain in all New Mexico," soared Don Manuel.
"You don't say. A regular case of beauty and the beast, ain't it?"
"As one of her friends, I ask of you not to oppose her lawful possession of this little vineyard."
"In the grape business, is she?"
"I speak, senor, in metaphor. The land is barren, of no value except for sheep grazing."
"Are you asking me to sell my title or give it?"
"It is a bagatelle—a mere nothing. The title is but waste paper, I do assure. Yet we would purchase—for a nominal figure—merely to save court expenses."
"I see," Dick laughed softly. "Just to save court expenses—because you'd rather I'd have the money than the lawyers. That's right good of you."
Pesquiera talked with his hands and shoulders, sparkling into animation. "Mr. Gordon distrusts me. So? Am I not right? He perhaps mistakes me for what you call a—a pettifogger, is it not? I do assure to the contrary. The blood of the Pesquieras is of the bluest Castilian."
"Fine! I'll take your word for it, Don Manuel. And I don't distrust you at all. But here's the point. I'm a plain American business man. I don't buy and I don't sell without first investigating a proposition submitted to me. I'm from Missouri."
"Oh, indeed! From St. Louis perhaps. I went to school there when I was a boy."
Gordon laughed. "I was speaking in metaphor, Don Manuel. What I mean is that I'll have to be shown. No pig-in-a-poke business for me."
"Exactly. Most precisely. Have I not traveled from New Mexico up this steep roof of the continent merely to explain how matters stand? Valencia Valdes is the true and rightful heiress of the valley. She is everywhere so recognize' and accept' by the peons."
The miner's indolent eye rested casually upon his guest. "Married?"
"I have not that felicitation," replied the Spaniard.
"It was the lady I meant."
"Pardon. No man has yet been so fortunate to win the senorita"
"I reckon it's not for want of trying, since the heiress is so beautiful. There's always plenty of willing lads to take over the job of prince regent under such circumstances."
The spine of the New Mexican stiffened ever so slightly. "Senorita Valdes is princess of the Rio Chama valley. Her dependents understan' she is of a differen' caste, a descendant of the great and renowned Don Alvaro of Castile."
"Don't think I know the gentleman. Who was he?" asked Gordon genially, offering his guest a cigar.
Pesquiera threw up his neat little hands in despair. "But of a certainty Mr. Gordon has read of Don Alvaro de Valdes y Castillo, lord of demesnes without number, conqueror of the Moors and of the fierce island English who then infested Spain in swarms. His retinue was as that of a king. At his many manors fed daily thirty thousand men at arms. In all Europe no knight so brave, so chivalrous, so skillful with lance and sword. To the nobles his word was law. Young men worshiped him, the old admired, the poor blessed. The queen, it is said, love' him madly. She was of exceeding beauty, but Don Alvaro remember his vows of knighthood and turn his back upon madness. Then the king, jealous for that his great noble was better, braver and more popular than he, send for de Valdes to come to court."
"I reckon Don Alvaro ought to have been sick a-bed that day and unable to make the journey," suggested Dick.
"So say his wife and his men, but Don Alvaro scorn to believe his king a traitor. He kiss his wife and babies good-bye, ride into the trap prepare' for him, and die like a soldier. God rest his valiant soul."
"Some man. I'd like to have met him," Gordon commented.
"Senorita Valencia is of the same blood, of the same fine courage. She, too, is the idol of her people. Will Mr. Gordon, who is himself of the brave heart, make trouble for an unprotected child without father or mother?"
"Unprotected isn't quite the word so long as Don Manuel Pesquiera is her friend," the Coloradoan answered with a smile.
The dark young man flushed, but his eyes met those of Dick steadily. "You are right, sir. I stand between her and trouble if I can."
"Good. Glad you do."
"So I make you an offer. I ask you to relinquish your shadowy claim to the illegal Moreno grant."
"Well, I can't tell you offhand just what I'll do, Don Manuel. Make your proposition to me in writing, and one month from to-day I'll let you know whether it's yes or no."
"But the senorita wants to make improvements—to build, to fence. Delay is a hardship. Let us say a thousand dollars and make an end."
"Not if the court knows itself. You say she's young. A month's wait won't hurt her any. I want to look into it. Maybe you're offering me too much. A fifth of a cent an acre is a mighty high price for land. I don't want any fairest daughter of Spain to rob herself for me, you know," he grinned.
"I exceed my instructions. I offer two thousand, Mr. Gordon."
"If you said two hundred thousand, I'd still say no till I had looked it up. I'm not doing business to-day at any price, thank you."
"You are perhaps of an impression that this land is valuable. On the contrary, I offer an assurance. And our need of your shadowy claim——"
"I ain't burdened with impressions, except one, that I don't care to dispose of my ghost-title. We'll talk business a month from to-day, if you like. No sooner. Have a smoke, Don Manuel?"
Pesquiera declined the proffered cigar with an impatient gesture. He rose, reclaimed his hat and cane, and clicked his heels together in a stiff bow.
He was a slight, dark, graceful man, with small, neat hands and feet, trimly gloved and shod. He had a small black mustache pointing upward in parallels to his smooth, olive cheeks. The effect was almost foppish, but the fire in the snapping eyes contradicted any suggestion of effeminacy. His gaze yielded nothing even to the searching one of Gordon.
"It is, then, war between us, Senor Gordon?" he asked haughtily.
"Sho! It's just business. Maybe I'll take your offer. Maybe I won't. I might want to run down and look at the no-'count land," he said with a laugh.
"I think it fair to inform you, sir, that the feeling of the country down there is in favor of the Valdes grant. The peons are hot-tempered, and are likely to resent any attempt to change the existing conditions. Your presence, senor, would be a danger."
"Much obliged, Don Manuel. Tell 'em from me that I got a bad habit of wearing a six-gun, and that if they get to resenting too arduous it's likely to ventilate their enthusiasm."
Once more the New Mexican bowed stiffly before he retired.
Pesquiera had overplayed his hand. He had stirred in the miner an interest born of curiosity and a sense of romantic possibilities. Dick wanted to see this daughter of Castile who was still to the simple-hearted shepherds of the valley a princess of the blood royal. Don Manuel was very evidently her lover. Perhaps it was his imagination that had mixed the magic potion that lent an atmosphere of old-world pastoral charm to the story of the Valdes grant. Likely enough the girl would prove commonplace in a proud half-educated fashion that would be intolerable for a stranger.
But even without the help of the New Mexican the situation was one which called for a thorough personal investigation. Gordon was a hard-headed American business man, though he held within him the generous and hare-brained potentialities of a soldier of fortune. He meant to find out just what the Moreno grant was worth. After he had investigated his legal standing he would look over the valley of the Chama himself. He took no stock in Don Manuel's assurance that the land was worthless, any more than he gave weight to his warning that a personal visit to the scene would be dangerous if the settlers believed he came to interfere with their rights. For many turbulent years Dick Gordon had held his own in a frontier community where untamed enemies had passed him daily with hate in their hearts. He was not going to let the sulky resentment of a few shepherds interfere with his course now.
A message flashed back to a little town in Kentucky that afternoon. It was of the regulation ten-words length, and this was the body of it:
Send immediately, by express, little brown leather trunk in garret.
The signature at the bottom of it was "Richard Gordon."
A fisherman was whipping the stream of the Rio Chama.
In his creel were a dozen trout, for the speckled beauties had been rising to the fly that skipped across the top of the riffles as naturally as life. He wore waders, gray flannel shirt, and khaki coat. As he worked up the stream he was oftener in its swirling waters than on the shore. But just now the fish were no longer striking.
"Time to grub, anyhow. I'll give them a rest for a while. They'll likely be on the job again soon," he told himself as he waded ashore.
A draw here ran down to the river, and its sunny hillside tempted him to eat his lunch farther up.
Into the little basin in which he found himself the sun had poured shafts of glory to make a very paradise of color. Down by the riverside the willows were hesitating between green and bronze. Russet and brown and red peppered the slopes, but shades of yellow predominated in the gulch itself.
The angler ate his sandwiches leisurely, and stretched his lithe body luxuriantly on the ground for a siesta. When he resumed his occupation the sun had considerably declined from the meridian. The fish were again biting, and he landed two in as many minutes.
The bed of the river had been growing steeper, and at the upper entrance of the little park he came to the first waterfall he had seen. Above this, on the opposite side, was a hole that looked inviting. He decided that a dead tree lying across the river would, at a pinch, serve for a bridge, and he ventured upon it. Beneath his feet the rotting bark gave way. He found himself falling, tried desperately to balance himself, and plunged head first into the river.
Coming to the surface, he caught at a rock which jutted from the channel. At this point the water was deep and the current swift. Were he to let loose of the boulder he must be swept over the fall before he could reach the shore. Nor could he long maintain his position against the rush of the ice-cold waters fresh from the mountain snow fields.
He had almost made up his mind to take his chances with the fall, when a clear cry came ringing to him:
A figure was flying down the slope toward him—the slim, graceful form of a woman. As she ran she caught up a stick from the ground. This she held out to him from the bank.
He shook his head.
"I would only drag you in."
She put her fingers to her mouth and gave a clear whistle. Far up on the slope a pony lifted its head and nickered. Again her whistle shrilled, and the bronco trotted down toward her.
"Can you hold on?" she asked in English.
He was chilled to the marrow, but he answered quietly: "I reckon."
She was gone, swift-footed as a deer, to meet the descending animal. He saw her swing to the saddle and lean over it as the pace quickened to a gallop.
He did not know her fingers were busy preparing the rawhide lariat that depended from the side of the saddle. On the very bank she brought up with a jerk that dragged her mount together, and at the same moment slipped to the ground.
Running open the noose of the lariat, she dropped it surely over his shoulders. The other end of the rope was fastened to the saddle-horn, and the cow-pony, used to roping and throwing steers, braced itself with wide-planted front feet for the shock.
"Can you get your arm through the loop?" cried the girl.
His arms were like lead, and almost powerless. With one hand he knew he could not hang on. Nor did he try longer than for that one desperate instant when he shot his fist through the loop. The wall of water swept him away, but the taut rope swung him shoreward.
Little hands caught hold of him and fought with the strong current for the body of the almost unconscious man; fought steadily and strongly, for there was strength in the small wrists and compact muscle in the shapely arms. She was waist deep in the water before she won, for from above she could find no purchase for the lift.
The fisherman's opening eyes looked into dark anxious ones that gazed at him from beneath the longest lashes he had ever seen. He had an odd sense of being tangled up in them and being unable to escape, of being both abashed and happy in his imprisonment. What he thought was: "They don't have eyes like those out of heaven." What he said was entirely different.
"Near thing. Hadn't been for you I wouldn't have made it."
At his words she rose from her knees to her full height, and he saw that she was slenderly tall and fashioned of gracious curves. The darkness of her clear skin was emphasized by the mass of blue-black hair from which little ears peeped with exquisite daintiness. The mouth was sweet and candid, red-lipped, with perfect teeth just showing in the full arch. The straight nose, with its sensitive nostrils, proclaimed her pure patrician.
"You are wet," he cried. "You went in after me."
She looked down at her dripping skirts, and laughter rippled over her face like the wind in golden grain. It brought out two adorable dimples near the tucked-in corners of her mouth.
"I am damp," she conceded.
"Why did you do it? The water might have swept you away," he chided, coming to a sitting posture.
"And if I hadn't it might have swept you away," she answered, with a flash of her ivory teeth.
He rose and stood before her.
"You risked your life to save mine."
"Is it not worth it, sir?"
"That ain't for me to say. The point is, you took the chance."
Her laughter bubbled again. "You mean, I took the bath."
"I expect you'll have to listen to what I've got to say, ma'am."
"Are you going to scold me? Was I precipitate? Perhaps you were attempting suicide. Forgive, I pray."
He ignored her raillery, and told her what he thought of a courage so fine and ready. He permitted a smile to temper his praise, as he added: "You mustn't go jumping in the river after strangers if you don't want them to say, 'Thank you kindly.' You find four out of five of them want to, don't you?"
"It is not yet a habit of mine. You're the first"
"I hope I'll be the last."
She began to wring out the bottom of her skirt, and he was on his knees at once to do it for her.
"That will do very nicely," she presently said, the color billowing her cheeks.
He gathered wood and lit a fire, being fortunate enough to find his match-case had been waterproof. He piled on dry branches till the fire roared and licked out for the moisture in their clothes.
"I've been wondering how you happened to see me in the water," he said. "You were riding past, I expect?"
"No, I was sketching. I saw you when you came up to eat your lunch, and I watched you go back to the river."
"Do you live near here, then?" he asked.
"About three miles away."
"And you were watching me all the time?" He put his statement as a question.
"No, I wasn't," the young woman answered indignantly. "You happened to be in the landscape."
"A blot in it," he suggested. "A hop-toad splashing in the puddle."
The every-ready dimples flashed out at this. "You did make quite a splash when you went in. The fish must have thought it was a whale."
"And when I told you the water was fine, and you came in, too, they probably took you for a naiad."
She thanked him with an informal little nod.
"I thought you Anglo-Saxons did not give compliments."
"I don't," he immediately answered.
"Oh! If that isn't another one, I'm mistaken, sir." She turned indifferently away, apparently of the opinion that she had been quite friendly enough to this self-possessed young stranger.
Rewinding the lariat, she fastened it to the saddle, then swung to the seat before he could step forward to aid her.
"I hope you will suffer no bad effects from your bath," he said.
"I shall not; but I'm afraid you will. You were in long enough to get thoroughly chilled. Adios, senor."
He called to her before the pony had taken a dozen steps:
"Your handkerchief, senorita!"
She turned in the saddle and waited for him to bring it. He did so, and she noticed that he limped badly.
"You have hurt yourself," she said quickly.
"I must have jammed my knee against a rock," he explained. "Nothing serious."
"But it pains?"
"Just enough to let me know it's there."
Frowning, she watched him.
"Is it a bruise or a sprain?"
"A wrench, I think. It will be all right if I favor it"
"Favor it? Except the ranch, there is no place nearer than seven miles. You are staying at Corbett's, I presume?"
"You can't walk back there to-night. That is certain." She slipped from the saddle. "You'll have to go back to the ranch with me, sir. I can walk very well."
He felt a wave of color sweep his face.
"I couldn't take the horse and let you walk."
"That is nonsense, sir. You can, and you shall."
"If I am to take your horse I need not saddle myself upon your hospitality. I can ride back to Corbett's, and send the horse home to-morrow."
"It is seven miles to Miguel's, and Corbett's is three beyond that. No doctor would advise that long ride before your knee receives attention, I think, sir, you will have to put up with the ranch till to-morrow."
"You ain't taking my intention right. All I meant was that I didn't like to unload myself on your folks; but if you say I'm to do it I'll be very happy to be your guest." He said it with a touch of boyish embarrassment she found becoming.
"We'll stop at the top of the hill and take on my drawing things," she told him.
He need have had no fears for her as a walker, for she was of the elect few born to grace of motion. Slight she was, yet strong; the delicacy that breathed from her was of the spirit, and consisted with perfect health. No Grecian nymph could have trod with lighter or surer step nor have unconsciously offered to the eye more supple and beautiful lines of limb and body.
Never had the young man seen before anybody whose charm went so poignantly to the root of his emotions. Every turn of the head, the set of the chin, the droop of the long, thick lashes on the soft cheek, the fling of a gesture, the cadence of her voice; they all delighted and fascinated him. She was a living embodiment of joy-in-life, of love personified.
She packed her sketches and her paraphernalia with businesslike directness, careless of whether he did or did not see her water-colors. A movement of his hand stayed her as she took from, the easel the one upon which she had been engaged.
It represented the sun-drenched slope below them, with the little gulch dressed riotously in its gala best of yellows.
"You've got that fine," he told her enthusiastically.
She shook her head, unmoved by praise which did not approve itself to her judgment as merited.
"No, I didn't get it at all. A great artist might get the wonder of it; but I can't."
"It looks good to me," he said.
"Then I'm afraid you're not a judge," she smiled.
From where they stood a trail wound along the ridge and down into a valley beyond. At the farther edge of this, nestling close to the hills that took root there, lay the houses of a ranch.
"That is where I live," she told him.
He thought it a lovely spot, almost worthy of her, but obviously he could not tell her so. Instead, he voiced an alien thought that happened to intrude:
"Do you know Senorita Valdes? But of course you must."
She flung a quick glance at him, questioning.
"Yes, I know her."
"She lives somewhere round here, too, does she not?"
Her arm swept round in a comprehensive gesture. "Over that way, too."
"Do you know her well?"
An odd smile dimpled her face.
"Sometimes I think I do, and then again I wonder."
"I have been told she is beautiful."
"Beauty is in the beholder's eyes, senor. Valencia Valdes is as Heaven made her."
"I have no doubt; but Heaven took more pains with some of us than others—it appears."
Again the dark eyes under the long lashes swept him from the curly head to the lean, muscular hands, and approved silently the truth of his observation. The clean lithe build of the man, muscles packed so that they rippled smoothly like those of a panther, appealed to her trained eyes. So, too, did the quiet, steady eyes in the bronzed face, holding as they did the look of competent alertness that had come from years of frontier life.
"You are interested in Miss Valdes?" she asked politely.
"In a way of speaking, I am. She is one of the reasons why I came here."
"Indeed! She would no doubt be charmed to know of your interest," still with polite detachment.
"My interest ain't exactly personal; then again it is," he contributed.
"A sort of an impersonal personal interest?"
"Yes; though I don't quite know what that means."
"Then I can't be expected to," she laughed.
His laughter joined hers; but presently he recurred to his question:
"You haven't told me yet about Miss Valdes. Is she as lovely as they say she is?"
"I don't know just how lovely they say she is. Sometimes I have thought her very passable; then again—" She broke off with a defiant little laugh. "Don't you know, sir, that you mustn't ask one lady to praise the beauty of another?"
"I suppose I may ask questions?" he said, much amused.
"It depends a little on the questions."
"Is she tall?"
"Rather. About as tall as I am."
"And dark, of course, since she is a Spanish senorita"
"Yes, she is dark."
"Slim and graceful, I expect?"
"She is slender."
"I reckon she banks a heap on that blue blood of hers?"
"Yes; she is prouder of it than there is really any need of, though I think probably her pride is unconscious and a matter of habit."
"I haven't been able to make out yet whether you like her," he laughed.
"I don't see what my liking has to do with it."
"I expect to meet her, and I want to use your judgment to base mine on."
"Oh, you expect to meet her?"
She said it lightly, yet with a certain emphasis that he noted.
"Don't you think she will let me? Do I have to show blue blood before I can be presented? One of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Will that do?"
Her raillery met his.
"That ought to do, I should think. I suppose you have brought genealogical proofs with you?"
"I clean forgot. Won't you please get on and ride now? I feel like a false alarm, playing the invalid on you, ma'am."
"No; I'll walk. We're almost at the ranch. It's just under this hill. But there's one thing I want to ask of you as a favor."
"It's yours," he replied briefly.
She seemed to struggle with some emotion before she spoke:
"Please don't mention Valencia Valdes while you are at the ranch. I—I have reasons, sir."
"Certainly; I'll do as you prefer."
To himself he thought that there was probably a feud of some kind between the two families that might make a mention of the name unpleasant. "And that reminds me that I don't know what your name is. Mine is Muir—Richard Muir."
"And mine is Maria Yuste."
He offered her his brown hand. "I'm right happy to meet you, Senorita Maria."
"Welcome to the Yuste hacienda, senor. What is ours is yours, so long as you are our guest. I pray you make yourself at home," she said as they rode into the courtyard.
Two Mexican lads came running forward; and one whom she called Pedro took the horse, while the other went into the house to attend to a quick command she gave in Spanish.
The man who had named himself Richard Muir followed his hostess through a hall, across an open court, and into a living-room carpeted with Navajo rugs, at the end of which was a great open fireplace bearing a Spanish motto across it.
Large windows, set three feet deep in the thick adobe walls, were filled with flowers or padded with sofa pillows for seats. One of these his hostess indicated to the limping man.
"If you will be seated here for the present, sir, your room will be ready very soon."
A few minutes later the fisherman found himself in a large bedroom. He was seated in an easy-chair before a crackling fire of pinon knots.
A messenger had been dispatched for a doctor, Senorita Yuste had told him, and in the meantime he was to make himself quite at home.
AT THE YUSTE HACIENDA
The wrench to the fisherman's knee proved more serious than he had anticipated. The doctor pronounced it out of the question that he should be moved for some days at least.
The victim was more than content, because he was very much interested in the young woman who had been his rescuer, and because it gave him a chance to observe at first hand the remains of the semifeudal system that had once obtained in New Mexico and California.
It was easy for him to see that Senorita Maria Yuste was still considered by her dependents as a superior being, one far removed from them by the divinity of caste that hedged her in. They gave her service; and she, on her part, looked out for their needs, and was the patron saint to whom they brought all their troubles.
It was an indolent, happy life the peons on the estate led, patriarchal in its nature, and far removed from the throb of the money-mad world. They had enough to eat and to wear. There was a roof over their heads. There were girls to be loved, dances to be danced, and guitars to be strummed. Wherefore, then, should the young men feel the spur of an ambition to take the world by the throat and wring success from it?
It had been more years than he could remember since this young American had taken a real holiday except for an occasional fishing trip on the Gunnison or into Wyoming. He had lived a life of activity. Now for the first time he learned how to be lazy. To dawdle indolently on one of the broad porches, while Miss Yuste sat beside him and busied herself over some needlework, was a sensuous delight that filled him with content. He felt that he would like to bask there in the warm sunshine forever. After all, why should he pursue wealth and success when love and laughter waited for him in this peaceful valley chosen of the gods?
The fourth morning of his arrival he hobbled out to the south porch after breakfast, to find his hostess in corduroy skirt, high laced boots, and pinched-in sombrero. She was drawing on a pair of driving gauntlets. One of the stable boys was standing beside a rig he had just driven to the house.
The young woman flung a flashing smile at her guest.
"Good day, Senor Muir. I hope you had a good night's rest, and that your knee did not greatly pain you?"
"I feel like a colt in the pasture—fit for anything. But the doctor won't have it that way. He says I'm an invalid," returned the young man whimsically.
"The doctor ought to know," she laughed.
"I expect it won't do me any harm to lie still for a day or two. We Americans all have the git-up-and-dust habit. We got to keep going, though Heaven knows what we're going for sometimes."
Though he did not know it, her interest in him was considerable, though certainly critical. He was a type outside of her experience, and, by the law of opposites, attracted her. Every line of him showed tremendous driving power, force, energy. He was not without some touch of Western swagger; but it went well with the air of youth to which his boyish laugh and wavy, sun-reddened hair contributed.
The men of her station that she knew were of one pattern, indolent, well-bred aristocrats, despisers of trade and of those who indulged in it more than was necessary to live. But her mother had been an American girl, and there was in her blood a strong impulse toward the great nation of which her father's people were not yet in spirit entirely a part.
"I have to drive to Antelope Springs this morning. It is not a rough trip at all. If you would care to see the country——"
She paused, a question in her face. Her guest jumped at the chance.
"There is nothing I should like better. If you are sure it will be no inconvenience."
"I am sure I should not have asked you if I had not wanted you," she said; and he took it as a reproof.
She drove a pair of grays that took the road with the spirit of racers. The young woman sat erect and handled the reins masterfully, the while Muir leaned back and admired the steadiness of the slim, strong wrists, the businesslike directness with which she gave herself to her work, the glow of life whipped into her eyes and cheeks by the exhilaration of the pace.
"I suppose you know all about these old land-grants that were made when New Mexico was a Spanish colony and later when it was a part of Mexico," he suggested.
Her dark eyes rested gravely on him an instant before she answered: "Most of us that were brought up on them know something of the facts."
"You are familiar with the Valdes grant?"
"And with the Moreno grant, made by Governor Armijo?"
"The claims conflict, do they not?"
"The Moreno grant is taken right from the heart of the Valdes grant. It includes all the springs, the valleys, the irrigable land; takes in everything but the hilly pasture land in the mountains, which, in itself, is valueless."
"The land included in this grant is of great value?"
"It pastures at the present time fifty thousand sheep and about twelve thousand head of cattle."
"Owned by Miss Valdes?"
"Owned by her and her tenants."
"She's what you call a cattle queen, then. Literally, the cattle on a thousand hills are hers."
"As they were her father's and her grandfather's before her, to be held in trust for the benefit of about eight hundred tenants," she answered quietly.
"Tell me more about it. The original grantee was Don Bartolome de Valdes, was he not?"
"Yes. He was the great-great-grandson of Don Alvaro de Valdes y Castillo, who lost his head because he was a braver and a better man than the king. Don Bartolome, too, was a great soldier and ruler. He was generous and public-spirited to a fault; and when the people of this province suffered from Indian raids he distributed thousands of sheep to relieve their distress."
"Bully for the old boy. He was a real philanthropist."
"Not at all. He had to do it. His position required it of him."
"That was it, eh?"
Her dusky eyes questioned him.
"You couldn't understand, I suppose, since you are an American, how he was the father and friend of all the people in these parts; how his troopers and vaqueros were a defense to the whole province?"
"I think I can understand that."
"So it was, even to his death, that he looked out for the poor peons dependent upon him. His herds grew mighty; and he asked of Facundo Megares, governor of the royal province, a grant of land upon which to pasture them. These herds were for his people; but they were in his name and belonged to him. Why should he not have been given land for them, since his was the sword that had won the land against the Apaches?"
"You ain't heard me say he shouldn't have had it"
"So the alcalde executed the act of possession for a tract, to be bounded on the south by Crow Spring, following its cordillera to the Ojo del Chico, east to the Pedornal range, north to the Ojo del Cibolo —Buffalo Springs—and west to the great divide. It was a princely estate, greater than the State of Delaware; and Don Bartolome held it for the King of Spain, and ruled over it with powers of life and death, but always wisely and generously, like the great-hearted gentleman he was."
"Bully for him."
"And at his death his son ruled in his stead; and his only son died in the Spanish-American War, as a lieutenant of volunteers in the United States Army. He was shot before Santiago."
The voice died away in her tremulous throat; and he wondered if it could be possible that this girl had been betrothed to the young soldier. But presently she spoke again, cheerfully and lightly:
"Wherefore, it happens that there remains only a daughter of the house of Valdes to carry the burden that should have been her brother's, to look out for his people, and to protect them both against themselves and others. She may fail; but, if I know her, the failure will not be because she has not tried."
"Good for her. I'd like to shake her aristocratic little paw and tell her to buck in and win."
"She would no doubt be grateful for your sympathy," the young woman answered, flinging a queer little look of irony at him.
"But what's the hitch about the Valdes grant? Why is there a doubt of its legality?"
She smiled gaily at him.
"No person who desires to remain healthy has any doubts in this neighborhood. We are all partizans of Valencia Valdes; and many of her tenants are such warm followers that they would not think twice about shedding blood in defense of her title. You must remember that they hold through her right. If she were dispossessed so would they be."
"Is that a threat? I mean, would it be if I were a claimant?" he asked, meeting her smile pleasantly.
"Oh, no. Miss Valdes would regret any trouble, and so should I." A shadow crossed her face as she spoke. "But she could not prevent her friends from violence, I am afraid. You see, she is only a girl, after all. They would move without her knowledge. I know they would."
"How would they move? Would it be a knife in the dark?"
His gray eyes, which had been warm as summer sunshine on a hill, were now fixed on her with chill inscrutability.
"I don't know. It might be that. Very likely." He saw the pulse in her throat beating fast as she hesitated before she plunged on. "A warning is not a threat. If you know this Senor Gordon, tell him to sell whatever claim he has. Tell him, at least, to fight from a distance; not to come to this valley himself. Else his life would be at hazard."
"If he is a man that will not keep him away. He will fight for what is his all the more because there is danger. What's more, he'll do his fighting on the ground—unless he's a quitter."
"I was afraid so."
"But you have not told me yet the alleged defect in the Valdes claim. There must be some point of law upon which the thing hangs."
"It is claimed that Don Bartolome did not take up his actual residence on the grant, as the law required. Then, too, he himself was later governor of the province, and while he was president of the Ayuntamiento at Tome he officially indorsed some small grants of land made from this estate. He did this because he wanted the country developed, and was willing to give part of what he had to his neighbors; but I suppose the contestant will claim this showed he had abandoned his grant."
"I see. Title not perfected," he summed up briefly.
"We deny it, of course—I mean, Miss Valdes does. She shows that in his will the old don mentions it, and that her father lived there without interruption, even though Manuel Armijo later granted the best of it to Jose Moreno."
"It would be pretty tough for her to be fired out now. I reckon she's attached to the place, her and her folks having lived there so long," the young man mused aloud.
"Her whole life is wrapped up in it. It is the home of her people. She belongs to it, and it to her," the girl answered.
"Mebbe this Gordon is a white man. I reckon he wouldn't drive her out. Like as not he'd fix up a compromise. There's enough for both."
She shook her head decisively.
"No. It would have to be a money settlement. Miss Valdes's people are settled all over the estate. Some of them have bought small ranches. You see, she couldn't—throw them down—as you Americans say."
"That's right," he agreed. "Well, I shouldn't wonder but it can be fixed up some way."
They had been driving across a flat cactus country, and for some time had been approaching the grove of willows into which she now turned. Some wooden barns, a corral, an adobe house, and outhouses marked the place as one of the more ambitious ranches of the valley.
An old Mexican came forward with a face wreathed in smiles.
"Buenos, Dona Maria," he cried, in greeting.
"Buenos, Antonio. This gentleman is Mr. Richard Muir."
"Buenos, senor. A friend of Dona Maria is a friend of Antonio."
"The older people call me 'dona,'" the girl explained. "I suppose they think it strange a girl should have to do with affairs, and so they think of me as 'dona,' instead of 'senorita,' to satisfy themselves."
A vague suspicion, that had been born in the young man's mind immediately after his rescue from the river now recurred.
His first thought then had been that this young woman must be Valencia Valdes; but he had dismissed it when he had seen the initial M on her kerchief, and when she had subsequently left him to infer that such was not the case.
He remembered now in what respect she was held in the home hacienda; how everybody they had met had greeted her with almost reverence. It was not likely that two young heiresses, both of them beautiful orphans, should be living within a few miles of each other.
Besides, he remembered that this very Antelope Springs was mentioned in the deed of conveyance which he had lately examined before leaving the mining camp. She was giving orders about irrigating ditches as if she were owner.
It followed then that she must be Valencia Valdes. There could be no doubt of it.
He watched her as she talked to old Antonio and gave the necessary directions. How radiant and happy she was in this life which had fallen to her; by inheritance! He vowed she should not be disinherited through any action of his. He owed her his life. At least, he could spare her this blow.
They drove home more silently than they had come. He was thinking over the best way to do what he was going to do. The evening before they had sat together in front of the fire in the living-room, while her old duenna had nodded in a big arm-chair. So they would sit to-night and to-morrow night.
He would send at once for the papers upon which his claim depended, and he would burn them before her eyes. After that they would be friends—and, in the end, much more than friends.
He was still dreaming his air-castle, when they drove through the gate that led to her home. In front of the porch a saddled bronco trailed its rein, and near by stood a young man in riding-breeches and spurs. He turned at the sound of wheels; and the man in the buggy saw that it was Manuel Pesquiera.
The Spaniard started when he recognized the other, and his eyes grew bright. He moved forward to assist the young woman in alighting; but, in spite of his bad knee, the Coloradoan was out of the rig and before him.
"Buenos, amigo" she nodded to Don Manuel, lightly releasing the hand of Muir.
"Buenos, senorita" returned that young man. "I behold you are already acquaint' with Mr. Richard Gordon, whose arrival is to me very unexpect'."
She seemed to grow tall before her guest's eyes; to stand in a kind of proud splendor that had eclipsed her girlish slimness. The dark eyes under the thick lashes looked long and searchingly at him.
"Mr. Richard Gordon? I understand this gentleman's name to be Muir," she made voice gently.
Dick laughed with a touch of shame. Now once in his life he wished he could prove an alibi. For, under the calm judgment of that steady gaze, the thing he had done seemed scarce defensible.
"Don Manuel has it right, senorita. Gordon is my name; Muir, too, for that matter. Richard Muir Gordon is what I was christened."
The underlying red of her cheeks had fled and left them clear olive. One might have thought the scornful eyes had absorbed all the fire of her face.
"So you have lied to me, sir?"
"Let me lay the facts before you, first. That's a hard word, senorita."
"You gave your name to me as Muir, You imposed yourself on my hospitality under false pretenses. You are only a spy, come to my house to mole for evidence against me."
"No—no!" he cried sharply. "You will remember that I did not want to come. I foresaw that it might be awkward, but I did not foresee this."
"That you would be found out before you had won your end? I believe you, sir," she retorted contemptuously.
"I see I'm condemned before I'm heard."
"Will any explanation alter the facts? Are you not a liar and a cheat? You gave me a false name to spy out the land."
"Am I the only one that gave a wrong name?" he asked.
"That is different," she flamed. "You had made a mistake and, half in sport, I encouraged you in it. But you seem to have found out my real name since. Yet you still accepted what I had to offer, under a false name, under false pretenses. You questioned me about the grants. You have lived a lie from first to last."
"It ain't as bad as you say, ma'am. Don Manuel had told me it wasn't safe to come here in my own name. I didn't care about the safety, but I wanted to see the situation exactly as it was. I didn't know who you were when I came here. I took you to be Miss Maria Yuste. I——"
"My name is Maria Yuste Valencia Valdes," the young woman explained proudly. "When, may I ask, did you discover who I was?"
"I guessed it at Antelope Springs."
"Then why did you not tell me then who you are? Surely that was the time to tell me. My deception did you no harm; yours was one no man of honor could have endured after he knew who I was."
"I didn't aim to keep it up very long. I meant, in a day or two——"
"A day or two," she cried, in a blaze of scorn. "After you had found out all I had to tell; after you had got evidence to back your robber-claim; after you had made me breathe the same air so long with a spy?"
Her face was very white; but she faced him in her erect slimness, with her dark eyes fixed steadily on him.
"You ain't quite fair to me; but let that pass for the present. When I asked you about the grants didn't you guess who I was? Play square with me. Didn't you have a notion?"
A flood of spreading color swept back into her face.
"No, I didn't. I thought perhaps you were an agent of the claimant; but I didn't know you were passing under a false name, that you were aware in whose house you were staying. I thought you an honest man, on the wrong side—nothing so contemptible as a spy."
"That idea's fixed in your mind, is it?" he asked quietly.
"Beyond any power of yours to remove it," she flashed back.
"The facts, Senor Gordon, speak loud," put in Pesquiera derisively.
Dick Gordon paid not the least attention to him. His gaze was fastened on the girl whose contempt was lashing him.
"Very well, Miss Valdes. Well let it go at that just now. All I've got to say is that some day you'll hate yourself for what you have just said."
Neither of them had raised their voices from first to last. Hers had been low and intense, pulsing with the passion that would out. His had held its even way.
"I hate myself now, that I have had you here so long, that I have been the dupe of a common cheat."
"All right. 'Nough said, ma'am. More would certainly be surplusage. I'll not trouble you any longer now. But I want you to remember that there's a day coming when you'll travel a long way to take back all of what you've just been saying. I want to thank you for all your kindness to me. I'm always at your service for what you did for me. Good-bye, Miss Valdes, for the present."
"I am of impression, sir, that you go not too soon," said Pesquiera suavely.
Miss Valdes turned on her heel and swept up the steps of the porch; but she stopped an instant before she entered the house to say over her shoulder:
"A buggy will be at your disposal to take you to Corbett's. If it is convenient, I should like to have you go to-night."
He smiled ironically.
"I'll not trouble you for the buggy, senorita. If I'm all you say I am, likely I'm a horse thief, too. Anyhow, we won't risk it. Walking's good enough for me."
"Just as you please," she choked, and forthwith disappeared into the house.
Gordon turned from gazing after her to find the little Spaniard bowing before him.
"Consider me at your service, Mr. Gordon——"
"Can't use you," cut in Dick curtly.
"I was remarking that, as her kinsman, I, Don Manuel Pesquiera, stand prepared to make good her words. What the Senorita Valdes says, I say, too."
"Then don't say it aloud, you little monkey, or I'll throw you over the house," Dick promised immediately.
Don Manuel clicked his heels together and twirled his black mustache.
"I offer you, sir, the remedy of a gentleman. You, sir, shall choose the weapons."
The Anglo-Saxon laughed in his face.
"Good. Let it be toasting-forks, at twenty paces."
The challenger drew himself up to his full five feet six.
"You choose to be what you call droll. Sir, I give you the word, poltroon—lache—coward."
"Oh, go chase yourself."
One of Pesquiera's little gloved hands struck the other's face with a resounding slap. Next instant he was lifted from his feet and tucked under Dick's arm.
There he remained, kicking and struggling, in a manner most undignified for a blue blood of Castile, while the Coloradoan stepped leisurely forward to the irrigating ditch which supplied water for the garden and the field of grain behind. This was now about two feet deep, and running strong. In it was deposited, at full length, the clapper little person of Don Manuel Pesquiera, after which Dick Gordon turned and went limping down the road.
From the shutters of her room a girl had looked down and seen it all. She saw Don Manuel rescue himself from the ditch, all dripping with water. She saw him gesticulating wildly, as he cursed the retreating foe, before betaking himself hurriedly from view to the rear of the house, probably to dry himself and nurse his rage the while. She saw Gordon go on his limping way without a single backward glance.
Then she flung herself on her bed and burst into tears.
"AN OPTIMISTIC GUY"
Dick Gordon hobbled up the road, quite unaware for some time that he had a ricked knee. His thoughts were busy with the finale that had just been enacted. He could not keep from laughing ruefully at the difference between it and the one of his day-dreams. He was too much of a Westerner not to see the humor of the comedy in which he had been forced to take a leading part, but he had insight enough to divine that it was much more likely to prove melodrama than farce.
Don Manuel was not the man to sit down under such an insult as he had endured, even though he had brought it upon himself. It would too surely be noised round that the Americano was the claimant to the estate, in which event he was very likely to play the part of a sheath for restless stilettos.
This did not trouble him as much as it would have done some men. The real sting of the episode lay in Valencia Valdes' attitude toward him. He had been kicked out for his unworthiness. He had been cast aside as a spy and a sneak.
The worst of it was that he felt his clumsiness deserved no less an issue to the adventure. Confound that little Don Manuel for bobbing up at such an inconvenient time! It was fierce luck.
He stopped his tramp up the hill, and looked back over the valley. Legally it was all his. So his Denver lawyers had told him, after looking the case over carefully. The courts would decide for him in all probability; morally he had not the shadow of a claim. The valley in justice belonged to those who had settled in it and were using it for their needs. His claim was merely a paper one. It had not a scintilla of natural justice back of it.
He resumed his journey. By this time his knee was sending telegrams of pain to headquarters. He cut an aspen by the roadside and trimmed it to a walking-stick and, as he went forward, leaned more and more heavily upon it.
"I'm going to have a game leg for fair if I don't look out," he told himself ruefully. "This right pin surely ain't good for a twelve-mile tramp."
It was during one of his frequent stops to rest that a buggy appeared round the turn from the same direction he had come. It drew to a halt in front of him, and the lad who was driving got out.
"Senorita Maria sends a carriage for Senor Gordon to take him to Corbett's," he said.
Dick was on hand with a sardonic smile.
"Tell the senorita that Mr. Gordon regrets having put her to so much trouble, but that he needs the exercise and prefers to walk."
"The senorita said I was to insist, senor."
"Tell your mistress that I'm very much obliged to her, but have made other arrangements. Explain to her I appreciate the offer just the same."
The lad hesitated, and Dick pushed him into decision.
"That's all right, Juan—Jose—Pedro—Francisco—whatever your name is. You've done your levelest. Now, hike back to the ranch. Vamos! Sabe."
Dick heard the wheels disappear in the distance, and laughed aloud.
"That young woman's conscience is hurting her. I reckon this tramp to Corbett's is going to worry her tender heart about as much as it does me, and I've got to sweat blood before I get through with it. Here goes again, Dicky."
Every step sent a pain shooting through him, but he was the last man to give up on that account what he had undertaken.
"She let me go without any lunch," he chuckled. "I'll bet that troubles her some, too, when she remembers. She's got me out of the house, but I'll bet the last strike in the Nancy K. against a dollar Mex that she ain't got me out of her mind by a heap."
A buggy appeared in sight driven by a stout, red-faced old man. Evidently he was on his way to the ranch.
"Who, hello, Doctor! I'm plumb glad to see you; couldn't wait till you came, and had just to start out to meet you," cried Dick.
He stood laughing at the amazement in the face of the doctor, who was in two minds whether to get angry or not.
"Doggone your hide, what are you doing here? Didn't I tell you not to walk more than a few steps?" that gentleman protested.
"But you didn't leave me a motor-car and, my visit being at an end, I ce'tainly had to get back to Corbett's." As he spoke he climbed slowly into the rig. "That leg of mine is acting like sixty, Doctor. When you happened along I was wondering how in time I was ever going to make it."
"You may have lamed yourself for life. It's the most idiotic thing I ever heard of. I don't see why Miss Valdes let you come. Dad blame it, have I got to watch my patients like a hen does its chicks? Ain't any of you got a lick of sense? Why didn't she send a rig if you had to come?" the doctor demanded.
"Seems to me she did mention a rig, but I thought I'd rather walk," explained Gordon casually, much amused at Dr. Watson's chagrined wonder.
"Walk!" snorted the physician. "You'll not walk, but be carried into an operating-room if you're not precious lucky. You deserve to lose that leg, and I don't say you won't."
"I'm an optimistic guy, Doctor. I'll say it for you. I ain't got any legs to spare."
"Huh! Some people haven't got the sense of a chicken with its head cut off."
"Now you're shouting. Go for me, Doc. Then, mebbe, I'll do better next time."
The doctor gave up this incorrigible patient and relapsed into silence, from which he came occasionally with an explosive "Huh!" Once he broke out with: "Didn't she feed you well enough, or was it just that you didn't know when you were well off?"
For he was aware that his patient's fever was rising and, like a good practitioner, he fumed at such useless relapse.
The knee had been doing fine. Now there would be the devil to pay with it. The utter senselessness of the proceeding irritated Watson. What in Mexico had got into the young idiot to make him do such a fool thing? The doctor guessed at a quarrel between him and Miss Valdes. But the close-mouthed American gave him no grounds upon which to base his suspicion.
The first thing that Dick did after reaching Corbett's was to send two telegrams. One was addressed to Messrs. Hughes & Willets, 411-417 Equitable Building, Denver, Colorado; the other went to Stephen Davis, Cripple Creek, of the same state.
Doctor Watson hustled his patient to bed and did his best to relieve the increasing pain in the swollen knee. He swore gently and sputtered and fumed as he worked, restraining himself only when Mrs. Corbett came into the room with hot water, towels, compresses, and other supplies.
"What about a nurse?" Watson wanted to know of Mrs. Corbett, a large motherly woman whose kind heart always found room in it for the weak and helpless.
"I got no room for one. Juanita and I will take care of him. The work's slack now. We'll have time."
"He's going to take a heap of nursing," the doctor answered, rubbing his unshaven chin dubiously with the palm of his hand. "See how the fever's climbed up even in the last half hour. That boy's going to be a mighty sick hombre."
"I'm used to nursing, and Juanita is the best help I ever had, if she is a Mexican. You may trust him to us."
"Hmp! I wasn't thinking of him, but of you. Couldn't be in better hands, but it's an imposition for him to go racing all over these hills with a game leg and expect you to pull him through."
Before midnight Dick was in a raging fever. In delirium he tossed from side to side, sometimes silent for long stretches, then babbling fragments of forgotten scenes rescued by his memory automatically from the wild and picturesque past of the man. Now he fancied himself again a schoolboy, now a ranger in Arizona, now mushing on the snow trails of Alaska. At times he would imagine that he was defending his mine against attacking strikers, or that he was combing the Rincons for horse thieves. Out of his turbid past flared for an instant dramatic moments of comedy or tragedy. These passed like the scenes of a motion-picture story, giving place to something else.
In the end he came back always to the adventure he was still living.
"You're a spy.... You're a liar and a cheat.... You imposed yourself upon my hospitality under false pretenses.... I hate myself for breathing the same air as you." He would break off to laugh foolishly, in a high-pitched note of derision at himself. "Stand up, Dick Gordon, and hear the lady tell you what a coyote you are. Stan' up and face the music, you quitter. Liar ... spy ... cheat! That's you, Dick Gordon, un'erstand?"
Or the sick mind of the man would forget for the moment that they had quarreled. His tongue would run over conversations that they had had, cherishing and repeating over and over again her gay little quips and sallies or her light phrases.
"Valencia Valdes is as God made her. Now you're throwing sixes, ma'am. Sure she's like that. The devil helped a heap to make most of us what we are, but I reckon God made that little lady early in the mo'ning when He was feeling fine.... Say, I wish you'd look at me like that again and light up with another of them dimply smiles. I got a surprise for you, Princess of the Rio Chama. Honest, I have. Sure as you're a foot high.... Never you mind what it is. Just you wait a while and I'll spring it when the time's good and ready. I got to wait till the papers come. See? ... Oh, shucks, you're sore at me again! Liar ... cheat ... spy! Say, I know when I've had a-plenty. She don't like me. I'm goin' to pull my freight for the Kotzebue country up in Alaska.
'On the road to Kotzebue, optimistic through and through, We'll hit the trail together, boy, once more, jest me an' you.'
Funny how women act, ain't it? Stand up and take your medicine—liar ... cheat ... spy! She said it, didn't she? Well, then, it must be so. What you kickin' about?"
So he would run on until the fever had for the hour exhausted itself and he lay still among the pillows. Sometimes he talked the strong language of the man in battle with other men, but even in his oaths there was nothing of vulgarity.
Mrs. Corbett took the bulk of the nursing on her own broad fat shoulders, but during the day she was often relieved by her maid while she got a few hours of sleep.
Juanita was a slim, straight girl not yet nineteen. Even before his sickness Dick, with the instinct for deference to all women of self-respect that obtains among frontiersmen, had won the gratitude of the shy creature. There was something wild and sylvan about her sweet grace. The deep, soft eyes in the brown oval face were as appealing as those of a doe wounded by the hunter.
She developed into a famous nurse. Low-voiced and soft-footed, she would coax the delirious man to lie down when he grew excited or to take his medicine according to the orders of the doctor.
It was on the third day after Gordon's return to Corbett's that Juanita heard a whistle while she was washing dishes after supper in the kitchen. Presently she slipped out of the back door and took the trail to the corral. A man moved forward out of the gloom to meet her.
"Is it you, Pablo?"
A slender youth, lean-flanked and broad-shouldered, her visitor turned out to be. His outstretched hands went forward swiftly to meet hers.
"Juanita, light of my life?" he cried softly. "Corazon mia!"
She submitted with a little reluctant protest to his caress. "I have but a minute, Pablo. The senora wants to walk over to Dolan's place. I am to stay with the sick American."
He exploded with low, fierce energy. "A thousand curses take the gringo! Why should you nurse him? Is he not an enemy to the senorita—to all in the valley who have bought from her or her father or her grandfather? Is he not here to throw us out—a thief, a spy, a snake in the grass?"
"No, he is not. Senor Gordon is good ... and kind."
"Bah! You are but a girl. He gives you soft words—and so——" The jealousy in him flared suddenly out. He caught his sweetheart tightly by the arm. "Has he made love to you, this gringo? Has he whispered soft, false lies in your ear, Juanita? If he has——"
She tried to twist free from him. "You are hurting my arm, Pablo," the girl cried.
"It is my heart you hurt, nina. Is it true that this thief has stolen the love of my Juanita?"
"You are a fool, Pablo. He has never said a hundred words to me. All through his sickness he has talked and talked—but it is of Senorita Valdes that he has raved."
"So. He will rob her of all she has and yet can talk of loving her. Do you not see he is a villain, that he has the forked tongue, as old Bear Paw, the Navajo, says of all gringoes? But let Senor Gordon beware. His time is short. He will not live to drive us from the valley. So say I. So say all the men in the valley."
"No—no! I will not have it, Pablo. You do not know. This Senor Gordon is good. He would not drive us away." Her arms slid around the neck of her lover and she pleaded with him impetuously. "You must not let them hurt him, for it is a kind heart he has."
"Why should I interfere? He is only a gringo. Let him die. I tell you he means harm to all of us."
"I do not know my Pablo when he talks like this. My Pablo was always kind and good and of a soft heart. I do not love him when he is cruel."
"It is then that you love the American," he cried. "Did I not know it? Did I not say so?"
"You say much that is foolish, muchacho. The American is a stranger to me ... and you are Pablo. But how can I love you when your heart is full of cruelty and jealousy and revenge? Go to the Blessed Virgin and confess before the good priest your sins, amigo."
"Amigo! Since when have I been friend to you and not lover, Juanita? I know well for how long—since this gringo with the white face crossed your trail."
Suddenly she flung away from him. "Muy bien! You shall think as you please. Adios, my friend with the head of a donkey! Adios, icabron!"
She was gone, light as the wind, flying with swift feet down the trail to the house. Sulkily he waited for her to come out again, but the girl did not appear. He gave her a full half hour before he swung to the saddle and turned the head of his pony toward the Valdes' hacienda. A new and poignant bitterness surged in his heart. Had this stranger, who was bringing trouble to the whole valley, come between him and little Juanita, whom he had loved since they had been children? Had he stolen her heart with his devilish wiles? The hard glitter in the black eyes of the Mexican told that he would punish him if this were true.
His younger brother Pedro took the horse from him as he rode into the ranch plaza an hour later.
"You are to go to the senorita at once and tell her how the gringo is, Pablo." After a moment he added sullenly: "Maldito, how is the son of a thief?"
"Sick, Pedro, sick unto death. The devil, as you say, may take him yet without any aid from us," answered Pablo Menendez brusquely.
"Why does the senorita send you every day to find out how he is? Can she not telephone? And why should she care what becomes of the traitor?" demanded Pedro angrily.
His brother shrugged. "How should I know?" He had troubles enough with the fancies of another woman without bothering about those of the senorita.
Valencia Valdes was on the porch waiting for her messenger.
"How is he, Pablo? Did you see the doctor and talk with him? What does he say?"
"Si, senorita. I saw Doctor Watson and he send you this letter. They say the American is a sick man—oh, very, very sick!"
The young woman dismissed him with a nod and hurried to her room. She read the letter from the doctor and looked out of one of the deep adobe windows into the starry night. It happened to be the same window from which she had last seen him go hobbling down the road. She rose and put out the light so that she could weep the more freely. It was hard for her to say why her heart was so heavy. To herself she denied that she cared for this jaunty debonair scoundrel. He was no doubt all she had told him on that day when she had driven him away.
Yes, but she had sent him to pain and illness ... perhaps to death. The tears fell fast upon the white cheeks. Surely it was not her fault that he had been so obstinate. Yet—down in the depth of her heart she knew she loved the courage that had carried him with such sardonic derision out upon the road for the long tramp that had so injured him. And there was an inner citadel within her that refused to believe him the sneaking pup she had accused him of being. No man with such honest eyes, who stood so erect and graceful in the image of God, could be so contemptible a cur. There was something fine about the spirit of the man. She had sensed the kinship of it without being able to put a finger exactly upon the quality she meant. He might be a sinner, but it was hard to believe him a small and mean one. The dynamic spark of self-respect burned too brightly in his soul for that.
The fifth day marked the crisis of Gordon's illness. After that he began slowly to mend.
One morning he awoke to a realization that he had been very ill. His body was still weak, but his mind was coherent again. A slender young woman moved about the room setting things in order.
"Aren't you Juanita?" he asked.
Her heart gave a leap. This was the first time he had recognized her. Sometimes in his delirium he had caught at her hand ind tried to kiss it, but always under the impression that she was Miss Valdes.
"Si, senor," she answered quietly.
"I thought so." He added after a moment, with the childlike innocence a sick person has upon first coming back to sanity: "There couldn't be two girls as pretty as you in this end of the valley, could there?"
Under her soft brown skin the color flooded Juanita's face. "I—I don't know." She spoke in a flame of embarrassment, so abrupt had been his compliment and so sincere.
"I've been very sick, haven't I?"
She nodded. "Oh, senor, we have been—what you call—worried."
"Good of you, Juanita. Who has been taking care of me?"
"Ah! That's good of you, too, amiga."
She recalled a phrase she had often heard an American rancher's daughter say. "I loved to do it, senor."
"But why? I'm your enemy, you know. You ought to hate me. Do you?"
Once again the swift color poured into the dark cheeks, even to the round birdlike throat.
He considered this an instant before he accused her whimsically. "Then you're not a good girl. You should hate the devil, and I'm his agent. Any of your friends will tell you that."
"Senor Gordon is a joke."
He laughed weakly. "Am I? I'll bet I am, the fool way I acted."
"I mean a—what you call—a joker," she corrected.
"But ain't I your enemy, my little good Samaritan? Isn't that what all your people are saying?"
"I not care what they say."
"If I'm not your enemy, what am I?"
She made a great pretense of filling the ewer with water and gathering up the soiled towels.
"How about that, nina?" he persisted, turning toward her on the pillow with his unshaven face in his hand, a gentle quizzical smile in his eyes.
"I'm your ... servant, senor," she flamed, after the embarrassment of silence had grown too great.
"No, no! Nothing like that. What do you say? Will you take me for a friend, even though I'm an enemy to the whole valley?"
Her soft, dark eyes flashed to meet his, timidly and yet with an effect of fine spirit.
"Good. Shake hands on it, little partner."
She came forward reluctantly, as if she were pushed toward him by some inner compulsion. Her shy embarrassment, together with the sweetness of the glad emotion that trembled in her filmy eyes, lent her a rare charm.
For just an instant her brown fingers touched his, then she turned and fled from the room.
Mrs. Corbett presently bustled in, fat, fifty, and friendly.
"I can't hardly look you in the face," he apologized, with his most winning smile. "I reckon I've been a nuisance a-plenty, getting sick on your hands like a kid."
Mrs. Corbett answered his smile as she arranged the coverlets.
"You'll just have to be good for a spell to make up for it. No more ten-mile walks, Mr. Muir, till the knee is all right."
"I reckon you better call me Gordon, ma'am." His mind passed to what she had said about his walk. "Ce'tainly that was a fool pasear for a man to take. Comes of being pig-headed, Mrs. Corbett. And Doc Watson had told me not to use that game leg much. But, of course, I knew best," he sighed ruefully.
"Well, you've had your lesson. And you've worried all of us. Miss Valdes has called up two or three times a day on the phone and sent a messenger over every evening to find out how you were."
Dick felt the blood flush his face. "She has?" Then, after a little: "That's very kind of Miss Valdes."
"Yes. Everybody has been kind. Mr. Pesquiera has called up every day to inquire about you. He has been very anxious for you to recover."
A faint sardonic smile touched the white lips. "A fellow never knows how many friends he has till he needs them. So Don Manuel is in a hurry to have me get on my feet. That's surely right kind of him."
He thought he could guess why that proud and passionate son of Spain fretted to see him ill. The humiliation to which he had been subjected was rankling in his heart and would oppress him till he could wipe it out in action.
"You've got other friends, too, that have worried a lot," said Mrs. Corbett, as she took up some knitting.
"More friends yet? Say, ain't I rich? I didn't know how blamed popular I was till now," returned the invalid, with derisive irony. "Who is it this time I've got to be grateful for?"
"Steve Davis—from Cripple Creek, Colorado, God's Country?"
"Been writing about me, has he?"
Mrs. Corbett smiled. She had something up her sleeve. "First writing, then wiring."
"He's a kind of second dad to me. Expect the old rooster got anxious."
"Looks that way. Anyhow, he reached here last night."
Gordon got up on an elbow in his excitement. "Here? Here now? Old Steve?"
She nodded her head and looked over her shoulder toward the dining-room. "In there eating his breakfast. He'll be through pretty soon. You see, he doesn't know you're awake."
Presently Davis came into the room. He walked to the bed and took both of his friend's hands in his. Tears were shining in his eyes.
"You darned old son-of-a-gun, what do you mean by scaring us like this? I've lost two years' growth on account of your foolishness, boy."
"Did Mrs. Corbett send for you?"
"No, I sent for myself soon as I found out how sick you was. Now hustle up and get well."
"I'm going to do just that"
Dick kept his word. Within a few days he was promoted to a rocking-chair on the porch. Here Juanita served his meals and waited on his demands with the shy devotion that characterized a change in her attitude to him. She laughed less than she did. His jokes, his claim upon her as his "little partner," his friendly gratitude, all served to embarrass her, and at the same time to fill her with a new and wonderful delight.
A week ago, when he had been lying before her asleep one day, she had run her little finger through one of his tawny curls and admired its crisp thickness. To her maiden fancy something of his strong virility had escaped even to this wayward little lock of hair. She had wondered then how the Senorita Valdes could keep from loving this splendid fellow if he cared for her. All the more she wondered now, for her truant heart was going out to him with the swift ardent passion of her race. It was as a sort of god she looked upon him, as a hero of romance far above her humble hopes. She found herself longing for chances to wait upon him, to do little services that would draw the approving smile to his eyes.
Gordon was still in the porch-dwelling stage of convalescence when a Mexican rider swung from his saddle one afternoon with a letter from Manuel Pesquiera. The note was a formal one, written in the third person, and it wasted no words.
After reading it Dick tossed the sheet of engraved stationery across to his companion.
"Nothing like having good, anxious friends in a hurry to have you well, Steve," he said, with a smile.
The old miner read the communication. "Well, what's the matter with his hoping you'll be all right soon?"
"No reason why he shouldn't. It only shows what a Christian, forgiving disposition he's got. You see, that day I most walked my leg off I soused Mr. Pesquiera in a ditch."
"Just what I say. I picked him up and dropped the gentleman in the nearest ditch. That's why he's so anxious to get me well."
"But—why for, boy?"
Dick laughed. "Can't you see, you old moss-back? He wants me well enough to call out for a duel."
"A duel." Davis stared at him dubiously. He did not know whether or not his friend was making game of him.
"Yes, sir. Pistols and coffee for two, waiter. That sort of thing."
"But folks don't fight duels nowadays," remonstrated the puzzled miner. "Anyhow, what's he want to fight about? I reckon you didn't duck him for nothing, did you? What was it all about?"
Dick told his tale of adventures, omitting only certain emotions that were his private property. He concluded with an account of the irrigating-ditch episode. "It ain't the custom in this part of the country to duck the blue bloods. Shouldn't wonder but what he's some hot under the collar. Writes like he sees red, don't you think, but aims to be polite and keep his shirt on."
Davis refused to treat the matter as a joke.
"I told you to let your lawyers 'tend to this, Dick, and for you not to poke your nose into this neck of the woods. But you had to come, and right hot off the reel you hand one to this Pesky fellow, or whatever you call him. Didn't I tell you that you can't bat these greasers over the head the way you can the Poles in the mines?"
"Sure you told me. You're always loaded with good advice, Steve. But what do you expect me to do when a fellow slaps my face?"
"They won't stand fooling with, these greasers. This Pesky fellow is playing squarer than most would if he gives you warning to be ready with your six-gun. You take my advice, and you'll burn the wind out of this country. If you git this fellow, the whole pack of them will be on top of you, and don't you forget it, son."
"So you advise me to cut and run, do you?" said Dick.
"That's what you'd do, is it?"
"Sure thing. You can't clean out the whole of New Mexico."
"Quit your lying, Steve, you old war-horse. You'd see it out, just like I'm going to."
Davis scratched his grizzled poll and grinned, but continued to dispense good advice.
"You ain't aiming to mix with this whole blamed country, are you?"
The man in the chair sat up, his lean jaw set and his eyes gleaming.
"I've been called the scum o' the earth. I've been kicked out of her house as a fellow not decent enough to mix with honest folks. Only yesterday I got a letter from some of her people warning me to leave the country while I was still alive. This Pesquiera is camping on my trail."
"Maybe he ain't. You've only guessed that."
"Guess nothing. It's a cinch."
"What you going to do about it?"
"But if he lays for you."
"Good enough. Let him go to it. I'm going through with this thing. I'm going to show them who's the best man. And when I've beat them to a standstill I've got a revenge ready that will make Miss Valdes eat humble pie proper. Yes, sir. I'm tied to this country till this thing's settled."
"Then there ain't any use saying any more about it. You always was a willful son-of-a-gun," testified his partner, with a grin. "And I reckon I'll have to stay with you to pack you home after the greasers have shot you up."
"Don't you ever think it, Steve," came back the cheerful retort. "I've got a hunch this is my lucky game. I'm sitting in to win, old hoss."
"What's your first play, Dick?"
"I made it last week, within twenty minutes of the time I got back here. Wired my lawyers to bring suit at once, and to push it for all it was worth."
"You can't settle it by the courts inside of a year, or mebbe two."
"I ain't aiming to settle it by the courts. All I want is they should know I've got them beat to a fare-ye-well in the courts. Their lawyers will let them know that mighty early, just as soon as they look the facts up. There ain't any manner of doubt about my legal claim. I guess Miss Valdes knows that already, but I want her to know it good and sure. Then I'll paddle my own canoe. The law's only a bluff to make my hand better. I'm calling for that extra card for the looks of it, but my hand is full up without it"
"What's in your hand, anyhow, outside of your legal right? Looks to me they hold them all from ace down."
"You wait and see," he said.
Because Dick had always lived a clean, outdoor life he rallied magnificently from the relapse into which his indiscretion had thrown him. For a few days Dr. Watson was worried by reason of the danger of blood-poisoning, but the splendid vitality of his patient quickly swept him out of danger. Soon he was hobbling round with a cane, and shortly after was able to take long rides over the country with his friend.
On one of these occasions, while they were climbing a hill trail, Davis broke a long silence to say aloud to himself: "There's just one way to account for it."
"Then it can't be a woman you're thinking of," Dick laughed; "for as far as I can make out there's always several ways to account for them, and the one you guess usually ain't right."
"You've said it, son. It's a woman. I been doing some inquiring about this Miss Valdes, and from all telling she's the prettiest ever."
"I could have told you that. It ain't a secret."
"I notice you didn't tell me."
"You didn't ask, you old geezer."
"Sho! You ain't such a clam when it comes to pretty girls. You didn't talk about her, because your haid's been full of her. It don't take a mind-reader to know that."
"You're ce'tainly a wizard, Steve," came back his partner dryly.
"I know you and your little ways by this time."
"So I'm in love, am I?"
"You're there, or traveling there mighty fast. Course I don't know about the lady."
"What don't you know about her?" asked Dick, who was by way of being both amused and pleased that the subject had been broached.
"How she feels about the proposition. She had you kicked out of the house. That looks kinder as if your show was slim. She did send over right often to see how you was getting along, but I reckon she didn't want to feel responsible for your turning up your toes. Women are that way, even when they hate a man real thorough."
"You're quite an expert. I wonder you know so much about them, and you never married."
To this sarcastic reminder Steve made philosophic reply. "Mebbe it was because I knew so much about them I never married."
"You're surely a wise old rooster. You think she hates me, then?"
Davis covered a grin. He knew from his friend's tone that the barb had pierced the skin.
"Well, looking at it like a reasonable man, there ain't any question about it. Soon as you begin to mend she quits taking any interest in you; don't know you're on the earth any more. A reasonable man——"
"A reasonable goat!" Dick reined up till the other horse was abreast of his, then dived into his pocket and handed Steve a letter. "She's quit taking any interest in me, has she? Don't know I'm on the earth, you old owl? Looks like it, and her sending me a letter this very day."
Steve turned the square envelope around and weighed it in his hand.
"Am I to read this here billy doo?" he wanted to know.
Gravely the old miner opened and read the following:
"Miss Valdes begs to inform Mr. Gordon that she has reason to fear Mr. Gordon's life is not safe in the present feeling of the country. Out of regard for her people, whom she would greatly regret to see in trouble, Miss Valdes would recommend Mr. Gordon to cut short his pleasure trip to New Mexico. Otherwise Miss Valdes declines any responsibility for the result."
"Can't be called very affectionate, can it?" was Mr. Davis's comment. "Ain't it jest a leetle mite—well, like she was writing with a poker down her back?"
"I didn't say it was affectionate," snorted the young man.
"Oh, I allowed you thought she was in love with you."
"I didn't say or think anything of the kind," protested Dick indignantly. "I said she hadn't forgotten me."
"Well, she ain't, if that's any comfort."
With which, Mr. Davis handed back the letter. "What did you answer to the billy doo?"
"I said that Mr. Gordon presented his compliments and begged to reply that he had large business interests in this part of the country that necessitated a visit of some length, and probably in the end a permanent residence here; and that he would very fully absolve Miss Valdes of any responsibility for his remaining."
"Both of you used up a heap of dictionary words; but that wasn't so bad, either," grinned Steve. "You got back at her, all right, for the 'pleasure trip' part of her letter, but I expect you and she would disagree as to what that 'permanent residence' means. I hope it won't be more permanent than you think."
From the rocks above came the sound of an exploding rifle. Dick's hat was lifted from his head as by a gust of wind. Immediately after they caught sight of a slim, boyish figure dodging among the rocks.
"There he goes," cried Dick; and he slid from his saddle and took up the chase.
"Come back. There may be several of them up there," called the old miner.
Gordon paid no attention; and Steve had nothing left to do but follow him up the rocky hillside.
"He'll spoil that game leg of his again, first thing he knows," the old-timer growled as he followed in the rear.
Presently a second shot rang out. Davis hastened forward as fast as he could.
At the top of the ridge he came on his companion sitting behind a rock.
"Lost him in these rocks, did you?" he asked.
A sardonic smile lit up the face of his friend.
"No, Steve, I found him; but he persuaded me I oughtn't to travel so fast on this leg. You see, he had a rifle, and my six-gun was outclassed. I couldn't get into range, and decided to hunt cover, after he took another crack at me."
"I should think you'd know better than to go hunting bear with a twenty-two."
"It ain't a twenty-two; but, for a fact, it don't carry a mile. I got what I want, though. I know who the gentleman is."
"Sure it wasn't a lady, Dick?"
"Don't you, Steve," warned Gordon. "She's a lady and a Christian. You wouldn't say that if you knew her. Besides, she saved my life."
"Who was it? That Pesky fellow?"
"No. He's hot-blooded; but he wouldn't strike below the belt. He's a gentleman. This was one of the lads on her home-place, an eighteen-year-old boy named Pedro. He's in love with her. I saw it soon as I set eyes on him the day I went there. He worships her as if she were a saint. Of course, he loves her without any hope; but that doesn't keep him from being jealous of me. He's heard about the row, and he thinks he'll do her a service by putting me out of the game."
"Sort of fix you up with that permanent residence you were talking about," suggested Steve.
"He didn't make good this time, anyhow. I'll bet a hat he'd catch it if Miss Valdes knew what he had been doing."
"She may be a Christian and all you say, Dick, but she don't run a Sunday school on her ranch and train these young greasers proper. I don't like this ambushing. They might git the wrong man."
"I'm not partial to it, myself. That lead pill hummed awful close to me."
They had by this time returned to the road, and Dick picked up his hat from the dust. There were two little round holes in the crown, and one in the brim.
"If he had shot an inch lower I would have qualified for that permanent residence, Steve," Dick laughed.
"Hmp! Let's get out of here pronto, Dick. I'm darned if I like to be the target at a shooting gallery. And next time I go riding there's going to be a good old Winchester lying over my saddle-horn."
Now, as very chance would have it, Miss Valdes, too, rode the hill trail that afternoon; and every step of the broncos lessened the distance between them.
They met at a turn of the steep path. Davis was in the lead, and the girl passed him just in time to meet Dick's bow. It was a very respectful bow; but there was a humorous irony in the gray eyes that met hers, which hinted at a different story. She made as if to pass him, but, on an impulse, reined in. His ventilated hat came off again, as he waited for her to speak.
For an instant she let her gaze rest in his, the subdued crimson of her cheeks triumphant over the olive. But the color was not of embarrassment, and in her eyes shone the spirit of a descendant of old Don Alvaro de Valdes y Castillo. She sat her mount superbly; as jimp and erect as a willow sapling.
"You received a message from me this morning, sir," she said haughtily.
"Yes, Miss Valdes; I received a message from you this morning and answered it. This afternoon I received one from one of your friends; but I haven't answered that yet."