HEART OF THE SUNSET
By Rex Beach
Author of "THE SILVER HORDE" "THE SPOILERS" "THE IRON TRAIL" Etc.
I. THE WATER-HOLE
II. THE AMBUSH
III. WHAT HAPPENED AT THE WATER-HOLE
IV. AN EVENING AT LAS PALMAS
V. SOMETHING ABOUT HEREDITY
VI. A JOURNEY, AND A DARK MAN
VII. LUIS LONGORIO
VIII. BLAZE JONES'S NEMESIS
IX. A SCOUTING TRIP
X. A RANGER'S HORSE
XI. JUDGE ELLSWORTH EXACTS A PROMISE
XII. LONGORIO MAKES BOLD
XIII. DAVE LAW BECOMES JEALOUS
XIV. JOSE SANCHEZ SWEARS AN OATH
XV. THE TRUTH ABOUT PANFILO
XVI. THE RODEO
XVII. THE GUZMAN INCIDENT
XVIII. ED AUSTIN TURNS AT BAY
XX. SUPERSTITIONS AND CERTAINTIES
XXI. AN AWAKENING
XXII. WHAT ELLSWORTH HAD TO SAY
XXIII. THE CRASH
XXIV. DAVE LAW COMES HOME
XXV. A WARNING AND A SURPRISE
XXVI. THE WATER-CURE
XXVII. LA FERIA
XXVIII. THE DOORS OF PARADISE
XXIX. THE PRIEST FROM MONCLOVA
XXX. THE MAN OF DESTINY
XXXI. A SPANISH WILL
XXXII. THE DAWN
HEART OF THE SUNSET
A fitful breeze played among the mesquite bushes. The naked earth, where it showed between the clumps of grass, was baked plaster hard. It burned like hot slag, and except for a panting lizard here and there, or a dust-gray jack-rabbit, startled from its covert, nothing animate stirred upon its face. High and motionless in the blinding sky a buzzard poised; long-tailed Mexican crows among the thorny branches creaked and whistled, choked and rattled, snored and grunted; a dove mourned inconsolably, and out of the air issued metallic insect cries—the direction whence they came as unascertainable as their source was hidden.
Although the sun was half-way down the west, its glare remained untempered, and the tantalizing shade of the sparse mesquite was more of a trial than a comfort to the lone woman who, refusing its deceitful invitation, plodded steadily over the waste. Stop, indeed, she dared not. In spite of her fatigue, regardless of the torture from feet and limbs unused to walking, she must, as she constantly assured herself, keep going until strength failed. So far, fortunately, she had kept her head, and she retained sufficient reason to deny the fanciful apprehensions which clamored for audience. If she once allowed herself to become panicky, she knew, she would fare worse—far worse—and now, if ever, she needed all her faculties. Somewhere to the northward, perhaps a mile, perhaps a league distant, lay the water-hole.
But the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness, devoid of landmarks and lacking well-defined water-courses. The unending mesquite with its first spring foliage resembled a limitless peach-orchard sown by some careless and unbelievably prodigal hand. Out of these false acres occasional knolls and low stony hills lifted themselves so that one came, now and then, to vantage-points where the eye leaped for great distances across imperceptible valleys to horizons so far away that the scattered tree-clumps were blended into an unbroken carpet of green. To the woman these outlooks were unutterably depressing, merely serving to reveal the vastness of the desolation about her.
At the crest of such a rise she paused and studied the country carefully, but without avail. She felt dizzily for the desert bag swung from her shoulder, only to find it flat and dry; the galvanized mouthpiece burned her fingers. With a little shock she remembered that she had done this very thing several times before, and her repeated forgetting frightened her, since it seemed to show that her mind had been slightly unbalanced by the heat. That perhaps explained why the distant horizon swam and wavered so.
In all probability a man situated as she was would have spoken aloud, in an endeavor to steady himself; but this woman did nothing of the sort. Seating herself in the densest shade she could find—it was really no shade at all—she closed her eyes and relaxed—no easy thing to do in such a stifling temperature and when her throat was aching with drought.
At length she opened her eyes again, only to find that she could make out nothing familiar. Undoubtedly she was lost; the water-hole might be anywhere. She listened tensely, and the very air seemed to listen with her; the leaves hushed their faint whisperings; a near-by cactus held its forty fleshy ears alert, while others more distant poised in the same harkening attitude. It seemed to the woman that a thousand ears were straining with hers, yet no sound came save only the monotonous crescendo and diminuendo of those locust-cries coming out of nowhere and retreating into the voids. At last, as if satisfied, the leaves began to whisper softly again.
Away to her left lay the yellow flood of the Rio Grande, but the woman, though tempted to swing in that direction, knew better than to yield. At least twenty miles of barrens lay between, and she told herself that she could never cover such a distance. No, the water-hole was nearer; it must be close at hand. If she could only think a little more clearly, she could locate it. Once more she tried, as she had tried many times before, to recall the exact point where she had shot her horse, and to map in her mind's eye the foot-weary course she had traveled from that point onward.
Desert travel was nothing new to her, thirst and fatigue were old acquaintances, yet she could not help wondering if, in spite of her training, in spite of that inborn sense of direction which she had prided herself upon sharing with the wild creatures, she were fated to become a victim of the chaparral. The possibility was remote; death at this moment seemed as far off as ever—if anything it was too far off. No, she would find the water-hole somehow; or the unexpected would happen, as it always did when one was in dire straits. She was too young and too strong to die yet. Death was not so easily won as this.
Rising, she readjusted the strap of the empty water-bag over her shoulder and the loose cartridge-belt at her hip, then set her dusty feet down the slope.
Day died lingeringly. The sun gradually lost its cruelty, but a partial relief from the heat merely emphasized the traveler's thirst and muscular distress. Onward she plodded, using her eyes as carefully as she knew how. She watched the evening flight of the doves, thinking to guide herself by their course, but she was not shrewd enough to read the signs correctly. The tracks she found were old, for the most part, and they led in no particular direction, nowhere uniting into anything like a trail. She wondered, if she could bring herself to drink the blood of a jack-rabbit, and if it would quench her thirst. But the thought was repellent, and, besides, she was not a good shot with a revolver. Nor did the cactus offer any relief, since it was only just coming into bloom, and as yet bore no fruit.
The sun had grown red and huge when at last in the hard-baked dirt she discovered fresh hoof-prints. These seemed to lead along the line in which she was traveling, and she followed them gladly, encouraged when they were joined by others, for, although they meandered aimlessly, they formed something more like a trail than anything she had as yet seen. Guessing at their general direction, she hurried on, coming finally into a region where the soil was shallow and scarcely served to cover the rocky substratum. A low bluff rose on her left, and along its crest scattered Spanish daggers were raggedly silhouetted against the sky.
She was in a well-defined path now; she tried to run, but her legs were heavy; she stumbled a great deal, and her breath made strange, distressing sounds as it issued from her open lips. Hounding the steep shoulder of the ridge, she hastened down a declivity into a knot of scrub-oaks and ebony-trees, then halted, staring ahead of her.
The nakedness of the stony arroyo, the gnarled and stunted thickets, were softened by the magic of twilight; the air had suddenly cooled; overhead the empty, flawless sky was deepening swiftly from blue to purple; the chaparral had awakened and echoed now to the sounds of life. Nestling in a shallow, flinty bowl was a pool of water, and on its brink a little fire was burning.
It was a tiny fire, overhung with a blackened pot; the odor of greasewood and mesquite smoke was sharp. A man, rising swiftly to his feet at the first sound, was staring at the new-comer; he was as alert as any wild thing. But the woman scarcely heeded him. She staggered directly toward the pond, seeing nothing after the first glance except the water. She would have flung herself full length upon the edge, but the man stepped forward and stayed her, then placed a tin cup in her hand. She mumbled something in answer to his greeting and the hoarse, raven-like croak in her voice startled her; then she drank, with trembling eagerness, drenching the front of her dress. The water was warm, but it was clean and delicious.
"Easy now. Take your time," said the man, as he refilled the cup. "It won't give out."
She knelt and wet her face and neck; the sensation was so grateful that she was tempted to fling herself bodily into the pool. The man was still talking, but she took no heed of what he said. Then at last she sank back, her feet curled under her, her body sagging, her head drooping. She felt the stranger's hands beneath her arms, felt herself lifted to a more comfortable position. Without asking permission, the stranger unlaced first one, then the other of her dusty boots, seeming not to notice her weak attempt at resistance. Once he had placed her bare feet in the water, she forgot her resentment in the intense relief.
The man left her seated in a collapsed, semi-conscious state, and went back to his fire. For the time she was too tired to do more than refill the drinking-cup occasionally, or to wet her face and arms, but as her pores drank greedily her exhaustion lessened and her vitality returned.
It was dark when for the first time she turned her head toward the camp-fire and stared curiously at the figure there. The appetizing odor of broiling bacon had drawn her attention, and as if no move went unnoticed the man said, without lifting his eyes:
"Let 'em soak! Supper'll be ready directly. How'd you like your eggs—if we had any?"
Evidently he expected no reply, for after a chuckle he began to whistle softly, in a peculiarly clear and liquid tone, almost like some bird-call. He had spoken with an unmistakable Texas drawl; the woman put him down at once for a cowboy. She settled her back against a boulder and rested.
The pool had become black and mysterious, the sky was studded with stars when he called her, and she laboriously drew on her stockings and boots. Well back from the fire he had arranged a seat for her, using a saddle-blanket for a covering, and upon this she lowered herself stiffly. As she did so she took fuller notice of the man, and found his appearance reassuring.
"I suppose you wonder how I—happen to be here," she said.
"Now don't talk 'til you're rested, miss. This coffee is strong enough to walk on its hands, and I reckon about two cups of it'll rastle you into shape." As she raised the tin mug to her lips he waved a hand and smiled. "Drink hearty!" He set a plate of bread and bacon in her lap, then opened a glass jar of jam. "Here's the dulces. I've got a sort of sweet tooth in my head. I reckon you'll have to make out with this, 'cause I rode in too late to rustle any fresh meat, and the delivery-wagon won't be 'round before morning." So saying, he withdrew to the fire.
The woman ate and drank slowly. She was too tired to be hungry, and meanwhile the young man squatted upon his heels and watched her through the smoke from a husk cigarette. It was perhaps fortunate for her peace of mind that she could not correctly interpret his expression, for had she been able to do so she would have realized something of the turmoil into which her presence had thrown him. He was accustomed to meeting men in unexpected places—even in the desert's isolation—but to have a night camp in the chaparral invaded by a young and unescorted woman, to have a foot-sore goddess stumble out of the dark and collapse into his arms, was a unique experience and one calculated to disturb a person of his solitary habits.
"Have you had your supper?" she finally inquired.
"Who, me? Oh, I'll eat with the help." He smiled, and when his flashing teeth showed white against his leathery tan the woman decided he was not at all bad-looking. He was very tall and quite lean, with the long legs of a horseman—this latter feature accentuated by his high-heeled boots and by the short canvas cowboy coat that reached only to his cartridge-belt. His features she could not well make out, for the fire was little more than a bed of coals, and he fed it, Indian-like, with a twig or two at a time.
"I beg your pardon. I'm selfish." She extended her cup and plate as an invitation for him to share their contents. "Please eat with me."
But he refused. "I ain't hungry," he affirmed. "Honest!"
Accustomed as she was to the diffidence of ranch-hands, she refrained from urging him, and proceeded with her repast. When she had finished she lay back and watched him as he ate sparingly.
"My horse fell crossing the Arroyo Grande," she announced, abruptly. "He broke a leg, and I had to shoot him."
"Is there any water in the Grande?" asked the man.
"No. They told me there was plenty. I knew of this charco, so I made for it."
"Who told you there was water in the arroyo?"
"Those Mexicans at the little-goat ranch."
"Balli. So you walked in from Arroyo Grande. Lord! It's a good ten miles straightaway, and I reckon you came crooked. Eh?"
"Yes. And it was very hot. I was never here but once, and—the country looks different when you're afoot."
"It certainly does," the man nodded. Then he continued, musingly: "No water there, eh? I figured there might be a little." The fact appeared to please him, for he nodded again as he went on with his meal. "Not much rain down here, I reckon."
"Very little. Where are you from?"
"Me? Hebbronville. My name is Law."
Evidently, thought the woman, this fellow belonged to the East outfit, or some of the other big cattle-ranches in the Hebbronville district. Probably he was a range boss or a foreman. After a time she said, "I suppose the nearest ranch is that Balli place?"
"I'd like to borrow your horse."
Mr. Law stared into his plate. "Well, miss, I'm afraid—"
She added, hastily, "I'll send you a fresh one by Balli's boy in the morning."
He looked up at her from under the brim of his hat. "D'you reckon you could find that goat-ranch by star-light, miss?"
The woman was silent.
"'Ain't you just about caught up on traveling, for one day?" he asked. "I reckon you need a good rest about as much as anybody I ever saw. You can have my blanket, you know."
The prospect was unwelcome, yet she reluctantly agreed. "Perhaps— Then in the morning—"
Law shook his head. "I can't loan you my horse, miss. I've got to stay right here."
"But Balli's boy could bring him back."
"I got to meet a man."
"When will he come?"
"He'd ought to be here at early dark to-morrow evening." Heedless of her dismay, he continued, "Yes'm, about sundown."
"But—I can't stay here. I'll ride to Balli's and have your horse back by afternoon."
"My man might come earlier than I expect," Mr. Law persisted.
"Really, I can't see what difference it would make. It wouldn't interfere with your appointment to let me—"
Law smiled slowly, and, setting his plate aside, selected a fresh cigarette; then as he reached for a coal he explained:
"I haven't got what you'd exactly call an appointment. This feller I'm expectin' is a Mexican, and day before yesterday he killed a man over in Jim Wells County. They got me by 'phone at Hebbronville and told me he'd left. He's headin' for the border, and he's due here about sundown, now that Arroyo Grande's dry. I was aimin' to let you ride his horse."
"Then—you're an officer?"
"Yes'm. Ranger. So you see I can't help you to get home till my man comes. Do you live around here?" The speaker looked up inquiringly, and after an instant's hesitation the woman said, quietly:
"I am Mrs. Austin." She was grateful for the gloom that hid her face. "I rode out this way to examine a tract of grazing-land."
It seemed fully a minute before the Ranger answered; then he said, in a casual tone, "I reckon Las Palmas is quite a ranch, ma'am."
"Yes. But we need more pasture."
"I know your La Feria ranch, too. I was with General Castro when we had that fight near there."
"You were a Maderista?"
"Yes'm. Machine-gun man. That's a fine country over there. Seems like God Almighty got mixed and put the Mexicans on the wrong side of the Rio Grande. But I reckon you haven't seen much of La Feria since the last revolution broke out."
"No. We have tried to remain neutral, but—" Again she hesitated. "Mr. Austin has enemies. Fortunately both sides have spared La Feria."
Law shrugged his broad shoulders. "Oh, well, the revolution isn't over! A ranch in Mexico is my idea of a bad investment." He rose and, taking his blanket, sought a favorable spot upon which to spread it. Then he helped Mrs. Austin to her feet—her muscles had stiffened until she could barely stand—after which he fetched his saddle for a pillow. He made no apologies for his meager hospitality, nor did his guest expect any.
When he had staked out his horse for the night he returned to find the woman rolled snugly in her covering, as in a cocoon. The dying embers flickered into flame and lit her hair redly. She had laid off her felt Stetson, and one loosened braid lay over her hard pillow. Thinking her asleep, Law stood motionless, making no attempt to hide his expression of wonderment until, unexpectedly, she spoke.
"What will you do with me when your Mexican comes?" she said.
"Well, ma'am, I reckon I'll hide you out in the brush till I tame him. I hope you sleep well."
"Thank you. I'm used to the open."
He nodded as if he well knew that she was; then, shaking out his slicker, turned away.
As he lay staring up through the thorny mesquite branches that roofed him inadequately from the dew he marveled mightily. A bright, steady-burning star peeped through the leaves at him, and as he watched it he remembered that this red-haired woman with the still, white face was known far and wide through the lower valley as "The Lone Star." Well, he mused, the name fitted her; she was, if reports were true, quite as mysterious, quite as cold and fixed and unapproachable, as the title implied. Knowledge of her identity had come as a shock, for Law knew something of her history, and to find her suing for his protection was quite thrilling. Tales of her pale beauty were common and not tame, but she was all and more than she had been described. And yet why had no one told him she was so young? This woman's youth and attractiveness amazed him; he felt that he had made a startling discovery. Was she so cold, after all, or was she merely reserved? Red hair above a pure white face; a woman's form wrapped in his blanket; ripe red lips caressing the rim of his mean drinking-cup! Those were things to think about. Those were pictures for a lonely man.
She had not been too proud and cold to let him help her. In her fatigue she had allowed him to lift her and to make her more comfortable. Hot against his palms—palms unaccustomed to the touch of woman's flesh—he felt the contact of her naked feet, as at the moment when he had placed them in the cooling water. Her feeble resistance had only called attention to her sex—to the slim whiteness of her ankles beneath her short riding-skirt.
Following his first amazement at beholding her had come a fantastic explanation of her presence—for a moment or two it had seemed as if the fates had taken heed of his yearnings and had sent her to him out of the dusk—wild fancies, like these, bother men who are much alone. Of course he had not dreamed that she was the mistress of Las Palmas. That altered matters, and yet—they were to spend a long idle day together. If the Mexican did not come, another night like this would follow, and she was virtually his prisoner. Perhaps, after all—
Dave Law stirred nervously and sighed.
"Don't this beat hell?" he murmured.
Alaire Austin slept badly. The day's hardships had left their traces. The toxins of fatigue not only poisoned her muscles with aches and pains, but drugged her brain and rendered the night a long succession of tortures during which she experienced for a second time the agonies of thirst and fatigue and despair. Extreme physical ordeals, like profound emotional upheavals, leave imprints upon the brain, and while the body may recover quickly, it often requires considerable time to rest exhausted nerves. The finer the nervous organism, the slower is the process of recuperation. Like most normal women, Alaire had a surprising amount of endurance, both nervous and muscular, but, having drawn heavily against her reserve force, she paid the penalty. During the early hours of the night she slept hardly at all, and as soon as her bodily discomfort began to decrease her mind became unruly. Twice she rose and limped to the water-hole for a drink, and it was not until nearly dawn that she dropped off into complete unconsciousness. She was awakened by a sunbeam which pierced her leafy shelter and with hot touch explored her upturned face.
It was still early; the sun had just cleared the valley's rim and the ground was damp with dew. Somewhere near by an unfamiliar bird was sweetly trilling. Alaire listened dreamily until the bird-carol changed to the air of a familiar cowboy song, then she sat up, queerly startled.
David Law was watering his horse, grooming the animal meanwhile with a burlap doth. Such attention was unusual in a stock country where horses run wild, but this horse, Mrs. Austin saw, justified unusual care. It was a beautiful blood-bay mare, and as the woman looked it lifted its head, then with wet, trembling muzzle caressed its owner's cheek. Undoubtedly this attention was meant for a kiss, and was as daintily conferred as any woman's favor. It brought a reward in a lump of sugar. There followed an exhibition of equine delight; the mare's lips twitched, her nose wrinkled ludicrously, she stretched her neck and tossed her head as the sweetness tickled her palate. Even the nervous switching of her tail was eloquent of pleasure. Meanwhile the owner showed his white teeth in a smile.
"Good morning," said Mrs. Austin.
Law lifted his hat in a graceful salute as he approached around the edge of the pool, his spurs jingling musically. The mare followed.
"You have a fine horse, there."
"Yes'm. Her and me get along all right. I hope we didn't wake you, ma'am."
"No. I was too tired to sleep well."
"Of course. I heard you stirring about during the night." Law paused, and the mare, with sharp ears cocked forward, looked over his shoulder inquisitively. "Tell the lady good morning, Bessie Belle," he directed. The animal flung its head high, then stepped forward and, stretching its neck, sniffed doubtfully at the visitor.
"What a graceful bow!" Mrs. Austin laughed. "You taught her that, I presume."
"Yes'm! She'd never been to school when I got her; she was plumb ignorant. But she's got all the airs of a fine lady now. Sometimes I go without sugar, but Bessie Belle never does."
"And you with a sweet tooth!"
The Ranger smiled pleasantly. "She's as easy as a rockin'-chair. We're kind of sweethearts. Ain't we, kid?" Again Bessie Belle tossed her head high. "That's 'yes,' with the reverse English," the speaker explained. "Now you just rest yourself, ma'am, and order your breakfast. What 'll it be—quail, dove, or cottontail?"
"Why—whatever you can get."
"That ain't the kind of restaurant we run. Bessie Belle would sure be offended if she understood you. Ever see anybody call a quail?"
"Can it really be done?"
Law's face brightened. "You wait." He led his mare down the arroyo, then returned, and, taking his Winchester from its scabbard, explained: "There's a pair of 'top-knots' on that side-hill waitin' for a drink. Watch 'em run into my lap when I give the distress signal of our secret order." He skirted the water-hole, and seated himself with his heels together and his elbows propped upon his spread knees in the military position for close shooting. From where he sat he commanded an unobstructed view of the thicket's edge. Next he moistened his lips and uttered an indescribable low whistle. At intervals he repeated the call, while the woman looked on with interest. Suddenly out of the grass burst a blue quail, running with wings outstretched and every feather ruffled angrily. It paused, the man's cheeks snuggled against the stock of his gun, and the bark of the thirty-thirty sounded loudly. Mrs. Austin saw that he had shot the little bird's head off. She spoke, but he stilled her with a gesture, threw in a second shell, and repeated his magic call. There was a longer wait this time, but finally the performance was repeated. The marksman rose, picked up the two birds, and came back to the camping-place.
"Kind of a low-down trick when they've just started housekeeping, ain't it?" he smiled.
Mrs. Austin saw that both crested heads had been cleanly severed. "That is quite wonderful" she said. "You must be an unusually good shot."
"Yes'm. You can fool turkeys the same way. Turkeys are easy."
"What do you say to them? What brings them out, all ruffled up?" she asked, curiously.
Law had one of the birds picked by this time. "I tell 'em a snake has got me. I reckon each one thinks the other is in trouble and comes to the rescue. Anyhow, it's a mighty mean trick."
He would not permit her to help with the breakfast, so she lay back enjoying the luxury of her hard bed and watching her host, whose personality, now that she saw him by daylight, had begun to challenge her interest. Of late years she had purposely avoided men, and circumstances had not permitted her to study those few she had been forced to meet; but now that fate had thrown her into the company of this stranger, she permitted some play to her curiosity.
Physically Law was of an admirable make—considerably over six feet in height, with wide shoulders and lean, strong limbs. Although his face was schooled to mask all but the keenest emotions, the deftness of his movements was eloquent, betraying that complete muscular and nervous control which comes from life in the open. A pair of blue-gray, meditative eyes, with a whimsical fashion of wrinkling half-shut when he talked, relieved a countenance that otherwise would have been a trifle grim and somber. The nose was prominent and boldly arched, the ears large and pronounced and standing well away from the head; the mouth was thin-lipped and mobile. Alaire tried to read that bronzed visage, with little success until she closed her eyes and regarded the mental image. Then she found the answer: Law had the face and the head of a hunter. The alert ears, the watchful eyes, the predatory nose were like those of some hunting animal. Yes, that was decidedly the strongest impression he gave. And yet in his face there was nothing animal in a bad sense. Certainly it showed no grossness. The man was wild, untamed, rather than sensual, and despite his careless use of the plains vernacular he seemed to be rather above the average in education and intelligence. At any rate, without being stupidly tongue-tied, he knew enough to remain silent when there was nothing to say, and that was a blessing, for Mrs. Austin herself was not talkative, and idle chatter distressed her.
On the whole, when Alaire had finished her analysis she rather resented the good impression Law had made upon her, for on general principles she chose to dislike and distrust men. Rising, she walked painfully to the pond and made a leisurely toilet.
Breakfast was ready when she returned, and once more the man sat upon his heels and smoked while she ate. Alaire could not catch his eyes upon her, except when he spoke, at which time his gaze was direct and open; yet never did she feel free from his intensest observation.
After a while she remarked: "I'm glad to see a Ranger in this county. There has been a lot of stealing down our way, and the Association men can't seem to stop it. Perhaps you can."
"The Rangers have a reputation in that line," he admitted. "But there is stealing all up and down the border, since the war. You lost any stuff?"
"Yes. Mostly horses."
"Sure! They need horses in Mexico."
"The ranchers have organized. They have formed a sort of vigilance committee in each town, and talk of using bloodhounds."
"Bloodhounds ain't any good, outside of novels. If beef got scarce, them Greasers would steal the dogs and eat 'em." He added, meditatively, "Dog ain't such bad eatin', either."
"Have you tried it?"
Mr. Law nodded. "It was better than some of the army beef we got in the Philippines." Then, in answer to her unspoken inquiry, "Yes'm, I served an enlistment there."
"You—were a private soldier?"
Mrs. Austin was incredulous, and yet she could not well express her surprise without too personal an implication. "I can't imagine anybody—that is, a man like you, as a common soldier."
"Well, I wasn't exactly that," he grinned. "No, I was about the most UNcommon soldier out there. I had a speakin' acquaintance with most of the guard-houses in the islands before I got through."
"But why did you enlist—a man like you?"
"Why?" He pondered the question. "I was young. I guess I needed the excitement. I have to get about so much or I don't enjoy my food."
"Did you join the Maderistas for excitement?"
"Mostly. Then, too, I believed Panchito Madero was honest and would give the peons land. An honest Mexican is worth fightin' for, anywhere. The pelados are still struggling for their land—for that and a chance to live and work and be happy."
Mrs. Austin stirred impatiently. "They are fighting because they are told to fight. There is no PATRIOTISM in them," said she.
"I think," he said, with grave deliberateness, "the majority feel something big and vague and powerful stirring inside them. They don't know exactly what it is, perhaps, but it is there. Mexico has outgrown her dictators. They have been overthrown by the same causes that brought on the French Revolution."
"The French Revolution!" Alaire leaned forward, eying the speaker with startled intensity. "You don't talk like a—like an enlisted man. What do you know about the French Revolution?"
Reaching for a coal, the Ranger spoke without facing her. "I've read a good bit, ma'am, and I'm a noble listener. I remember good, too. Why, I had a picture of the Bastille once." He pronounced it "Bastilly," and his hearer settled back. "That was some calaboose, now, wasn't it?" A moment later he inquired, ingenuously, "I don't suppose you ever saw that Bastille, did you?"
"No. Only the place where it stood."
"Sho! You must have traveled right smart for such a young lady." He beamed amiably upon her.
"I was educated abroad, and I only came home—to be married."
Law noted the lifeless way in which she spoke, and he understood. "I'll bet you hablar those French and German lingoes like a native," he ventured. "Beats me how a person can do it."
"You speak Spanish, don't you?"
"Oh yes. But I was born in Mexico, as near as I can make out."
"And you probably speak some of the Filipino dialects?"
"Yes'm, a few."
There was something winning about this young man's modesty, and something flattering in his respectful admiration. He seemed, also, to know his place, a fact which was even more in his favor. Undoubtedly he had force and ability; probably his love of adventure and a happy lack of settled purpose had led him to neglect his more commonplace opportunities and sent him first into the army and thence into the Ranger service. The world is full of such, and the frontier is their gathering-place. Mrs. Austin had met a number of men like Law, and to her they seemed to be the true soldiers of fortune—fellows who lived purely for the fun of living, and leavened their days with adventure. They were buoyant souls, for the most part, drifting with the tide, resentful of authority and free from care; meeting each day with enthusiastic expectancy for what it held in store. They were restless and improvident; the world counted them ne'er-do-wells, and yet she knew that at least their hours were full and that their names—some of them—were written large in the distant places. Alaire Austin often told herself that, had she been born a man, such a life as this might have been hers, and she took pleasure in dreaming sometimes of the experience that fate, in such a case, would have brought to her.
Being a woman, however, and being animated at this particular moment by a peculiarly feminine impulse, she felt urged to add her own touch to what nature had roughed out. This man had been denied what she termed an education; therefore she decided to put one in his way.
"Do you like to read?" she asked him.
"Say! It's my favorite form of exercise." Law's blue-gray eyes were expressionless, his face was bland. "Why?"
"I have a great many books at Las Palmas. You might enjoy some of them."
"Now that's nice of you, ma'am. Mebbe I'll look into this cattle-stealin' in your neighborhood, and if I do I'll sure come borrowin'."
"Oh, I'll send you a boxful when I get back," said Alaire, and Dave thanked her humbly.
Later, when he went to move his mare into a shady spot, the Ranger chuckled and slapped his thigh with his hat. "Bessie Belle, we're going to improve our minds," he said, aloud. "We're going to be literary and read Pilgrim's Progress and Alice in Wonderland. I bet we'll enjoy 'em, eh? But—doggone! She's a nice lady, and your coat is just the same color as her hair."
Where the shade was densest and the breeze played most freely, there Dave fixed a comfortable couch for his guest, and during the heat of the forenoon she dozed.
Asleep she exercised upon him an even more disturbing effect than when awake, for now he could study her beauty deliberately, from the loose pile of warm, red hair to the narrow, tight-laced boots. What he saw was altogether delightful. Her slightly parted lips offered an irresistible attraction—almost an invitation; the heat had lent a feverish flush to her cheeks; Dave could count the slow pulsations of her white throat. He closed his eyes and tried to quell his unruly longings. He was a strong man; adventurous days and nights spent in the open had coarsened the masculine side of his character, perhaps at expense to his finer nature, for it is a human tendency to revert. He was masterful and ruthless; lacking obligations or responsibilities of any sort, he had been accustomed to take what he wanted; therefore the gaze he fixed upon the sleeping woman betrayed an ardor calculated to deepen the color in her cheeks, had she beheld it.
And yet, strangely enough, Dave realized that his emotions were unaccountably mixed. This woman's distress had, of course, brought a prompt and natural response; but now her implicit confidence in his honor and her utter dependence upon him awoke his deepest chivalry. Then, too, the knowledge that her life was unhappy, indeed tragic, filled him with a sort of wondering pity. As he continued to look at her these feelings grew until finally he turned away his face. With his chin in his hands he stared out somberly into the blinding heat. He had met few women, of late years, and never one quite like this—never one, for instance, who made him feel so dissatisfied with his own shortcomings.
After a time he rose and withdrew to the shelter of another tree, there to content himself with mental images of his guest.
But one cannot sleep well with a tropic sun in the heavens, and since there was really nothing for her to do until the heat abated, Alaire, when she awoke, obliged the Ranger to amuse her.
Although she was in fact younger than he, married life had matured her, and she treated him therefore like a boy. Law did not object. Mrs. Austin's position in life was such that most men were humble in her presence, and now her superior wisdom seemed to excite the Ranger's liveliest admiration. Only now and then, as if in an unguarded moment, did he appear to forget himself and speak with an authority equaling her own. What he said at such times indicated either a remarkably retentive memory or else an ability to think along original lines too rare among men of his kind to be easily credited.
For instance, during a discussion of the Mexican situation—and of course their talk drifted thither, for at the moment it was the one vitally interesting topic along the border—he excused the barbarous practices of the Mexican soldiers by saying:
"Of course they're cruel, vindictive, treacherous, but after all there are only a hundred and forty generations between us and Adam; only a hundred and forty lifetimes since the Garden of Eden. We civilized peoples are only a lap or two ahead of the uncivilized ones. When you think that it takes ten thousand generations to develop a plant and root out some of its early heredities, you can see that human beings have a long way yet to go before they become perfect. We're creatures of environment, just like plants. Environment has made the Mexican what he is."
Certainly this was an amazing speech to issue from a sun-browned cowboy sitting cross-legged under a mesquite-tree.
From under her hat-brim Alaire Austin eyed the speaker with a curiosity into which there had come a vague hostility. For the moment she was suspicious and piqued, but Law did not appear to notice, and as he talked on her doubts gradually subsided.
"You said, last night, that you were born on the other side?" She inclined her ruddy head to the west.
"Yes'm. My father was a mining man, and he done well over there until he locked horns with the Guadalupes. Old Don Enrique and him had a run-in at the finish, over some land or something. It was when the Don was gobbling all the property in the state, and laying the foundation for his big fortune. You know he had permission from the president to steal all the land he cared to, just like the rest of those local governors had. Well, Guadalupe tried to run my people out."
"Did he succeed?"
"No'm. He killed 'em, but they stayed."
"Not—really?" The listener was shocked. "American citizens, too?"
"Times wasn't much different then than now. There's plenty of good Americans been killed in Mexico and nothing done about it, even in our day. I don't know all the details—never could get 'em, either—for I was away at school; but after I came back from the Philippines the Madero fuss was just brewing, so I went over and joined it. But it didn't last long, and there wasn't enough fighting to suit me. I've been back, off and on, since, and I've burned a good deal of Guadalupe property and swum a good many head of Guadalupe stock."
As the morning progressed Law proved himself an interesting companion, and in spite of the discomforts of the situation the hours slipped past rapidly. Luncheon was a disagreeable meal, eaten while the arroyo baked and the heat devils danced on the hills; but the unpleasantness was of brief duration, and Law always managed to banish boredom. Nor did he seem to waste a thought upon the nature of that grim business which brought him to this place. Quite the contrary, in the afternoon he put his mare through her tricks for Alaire's edification, and gossiped idly of whatever interested his guest.
Then as the sun edged to the west and Mrs. Austin became restless, he saddled Bessie Belle and led her down the gulch into a safer covert.
Returning, he carefully obliterated all traces of the camp. He watered the ashes of the fire, gathered up the tell-tale scraps of paper and fragments of food, and then when the place suited him fell to examining his rifle.
Alaire watched him with interest. "Where shall I go," she asked, "and what shall I do?"
"You just pick out a good cover beyond the water-hole and stay there, ma'am. It may be a long wait, for something may have happened. If so we'll have to lie close. And don't worry yourself none, ma'am; he won't make no trouble."
The afternoon drew to a close. Gradually the blinding white glare of the sun lessened and yellowed, the shadow of the bluffs began to stretch out. The shallow pool lay silent, deserted save for furtive little shapes that darted nervously out of the leaves, or for winged visitors that dropped out of the air.
With the sunset there came the sound of hoofs upon loose stones, branches rustled against breasting bodies, and Mrs. Austin cowered low in her hiding-place. But it was only the advance-guard of a bunch of brush cattle coming to water. They paused at a distance, and nothing except their thirst finally overcame their suspicions. One by one they drifted into sight, drank warily at the remotest edge of the tanque, then, alarmed at some imaginary sight or sound, went clattering up the ravine.
Once again the water-hole lay sleeping.
Alaire's retreat was far from comfortable; there was an ants' nest somewhere near her and she thought of moving; but suddenly her breath caught and her heart jumped uncontrollably. She crouched lower, for directly opposite her position, and outlined against the sky where the sharp ridge cut it, was the figure of a mounted man. Rider and horse were silhouetted against the pearl-gray heaven like an equestrian statue. How long they had been there Alaire had no faintest notion. Perhaps it was their coming which had alarmed the cattle. She was conscious that a keen and hostile pair of eyes was searching the coverts surrounding the charco. Then, as silently as it had appeared, the apparition vanished beyond the ridge, and Alaire wondered if the rider had taken alarm. She earnestly hoped so; this breathless vigil was getting on her nerves, and the sight of that threatening figure had set her pulses to throbbing. The rider was on his guard, that was plain; he was armed, too, and probably desperate. The ominous possibilities of this ambush struck her forcibly.
Alaire lay close, as she had been directed, praying that the horseman had been warned; but shortly she heard again the rustle of stiff branches, and out into the opening rode a Mexican. He was astride a wiry gray pony, and in the strong twilight Alaire could see his every feature—the swarthy cheeks, the roving eyes beneath the black felt hat. A carbine lay across his saddle-horn, a riata was coiled beside his leg, a cartridge-belt circled his waist. There was something familiar about the fellow, but at the moment Alaire could not determine what it was.
After one swift appraising glance the new-comer rode straight to the verge of the water-hole and dismounted; then he and his horse drank side by side.
It was the moment for a complete and effective surprise, but nothing happened. Why didn't Law act? Alaire bent low, straining eyes and ears, but no command came from the Ranger. After a while the traveler rose to his feet and stretched his limbs. Next he walked to the ashes of the fire and looked down at them, stirring them with his toe. Apparently satisfied, he lit a cigarette.
Could it be that something had gone wrong with the Ranger's plan? Had something happened to him? Alaire was startled by the possibility; this delay was beyond her comprehension.
Then, as if in answer to her perplexity, a second horseman appeared, and the woman realized how simply she had been fooled.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE WATER-HOLE
The new-comers exchanged a word or two in Spanish, then the second rider flung himself from his saddle and made for the water. He was lying prone and drinking deeply when out of nowhere came a sharp command.
"Oiga! Hands up, both of you!"
The first arrival jumped as if a rattlesnake had buzzed at his back, the second leaped to his feet with an oath; they stared in the direction whence the voice had come.
"Drop your gun, companero!" The order was decisive; it was directed at the man who had first appeared, for the other had left his Winchester in its scabbard.
Both Mexicans cried, as if at a cue, "Who speaks?"
The fellow Law had addressed let fall his rifle; two pairs of dark hands rose slowly. Then the Ranger went on in Spanish:
"Anto, lower your left hand and unbuckle your belt." Anto did as he was told, his revolver and cartridge-belt dropped to the ground. "And you, compadre, do the same. Mind you, the left hand! Now face about and walk to the charco, both of you. Good!"
Law stepped into view, his Winchester in the crook of his arm. He emptied the three discarded weapons, then, walking to Anto's horse, he removed the second carbine from beneath the saddle-flap and ejected its shells into his palm.
This done, he addressed the stranger. "Now, friend, who are you, and why are you riding with this fellow?"
"My name is Panfilo Sanchez, senor. Before God, I have done nothing." The speaker was tremendously excited.
"Well, Panfilo, that will take some proving," the Ranger muttered.
"What do you say?"
The gist of this statement having been repeated in Spanish, both prisoners burst into clamorous explanation of their presence together. Panfilo, it seemed, had encountered his companion purely by chance, and was horrified now to learn that his newly made friend was wanted by the authorities. In the midst of his incoherent protestations Mrs. Austin appeared.
"He is telling you the truth, Mr. Law," she said, quietly. "He is one of my men."
Both Mexicans looked blank. At sight of the speaker their mouths fell open, and Panfilo ceased his gesticulations.
Mrs. Austin went on: "He is my horse-breaker's cousin. He couldn't have had any part in that murder in Jim Wells County, for he was at Las Palmas when I left."
Panfilo recovered from his amazement, removed his sombrero, and blessed his employer extravagantly; then he turned triumphantly upon his captor. "Behold!" cried he. "There you have the truth. I am an excellent, hard-working man and as honest as God."
"Surely you don't want him," Alaire appealed to Law. "He was probably helping his countryman to escape—but they all do that, you know."
"All right! If he's your man, that's enough," Dave told her. "Now then, boys, it will soon be dark and we'll need some supper before we start. It won't hurt Anto's horse to rest a bit, either. You are under arrest," he added, addressing the latter. "You understand what that means?"
"I won't tie you unless—"
"No, senor!" Anto understood perfectly, and was grateful.
"Well, then, build a fire, and you, Panfilo, lend a hand. The senora will need a cup of tea, for we three have a long ride ahead of us."
No time was lost. Both Mexicans fell to with a will, and in a surprisingly short time water was boiling. When it came Law's turn to eat, Alaire, who was eager to be gone, directed her employee to fetch the Ranger's horse. Panfilo acquiesced readily and buckled on his cartridge-belt and six-shooter. He was about to pick up his rifle, too, but finding Law's eyes inquiringly fixed upon him, he turned with a shrug and disappeared down the arroyo. It was plain that he considered his friendly relations well established and resented the Ranger's suspicion.
"How long has that fellow been working for you?" Law jerked his head in the direction Panfilo had taken.
"Not long. I—don't know much about him," Alaire confessed. Then, as if in answer to his unspoken question, "But I'm sure he's all right."
"Is he looking up range for you?"
"N—no! I left him at the ranch. I don't know how he came to be here, unless—It IS rather strange!"
Dave shot a swift, interrogatory glance at Panfilo's traveling companion, but Anto's face was stony, his black eyes were fixed upon the fire.
With an abrupt gesture Law flung aside the contents of his cup and strode to Panfilo's horse, which stood dejectedly with reins hanging.
"Where are you—going?" Alaire rose nervously.
It was nearly dark now; only the crests of the ridges were plain against the luminous sky; in the brushy bottom of the arroyo the shadows were deep. Alaire had no wish to be left alone with the prisoner.
With bridle-rein and carbine in his left hand, the Ranger halted, then, stooping for Anto's discarded cartridge-belt, he looped it over his saddle-horn. He vaulted easily into the seat, saying:
"I hid that mare pretty well. Your man may not be able to find her." Then he turned his borrowed horse's head toward the brush.
Anto had squatted motionless until this moment; he had not even turned his eyes; but now, without the slightest warning, he uttered a loud call. It might have served equally well as a summons or as an alarm, but it changed the Ranger's suspicions into certainty. Dave uttered an angry exclamation, then to the startled woman he cried:
"Watch this man! He can't hurt you, for I've got his shells." To his prisoner he said, sharply: "Stay where you are! Don't move!" The next instant he had loped into the brush on the tracks of Panfilo Sanchez, spurring the tired gray pony into vigorous action.
It was an uncomfortable situation in which Alaire now found herself. Law was too suspicious, she murmured to herself; he was needlessly melodramatic; she felt exceedingly ill at ease as the pony's hoof-beats grew fainter. She was not afraid of Anto, having dealt with Mexican vaqueros for several years, yet she could not forget that he was a murderer, and she wondered what she was expected to do if he should try to escape. It was absurd to suppose that Panfilo, her own hired man, could be capable of treachery; the mere suspicion was a sort of reflection upon her.
Alaire was startled by hearing other hoof-beats now; their drumming came faint but unmistakable. Yes, there were two horses racing down the arroyo. Anto, the fugitive, rose to his feet and stared into the dusk. "Sit down!" Alaire ordered, sharply. He obeyed, muttering beneath his breath, but his head was turned as if in an effort to follow the sounds of the pursuit.
Next came the distant rattle of loosened stones—evidently one horse was being urged toward the open high ground—then the peaceful quiet evening was split by the report of Law's thirty-thirty. Another shot followed, and then a third. Both Alaire and her prisoner were on their feet, the woman shaking in every limb, the Mexican straining his eyes into the gloom and listening intently.
Soon there came a further echo of dry earth and gravel dislodged, but whether by Law's horse or by that of Sanchez was uncertain. Perhaps both men had gained the mesa.
It had all happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that Alaire felt she must be dreaming, or that there had been some idiotic mistake. She wondered if the Ranger's sudden charge had not simply frightened Panfilo into a panicky flight, and she tried to put her thoughts into words the Mexican would understand, but his answer was unintelligible. His black scowl, however, was eloquent of uncertainty and apprehension.
Alaire had begun to feel the strain of the situation and was trying to decide what next to do, when David Law came riding out of the twilight. He was astride the gray; behind him at the end of a lariat was Bessie Belle, and her saddle was empty.
Mrs. Austin uttered a sharp cry.
Law dismounted and strode to the prisoner. His face was black with fury; he seemed gigantic in his rage. Without a word he raised his right hand and cuffed the Mexican to his knees. Then he leaped upon him, as a dog might pounce upon a rabbit, rolled him to his face, and twisted the fellow's arms into the small of his back. Anto cursed, he struggled, but he was like a child in the Ranger's grasp. Law knelt upon him, and with a jerk of his riata secured the fellow's wrists; rising, he set the knot with another heave that dragged the prisoner to his knees. Next he booted Anto to his feet.
"By God! I've a notion to bend a gun over your head," Law growled. "Clever little game, wasn't it?"
"Where—? Did you—kill him?" the woman gasped.
Alaire had never beheld such a demoniac expression as Law turned upon her. The man's face was contorted, his eyes were blazing insanely, his chest was heaving, and for an instant he seemed to include her in his anger. Ignoring her inquiry, he went to his mare and ran his shaking hands over her as if in search of an injury; his questing palms covered every inch of glistening hide from forelock to withers, from shoulder to hoof, and under cover of this task he regained in some degree his self-control.
"That hombre of yours—didn't look right to me," he said, finally. Laying his cheek against Bessie Belle's neck, as a woman snuggles close to the man of her choice, he addressed the mare: "I reckon nobody is going to steal you, eh? Not if I know it. No, sir; that hombre wasn't any good, was he?"
Alaire wet her lips. "Then you—shot him?"
Law laughed grimly, almost mockingly. "Say! He must be a favorite of yours?"
"N-no! I hardly knew the fellow. But—did you?"
"I didn't say I shot him," he told her, gruffly. "I warned him first, and he turned on me—blew smoke in my face. Then he took to the brush, afoot, and—I cut down on him once more to help him along."
"He got away?"
"I reckon so."
"Oh, oh!" Alaire's tone left no doubt of her relief. "He was always a good man—"
"Good? Didn't he steal my horse? Didn't he aim to get me at the first chance and free his compadre? That's why he wanted his Winchester. Say! I reckon he—needs killin' about as much as anybody I know."
"I can't understand it." Alaire sat down weakly. "One of my men, too."
"This fellow behaved himself while I was gone, eh?" Law jerked his head in Anto's direction. "I was afraid he—he'd try something. If he had—" Such a possibility, oddly enough, seemed to choke the speaker, and the ferocity of his unfinished threat caused Mrs. Austin to look up at him curiously. There was a moment of silence, then he said, shortly: "Well, we've got a horse apiece now. Let's go."
The stars had thickened and brightened, rounding the night sky into a glittering dome. Anto, the murderer, with his ankles lashed beneath his horse's belly, rode first; next, in a sullen silence, came the Ranger, his chin upon his breast; and in the rear followed Alaire Austin.
In spite of her release from a trying predicament, the woman was scarcely more eager to go home than was the prisoner, for while Anto's trail led to a jail, hers led to Las Palmas, and there was little difference. These last two days in the open had been like a glimpse of freedom; for a time Alaire had almost lost the taste of bitter memories. It had required an effort of will to drug remembrance, but she had succeeded, and had proven her ability to forget. But now—Las Palmas! It meant the usual thing, the same endless battle between her duty and her desire. She was tired of the fight that resulted neither in victory nor defeat; she longed now, more than ever, to give up and let things take their course. Why could not women, as well as men, yield to their inclinations—drift with the current instead of breasting it until they were exhausted? There was David Law, for instance; he was utterly carefree, no duties shackled him. He had his horse, his gun, and his blanket, and they were enough; Alaire, like him, was young, her mind was eager, her body ripe, and her veins full of fire. Life must be sweet to those who were free and happy.
But the object of her envy was not so completely at peace with himself as she supposed. Even yet his mind was in a black turmoil from his recent anger, and of late, be it said, these spells of temper had given him cause for uneasiness. Then, too, there was a lie upon his lips.
Under the stars, at the break of the arroyo, three hundred yards below the water-hole, a coyote was slinking in a wide circle around the body of Panfilo Sanchez.
AN EVENING AT LAS PALMAS
Although the lower counties of southwest Texas are flat and badly watered, they possess a rich soil. They are favored, too, by a kindly climate, subtropic in its mildness. The days are long and bright and breezy, while night brings a drenching dew that keeps the grasses green. Of late years there have been few of those distressing droughts that gave this part of the state an evil reputation, and there has been a corresponding increase in prosperity. The Rio Grande, jaundiced, erratic as an invalid, wrings its saffron blood from the clay bluffs and gravel canons of the hill country, but near its estuary winds quietly through a low coastal plain which the very impurities of that blood have richened. Here the river's banks are smothered in thickets of huisache, ebony, mesquite, oak, and alamo.
Railroads, those vitalizing nerve-fibers of commerce, are so scarce along this division of the border that even in this day when we boast, or lament, that we no longer have a frontier, there remain in Texas sections larger than some of our Eastern states which hear the sound of iron wheels only on their boundaries. To travel from Brownsville north along the international line one must, for several hundred miles, avail oneself of horses, mules, or motor-cars, since rail transportation is almost lacking. And on his way the traveler will traverse whole counties where the houses are jacals, where English is a foreign tongue, and where peons plow their fields with crooked sticks as did the ancient Egyptians.
That part of the state which lies below the Nueces River was for a time disputed territory, and long after Texans had given their lives to drive the Eagle of Mexico across the Rio Grande much of it remained a forbidden land. Even to-day it is alien. It is a part of our Southland, but a South different to any other that we have. Within it there are no blacks, and yet the whites number but one in twenty. The rest are swarthy, black-haired men who speak the Spanish tongue and whose citizenship is mostly a matter of form.
The stockmen, pushing ahead of the nesters and the tillers of the soil, were the first to invade the lower Rio Grande, and among these "Old Ed" Austin was a pioneer. Out of the unmapped prairie he had hewed a foothold, and there, among surroundings as Mexican as Mexico, he had laid the beginnings of his fortune.
Of "Old Ed's" early life strange stories are told; like the other cattle barons, he was hungry for land and took it where or how he could. There are tales of fertile sections bought for ten cents an acre, tales of Mexican ranchers dispossessed by mortgage, by monte, or by any means that came to hand; stories even of some, more stubborn than the rest, who refused to feed the Austin greed for land, and who remained on their farms to feed the buzzards instead. Those were crude old days; the pioneers who pushed their herds into the far pastures were lawless fellows, ruthless, acquisitive, mastered by the empire-builder's urge for acres and still more acres. They were the Reclaimers, the men who seized and held, and then seized more, concerning themselves little or not at all with the moral law as applicable to both Mexican and white, and leaving it to the second generation to justify their acts, if ever justification were required.
As other ranches grew under the hands of such unregenerate owners, so also under "Old Ed" Austin's management did Las Palmas increase and prosper. The estate took its name from a natural grove of palms in which the house was built; it comprised an expanse of rich river-land backed by miles of range where "Box A" cattle lived and bred. In his later years the old man sold much land, and some he leased; but when he handed Las Palmas to his son, "Young Ed," as a wedding gift, the ranch still remained a property to be proud of, and one that was known far and wide for its size and richness. Leaving his boy to work out of it a fortune for himself and his bride, the father retired to San Antonio, whither the friends and cronies of his early days were drifting. There he settled down and proceeded to finish his allotted span exactly as suited him best. The rancher's ideal of an agreeable old age comprised three important items—to wit, complete leisure, unlimited freedom of speech, and two pints of rye whisky daily. He enjoyed them all impartially, until, about a year before this story opens, he died profanely and comfortably. He had a big funeral, and was sincerely mourned by a coterie of gouty old Indian-fighters.
Las Palmas had changed greatly since Austin, senior, painfully scrawled his slanting signature to the deed. It was a different ranch now to what the old man had known; indeed, it was doubtful if he would have recognized it, for even the house was new.
Alaire had some such thought in mind as she rode up to the gate on the afternoon following her departure from the water-hole, and she felt a thrill of pride at the acres of sprouting corn, the dense green fields of alfalfa so nicely fitted between their fences. They were like clean, green squares of matting spread for the feet of summer.
A Mexican boy came running to care for her horse, a Mexican woman greeted her as she entered the wide, cool hall and went to her room. Alaire had ridden far. Part of the night had been spent at the Balli goat-ranch, the remainder of the journey had been hot and dusty, and even yet she was not wholly recovered from her experience of the outward trip.
The house servants at Las Palmas were, on the whole, well trained, and Mrs. Austin's periodic absences excited no comment; in the present instance, Dolores fixed a bath and laid out clean clothes with no more than a running accompaniment of chatter concerned with household affairs. Dolores, indeed, was superior to the ordinary servant; she was a woman of some managerial ability, and she combined the duties of personal maid with those of housekeeper. She was a great gossip, and possessed such a talent for gaining information that through her husband, Benito, the range boss, she was able to keep her mistress in fairly intimate touch with ranch matters.
Alaire, however, was at this moment in no mood to resume the tiresome details of management; she quickly dismissed her servitor and proceeded to revel in the luxury of a cool bath, after which she took a nap. Later, as she leisurely dressed herself, she acknowledged that it was good to feel the physical comforts of her own house, even though her home-coming gave her no especial joy. She made it a religious practice to dress for dinner, regardless of Ed's presence, though often for weeks at a time she sat in solitary state, presiding over an empty table. Nevertheless, she kept to her custom, for not only did the formality help her to retain her own self-respect, but it had its influence upon the servants. Without companionship one needs to be ever upon guard to retain the nice refinements of gentle breeding, and any one who has exercised authority in savage countries soon learns the importance of leaving unbridged the gulf of color and of class.
But Alaire looked forward to no lonely dinner to-night, for Ed was at home. It was with a grave preoccupation that she made herself ready to meet him.
Dolores bustled in for a second time and straightway launched herself into a tirade against Juan, the horse-boy.
"Devil take me if there was ever such a shameless fellow," she cried, angrily. "He delights in tormenting me, and—Dios!—he is lazier than a snake. Work? Bah! He abhors it. All day long he snaps his revolver and pretends to be a bandido, and when he is not risking hell's fire in that way he is whirling his riata and jumping through it. Useless capers! He ropes the dog, he ropes the rose-bushes, he ropes fat Victoria, the cook, carrying a huge bowl of hot water to scald the ants' nest. Victoria's stomach is boiled red altogether, and so painful that when she comes near the stove she curses in a way to chill your blood. What does he do this morning but fling his wicked loop over a calf's head and break off one of its little horns. It was terrible; but Senor Austin only laughed and told him he was a fine vaquero."
"Has Mr. Austin been here all the time?"
"Has he—drunk much?"
"Um-m. No more than common. He is on the gallery now with his cocktails."
"He knows I am at home?"
"I told him."
Alaire went on dressing. After a little she asked: "Has Benito finished branding the calves in the south pasture?"
"He finished yesterday and sent the remuda to the Six Mile. Jose Sanchez will have completed the rodeo by this afternoon. Benito rode in last night to see you."
"By the way, you know Jose's cousin, Panfilo?"
"Why did he leave Las Palmas?"
Dolores hesitated so long that her mistress turned upon her with a look of sharp inquiry.
"He went to La Feria, senora." Then, in a lowered tone: "Mr. Austin ordered it. Suddenly, without warning, he sent him away, though Panfilo did not wish to go, Benito told me all about it."
"Why was he transferred? Come! What ails your tongue, Dolores?"
"Well, I keep my eyes open and my ears, too. I am no fool—" Dolores paused doubtfully.
Dolores drew closer. "Rosa Morales—you know the girl? Her father works the big pump-engine at the river. Well, he is not above anything, that man; not above selling his own flesh and blood, and the girl is no better. She thinks about nothing except men, and she attends all the bailes for miles around, on both sides of the river. Panfilo loved her; he was mad about her. That's why he came here to work."
"They were engaged, were they not?"
"Truly. And Panfilo was jealous of any man who looked at Rosa. Now you can understand why—he was sent away." Dolores's sharp eyes narrowed meaningly. "Senor Ed has been riding toward the river every day, lately. Panfilo was furious, so—"
"I see! That is all I care to hear." Alone, Alaire stood motionless for some time, her face fixed, her eyes unseeing; but later, when she met her husband in the dining-room, her greeting was no less civil than usual.
Ed acknowledged his wife's entrance with a careless nod, but did not trouble to remove his hands from his pockets. As he seated himself heavily at the table and with unsteady fingers shook the folds from his napkin, he said:
"You stayed longer than you intended. Um-m—you were gone three days, weren't you?"
"Four days," Alaire told him, realizing with a little inward start how very far apart she and Ed had drifted. She looked at him curiously for an instant, wondering if he really could be her husband, or—if he were not some peculiarly disagreeable stranger.
Ed had been a handsome boy, but maturity had vitiated his good looks. He was growing fat from drink and soft from idleness; his face was too full, his eyes too sluggish; there was an unhealthy redness in his cheeks. In contrast to his wife's semi-formal dress, he was unkempt—unshaven and soiled. He wore spurred boots and a soft shirt; his nails were grimy. When in the city he contrived to garb himself immaculately; he was in fact something of a dandy; but at home he was a sloven, and openly reveled in a freedom of speech and a coarseness of manner that were sad trials to Alaire. His preparations for dinner this evening had been characteristically simple; he had drunk three dry cocktails and flung his sombrero into a corner.
"I've been busy while you were gone," he announced. "Been down to the pump-house every day laying that new intake. It was a nasty job, too. I had Morales barbecue a cabrito for my lunch, and it was good, but I'm hungry again." Austin attacked his meal with an enthusiasm strange in him, for of late his appetite had grown as errant as his habits. Ed boasted, in his clubs, that he was an outdoor man, and he was wont to tell his friends that the rough life was the life for him; but as a matter of fact he spent much more time in San Antonio than he did at home, and each of his sojourns at Las Palmas was devoted principally to sobering up from his last visit to the city and to preparing for another. Nor was he always sober even in his own house; Ed was a heavy and a constant drinker at all times. What little exercise he took was upon the back of a horse, and, as no one knew better than his wife, the physical powers he once had were rapidly deteriorating.
By and by he inquired, vaguely: "Let's see, ... Where did you go this time?"
"I went up to look over that Ygnacio tract."
"Oh yes. How did you find it?"
"Not very promising. It needs a lot of wells."
"I haven't been out that way since I was a boy. Think you'll lease it?"
"I don't know. I must find some place for those La Feria cattle."
Austin shook his head. "Better leave 'em where they are, until the rebels take that country. I stand mighty well with them."
"That's the trouble," Alaire told him. "You stand too well—so well that I want to get my stock out of Federal territory as soon as possible."
Ed shrugged carelessly. "Suit yourself; they're your cows."
The meal went on with a desultory flow of small talk, during which the husband indulged his thirst freely. Alaire told him about the accident to her horse and the unpleasant ordeal she had suffered in the mesquite.
"Lucky you found somebody at the water-hole," Ed commented. "Who was this Ranger? Never heard of the fellow," he commented on the name. "The Rangers are nothing like they used to be."
"This fellow would do credit to any organization." As Alaire described how expeditiously Law had made his arrest and handled his man, her husband showed interest.
"Nicolas Anto, eh?" said he, "Who was his companero?"
Ed started. "That's strange! They must have met accidentally."
"So they both declared. Why did you let Panfilo go?"
"We didn't need him here, and he was too good a man to lose, so—" Ed found his wife's eyes fixed upon him, and dropped his own. "I knew you were short-handed at La Feria." There was an interval of silence, then Ed exclaimed, testily, "What are you looking at?"
"I wondered what you'd say."
"Eh? Can't I fire a man without a long-winded explanation?" Something in Alaire's expression warned him of her suspicion; therefore he took refuge behind an assumption of anger. "My God! Don't I have a word to say about my own ranch? Just because I've let you run things to suit yourself—"
"Wait! We had our understanding." Alaire's voice was low and vibrant. "It was my payment for living with you, and you know it. You gave me the reins to Las Palmas so that I'd have something to do, something to live for and think about, except—your actions. The ranch has doubled in value, every penny is accounted for, and you have more money to spend on yourself than ever before. You have no reason to complain."
Austin crushed his napkin into a ball and flung it from him; with a scowl he shoved himself back from the table.
"It was an idiotic arrangement, just the same. I agreed because I was sick. Dad thought I was all shot to pieces. But I'm all right now and able to run my own business."
"Nevertheless, it was a bargain, and it will stand. If your father were alive he'd make you live up to it."
"Hell! You talk as if I were a child," shouted her husband; and his plump face was apoplectic with rage. "The title is in my name. How could he make me do anything?"
"Nobody could force you," his wife said, quietly. "You are still enough of a man to keep your word, I believe, so long as I observe my part of our bargain?"
Ed, slightly mollified, agreed. "Of course I am; I never welched. But I won't be treated as an incompetent, and I'm tired of these eternal wrangles and jangles."
"You HAVE welched."
"Eh?" Austin frowned belligerently.
"You agreed to go away when you felt your appetite coming on, and you promised to live clean, at least around home."
"Have you done it?"
"Certainly. I never said I'd cut out the booze entirely."
"What about your carousals at Brownsville?"
Austin subsided sullenly. "Other men have got full in Brownsville."
"No doubt. But you made a scandal. You have been seen with—women, in a good many places where we are known."
"Bah! There's nothing to it."
Alaire went on in a lifeless tone that covered the seething emotions within her. "I never inquire into your actions at San Antonio or other large cities, although of course I have ears and I can't help hearing about them; but these border towns are home to us, and people know me. I won't be humiliated more than I am; public pity is—hard enough to bear. I've about reached the breaking-point."
"Indeed?" Austin leaned forward, his eyes inflamed. His tone was raised, heedless of possible eavesdroppers. "Then why don't you end it? Why don't you divorce me? God knows I never see anything of you. You have your part of the house and I have mine; all we share in common is meal-hours, and—and a mail address. You're about as much my wife as Dolores is."
Alaire turned upon him eyes dark with misery. "You know why I don't divorce you. No, Ed, we're going to live out our agreement, and these Brownsville episodes are going to cease." Her lips whitened. "So are your visits to the pumping-station."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You transferred Panfilo because he was growing jealous of you and Rosa."
Ed burst into sudden laughter. "Good Lord! There's no harm in a little flirtation. Rosa's a pretty girl."
His wife uttered a breathless, smothered exclamation; her hands, as they lay on the table-cloth, were tightly clenched. "She's your tenant—almost your servant. What kind of a man are you? Haven't you any decency left?"
"Say! Go easy! I guess I'm no different to most men." Austin's unpleasant laughter had been succeeded by a still more unpleasant scowl. "I have to do SOMETHING. It's dead enough around here—"
"You must stop going there."
"Humph! I notice YOU go where YOU please. Rosa and I never spent a night together in the chaparral—"
"Ed!" Alaire's exclamation was like the snap of a whip. She rose and faced her husband, quivering as if the lash had stung her flesh.
"That went home, eh? Well, I'm no fool! I've seen something of the world, and I've found that women are about like men. I'd like to have a look at this David Law, this gunman, this Handsome Harry who waits at water-holes for ladies in distress." Ed ignored his wife's outflung hand, and continued, mockingly: "I'll bet he's all that's manly and splendid, everything that I'm NOT."
"You'd—better stop," gasped the woman. "I can't stand everything."
"So? Well, neither can I."
"After—this, I think you'd better go—to San Antonio. Maybe I'll forget before you come back."
To this "Young Ed" agreed quickly enough. "Good!" said he. "That suits me. It's hell around Las Palmas, anyhow, and I'll at least get a little peace at my club." He glowered after his wife as she left the room. Then, still scowling, he lurched out to the gallery where the breeze was blowing, and flung himself into a chair.
SOMETHING ABOUT HEREDITY
It had required but one generation to ripen the fruits of "Old Ed" Austin's lawlessness, and upon his son heredity had played one of her grimmest pranks. The father had had faults, but they were those of his virtues; he had been a strong man, at least, and had "ridden herd" upon his unruly passions with the same thoroughness as over his wild cattle. The result was that he had been universally respected. At first the son seemed destined to be like his father. It was not until "Young Ed" had reached his full manhood that his defects had become recognizable evil tendencies, that his infirmity had developed into a disease. Like sleeping cancers, the Austin vices had lain dormant in him during boyhood; it had required the mutation from youth to manhood, and the alterative effect of marriage, to rouse them; but, once awakened, their ravages had been swift and destructive. Ed's marriage to Alaire had been inevitable. They had been playmates, and their parents had considered the union a consummation of their own lifelong friendship. Upon her mother's death, Alaire had been sent abroad, and there she remained while "Young Ed" attended an Eastern college. For any child the experience would have been a lonesome one, and through it the motherless Texas girl had grown into an imaginative, sentimental person, living in a make-believe world, peopled, for the most part, with the best-remembered figures of romance and fiction. There were, of course, some few flesh-and-blood heroes among the rest, and of these the finest and the noblest had been "Young Ed" Austin.
When she came home to marry, Alaire was still very much of a child, and she still considered Ed her knight. As for him, he was captivated by this splendid, handsome girl, whom he remembered only as a shy, red-headed little comrade.
Never was a marriage more propitious, never were two young people more happily situated than these two, for they were madly in love, and each had ample means with which to make the most of life.
As Las Palmas had been the elder Austin's wedding-gift to his son, so Alaire's dowry from her father had been La Feria, a grant of lands across the Rio Grande beyond the twenty-league belt by which Mexico fatuously strives to guard her border. And to Las Palmas had come the bride and groom to live, to love, and to rear their children.
But rarely has there been a shorter honeymoon, seldom a swifter awakening. Within six months "Young Ed" had killed his wife's love and had himself become an alcoholic. Others of his father's vices revived, and so multiplied that what few virtues the young man had inherited were soon choked. The change was utterly unforeseen; its cause was rooted too deeply in the past to be remedied. Maturity had marked an epoch with "Young Ed"; marriage had been the mile-post where his whole course veered abruptly.
To the bride the truth had come as a stunning tragedy. She was desperately frightened, too, and lived a nightmare life, the while she tried in every way to check the progress of that disintegration which was eating up her happiness. The wreck of her hopes and glad imaginings left her sick, bewildered, in the face of "the thing that couldn't."
Nor had the effect of this transformation in "Young Ed" been any less painful to his father. For a time the old man refused to credit it, but finally, when the truth was borne in upon him unmistakably, and he saw that Las Palmas was in a fair way to being ruined through the boy's mismanagement, the old cattleman had risen in his wrath. The ranch had been his pride as Ed had been his joy; to see them both go wrong was more than he could bear. There had been a terrible scene, and a tongue-lashing delivered in the language of early border days. There had followed other visits from Austin, senior, other and even bitterer quarrels; at last, when the girl-wife remained firm in her refusal to divorce her husband, the understanding had been reached by which the management of Las Palmas was placed absolutely in her hands.
Of course, the truth became public, as it always does. This was a new country—only yesterday it had been the frontier, and even yet a frontier code of personal conduct to some extent prevailed. Nevertheless, "Young Ed" Austin's life became a scorn and a hissing among his neighbors. They were not unduly fastidious, these neighbors, and they knew that hot blood requires more than a generation to cool, but everything Ed did outraged them. In trying to show their sympathy for his wife they succeeded in wounding her more deeply, and Alaire withdrew into herself. She became almost a recluse, and fenced herself away not only from the curious, but also from those who really wished to be her friends. In time people remarked that Ed Austin's metamorphosis was no harder to understand than that of his wife.
It was true. She had changed. The alteration reached to the very bone and marrow of her being. At first the general pity had wounded her, then it had offended, and finally angered her. That people should notice her affliction, particularly when she strove so desperately to hide it, seemed the height of insolence.
The management of Las Palmas was almost her only relief. Having sprung from a family of ranchers, the work came easy, and she grew to like it—as well as she could like anything with that ever-present pain in her breast. The property was so large that it gave ample excuse for avoiding the few visitors who came, and the range boss, Benito Gonzales, attended to most of the buying and selling. Callers gradually became rarer; friends dropped away almost entirely. Since Las Palmas employed no white help whatever, it became in time more Mexican than in the days of "Old Ed" Austin's ownership.
In such wise had Alaire fashioned her life, living meanwhile under a sort of truce with her husband.
But Las Palmas had prospered to admiration, and La Feria would have prospered equally had it not been for the armed unrest of the country across the border. No finer stock than the "Box A" was to be found anywhere. The old lean, long-horned cattle had been interbred with white-faced Herefords, and the sleek coats of their progeny were stretched over twice the former weight of beef. Alaire had even experimented with the Brahman strain, importing some huge, hump-backed bulls that set the neighborhood agog. People proclaimed they were sacred oxen and whispered that they were intended for some outlandish pagan rite—Alaire by this time had gained the reputation of being "queer"—while experienced stockmen declared the venture a woman's folly, affirming that buffaloes had never been crossed successfully with domestic cattle. It was rumored that one of these imported animals cost more than a whole herd of Mexican stock, and the ranchers speculated freely as to what "Old Ed" Austin would have said of such extravagance.
It was Blaze Jones, one of the few county residents granted access to Las Palmas, who first acquainted himself with the outcome of Alaire's experiment, and it was he who brought news of it to some visiting stock-buyers at Brownsville.
Blaze was addicted to rhetorical extravagance. His voice was loud; his fancy ran a splendid course.
"Gentlemen," said he, "you-all interest me with your talk about your prize Northern stock; but I claim that the bigger the state the bigger the cattle it raises. That's why old Texas beats the world."
"But it doesn't," some one contradicted.
"It don't, hey? My boy"—Blaze jabbed a rigid finger into the speaker's ribs, as if he expected a ground-squirrel to scuttle forth—"we've got steers in this valley that are damn near the size of the whole state of Rhode Island. If they keep on growin' I doubt if you could fatten one of 'em in Delaware without he'd bulge over into some neighboring commonwealth. It's the God's truth! I was up at Las Palmas last month—"
"Las Palmas!" The name was enough to challenge the buyers' interest.
Blaze nodded. "You-all think you know the stock business. You're all swollen up with cow-knowledge, now, ain't you?" He eyed them from beneath his black eyebrows. "Well, some of our people thought they did, too. They figured they'd inherited all there was to know about live stock, and they grew plumb arrogant over their wisdom. But—pshaw! They didn't know nothing. Miz Austin has bred in that Brayma strain and made steers so big they run four to the dozen. And here's the remarkable thing about 'em—they 'ain't got as many ticks as you gentlemen."
Some of the cattlemen were incredulous, but Blaze maintained his point with emphasis. "It's true. They're a grave disappointment to every kind of parasite."
But Alaire had not confined her efforts to cattle; she had improved the breed of "Box A" horses, too, and hand in hand with this work she had carried on a series of agricultural experiments.
Las Palmas, so people used to say, lay too far up the river to be good farming-land; nevertheless, once the pumping-plant was in, certain parts of the ranch raised nine crops of alfalfa, and corn that stood above a rider's head.
There was no money in "finished" stock; the border was too far from market—that also had long been an accepted truism—yet this woman built silos which she filled with her own excess fodder in scientific proportions, and somehow or other she managed to ship fat beeves direct to the packing-houses and get big prices for them.
These were but a few of her many ventures. She had her hobbies, of course, but, oddly enough, most of them paid or promised to do so. For instance, she had started a grove of paper-shelled pecans, which was soon due to bear; the ranch house and its clump of palms was all but hidden by a forest of strange trees, which were reported to ripen everything from moth-balls to bicycle tires. Blaze Jones was perhaps responsible for this report, for Alaire had shown him several thousand eucalyptus saplings and some ornamental rubber-plants.
"That Miz Austin is a money-makin' piece of furniture," he once told his daughter Paloma. "I'm no mechanical adder—I count mostly on my fingers—but her and me calculated the profits on them eucher—what's-their-name trees?—and it gave me a splittin' headache. She'll be a drug queen, sure."
"Why don't you follow her example?" asked Paloma. "We have plenty of land."
Blaze, in truth, was embarrassed by the size of his holdings, but he shook his head. "No, I'm too old to go rampagin' after new gods. I 'ain't got the imagination to raise anything more complicated than a mortgage; but if I was younger, I'd organize myself up and do away with that Ed Austin. I'd sure help him to an untimely end, and then I'd marry them pecan-groves, and blooded herds, and drug-store orchards. She certainly is a heart-breakin' device, with her red hair and red lips and—"
"FATHER!" Paloma was deeply shocked.
Complete isolation, of course, Alaire had found to be impossible, even though her ranch lay far from the traveled roads and her Mexican guards were not encouraging to visitors. Business inevitably brought her into contact with a considerable number of people, and of these the one she saw most frequently was Judge Ellsworth of Brownsville, her attorney.
It was perhaps a week after Ed had left for San Antonio that Alaire felt the need of Ellsworth's counsel, and sent for him. He responded promptly, as always. Ellsworth was a kindly man of fifty-five, with a forceful chin and a drooping, heavy-lidded eye that could either blaze or twinkle. He was fond of Alaire, and his sympathy, like his understanding, was of that wordless yet comprehensive kind which is most satisfying. Judge Ellsworth knew more than any four men in that part of Texas; information had a way of seeking him out, and his head was stored to repletion with facts of every variety. He was a good lawyer, too, and yet his knowledge of the law comprised but a small part of that mental wealth upon which he prided himself. He knew human nature, and that he considered far more important than law. His mind was like a full granary, and every grain lay where he could put his hand upon it.
He motored out from Brownsville, and, after ridding himself of dust, insisted upon spending the interval before dinner in an inspection of Alaire's latest ranch improvements. He had a fatherly way of walking with his arm about Alaire's shoulders, and although she sometimes suspected that his warmth of good-fellowship was merely a habit cultivated through political necessities, nevertheless it was comforting, and she took it at its face value.