Produced by Suzanne Shell, Leah Moser and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
A STORY OF THE OLD CALIFORNIA DAYS IN 1849
BY B.M. BOWER
WIth Illustrations By Anton Otto Fischer
[Illustration: “Gringos are savages and worse than savages.”]
I wish to make public acknowledgment of the assistance I have received from George W. Lee, a “Forty-niner” who has furnished me with data, material, and color which have been invaluable in the writing of this story.
I. THE BEGINNING OF IT
II. THE VIGILANTES
III. THE THING THEY CALLED JUSTICE
IV. WHAT HAPPENED AT THE OAK
VI. THE VALLEY
VII. THE LORD OF THE VALLEY
VIII. DON ANDRES WANTS A MAJORDOMO
IX. JERRY SIMPSON, SQUATTER
X. THE FINEST LITTLE WOMAN IN THE WORLD
XI. AN ILL WIND
XII. POTENTIAL MOODS
XIII. BILL WILSON GOES VISITING
XIV. RODEO TIME
XV. WHEN CAMP-FIRES BLINK
XVI. “FOR WEAPONS I CHOOSE RIATAS”
XVII. A FIESTA WE SHALL HAVE
XVIII. WHAT IS LOVE WORTH?
XX. LOST! TWO HASTY TEMPERS
XXI. FIESTA DAY
XXII. THE BATTLE OF BEASTS
XXIII. THE DUEL OF RIATAS
XXIV. FOR LOVE AND A MEDAL
_List of Illustrations_
“Gringos are savages and worse than savages”
He twisted in the saddle and sent leaden answer to the spiteful barking of the guns
Mrs. Jerry took the senorita’s hand and smiled up at her
“An accident it must appear to those who watch”
THE BEGINNING OF IT
If you would glimpse the savage which normally lies asleep, thank God, in most of us, you have only to do this thing of which I shall tell you, and from some safe sanctuary where leaden couriers may not bear prematurely the tidings of man’s debasement, watch the world below. You may see civilization swing back with a snap to savagery and worse–because savagery enlightened by the civilization of centuries is a deadly thing to let loose among men. Our savage forebears were but superior animals groping laboriously after economic security and a social condition that would yield most prolifically the fruit of all the world’s desire, happiness; to-day, when we swing back to something akin to savagery, we do it for lust of gain, like our forebears, but we do it wittingly. So, if you would look upon the unlovely spectacle of civilized men turned savage, and see them toil painfully back to lawful living, you have but to do this:
Seek a spot remote from the great centers of our vaunted civilization, where Nature, in a wanton gold-revel of her own, has sprinkled her river beds with the shining dust, hidden it away under ledges, buried it in deep canyons in playful miserliness and salved with its potent glow the time-scars upon the cheeks of her gaunt mountains. You have but to find a tiny bit of Nature’s gold, fling it in the face of civilization and raise the hunting cry. Then, from that safe sanctuary which you have chosen, you may look your fill upon the awakening of the primitive in man; see him throw off civilization as a sleeper flings aside the cloak that has covered him; watch the savages fight, whom your gold has conjured.
They will come, those savages; straight as the arrow flies they will come, though mountains and deserts and hurrying rivers bar their way. And the plodding, law-abiding citizens who kiss their wives and hold close their babies and fling hasty, comforting words over their shoulders to tottering old mothers when they go to answer the hunting call–they will be your savages when the gold lust grips them. And the towns they build of their greed will be but the nucleus of all the crime let loose upon the land. There will be men among your savages; men in whom the finer stuff outweighs the grossness and the greed. But to save their lives and that thing they prize more than life or gold, and call by the name of honor or friendship or justice–that thing which is the essence of all the fineness in their natures–to save that and their lives they also must fight, like savages who would destroy them.
* * * * *
There was a little, straggling hamlet born of the Mission which the padres founded among the sand hills beside a great, uneasy stretch of water which a dreamer might liken to a naughty child that had run away from its mother, the ocean, through a little gateway which the land left open by chance and was hiding there among the hills, listening to the calling of the surf voice by night, out there beyond the gate, and lying sullen and still when mother ocean sent the fog and the tides a-seeking; a truant child that played by itself and danced little wave dances which it had learned of its mother ages agone, and laughed up at the hills that smiled down upon it.
The padres thought mostly of the savages who lived upon the land, and strove earnestly to teach them the lessons which, sandal-shod, with crucifix to point the way, they had marched up from the south to set before these children of the wild. Also came ships, searching for that truant ocean-child, the bay, of which men had heard; and so the hamlet was born of civilization.
Came afterwards noblemen from Spain, with parchments upon which the king himself had set his seal. Mile upon mile, they chose the land that pleased them best; and by virtue of the king’s word called it their own. They drove cattle up from the south to feed upon the hills and in the valleys. They brought beautiful wives and set them a-queening it over spacious homes which they built of clay and native wood and furnished with the luxuries they brought with them in the ships. They reared lovely daughters and strong, hot-blooded sons; and they grew rich in cattle and in contentment, in this paradise which Nature had set apart for her own playground and which the zeal of the padres had found and claimed in the name of God and their king.
The hamlet beside the bay was small, but it received the ships and the goods they brought and bartered for tallow and hides; and although the place numbered less than a thousand souls, it was large enough to please the dons who dwelt like the patriarchs of old in the valleys.
Then Chance, that sardonic jester who loves best to thwart the dearest desires of men and warp the destiny of nations, became piqued at the peace and the plenty in the land which lay around the bay. Chance, knowing well how best and quickest to let savagery loose upon the land, plucked a handful of gold from the breast of Nature, held it aloft that all the world might be made mad by the gleam of it, and raised the hunting call.
Chance also it was that took the trails of two adventurous young fellows whose ears had caught her cry of “Good hunting” and set their faces westward from the plains of Texas; but here her jest was kindly. The young fellows took the trail together and were content. Together they heard the hunting call and went seeking the gold that was luring thousands across the deserts; together they dug for it, found it, shared it when all was done. Together they heeded the warning of falling leaf and chilling night winds, and with buckskin bags comfortably heavy went down the mountain trail to San Francisco, that ugly, moiling center of the savagery, to idle through the winter.
Here, because of certain traits which led each man to seek the thing that pleased him best, the trail forked for a time. One was caught in the turgid whirlpool which was the sporting element of the town, and would not leave it. Him the games and the women and the fighting drew irresistibly. The other sickened of the place, and one day when all the grassy hillsides shone with the golden glow of poppies to prove that spring was near, almost emptied a bag of gold because he had seen and fancied a white horse which a drunken Spaniard from the San Joaquin was riding up and down the narrow strip of sand which was a street, showing off alike his horsemanship and his drunkenness. The horse he bought, and the outfit, from the silver-trimmed saddle and bridle to the rawhide riata hanging coiled upon one side of the narrow fork and the ivory-handled Colt’s revolver tucked snugly in its holster upon the other side. Pleased as a child over a Christmas stocking, he straightway mounted the beautiful beast and galloped away to the south, still led by Chance, the jester.
He returned in a week, enamored alike of his horse and of the ranch he had discovered. He was going back, he said. There were cattle by the thousands–and he was a cattleman, from the top of his white sombrero to the tips of his calfskin boots, for all he had bent his back laboriously all summer over a hole in the ground, and had idled in town since Thanksgiving. He was a cowboy (vaquero was the name they used in those pleasant valleys) and so was his friend. And he had found a cowboy’s paradise, and a welcome which a king could not cavil at. Would Jack stake himself to a horse and outfit, and come to Palo Alto till the snow was well out of the mountains and they could go back to their mine?
Jack blew three small smoke-rings with nice precision, watched them float and fade while he thought of a certain girl who had lately smiled upon him–and in return had got smile for smile–and said he guessed he’d stick to town life for a while.
“Old Don Andres Picardo’s a prince,” argued Dade, “and he’s got a rancho that’s a paradise on earth. Likes us gringos–which is more than most of ’em do–and said his house and all he’s got is half mine, and nothing but the honor’s all his. You know the Spaniards; seems like Texas, down there. I told him I had a partner, and he said he’d be doubly honored if it pleased my partner to sleep under his poor roof–red tiles, by the way, and not so poor!–and sit at his table. One of the ‘fine old families,’ they are, Jack. I came back after you and my traps.”
“That fellow you bought the white caballo from got shot that same night,” Jack observed irrelevantly. “He was weeping all over me part of the evening, because he’d sold the horse and you had pulled out so he couldn’t buy him back. Then he came into Billy Wilson’s place and sat into a game at the table next to mine; and some kind of a quarrel started. He’d overlooked that gun on the saddle, it seems, and so he only had a knife. He whipped it out, first pass, but a bullet got him in the heart. The fellow that did it–” Jack blew two more rings and watched them absently–“the Committee rounded him up and took him out to the oak, next morning. Trial took about fifteen minutes, all told. They had him hung, in their own minds, before the greaser quit kicking. I _know_ the man shot in self-defense; I saw the Spaniard pull his knife and start for him with blood in his eye. But some of the Committee had it in for Sandy, and so–it was adios for him, poor devil. They murdered him in cold blood. I told them so, too. I told them–“
“Yes, I haven’t the slightest doubt of that!” Dade flung away a half-smoked cigarette and agitatedly began to roll another one. “That’s one reason why I want you to come down to Palo Alto, Jack. You know how things are going here, lately; and Perkins hates you since you took the part of that peon he was beating up,–and, by the way, I saw that same Injun at Don Andres’ rancho. Now that Perkins is Captain, you’ll get into trouble if you hang around this burg without some one to hold you down. This ain’t any place for a man that’s got your temper and tongue. Say, I heard of a horse–“
“No, you don’t! You can’t lead me out like that, old boy. I’m all right; Bill Wilson and I are pretty good friends; and Bill’s almost as high a card as the Committee, if it ever came to a show-down. But it won’t. I’m not a fool; I didn’t quarrel with them, honest. They had me up for a witness and I told the truth–which didn’t happen to jibe with the verdict they meant to give. The Captain as good as said so, and I just pleasantly and kindly told him that in my opinion Sandy was a better man than any one of ’em. That’s all there was to it. The Captain excused me from the witness chair, and I walked out of the tent. And we’re friendly enough when we meet; so you needn’t worry about me.”
“Better come, anyway,” urged Dade, though he was not hopeful of winning his way.
Jack shook his head. “No, I don’t want anything of country life just yet. I had all the splendid solitude my system needs, this last summer. You like it; you’re a kind of a lone rider anyway. You never did mix well. You go back and honor Don Andres with your presence–and he is honored. If the old devil only knew it! Maybe, later on–So you like your new horse, huh? What you going to call him?”
Dade grinned a little. “Remember that picture in Shakespeare of ‘White Surry’? Or it was in Shakespeare till you tore it out to start a fire, that wet night; remember? The arch in his neck, and all? I hadn’t gone a mile on him till I was calling him Surry; and say, Jack, he’s a wonder! Come out and take a look at him. Can’t be more than four years old, and gentle as a kitten. That poor devil knew how to train a horse, even if he didn’t have any sense about whisky. I’ll bet money couldn’t have touched him if the man had been sober.”
He stopped in the doorway and looked up and down the street with open disgust. “Come on down to Picardo’s, Jack; what the deuce is there here to hold you? How a man that knows horses and the range, can stand for this–” he waved a gloved hand at the squalid street–“is something I can’t understand. To me, it’s like hell with the lid off. What’s holding you anyway? Another senorita?”
“I’m making more money here lately than I did in the mine.” Jack evaded smoothly. “I won a lot last night. Whee-ee! Say, you played in some luck yourself, old man, when you bought that outfit. That saddle and bridle’s worth all you paid for the whole thing. White Surry, eh? He has got a neck–and, Lord, look at those legs!”
“Climb on and try him out once!” invited Dade guilefully. If he could stir the horseman’s blood in Jack’s veins, he thought he might get him away from town.
“Haven’t time right now, Dade. I promised to meet a friend–“
Dade shrugged his shoulders and painstakingly smoothed the hair tassel which dangled from the browband. The Spaniard had owned a fine eye for effect when he chose jet black trappings for Surry, who was white to his shining hoofs.
“All right; I’ll put him in somewhere till after dinner. Then I’m going to pull out again. I can’t stand this hell-pot of a town–not after the Picardo hacienda.”
“I wonder,” grinned Jack slyly, “if there isn’t a senorita at Palo Alto?”
He got no answer of any sort. Dade was combing with his fingers the crinkled mane which fell to the very chest of his new horse, and if he heard he made no betraying sign.
Bill Wilson came to the door of his saloon and stood with his hands on his hips, looking out upon the heterogeneous assembly of virile manhood that formed the bulk of San Francisco’s population a year or two after the first gold cry had been raised. Above his head flapped the great cloth sign tacked quite across the rough building, heralding to all who could read the words that this was BILL WILSON’S PLACE. A flaunting bit of information it was, and quite superfluous; since practically every man in San Francisco drifted towards it, soon or late, as the place where the most whisky was drunk and the most gold lost and won, with the most beautiful women to smile or frown upon the lucky, in all the town.
The trade wind knew that Bill Wilson’s place needed no sign save its presence there, and was loosening a corner in the hope of carrying it quite away as a trophy. Bill glanced up, promised the resisting cloth an extra nail or two, and let his thoughts and his eyes wander again to the sweeping tide of humanity that flowed up and down the straggling street of sand and threatened to engulf the store which men spoke of simply as “Smith’s.”
A shipload of supplies had lately been carted there, and miners were feverishly buying bacon, beans, “self-rising” flour, matches, tea–everything within the limits of their gold dust and their carrying capacity–which they needed for hurried trips to the hills where was hidden the gold they dreamed of night and day.
To Bill that tide meant so much business; and he was not the man to grudge his friend Smith a share of it. When the fog crept in through the Golden Gate–a gate which might never be closed against it–the tide of business would set towards his place, just as surely as the ocean tide would clamor at the rocky wall out there to the west. In the meantime, he was not loath to spend a quiet hour or two with an empty gaming hall at his back.
His eyes went incuriously over the familiar crowd to the little forest of flag-foliaged masts that told where lay the ships in the bay below the town. Bill could not name the nationality of them all; for the hunting call had reached to the far corners of the earth, and strange flags came fluttering across strange seas, with pirate-faced adventurers on the decks below, chattering in strange tongues of California gold. Bill could not name all the flags, but he could name two of the bonds that bind all nations into one common humanity. He could produce one of them, and he was each night gaining more of the other; for, be they white men or brown, spoke they his language or one he had never heard until they passed through the Golden Gate, they would give good gold for very bad whisky.
Even the Digger Indians, squatting in the sun beside his door and gazing stolidly at the town and the bay beyond, would sell their souls–for which the gray-gowned padres prayed ineffectively in the chapel at Dolores–their wives or their other, dearer possessions for a very little bottle of the stuff that was fast undoing the civilizing work of the Mission. The padres had come long before the hunting cry was raised, and they had labored earnestly; but their prayers and their preaching were like reeds beneath the tread of elephants, when gold came down from the mountains, and whisky came in through the Golden Gate.
Jack Allen, coming lazily down through the long, deserted room, edged past Bill in the doorway.
“Hello,” Bill greeted with a carefully casual manner, as if he had been waiting for the meeting, but did not want Jack to suspect the fact. “Up for all day? Where you headed for?”
“Breakfast–or dinner, whichever you want to call it. Then I’m going to take a walk and get the kinks out of my legs. Say, old man, I’m going to knock a board off the foot of that bunk, to-night, or else sleep on the floor. Was wood scarce, Bill, when you built that bed?”
“Carpenter was a little feller,” chuckled Bill, “and I guess he measured it by himself. Charged a full length price, though, I remember! I meant to tell you when you hired that room, Jack, that you better take the axe to bed with you. Sure, knock a board off; two boards, if you like. Take _all_ the boards off!” urged Bill, in a burst of generosity. “You might better be making that bunk over, m’son, than trying to take the whole blamed town apart and put it together again, like you was doing last night.” In this way Bill tactfully swung to the subject that lay heavy on his mind.
Jack borrowed a match, cupped his fingers around his lips that wanted to part in a smile, and lighted his before-breakfast cigarette–though the sun hung almost straight overhead.
“So that’s it,” he observed, when the smoke took on the sweet aroma of a very mild tobacco. “I saw by the back of your neck that you had something on your mind. What’s the matter, Bill? Don’t you think the old town needs taking apart?”
“Oh, it needs it, all right. But it’s too big a job for one man to tackle. You leave that to Daddy Time; he’s the only reformer–“
“Say, Bill, I never attempted to reform anybody or anything in my life; I’d hate to begin with a job the size of this.” He waved his cigarette toward the shifting crowd. “But I do think–“
“And right there’s where you make a big mistake. You don’t want to think! Or if you do, don’t think out loud; not where such men as Swift and Rawhide and the Captain can hear you. That’s what I mean, Jack.”
Jack eyed him with a smile in his eyes. “Some men might think you were afraid of that bunch,” he observed with characteristic bluntness. “I know you aren’t, and so I don’t see why you want me to be. You know, and I know, that the Vigilance Committee has turned rotten to the core; every decent man in San Francisco knows it. You know that Sandy killed that Spaniard in self-defense–or if you didn’t see the fracas, I tell you now that he did; I saw the whole thing. You know, at any rate, that the Vigilantes took him out and hung him because they wanted to get rid of him, and that came the nearest to an excuse they could find. You know–“
“Oh, I know!” Bill’s voice was sardonic. “I know they’ll be going around with a spy-glass looking for an excuse to hang you, too, if you don’t quit talking about ’em.”
Jack smiled and so let a thin ribbon of smoke float up and away from his lips.
Bill saw the smile and flushed a little; but he was not to be laughed down, once he was fairly started. He laid two well-kept fingers upon the other’s arm and spoke soberly, refusing to treat the thing as lightly as the other was minded to do.
“Oh, you’ll laugh, but it’s a fact, and you know it. Why, ain’t Sandy’s case proof enough that I’m right? I heard you telling a crowd in there last night–” Bill tilted his head backward towards the room behind them–“that this law-and-order talk is all a farce. What if it is? It don’t do any good for you to bawl it out in public and get the worst men in the Committee down on you, does it?
“What you’d better do, Jack, is go on down to Palo Alto where your pardner is. He’s got some sense. I wouldn’t stay in the darned town overnight, the way they’re running things now, if it wasn’t for my business. Ever since they made Tom Perkins captain there’s been hell to pay all round. I can hold my own; I’m up where they don’t dare tackle me; but you take a fool’s advice and pull out before the Captain gets his eagle eye on you. Talk like you was slinging around last night is about as good a trouble-raiser as if you emptied both them guns of yours into that crowd out there.”
“You’re asking me to run before there’s anything to run away from.” Jack’s lips began to show the line of stubbornness. “I haven’t quarreled with the Captain, except that little fuss a month ago, when he was hammering that peon because he couldn’t talk English; I’m not going to. And if they did try any funny work with me, old-timer, why–as you say, these guns–“
“Oh, all right, m’son! Have it your own way,” Bill retorted grimly. “I know you’ve got a brace of guns; and I know you can plant a bullet where you want it to land, about as quick as the next one. I haven’t a doubt but what you’re equal to the Vigilantes, with both hands tied! Of course,” he went on with heavy irony, “I have known of some mighty able men swinging from the oak, lately. There’ll likely be more, before the town wakes up and weeds out some of the cutthroat element that’s running things now to suit themselves.”
Jack looked at him quickly, struck by something in Bill’s voice that betrayed his real concern. “Don’t take it to heart, Bill,” he said, dropping his bantering and his stubbornness together. “I won’t air my views quite so publicly, after this. I know I was a fool to talk quite as straight as I did last night; but some one else brought up the subject of Sandy; and Swift called him a name Sandy’d have smashed him in the face for, if he’d been alive and heard it. I always liked the fellow, and it made me hot to see them hustle him out of town and hang him like they’d shoot a dog that had bitten some one, when I _knew_ he didn’t deserve it. You or I would have shot, just as quick as he did, if a drunken Spaniard made for us with a knife. So would the Captain, or Swift, or any of the others.
“I know–I’ve got a nasty tongue when something riles me, and I lash out without stopping to think. Dade has given me the devil for that, more times than I can count. He went after me about this very thing, too, the other day. I’ll try and forget about Sandy; it doesn’t make pleasant remembering, anyway. And I’ll promise to count a hundred before I mention the Committee above a whisper, after this–nine hundred and ninety-nine before I take the name of Swift or the Captain in vain!” He smiled full at Bill–a smile to make men love him for the big-hearted boy he was.
But Bill did not grin back. “Well, it won’t hurt you any; they’re bad men to fuss with, both of ’em,” he warned somberly.
“Come on out and climb a hill or two with me,” Jack urged. “You’ve got worse kinks in your system, to-day, than I’ve got in my legs. You won’t? Well, better go back and take another sleep, then; it may put you in a more optimistic mood.” He went off up the street towards the hills to the south, turning in at the door of a tented eating-place for his belated breakfast.
“Optimistic hell!” grunted Bill. “You can’t tell a man anything he don’t think he knows better than you do, till he’s past thirty. I was a fool to try, I reckon.”
He glowered at the vanishing figure, noting anew how tall and straight Jack was in his close-fitting buckskin jacket, with the crimson sash knotted about his middle in the Spanish style, his trousers tucked into his boots like the miners, and to crown all, a white sombrero such as the vaqueros wore. Handsome and headstrong he was; and Bill shook his head over the combination which made for trouble in that land where the primal instincts lay all on the surface; where men looked askance at the one who drew oftenest the glances of the women and who walked erect and unafraid in the midst of the lawlessness. Jack Allen was fast making enemies, and no one knew it better than Bill.
When the young fellow disappeared, Bill looked again at the shifting crowd upon which his eyes were wont to rest with the speculative gaze of a farmer who leans upon the fence that bounds his land, and regards his wheat-fields ripening for the sickle. He liked Jack, and the soul of him was bitter with the bitterness that is the portion of maturity, when it must stand by and see youth learn by the pangs of experience that fire will burn most agonizingly if you hold your hand in the blaze.
One of his night bartenders came up; and Bill, dismissing Jack from his mind, with a grunt of disgust, went in to talk over certain changes which he meant to make in the bar as soon as he could get material and carpenter together upon the spot.
He was still fussing with certain of the petty details that make or mar the smooth running of an establishment like his, when his ear, trained to detect the first note of discord in the babble which filled his big room by night, caught an ominous note in the hum of the street crowd outside. He lifted his head from examining a rickety table-leg.
“Go see what’s happened, Jim,” he suggested to the man, who had just come up with a hammer and some nails; and went back to dreaming of the time when his place should be a palace, and he would not have to nail the legs on his tables every few days because of the ebullitions of excitement in his customers. He had strengthened the legs, and was testing them by rocking the table slightly with a broad palm upon it, when Jim came back.
“Some shooting scrape, back on the flat,” Jim announced indifferently. “Some say it was a hold-up. Two or three of the Committee have gone out to investigate.”
“Yeah–I’ll bet the Committee went out!” snorted Bill. “They’ll be lynching the Diggers’ dogs for fighting, when the supply of humans runs out. They’ve just about played that buckskin out, packing men out to the oak to hang ’em lately,” he went on glumly, sliding the rejuvenated table into its place in the long row that filled that side of the room. “I never saw such an enthusiastic bunch as they’re getting to be!”
“That’s right,” Jim agreed perfunctorily, as a man is wont to agree with his employer. “Somebody’ll hang, all right.”
“There’s plenty that need it–if the Committee only had sense enough to pick ’em out and leave the rest alone,” growled Bill, going from table to table, tipping and testing for other legs that wobbled.
Jim sensed the rebuff in his tone and went back to the door, around which a knot of men engaged in desultory conjectures while they waited expectantly. A large tent that Perkins had found convenient as a temporary jail for those unfortunates upon whom his heavy hand fell swiftly, stood next to Bill’s place; and it spoke eloquently of the manner in which the Committee then worked, that men gathered there instinctively at the first sign of trouble. For when the Committee went out after culprits, it did not return empty-handed, as the populace knew well. Zealous custodians of the law were they, as Bill had said; and though they might have exchanged much of their zeal for a little of Bill’s sense of justice (to the betterment of the town), few of the waiting crowd had the temerity to say so.
Up the street, necks (whose owners had not thought it worth while to wade through the sand to the scene of the shooting) were being craned towards the flat behind the town, where the Captain and a few of his men had hurried at the first shot.
“They’re comin’,” Jim announced, thrusting his head into the gambling hall and raising his voice above the sound of the boss’s nail-driving.
“Well–what of it?” snapped Bill. “Why don’t you yell at me that the sun is going to set in the west to-night?” Bill drove the head of a four-cornered, iron nail clean out of sight in a table top. And Jim prudently withdrew his head and turned his face and his attention towards the little procession that was just coming into sight at the end of the rambling street, with the crowd closing in behind it as the water comes surging together behind an ocean liner.
Jim worshiped his boss, but he knew better than to argue with him when Bill happened to be in that particular mood, which, to tell the truth, was not often. But in five minutes or less he had forgotten the snub. His head popped in again.
There may be much meaning in a tone, though it utters but one unmeaning word. Bill dropped a handful of nails upon a table and came striding down the long room to the door; pushed Jim unceremoniously aside and stood upon the step. He was just in time to look into the rageful, blue eyes of Jack Allen, walking with a very straight back and a contemptuous smile on his lips, between the Captain and one of his trusted lieutenants.
Bill’s fingers clenched suggestively upon the handle of the hammer. His jaw slackened and then pushed itself forward to a fighting angle while he stared, and he named in his amazement that place which the padres had taught the Indians to fear.
The Captain heard him and grinned sourly as he passed on. Jack heard him, and his smile grew twisted at the tone in which the word was uttered; but he still smiled, which was more than many a man would have done in his place.
Bill stood while the rest of that grim procession passed his place. There was another, a young fellow who looked ready to cry, walking unsteadily behind Jack, both his arms gripped by others of the Vigilance Committee. There were two crude stretchers, borne by stolid-faced miners in red flannel shirts and clay-stained boots. On the first a dead man lay grinning up at the sun, his teeth just showing under his bushy mustache, a trickle of red running down from his temple. On the next a man groaned and mumbled blasphemy between his groanings.
Bill took it all in, a single glance for each,–a glance trained by gambling to see a great deal between the flicker of his lashes. He did not seem to look once at the Captain, yet he knew that Jack’s ivory-handled pistols hung at the Captain’s rocking hips as he went striding past; and he knew that malice lurked under the grizzled hair which hid the Captain’s cruel lips; and that satisfaction glowed in the hard, sidelong glance he gave his prisoner.
He stood until he saw Jack duck his head under the tent flaps of the jail and the white-faced youth follow shrinking after. He stood while the armed guards took up their stations on the four sides of the tent and began pacing up and down the paths worn deep in tragic significance. He saw the wounded man carried into Pete’s place across the way, and the dead man taken farther down the street. He saw the crowd split into uneasy groups which spoke a common tongue, that they might exchange unasked opinions upon this, the biggest sensation since Sandy left town with his ankles tied under the vicious-eyed buckskin whose riders rode always toward the west and whose saddle was always empty when he came back to his stall at the end of the town. Bill saw it all, to the last detail; but after his one explosive oath, he was apparently the most indifferent of them all.
When the Captain ended his curt instructions to the guard and came towards him, Bill showed a disposition to speak.
“Who’s the kid?” he drawled companionably, while his fingers itched upon the hammer, and the soul of him lusted for sight of the hole it could make in the skull of the Captain. “I don’t recollect seeing him around town–and there ain’t many faces I forget, either.”
The Captain shot him a surprised look that was an unconscious tribute to Bill’s diplomatic art. But Bill’s level glance would have disarmed a keener man than Tom Perkins.
Perkins stopped. “Stranger, from what he said–though I’ve got my doubts. Some crony of Allen’s, I expect. It was him done the shooting; the kid didn’t have any gun on him. Allen didn’t deny it, either.”
“No–he’s just bull-headed enough to tough it out,” commented Bill. “What was the row about–do yuh know?”
Perkins stiffened. “That,” he said with some dignity, “will come out at the trial. He killed Rawhide outright, and Texas Bill will die, I reckon. The trial will show what kinda excuse he thought he had.” Having delivered himself, thus impartially and with malice towards none, Perkins started on.
“Oh, say! You don’t mind if I talk to ’em?” Bill gritted his teeth at having to put the sentence in that favor-seeking tone, but he did it, nevertheless.
The Captain scowled under his black, slouch hat. “I’ve give strict orders not to let anybody inside the tent till after the trial,” he said shortly.
“Oh, that’s all right. I’ll talk to ’em through the door,” Bill agreed equably. “Jack owes me some money.”
The Captain muttered unintelligibly and passed on, and Bill chose to interpret the mutter as consent. He strolled over to the tent, joked condescendingly with the guard who stood before it, and announced that the Captain had said he might talk to the prisoners.
“I did not,” said the Captain unexpectedly at his shoulder. “I said you couldn’t. After the trial, you can collect what’s coming to you, Mr. Wilson. That is,” he added hastily, “in case Allen should be convicted. If he ain’t, you can do as you please.” He looked full at the guard. “Shoot any man that attempts to enter that tent or talk to the prisoners without my permission, Shorty,” he directed, and turned his back on Bill.
Bill did not permit one muscle of his face to twitch. “All right,” he drawled, “I guess I won’t go broke if I don’t get it. You mind what your Captain tells you, Shorty! He’s running this show, and what he says goes. You’ve got a good man over yuh, Shorty. A fine man. He’ll weed out the town till it’ll look like grandpa’s onion bed–if the supply of rope don’t give out!” Whereupon he strolled carelessly back to his place, and went in as if the incident were squeezed dry of interest for him. He walked to the far end of the big room, sat deliberately down upon a little table, and rewarded himself for his forbearance by cursing methodically the Captain, the Committee of which he was the leader, the men who had witlessly given him the power he used so ruthlessly as pleased him best, and Jack Allen, whose ill-timed criticisms and hot-headed freedom of speech had brought upon himself the weight of the Committee’s dread hand.
“Damn him, I tried to tell him!” groaned Bill, his face hidden behind his palms. “They’ll hang him–and darn my oldest sister’s cat’s eyes, somebody’ll sweat blood for it, too!” (Bill, you will observe, had reached the end of real blasphemy and was forced to improvise milder expletives as he went along.) “There ought to be enough decent men in this town to–“
“Did you git to see Jack?” ventured Jim, coming anxiously up to his boss.
The tone of him, which was that hushed tone which we employ in the presence of the dead, so incensed Bill that for answer he threw the hammer viciously in his direction. Jim took the hint and retreated hastily.
“No, damn ’em, they won’t let me near him,” said Bill, ashamed of his violence. “I knew they’d get him; but I didn’t think they’d get him so quick. I sent a letter down by an Injun this morning to his pardner to come up and get him outa town before he–But it’s too late now. That talk he made last night–“
“Say, he shot Swift in the arm, too,” said Jim. “Pity he didn’t kill him. They’re getting a jury together already. Say! Ain’t it hell?”
THE THING THEY CALLED JUSTICE
Jack stared meditatively across at the young fellow sitting hunched upon another of the boxes that were the seats in this tent-jail, which was also the courtroom of the Vigilance Committee, and mechanically counted the slow tears that trickled down between the third and fourth fingers of each hand. A half-hour spent so would have rasped the nerves of the most phlegmatic man in the town, and Jack was not phlegmatic; fifteen minutes of watching that silent weeping sufficed to bring a muffled explosion.
“Ah, for God’s sake, brace up!” he gritted. “There’s some hope for you–if you don’t spoil what chance you have got, by crying around like a baby. Brace up and be a man, anyway. It won’t hurt any worse if you grin about it.”
The young fellow felt gropingly for a red-figured bandanna, found it and wiped his face and his eyes dejectedly. “I beg your pardon for seeming a coward,” he apologized huskily. “I got to thinking about my–m-mother and sisters, and–“
Jack winced. Mother and sisters he had longed for all his life. “Well, you better be thinking how you’ll get out of the scrape you’re in,” he advised, with a little of Bill Wilson’s grimness. “I’m afraid I’m to blame, in a way; and yet, if I hadn’t mixed into the fight, you’d be dead by now. Maybe that would have been just as well, seeing how things have turned out,” he grinned. “Still–have a smoke?”
“I never used tobacco in my life,” declined the youth somewhat primly.
“No, I don’t reckon you ever did!” Jack eyed him with a certain amount of pitying amusement. “A fellow that will come gold-hunting without a gun to his name, would not use tobacco, or swear, or do anything that a perfect lady couldn’t do! However, you put up a good fight with your fists, old man, and that’s something.”
“I’d have been killed, though, if you hadn’t shot when you did. They were too much for me. I haven’t tried to thank you–“
“No, I shouldn’t think you would,” grinned Jack. “I don’t see yet where I’ve done you any particular favor: from robbers to Vigilance Committee might be called an up-to-date version of ‘Out of the frying-pan into the fire.'”
The boy glanced fearfully toward the closed tent-flaps. “Ssh!” he whispered. “The guard can hear–“
“Oh, that’s all right,” returned Jack, urged perhaps to a conscious bravado by the very weakness of the other. “It’s all day with me, anyway. I may as well say what I think.
“And so–” He paused to blow one of his favorite little smoke rings and watch it float to the dingy ridge-pole, where it flickered and faded into a blue haze “–and so, I’m going to say right out in meeting what I think of this town and the Committee they let measure out justice. Justice!” He laughed sardonically. “Poor old lady, she couldn’t stop within forty miles of Perkins’ Committee if she had forty bandages over her eyes, and both ears plugged with cotton! You wait till their farce of a trial is over. You may get off, by a scratch–I hope so. But unless Bill Wilson–“
“Aw, yuh needn’t pin no hopes on Bill Wilson!” came a heavy, malicious voice through the tent wall. “All hell can’t save yuh, Jack Allen! You’ve had a ride out to the oak comin’ to yuh for quite a while, and before sundown you’ll get it.”
“Oh! Is that so, Shorty? Say, you’re breaking the rules, you old pirate; you’re talking to the prisoners without permission. As the Captain’s most faithful dog Tray, you’d better shoot yourself; it’ll save the town the trouble of hanging you later on!” He smoked calmly while Shorty, on guard without, growled a vilifying retort, and the other guards snickered.
“Ah, brace up!” he advised his quaking companion again. “If my company doesn’t damn you beyond all hope, you may get out of the scrape. You didn’t have a gun, and you’re a stranger and haven’t said naughty things about your neighbors. Cheer up. Life looks just as good to me as it does to you. I love this old world just as well as any man that ever lived in it, and I’m not a bit pleased over leaving it–any more than you are. But I can’t see where I could better matters by letting myself get wobbly in the knees. I’m sorry I didn’t make a bigger fight to keep my guns, though. I’d like to have perforated a few more of our most worthy Committee before I quit; our friend Shorty, for instance,” he stipulated wickedly and clearly, “and the Captain.”
If he were deliberately trying to goad Shorty to further profanity, the result should have satisfied him. The huge shadow of Shorty moving back and forth upon the front wall of the tent, became violently agitated and developed a gigantic arm that waved threateningly over the ridge pole. The other guards laughed and checked their laughter with a suddenness which made Jack’s eyes leave the dancing shadow and seek questioningly the closed tent flaps.
“If I’m any good at reading signs, we are now about to be tried by our peers–twelve good men and true,” he announced ironically. “Brace up, old man! The chances are you’ll soon be out of this mess and headed for home. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth–and don’t act scared; they’ll take that as a sure sign you’ve got a guilty conscience. Just keep a stiff upper lip; it won’t take long; we do things in a hurry, out here!”
“Say, you’re a brick, Mr. Allen!” the boy burst out, impulsively gripping the hand of his champion.
Jack jerked his hand away–not unkindly, but rather as if he feared to drop, even for an instant, his flippant defiance of the trick fate had played him. The jerk sent a small, shining thing sliding down to the floor; where it stood upright and quivered in the soft sand.
“Lord!” he ejaculated under his breath, snatching it up as a thief would snatch at his spoils. He looked fearfully at the closed flaps, outside which the trampling of many feet sounded closer and closer; and with a warning shake of his head at the other, slid the dagger into his sleeve again, carefully fastening the point in the stout hem of the buckskin.
“You never can tell,” he muttered, smiling queerly as he made sure the weapon was not noticeable.
He was rolling another cigarette when the Captain parted the tent flaps and came stooping in, followed by twelve men of the Committee who were to be the jury, and as many spectators as could crowd after them.
“Gentlemen, be seated,” the Captain invited formally, and motioned the jury to the crude bunks that lined one side of the large tent. Jack and the boy he moved farther from the entrance, and took up his own position where his sharp eyes commanded every inch of the interior and where the gun which he drew from its holster and rested upon his knee could speak its deadly rebuke to any man there if, in the upholding of justice, the Captain deemed it necessary.
The jury shuffled to their places, perched in a row upon the edge of the bunks and waited silently, their eyes fixed expectantly upon their Captain. The crowd edged into the corners and along the sides, their hat crowns scraping the canvas roof as they were forced closer to the low wall.
The Captain waited until the silence was a palpable thing made alive by the rhythmic breathing of the men who were to look upon this new travesty of justice.
“Gentlemen,” he said at last, his sonorous voice carrying his words distinctly to the crowd without, “we are now ready to proceed with the investigation. I wish to state, for the information of those present, that after the prisoners were placed here under guard, I went to get a statement from the wounded man, Mr. Texas Bill. I found him dying from a wound inflicted upon his person by a pistol ball which passed through his left lung, above and to the right of his heart. I did not take a written statement, for lack of time and writing materials. But Texas swore–“
“Yeah–I’ll bet he swore!” commented Bill Wilson under his breath. Every one looked toward Bill, standing just inside the flaps, and the Captain scowled while he waited for attention.
“Texas swore that he was shot by one of the prisoners, Jack Allen by name, who fired upon him without due provocation, while he was talking to this other prisoner, whose name we have yet to learn. Texas stated that Allen, appearing suddenly from behind some bushes, began shooting with deadly intent and without warning, wantonly murdering Rawhide Jack, who lies dead in Smith’s back room, and shooting him, Texas, through the lung. He also stated that Mr. Dick Swift was with him and Rawhide Jack, and was also shot by the prisoner, Jack Allen, without cause or provocation.
“They had met the stranger and were standing talking to him about his luck in the diggin’s. This stranger, who is the other prisoner, was inclined to be sassy, and made a pass at Rawhide with his fist, telling him to mind his own business and not ask so many questions. Rawhide struck back; and Allen, coming out from behind some bushes, began shooting.”
The Captain stopped and looked calmly and judicially from face to face in the crowd.
“That, gentlemen, is the statement made to me by Texas Bill, who now lies dead in Pete’s Place as a result of the wound inflicted by Allen.”
“That’s a lot of swearing for a man to do that’s been shot through the lungs,” commented Bill Wilson skeptically.
The Captain gave him a malevolent look and continued. “We will ask Mr. Swift to come forward and tell us what he knows of this deplorable and, if I may be permitted the term, disgraceful affair.”
Mr. Swift edged his way carefully through the crowd with his left arm thrust out to protect the right, which was bandaged and rested in a blood-stained sling. He asked permission to sit down; kicked a box into the small, open space between the Captain, the jury, and the prisoners, and seated himself with the air of a man about to perform an extremely painful duty.
“Hold up your right hand,” commanded the Captain.
Swift apologetically raised his left hand and gazed steadfastly into the cold, impartial eyes of his Captain.
“You swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so-help-you-God?”
Swift, his purplish eyes wide and clear and honest as the gaze of a baby, calmly affirmed that he did.
Jack grinned and lazily fanned the smoke of his cigarette away, so that he might the better gaze upon this man who was about to tell the whole truth and nothing else. He caught Swift’s eye and added a sneering lift to the smile; and Swift’s eyes changed from bland innocence to hate triumphant.
“Mr. Swift, you will now relate to us the circumstances of this affair, truthfully, in the order of their happening,” directed the deep voice of the Captain.
Mr. Swift carefully eased his wounded arm in its sling, turned his innocent gaze upon the crowd, and began:
“Texas, Rawhide, and myself were crossing the sandy stretch south of town about noon, when we met this chap–the stranger there.” He nodded slightly toward the boy. “I was walking behind the other two, but I heard Rawhide say: ‘Hello, son, any luck in the diggin’s?’ The kid said: ‘None of your damn business!’ That made Rawhide kinda mad, being spoke to that way when he just meant to be friendly, and he told the kid he better keep a civil tongue in his head if he wanted to get along smooth–or words to that effect. I don’t,” explained Mr. Swift virtuously, “remember the exact words, because I was looking at the fellow and wondering what made him so surly. He sassed Rawhide again, and told him to mind his own business and give advice when it was asked for, and struck at him. Rawhide hit back, and then I heard a shot, and Rawhide fell over. I looked around quick, and started to pull my gun, but a bullet hit me here–” Mr. Swift laid gentle finger-tips upon his arm near the shoulder–“so I couldn’t. I saw it was Jack Allen shooting and coming towards us from a clump of bushes off to the right of us. He shot again, and Texas Bill fell. I ducked behind a bush and started for help, when I met the Captain and a few others coming out to see what was the matter. That,” finished Mr. Swift, “is the facts of the case, just as they happened.”
The Captain waited a minute or two, that the “facts” might sink deep into the minds of the listeners.
“Were any shots fired by any one except Allen?” he asked coldly, when the silence was sufficiently emphasized.
“There were not. Nobody,” Swift flashed with a very human resentment, “had a chance after he commenced!” He flushed at the involuntary tribute to the prowess of his enemy, when he saw that maddening grin appear again on Jack’s lips; a grin which called him liar and scoundrel and in the same flicker defied him.
The investigation took on the color of a sensation at that point, when the stranger sprang suddenly to his feet and stood glaring at the witness. There were no signs now of tears or weakness; he was a man fighting for what he believed to be right and just.
“Captain, that man is a dirty liar!” he cried hotly. “He and his precious cronies tried to rob me, out there. I was coming into town from across the bay; I had hired a Spaniard to bring me across in a small sailboat, and the tide carried us down too far, so I told him to land and I’d walk back to town, rather than tack back. And these men met me, and tried to rob me! This man,” he accused excitedly, pointing a rageful finger at Swift, “was going to stab me in the throat when he saw I resisted. I was fighting the three, and they were getting the best of me. I never owned a gun, and I just had my fists. The two others had grabbed me, and this man Swift pulled a knife. I remember one of them saying: ‘Don’t shoot–it’ll bring the whole town out!’ And just as this one raised his knife to drive it into my throat–they were bending me backwards, the other two–I heard a shot, and this one dropped his knife and gave a yell. There were two other shots, and the two who were holding me dropped. This one ran off. Then–” The boy turned and looked down at Jack, smoking his cigarette and trying to read what lay behind the stolid stare of the twelve men who sat in a solemn row on the bunks opposite him. “This young man–” His lips trembled, and he stopped, to bite them into a more manlike firmness.
“Gentlemen, do what you like with me, but you’ve got to let this man go! He’s the coolest, bravest man I ever saw! He saved my life. You can’t hang him for protecting a man from murder and robbery!”
“Young man,” interrupted the Captain after a surprised silence, “we admire your generosity in trying to clear your fellow prisoner, but you must let this jury try his case. What’s your name?”
“John Belden, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.” The young fellow’s rage faded to a sullen calm under the cold voice.
The Captain made a startled movement and looked at him sharply. “And what was your hurry to get to town?” he asked, after a minute.
“I wanted to get a ticket on the boat, the _Mary Elizabeth_, that is going to leave for New York to-morrow. I wanted to go–home. I’ve had enough of gold-hunting!” Youthful bitterness was in his tone and in the look he turned on the jury.
The Captain cleared his throat. When he spoke again, he addressed the twelve before him:
“Gentlemen of the jury, I have reasons for feeling convinced that this young man is in part telling the truth. I am acquainted with his father, unless he has given a name he does not own–and his face is a pretty good witness for him; he looks like his dad. While he has undoubtedly glossed and warped the story of the shooting in a mistaken effort to make things look better for the man who did the killing, I can see no sufficient reason for holding him. This Committee stands for justice and is not backward about tempering it with mercy. Gentlemen of the jury, I recommend that John Belden be released from custody and permitted to go home. He was unarmed when I took him, and there is no evidence of his having dealt anything but hard words to the victims of the shooting. Gentlemen, you will give your verdict; after which we will proceed with the investigation.”
The jury looked at one another and nodded to the man on the end of the first bunk; and he, shifting a quid of tobacco to the slack of his right cheek, expectorated gravely into the sand and spoke solemnly:
“The verdict of the jury is all in favor of turnin’ the kid loose.”
“John Belden, you are released. And we’d advise you to be a little careful how you sass men in this country. Also, you better see about that ticket on the _Mary Elizabeth_. Jack Allen, you may come forward and take the oath.”
“This box is just as comfortable as that one,” said Jack, “and you needn’t worry but what I’ll tell the truth!” He took a last pull at his cigarette, pinched out the fire, and ground the stub under his heel. He could feel the silence grow tense with expectancy; and when he lifted his eyes, he knew that every man in that tent was staring into his face.
“I used to believe,” he began clearly, “in the Vigilantes. If I had been here when the first Committee was formed, I’d have worked for it myself. I believe it cleared the town of some of the worst scoundrels in the country, and that’s saying a good deal. But–“
“The Committee,” interrupted the Captain, “would like to hear your story of the shooting. Your private opinions can wait until the investigation of that affair is ended.”
“You’re right. I beg your pardon for forgetting that it is not settled yet!” Jack’s voice was politely scornful. “Well, then, this kid told the truth in every particular, even when he declared that Dick Swift is a dirty liar. Swift is a liar. He’s also a thief, and he’s also a murderer–and a few other things not as decent!
“As to the row, I was walking out that way, when I saw this kid coming up from the bay toward the town. The three, Swift, Rawhide Jack, and Texas Bill, met him where the–er–trouble took place. I was too far off to hear what was said; in fact, I didn’t pay any attention much, till I saw the kid struggling to get away. I walked towards them then. It was easy enough to see that it was a hold-up, pure and simple. I was about fifty yards from them when I saw Swift, here, raise a knife to jab it into the boy’s throat. Texas and Rawhide were both holding the kid’s arms and bending him backwards so he couldn’t do anything. When I saw the knife, I began to shoot.” His eyes sought those of Bill Wilson, standing in the crowd near the door. “That’s the truth of the whole matter,” he said, speaking directly to Bill. “I didn’t try to make trouble; but I couldn’t stand by and see a man murdered, no more than any decent man could.” He paused; and still looking toward Bill, added: “I didn’t even notice particularly who the men were, until I went up to the boy. It all happened so sudden that I–“
The Captain cleared his throat. “You admit, then, that you killed Rawhide Jack and Texas Bill this morning?”
“I surely do,” retorted Jack. “And if you want to know, I’m kinda proud of it; it was a long shot–to clean the town of two such blackguards. And right here I want to apologize to the town for making a bungle of killing Swift!”
“We have two witnesses who also swear that you killed Tex’ and Rawhide, though they give a very different version of the trouble with the boy. Would you ask us to believe that Texas Bill lied with his last breath?”
“If he told the story you say he did, he certainly lied most sinfully with his last breath; but I’d hate to take your word for anything, so I don’t know whether he lied or not.”
“Mr. Swift, here, tells the same story that Texas Bill told.” The Captain chose to ignore the insults. “I think their testimony should carry more weight with the Committee than yours, or the boy’s. You are trying to save your neck; and the boy probably feels that he owes you some gratitude for taking his part. But the Committee’s business is to weed out the dangerous element which is altogether too large in this town; and the Committee feels that you are one of the most dangerous. However, we will call another witness. Shorty, you may come forward.”
Shorty came scowling up and sat down upon the box Swift had occupied. He took the oath and afterwards declared that he had overheard Jack coaching the boy about what he should tell the Committee. The Captain, having brought out that point, promptly excused him.
“Gentlemen of the jury, you have heard the evidence, and your duty is plain. We are waiting for the verdict.”
The man with the cud looked a question at the Captain; turned and glanced down the row at the eleven, who nodded their heads in unanimous approval of his thoughts. He once more shifted the wad of tobacco, as a preliminary to expectorating gravely into the sand floor, and pronounced his sentence with a promptness that savored of relish:
“The verdict of the jury is that we hang Jack Allen for killin’ Texas and Rawhide, and for bein’ a mean, ornery cuss, anyway.”
The Captain turned coldly to the prisoner. “You hear the verdict. The Committee believes it to be just.”
He looked at the group near the door. “Mr. Wilson,” he called maliciously, “you will now be given an opportunity to collect from the prisoner what he owes you.”
“Jack Allen don’t owe me a cent!” cried Bill Wilson hotly, shouldering his way to the open space before the Captain. “But there’s a heavy debt hanging over this damned Committee–a debt they’ll have to pay themselves one day at the end of a rope, if there’s as many honest men in this town as I think there is.
“I helped form the first Vigilance Committee, boys. We did it to protect the town from just such men as are running the Committee right now. When crimes like this can be done right before our eyes, in broad daylight, I say it’s time another Committee was formed, to hang this one! Here they’ve got a man that they know, and we all know, ain’t done a thing but what any brave, honest man would do. They’ve gone through a farce trial that’d make the Digger Injuns ashamed of themselves; and they’ve condemned Jack Allen, that’s got more real manhood in his little finger than there is in the dirty, lying carcasses of the whole damned outfit–they’ve condemned him to be hung!
“And why! I can tell yuh why–and it ain’t for killing Texas and Rawhide–two as measly, ornery cusses as there was in town–it ain’t for that. It’s for daring to say, last night in my place, that the Committee is rotten to the core, and that they murdered Sandy McTavish in cold blood when they took him out and hung him for killing that greaser in self-defense. It’s for speaking his mind, the mind of an honest man, that they’re going to hang him. That is, they’ll hang him if you’ll stand by and let ’em do it. I believe both these boys told a straight story. I believe them three was trying to pull off a daylight robbery, and Jack shot to save the kid.
“Now, men, see here! I for one have stood about all I’m going to stand from this bunch of cutthroats that’ve taken the place of the Committee we organized to protect the town. To-night I want every man that calls himself honest to come to my place and hold a mass meeting, to elect a Committee like we had in the first place. I want every man–“
“Bill, you’re crazy!” It was Jack, white to the lips in sheer terror for Wilson, Jack who refused to blench at his own dire strait, who sprang up and clapped a hand over the mouth that was sealing the doom of the owner. “Take him out, Jim, for God’s sake! Take him–Bill, listen to me, you fool! What was it you were telling me, there in your own doorway, to-day? About not thinking out loud? You can’t save me by talking like that! These men–those that don’t hate me–are so scared of their own necks that they wouldn’t lift a finger to save a twin brother. Take him out, boys! Bill doesn’t mean any harm.” He tried to smile and failed utterly. “He likes me, and he’s–he’s–“
Shorty it was who jerked him away from Bill. The Captain, on his feet, was dominating the uneasy crowd with his cold stare more than with the gun he held in his hand.
“This Committee,” he stated in his calm, judicial tone, which chilled the growing fire of excitement and held the men silent that they might listen, “this Committee regrets that in the course of its unpleasant duties it must now and then rouse the antagonism of a bad man’s friends. But this Committee must perform the duties for which it was elected. This Committee is sorry to see Mr. Wilson take the stand he takes, but it realizes that friendship for the condemned man leads him to make statements and threats for which he should not be held responsible. Gentlemen, this court of inquiry is dismissed, and it may not be amiss to point out the necessity for order being maintained among you. The Committee would deeply regret any trouble arising at this time.”
“Oh, damn you and your Committee!” gritted Bill Wilson, out of the bitterness that filled him. He gave Jack one glance; one, and with his jaws set hard together, turned his back.
The crowd pushed and parted to make way for him. Jim, his face the color of a pork rind, followed dog-like at the heels of his boss. And when they had passed, the tent began to belch forth men who walked with heads and shoulders a little bent, talking together under their breaths of this man who dared defy the Committee to its face, and whose daring was as impotent as the breeze that still pulled at the flapping corner of the cloth sign over the door of his place.
Bill glanced dully up at the sign before he opened his door. “Better get the hammer and nail that corner down, Jim,” he said morosely, and went in. He poured a whisky glass two-thirds full of liquor and emptied it with one long swallow–and Bill was not a drinking man.
“God! This thing they call justice!” he groaned, as he set down the glass; and went out to make an attempt at organizing a rescue party, though he had little hope of succeeding. Jack was a stranger to the better class of business men, and those who did know him were either friends of the Committee or in deadly fear of it. Still, Bill was a gambler. He was probably putting the mark of the next victim on himself; but he did not stop for that.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE OAK
Jack sat looking after the crowd that shuffled through the doorway into the sunlight. He thought he had believed that he would receive the sentence which the juryman had spoken so baldly; yet, after the words had been actually spoken, he stared blankly after Bill and the others, and incredulously at the Captain, who seated himself upon a bunk opposite to watch his prisoner, his pistol resting suggestively upon his knee. The boy lingered to shake Jack’s unresponsive hand and mutter a broken sentence or two of gratitude and sympathy. But Jack scarcely grasped his meaning, and his answer sounded chillingly calm; so that the boy, wincing under the cold stare of the Captain and the seeming indifference of the prisoner, turned away with downy chin a-tremble and in his eyes the look of horrified awe which sometimes comes to a youth who has seen death hesitate just over his head, pass him by, and choose another. In the doorway he stopped and looked back bewildered. Jack had said that he loved life and would hate to leave it; and yet he sat there calmly, scraping idly with his boot-toe a little furrow in the loose sand, his elbows resting on his knees, his face unlined by frown or bitterness, his eyes bent abstractedly upon the shallow trench he was desultorily digging. He did not look as the boy believed a man should look who has just been condemned to die the ignominious death of hanging. The boy shuddered and went out into the sunlight, dazed with this glimpse he had got of the inexorable hardness of life.
Jack did not even know when the boy left. He, also, was looking upon the hardness of life, but he was looking with the eyes of the fighter. So long as Jack Allen had breath in his body, he would fight to keep it there. His incredulity against the verdict swung to a tenacious disbelief that it would really come to the worst. So long as he was alive, so long as he could feel the weight of the dagger in his sleeve, it was temperamentally impossible for him to believe that he was going to die that day.
Plans he made and smoothed them in the dirt with his toe. If they did not bind his arms… They had not tied Sandy’s arms, he remembered; and he wondered if a dagger concealed in Sandy’s sleeve would have made any essential difference in the result of that particular crime of the Committee. He sickened at a vivid memory of how Sandy had ridden away, just a week or so before; and of the appealing glance which he had sent toward Bill’s place when Shorty started to lead the buckskin from before the prison tent with six men walking upon either side and a curious crowd straggling after. Would a dagger in Sandy’s sleeve have made any difference?
Then his thoughts swung to the Mexican who had told him of the trick, only the night before. It had amused Jack to experiment with his own knife; and the very novelty of the thing had impelled him to slip his dagger into the new hiding-place that morning when he dressed. The Captain had not discovered it there–but would it make any difference? It occurred to him that he need not die the death of dangling and strangling at the end of the rope, at any rate; if it came to dying… Jack became acutely conscious of the steady beat in his chest, and immediately afterward felt the same throb in his throat; he could stop that beating whenever he chose, if they did not bind his arms.
“Horse’s ready, Captain,” announced Shorty succinctly, thrusting his head through the closed flaps; and the Captain rose instantly and made a commanding gesture to his prisoner.
Jack swept the loose dirt back into the furrow with one swing of his foot and stood up. He went out quietly, two steps in advance of the Captain and the Captain’s drawn pistol, and advanced unflinchingly towards the horse that stood saddled in the midst of the group of executioners, with the same curious crowd looking on greedily at the spectacle.
“Ever been on a horse?” asked the Captain, his deep voice little more than a growl.
“Once or twice,” Jack answered indifferently.
“Climb on, then!”
Jack was young and he was very human. It might be his last hour on earth, but there rose up in him a prideful desire to show them whether he had ever been on a horse; he caught the saddle-horn with one hand and vaulted vaingloriously into the saddle without touching a toe to the stirrup. The buckskin ducked and danced sidewise at the end of the rope in Shorty’s hand, and more than one gun flashed into sight at the unexpectedness of the move.
The Captain scowled at the exclamations of admiration from the crowd. “You needn’t try any funny work, young man, or I’ll tie you hand as well as foot!” he threatened sternly. “Give me that rope, Davis.”
Then Jack paid in pain for his vanity, and paid in full. The Captain did not bind his arms–perhaps because of the crowd and a desire to seem merciful. But though he merely tied the prisoner’s ankle after the usual manner, he knotted the small rope with a vicious yank, pulled it as tight as he could and passed the rope under the flinching belly of the buckskin to Davis, on the other side. Also he sent a glance of meaning which the other read unerringly and obeyed most willingly. Davis drew the rope taut under the cinch and tied Jack’s other ankle as if he were putting the diamond hitch on a pack mule. The two stepped back and eyed him sharply for some sign of pain, when all was done.
“Thanks,” drawled Jack. “Sorry I can’t do as much for you.” Whereupon he set his teeth against the growing agony of strained muscles and congesting arteries, and began to roll a cigarette with fingers which he held rigidly from trembling.
Bill Wilson, returning gloomily to the doorway of his place, grated an oath and turned away his head.
Some day, he promised himself vengefully, those two–yes, and the whole group of murderers moving briskly away from the tent–would pay for that outrage; and he prayed that the day might come soon.
He went heavily into the big room where men were already foregathering to gossip between drinks of the trial and of the man who was to die. Bill bethought him of the young stranger; made some inquiries of certain inoffensive individuals among the crowd, and sent Jim out with instructions to find the kid and bring him back with him.
Bill was standing in the door waiting for Jim to return, when, in a swirl of dust, came Dade galloping around a corner and to the very doorstep before he showed any desire to slow up. At the first tightening of the reins, the white horse stiffened his front legs, dug two foot-long furrows and stopped still. Bill had no enthusiasm for the perfect accomplishment of the trick. He stood with his hands thrust deep into his pockets and regarded the rider glumly.
“Well, you got here,” he grunted, with the brevity of utter misery.
“You bet I did! I was away from the hacienda when the peon came, or I’d have got here sooner,” Dade explained cheerfully, swinging to the ground with a jingle of his big, Mexican spurs that had little silver bells to swell the tinkly chimes when he moved. “Where’s Jack?”
Big Bill Wilson’s jaw trembled with an impulse towards tears which the long, harsh years behind him would not let him shed. “They’ve got him,” he said in a choked tone, and waved a hand toward the west.
“Who’s got him?” Dade clanked a step closer and peered sharply into Bill’s face, with all the easy good humor wiped out of his own.
“The Committee. You’re too late; they’re taking him out to the oak. Been gone about ten minutes. They had it in for him, and–I couldn’t do a thing! The men in this town–” Epithets rushed incoherently from Bill’s lips, just as violent weeping marks the reaction from a woman’s first silence in the face of tragedy.
Dade did not hear a word he was saying, after those first jerky sentences. He stood looking past Bill at a drunken Irishman who was making erratic progress up the street; and he was no more conscious of the Irishman than he was of Bill’s scorching condemnation of the town which could permit such outrages.
“Watch Surry a minute!” he said abruptly, and hurried into the gambling hall. In a minute he was back again and lifting foot to the stirrup.
“How long did you say they’ve been gone?” he asked, without looking at Bill.
“Ten or fifteen minutes. Say, you can’t do anything!”
Dade was already half-way up the block, a swirl of sand-dust marking his flight. Bill stared after him distressfully.
“He’ll go and get his light put out–and he won’t help Jack a damn bit,” he told himself miserably, and went in. Life that day looked very hard to big-hearted Bill Wilson, and scarcely worth the trouble of living it.
It broke the heart of Dade Hunter to see how near the sinister procession was to the live oak that had come to be looked upon as the gallows of the Vigilance Committee; a gallows whose broad branches sheltered from rain and sun alike the unmarked graves of the men who had come there shuddering and looked upon it, and shuddering had looked no more upon anything in this world.
Until he was near enough to risk betraying his haste by the hoof-beats of his horse, Dade kept Surry at a run. Upon the crest of the slope which the procession was leisurely descending, he slowed to a lope; and so overtook the crowd that straggled always out to the hangings, came they ever so frequent. Reeling in the saddle, he came up with the stragglers, singing and marking time with a half-empty bottle of whisky.
The few who knew him looked at one another askance.
“Say, Hunter, ain’t yuh got any feelin’s? That there’s your pardner on the hoss,” one loose-jointed miner expostulated.
“Sure, I got feelin’s! Have a d-drink?” Dade leered drunkenly at the speaker. “Jack’s–no good anyway. Tol’ ‘im he’d get hung if he–have a d-drink?”
The loose-jointed one would, and so would his neighbors. The Captain glanced back at them, gave a contemptuous lift to his upper lip and faced again to the front.
Dade uncoiled his riata with aimless, fumbling fingers and swung the noose facetiously toward the bottle, uptilted over the eager mouth of a weazened little Irishman. He caught bottle and hand together, let them go with a quick flip of the rawhide and waggled his head in apology.
“_Excuse_ me, Mike,” he mumbled, while the Irishman stopped and glared. “Go awn! Have a drink. Mighta spilled it–shame!”
Jack looked back, his heart thumping heavily at sound of the voice, thick though it was and maudlin. Dade drunk and full of coarse foolery was a sight he had never before looked upon; but Dade’s presence, drunk or sober, made his own plight seem a shade less hopeless. He did not dare a second glance, with Davis and the Captain walking at either stirrup; but he listened anxiously–listened and caught a drunken mumble from the rear, and a chorus of chuckling laughs coming after.
He looked ahead. The great oak was close, so close that he might have counted the narrow little ridges of red soil beneath; the ridges which he knew were the graves of those who had died before him. The great bough that reached out over the spot where the earth was trampled smooth in horrible significance–the branch from which a noosed rope dangled sinuously in the breeze that came straight off the ocean–swayed with majestic deliberation as if Fate herself were beckoning.
He clasped his hands upon the saddle-horn and, stealthily loosening the dagger-point from the hem of his sleeve, slid the weapon cautiously into his hand. When he felt the handle against his palm, he knew that he had been holding his breath, and that the sigh he gave was an involuntary relief that the others had not glimpsed the blade under his clasped fingers. He would not have to dangle from that swinging rope, at any rate.
“Hello, pard!” Dade’s voice called thickly from close behind. “Looking for some rope?”
Jack turned his head just as the looped rawhide slithered past him and settled taut over the head of the startled buckskin. Like a lightning gleam slashing through the dark he saw Dade’s plan, and played his own part unhesitatingly.
Two movements he made while the buckskin sat back upon his haunches and gathered his muscles for a forward spring. The first was to lean and send a downward sweep of the dagger across the rope by which Shorty was leading the horse, and the second was a backward lunge that drove the knife deep into the bared throat of the Captain, stunned into momentary inaction by the suddenness of Dade’s assault.
The buckskin gave a mighty leap that caught Shorty unawares and sent him into a crumpled heap in the sand. Dade’s riata, tight as a fiddle-string at first, slackened as the buckskin, his breath coming in snorts, surged alongside. Jack leaned again–this time to snatch the ivory-handled revolver from the holster on Dade’s saddle. As well as he could with his legs held rigid by the rope that tied his ankles, he twisted in the saddle and sent leaden answer to the spiteful barking of the guns that called upon them to halt.
[Illustration: He twisted in the saddle and sent leaden answer to the spiteful barking of the guns.]
Davis he shot, and saw him sway and fall flat, with a smoking gun in his hand. Another crumpled forward; and Shorty, just getting painfully upon his feet, he sent into the sand again to stay; for his skill with small arms was something uncanny to witness, and his temper was up and turning him into a savage like the rest.
But the range was rapidly growing to rifle-length, and death fell short of his enemies after Shorty went down. When he saw his fourth bullet kick up a harmless little geyser of sand two rods in advance of the agitated crowd, he left off and turned to his friend.
“I thought you were drunk,” he observed inanely, as is common to men who have just come through situations for which no words have been coined.
“You ain’t the only one who made that mistake,” Dade retorted grimly, and looked back. “Good thing those hombres are afoot. We’ll get on a little farther and then we’ll fix a hackamore so you can do your own riding,”
“I can’t stand it to ride any farther–“
“Are you shot?” Dade pulled in a little and looked anxiously into his face.
“It’s the rope. They tied it so tight it’s torture. I’d never have believed it could hurt so–but they gave me an extra twist or two to show their friendship, I reckon.”
Dade rode on beyond a little, wooded knoll before he stopped, lest the crowd, seeing them halt, might think it worth while to follow them afoot.
“They surely didn’t intend you to fall off,” he said whimsically, when his knife released the strain. But his lips tightened at the outrage; and his eyes, bent upon Jack’s left ankle, wore the look of one who could kill without pity.
“They’ll never do it to another man,” declared Jack, with vindictive relish. “It was Davis and the Captain; I killed ’em both.” He rolled stiffly from the saddle, found his feet like dead things and stumbled to a little hillock, where he sat down.
Dade, kneeling awkwardly in his heavy, bearskin chaparejos, picked at the bonds with the point of his knife. “Lucky you had on boots,” he remarked. “Even as it is, you’re likely to carry creases for a while. How the deuce did you manage to get into this particular scrape?–if I might ask!”
“I didn’t get into it. This particular scrape got me. Say, it’s lucky you happened along just when you did.”
To this very obvious statement the other made no reply. He cut the last strand of the rope that bound Jack’s ankles so mercilessly, and stood up. “You better take off your boots and rub some feeling into your feet while I make a hackamore for that horse. The sooner we get out of this, the better. What’s left of the Committee will probably be pretty anxious to see you.”
“Oh, damn the Committee!–as Bill remarked after the trial.” Jack made an attempt to remove one of his boots, found the pain intolerable and desisted with a groan. “I wish they would show up,” he declared. “I’d like to give them a taste of this foot-tying business!”
Dade went on tying the hackamore with a haste that might be called anxious. With just two bullets left in the pistol and with no powder upon his person for further reloading, he could not share Jack’s eagerness to meet the Committee again. When Surry gave over rolling with his tongue the little wheel in his bit, and with lifted head and eyes alert perked his ears forward towards the hill they had just crossed, he slipped the hackamore hurriedly into place and turned to his friend.
“You climb on to Surry, and we’ll pull out,” he said shortly. “I wouldn’t give two pesos for this buckskin, but we’re going to add horse-stealing to our other crimes; and while it’s all right to damn the Committee, it’s just as well to do it at a distance, just now, old man.”
The caution fell flat, for Jack was wholly absorbed by the pain in his feet and ankles, as the blood was being forced into the congested veins. Dade led the white horse close, to save him the discomfort of hobbling to it, and waited until Jack was in the saddle before he vaulted upon the tricky-eyed buckskin. He led the way down into a shallow depression which wound aimlessly towards the ocean; and later, when trees and bushes and precipitous bluffs threatened to bar their way, he swung abruptly to the east and south.
“Maybe you won’t object so hard to Palo Alto now,” he bantered at last, when at dusk he ventured out upon “El Camino Real” (which is pure Spanish for “The King’s Highway”), that had linked Mission to Mission all down the fertile length of California when the land was wilderness. “Solitude ought to feel good, after to-day.” When he got no answer, Dade looked around at the other.
Jack’s face showed vaguely through the night fog creeping in from the clamorous ocean off to the west. His legs were hanging free of the stirrups, and his hands rested upon the high saddle-horn.
“Say, Dade,” he asked irrelevantly and with a mystifying earnestness, “which do you think would kill a man quickest–a slash across the throat, or a stab in the heart?”
“I wouldn’t call either one healthy. Why?”
“I was just wondering,” Jack returned ambiguously. “If you hadn’t happened along–say, how did you happen to come? Was that another sample of my fool’s luck?” Since the coincidence had not struck him before, one might guess that he was accustomed to having Dade at his elbow when he was most needed.
“Bill Wilson sent word that you were making seven kinds of a fool of yourself–Bill named a few of them–and advised me to get you out of town. I’ve more respect for Bill’s judgment than ever. I took his advice as it stood–and therefore, you’re headed for safer territory than you were awhile ago. It ain’t heaven,” he added, “but it’s next thing to it.”
“I’m not hankering after heaven, right now,” averred Jack. “Most any other place looks good to me; I’m not feeling a hit critical, Dade. And if I didn’t say it before, old man, you’re worth a whole regiment to a fellow in a fix.”
If you would enjoy that fine hospitality which gives gladly to strangers and to friends alike of its poverty or plenty, and for the giving asks nothing in return, you should seek the far frontiers; but if you would see hospitality glorified into something more than a simple virtue, then you should find, if you can, one of the old-time haciendas that were the pride of early California.
Time was when the wild-eyed cattle which bore upon their fat-cushioned haunches the seared crescent that proclaimed them the property of old Don Andres Picardo (who owned, by grant of the king, all the upper half of the valley of Santa Clara) were free to any who hungered. Time was when a traveler might shoot a fat yearling and feast his fill, unquestioned by the don or the don’s dark-eyed vaqueros.
Don Andres Picardo was a large-hearted gentleman; and to deny any man meat would bring to his cheeks a blush for his niggardliness. That was in the beginning, when he reigned in peace over the peninsula. When the vaqueros, jingling indignantly into the patio of his home, first told of carcasses slaughtered wantonly and left to rot upon the range with only the loin and perhaps a juicy haunch missing, their master smiled deprecatingly and waved them back whence they came. There were cattle in plenty. What mattered one steer, or even a fat cow, slain wastefully? Were not thousands left?
But when tales reached him of cattle butchered by the hundred, and of beef that was being sold for an atrocious price in San Francisco, the old Spaniard was shocked into laying aside the traditions and placing some check upon the unmannerly “gringos” who so abused his generosity.
He established a camp just within the northern boundary of his land; and there he stationed his most efficient watch-dog, Manuel Sepulveda, with two vaqueros whose business it was to stop the depredations.
Meat for all who asked for meat, paid they in gold or in gratitude–that was their “patron’s” order. But they must ask. And the vaqueros rode diligently from bay to mountain slopes, and each day their hatred of the Americanos grew deeper, as they watched over the herds of their loved patron, that the gringos might not steal that which they might, if they were not wolves, have for the asking.
The firelight in the tule-thatched hut of Manuel Sepulveda winked facetiously at the black fog that peered in at the open door. A night wind from the north crept up, parted the fog like a black curtain and whispered something which set the flames a-dancing as they listened. The fog swung back jealously to hear what it was, and the wind went away to whisper its wonder-tale to the trees that rustled astonishment and nodded afterward to one another in approval, like the arrant gossips they were. The chill curtain fell straight and heavy again before the door, so that the firelight shone dimly through its folds; but not before Dade, riding at random save for the trust he put in the sure homing instinct of his horse, caught the brief gleam of light and sighed thankfully.
“We’ll stop with old Manuel to-night,” he announced cheerfully. “Here’s his cabin, just ahead.”
“And who’s old Manuel?” asked Jack petulantly, because of the pain in his feet and his own unpleasant memories of that day.
“Don Andres Picardo’s head vaquero. He camps here to keep an eye on the cattle. Some fellows from town have been butchering them right and left and doing a big business in beef, according to all accounts. Manuel hates gringos like centipedes, but I happened to get on the good side of him–partly because my Spanish is as good as his own. An Americano who has black hair and can talk Spanish like the don himself isn’t an Americano, in Manuel’s eyes.”
While they were unsaddling under the oak tree, where the vaqueros kept their riding gear in front of the cabin, Manuel himself came to the door and stood squinting into the fog, while he flapped a tortilla dexterously between his brown palms.
“Is it you, Valencia??” he called out in Spanish, giving the tortilla a deft, whirling motion to even its edges.
Dade led the way into the zone of light, and Manuel stepped back with a series of welcoming nods. His black eyes darted curiously to the stranger, who, in Manuel’s opinion, looked unpleasantly like a gringo, with his coppery hair waving crisply under his sombrero, and his eyes that were blue as the bay over there to the east. But when Dade introduced him, Jack greeted his squat host with a smile that was disarming in its boyish good humor, and with language as liquidly Spanish as Manuel’s best Castilian, which he reserved for his talks with the patron on the porch when the senora and the young senorita were by.
The distrust left Manuel’s eyes as he trotted across the hard-trodden dirt floor and laid the tortilla carefully upon a hot rock, where three others crisped and curled their edges in delectable promise of future toothsomeness.
He stood up and turned to Dade amiably, his knuckles pressing lightly upon his hips that his palms might be saved immaculate for the next little corn cake which he would presently slap into thin symmetry.
“Madre de Dios!” he cried suddenly, quite forgetting the hospitable thing he had meant to say about his supper. “You are hurt, Senor! The blood is on your sleeve and your hand.”
Dade looked down at his hand and laughed. “I did get a scratch. I’ll let you see what it’s like.”
“You never told me you got shot!” accused Jack sharply, from where he had thrown himself down on a bundle of blankets covered over with a bullock hide dressed soft as chamois.
“Never thought of it,” retorted Dade in Spanish, out of regard for his host.
“We had some trouble with the gringos,” he explained to Manuel. “There was a little shooting, and a bullet grazed my arm. It doesn’t amount to much, but I’ll let you look at it.”
“Ah, the gringos!” Manuel spat after the hated name. “The patron is too good, too generous! They steal the cattle of the patron, though they might have all they need for the asking. Like the green worms upon the live oaks, they would strip the patron’s herds to the last, lean old bull that is too tough even for their wolf teeth! Me, I should like to lasso and drag to the death every gringo who comes sneaking in the night for the meat which tastes sweeter when it is stolen. To-day Valencia rode down to the bayou–“
While he told indignantly the tale of the latest pillage, he bared the wounded arm. Jack got stiffly upon his swollen feet to look. It was not a serious wound, as wounds go; a deep gash in the bicep, where a bullet meant for Dade’s heart had plowed under his upraised arm four inches wide of its mark. It must have been painful, though he had not once mentioned it; and a shamed flush stung Jack’s cheeks when he remembered his own complaints because of his feet.
“You never told me!” he accused again, this time in the language of his host.
“The Senor Hunter has the brave heart of a Spaniard, though his blood is light,” said Manuel rebukingly. “The Senor Hunter would not cry over a bigger hurt than this!”
Jack sat down again upon the bull-hide seat and dropped his face between his palms. Old Manuel spoke truer than he knew. Dade Hunter was made of the stuff that will suffer much for a friend and say nothing about it, and to-day was not the first time when Jack had all unwittingly given that friendship the test supreme.
Manuel carefully inspected the wound and murmured his sympathy. He pulled a bouquet of dry herbs from where it hung in a corner, under the low ceiling, and set a handful brewing in water, where the coals were golden-yellow with heat. He tore a strip of linen off Valencia’s best shirt which he was saving for fiestas, and prepared a bandage, interrupting himself now and then to dart over and inspect the tortillas baking on the hot rock. For a fat man he moved with extraordinary briskness, and so managed to do three things at one time and do them all thoroughly; he washed and dressed the wound with the herbs squeezed into a poultice, rescued the tortillas from scorching, and spake his mind concerning the gringos who, he declared, were despoiling this his native land. Then he lifted certain pots and platters to the center of the hut and cheerfully announced supper; and squatted on the floor, facing his guests over the food.
“There’s another thing that bothers me, Manuel,” Dade announced humorously, when they three were seated around the pot of frijoles, the earthen pan of smoking carne-seco (which is meat flavored hotly after the Spanish style) and a stack of the tortillas Manuel’s fat hands had created while he talked.
Manuel, bending a tortilla into a scoop wherewith to help himself to the brown beans, raised his black eyes anxiously. “But is there further hurt?” he asked, and glanced wistfully at the tortilla before laying it down that he might minister further to the senor.
“No–go on with your supper. There’s a buckskin horse out there that the gringos may say I stole. I don’t want the beast; he’s about fourteen years old and he’s got a Roman nose to beat Caesar himself, and a bad eye and a wicked heart.”
“Dios!” murmured Manuel over the list of equine shortcomings and took a large, relieved bite of tortilla and beans. The senor was pleased to jest with a poor vaquero, but the senor would doubtless explain. He chewed luxuriously and waited, his black eyes darting from this face which he knew and liked, to that strange one of the blue eyes and the hair that was like the dullest of dull California gold.
“I don’t like that caballo,” went on Dade, helping himself to meat, “and so I’d hate like the deuce to be hung for stealing him; sabe?”
Manuel licked a finger before he spread his hands to show how completely he failed to understand. “But if the caballo does not please the senor, why then did the senor steal–“
“You see, I wanted to bring my partner–Senor Jack Allen–down here with me. And he was riding the caballo, and he couldn’t get off–“
Manuel swore a Spanish oath politely, to please his guest who wished to amaze him.
“Because he was tied on.” Dade failed just there to keep a betraying hardness out of his voice. “The Viligantes were–going to–hang him.” The last two words were cut short off with the click of his jaws coming together.
Manuel thereupon swore more sincerely and spilled beans from his tortilla scoop. He knew the ways of the Committee. Four months ago–when the Committee was newer and more just–they had hanged the third cousin of his half-sister’s husband. It is true, the man had killed a woman with a knife; yet Manuel’s black beard bristled when he thought of the affront to his hypothetical kinship.
“I had to take the two together,” Dade explained, trying with better success to speak lightly. “And now, if I turn the buckskin loose, he may go back–and he may not. I was wondering–“
Manuel cut him short. “To-morrow I ride to town,” he said. “I will take the caballo back with me, if that pleases the senors. I will turn him loose near the Mission, and he will go to his stable.
“The senor,” he added, “was very brave. _Madre de Dios!_ To run away with a prisoner of the Vigilantes! But they will surely kill the senor for that; the taking of the horse, that is nothing.” His teeth shone briefly under his black mustache. “One can die but once,” he pointed out, and emphasized his meaning by a swift glance at Jack, moodily nibbling the edge of a corn cake. “But if the horse does not please the senor–“
Dade caught his meaning and laughed a little over it. “The horse,” he said, “belongs to the Committee; my friend does not.”
“Si, Senor–but surely that is true. Only–” he stroked his crisp beard thoughtfully–“the senors would better go to-morrow to the patron. There the gringos dare not come. In this poor hut the senors may not be safe–for we are but three poor vaqueros when all are here. We will do our best–“
“Three vaqueros,” declared Dade with fine diplomacy, “as brave as the three who live here, would equal twenty of the Committee. But we will not let it come to that.”
Manuel took the flattery with a glimpse of white teeth and a deprecatory wave of the hand, and himself qualified it modestly afterward.
“With the knife–perhaps. But the gringos have guns which speak fast. Still, we would do our best–“
“Say, if he’s going back to town to-morrow,” spake Jack suddenly, from where he reclined in the shadow “why can’t I write a note to Bill Wilson and have him send down my guns? The Captain took them away, you know; but he won’t object to giving them back now!” His voice was bitter.
“The rest of them might. You seem to think that when you killed Perkins you wiped out the whole delegation–which you didn’t. What was the row about; if you don’t mind telling me?”
“I thought you knew,” said Jack quite sincerely, which proved more than anything how absorbed he was in his own part in the affair. He shifted his head upon his clasped hands so that his eyes might rest upon the waning firelight, where the pot of frijoles, set back from supper, was still steaming languidly in the hot ashes.
“You started it yourself, two weeks ago,” he announced whimsically, to lighten a little the somber tale. “If you hadn’t bought that white horse from that drunken Spaniard, I’d be holding a handful of aces and kings to-night, most likely, in Bill Wilson’s place. And my legs wouldn’t be aching like the devil,” he added, reminded anew of his troubles, when he shifted his position. “It’s all your fault, bought the horse.”
Dade grinned and bent to hold a twig in the coals, that he might light a cigarette. “All right, I’m the guilty party. Let’s have the consequences of my evil deed,” he advised, settling back on his heels and lowering an eyelid at Manuel in behalf of this humorous partner of his.
“You bought the horse and broke the Spaniard’s heart and ruined his temper. And he and Sandy had a fight, and–So,” he went on, after a two-minute break in the argument, “when I heard Swift sneering something about Sandy, last night, I rose up in meeting and told him and some others what I thought of ’em. I was not,” he explained, “thinking nice thoughts at the time. You see, Perkins, since he got the lead, has gathered a mighty scaly bunch around him, and they’ve been running things to suit themselves.
“Then, Swift and two or three others held up a boy from the mines to-day, and I happened to see it. I interfered; fact is, I killed a couple of them. So they arrested both of us, went through a farce trial, and were trying to hurry me into Kingdom Come before Bill Wilson got a rescue party together, when you come along. That’s all. They let the kid go–which was a good thing. I don’t think they’ll be down here after me. In fact, I’ve been thinking maybe I’d go back, in a day or so, and have it out with them.”
“Yes, that’s about what you’d be thinking, all right,” retorted Dade unemotionally. “Sounds perfectly natural.” The tone of him, being unsympathetic, precipitated an argument which flung crisp English sentences back and forth across the cabin. Manuel, when the words grew strange and took on a harsh tang which to his ear meant anger, diplomatically sought his blankets and merged into the shadow of the corner farthest from the fire and nearest the door. The senors were pleased to disagree; if they fought, he had but to dodge out into the night and neutrality. The duties of hospitality weighed hard upon Manuel during that half-hour or so.
Dade’s cigarette stub, flung violently into the heart of the fire glow, seemed to Manuel a crucial point in the quarrel; he slipped back the blankets, ready to retreat at the first lunge of open warfare. He breathed relief, however, when Dade got up and stretched his arms