man his friend.
The don had already fallen into the habit of presenting his orders under the guise of ideas that needed the confirmation of the majordomo, before they became definite plans; and it speaks much for those two that neither of them suspected that it was so. Thus, Don Andres’ solution of the problem of preserving peace became the subject for a conference that lasted more than an hour. The don was absolutely candid; so candid that he spoke upon a delicate subject, and one that carried a sting of which he little dreamed.
“One factor I cannot help recognizing,” he said slowly. “I am not blind, nor is the senora blind, to the–the–friendship that is growing between Senor Jack and our daughter. We had hoped–but we have long been resolved that in matters of the heart, our daughter shall choose for herself so long as she does not choose one altogether unworthy; which we do not fear, for to that extent we can protect her by admitting to our friendship only those in whose characters we have some confidence. Now that we understand each other so well, amigo, I will say that I have had some correspondence with friends in San Francisco, who have been so good as to make some investigations in my behalf. Their Vigilance Committee,” he said, smiling, “was not the only tribunal which weighed evidence for and against your friend, nor was it the only vindication he has received.
“I am assured that in the trouble which brought him to my house he played the part of an honest gentleman fighting to uphold the principles which all honest men espouse; and while he is hot-tempered at times, and perhaps more thoughtless than we could wish, I hear no ill of him save the natural follies of high-stomached youth.
“Therefore I am willing to abide by the choice of my daughter, whose happiness is more dear to her parents than any hope they may have cherished of the welding of two families who have long been friends. I myself,” he added reminiscently, “fled to the priest with my sweetheart as if all the fiends of hell pursued us, because her parents had chosen for her a husband whom she could not love. Since we know the pain of choosing between a parent’s wishes and the call of the heart, we are resolved that our child shall be left free to choose for herself. Therefore, I think our plan is a wise one; and the result must be as the saints decree.”
Dade, because he was engrossed with stifling the ache he had begun to think was dead because it had grown numb, bowed his head without speaking his assent and rose to his feet.
“I’ll tell Jack,” he said, as he started for the stables. “I guess he’ll do it, all right.”
BILL WILSON GOES VISITING
“I Don’t know what you’ve been doing to Jose Pacheco, lately,” was Dade’s way of broaching the subject, “but Don Andres asked me to ‘persuade’ you not to go on rodeo, on account of some trouble between you and Jose.”
“He wants my scalp, is all,” Jack explained easily, picking burrs from the fringe of his sash–burrs he had gotten when he ran a race with Teresita from the farther side of the orchard to the spring, a short time before. “Valencia told me–and he got it from Manuel–that Jose is right on the warpath. If it wasn’t for his being laid up–“
“Oh, I know. You’d like to go over and have it out with him. But you can’t. The Pachecos and the Picardos are almost like one family. I don’t suppose Jose ever stayed away from here so long since he was a baby, as he has since we came. It’s bad enough to keep old friends away, without mixing up a quarrel. Have you seen Jose lately? Don Andres seemed to think so, but I told him you’d have said something about it to me if you had.”
“I met him in the trail, a week or so ago,” Jack admitted with manifest reluctance. “He wasn’t overly friendly, but there wasn’t any real trouble, if that’s what you’re afraid of.” He looked sidelong at the other, saw the hurt in Dade’s eyes at this evidence of the constraint growing intangibly between them, and laughed defiantly.
“Upon my soul!” he exclaimed, “one would think I was simple-minded, the way you act! D’you think a man never scowled my way before? D’you think I’m afraid of Jose? D’you think I don’t know enough to take care of myself? What the devil do you think? Can’t go on rodeo–you’re afraid I might get hurt! I ain’t crazy to go, for that matter; but I don’t know as I relish this guardian-angel stunt you’re playing. You’ve got your hands full without that. You needn’t worry about me; I’ve managed to squeak along so far without getting my light put out–“
“By being a tolerably fair shot, yes,” Dade assented, his face hardening a little under the injustice. “But since I’m hired to look after Don Andres’ interests, you’re going to do what I tell you. You’ll stay here and boss the peons while I’m gone. A friendship between two families that has lasted as many years as you are old, ain’t going to be busted up now, if I can help it. It’s strained to the snapping-point right now, just because the don is friendly with us gringos. Of course, we can’t help that. He had his ideas on the subject before he ever saw me or you. Just the same, it’s up to us not to do the snapping; and I know one gringo that’s going to behave himself if I have to take him down and set on him!”
“Whee-ee! Somebody else is hitting the war-post, if I know the signs!” Dade stirred to anger always tickled Jack immensely, perhaps because of its very novelty, and restored him to good humor. “Have it your own way, then, darn you! I don’t want to go on rodeo, nohow.”
“I know that, all right,” snapped Dade, and started off with his hat tilted over his eyes. No one, he reminded himself, would want to spend a month or so riding the range when he could stay and philander with as pretty a Spanish girl as ever played the game of cat-and-mouse with a man. And Jack never had been the kind to go looking for trouble; truth to tell, he had never found it necessary, for trouble usually flew to meet him as a needle flies to the magnet.
But, a wound is not necessarily a deadly one because it sends excruciating pain-signals to a man’s heart and brain; and love seldom is fatal, however painful it may be. Dade was slowly recovering, under the rather heroic treatment of watching his successor writhe and exult by turns, as the mood of the maiden might decree. Strong medicine, that, to be swallowed with a wry face, if you will; but it is guaranteed to cure if the sufferer is not a mental and moral weakling.
Dade was quite ready to go out to rodeo work; indeed, he was anxious to go. But, not being a morbid young man, he did not contemplate carrying a broken heart with him. Teresita was sweet and winsome and maddeningly alluring; he knew it, he felt it still. Indeed, he was made to realize it every time the whim seized her to punish Jack by smiling upon Dade. But she was as capricious as beauty usually is, and he knew that also; and after being used several times as a club with which to beat Jack into proper humility (and always seeing very clearly that he was merely the club and nothing more) he had almost reached the point where he could shrug shoulders philosophically at her coquetry; and what is better, do it without bitterness. At least, he could do it when he had not seen her for several hours, which made rodeo time a relief for which he was grateful.
What hurt him most, just now, was the constraint between him and Jack; time was when Jack would have told him immediately of any unpleasant meeting with Jose. It never occurred to Dade that he himself had fostered the constraint by his moody aloofness when he was fighting the first jealous resentment he had ever felt against the other in the years of their constant companionship. An unexpected slap on the shoulder almost sent him headlong.
“Say, old man, I didn’t mean it,” Jack began contritely, referring perhaps to his petulant speech, rather than to his mode of making his presence known. “But–come over here in the shade, and let’s have it out once for all. I know you aren’t stuck up over being majordomo, but all the same you’re not the old Dade, whether you know it or not. You go around as if–well–you know how you’ve been. What I wanted to say is, what’s the matter? Is it anything I’ve said or done?”
He sat down on the stone steps of a hut used for a storehouse and reached moodily for his smoking material. “I know I didn’t say anything about running up against Jose–but it wasn’t anything beyond a few words; and, Dade, you’ve been almighty hard to talk to lately. If you’ve got anything against me–“
“Oh, quit it!” Dade’s face glowed darkly with the blood which shame brought there. He opened his lips to say more, took a long breath instead, closed them, and looked at Jack queerly. For one reckless moment he meditated a plunge into that perfect candor which may be either the wisest or the most foolish thing a man may do in all his life.
“I didn’t think you noticed it,” he said, his voice lowered instinctively because of the temptation to tell the truth, and his glance wandering absently over to the corral opposite, where Surry stood waiting placidly until his master should have need of him. “There has been a regular brick wall between us lately. I felt it myself and I blamed you for it. I–“
“It wasn’t my building,” Jack cut in eagerly. “It’s you, you old pirate. Why, you’d hardly talk when we happened to be alone, and when I tried to act as if nothing was wrong, you’d look so darned sour I just had to close my sweet lips like the petals of a–“
“Cabbage,” supplied Dade dryly, and placed his cigarette between lips that twitched.
Former relations having thus been established after their own fashion, Dade began to wonder how he had ever been fool enough to think of confessing his hurt. It would have built that wall higher and thicker; he saw it now, and with the lighting of his cigarette he swung back to a more normal state of mind than he had been in for a month.
“I’m going up toward Manuel’s camp, pretty soon,” he observed lazily, eying Jack meditatively through a thin haze of smoke. “Want to take a ride up that way and let the sun shine on your nice new saddle?” Though he called it Manuel’s camp from force of habit, that hot-blooded gentleman had not set foot over its unhewn doorsill for three weeks and more.
Jack hesitated, having in mind the possibility of persuading Teresita that she ought to pay a visit to the Simpson cabin that day to display her latest accomplishment by asking in real, understandable English, how the pup was getting along; and to show the pretty senora the proper way to pat tortillas out thin and smooth, as Margarita had been bribed to teach Teresita herself to do.
“Sure, I’ll go,” he responded, before the hesitation had become pronounced, and managed to inject a good deal of his old heartiness into the words.
“I’m going to have the cattle pushed down this way,” Dade explained, “so you can keep an eye on them from here and we won’t have to keep up that camp. Since they made Bill Wilson captain of the Vigilantes, there isn’t quite so much wholesale stealing as there was, anyway, and enough vaqueros went with Manuel so I’ll need every one that’s left. I’ll leave you Pedro, because he can’t do any hard riding, after that fall he got the other day. The two of you can keep the cattle pretty well down this way.”
“All right. Say, what was it made you act so glum since we came down here?” Jack, as occasionally happens with a friend, was not content to forget a grievance while the cause of it remained clouded with mystery.
“Are you sore over that trouble I had in town? I know how you feel about–well, about killings; but, Dade, I had to. I hate it myself. You needn’t think I like the idea, just because I haven’t talked about it. A fellow feels different,” he added slowly, “when it’s white men. When we fought Injuns, I don’t believe it worried either one of us to think we’d killed some. We were generally glad of it. But these others–they were mean enough and ornery enough; but they were humans. I was glad at the time, but that wore off. And I’ve caught you looking at me kinda queer, lately, as if you hated me, almost. You ought to know–“
“I know you’re always going off half-cocked,” chuckled Dade, quite himself again. “No, now you mention it, I don’t like the idea of shooting first and finding out afterwards what it was all about, the way so many fellows have got in the habit of doing. Guns are all right in their place. And when you get away out where the law doesn’t reach, and you have to look out for yourself, they come in mighty handy. But like every other kind of power, most men don’t know when and how to use the gun argument; and they make more trouble than they settle, half the time. You had a right to shoot, that day, and shoot to kill. Why, didn’t the Committee investigate you, first thing after Bill was elected, and find that you were justified? Didn’t they wipe your reputation clean with their official document, that Bill sent you a copy of? No, that never bothered me at all, old man. You want to forget about it. You only saved the Committee the trouble of hanging ’em, according to Bill. Say, Valencia was telling me yesterday–“
“Well, what the dickens did ail you, then?”
Dade threw out both hands helplessly and gave a rueful laugh. “You’re harder to dodge than an old cow when you’ve got her calf on the saddle,” he complained.
“The trouble was,” he explained gravely, “that these last boots of mine pinched like the devil, and I’ve been mad for a month because my feet are half a size bigger than yours. I wanted to stump you for a trade, only I knew yours would cripple me up worse than these did. But I’ve got ’em broke in now, so I can walk without tying my face into a hard knot. There’s nothing on earth,” he declared earnestly, “will put me on the fight as quick as a pair of boots that don’t fit.”
Jack paid tribute to Dade’s mendaciousness by looking at him doubtfully, not quite sure whether to believe him; and Dade chuckled again, well pleased with himself. Even when Jack finally told him quite frankly that he was a liar, he only laughed and went over to where Surry stood rolling the wheel in his bit. He would not answer Jack’s chagrined vilifications, except with an occasional amused invitation to go to the devil.
So the wall of constraint crumbled to the nothingness out of which it was built, and the two came close together again in that perfect companionship that may choose whatever medium the mood of man may direct, and still hold taut the bond of their friendship.
While they rode together up the valley, Jack told the details of the encounter with Jose, and declared that he was doing all that even Dade could demand of him by resisting the desire to ride down to Santa Clara and make Jose swallow his words.
“I’d have done it anyway, as soon as I brought Teresita home,” he added, with a hint of apology for his seeming weakness. “But, darn it, I knew all the time that she made him think she was running away from me. It did look that way, when she stopped as soon as she met him; I can’t swear right now whether Tejon was running away, or whether he was just simply running!” He laughed ruefully. “She’s an awful little tease–just plumb full of the old Nick, even if she does look as innocent and as meek as their pictures of the Virgin Mary. She had us both guessing, let me tell you! He was pretty blamed insulting, though, and I’d have licked the stuffing out of him right then and there, if she hadn’t swung in and played the joker the way she did. Made Jose look as if he’d been doused with cold water–and him breathing fire and brimstone the minute before.
“It was funny, I reckon–to Teresita; we didn’t see the joke. Every time I bring up the subject of that runaway, she laughs; but she won’t say whether it was a runaway, no matter how I sneak the question in. So I just let it go, seeing Jose is laid up now; only, next time I bump into Jose Pacheco, he’s going to act pretty, or there’s liable to be a little excitement.
“I wish I had my pistols. I wrote to Bill Wilson about them again, the other day; if he doesn’t send them down pretty soon, I’m going after them.” He stopped, his attention arrested by the peculiar behavior of a herd of a hundred or more cattle, a little distance from the road.
“Now, what do you suppose is the excitement over there?” he asked; and for answer Dade turned from the trail to investigate.
“Maybe they’ve run across the carcass of a critter that’s been killed,” he hazarded, “though this is pretty close home for beef thieves to get in their work. Most of the stock is killed north and east of Manuel’s camp.”
The cattle, moving restlessly about and jabbing their long, wicked horns at any animal that got in the way, lifted heads to stare at them suspiciously, before they turned tail and scampered off through the mustard. From the live oak under which they had been gathered came a welcoming shout, and the two, riding under the tent-like branches, craned necks in astonishment.
“Hello, Jack,” spoke the voice again. “I’m almighty glad to see yuh! Hello, Dade, how are yuh?”
“Bill Wilson, by thunder!” Jack’s tone was incredulous.
Bill, roosting a good ten feet from the ground on a great, horizontal limb, flicked the ashes from the cigar he was smoking and grinned down at them unabashed.
“You sure took your time about getting here,” he remarked, hitching himself into a more comfortable posture on the rough bark. “I’ve been praying for you, two hours and more. Say, don’t ever talk to me about hungry wolf-packs, boys. I’ll take ’em in preference to the meek-eyed cow-bossies, any time.”
They besought him for details and got them in Bill’s own fashion of telling. Briefly, he had long had in mind a trip down to the Picardo ranch, just to see the boys and the country and have a talk over the stirring events of the past month; and, he added, he wanted to bring Jack his pistols himself, because it was not reasonable to expect any greaser to withstand the temptation of keeping them, once he got them in his hands.
Therefore, having plenty of excuses for venturing so far from his place, and having “tied the dove of peace to the ridge-pole” of town by means of some thorough work on the part of the new Committee, he had boldly set forth that morning, soon after sunrise, upon a horse which somebody had sworn that a lady could ride.
Bill confessed frankly that he wasn’t any lady, however; and so, when the horse ducked unexpectedly to one side of the trail, because of something he saw in the long grass, Bill surprised himself very much by getting his next clear impression of the situation from the ground.
“I dunno how I got there, but I was there, all right, and it didn’t feel good, either. But I’d been making up my mind to get off and try walking though, so I done it. Say, I don’t see nothing so damned attractive about riding horseback, anyway!”
He yelled at the horse to stop, but it appeared that his whoas were so terrifying that the horse ran for its life. So Bill started to walk, beguiling the time, by soliloquizing upon–well, Bill put it this way: “I walked and I cussed, and I cussed and I walked, for about four hours and a half. Say! How do you make out it’s only twenty miles?”
“Nearer thirty” corrected Dade, and Bill grunted and went on with the story of his misfortunes. Walking became monotonous, and he wearied of soliloquy before the cattle discovered him.
“Met quite a band, all of a sudden,” said Bill. “They throned up their heads and looked at me like I was wild Injuns, and I shooed ’em off–or tried to. They did run a little piece, and then they all turned and looked a minute, and commenced coming again, heads up and tails a-rising. And,” he added naively, “I commenced going!” He said he thought that he could go faster than they could come; but the faster he departed, the more eager was their arrival. “Till we was all of us on the gallop and tongues a-hanging.”
Bill was big, and he was inclined to flesh because of no exercise more strenuous than quelling incipient riots in his place, or weighing the dust that passed into his hands and ownership. He must have run for some distance, since he swore by several forbidden things that the chase lasted for five miles–“And if you don’t believe it, you can ride back up the trail till you come to the dent I made with my toes when I started in.”
Other cattle came up and joined in the race, until Bill had quite a following; and when he was gasping for breath and losing hope of seeing another day, he came upon a live oak, whose branches started almost from the roots and inclined upward so gently that even a fat man who has lost his breath need not hesitate over the climbing.
“Thank the good Lord he don’t cut all his trees after the same pattern,” finished Bill fervently, “and that live oaks ain’t built like redwoods. If they was, you’d be wiping off my coat-buttons right now, trying to identify my remains!”
Being polite young men, and having a sincere liking for Bill, they hid certain exchanges of grins and glances under their hat-brims (Bill being above them and the brims being wide) and did not by a single word belittle the escape he had had from man-eating cows. Instead, Dade coaxed him down from the tree and onto Surry, swearing solemnly that the horse was quite as safe as the limb to which Bill showed a disposition to cling. Bill was hard to persuade, but since Dade was a man who inspired faith instinctively, the exchange was finally accomplished, Bill still showing that strange, clinging disposition that made him grip the saddle-horn as a drowning man is said to grasp at a straw.
So they got him to the house, the two riding Jack’s peppery palimeno with some difficulty; while Surry stepped softly that he might not dislodge that burden in the saddle, whose body lurched insecurely and made the horse feel at every step the ignorance of the man. They got him and themselves to the house; and his presence there did its part towards strengthening Don Andres’ liking for gringos, while Bill himself gained a broader outlook, a keener perception of the rights of the native-born Californians.
Up in San Francisco there was a tendency to make light of those rights. It was commonly accepted that the old land grants were outrageous, and that the dons who prated of their rights were but land pirates who would be justly compelled by the government to disgorge their holdings. Bill had been in the habit of calling all Spaniards “greasers,” just as the average Spaniard spoke of all Americans as “gringos,” or heathenish foreigners.
But on the porch of Don Andres, his saddle-galled person reclining at ease in a great armchair behind the passion vines, with the fragile stem of a wine-glass twirling between his white, sensitive, gambler-fingers while he listened to the don’s courtly utterances as translated faithfully by Dade (Jack being absent on some philandering mission of his own), big Bill Wilson opened his eyes to the other side of the question and frankly owned himself puzzled to choose.
“Seems like the men that came here when there wasn’t anything but Injuns and animals, and built up the country outa raw material, ought to have some say now about who’s going to reap the harvest,” he admitted to Dade. “Don’t look so much like gobbling, when you get right down to cases, does it? But at the same time, all these men that leave the east and come out here to make homes–seems like they’ve got a right to settle down and plow up a garden patch if they want to. They’re going to do it, anyway. Looks like these grandees’ll have to cash in their chips and quit, but it’s a darned shame.”
As to the town, Bill told them much that had happened. Politics were still turbulent; but Perkins’ gang of hoodlums was fairly wiped out, and the Committee was working systematically and openly for the best interests of the town. There had been a hanging the week before; a public hanging in the square, after a trial as fair as any court properly authorized could give.
“Not much like that farce they pulled off that day with Jack,” asserted Bill. “Real lawyers, we had, and real evidence for and against the feller, and tried him for real murder. Things are cooling down fast, up there, and you can walk the streets now without hanging onto your money with one hand and your gun with the other. Jack and you can come back any time. And say, Jack!” Having heard his voice beyond the vines, Bill made bold to call him somewhat peremptorily.
“There’s some gold left, you know, that belongs to you. I didn’t send it all down; didn’t like the looks of that–er–” He checked himself on the point of saying greaser. “And seeing you’re located down here for the summer, and don’t need it, why don’t you put it into lots? You two can pick up a couple of lots that will grow into good money, one of these days. Fact is, I’ve got a couple in mind. I’d like to see you fellows get some money to workin’ for you. This horseback riding is too blamed risky.”
“That looks reasonable to me,” said Dade. “We’ve got the mine, of course, but the town ought to go on growing, and lots should be a good place to sink a thousand or two. I’ve got a little that ain’t working.” Then seeing the inquiring look in the eyes of Don Andres, he explained to him what Bill had suggested.
Don Andres nodded his white head approvingly. “The Senor Weelson is right,” he said. “You would do well, amigos, to heed his advice.”
“Just as Jack says,” Dade concluded; and Jack amended that statement by saying it was just as Bill said. If Bill knew of a lot or two and thought it would be a good investment, he could buy them in their names. And Bill snorted at their absolute lack of business instinct and let the subject drop into the background with the remark that, for men that had come west with the gold fever, they surely did seem to care very little about the gold they came after.
“The fun of finding it is good enough,” declared Jack, unashamed, “so long as we have all we need. And when we need more than we’ve got, there’s the mine; we can always find more. Just now–“
He waved his cigarette towards the darkening hills; and in the little silence that followed they heard the sweet, high tenor of a vaquero somewhere, singing plaintively a Spanish love-song. When the voice trailed into a mournful, minor “Adios, adios,” a robin down in the orchard added a brief, throaty note of his own.
Bill sighed and eased his stiffened muscles in the big chair. “Well, I don’t blame either one of you,” he drawled somewhat wistfully. “If I was fifteen years limberer and fifty pounds slimmer, I dunno but what I’d set into this ranch game myself. It’s sure peaceful.”
Foolishly they agreed that it was.
In those days of large leisure and cyclonic bursts of excitement and activity; of midday siestas and moonlight serenades–and a duel, perchance, at sunrise–the spring rodeo was one of the year’s events, to be looked forward to all winter by the vaqueros; and when it was over, to be talked of afterwards for months. A mark from which to measure the passing of time, it was; a date for the fixing of incidents in the memory of men.
In the valley of Santa Clara, rodeo time really began when the Picardo vaqueros cinched saddles upon restive mustangs some misty morning, and with shouts and laughter and sombreros waving high over black heads in adieu to those who remained behind, swept down the slope like a charge of gayly caparisoned cavalry, driving the loose saddle horses before them. Past the stone and adobe wall of the home pasture, past the fences where the rails were held to their posts with rawhide thongs, which the coyotes sometimes chewed to pulp and so made extra work for the peons, they raced, exultant with life. Slim young Spaniards they were, clothed picturesquely in velvet and braid and gay sashes; with cumbersome, hairy chaparejos, high-crowned sombreros and big-roweled, silver spurs to mark their calling; caballeros to flutter the heart of a languorous-eyed senorita, and to tingle the pulse of the man who could command and see them ride gallantly to do his bidding.
Fairly in the midst of them, quite as gaudy to look upon and every whit as reckless in their horsemanship, rode Dade and Jack. If their hearts were not as light, their faces gave no sign; and their tongues flung back the good-humored jibes of their fellows in Spanish as fluent as any they heard.
When they left the highway and rode straight down the valley through the mustard that swept the chests of their plunging horses with dainty yellow and green, the two fell behind and slowing their horses to an easy lope, separated themselves from their exuberant fellows.
“I wish you were going along,” Dade observed tritely. “If Jose Pacheco changes his mind and stays at home, I’ll send you word and you can come on, if you want to.”
“Thanks.” Jack’s tone, however, did not sound thankful. “If I wanted to go, do you think I’d hang back because he’s going?”
“No, I don’t. I think the prospect of a fine, large row would be a temptation; and I must say I’m kinda surprised that you’ve been able to resist it. Still, I realize there’s compensations.”
“Sure, there are. I never denied it, did I?”
“Never. I reckon you’ve sent by Bill Wilson for a trumpet to proclaim–“
“Oh, shut up. I think,” Jack decided suddenly and without any visible cause, “I’ll turn off here and ride around by Jerry Simpson’s. Adios, old man, and heaps of good luck to you.” He swung abruptly off to the right and galloped away, looking back over his shoulder when he had ridden a hundred paces, to wave his sombrero and shout a last word or two of farewell.
“Truly, Jose will be disappointed when he does not see Senor Jack amongst us,” smiled Valencia, reining in beside Dade and looking after the departing horseman with friendly eyes. “Though if he had good sense, he would be thankful. Me, I should not like to have trouble with that friend of yours, Senor. In San Francisco they talk yet of that day when he fired three times from a galloping horse and killed three men. Dios! That was pretty shooting. I would have given much to see it. There will be few men so bold now as to make war with that blue-eyed hombre; but Jose is a fool, when his will is crossed. Me, I fight–yes, and love the heat of fighting in my blood; but I do not bellow threats before, as Jose has been doing. Carramba! To hear him, one would think he believed that men may die of curses; if they did, the Senor Jack would be lying now with candles burning at his head and his feet! Truly, love takes the sense out of a man quicker than wine.”
Dade agreed with him, though his lips did not open to form any words upon the subject.
Their first stopping place was Jose’s ranch down near Santa Clara, and he wondered just how far Jose’s hatred of him would interfere with the traditions of hospitality. It was not likely that Jose’s vaqueros would be ready to start that day; and although he carried his own camp equipment on pack-horses, and, guided by Valencia, ordered the camp set up in its accustomed place beside a little stream half a mile from the house, he sent many a questioning glance that way.
If he feared a hostile reception, he was soon reassured. Jose and Manuel speedily appeared, galloping side-by-side through the lush yellow and green. Jose’s manner was irreproachable, his speech carefully considered. If his eyes lacked their usual warm glow of friendliness, it was because he could not bring that look at will to beam upon the guest whom his heart failed to welcome. He invited Dade to dinner with him; and Dade, hoping to establish a better understanding between them, accepted.
Dade had not lived half his life amongst the dark-skinned race for nothing. He sipped the home-made wine with Jose, talked of many things in his soft, easy-natured drawl, and by letting his inner friendliness with the whole world look out of his eyes when they dwelt upon his host, went Jose one better in courtesy. And Jose, sauntering afterward across the patio to the porch, met Manuel face to face and paid tribute to Don Andres’ new majordomo in a single sentence.
“If all gringos were like this Senor Hunter, one could tolerate their coming to live amongst us,” he said frankly.
“Si,” grudged Manuel. “But then, he is not all gringo. Many years he dwelt with our people in Texas, so that he has the Spanish ways; but me, I want none of him.”
Jose laughed without much mirth to lighten the sound. “The blue-eyed one–did you find from the vaqueros why he did not come? He need not have been afraid of me–not if his fame was earned honestly.” If his tone were patronizing, Jose perhaps had some excuse, since Fame had not altogether passed him by with face averted.
“Part of the way he came, and turned back. The vaqueros do not know why, except Valencia. And Valencia–he is growing a gringo heart, like the patron. He will speak nothing but boasts of what that blue-eyed one can do. Me, I came near fighting with Valencia; only he would not do anything but smile foolishly, when I told him what I think of traitors like himself.”
“Let him smile,” advised Jose, “while he may.” Which was not a threat, in spite of its resemblance to one, but rather a vague reference to the specter of trouble that stalks all men as a fox stalks a quail, and might some day wipe that broad smile from the face of Valencia, as it had swept all the gladness from his own.
He went back and smoked a final cigarette in Dade’s company; and if he said little, his silences held no hint of antagonism. It was not until Dade rose to return to camp for the night that Jose put the question that had tickled the tongue of him ever since the arrival on his ranch of the Picardo vaqueros.
“Your friend, the Senor Allen–he is to join you later, perhaps?”
“Jack was left to look after the ranch.” Dade’s eyes were level in their glance, his voice quiet with the convincing ring of truth. “He won’t be on rodeo at all.”
Jose went paler than he had been two weeks before with his hurt, but a simple word of polite surprise held all his answer. For Jack to stay at home, to be near Teresita every day, to have nothing in the way of his love-making–nothing, since those doting two, her parents, would but smile at whatever she might choose to do–there was acid enough in that thought to eat away all the warmth, all the generosity Jose possessed. He let Dade go without even the perfunctory phrases of regret, which custom had made almost compulsory; and Manuel, sitting in silent wrath upon the porch, listened to the steady footfalls moving up and down the room behind him until the moon, that had been shining in his smoldering eyes, slipped over the red tiles of the roof and left all but the tree-tops in black shade.
“Dios! There will be one gringo the less when those two meet,” he muttered, staring at the tiny glow of his cigarette; and afterward folded his arms tightly over a chest that heaved with the impatience within. When those two met, Manuel meant to be there also to see. “Me, I should like to drag him to death with the six-strand riata he despised!” was the beautiful thought he took to bed with him.
Sunshine was lifting the morning fog high above the tree-tops when the old, gray mare, whose every movement tinkled the bell hung around her neck, shook her rough coat vigorously to free it from the moisture which the fog had left; and so jangled a peremptory summons to the herd of saddle horses that bore the brand of Don Andres Picardo upon their right thighs. At the camp upon the bank of the Guadalupe, the embaladors were shouting curses, commands, jokes, and civilities to one another while they brought orderly packs out of the chaos of camp-equipment that littered the ground.
The vaqueros were saddling their mounts and fairly bubbling with a purely animal joy in the open; and Dade, his cigarette sending up a tiny ribbon of aromatic smoke as if he were burning incense before the altar of the soul of him that looked steadfastly out of his eyes, walked among them with that intangible air of good-fellowship which is so hard to describe, but which carries more weight among men than any degree of imperious superiority. Valencia looked up and flashed him a smile as he came near; and Pancho, the lean vaquero with the high beak and the tender heart, turned to see what Valencia was smiling at and gave instant glimpse of his own white teeth when he saw Dade behind him.
“To-day will be hot, Senor,” he said. “Me, I wish we were already at Tres Pinos.”
“No, you don’t,” grinned Dade, “for then you would not have the Sunal rancho before you, to build hopes upon, but behind you–and hope, they say, is sweeter than memory, Pancho.”
Pancho, being ugly to look upon, liked to be rallied upon the one senorita in the valley whose eyes brightened at sight of him. He grinned gratifiedly and said no more.
A faint medley of sounds blended by distance turned heads towards the east; and presently, breasting the mustard field that lay level and yellow to the hills, came Jose’s squad of vaqueros, with Jose himself leading the group at a pace that was recklessly headlong, his crimson sash floating like a pennant in the breeze he stirred to life as he charged down upon them.
“Only for the silver trimmings, you looked like a band of warlike Injuns coming down on us with the sun at your back,” laughed Dade, as Jose swung down near him. “They’re riders–the Indians back there on the plains; and when they pop over a ridge and come down on you like a tidal wave, your backbone squirms a little in spite of you. The way your vaqueros parted and galloped around our camp was a pretty good imitation of their preliminary flourishes.”
“Still, I do not come in war,” Jose returned, and looked full at the other. “I hope that we shall have peace, Senor Hunter; though one day I shall meet that friend of yours in war, if the saints permit. And may the day come soon.”
“Whatever quarrel you may have with Jack, I hope it will not hinder us from working together without bad feeling between us.” Dade threw away his cigarette and took a step nearer, so that the vaqueros could not hear.
“Don Jose, I know you don’t like a gringo major domo to lead Don Andres’ vaqueros on rodeo. I don’t blame you Californians for being prejudiced against Americans, because you’ve been treated pretty shabbily by a certain class of them. But you’re not so narrow you can’t see that we’re not all alike. I’d like to be friends, if you will, but I’m not going to apologize for being a gringo, nor for being here in charge of this camp. I didn’t choose my nationality, and I didn’t ask for my job. I’ll give you a square deal, and I want you to know that if there’s any grudge between us, it’s all on your side.”
Jose’s fingers fumbled the little corn-husk wrapping for the cigarette he meant to make. “Senor, I repeat what I said to Manuel last night,” he said, after a pause. “If all gringos were like you, we Californians would like the name better. But I thought you would stand by your friend–“
“And so I will, to the last–” Not being of a theatrical temperament, Dade balked at protestations of his loyalty. “Jack and I have worked and fought and played elbow to elbow for a long time, Don Jose. But I don’t mix into his personal quarrels, unless I see him getting a crooked deal. I believe you’ll fight fair. The rest lies between you two.”
“But is it not your boast that the Senor Allen is the supreme caballero of California?” Jose was frank, at least, and Dade liked him the better for it. “For three years I have held the medalla oro [gold medal] for riding and for riata throwing; if it is true that you boast–“
Dade, as was the way of him when disgust or chagrin seized him, flung out both hands impatiently. “I did say he couldn’t be beat. I said it to Manuel, when Manuel was sneering that Jack didn’t know a good riata from a bad one. I won’t take it back. I haven’t seen your work in the saddle, Don Jose. I have seen Jack’s, and I never saw any better. So, until I do, I can believe he’s the best, can’t I?”
“Si.” Jose smiled without effort. “You are honest, Senor Hunter, and that pleases me well. I do not like you less because you are loyal to your friend; but that friend I hope one day to kill.” He looked at the other questioningly. “Now I am honest also,” his eyes said plainly.
“That’s your affair and Jack’s, as long as you don’t try to get him when he isn’t looking.”
“I am not an assassin, Senor Hunter,” Jose retorted stiffly.
“Then we understand each other, I guess. Let’s get these fellows started. It’s going to be hot, they say, and the horses are soft yet–at least, ours are. We took them off pasture yesterday, most of them.”
“Mine are the same, Senor. But to-day’s marcha will be an easy one. To Sunal Rancho is not far.” He turned to remount and give the signal for starting. And with a little of the pride that had impelled Jack to show off his skill that day when the Captain of the Committee commanded him to mount the buckskin, Jose also vaulted into the saddle without deigning to touch the stirrup.
There was doubt in the senor’s mind about his horsemanship being the best in all California? Very good. The senor would have the opportunity to judge for himself. Still, Jose had put to sleep most of his antagonism towards Dade, and his attitude of friendliness was not so deliberately forced as Manuel, watching eagerly for the first sign of a clash, believed it to be.
WHEN CAMP-FIRES BLINK
Down the valley they rode, gathering numbers to swell the cavalcade at each ranch they passed. La Laguna Seca, San Vincente, Las Uvas sent their quota of vaqueros, each headed by a majordomo and accompanied by embaladors with the camp equipment and supplies packed upon steady-going little mustangs. The bell-mares of the various herds jangled a chorus of pleasant discords with their little, iron bells. The scent of the mustard rose pungently under the trampling hoofs. At dusk, the camp-fires blinked at one another through the purpling shadows; and the vaqueros, stretched lazily upon their saddle blankets in the glow, stilled the night noises beneath the pleasant murmur of their voices while they talked. From the camp of the San Vincente riders rose a voice beautifully clear and sweet, above the subdued clamor.
Dade was listening to the song and dreaming a little while he listened, with his head lying cradled in his clasped hands and his face to the stars, when the group around the next camp-fire tittered and broke into an occasional laugh. Then a question was called to whoever might be within hearing:
“Who’s the best vaquero in California?”
“Jack Allen, the gringo!” shouted a dozen voices, so that every camp must hear. Then came jeering laughter from every camp save one, the camp of the Picardo vaqueros.
Valencia’s dark head lifted from the red and green blanket beyond the blaze; and Dade, watching, could see his profile sharply defined in the yellow light of the fire, as he stared toward the offending camp. The lips that smiled so often were drawn tight and thin; the nostrils flared like a frightened horse. While the laughs were still cackling derision, Valencia jumped up and ran; and Dade, even before he sat up to look, knew where he was going.
At the fire where the question was put, a young fellow, whose heavy, black mustache prudently hid lips coarse and sneering, came to his feet like a dummy of a man and glared dazedly at his companions, as if their faces should tell him whose hand it was that gripped the braided collar of his jacket. He was not long in doubt, however. The voice of Valencia grated vitriolic sentences in his ear, and the free hand of Valencia was lifted to deal him a blow fair upon the blank face of him. The circle of faces watched, motionless, above crouched bodies as quiet as the stars overhead.
A hand grasped Valencia’s wrist while his arm was lifted to strike, so that the three men stood, taut-muscled and still, like a shadowy, sculptured group that pictured some mythological conflict.
“Let go, Valencia. This is nothing to fight over. Let go.”
Valencia’s angry eyes questioned the unreadable ones of his majordomo; but he did not let go, and so the three stood for a moment longer.
“But they insult the Senor Allen with their jeers,” he protested. “Me, I fight always for my friends who are not present to fight for themselves. Would not the Senor Allen fight this fool who flouts him so?”
“No!” Dade’s eyes flicked the circle of faces upon which the firelight danced. “If the Senor Allen were here, there would be no jeering.”
“And for that will I fight them all!” Valencia twisted his arm a little, in the hope that Dade would let go his wrist. “Ah, Senor! Shall a man not be true to his friends?”
“Si, he shall be true, and he shall be sensible. Is the Senor Jack a weakling, that he cannot fight for himself?”
“But he is not here! If he were–” The tone of him gloated over the picture of what would happen in that case.
“There shall be no fighting.” If Dade’s voice was quiet, it did not carry the impression of weakness, or indecision. “Come to your own fire, Valencia. If it is necessary to fight for the Senor Allen–I am also his friend.”
“You are right. There shall be no fighting.” Dade started and glanced at Jose, standing beside him. “If the Senor Allen thinks himself the best, surely it is I, who hold the medalla that calls me el vaquero supremo, who have the right to question his boast; not you, amigos!”
“Who’s the best vaquero, the bravest and the best in California?” queried a voice–the voice of the singer, who had come up with others to see what was going on here. And at his elbow another made answer boldly:
“Don Jose Pacheco!”
Jose smiled and lifted his shoulders deprecatingly at the tribute, while fifty voices shouted loyally his name. Dade, pressing his hand upon Valencia’s shoulder, led him back into the dancing shadows that lay between the fires.
“Let it go,” he urged. “Don Jose holds the medal, and he’s entitled to the glory. We must keep peace, Valencia, or else I must leave the rodeo. Personal quarrels must wait.”
“Si, Senor, personal quarrels must wait,” assented Jose, again coming up unexpectedly behind them. “I but wish to say that I regret the bad manners of those caballeros, whose best excuse is that they are my friends. I hope the senor does not accuse me of spreading the news of the senor’s boast. There are others, as the senor well knows, who heard it before even it came to my ears.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dade repeated. “They’ll have their joke, and I don’t blame them for putting the joke on a stranger, especially when he’s a gringo–and absent.”
“The senor is wise as he is loyal,” stated Jose and bowed himself into the shadows. “Buenos noches, Senor.”
“Good-night,” answered Dade, speaking English to show he was not ashamed of it; and rolled himself in his blankets as a deliberate hint to Valencia that he did not want to discuss the incident, much to that one’s disappointment.
It is to be feared that Valencia did not share in Dade’s determination to keep the peace; for, before he slept, he promised himself that he would yet tell that pig-faced vaquero from Las Uvas what he thought of him. But outwardly the incident was closed, and closed permanently.
The sun was not risen above the mountains before they were hurriedly drinking their black coffee, and making ready to break camp; the flurry of emotions seemed to have died with the evening fire. If the men of the other camps were cool in their manner towards Dade when they met him, at least they were civil; except Manuel, who passed him by with lowered brows, and of him Dade took no notice. If he were watched curiously, in hope of detecting the awkwardness which would betray unfamiliarity with his work, Dade took no notice of that, either, except to grin now and then when he rode away. Altogether, he was well pleased with his reception and inclined to laugh at the forebodings he had felt; forebodings born of the knowledge that, unless these natives of California were minded to tolerate the presence of a gringo majordomo, it would be absolutely useless for him to attempt to work with them.
If he had only known it, his own men had done much towards lessening the prejudice of those who joined the main outfit. Valencia was not the only one of the Picardo vaqueros whose friendship might be counted upon. Like Manuel before he became jealous, they forgot that Dade was not of Spanish birth; for his eyes and his hair were dark as many of the native-born Californians, and his speech was as their own; he was good-humored, just in his judgments, reasonable in his demands. He could tell a good story well if he liked, or he could keep silent and listen with that sympathetic attention that never fails to flatter the teller of a tale. To a man they liked him, and they were not slow to show their liking after the manner of their kind.
By the time they reached Tres Pinos, which was the rendezvous of all the vaqueros from the Picardo ranch on the north to San Miguel on the south, Dade had quite lost the constraint that comes of feeling that one is disliked and only tolerated for the moment. He whistled while he rode along the creek bank looking for a comfortable camp site; and when Valencia loped up to him, as he was hesitating over a broad, shaded strip under a clump of willows, he turned and smiled upon his head vaquero.
“See, Senor, how well we Californians work together!” cried Valencia, pointing pridefully. “Here they come, the vaqueros from Agua Amargo, Durasno, Corral de Terre, Salinas–not yet have our embaladors thrown off the ropes from our packs, before they are here, these others whom we came to meet! Not one hour late, even! And the word was given weeks ago that we would meet this day.”
From the mouth of the canyon trotted a band of saddle horses, kicking up a dust cloud that filmed the picture made by the gay caballeros who galloped behind. A gallant company were they; and when they met and mingled with those who came down from the north, it was as though a small army was giving itself a holiday in that vivid valley, with the Tres Pinos gurgling at the fun.
Having had experience in these matters, Dade was able to do his part and do it like a veteran, although he tactfully left to the other majordomos all those little details that would make of the various camps one orderly company. Two men he chose from his outfit and sent to the captain, as the Picardo contribution to the detail told off to herd the horses, but beyond that he confined himself chiefly to making himself as unobtrusive as was consistent with dignity.
Six men were sent out after beef; and although Dade had many times in Texas done exactly what they were doing, he watched interestedly these Californians at their work.
Cattle were everywhere except in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Half a mile or so the vaqueros galloped; then two of the leaders singled out a fat, young steer and made after him with their riatas hissing as the rawhide circled over their heads.
A loop dropped neatly over the wide horns, and a moment later the second settled upon the first. The first man turned and headed towards camp with the steer at his heels, ready at the slightest opportunity to make use of those long, sharp-pointed horns which nature had given him for just such need as this. The steer quite forgot the man behind, until he made a vicious lunge and was checked by the rope that had hung slack and unnoticed over his back. Furious, the steer turned and charged resentfully at the caballero who was following him and shouting taunts. But there again he was checked by the first.
So, charging this way and that; galloping wildly in pursuit of the man who seemed to be fleeing for his life, or wheeling to do battle with the rider who kept just so far in his rear, he was decoyed to the very outskirts of the camp.
If he had been qualified to weigh motives, the heart that brindle-roan steer would surely have burst at; the pure effrontery of the thing: not only must he yield his life and give his body for meat, that those yearning stomachs might be filled with his flesh; he must deliver that meat at the most convenient spot, as a butcher brings our chops to the kitchen door. For that purpose alone they were cunningly luring him closer and closer, that they need not carry the meat far when they had slaughtered him.
At least his last moments were lighted with hope. He made one grand, final dash, tripped in a noose that had somehow dropped neatly in the way of his front feet, and went down with a crash and a bellow of dismay. Some one ran lightly in–he did not see that it was the vaquero he had been pursuing all this time–and drove a dagger into the brain just back of the horns. Thus that particular gust of rage was wiped out of existence forever.
Later, when the camp-fires burned low, the pleasant odor of meat broiling upon the forked ends of long, willow branches over the red coals, proved how even a brindle steer may, at the last, in every savory morsel have justified his existence.
Life in those days was painted upon a big canvas, with broad sweep of brushes dipped in vivid colors. Although the branding of the season’s calves was a matter of pure business, the manner in which that work was accomplished was a spectacle upon which we of the present generation would give much to look.
When the sun parted the fog and looked down inquisitively, the whole valley was pulsing with life, alight with color. The first real work of the rodeo was beginning, like the ensemble of some vast, spectacular play; and the stage was managed by Nature herself, creator of the harmony of colors. The dark, glossy green of live oak, the tender green of new willow leaves, the pale green of the mustard half buried in the paler yellow of its blossoms, had here and there a splash of orange and blue, where the poppies were refusing to give place to the lupines which April wished to leave for May, when she came smiling to dwell for one sweet month in the valley. The poppies had had their day. March had brought them, and then had gone away and left them for the April showers to pelt and play with; and now, when the redwoods on the mountainsides were singing that May was almost here, a whole slope of poppies lingered rebelliously to nod and peer and preen over the delights of the valley just below. The lupines were shaking their blue heads distressfully at the impertinence; and then here came the vaqueros galloping, and even the lupines and poppies forgot their dispute in the excitement of watching the fun.
As the roundups of our modern cattlemen “ride circle,” so did those velvet-jacketed, silver-braided horsemen gallop forth in pairs from a common center that was the chosen rodeo ground. As if they were tracing the invisible spokes of a huge wheel laid flat and filling the valley from mountain range to mountain range, they rode out until they had reached the approximate rim of the circle. Then, turning, they rode more slowly back to the rodeo ground, driving before them the cattle they found there.
Not cattle only; here and there an antelope herd was caught in the circle and ran bewilderedly toward the common center; beautiful creatures with great eyes beseeching the human things to be kind, even while riatas were hissing over their trembling backs. Many a rider rode into camp with an antelope haunch tied to his gorgeous red and black saddle; and the wooden spits held delicious bits of antelope steak that night, broiling over the coals while the vaqueros sang old Spanish love-songs to lighten the time of waiting.
A gallant company, they. A care-free, laughter-loving, brave company, with every man a rider to make his womenfolk prate of his skill to all who would listen; with every man a lover of love and of life and the primitive joys of life. They worked, that company, and they made of their work a game that every man of them loved to play. And Dade, loving the things they loved and living the life they lived, speedily forgot that there was still an undercurrent of antagonism beneath that surface of work and play and jokes and songs and impromptu riding and roping contests (from which Jose Pacheco was laughingly barred because of his skill and in which Dade himself was, somehow, never invited to join). He forgot that the antagonism was there–except when he came face to face with Manuel, perhaps, or when he chanced to see on the face of Jose a brooding look of dissatisfaction, and guessed that he was thinking of Jack and Teresita.
“FOR WEAPONS I CHOOSE RIATAS”
There must have been a good deal of gossip amongst the vaqueros of the various ranches, as they rode on circle or lay upon their saddle blankets around the evening camp-fires. As is ever the case when a man is young, handsome, rich, and holds proudly the gold medal which proclaims him the champion of the whole State–the golden disk which many a young vaquero longed to wrest from him in a fair test of skill–there were those who would rather like to see Jose humbled. True, they would never choose an alien to do the humbling, and the possibility was discussed with various head-shakings amongst themselves.
But there were the Picardo vaqueros stanchly swearing by all the saints they knew that these two gringos were not as other gringos; that these two were worthy a place amongst true Californians. Could they not see that this Senor Hunter was as themselves? And he was not more Spanish in his speech and his ways than was the Senor Allen, albeit the Senor Allen’s eyes were blue as the lupines, and his hair the color of the madrona bark when it grows dark with age–or nearly the color. And he could shoot, that blue-eyed one!
Valencia, having an audience of a dozen or more one night, grew eloquent upon the prowess of the blue-eyed one. And the audience, listening, vowed that they would like to see him matched against Jose, who thought himself supreme in everything.
“Not in fighting,” amended Valencia, his teeth gleaming white in the fire-glow, as he leaned to pull a brand from the blaze that he might relight the cigarette which had gone out while he told the tale of that running fight, when the two Americanos had shamed a whole crowd of gringos–for so did Valencia make nice distinction of names.
“Not in fighting, amigos, nor yet in love! And because he knows that it is so, the cheeks of Don Jose hang slack, and he rides with chin upon his breast, when he thinks no one is looking. The medalla oro is his, yes. But he would gladly give it for that which the Senor Allen possesses. Me, I think that the Senor Allen could as easily win also the medalla oro as he has won the other prize.” There was a certain fineness in Valencia that would never permit his tongue to fling the name of the Senorita Teresa amongst these vaqueros; but he was sure that they caught his meaning.
“Dios! me, I should like to see him try,” cried a tall San Vincente rider, shifting his position to ease a cramp in his long leg; and his tone was neither contemptuous nor even doubtful, but merely eager for the excitement there would be in the spectacle.
Some one in the shadows turned and walked quickly away to another fire-glow with its ring of Rembrandt figures and faces, and none save Valencia knew that it was Manuel gone to tell his master what had been said. Valencia smiled while he smoked.
Presently Jose was listening unwillingly to Manuel’s spite-tinged version of the talk at the San Vincente camp. “The vaqueros are making a mock of thy bravery and thy skill!” Manuel declared, with more passion than truth. “They would see thee beaten, in fight as well as in love–“
The stiffening of Jose’s whole figure stopped Manuel short but not dissatisfied, for he saw there was no need that he should speak a single word more upon the subject.
“They shall see him try, unless he is a coward.” The voice of Jose was muffled by the rage that filled him.
So it came to pass that Manuel saddled his best mustang within an hour and rode away to the north. And when Valencia strolled artlessly to the Pacheco fire and asked for him, Jose hesitated perceptibly before he replied that Manuel had gone home with a message to the foreman there.
Valencia grinned his widest when he heard that, and over two cigarettes he pondered the matter. Being a shrewd young man with an instinct for nosing out mysteries, he flung all uncertainty away with the stub of his second cigarette and sought Dade.
He found him standing alone beside a deep, still pool, staring at the shadows and the moon-painted picture in the middle, and looking as if his thoughts were gone on far journeys. Valencia was too full of his news to heed the air of absolute detachment that surrounded Dade. He went straight to the heart of his subject and as a precaution against eavesdropping he put his meaning into the best English he knew.
“Jose, she’s dam-mad on Senor Jack,” he began eagerly. “She’s hear talk lak she’s no good vaquero. Me, I hear San Vincente vaqueros talk, and Manuel she’s hear also and run queeck for tella Jose. Jose she’s lak for keela Senor Jack. Manuel, she’s ride lak hell for say Jose, she lak for fight Senor Jack. Me, I theenk Senor Jack keela Jose pretty dam-queeck!”
Dade had come to know Valencia very well; he turned now and eyed him with some suspicion.
“Are you sure?” he asked, in the tone that demanded a truthful answer. He had seen Manuel ride away in the white light of the moon, and he had wondered a little and then had forgotten all about it in the spell of utter loneliness which the moon brings to those who are cheated by Fate from holding what they most desire.
“Sure, me.” Valencia’s tone was convincingly positive. “Manuel, she’s go lak hell for tella Senor Jack, Jose, she’s lak for fight duelo. Sure. That’s right.”
Dade swung back and stared moodily at the moon-painted pool where the trout, deceived by the brightness into thinking it was day, started widening ripple-rings here and there, where they flicked the surface with slaty noses; and the wavering rings were gold-tipped until they slid into the shadows and were lost. Dade watched three rings start in the center and ripple the whole pool.
“How quick could you get to the rancho?” he asked abruptly, just as Valencia’s spirits were growing heavy with disappointment. “Could you overtake Manuel, do you think?”
“Me, I could with the caballo which I have in mind–Noches–I could pass Manuel upon the way, though he had two more hours the start of me!” English was too slow now for Valencia’s eagerness. “Manuel is fat, and he is not young, and he will not ride too fast for his fat to endure. Also he will stop at the Pacheco hacienda for breakfast, and to rest his bones. Me, I can be at the rancho two hours before Manuel, Senor.”
Valencia was not a deceitful young man, as deceit goes; but he wanted very much to be sent in haste to the ranch, for he was itching with curiosity to know the truth of this matter and if he were indeed right. If Manuel had gone bearing a challenge from Jose to the Senor Jack, then he wanted to know the answer as soon as possible. Also there was Felice, the daughter of Carlos, whose lips lured him with their sweetness. Truly, Valencia would promise any miracle of speed.
The pool lay calm as the face of a dead child. Dade stooped and tossed a pebble into it as if that stillness troubled him. He took his cigarette from his lips, looked at the glowing tip, and over it at the eager face of Valencia.
“We mustn’t let them fight. Take Noches and ride like the devil was at your heels. Get there ahead of Manuel and tell Jack–” He stopped there and bit his lips to hurry his slow thoughts. “Tell Jack he must go to town right away, because–well, tell him Bill Wilson–“
Valencia’s face had been lengthening comically, but hope began to live again in his eyes. “If the senor would write what he wishes to say while I am making ready for the start, he will then have more time to think of what is best. The moon will ride clear to-night; and the sun will find me at the rancho, Senor. Me, I have ridden Noches one hundred miles without rest, before now; these sixty will be play for us both.”
“Gracias, Valencia.” Dade dropped a hand gratefully upon the shoulder of the other. “I’ll write a note, but you must do your part also. You know your people, and I know Jack; if those two fight, the trouble will spread like fire in the grass; for Don Jose has many friends to take up the quarrel. You’ve had a long day in the saddle, amigo, and the sixty miles will not be play. I would not ask it if the need were less urgent–but you must beat Manuel. If you don’t, Jack will accept the challenge; and once he does that–” he flung out both hands in his characteristic gesture of impatience or helplessness.
“Si, Senor. If the saints permit, Manuel shall not see him first.” It was like Valencia to shift the responsibility from his own conscience to the shoulders of the saints, for now he could ride with a lighter heart. Perhaps he was even sincere when he made the promise; but there were sixty miles of moonlight in which his desire could ride with him and tempt him; and of a truth, Valencia did greatly desire to see those two come together in combat!
The saints were kind to Valencia, but they were also grimly just. Because he so greatly desired an excuse for delay, they tricked Noches with a broken willow branch that in the deceptive moonlight appeared to be but the shadow of the branch above it. It caught him just under an outflung knee as he galloped and flipped him neatly, heels to the stars. He did not struggle to his feet even when Valencia himself, a bit dazed by the fall, pulled upon the reins and called to him to rise. The horse lay inert, a steaming, black mass in the road. The moon was sliding down behind the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the chill breeze whispered that dawn was coming fast upon the trail of the moonbeams.
Valencia, when he saw that Noches would never gallop again, because he had managed to break his sweat-lathered neck in the fall, sat down beside the trail and rolled a corn-husk cigarette. His mood swung from regret over the passing of as fleet and true a horse as ever he bestrode, to gratitude to the saints for their timely hindrance of his prompt delivery of the note. Truly it was now no fault of his that he could never reach the hacienda before Manuel! He would have to walk and carry his saddle, heavy with silver and wide skirts of stamped leather; and he was a long way from the end of his journey, when he must cover the distance with his own feet. Eight or ten miles, he estimated it roughly; for he had passed Jose’s hacienda some time before, and had resisted the temptation to turn aside and find out if Manuel were there or had gone on. He had not passed Manuel in the trail as he had boasted that he would do, and not once had he glimpsed him anywhere, though there had been places where the road lay straight, and he could see it clear in the moonlight for a mile or more.
When he had finished the cigarette and his thanks to Fate–or whatever power had delayed him–he removed his saddle and bridle from the horse and went on; and it was then that he began to understand that he must do a penance for desiring war rather than peace amongst his fellows. Valencia, after the first hour of tramping with his saddle on his shoulders, had lost a good deal of his enthusiasm for the duel he felt sure was already a certainty.
When he left the road for a straight cut to the hacienda, the wild range cattle hindered him with their curiosity, so that, using all the methods known to a seasoned vaquero for driving them back, his progress had been slow. But he finally came out into the road again and was plodding along the stone wall within half a mile of the house, his face very disconsolate because of his protesting feet and the emptiness in his stomach, when Manuel himself confronted him suddenly coming from the house.
Manuel was looking well pleased with himself, in spite of his night ride. He pulled up and stared wide-eyed at Valencia, who had no smile with which to greet him but swore instead a pensive oath.
“Dios! Is it for a wager that you travel thus?” grinned Manuel, abominably comfortable upon a great, sorrel horse that pranced all round Valencia in its anxiety to be upon its way home. “Look you, Valencia! Since you are travelling, you had best go and tell the padres to make ready the sacrament for your gringo friend, that blue-eyed one; for truly his time on earth is short!”
Valencia, at that, looked up into Manuel’s face and smiled in spite of the pain in his feet and the emptiness in his stomach.
“Does it please you, then, Valencia? All night I rode to bear a message to that blue-eyed one who thinks himself supremo in all things; a challenge from Don Jose, to fight a duelo if he is not a coward; so did Jose write. ‘Unless you are afraid to meet me’–and the vanity of that blue-eyed one is great, Valencia. Of a truth, the man is loco. What think you, Valencia? He had the right to choose the weapons–and Jose believed that he would choose those pistols of which you make so much talk. Madre de Dios! What says the blue-eyed one, then?–and laughed in my face while he spoke the words! ‘Go tell Don Jose I will fight him whenever and wherever he likes; and for weapons I choose riatas.’ Heard you anything–“
“Riatas!” Valencia’s jaw dropped an inch before he remembered that Manuel’s eyes were sharp and eager to read the thoughts of a man in the twitching muscles of his face.
“Si, riatas!” Manuel’s whole fat body shook with laughter. “Even you, who are wholly bewitched by those gringos, even you are dismayed! Tell me, Valencia, have you seen him lasso anything?”
But Valencia, having pulled himself together, merely lifted his shoulders and smiled wisely, so that even Manuel was almost deceived into believing that Valencia’s faith was great because it was built upon a secret knowledge of what the blue-eyed one could do.
“Me, I heard you boasting to those San Vincente vaqueros,” Manuel accused, shifting the talk to generalities. “And the Senor Hunter boasts also that the blue-eyed one is supremo with the riata, as he is with everything else!” The tone of Manuel was exceeding bitter. “Well, he will have the chance to prove what he can do. No gringo can come among us Californians and flap the wings and crow upon the tule thatch for naught. There has been overmuch crowing, Valencia. Me, I am glad that boaster must do something more than crow upon the thatch, Valencia!”
“Si, there has been overmuch crowing,” Valencia retorted, giving to his smile the lift that made it a sneer, “but the thatch has not been of Picardo tules. Me, I think they grew within hearing of the mission bells of Santa Clara! And the gallo [rooster] which crows is old and fat, and feeds too much upon the grapes that are sour! Adios! I must haste to give congratulations to the Senor Jack, that he will have opportunity to wring the necks of those loud-crowing gallos of the Pacheco thatches.”
Whereupon he picked up his saddle and walked on, very straight in the back and patently unashamed of the injustice of his charge; for it was the crowing of Valencia himself beside the San Vincente camp-fire that had brought Manuel with the message, and Valencia knew that perfectly well.
The family of Don Andres had been breakfasting upon the wide veranda when Manuel strode grimly across the patio and confronted them. They were still seated there when Valencia, having deposited his riding gear at the saddle-hut, limped to the steps and stood with his sunny smile upon his face and his sombrero brim trailing the dust. It seemed to Valencia that the don was displeased; he read it in the set of his head, in the hardness that was in his glance, in a certain inflexible quality of his voice.
“Ah, Valencia,” he said, rising as if the interruption was to put an end to his lingering there, “you also seem to have ridden in haste from the rodeo. Truly, I think that same rodeo has been but the breeding-ground of gossip and ill-feeling, and is like to bear bitter fruit. Well, you have a message, I’ll warrant. What is it?”
Valencia’s mien was respectful almost to the point of humility. “The majordomo sent me with a letter, which I was to deliver into the hands of the Senor Allen,” he said simply. “My hope was that I might arrive before Manuel”–he caught a flicker of wrath in the eyes of the don at the name and smiled inwardly–“but the moonlight played tricks upon the trail, and my caballo tripped upon a willow-branch and fell upon his head so that his neck was twisted. I was forced to walk and carry the saddle, and there were times when the cattle interrupted with their foolish curiosity, and I must stop and set the riata hissing to frighten them back, else they would perchance have trampled me. So I fear that I arrive too late, Don Andres. But truly I did my best; a full hour behind Manuel I started, and have walked ten miles of the sixty. The saints know well–“
Don Andres checked his apologies with a wave of the hand, and sat down somewhat heavily in his favorite chair, as if he were tired, though the day was but fairly begun.
“We do not doubt your zeal,” he observed dryly. “Give the letter to the senor and begone to your breakfast. And,” he added impressively, “wait you and rest well until the answer is ready; for perchance there will be further need to test the kindness of the saints–and the speed of a horse.”
Valencia fumbled within his sash and brought forth the small, folded square of paper, went up two steps and placed it in Jack’s upturned palm, gave Jack also a glance more kindly and loyal than ever he had received from that minx, Teresita, and went away to the vaqueros’ quarters. Valencia had learned nothing from the meeting, except that the don was in one of his rare fits of ill-temper.
“Yet I know that there will be a duelo,” he comforted himself with thinking, as he limped wearily across the patio. “The face of the patron is black because of it, and a little devil-flame burns in the eyes of the senorita because for love of her men would fight–(Such is the way of women, to joy in those things which should give them, fear!)–and the senora’s face is sagged with worry, and Senor Jack–ah, there is the fighting look in those eyes! Never have I seen them so dark: like the bay when a storm is riding upon the wind. And it will be riatas–for so Manuel told me. Me, I will wager my saddle upon the Senor Jack, even though riatas be the weapons. For he is wily, that blue-eyed one; never would he choose the rawhide unless he knew its hiss as he knows his own heartbeats. Let it be riatas, then, if so the senor chooses!”
A FIESTA WE SHALL HAVE
Jack, unfolding the crumpled paper, read twice the note from Dade, and at each reading gave a little snort. He folded the paper, unfolded it and read again:
“If Jose wants to fight, take a fool’s advice and don’t. Better quit the ranch and go back to town for a while–Valencia will get there ahead of Manuel, he says, and you can pull out before Manuel shows up. A licking might do Jose good, but it would stir up a lot of trouble and raise hell all around, so crawl into any hole you come to. I’ll quit as soon as rodeo is over, and meet you in town. Now don’t be bull-headed. Let your own feelings go into the discard for once, and do what’s best for the whole valley. Everything’s going smooth here. Noah’s dove ain’t got any the best of me and Jose, and the boys are working fine.
“At least your majordomo agrees with you, Don Andres,” he said, twisting the note unthinkingly in his fingers. “Dade wants me to sneak off to town and hide in Bill Wilson’s cellar.” There was more resentment in his tone than the note itself had put there; for the argument which Valencia had unwittingly interrupted had been threatening to become acrimonious.
“My majordomo,” replied Don Andres, his habitual courtesy just saving the words from becoming a retort, “continues to show that rare good sense which first attracted me to him.”
The senora moved uneasily in her chair and smiled deprecatingly at Jack, then imploringly at her husband. This was washing day, and those shiftless ones within would overlook half the linen unless she was on the spot to watch and direct. But these two had come to their first clash of wills, and her husband had little liking for such firm defiance of his wishes. Well she knew the little weather-signs in his face. When his eyebrows took just that tilt, and when the nostrils were drawn in and quivered with his breathing, then was it wise that she should remain by his side. The senora knew well that words are never so harsh between the male of our species when their women are beside them. So, suffering mental torment because of the careless peonas, she, nevertheless, sent Teresita after the fine, linen apron from which she meant to remove a whole two inches of woof for the new pattern of drawnwork which the Donna Lucia had sent her. She would remain as a buffer between these two whose eyes were too hard when they looked at each other.
“It seems a pity that young men nowadays cannot contain themselves without quarreling,” sighed the senora, acting upon the theory that anger is most dangerous when it is silent, and so giving the conversational ball a push.
“Is there no way, Senor, in which you might avert this trouble? Truly it saddens me to think of it, for Jose has been as my own son. His mother and I were as twin sisters, Senor, and his mother prayed me to watch over him when she had gone. ‘Si, madre mia’ would he tell me, when I gave him the good counsel. And now he comes no more, and he wants to fight the duelo! Is there no way, Senor?”
The hardness left Jack’s lips but not his eyes, while he looked from her to the don, smoking imperturbably his cigar beside her.
“There is no way, Senora, except for a coward. I have done what I could; I know that Jose’s skill is great with riatas, and the choice was mine. I might have said pistols,” he reminded her gently, but with meaning.
The plump hands of the senora went betrayingly into the air and her earrings tinkled with the horror that shook her cushiony person. “Not pistols! No, no–for then Jose would surely be killed! Gracias, Senor! With riatas my Jose can surely give good account of himself. Three times has he won the medalla oro in fair contest. He is a wizard with the rawhide. Myself, I have wept with pride to see him throw it at the fiestas–“
“Mother mine, Margarita would have you come at once,” the senorita interrupted her. “Little Francisco has burned his legs with hot water, and Margarita thinks that your poultice–“
With twittering exclamations of dismay over the, accident the two women hurried away to minister to the burned legs of Francisco, and Jack rose and flung away his cigarette. His mouth had again the stubborn look which Dade knew so well, and dreaded also.
“I am sorry for this unpleasantness,” he said perfunctorily, stopping before Don Andres. “But as I told the senora, I have done all that I can do. I have named riatas. I don’t think even you, Don Andres, could ask more of me. Surely you wouldn’t want to know that your roof had sheltered a coward?”
Don Andres waved away the challenge which the question carried. “Still, it seems a pity that my family must be made the subject of gossip because of the foolishness of two young men,” he said doggedly, returning to his argument. “They will say that it is because of my daughter that you fight; and the friendship of years must be set aside while two hot-heads vent their silly spite–“
“It need not.” Jack’s head went up an inch. “I can leave your employ, Don Andres, at any moment. There is no need for you to be caught between the duties of hospitality and those of friendship. I can do anything–I am willing to do anything–except crawl into a hole, as Dade wrote for me to do.” A fine, spirited picture he made, standing there with the flames of wrath in his eyes and with neck stiff and his jaws set hard together.
Don Andres looked up at him with secret approval. He did not love a coward, and truly, this young fellow was brave. And Jose had deliberately sought the quarrel from the first; justice compelled him to remember that.
“If it might be arranged–” The don was studying the situation and the man together. “Almost have I grasped the thread that will unravel the whole. No, no! I do not mean your going, Senor. That would but limber the tongue of scandal; and besides, I do not mean that I withdraw my friendship from you. A man must be narrow, indeed, if he cannot carry more than one friendship in his soul.
“Sit you down, Senor, while I think a moment,” he urged. “Surely it can be arranged without hurt to the fair name of–of any. Riatas–ah, now I have it, Senor! Dullard, not to have thought of it at once! Truly must I be in my dotage!” He did not mean that, of course, and he was quite openly pleased when Jack smiled and shook his head.
“Listen, Senor, and tell me if the plan is not a good one! To-morrow Valencia shall ride back to the rodeo, with a message to all from me, Don Andres Picardo. I shall proclaim a fiesta, Senor–such a fiesta as even Monterey never rivaled in the good old days when we were subject to his Majesty, the King. A fiesta we shall have, as soon as may be after the rodeo is over. There will be sports such as you Americanos know nothing of, Senor. And there openly, before all the people, you shall contest with Jose for a prize which I shall give, and for the medalla oro if you will; for you shall have the privilege of challenging Jose, the champion, to contest for the medalla. And there will be a prize–and I doubt not–” He was thinking that there would probably be two prizes, though only one which he could proclaim publicly.
“Myself, I shall write to Jose and beg him to consider the honor of his father’s name and of the name of his father’s friend, and consent that the duelo shall take place under the guise of sport. It must not be to the death, Senor. Myself, I shall insist that it shall not be to the death. Before all the people, and women, and ninos–and besides, I do not wish that Jose should–” There again he checked himself, and Jack’s lips twitched at the meaning he read into the break.
“But if there should be an accident?” Jack’s eyes probed for the soul of the old man; the real soul of the Spanish grandee under the broad-minded, easy-natured, Californian gentleman. He probed, and he thought he found what he was seeking; he thought it showed for just an instant in his eyes and in the upward lift of his white mustache.
“An accident would be deplorable, Senor,” he said. “We will hope that there will be no accident. Still, Jose is a very devil when the riata is hissing over his head, and he rides recklessly. Senor, permit me to warn you that Jose is a demon in the saddle. Not for nothing does he hold the medalla oro.”
“Gracias, Don Andres. I shall remember,” said Jack, and walked away to the stables.
He felt that the heart of Don Andres Picardo was warring with his intelligence. That although his wide outlook and his tolerance would make friends of the gringos and of the new government–and quite sincerely–still, the heart of him was true Spanish; and the fortunes of his own blood-kin would send it beating fast or slow in sympathy, while his brain weighed nicely the ethics of the struggle. Jack was not much given to analyzing the inner workings of a man’s mind and heart, but he carried with him a conviction that it was so.
He hunted up Diego, and found him putting a deal of gratuitous labor upon the silver trimmings of the new saddle. Diego being the peon in whose behalf Jack had last winter interfered with Perkins, his gratitude took the form of secret polishings upon the splendid riding-gear, the cleaning of Jack’s boots and such voluntary services. Now the silver crescents which Teresita ridiculed were winking up at him to show they could grow no brighter, and he was attacking vigorously the “milky way” that rode behind the high cantle. Diego grinned bashfully when Jack’s shadow flung itself across the saddle and so announced his coming, and stood up and waited humbly before the white senor who had fought for him, a mere peon, born to kicks and cursings rather than to kindness, and so had won the very soul of him.
“Bueno,” praised Jack patronizingly. “Now I have some real work for you, Diego, and it must be done quickly and well.”
“Gracias, Senor,” murmured Diego, abashed by such favor, and bowed low before his god.
“The riata must be dressed now, Diego, and dressed until it is soft as a silken cord, sinuous as the green snakes that live in the streams, and not one strand must be frayed and weakened. Sabe? Too long have I neglected to have it done, and now it must be done in haste–and done well. Can you dress it so that it will be the most perfect riata in California, Diego?” A twinkle was in Jack’s eyes, but Diego was too dazzled by the graciousness of his god to see it there. He made obeisance more humble than before.
“Si, Senor,” he promised breathlessly. “Never has riata been dressed as this riata shall be. By the Holy Mother I swear it.”
“Bueno. For listen! Much may hang upon the strength and the softness of it.” He fixed his eyes sternly upon the abject one. “It may mean my life or my death, Diego. For in a contest with Don Jose Pacheco will I use it.”
“Si, Senor,” gasped Diego, awed into trembling. “By my soul I swear–“
“You needn’t. Save some of your energy for the rawhide. You’ll want all you’ve got before you’re through.” Jack, having made an impression deep enough to satisfy the most exacting of masters, dropped to his natural tone and speech. “Get some one to help, and come with me to the orchard.”
From the saddle-house he brought the six-strand, rawhide riata which Manuel had bought for him and which his carelessness had left still stiff and unwieldy, and walked slowly into the orchard, examining critically each braided strand as he went. Manuel, he decided, was right; the riata was perfect.
Diego, trailing two horsehair ropes and carrying a stout, smooth stick of oak that had evidently been used before for the work, came running after Jack as if he were going to put out a fire. Behind him trotted a big, muscular peon who saw not half the reason for haste that blazoned itself across the soul of Diego.
Thus the three reached the orchard, where Jack selected two pear trees that happened to stand a few feet more than the riata length apart; and Diego, slipping a hair rope through the hondo of the riata, made fast the rope to a pear tree. The other end he tied to the second hair rope, drew the riata taut and tied the rope securely to the second tree. He picked up the oaken stick, examined it critically for the last time, although he knew well that it was polished smooth as glass from its work on other riatas, twisted the riata once around it and signed to the other peon.
Each grasping an end of the stick and throwing all their weight against it, they pushed it before them along the stretched riata. As they strained toward the distant pear tree the rawhide smoked with the friction of the stick in the twist. It was killing work, that first trip from tree to tree, but Diego joyed in thus serving his blue-eyed god. As for the other, Roberto, he strained stolidly along the line, using the strength that belonged to his master the patron just as matter-of-factly as he had used it since he was old enough to be called a man.
Jack, leaning against a convenient tree in the next row, smoked a cigarette and watched their slow, toilsome progress. Killing work it was, but the next trip would be easier after that rendering of the stiff tissue. When the stick touched the hondo, the two stopped and panted for a minute; then Diego grasped his end of the stick and signaled the return trip. Again it took practically every ounce of strength they had in their muscular bodies, but they could move steadily now, instead of in straining, spasmodic jerks. The rawhide sizzled where it curled around the stick. They reached the end and stopped, and Jack commanded them to sit down and have a smoke before they did more.
“It is nothing, Senor. We can continue, since the senor has need of haste,” panted Diego, brushing from his eyes the sweat that dripped from his eyebrows.
“Not such haste that you need to kill yourselves at it,” grinned Jack, and went to examine the riata. Those two trips had accomplished much towards making it a pliable, live thing in the hands of one skilled to direct its snaky dartings here and there, wherever one willed it to go. Many trips it would require before the riata was perfect, and then–
“The senor is early at his prayers,” observed a soft, mocking voice behind him.
Jack dropped the riata and turned, his whole face smiling a welcome. But Teresita was in one of her perverse moods and the mockery was not all in her voice; her eyes were maddeningly full of it as she looked from him to the stretched riata.
“The senor is wise to tell the twists in his riata as I tell my beads–a prayer for each,” she cooed. “For truly he will need the prayers, and a riata that will perform miracles of its own accord, if he would fight Jose with rawhide.” There was the little twist of her lips afterward which Jack had come to know well and to recognize as a bull recognizes the red serape of the matador.
“Senor,” she added impressively, holding back her hair from blowing across her face and gazing at him wide-eyed, with a wicked assumption of guileless innocence, “at the Mission San Jose there is a very old and very wise woman. She lives in a tule hut behind the very walls of the Mission, and the Indians go to her by night when dreams have warned them that death threatens. She is a terribly wise old woman, Senor, for she can look into the past and part the curtain which hides the future. For gold will she part it. And for gold will she put the curse or the blessing where curse or blessing is needed most. Go you to the old woman and have her put a blessing upon the riata when it is dressed and you have prayed your prayers upon it, Senor! For five pesos will she bless it and command it to fly straight wherever the senor desires that it shall fly. Then can you meet Jose and not tremble so that the spur-bells tinkle.”
Jack went hot inside of him, but he made his lips smile at the jest; for so do brave men try to make light of torment, whether it be fire or flood or the tongue of the woman they love.
“All right,” he said. “And I think I’ll have the judges rule that the fight shall be at fifty paces, as I would if we were to fight with pistols.” He tried to keep his irritation out of his voice, but there must have been enough to betray him.
For Teresita smiled pleasedly and sent another barb. “It would be wise. For truly, Jose’s equal has never been seen, and caballeros I have known who would swear that Jose’s riata can stretch to fifty paces and more to find its mark.”
“Is it anxiety for me that makes you so solicitous?” demanded Jack, speaking low so that the peons could not overhear.
“Perhaps–and perhaps it is pride; for I know well the skill and the bravery of my Jose.” Again the twist of her pretty, pouting lips, blood-red and tempting.
Her Jose! For just a minute the face of Teresita showed vague to him before his wrathful eyes.
“When you tell your beads again, Senorita,” he advised her crisply, “say a prayer or two for your Jose also. For I promise you now that I will shame him before your face, and if he lives afterward to seek your sympathy, it will be by grace of my mercy!”
“Santa Maria, what a fierce senor!” Her laughter mocked him. “Till the fiesta I shall pray–for you!” Then she turned and ran, looking over her shoulder now and again to laugh at him.
Always before, when she had teased and flouted and fled laughing, Jack had pursued her with long strides, and in the first sequestered nook had made her lips pay a penalty. But this time he stood still and let her go–which must have puzzled the senorita very much, and perhaps piqued her pride as well. For the girl who flouts and then flees laughing surely invites pursuit and an inexorable exaction of the penalty. And if she is left to flee in safety, then must the flouted one pay for his stupidity, and pay high in the coin of love.
WHAT IS LOVE WORTH?
Valencia swung down from his belathered horse as lightly as though he had not spent seven hours in the saddle and during those seven hours had covered more miles than he would have years to live. His smile was wide and went as deep as his emotions had thus far plumbed his nature, and his voice had the exultant note of a child who has wonderful news to tell. He gave Dade a letter, and his very gesture was triumphant; and the eyes were eager that watched his majordomo read. He bubbled with words that he would like to say, but he waited.
“So you didn’t get there in time, after all,” Dade observed, looking up from Jack’s characteristic signature, in which the tail of the “k” curled around the whole like a mouse lying asleep. “Manuel came back this morning, and the whole camp is talking nothing but duelo. I thought you said–“
“Senor, the saints would not permit that I should arrive first,” Valencia explained virtuously. “A stick tripped Noches and he fell, and broke his neck in the fall. The senor knows well the saints had a hand in that, for hundreds of horses fall every day thus without hurt. Never before in my life have I seen a horse die thus, Senor! I was compelled to walk and carry the saddle, yet such haste I made that Manuel met me by the stone wall as he was leaving. And at least twelve miles I walked–“
“Oh, all right,” Dade waved away further apology. “I reckon you did your best; it can’t be helped now. They’re going to fight with riatas, Manuel says. Is that right?”
“But not the duelo, Senor–no, but in the contest. For sport, that all may witness, and choose who is champion, after the bull-fighting, and the–“
“What are you talking about, man?” Dade’s hand fell heavily upon the shoulder of Valencia, swaying his whole body with the impact. “Are you loco, to talk of bull-fightings?”
“It is the fiesta, Senor! The patron himself has proclaimed the grand fiesta, such as they have in Monterey, only this will be greater; and then those two will fight their duelo with riatas, yes; but not to the death, Senor. The patron himself has declared it. For the medalla oro and also for a prize will they fight; and the prize–what think you, Senor?”
Valencia, a-quiver with eagerness, laid a slim hand upon the braided front of Dade’s close-fitting buckskin jacket.
“The prize will be Solano! That beautiful caballo–beautiful even as thy Surry–which the patron has not permitted rawhide to touch, except for the branding. Like the sunshine he is, with his hair of gold; and the tail that waves to his heels is like the ripples on the bay at sunrise. Who wins the duelo shall have Solano for his own, and shall ride him before all the people; for such is the patron’s word. From his own lips I heard it! Me, I think that will be the greatest sport of all, for he is wild as the deer on the mountain slopes–that yellow caballo, and strong as the bull which the patron will choose to fight the grizzly he will bring from the mountains.
“Listen, Senor! The mother of Solano was a she-devil under the saddle, and killed two men by throwing herself upon them; and the sire was Satanas, of whom stories are told around the camp-fires as far south as San Luis Obispo.
“Ah, he is wise, the patron! ‘Then let them also prove their courage in other ways. Let the victor pray to the saints and ride Solano, who is five years old and has never felt the riata since he left his mother’s side–who was a devil.’ Me, I heard the soul of the patron speak thus, while the lips of the patron said to me:
“‘Go back to the rodeo, Valencia, and proclaim to all that I will give the grand fiesta with sports to please all. Tell them that already two have agreed to contest with riatas for a prize–‘ Look you, Senor, how wily is the patron!–‘And for the prize I name the gelding, Solano, who has never known weight of saddle. Tell them, Valencia, that the victor shall ride his prize for all the crowd to see. And if he is thrown, then Solano will be forfeit to the other, who must ride him also. There will be other sports and other prizes, Valencia, and others may contest in riding, in the lassoing and tying of wild steers, in running. But say that Don Jose Pacheco and the Senor Jack Allen will contest with riatas for the possession of Solano.’ Ah, Senor–“
“Ah, Valencia, why not scatter some of your enthusiasm over the other camp-fires?” Dade broke in quizzically. “Go and proclaim it, then. Tell the San Vincente men, and the Las Uvas, and all the other vaqueros.”
Valencia, grinned and departed, leaving behind him in the loose sand tracks more than three feet apart to show how eager was his obedience; and Dade sat down upon a dead log that had been dragged to the Picardo camp-fire, to consider how this new phase of the affair would affect the temper of the people who owned such warm hearts and such hot heads.
A fiesta, with the duelo fought openly under the guise of a contest for the medal and a prize which was well worth any man’s best efforts–surely, Don Andres was wily, as Valencia said. But with all the people of the valley there to see, their partisanship inflamed by the wine of festivity and the excitement of the sports themselves–what then?
Dade thoughtfully rolled a corn-husk cigarette, and tried to peer into the future. As it looked to him, he and Jack were rather between the devil and the deep sea. If Jack were beaten, they would be scorned and crowed over and humiliated beyond endurance. Neither was made of the stuff to stand much of that, and they would probably wind up with both hands and their hats full of trouble. And to himself he admitted that there was a fair chance of that very result. He had not been blind, and Jose had not shrunk into the background when there was riata-work and riding to be done on the rodeo ground. Dade had watched him as jealously as it was in his nature to do, and the eyes of jealousy are keen indeed; and he had seen Jose make many throws, and never a miss. Which, if you know anything of rope-work, was a remarkable record for any man. So there was a good chance of Jose winning that fight. In his heart Dade knew it, even if his lips never would admit it.
Well, supposing Jose was beaten; suppose Jack won! What then? Dade blew a mouthful of smoke towards the camp-fire, deserted except for himself, while his vaqueros disported themselves with their neighbors, and shook his head. He had a little imagination; perhaps he had more than most men of his type. He could see a glorious row, if Jose were beaten. It would, on the whole, be more disastrous than if he won.
“And she’s just fickle-minded enough to turn up her nose at Jack if he got beat,” Dade grumbled, thinking of a certain senorita. “And if he don’t, the whole bunch will pile onto us. Looks to me like a worse combination than that Vigilance row, for Jack. If he wins, he gets knifed; if he don’t, he gets hell. And me the only one to back him up! I’ll wish I was about forty men seven foot high and armed with–“
“Pardon, Senor. The senor has of course heard the news?” Jose came out of the shadows and stood with the firelight dancing on his face and picking out the glittery places on his jacket, where was the braid. “I have a letter from Don Andres. Would the senor care to read it? No? The senor is welcome to read. I have no wish to keep anything hidden which concerns this matter. I have brought the letter, and I want to say that the wishes of my friend, Don Andres, shall be granted. Except,” he added, coming closer, “that I shall fight to the death. I wish the Senor Allen to understand this, though it must he held a secret between us three. An accident it must appear to those who watch, because the duelo will be proclaimed a sport; but to the death I will fight, and I trust that the Senor Allen will fight as I fight. Does the senor understand?”
“Yes, but I can’t promise anything for Jack.” Dade studied Jose quietly through the smoke of his cigarette. “Jack will fight to please himself, and nobody can tell how that will be, except that it won’t be tricky. He may want to kill you, and he may not. I don’t know. If he does, he’ll try his damnedest, you can bank on that.”
“But you, Senor–do you not see that to fight for a prize merely is to belittle–” Jose waved a hand eloquently.
“I see you’re taking life pretty serious,” Dade retorted, moving farther along the log. “Sit down, Jose, and be sociable. Nothing like seeing the point of a joke, if there is one. Do you reckon anything’s worth all the heart-burnings you’re indulging in? Some things are tough; I’ve waded kinda deep, myself, so I know. But there’s nothing you can’t get over, with time and lots of common sense, except being a sneak–and being dead. To me, one’s as bad as the other, with maybe first choice on death. You aren’t a sneak, and I don’t see why you hanker to be dead. What do you want to fight to the death for?”
[Illustration: “An accident it must appear to those who watch”]
Jose did not sit down beside Dade, but he came a little closer, “Why do I want to fight to the death? I will tell you, Senor; I am not ashamed. Since I was a child I have loved that senorita whom I will not name to you. Only last Christmas time the senora, her mother, said I must wait but a year longer till she was a little older. They would keep their child a little longer, and truly her heart is the heart of a child. But she knew; and I think she waited also and was happy. But look you, Senor! Then comes a stranger and steals–
“Ah, you ask me why must I fight to the death? Senor, you are a man; perchance you have loved–for of a truth I see sometimes the sadness in your eyes. You know that I must fight thus. You know that to kill that blue-eyed one is all there is left to do. Me, I could have put him out of the way before now, for there are many knives ready to do me the service. Kill him I shall, Senor; but it shall be in fight; and if the senorita sees–good. She shall know then that at least it is not a coward or a weakling who loves her. Do you ask why–“
Dade’s hands went out, dismissing the question. “No, I don’t ask another blamed thing. Go ahead and fight. Fight to kill, if that’s the only thing that will satisfy you. You two aren’t the first to lock horns over a woman. Jack seems just as keen for it as you are, so I don’t reckon there’s any stopping either one of you. But it does seem a pity!”
“Why does it seem a pity?” Jose’s tone was insistent.
“It seems a pity,” Dade explained doggedly, “to see two fine fellows like you and Jack trying to kill each other for a girl–that isn’t worth the life of either one of you!”
In two steps Jose confronted him, his hand lifted to strike. Dade, looking up at him, flicked the ashes from his cigarette with his forefinger, but that was the only move he made. Jose’s hand trembled and came down harmlessly by his side.
“I was mistaken,” he said, smiling queerly. “You have never loved any woman, Senor; and I think the sadness I have seen in your eyes is for yourself, that life has cheated you so. If you had known love, you could never have said that. Love, Senor, is worth everything a man has to give–even his life. You would know that, if you had ever loved.” He waited a moment, closed his teeth upon further words, turned abruptly on his heel and went away into the fog-darkened night.
Dade, with a slight curl to his lips that did not look quite like a smile, stared into the fire, where the embers were growing charred for half their length, and the flames were waving wearily and shrinking back to the coals, and the coals themselves were filmed with gray. The cigarette went cold and clammy in his fingers, and in his eyes was that sadness of which Jose had spoken; and something else besides.
They would fight, those two, and fight to kill. Since the world was first peopled, men had fought as they would fight–for love; for the possession of a pretty thing–warm, capricious, endearing, with possibly a heart and a soul beneath; possibly. And love–what was love, after all? What is love worth? He had loved her, too; at least, he had felt all the emotions that either of them had felt for her. He was not sure that he did not still feel them, or would if he let himself go. He did not believe, however, that those emotions were worth more than everything else in the world; more than his life, or honor, or friendship. He had choked love, strangled it, starved it for sake of friendship; and, sitting there staring abstractedly into the filming coals, he wondered if he had done wrong; if those two were right, and love was worth fighting for.
The man who fought the hardest, he felt, would in this case win that for which he fought. For he felt in his heart, that Teresita was only a pretty little animal, the primitive woman who would surrender to strength; and that he would win in the end who simply refused to yield before her coquetries.
With a quick, impatient gesture he threw his cigarette into the coals, kicked viciously a lazily smoking brand which sent up a little blaze and a spurt of sparks that died almost immediately to dull coals again.
“Love’s like that,” he muttered pessimistically, standing up and stretching his arms mechanically. “And the winner loses in the end; maybe not always, but he will in this case. Poor old Jack! After all, she ain’t worth it. If she was–” His chin went down for a minute or two, while he stared again at the fire. “If she was, I’d–But she ain’t. Love’s worth–what is love worth, anyway?”
He did not answer the question with any degree of positiveness, and he went to bed wishing that he had never seen the valley of Santa Clara.